Understanding Anger - Lecture 2: Jewish Scriptures

Last Saturday, at the Kingston Library, we had a very well-attended second session of the new year-long monthly lecture series - Understanding Anger.  The previous session had focused on anger through the lens of Greek tragedy and epic.  This one looked at this prevalent and perennial passion through multiple perspectives afforded by another key source for Western thought and culture -- the Jewish Scriptures.

As always, there's many more people interested than can attend -- sometimes a factor of time, but most often of place -- so we video-recorded the session (you can watch the video here).  And as usual, although I came armed with many notes and a few handouts to structure the session, a number of digressions -- all quite interesting -- added some other elements to the discussions.

There's not an awful lot of systematic discussion about anger in the pre-Christian Jewish scriptures, but there are many references to the emotion and its workings, and some very interesting, though sometimes allusive, depictions of anger in the narratives of quite a few Biblical characters.  So, we looked at five of those narratives:
  • Cain and Abel
  • The Rape of Dinah 
  • Joseph and his Brothers
  • Moses and the Israelites
  • Sampson and the Philistines
Putting these all together, we don't get an entirely coherent picture about anger, an emotion whose dark energy can -- and in some of these stories, does -- easily lead to bloodshed, a thirst for revenge, even impulsive and imprudent decisions.  What we get instead are stories to ponder, not only in terms of anger itself, but also how forgiveness occurs, when someone needs to intercede, even at times with God (as Moses does on the part of the always troublesome Israelites, echoing Abraham's own intercession on behalf of the people of Sodom, who had drawn down divine wrath).

When we turn to the Law, again, there is not much that bears directly upon anger.  It is noteworthy, though, that on the one hand, the Law imposes a requirement not to hate one's fellow human being, to treat even enemies fairly, and to avoid vengeance and grudges -- and on the other hand insists that vengeance is really a divine prerogative, not a human one.  In fact, the Law even enjoins that one is to love one's neighbor as oneself, which does not preclude getting angry, but would govern how one expresses anger, and what one does with the feeling.

There's much more promising material in the Wisdom Literature.  While there are some very interesting and insightful discussions to be found in Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, I focused more in my talk on Proverbs and Sirach.  Again, these don't supply the kind of theoretical treatment of anger, revenge, reason, and emotion as we'll find when we turn to philosophers and theologians later on in the series (and in the history of ideas), but there are a number of excellent insights, tied together by a web of argument and reasoning, which we can certainly build upon and build out -- and that's in fact what many students and scholars of the Wisdom Literature think those writings are intended to provide.

Then, of course, there's the matter of the prophets, and of the divine anger they announce, threaten, depict, and often aim to avert.  There's considerably more to be said about these -- in fact, I'd like to write a piece or a series specifically about divine anger sometime later down the line -- so I'll close just by noting that while there are many instances of divine anger that strike us late moderns as puzzling, even unfair, unreasonable, or incomprehensible, there's also a consistent depiction that connects back with the treatment of anger in the Law.

In some sense, human beings are characteristically bad at managing, evaluating, and acting on the basis of their anger, particularly when it comes to the desire for revenge or retribution.  God operates according to different -- and in this tradition, higher, better -- standards, with an understanding into which we can partly (though not entirely) penetrate, one described as “slow to anger, rich in kindness, forgiving wickedness and crime, yet not declaring the guilty guiltless.”