God's Flaming Fiery Anger
A large portion of the Song of Moses, in Deuteronomy 32, is dedicated to describing Israel’s sins and God’s response to them. As the Song tells it, the people have forgotten their God, deceived him and have acted disloyally by worshipping other gods (32:15-18). Consequently, God will hurl disasters upon them that include hunger, plague and the sword (32:23-42).
The Anger of Israel’s Jealous God
In between the Song’s descriptions of Israel’s sins and God’s punishments, Deuteronomy offers an anthropomorphic explanation for God’s harsh judgment (32:19-22). God punishes the people so severely because he is both angry and jealous.
כא הֵ֚ם קִנְא֣וּנִי בְלֹא אֵ֔ל כִּעֲס֖וּנִי בְּהַבְלֵיהֶ֑ם וַאֲנִי֙ אַקְנִיאֵ֣ם בְּלֹא עָ֔ם בְּג֥וֹי נָבָ֖ל אַכְעִיסֵֽם:
21 They have roused me to jealousy with a non-god, they have exasperated me with their idols. In my turn I shall rouse them to jealousy with a non-people, I shall exasperate them with a stupid nation.
כב כִּי אֵשׁ֙ קָדְחָ֣ה בְאַפִּ֔י וַתִּיקַ֖ד עַד שְׁא֣וֹל תַּחְתִּ֑ית וַתֹּ֤אכַל אֶ֙רֶץ֙ וִֽיבֻלָ֔הּ וַתְּלַהֵ֖ט מוֹסְדֵ֥י הָרִֽים:
22 Yes, a fire has blazed from my anger, it will burn right down to the depths of Sheol; it will devour the earth and all its produce, it will set fire to the footings of the mountains.
כג אַסְפֶּ֥ה עָלֵ֖ימוֹ רָע֑וֹת חִצַּ֖י אֲכַלֶּה בָּֽם
23 I shall hurl disasters on them, on them I shall use up all my arrows.
According to these verses, the people have aroused God’s anger and jealousy, and in so doing, have sparked within him a burning fire.
Almost all English translations (as well as ancient Targumim and the Septuagint) translate the term ’ap in the phrase כי-אש קדחה באפי (v. 22) as “anger,” thus rendering, “For a fire is kindled in My anger.” This translation does not do full justice to the portrait of God in this passage. The term אף is the most common root for anger in the Bible. Significantly, however, it also means “nose.” How are these two definitions of אף related?
The Meanings of אף
Cognitive linguists, scholars who study the interplay between cognition, physiology and language, have observed that people’s descriptions of an emotion and the metaphors they use to describe the emotion may reflect the physiological changes people perceive when they experience that emotion. The definition of אף (’ap) as anger reflects this phenomenon.
Anger is conceptualized, cross-culturally and across many languages – including in Biblical Hebrew – as physically embodied in heat. Therefore, anger’s perceived physiological effect in feeling hot, especially the nose becoming heated, leads to the characterization of anger as a burning nose or, for short, a nose. In other words, the phrase חרה אפו, literally reads “his nose burned hot,” but it connotes “he became angry,” and the term אף (’ap), which literally means “nose,” may connotes “anger,” even when auxiliary verb חרה, “to burn hot” is lacking
Returning to our verse, biblical translators rightly observe that אף means anger. The previous verse condemns Israel for provoking God’s anger (כעסוני) and so it is reasonable that the next verse should describe the manifestation of this anger. But אף’s definition as “nose” is connoted here as well. The phrases “in my nose” and “down to the depths of Sheol” indicate the enormous span of God’s fire. When God is angry (32:21), a fire burns within his nose like a breath high up in heaven, and then blows far beyond the confines of his body to burn down to the depths of Sheol (and presumably everywhere in between).
The Fiery Breath of God’s Nostrils
Many passages elsewhere portray God having a nose from within which emanates fire. For example, in Psalm 18:9 God’s face is on fire,
עָ֮לָ֤ה עָשָׁ֙ן֙ בְּאַפּ֗וֹ
גֶּ֝חָלִ֗ים בָּעֲר֥וּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ:
Smoke went up from his nose (’ap)
and devouring fire from his mouth
glowing coals flamed forth from him. 
In this poem, אף clearly has a double-meaning; “anger” is evoked by the presence of another term in the previous verse (כי-חרה לו), and “nose” is brought to the fore by the parallel reference to another one of God’s facial features – his “mouth” (מפיו). Thus, אף describes both God’s “anger,” which is manifest as a devouring fire, as well as his “nose,” the body-part that manifests this fire and its attendant smoke.
The Latter Prophets also associate God’s fire with the output of his nose. For example, in Ezekiel 22:20-21 God punishes Israel by blowing the fire of his anger at Jerusalem to melt it:
כֵּ֤ן אֶקְבֹּץ֙ בְּאַפִּ֣י וּבַחֲמָתִ֔י… וְנָפַחְתִּ֥י עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּאֵ֣שׁ עֶבְרָתִ֑י וְנִתַּכְתֶּ֖ם בְּתוֹכָֽהּ:
So I will gather you in my אף and in my wrath… and blow upon you with the fire of my wrath.
Since אף stands in series with another anger term (ובחמתי) it clearly means “anger.” However, the verb “to blow” (נ-פ-ח) evokes also אף’s definition as “nose,” the aperture from which God blows his scorching breath of fire. For humans, our breath emanates from our nose; for God, it is fire.
