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The Wrath Of God In The Old Testament: “The Law Brings Wrath”

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“Lack of wrath against wickedness is a lack of caring, which is a lack of love” (p. 23 or 160).

Down here on earth as it is now in its sinful state, you can’t have love without anger against evil and injustice.


What’s with all the wrathin’ and a-smitin’ in the Old Testament?

That’s what many people ask.

I’m a radical believer in the radical grace of God. But if I don’t explore this topic, some people may accuse me of hiding unpleasant truths and focusing on feel-good, sugarcoated doctrines alone.

Let’s get started.

In Rom. 4:15, Paul has a profound insight that is often overlooked because it is so brief and tucked away in numerous other profound truths: “the law brings wrath”; in that verse the law is the Torah or Law of Moses.

One way to check out his insight is to look at the common (and not so common) Hebrew words for anger, wrath, fury, indignation, and so on.

The law was thundered from on high on Mt. Sinai, beginning in Exodus 19. God shows wrath on his own people, after the law was given, when they violated it.

I intend to explore this thesis:

The law brings wrath.

This insight is tied to the Old Covenant, for law and covenant go together in the OT. Two parties, God and man, entered into an agreement or covenant. The lesser party (humankind) must fulfill certain obligations; the law guides people as to how to carry out their agreement, and the law promises benefits for upholding the covenant (Deut. 28). God, the major party, benefits his people. But when one party (people) breaks it in bad faith over centuries, the aggrieved party (God) has the right to take action against the covenant breakers and lawbreakers. They can even be punished. That action and punishment is called wrath in the OT. We could call it judicial (legal) or covenant wrath against lawbreakers or covenant breakers.

Ground Rules

Let me discuss the study method and limitations.

I don’t offer the meaning of the words in this study all the time, because they mean anger, wrath, fury, and so on. But I note it when in some contexts they mean zeal, nostrils, discord, sorrow, and so on. Generally those are not counted, unless they’re metaphors for or actually mean wrath and anger in some verses.

I did not factor in the word vengeance and its cognates, which are a form of God’s wrath. Except for four times, I did not look at jealousy, which also has a connection to anger.

It is not known when Job lived, but the book was written after the law was given, so this judicial wrath theology influences the book.

I counted the enemies of David in the Psalms as those who lived under the Sinai Covenant because he is likely talking about his enemies at court. But this wrath in the Psalms against his enemies happens so few times that the major results are not affected.

It was sometimes difficult, but not impossible, looking at a Hebrew-English concordance, to tell whether the context clause was about God or humans, so sometimes I looked up the reference to make sure. Nonetheless, I couldn’t look up every one, so the below totals are close approximations.

Chosen people and covenant people: For this study, the people whom God favored will be called the chosen people before the Law of Moses was given in Exod. 19, because they did not yet have the Sinai Covenant. After the law, they are called his covenanted or covenant people; they did have the Sinai Covenant, though it’s not as if they lost their chosen status – or a remnant did not.

Thus the “chosen people” and “covenant people” are used only for convenience before and after the law, respectively.

This study, as all studies using raw word counts, must be used judiciously. Sometimes an important theme in the Bible has few words, e.g. Sonship of Christ appears only 16x in Paul’s epistles, but it’s still very important. A pound of gold is worth a lot more than a ton of gravel. So this study is intended to reveal sinful people’s relationship to the law, the Old Covenant, and wrath, so that eventually the gospel can be preached  and deliver people from the wrath of God, but only after they’re in the New Covenant.


Our hypothesis will help us navigate through the biblical data. We’ll use it to reach conclusions about the thesis. The hypothesis is in two parts.

(1) The key Hebrew words will rarely appear against his chosen people before the Law of Moses was given;

(2) The Hebrew words will appear against his covenanted people most often after the Law of Moses was given.

Those who know the Bible can already figure out the outcome, but many don’t know Scripture. Plus, what’s important is how to interpret the data.

