Children of wrath

Children of wrathRandom observation. I work with a Bible Society dedicated to publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. It’s wonderful work. Love it. I recently tripped over the phrase “children of wrath” in Eph 2.3. Nearly every translation I looked at understands this phrase to describe human beings as either born under divine wrath, or deserving of wrath, or subject to wrath on account of their own actions, etc. As a rule I’m extremely reluctant to disagree with unanimity when it comes to long-standing translations. But it does rarely happen that the unanimity one faces is not that of free minds each of which having independently become convinced of the same truth, but rather that of a majority unthinkingly assuming that what’s gone before is right, a bit like sheep rushing en masse off a cliff following an original clumsy move. The persistence of Augustine’s understanding of Rom 5.12 to say “in whom all have sinned” rather than “because all have sinned” (cf. the ἐφ’ ᾧ) would be an example.

“Children of wrath” in Eph 2.3 does not, I submit, mean ‘deserving of wrath’ or ‘subject to wrath’ or ‘born under wrath’ but rather ‘characterized by wrath’, that is, a wrathful or angry disposition or temperament. The wrath is ours here, not God’s. I’m not suggesting the phrase “wrath of God” describes a fiction as if God in fact does not will that there be painful consequences for actions. Divine wrath is a realty, but it is not what Paul has in mind here.

There are several ways to take the genitive “children [tekna] of….” Used figuratively (as it is here), one may be a “child of _______” (fill in the blank) to the extent one is characterized by that quality or property described. Consider some examples:

(1) “children of Zion” (Joel 2.23) meaning those who inhabit Jerusalem,
(2) “sons of thunder” (Mk 3.17) of James and John’s angry, violent temperament,
(3) “children of wisdom” (Lk 7.35) describing those who are wise,
(4) “children of disobedience (Eph 2.2; 1Pt 1.14) meaning those who are disobedient,
(5) “children of the light” (Eph 5.8) describing those who love and live in the light,
(6) “children of cursing” (2Pt 2.14) describing people who curse others (not those “cursed by God”),
(7) “children of the flesh/promise” (Rom 9.8) describing characteristic behavior of those living “according to” the flesh or spirit.

It makes much better sense of our passage, given Paul’s description of the actual behavior of the Ephesians (including “sons of disobedience” in preceding verse v. 2), to take “children of wrath” as describing their formerly angry-violent disposition (roughly equivalent to the more descriptive “sons of thunder”) and not their previously being by nature “subject to divine wrath.” Wrath/anger does not always refer to divine wrath. But observe Paul’s instruction in this same letter (4.31) that we “get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger…” (cf. Col 3.8; 1Tm 2.8; Jm 1.19f). Paul describes what Rene Girard called the escalation of mimetic violence characteristic of human social behavior, the natural tendency to default to angry, wrathful, and violent modes of discourse and relating.

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