Red Hot Anger

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Joshua 7.1: “…and the anger of the LORD burned against the sons of Israel.”

This translation is common to many English Bible translations. It is also rather careless, I think. It still captures the idea and gets the point across, but it isn’t as accurate as it could be. There are a couple of things to sort out here: first, the meaning of the Hebrew, then second how to translate that Hebrew into good idiomatic English.

The Meaning of the Hebrew

Anger doesn’t burn. Not literally at least, and I think the literal sense is intended here (more on that later). It doesn’t have a physical existence, therefore it can’t burn. Buildings can burn. Cars can burn. Wood can burn. Fires, of course, can burn. Emotions can’t burn. I can’t burn sadness, or depression, or happiness, or any other emotion. So, what’s going on here?

Since standard English word order is subject – verb – object. Let’s start with the subject of the phrase. The subject is who or what is doing the action (which is the verb). In this phrase the subject is the Hebrew word אַ֥ף (ʾap). The basic meaning of this word refers to the organ on your face that you use to breathe: your nose or your nostrils. It can sometimes also refer to the face itself. It’s most common usage is to refer to anger and this is the meaning that many English translations go with. However, in this verse I think the second meaning (face) is the most accurate.

Why? Because it is accompanied by a verb: וַיִּֽחַר (wayyiḥar) which means “to be hot” or “to burn.” And as I noted above emotions can’t really burn or be hot, at least not in a literal sense. A face however, can be hot or burn, and since I think a literal face is intended here we should understand “burning” or “being hot” in the literal sense also.

Yes, you could light someone on fire and their face would be both burning and hot (along with the rest of their body), but there’s another way people can burn: when they feel strong emotions. When your sympathetic nervous system kicks in all sorts of things start going up: blood pressure, senses, and even body temperature. Ever been in a situation where you just became infuriated with something or someone and these things started happening? How did you feel? Hot? Most likely. Did your face feel like it was burning? Probably. That’s what’s being communicated here: God is angry at the Israelites.

Before moving on we have one last thing to figure out: the object, that is who or what the face of the LORD is burning/hot towards. While object is obvious: “the sons of Israel,” what is not obvious is the how the preposition (בִּ) should be understood. Meaning, what is the relationship between “the face of the LORD is burning/hot” and “the sons of Israel?” English has a lot of prepositions, Biblical Hebrew not so much. This creates a situation where we as English readers require precision and the original language is content to be ambiguous.

Realistically there are 2 options here for the בִּ preposition:

  1. Adversative (“Against” NASB, NIV, NRSV, RSV, KJV, many others): this would indicate a disadvantageous relationship for the people of Israel in regards to the face of the LORD being hot/burning.
  2. Causal (“Because [of]” NLT, NCV, Geneva Bible): this would indicate the cause the LORD’s face being hot/burning was the actions of the Israelites, specifically Achan.

Both of these options are valid. The Israelites are on the receiving end of the LORD’s anger, clearly a disadvantageous position. They are also the cause of the LORD’s anger because of the sin of Achan. Unfortunately, there is no way for us to keep this ambiguity in an English translation, so we have to choose one or the other.

Personally, I prefer the adversative (“against”) idea here. The cause has already been stated in the first part of the verse, so there is no need to explicitly state it again. Plus, I also think that Israel being the target of the LORD’s anger implicitly carries the causal idea with it. Being angry at someone when they did nothing to cause it makes very little sense.

Translating the Hebrew

Now, like I said above the translation “…and the anger of the LORD burned against the sons of Israel” is not a “wrong” translation; it gets the message across. However, there is room for improvement.

If we translated the Hebrew in a literal manner we would end up with: “…and the face of the LORD was hot against the Israelites.” This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in English. For starters, does the LORD even have a face like a human? With a nose on it? With nostrils? Does he have a sympathetic nervous system that can make that face burn and those nostrils flare? No.

Verses like this one, Ex 33.11, and Deut 5.4; 34.10 (for examples) that describe God as having a face are anthropomorphisms. Meaning that they are describing God as if he had human features. The basic purpose of an anthropomorphism is to help the human reader understand God better. Since we are humans using human characteristics, which we more or less fully understand, can help us understand the actions of God, which we do not fully understand since we are not God. They can also help make things vivid and more memorable. For instance, Ps 34.15-16 speaks of God having eyes and ears in addition to a face. The point here is to communicate that God is attentive to the needs of the righteous and will help them, but will punish those who do evil. Such truths though are made more memorable through the use of the anthropomorphisms that the psalmist uses in these verses.

Now, having said that, I hope you can understand why the divinely inspired writer chose to use the phrase “the face of the LORD was hot” here. It is a vivid and memorable way of portraying God as being angry. This is also why I think we should understand “burning/being hot” in the literal sense. Human faces literally get hot when we get angry and to understand the passage as anger burning ruins the anthropomorphism.

In terms of translation though “the face of the LORD was hot” is not an anthropomorphism that many western English readers are familiar with, so using it is probably not a good idea. Sometimes leaving in an anthropomorphism is fine and will be understood by the audience, but this isn’t one of them. So, what do we do here?

Well, there is an English expression that comes pretty close to communicating this anthropomorphism: “hot under the collar.” However, this isn’t commonly used and honestly it sounds kind of hokey, and hokeyness is not what you want in a Bible translation. So, in this case I think it is best to go with an English synonym for anger, ideally one that carries a bit more intensity with it than “angry.” Options include: irate, furious, enraged, incensed, among other possible expressions of being angry. Even “very angry” would be a good option. The NET Bible opts for furious here (“The LORD was furious with the Israelites.”), which is also a good option. Just make sure that whatever word you opt for doesn’t get too intense in terms of anger. This whole incident is really one of correction, not judgment (like what happened to Jericho in the previous chapter).

Final Thoughts

This is one passage where I think the underlying Hebrew is much more vivid and lively than our English translations. Unfortunately, due to English usage I don’t think we can really retain the anthropomorphism here like we can in other places. They are, I think, intentional choices made the divinely inspired writer to highlight certain things and make certain truths more vivid. The ancient writer had the option of simply writing “God was angry” here, but instead chose to use “the face of the LORD was hot against the Israelites” for specific reasons. A pastor or teacher could certainly bring this out, but in terms of translation it seems like this is something that we have to lose in order to have something readable in English.

Photo by Armando Ascorve Morales on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary