The Lord’s Long Nostrils

Do you read the Bible literally? It’s a question that arises frequently when people discover I am an ordained minister. It’s a more polite way of asking, “Are you a fundamentalist I need to be worried about?” Sometimes the question comes from fellow Christians who want to know whether to accept me as one of their own or dismiss me as a member of some wayward progressive faction of the church.

The question, however, is terribly flawed because it does not recognize the Bible’s complexity as a collection of 66 books, written by dozens of authors, over thousands of years, from different cultures, and spanning many different genres. Therefore, each part needs its own set of interpretive rules. As a scholar once told me, “You should read the literal parts of the Bible literally, and the figurative parts figuratively. Recognizing the difference is the hard part.”

The passage in Exodus 34 where YHWH declares his name and character to Moses is a perfect example. After identifying himself as “gracious and compassionate,” the Hebrew text says YHWH is “long in nostril.” If we read this literally, we must conclude that the Lord has a large nose with cavernous nasal passages like a celestial Cyrano de Bergerac. This is, of course, ridiculous. This text must read literarily not literally.

“Long in nostril” is a Hebrew figure of speech that appears to mean long-suffering or patient. By examining other biblical texts, as well as writings from outside the Bible, scholars have been able to see a link between nostrils and anger in Hebrew literature. For example, earlier in Exodus 15:8, God’s people were able to pass when the waters of the sea were parted by a blast from YHWH’s nostrils, and Psalm 18 equates God’s anger with a “blast of breath from your nostrils.”

This language draws to mind an angry animal snorting as it bears its teeth or a bull about to charge. This is precisely the opposite of God’s character. As theologian George A. F. Knight says, for YHWH to be “long in nostril” means “it takes a long time for the snort of anger to come through God’s nose.” This doesn’t mean the Lord never expresses anger. He certainly does. But he is exceedingly patient and is not easily provoked. To employ an English idiom, also not to be taken literally, the Lord does not fly off the handle.

What have you been taught about God’s anger? Has the emphasis been upon his wrath or his patience? Do you believe in a Lord of long nostrils, or one with a short fuse?

Exodus 15:1-11
Psalm 18:13-15
Exodus 34:5-8

from Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022)

Come, true light. Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery...Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding. Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raised of the fallen. Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly you create...
Come, for your name fills our hearts with longing and is ever on our lips...
Come, for you are yourself the desire that is within me.
Come, the consolation of my humble soul.
Come, my joy, my endless delight.


The Lord’s Long Nostrils