In that light, we also examine additional evidence of similar sins committed by the Israelites before the law was given and similar sins after the law. The differences in punishments are remarkable.

Finally, we keep track of what happens to those outside of the covenant or chosen status (pagans), who act as a comparison.

Let’s see if we confirm or deny the hypothesis by looking at the evidence. If it is confirmed, then the thesis is also confirmed.

Linguistic and Textual Evidence

1. Ap: 207: before the law was it is not used of God except in Exod. 4:14, when the anger of the Lord burned against Moses – the lawgiver – and in 15:7, when the blast of God’s nostril (anger) threw the Egyptian army into the sea.

Of the 207 times, the word appears, meaning wrath or anger (not nostrils, etc.), 167 times it refers to God, after the law was given, except Exod. 4:14 and 15:7, as noted.

167 of 207

155 of 167 against his covenant people

1 of 155 on his chosen vessel, Moses, before the law was given

2. Za’am (both verb and noun): 28: it is not used of God before the law was given; it is appears 27 times for God’s wrath after the law was given.

27 of 28

18 of 27 against his covenant people

3. Ḥēmah: 110: before the law was given, it does not appear for God’s wrath. After the law was given, it appears about 88 times for the wrath of God.

88 of 110

78 of 88: against his covenant people

4. Ḥārah: 92: it appears that many times for anger, fury, and sometimes burned, as in the anger of the Lord burned. But I did not count fret. It appears about 48 times for the wrath of God. It is used potentially of God’s anger through angels against Abraham (Gen. 18:30, 32), though God did not actually get angry. It also appears in Exod. 4:14: the anger of the Lord burned against Moses. Except for those 3 times, it appears only after the law was given.

48 of 92: (twice in Gen. 18:30, 32 and once in Exod. 4:14)

46 of 48: against his covenant people

2 of 26 potentially on Abraham, God’s friend, but the wrath never actualized or happened

5. Ḥārȏn: 39: it is used 39 times of God. It appears in Exod. 15:7, in Miriam’s song, for God’s burning anger. All other times it appears after the law was given.

39 of 40: once in Exod. 15:7, on the Egyptians

33 of 39: against his covenant people

6. o: 6: it is used 2 times of God, after the law was given.

2 of 6

2 of 2 against his covenant people

7. Ka’as (verb): 54: it is used 40 times of God’s anger and always after the law was given.

40 of 54

40 of 40 against his covenant people

8. Ka’as (noun): 15: sometimes this is translated as grief or sorrow, but those verses were omitted from the total count. It is used 5 times about God, and all of these verses come after the law was given.

5 of 15

5 of 5 against his covenant people

9. ‘ābar (denominative verb): 8: 5 of these words are used of God, and all occur after the law was given.

5 of 8

5 of 5 against his covenant people

10. ‘ebrah: 31: 24 are used of God, and all of them appear after the law was given

24 of 31

17 of 24 against his covenant people

11. Qin’ah: 4: this word is usually translated in the NIV as jealousy, but 4 times it refers to God’s jealous anger, and all occur after the law was given.

4 of 4

4 of 4 against his covenant people

12. Qātzap: 34: it is used of God 25 times, and all the verses appear after the law was given.

25 of 34

23 of 25 against his covenant people

13. Qetzep: 28: it is used of God 27 times, and all occur after the law was given

27 of 28

25 of 27 against his covenant people

14. Rāgaz; rōgez: 2: both are used of God and come after the law was given.

2 of 2

2 of 2: against his covenant people

Interpreting the Numerical Data

These totals are close approximations.

The words wrath, anger, fury and their synonyms appear 658 times, whether about God or humans.

Of the 658, God shows wrath 499 times.

So humans have wrath or anger 159 times.

Of the 499, God shows his wrath against his people 448 times after the Law of Moses was thundered down.

On his chosen people before the law and covenant: 3 times. Of those three, Abraham did not actually experience it because God through his angels accepted his questions. So it was used only once, against Moses, the lawgiver.