Imagery of God’s Body as an Alternative to Idolatry
In the Ancient Near East, gods were perceived to inhabit idols, and those idols were supposed to resemble the gods who inhabit them. As such, many of these idols had faces, mouths, noses, eyes, and even arms. In fact, an entire ritual was devoted to facilitating the god’s indwelling within a carved statue. Most biblical texts, however, suggest that God was to be worshipped without an icon (Exod 20:4).
However, human beings inevitably seek tangible imagery to support their worship. In view of this, the Bible provides spiritual imagery in the form of, for example, anthropomorphic metaphors. Though the people of Israel were prohibited from crafting God’s body, they were allowed to envision him as having one and the Bible does so. Accordingly, God is described as having an arm (Exod 13:9), a mouth (Ps 18:9) and presumably even legs, as he is depicted walking in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:8; cf. Exod 24:10). Nonetheless, many texts envision God’s body as transcendent – wholly unlike the human body in nature, size and in form.”
Anthropomorphic Depictions of God’s Fire
Divine fire has a variety of roles, beyond just being the breath in God’s nose. God’s fire serves as his metaphorical mouth, with which he consumes sacrifices. For example, in 1 Kings 18:38, Elijah proves to the people that God is the Lord when God comes down to “eat” and “lick” the sacrifices with his fire,
וַתִּפֹּ֣ל אֵשׁ־יְ-הֹוָ֗ה וַתֹּ֤אכַל אֶת־הָֽעֹלָה֙ וְאֶת הָ֣עֵצִ֔ים וְאֶת הָאֲבָנִ֖ים וְאֶת הֶעָפָ֑ר וְאֶת הַמַּ֥יִם אֲשֶׁר בַּתְּעָלָ֖ה לִחֵֽכָה:
Then Yhwh’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and licked up the water in the trench.
God’s fire also serves as his metaphorical voice with which he speaks the law to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai (Deut 4:12 cf. 4:15, 36),
וַיְדַבֵּ֧ר יְ-הֹוָ֛ה אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָאֵ֑שׁ ק֤וֹל דְּבָרִים֙ אַתֶּ֣ם שֹׁמְעִ֔ים וּתְמוּנָ֛ה אֵינְכֶ֥ם רֹאִ֖ים זוּלָתִ֥י קֽוֹל:
Yhwh then spoke to you from the heart of the fire you heard the sound of words but saw no shape; there was only a voice.
In fact, God uses fire as humans would use legs, to descend down upon the mountain (Exod 19:18) and to travel along with the people of Israel in the wilderness (13:21).
וְהַ֤ר סִינַי֙ עָשַׁ֣ן כֻּלּ֔וֹ מִ֠פְּנֵי אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרַ֥ד עָלָ֛יו יְ-הֹוָה בָּאֵ֑שׁ וַיַּ֤עַל עֲשָׁנוֹ֙ כְּעֶ֣שֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁ֔ן וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כָּל־ הָהָ֖ר מְאֹֽד:
Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Yhwh had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (Exod 19:18)
וַֽי-הֹוָ֡ה הֹלֵךְ֩ לִפְנֵיהֶ֨ם יוֹמָ֜ם בְּעַמּ֤וּד עָנָן֙ לַנְחֹתָ֣ם הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְלַ֛יְלָה בְּעַמּ֥וּד אֵ֖שׁ לְהָאִ֣יר לָהֶ֑ם לָלֶ֖כֶת יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה:
Yhwh went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. (Exod 13:21)
Why is God Described as a Fire-Breathing Deity?
What is this portrait of a fire-breathing deity meant to convey? Divine fire serves to establish God as both anthropomorphically similar to, but also quite different from human beings. On one hand, the frequent biblical descriptions of God’s nose as hot/burning in anger establish his comparability to humans whose anger the Bible describes using the same language. On the other hand, the depiction of God burning his provokers with the physical product of his anger establishes him as uniquely divine.
In contrast to human anger, whose heat is confined to its subject’s nose, God blows his materialized anger–fire from his mouth and smoke from his nose–outward to consume objects afar. In short, God resembles humans in that he breathes, but his breath is unique; when God is angry, he breathes fire that burns his enemies.
Fire as a Two-Sided Metaphor
The idea that God, an incorporeal being, manifests himself to interact with humanity makes no sense. And yet, the Bible describes God doing just that. God speaks to Moses through the burning bush, and he descends in fire upon Mount Sinai to meet and to speak to the entire people of Israel. By using fire to convey God’s presence, the Bible communicates the double edge (adianoeta) of God’s revealing himself to humanity.
Fire is dangerous and even lethal. Similarly, to get too close to God is not only prohibited, but potentially lethal. On the flip side, fire nourishes by cooking food and by providing protective warmth in the cold and illuminating guidance amid darkness. Likewise, God nourishes, protects, and guides his people. Thus, by describing God as fire, the Bible teaches us that God is dangerous and also ultimately sustaining.
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September 22, 2015
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Dr. Deena Grant is associate professor of of Jewish Studies at Hartford Seminary. She received her Ph.D. from New York University in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, with a focus on the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting. Dr. Grant taught at Hofstra University and Drisha. She is the author of Divine Anger in the Hebrew Bible.
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