Embedded in the closing section of Ephesians and Colossians, a set of instructions to Christian fathers forms part of a so-called “household code” (Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1). In the Ephesian segment Paul urges fathers to “bring them [children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”1 (Ephesians 6:4). No positive exhortation is given in Colossians 3:21. In both contexts Paul gives a prohibition, but probably used a different verb in each setting. Ephesians 6:4 “Fathers do not exasperate (parorgizete) your children;” Colossians 3:21 “Fathers, do not embitter (erethizete) your children.”2 Paul is concerned in the Colossian text that the fathers’ inappropriate behavior will cause the children to become “discouraged (athumōsin).
These two texts are not as easy to translate or interpret as they might appear. For example, we cannot discern with full certainty whether “the children (ta tekna)” are pre-teen or teenage children or adult children who are married and living in same household as the husband’s parents. In addition “families” in first century Greco-Roman and Jewish society did not operate in exactly the same way as families do in 21st century North America. Educational processes were different and social interactions were guided by different values and expectations. As children grew older, responsibility for their education shifted from the mother to the father, who had final authority in household matters.
The verb parorgizein is related to orgizein which means “to be angry, to be wrathful.” Although the verb parorgizein does occur infrequently in secular, Classical Greek authors, the majority of its pre-Christian usage occurs in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. In most of these Old Testament contexts this verb describes human, sinful action, primarily Israelite, which “provokes Yahweh to anger” and thus disciplinary action, i.e. judgment against Israel. So this verb signifies not just “be angry”, but to be provoked to such a degree that an angry response ensues. The emphasis is as much on the sinful provocation as it is on the actual anger, I would suggest.
We see these dynamics at play in the first context in which parorgizein occurs in the Septuagint. In Deuteronomy 4:25-26 Moses warns Israel that “you will surely be destroyed…and completely wiped out” if you give birth to sons and grandsons, but then “act lawlessly and make an engraved likeness of anything and do what is evil before the Lord your God, to provoke him to anger (parorgisai auton).”3 It is the sinful activity of the parents over an extended period of time that provokes an angry response from Yahweh in the form of drastic judgment. In 2 Kings 17:11,17 king Ahaz leads Israel in idolatrous activity (“they served idols”, v.11), even sacrificing their children to these pagan gods (v.17), such that “they were sold to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger (parorgisai auton).” According to 2 Chronicles 35:19c(Greek Translation), even though Josiah made many reforms and sought to enable Israel to serve Yahweh, the sinful actions, particularly of Manasseh, were so grievous that “the Lord did not turn back from the anger of his great wrath with which the Lord was angry with wrath against Ioudas for all the provocations (parorgismata) with which Manasses provoked him to anger (parōrgisen).”
Occasionally we find humans provoked to anger by the sinful actions of others. For example, the Psalmist says that Israel “angered (parōrgisan) Moyses in the camp, Aaron, the holy one of the Lord” (105(106):16). The second century BC writing entitled Ecclesiasticus or Sirach warns people that “Like a blasphemer is the one who neglects a father and cursed by the Lord is everyone who angers (ho parorgizōn) his mother” (3:16).4
The Jewish-Greek writer Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, only used the verb once in his writings. In volume 2 of his treatise on dreams he says that “that if those who live a life of guilt can be rightly said to provoke and anger (parapikrainein kai parorgizen) God, those whose life is laudable may be equally well said to gladden him.”5 Josephus did not use this verb.
In the New Testament only Paul incorporates the verb and the cognate noun into his writings. In Romans 10:19 he used it in a quotation from Deuteronomy 32:21 in which Yahweh promises, in response to Israel’s sinful provocations, to “provoke them (parorgiō) with a nation lacking understanding.” Paul incorporates this text into his argument that Israel knew Yahweh’s plans and Gospel, but failed to respond. As a result Yahweh has acted to “provoke” Israel through action of other peoples. All of the other occurrences are in Ephesians and perhaps Colossians.
In Ephesians 4:26 Paul warns believers “In your anger (orgizesthe) do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry (epi parorgismōi).” The first part of the verse is a quotation from Psalm 4:4. The Psalmist warns his enemies not to let their anger find expression in sinful action against him. Paul seems to apply this in Ephesians 4:25-26 to the faith community. He recognizes that human beings fail and act sinfully, but he urges believers not to let these irritations make them so angry as to act sinfully. Resolve the issues, as necessary, as speedily as possible. The second part of the verse may reflect a proverbial saying. It serves to encourage believers to deal quickly with sinful actions of other people that are so irritating and provocative that they require a response. It is important here to note that the provocations to anger generally result from the sinful activity of other people, except of course when Yahweh is the one doing the provoking.