God shows wrath against individuals outside of his covenant (pagans). The key Hebrew words appeared only once before the law was given – against the Egyptian army. But after the law was given, the bulk of the occurrences of the Hebrew words are in national contexts: God’s wrath and anger are to be poured out on nations that crushed Israel, like Assyria and Babylon. Isaiah took care to speak those prophesies.

After the law was given, God’s wrath on people outside of the covenant (pagans), whether national or individualistic, works out to be 51 times.

Here are the totals for the key Hebrew words:

Total: 658

God’s wrath: 499

God’s wrath after the law: 495

God’s wrath against the covenant people: 448

God’s wrath against his chosen people before the law and covenant: 1 (and potentially 2 more times)

God’s wrath on people outside the covenant (pagans) before the law: 1

God’s wrath on people outside the covenant (pagans) after the law: 51

God’s wrath before the law, either on his chosen people or pagans: 4 (or 2)

Percentage against his covenant people after the law: 90%

Percentage against people outside the covenant (pagans) after the law: 10%

The low number against pagans is startling because it seems that God would direct his wrath towards them more often than against his chosen or covenant people. However, as we will note in the next section, Additional Evidence, this sheer number needs to be interpreted in the bigger context of story, like Sodom and Gomorrah and the ten plagues.

Also, one would expect the law to guide his covenant people towards righteousness, so God would not have to show his wrath on their unrighteousness. Just the opposite happened. His wrath intensified after the law because their sin increased. Recall that Paul argues that the holy law stimulates sin in unholy humans (Rom. 3:20, 7:15-13); sin must be justly punished (wrath); so “the law brings wrath.”

Therefore, our two-part hypothesis is confirmed:

(1) The key Hebrew words rarely appeared against his chosen people before the Law was given;

(2) The Hebrew words appeared against his covenanted people most often after the Law was given.

Therefore, Paul’s insight that “the law brings wrath” is also confirmed.

Additional Evidence

Though most of those Hebrew words do not appear before the law was given, God’s wrath in action – without the words – can be seen, for example, in Adam and Eve’s punishments (Gen. 3); in the flood (though the text speaks specifically of grief that motivated God); on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19); and the ten plagues on the Egyptians (Exod. 7:14-11:19; cf. Ps. 78:49). This all happened to pagans.

However, it must be said that God’s chosen people in those examples were spared from wrath, except Adam and Eve. Noah and his family were saved in the ark; Lot and his family were rescued from the two cities; the ten plagues were not intended for the Israelites. Thus, they were spared his wrath, even though they were not sinless and morally perfect, before the Law of Moses was given.

Therefore, the numbers revealed in the previous section need to be interpreted properly. God favored his chosen people or merely corrected them before Exod. 19, while pagans were punished severely when they broke the moral law or sinned in some way. This is wrath without explicitly saying the key words.

But it must still be emphasized that the key Hebrew words were never used, while after the law the words are used freely, indicating a shift in divine attitude about his covenanted, law-centered people. That’s still remarkable.

Now let’s see what happens in Genesis, after the creation story. Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob committed recorded sins, but they did not explicitly suffer wrath. Abraham lied to the Pharaoh, but God inflicted disease on the Pharaoh, not on Abraham. God spared his chosen man, but not pagans. God restored them, however (Gen. 12:10-20).

Next, Abraham and Sarah laughed at the promise of God that they would have a son, but they were only rebuked, not punished. They still had Isaac (Gen. 17:15-22, Gen. 18:10-15, Gen. 21:1-6).

Further, Jacob stole Esau’s birthright (Gen. 27), but he was still blessed with revelations (Gen. 28:10-21). He wrestled with an angel and got a name (character) change, but this is not explicitly stated as the wrath of God (Gen. 32:22-32). He and Esau reconciled, and Jacob got to carry on with the birthright privileges (Gen. 33 and Gen. 49).

One could say that God favored them because they were his chosen people and he had a bigger plan. But it’s not as if they got off scot free. They were corrected or rebuked in some way, but never do the key words for wrath appear, while they are used freely after the law on Mt. Sinai.

