This is the famous opening word of Homer’s Iliad. Many translations in English fail to sufficiently convey the power of the word and its place as the opening utterance in this ancient classic. For non-classicists, citing Homer’s Iliad might mean very little. The cultural knowledge of our modern world with regard to the ancient is abysmal (as is our knowledge of even the past half-century). Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were in many ways, for ancient Greece, what the Scriptures were for Israel. They were not seen as Scripture, per se, but they were the most ancient writings known, embodying an epic tale from earlier times, and permeated with encounters and tales of the divine (or divinities). It was a writing whose stories would have been part of common cultural knowledge from about 100 B.C. to 1000 A.D. in the Mediterranean world. Educated persons of the period would have a wide take on its stories. Greeks and Romans, educated in various schools of philosophy, would have found the portrayal of the gods in Homer rather embarrassing. Their internal conflicts and base motivations were everything that a truly good life would have spurned. But the stories had a valued place in the culture – thus they were interpreted in a manner that made them useful. Allegory, as a literary tool, was a very natural way of treating these texts. That we see a similar use of allegory in handling of the Old Testament is thus not surprising.
But it is interesting to think of the wrath of God in a cultural context where wrath itself plays such a large part.
In the Iliad, Achilles wrath (μῆνις), is a dominant theme. It is his downfall. A related term in Greek is a form of delusion (ἄτη). It can be a form of madness sent to a man by the gods. The result is always catastrophic. The two images work together. The man who is the object of the gods’ wrath, is given over to madness (ἄτη) by the gods, and the drama (tragedy) plays itself out. That very idea of tragedy played a very large part in the Greek and Hellenistic world-view. It was a form of story that seemed to explain the rise and fall of fortunes in the world.
These images have been playing through my mind lately – as, strangely – I’ve been watching a couple of television series. Both have a Western theme (cowboy-style), though in contemporary settings. One is Longmire, the other, Justified. Both of the protagonists have problems with anger. The lead character in Justified says in the series pilot, “I’ve never thought of myself as an angry man.” His ex-wife says, “You’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.” If Sophocles were the author of series, you would know that the character was headed for ruin. In American television, however, anything is possible.
Real life, however, is much closer to Sophocles than television. Our rage, like that of Achilles, is often the beginning of catastrophe, both for ourselves and for those around us. The wrath of God is more problematic.
The gods of Achilles’ world are fickle. They have their demands and expectations, but they also have their pettiness and vindictiveness. In some cases the gods are seen as subject to envy (it was never thought wise to be too beautiful, too brave, too excellent). There can even be competing waves of divine wrath – a cross-fire to be avoided at all costs!
The wrath of God in the Scriptures is singular – the God of Israel has no competition. And the wrath of God in Scripture is seen as righteous – it is not petty or vindictive. But it sometimes seems to have a similarity to the pagan stories. We are told that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh’s actions are similar to those of Achilles. His rage drives him to repeatedly deny the requests of Moses. At last, in an insane act of folly he plunges his army headlong into the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea. His drowning ranks with the great tragic stories of antiquity.
But we are troubled (rightly) by a God who sends such hardness on the human heart. For we are all the victims of our own rage from time to time.
If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psa 130:3 NKJ)
Some of the fathers assure us that such wrath is not punishment, that it is not sent upon us to satisfy anything, not even the demand for justice. For them, the clear teaching is that every action of God towards us is ultimately for our healing and correction. Ultimately such a teaching is rooted in the goodness and love of God. The Christian revelation, in contrast to that of the ancient Greeks, is that human beings are part of the good creation of the good God. The goodness of creation (Gen. 1) is not a description of creation’s morality, but of its fundamental existence. God does not create and command, “Be good!” He creates and declares, “It is good.”
As such, the good creation (including humanity), is not created for destruction and torment. Our madness and the rage of sin draw us into the vortex of wrath – but the vortex of wrath draws us into the love of God. I recall a monastic once speaking about Pharaoh and his army beneath the waters of the sea. “Christ descended into the waters to bring them out again,” he said.
I volunteer one day at week at an alcohol and drug treatment center. I encounter many men and women (most of them young), whose lives have been brushed with the rage of sin. The destruction many of them have already experienced in their short lives is more than I would want in the whole of a lifetime. Many of them began their rageful journey in the backwash of other destructive lives. Sin is ancient and generational. On an individual basis, however, I witness, week in and week out, the transformation of wrath. The very destruction that has come upon a life becomes the means by which it is healed. “I had to become sick in order to become well,” is a common sentiment.
The drama in which I participate is not a tragedy. These children of Achilles are not beset with a rage sent to them from the gods of the Achaians. If they have encountered the wrath of God, then it has clearly been for their salvation.
I wonder at those who cannot see in such small events, the greater pattern of the redemption given to us in Christ.
If God be for us, who can be against us?