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'Exodus: Gods and Kings': Why does God seem so angry in the Old Testament?

'How Human is God' writer Mark S. Smith explains why God is depicted differently in the Old and New Testaments and why he is sometimes shown as an angry figure.

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    'Exodus: Gods and Kings' stars Christian Bale (l.).
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Now hear this: God is going to look and sound quite different at the movies this weekend.

Filmgoers are used to the Almighty being depicted with the deep, distinguished voice of a Morgan Freeman or John Huston. But a big twist awaits in the blockbuster “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

As The New York Times reports, the role of God belongs to 11-year-old British actor Isaac Andrews, who is “stern-eyed, impatient, at times vaguely angelic and at times ‘Children of the Corn’ terrifying.”

The casting is mighty unusual. But many filmgoers won’t be surprised to see the God of the Old Testament portrayed as a harsh and angry figure. In fact, Bible readers often interpret the God of the Old Testament to be much sterner and less loving than the counterpart in the New Testament.

Is there really such a wide gap between these two depictions of God? And what’s behind the Almighty’s seeming fury? For answers, I turned to Mark S. Smith, professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University and author of several books, including this year’s “How Human is God?: Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible.”

Q: One common perception paints the God of the Old Testament as harsh, jealous, and perhaps even vicious, while the God of the New Testament is much more loving and less vengeful. Is this a fair description?

Love and wrath are attributed to God in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, see "the wrath of God" in John 3:36, Romans 1:18, Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6, and Revelation 19:15. These passages are no less wrathful than what is in the Old Testament.

The same point applies also to divine violence, which is sometimes associated with the Old Testament God. In the New Testament, Jesus is, on occasion, a source of violence: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword." (Matthew 10:34).

Q: Have you ever seen anyone interpret the God of the Old Testament as an angry child as the “Exodus” movie does?

Not that I know of. This sounds to me like a very modern reading that reads God's anger literally. For me, such modern – and often secular – readings seem fundamentalistic.

Sometimes people read the anger of God as expressed in the Bible without asking what it meant or expressed for ancient writers. They simply respond depending on whether they can or can't relate to such divine anger.

Q: What should Bible readers think about when they consider anger of God in the Old Testament?

The anger of God draws on two social models in ancient Israel, a point that is generally overlooked by people who either strongly embrace the God of the Bible or reject this God.

One of these models involves a social authority. As the biblical scholar Deena Grant has shown, anger was considered a "natural" human response to an inappropriate challenge to someone of higher rank, especially within families. When Israel disobeys God, divine anger expresses a concern that Israel does not  want to be in "God's family."

The second model of human anger is the warrior. Warriors were expected to exert intense anger or fury in battle. God as the divine warrior expresses the basic point that God is indeed able to help Israel and wants to help Israel.

Q: What else should readers of the Bible think about when they consider the personality of God?

They should try to avoid making easy generalizations about God.

God is difficult to know, a point that is dramatized in the Book of Job, chapters 1-2, by the difference between what God and "the satan" discuss in heaven and what Job thinks on earth. Humans don't always – and I suspect, often do not – get to know the mind of God.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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