Let’s turn our attention to Exodus before the law was given in Exod. 19 and the corresponding passages in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy after the law. In a side-by-side comparison the differences in punishments are remarkable.

In Exod. 15:22-27, before the law in Exod. 19, the children of Israel are out in the desert. They found no water, and the water they eventually discovered at Marah was bitter. They complained. God performed a miracle without wrath explicitly stated. In Exod. 17:1-7, they camped at Rephidim, still in the desert, and could not find water. They complained again, but God’s wrath is not stated. Instead, Moses struck the rock, and water came out. In contrast, in Num. 20:1-13, after the law was given, the Israelites complained about not having water, and this time God told Moses to speak to the rock, and water would gush out. Instead, Moses disobeyed and struck the rock. Though “wrath” is not explicitly stated in Num. 20:1-13, Ps. 106:32 says, “By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them.” God judged Moses, so the lawgiver was not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land (cf. Num. 20:24, Num. 27:14; Deut. 32:51).

In Exod. 16, before the law, the Israelites grumbled about not having food, so God provided them with manna and quail. But nowhere does the text say that God poured out his wrath on them for their sin of complaining. In contrast, in Num. 11:4-35, after the law was given, the people complained about having nothing but manna. God became “exceedingly angry,” but provided them with quail, anyway. He also judged them with a plague because they apparently ate it raw. An image of a riot is possible. This severe punishment is wrath.

Num. 21:4-9 further combines complaining about food and water. God sends snakes to bite them. Though the keywords are not mentioned, the snakes are a severe punishment, and that’s the same as wrath.

In Exod. 16:23-30, before the law, Moses told the people not to gather the manna on the seventh day, the Sabbath, because that is day is holy. But they disobeyed and gathered it anyway. Moses rebuked them, and they did it right the next time. No wrath is stated, and no one died. However, in Exod. 20:8, after the law, God commanded the people to keep the Sabbath (the Fourth Commandment). He further orders that if they don’t keep it, they shall be executed. In Num. 15:32-36, they actually put a Sabbath breaker to death.

Next, as soon as the Ten Commandments were given, the second of which says not to form or make idols, the people, led by Aaron, made the golden calf (Exod. 32). They made no calf or another image before then. In Exod. 32, God would have destroyed all of them (v. 19), but instead only 3,000 were killed because Moses intervened (v. 28). Maybe it was passages like these that inspired Paul to note that the law stimulates sin (Rom. 7:7-13). (Incidentally, about 3,000 got saved at Pentecost [Acts 2:41]).

Most intriguingly, Abram was promised with the blessing of children. He believed God, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness. A covenant was cut (or made), the Abrahamic Covenant, which is built on faith (Gen. 15). In Num. 25:7-8, 13, Phinehas threw a spear through a man and woman who were having some kind of relations before Moses and the assembly at the tent of meeting. Ps. 106:28-31 says this act of judgment was credited to the priest as righteousness. Abram’s covenant of faith came before the law, while Phinehas’s covenant of an everlasting priesthood came after the law, through divine wrath and judgment. Jesus took up this priestly covenant and turned it into mercy and love (Heb. 4:14-5:10; 8:1-13), so we can now be part of the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:4-5)

Interpreting the Additional Evidence

Genesis has 50 chapters, and we’re counting the first 19 chapters in Exodus, totaling 69. Of course the vast majority of those Hebrew words appear in chapters after those 69, because there are a lot more chapters. But what’s startling is how few times the words appear in the 69 – and only once on God’s chosen vessel – Moses, the lawgiver.

However, all of those passages in the Additional Evidence section reveal a startling before-and-after comparison. Before the Law was thundered on from on high at Mt. Sinai, the chosen people were rebuked for their sins, but the key words for wrath are never mentioned. The people never died. After the law was given, God’s wrath was poured out for the same sins on his covenant people. Often the people were struck with plagues or the sword or bitten by serpents and died.