Paul used the corresponding verb in Ephesians 6:4 to counsel fathers in their actions and attitudes towards their children (i.e. whether maturing or mature). “Do not provoke your children to anger.”6 Given the usage of this verb in the Greek Old Testament and Paul’s use of the cognate noun in 4:26, I would suggest that the issue here is not so much the angry response of fathers to the behavior of their children. Rather, I would suggest that it is the sinful behavior and attitudes of the fathers that Paul is concerned about, lest it provoke their children to angry and sinful actions. Each of the household participants that Paul addresses in Ephesians 5-6 are the ones required to control their behaviour such that they do not sin. The case with fathers is the same. Note that the second part of Ephesians 6:4 is another command to the fathers indicating how in fact they are to interact with their children for good. I think then that Paul is warning fathers to control their sinful behaviour lest their sins provoke angry, harmful developments in their children.
The other text is Colossians 3:21. The interpretation of this text is a little more complicated because we are not sure whether Paul wrote “Fathers, do not provoke (parorgizete) your children to anger”7 or “Fathers, do not embitter (erethizete ) your children.”8 Some regard these two Greek verbs as virtually synonymous. If this is the case, then we should not get too exercised about the different textual readings in the tradition. However, if the meaning of erethizein is more in the realm of being contentious, being quarrelsome, rousing to rivalry or causing resentment, i.e. provocative in a contentious or quarrelsome way, then its occurrence as an alternative reading in Colossians 3:21 needs to be considered more carefully. The earliest textual witness we have for Colossians 3:21, the third century AD papyrus 46 apparently reads erethizete, as does Codex Vaticanus, a rather strong combination of textual witnesses. It is possible that the parallel text in Ephesians 6:4 has influenced the textual tradition in Colossians 3:21. Or alternatively, the rather unusual, original verb parorgizete was explained in marginal note as the equivalent of the more common verb erethizete, which at some point a scribe used to replace parorgizete in copying his text. I think the evidence indicates that Paul varied his lexical choice in Colossians and that this is a significant alternation.
Paul used erethizein9 in one other context (2 Corinthians 9:2) with a positive sense. He is congratulating the believers in Corinth for their generous support of his fund-raising for the impoverished believers in Jerusalem. He uses their example of generosity to “provoke” in a good way believers in other parts of Greece to demonstrate similar generosity. “Your enthusiasm has stirred (ērethisen) most of them to action.” He encourages some friendly rivalry in giving.
It is interesting to note that in the Greek translation of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 Moses deals with the case of a disobedient and contentious (erethistēs) son. He instructs the parents to work hard to train and discipline their son. However, if “he does not listen to them,” then they are to bring the son to the city elders. They will charge him in this way: “This son of ours is disobedient and contentious (erethizei). He does not obey our voice. Being disposed to feasting, he is a drunkard.” The response of the elders to these charges is to stone the son to death.
Now Paul in Colossians 3:21 does not blame the children for being contentious, but rather the Christian fathers who by their actions are being contentious and quarrelsome with their own children. Whether in the case of these fathers feasting and drunkenness are the cause of their contentious spirit, Paul does not say. However, he notes that the contentious behaviour of these fathers puts at risk the desire of their children passionately to embrace and contend for the Gospel. Earlier in Colossians 3:19 Paul exhorts Christian husbands not to be harsh with or make (pikrainesthe) their wives embittered. As well, in their role as “slave masters” (Colossians 4:1; kurioi) they are to “provide the slaves with what is right and fair,” or as Paul says in Ephesians 6:9 “not threatening them.” We see a pattern of responsibility being placed upon Christian male leaders in the household to act towards women, children and slaves, who are part of the household, in ways that will encourage a positive response to Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
Within Christian understanding controlling one’s own behaviour lest it have harmful consequences for others is a major ethical theme. It is an implication of “loving one’s neighbor.” Paul applies this principle to the responsibility that fathers have to control their own conduct so that they can, through their words and actions, nurture their children in and encourage them to follow the good ways of God.
- Fathers – what aspects of your conduct provoke your children to act in angry, harmful ways? Is the Christian well-being of your children sufficient motive to urge you to repent and with the Holy Spirit’s help change your ways?
- The parent-child relationship often is marred by contentiousness and quarrels. Paul puts the onus on the parents to control their human tendency to bicker and argue or to define these relationships in contentious ways. What Christian parent would desire to bear the blame for discouraging their children from embracing the Gospel?
- 1New Revised Standard Version.
- 2New International Version (1984). The translation of this verb in Ephesians 6:4 in other English translations tends to be “provoke” or “provoke to anger” or “irritate.” In the case of Colossians 3:21 a significant textual tradition reads parorgizete, with the result that it is the same as the Ephesians 6:4 text. However, the NIV opts for the reading erethizete as original.
- 3Translations from the Greek Old Testament are from A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS).
- 4See Sirach 4:2,3 for other examples of human action provoking other humans to angry action.
- 5 Philo, De Somniis 2.177.
- 6The NIV translates “exasperate” but I think the English Standard Version is wiser in its translation which enables the reader to see to the connection with Ephesians 4:26.
- 7The New American Standard Bible and English Standard Version used this text and translation.
- 8The NIV used this text and translation.
- 9The corresponding noun eris, which means “rivalry, contentiousness, quarrel” occurs many times throughout Paul’s letters. For example, in his introduction to 1 Corinthians Paul notes that “there are quarrels (erides) among you” (1:11).