Deities who "turn back" from anger.

Author:Rahmouni, Aicha

to the memory of Yochanan Muffs

An examination of the use of the idiom "to return" to express the forgiveness and compassion of a deity in ancient Semitic languages and quranic Arabic.


Exodus, chapter 32, relates the tragic episode of the Golden Calf, as told in a paradigmatic narrative of divine anger. It features the prophet Moses as intercessor who succeeded in averting divine wrath against the Israelites, when Yahweh was set to destroy his people. At one point in the ensuing dialogue Moses appeals to Yahweh as follows:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Turn back from your flared wrath; and relent of the harm to your people (Exod. 32:12). The notion that Yahweh rescinds his punitive plans in response to prophetic intercession has been widely discussed. It belongs with a complex of divine profiles, attested over long periods in Near Eastern literature, of gods who depart in anger, abandoning their worshippers, but who may turn back from their anger, showing mercy and forgiveness. As a reflex of this concept, we read of humans who "re-turn" in penitence to their gods, after having abandoned them.

Yochanan Muffs, of blessed memory, discussed this concept in his penetrating studies of biblical religion. (1) In conversation, he often spoke of the image of the "returning" deity, forgiving and merciful, which is expressed in Akkadian by forms of the verb taru "to return," and in Aramaic dialects as teyara' literally "the one who returns." In Hebrew and Arabic, semantic equivalents are employed to express the same theme; namely, Hebrew "to return," and Arabic taba "id." (2) Clearly, we have a shared theme, variously expressed in cognate languages. It is the present purpose to explore this phenomenon further, as Yochanan Muffs would surely have done had it been possible, and we dedicate the present study to his memory.

We begin with the Biblical Hebrew evidence, and proceed to trace the theme of the returning deity back to its earlier attestations in Akkadian (and Eblaite) sources. This sequence reflects the point of departure in the process of discovery, even though the biblical texts are long preceded by the Akkadian (and Eblaite) evidence. We will then engage the varied Aramaic and Arabic sources. Divine abandonment and return is a theme expressed as well in other cultures than the Semitic, and, as such, warrants further discussion by scholars in the appropriate fields.


    Before reviewing the biblical evidence in Hebrew, it would be well to take note of a fact of language that is of etymological significance. Although the Biblical Hebrew verb [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "to explore, go about, circumambulate" may, indeed, be cognate with Akkadian taru "to return," it never has that meaning in Biblical Hebrew. (3) All biblical references to the deity who "returns" are expressed in Hebrew by forms of the verb [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the semantic equivalent of Akkadian taru. As regards the theme itself, an examination of the Biblical Hebrew idiom shows that the coupling of divine anger with the plea for divine return produces a fixed pair, which is to say, that wherever there is an appeal to Yahweh to "turn back," it is associated explicitly with divine anger. (4)

    The plea of Exodus 32:12, just cited, is echoed in Deuteronomy 13:18:

    Let nothing remain in your possession from the ban in order that Yahweh will turn back from his flared wrath ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and grant you compassion ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]), and have mercy upon you and make you numerous, as he swore to your ancestors. This command comes in the context of punitive action to be taken against an Israelite town that had collectively established the cult of a pagan god, which aroused Yahweh's wrath and threatened the covenant relationship. Under provisions of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "ban," the population of the town is to be killed off, the town burned to the ground, and all of its assets devoted sacrificially to Yahweh. The only hope for divine forgiveness is to respect the ban. Note the reference to the term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "compassion," cognates of which we will encounter in relevant Akkadian, Aramaic, and Arabic sources.

    In a similar instance of mass idolatry, this time in the wilderness, Yahweh's wrath against Israel is aroused, occasioning the command to impale the leaders of the people, facing the sun, "so that Yahweh's wrath may 'turn away' from Israel" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Num. 25:4). We then read that the High Priest, Phineas, took punitive action, and in so doing, states Yahweh, "he turned away my wrath from against Israel" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Num. 25:11). Here the Hiphil has active-transitive force, a reflex of the stative force conveyed by the simple stem. It is noteworthy that the theme of divine return has morphed, so that it is not Yahweh who is pictured as returning to the Israelites, but rather his reified wrath that turns back, or away, from them!

    Since the effort to assuage Yahweh's anger was basic to the prophetic role and an important prayer theme, it should not surprise us that both prophetic literature and the Psalms attest instances of appeal, wherein the themes of divine wrath and divine return are reflexive of each other. We begin with Isa. 12:1 where, once again, it is the wrath that "turns away":

    I give thanks to you, Yahweh, though you were wroth with me. May your wrath turn away ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and you bring me relief ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

    This verse introduces a Zion Psalm of victory (Isa. 12:1-6), and projects Yahweh's reversal from a deity acting out his anger to one granting relief. There is a play on the root [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which in the Niphal connotes relenting, whereas here the Piel connotes granting relief, the consequence of Yahweh's change of heart.

    From Isaiah 12 we move to Joel 2:12-14a, where the same word play is evident:

    Even now, speech of Yahweh, return to me ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) wholeheartedly, With fasting, and with weeping and mourning. Rend your heart, not your garments, Return ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to Yahweh, your God. For he is gracious and merciful ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Slow to anger and abounding in kindness, And relenting of harm ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Who knows but that he may turn back and relent ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The context is the approaching Exile, and the message is that disaster can only be averted by a sincere "return" to Yahweh, which might induce him to return, relenting of his anger. Here we have repeated usage of the Niphal participle, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "to relent," and the notion of reciprocal response. If the people will return, Yahweh will turn back. Note the telling parallel in Jonah 3:9-10, which reports on the positive outcome, when king and people, amid fasting and prayer, in fact repented:

    Who knows but that God may turn back and relent ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), turning back from his flared wrath ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) so that we will not perish. God observed their deeds; that they turned back ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) from their evil path. Then God relented ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the harm that he intended to do to them, but did not do. We turn now to what appears to be an addition of several collected verses to the book of Micah (7:18-20). Verses 18-19a are of immediate interest:

    Who is a deity like you, who forgives iniquity; who overlooks transgression with respect to the remnant of his people? He does not hold to his wrath forever, for he is one who loves kindness. He will turn back and show us compassion [(TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Two further passages remain to be considered:

    1) Jer. 23:19-20 (// Jer. 30:23-24)

    Behold, Yahweh's storm goes forth in rage; a whirling storm. It shall whirl down on the heads of the wicked. Yahweh's wrath ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) shall not turn back ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) Until he has fulfilled his purposes completely. 2) Dan. 9:16, in a prayer from exile:

    My Lord, as befits your abundant justice, may your wrathful fury turn away ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) from your city, Jerusalem, your holy mountain.


    Like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, Akkadian attests the theme of "turning back, returning" from anger, as a way of expressing...

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