Next, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his sons deserved wrath on some occasions, but never got it as such, certainly not with the same intensity as his people will receive it after the Law of Moses was given.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the kind of wrath before the law is not as heavily emphasized as it was afterwards. Even the flood was motivated by divine grief, and Sodom and Gomorrah could have been spared if ten righteous had been found. Also, these passages are about punishments on pagans. This is unlike the wrath poured out on God’s covenant people, which is heavily emphasized and widespread after the law, while, surprisingly, the pagans do not bear the brunt of it very much after the law. They were not held to such a high standard.

Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he finishes Rom. 4:15: “where there is no law [of Moses] there is no transgression” against the Mosaic Law that had not yet been given. He also wrote: “in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). Accountability and punishment before the law was not as stringent and severe as it was after the law.

Thus, the thesis (“the law brings wrath”) and the two-part hypothesis are further confirmed.

What Wrath Is and Is Not

We are now in a better position to interpret the wrath of God in the entire sweep of the OT.

Paul’s insight goes deeper than just a raw data word count or these stories. 

Paul says in Romans there is something flawed with the mixture of religious law (which is holy), covenant (a beneficial relationship), and unholy human nature (the fatal flaw). Law stimulates sin in sinful human beings (Rom. 7:7-13). With the law, people become conscious of sin (3:20). This law-sin connection is also tied to the covenant, which involves two parties, God and man. Humankind breaks its end of the agreement; therefore the aggrieved party, God, has the right to take action and correct the covenant breakers. That action and correction is called wrath.

That’s the first half of Paul’s great insight (and even more on that, below). The second half is discussed in the Conclusion, below.

Moreover, God expressing wrath is not like a human losing his temper. God does not flash with anger and throw an unsuspecting, nearby angel across the universe before God can think straight. “Sorry, I lost my temper! I reacted without thinking!” No, he does not lash out. This is crude literalism and human-centered thinking. Instead, there’s a logic and consistency to it. Laws were in place. The people violated them. They had to suffer the consequences, sometimes quickly when major and sacred transitions were happening in Israel’s long history (2 Sam 6:3-7; cf. Exod. 25:12-15; Num. 4:5-6, 17; and 2 Kings 2:23-25; cf. Lev. 26:21-22), but mostly they underwent wrath only after centuries of lawbreaking. Punishment for lawbreaking is called the wrath of God – his judicial or covenant wrath.

God would not be the God of justice if he let wrongs slide by undealt with, just like a parent would be derelict if she let her children get away with everything. Her giving them a timeout or even a spanking without losing her temper is a (weak) equivalent to God’s perfect, unmistakable, error-free wrath.

God’s wrath is never mysterious, irrational, malicious, spiteful, or vindictive. It is predictable because it is aroused by injustice, lawbreaking, and evil – and that alone.

This is why he shows wrath, to punish wrong and evil:

The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. (Nah. 1:3)

I will discipline you but only with justice;
I will not let you go entirely unpunished. (Jer. 30:11)

Bigger Historical and Biblical Perspective

We must look at God’s wrath in the larger historical and biblical perspective.

As noted, covenant is tied to law and justice in the OT. Two parties voluntarily entered into an agreement. The privileged partner (God) promised to keep them safe and bless their agricultural life, their resources. He also instituted the priesthood to teach them how to keep the law, and he set up the sacrificial system administered by the priests to restore the people when they sinned. The righteous party (God) forgave their sins over and over again, for centuries. He sent prophets to warn them and remind them of their agreement.

But sometimes the human party to the covenant went so far in their bad faith, they broke the law so egregiously for centuries, the aggrieved party (God) took action. He judged and punished them, but not in his full wrath and not to destroy them. And after this painful judicial process – painful to him – he still forgave and loved them. He was merciful to his chosen lawbreakers. This is the perfect blend of mercy and justice. This is the story of God’s wrath in the OT, in a nutshell.

