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Divine Anger and Repentance

Micaël Bürki
p. 34-35

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Sistine Chapel, Michel-Ange, detail, ARR

1The interdisciplinary seminar “Divine Anger and Repentance” was held within the framework of the Chair of the Hebrew Bible and its Contexts on 24 and 25 April 2013.

2Upon Professor Thomas Römer’s invitation, the idea was once again to bring together around a common theme Biblicists, Assyriologists, and specialists of Egypt, Greece, Ancient Rome, and of the Arab world. Divine anger is a theme shared by all ancient civilizations and which still lives on in many current religious discourses. It implies the existence of an original offence that aroused divine anger, which then manifests itself in the misfortunes and the disasters arising over the course of individuals’ or societies’ existence.

Anger and politics

3Several papers discussed the war and destructions attributed to divine anger. The destruction of Jerusalem by neo-Babylonian troops in 587 BCE was extensively associated with the theme of divine anger. According to certain biblical texts, Jerusalem was destroyed following its people’s disobedience and not as a result of its enemy’s might, which was but a tool in the hands of the divinity. This motive was widespread in the Ancient Near East and the theme of anger and perhaps even its appeasement was also found among the powerful. Thus the acknowledgement of the failure of the many Assyrian attempts to subjugate the king of Tyre, whose city was naturally protected by the sea, was accompanied by the mention of the Assyrian divinity’s leniency. But the theme of divine anger is not only a theological explanation; it also provides rulers with a governance tool. The link between misfortunes endured and a potential offence allowed the dominant classes to brandish divine anger as a threat weighing on offenders, thereby constituting a means of dissuasion.

Disease, the result of divine anger

4Disease constitutes another expression of divine anger addressed in this symposium. The plague epidemics, which decimated both the East and the West during the Middle Ages, were interpreted as the consequence of divine wrath. Historical sources from the Mamluk era reveal that measures were taken for the moral purification of society, as well as for the eradication of privileges and social injustices, in the hope of stopping the epidemics. In both Ancient Egypt and the Hebrew Bible, skin diseases presented the particularity of manifesting divine wrath directly on the offenders’ skin, and through this physical stigma, it denied them access to the sacred space, or even to society.

Challenging anger

5This representation of the world was however not adopted by everyone and several documents stemming from sources of wisdom (such as the book of Qoheleth in the Hebrew Bible, or Ludlul bēl nēmeqi,

6The Dialogue of Pessimism and The Babylonian Theodicy in Mesopotamia) present a different outlook. These texts all challenged the connection so easily made between misfortune and offence, as misfortune could also affect the righteous.

The agents of anger

7The theme of anger also raises other questions. Unlike belief systems including a plethora of divinities, monotheism came up against the difficulty of accounting for a single divinity that is responsible both for the creation and its destruction, humans’ fortune and misfortune. The difficulty raised by the theodicy was already found in the texts of the Hebrew Bible which tried, in some places, to personify divine anger so as to distinguish it from Yahveh. This trend became more pronounced during the Hellenistic era, as attested by the figure of 

8Mastema in the book of Jubilees.

Do the gods or does God change their/his mind?

9This symposium also provided an opportunity to address the question of divine repentance. While it is widely accepted that the gods get angry, can they also repent? As noted above, the notion of divine repentance had strong moral connotations and was closely linked to the rise of Christianity at the beginning of our era. It is therefore not surprising that there is scant evidence of it in the different earlier traditions. While the gods did not repent, they could however change their minds, feel regret, display leniency or be appeased. The penitential psalms, copies of which were newly discovered in Mari and presented during this symposium for the first time, testify to this idea. The aim of these psalms was to defer the unpredictable anger of the mighty by seducing them, appealing to their pity and reminding them of their duty. In Ancient Greece, the appeasement of anger was personified by the maternal figure of the nurturing goddess Demeter, who was incensed by the disappearance of her daughter Persephone. She was ultimately appeased, which put an end to the famines brought on by her pain. Finally, the theme of divine repentance may also have been used by ancient scribes and storytellers to justify certain theological developments. The prophet Jonas, whose prophecy was not fulfilled, bears witness to a god who went back on his decision in response to the penance of the inhabitants of Niniveh. Divine anger was therefore not irremediable.

Micaël Bürki (Ater)

The symposium proceedings are to be published in the collection “Orbis Biblicis et Orientalis”, Academic Press Friburg, Van den Hoeck & Ruprech, Göttingen.

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Papers from the Symposium are available on the Collège de France website, on Prof Römer’s page

• Defeat, a Consequence of Divine Wrath: the Theology of History at Alep according to the Mari Royal Archives, Dominique Charpin

• “You Have Lifted the Furious Weapons of Ashur” The Ire of Ashur’s Impossible Repentance? Ideology and Realpolitik in the Assyrian Empire, Lionel Marti

• A vat overflowing with blood as the end of history? The wrath of God in Isaiah 63.1-6, Daniele Garrone

• Wrath and (non) Repentance of the God Yhwh in the Book of the Prophet Zechariah, Hervé Gonzalez

• “Wrath – Repentance” versus “Sin – Punishment”, Hans Peter Mathys

• Are the Wrath and Repentance of Elohim Relevant Issues for the Book of Kohelet?, Jean-François Landolt

• The Agents of Divine Wrath, Grace and Repentance in Ezekiel 14.12-23 and Gilgamesh XI, 181-204, Daniel Bodi

• Divine Wrath and Repentance in the Flood, Stéphanie Anthonioz

• Mastema, Yhwh’s “Henchdemon” in the Book of Jubilees, David Hamidovic

• Prevention is Better than Subjection: the Use of Laws in Numbers 5-6, Micaël Bürki

• Divine Wrath and Punishment in Ancient Egypt: the Question of Skin Diseases, Youri Volokhine

• The Plague, a Manifestation of Divine Wrath in Late Mamluk Sources (872-923/1468-1517), Bernadette Martel-Thoumian

• The Wrath of God and the Wrath of Moses in Numbers 11.4-34, Olivier Artus

Turning away Divine Wrath in Numbers 25, rg Hutzli

• The Remarkable Absence of Divine Wrath in the Priestly Account (Pg), Albert de Pury

• The Righteous Sufferer, a Victim of Divine Wrath. A Theme in Mesopotamian Literature, Nele Ziegler

• Divine Retribution at Ugarit: “The Righteous Sufferer” and Other Compositions of Wisdom, Yoram Cohen

• Gods who Get Angry but Know ,nothing of Repentance. The Roman Case, John Scheid

• The Mother of the Gods. Wrath and Repentance, Philippe Borgeaud

• Jerusalem and the wrath of Yhwh. A few Remarks Based on the Ezekiel Collection (TM and LXX), Christophe Nihan

• Can Yhwh Change his Mind?, Thomas Römer

God, between Firmness and Repentance in Genesis 2-4, Michaëla Bauks

• From Literature to Practice: Protestations of Innocence when Facing the Wrath of one’s God, according to the Mari texts, Michaël Guichard

• Between Pardon and Repentance in Mesopotamia, Jean-Marie Durand

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Micaël Bürki, « Divine Anger and Repentance », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 15 septembre 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : http://lettre-cdf.revues.org/2133

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