Thus, God’s wrath is linked to his judgment over a long history. He is like an old English judge in his red robe, white collar, ribbon tie, and white wig. He systemaaaaaaaatically and methoooooooodically and slooooooooowly gathers the evidence and then renders his verdict, after sifting and weighing the evidence. What kind of human judge would it be if he simply let the guilty go without paying a fine or spending time in prison? God instituted justice – including punishment against lawbreakers – down here on earth because it reflects his just character.

Further, while it is true that the Hebrew words for wrath appeared 448 times against the people of the covenant, this verse is repeated again and again in the OT:

But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Ps. 86:15; cf. Exod. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps 103:4; Ps. 145:8; Joel 2:12; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3)

Though those verses do not appear as often as wrath does, they are a pound of gold compared to one hundred pounds of iron.

And these verses talk about God’s mercy and forgiveness and his restraining his anger against his disobedient, law-breaking people:

Yet he was merciful;
he forgave their iniquities
and did not destroy them.
Time after time he restrained his anger
and did not stir up his full wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return. (Ps. 78:38-39)

Most importantly, the word counts for favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and compassion (and their various forms) add up to about 1220 times, the vast majority of which are used of God after the law was given, and, indeed, throughout the entire OT. That’s well over twice the number of times the occurrences (499) of wrath and anger and fury (and so on) used of God at any time or against anyone, chosen or covenant people or pagan, in the OT.

Therefore, wrath is not central or fundamental to God’s character. God is more than a judge. He is love.  Wrath is a response to something outside of himself in the world; his love always is. Before he created the heavens and the earth and perfect humans who fell and continue to do wrong, he was always love in eternity past. And he will always be love in eternity future, in a new heaven and new earth, when evil has been wiped out, and he no longer must pour out his wrath on it (i.e. punish it).

That’s the more accurate biblical picture that must be taken into account.


We discussed the first half of Paul’s great insight at the end of the Summary section, above. It says the law, covenant, and humans are a toxic mixture. The holy law stimulates sin in sinful humans who persistently break the covenant (Rom. 7:7-13); sin must be justly punished (wrath); so “the law brings wrath” (Rom. 4:15).

The second half of Paul’s insight provides a way out.

The goal (among several) of Romans is to teach us how to avoid the wrath to come. The way out is through the gospel by faith in Christ. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17).

Then we are set free from God’s wrath. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom. 5:9). Paul carries forward into the New Covenant the themes – no, the reality – of favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and compassion, which he observed in the Old.

Paul’s solution is for his fellow Jews to come out from under the Law of Moses, and certainly not to make Gentiles submit to it as the Judaizers advocated, a law which is part and parcel of the Old Covenant; instead, all peoples, Jew and Gentile, should come to faith in Christ and walk in the Spirit within the New Covenant, which Christ paid for and ratified with his blood.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. … The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:18, Gal. 5:22-23)

On the cross, Jesus Christ took our earned, merited, and deserved wrath. Now he gives us God’s love and grace, which for our part is unearned, unmerited, and undeserved.

For More Study

This article has a companion piece: The Wrath of God in the New Testament. It concludes that God never shows wrath against his blood-washed, Spirit-filled church as a whole. However, an individual Christian who (God forbid) commits a crime and is arrested by the authorities, who are agents of God’s wrath (Rom. 13:1-5) – well, that’s another matter. Click on the link to read more.

The Wrath of God as an Aspect of God’s Love

That article teaches us how shallow it is to criticize justice and punishment (wrath) for wrongdoing. God’s justice and love and wrath are linked. But his love is fundamental in a way that wrath is not. I used that article for some of the ideas in the section, What Wrath Is and Is Not.

Wrath of God

That link gives a much briefer overview of the topic.

God’s Plan of Salvation

This article explains in more depth how we personally may escape God’s wrath through the one and only way of salvation that He provided in Jesus Christ.

Please cite this article, especially for print books, as follows:

James M. Arlandson. “The Wrath of God in the Old Testament: ‘The Law Brings Wrath.’” 2014.

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