God's True Character: Exodus 34:6–7

 Who is God, or more specifically, Yahweh—God as defined and worshiped in the canon of the Bible?

Our instincts may lead us to the New Testament—the revelation of Jesus Christ. But how did the Hebrews (and later the Jews) understand who God was?


We hear of the supposed dichotomy between the “God of the Old Testament”—wrathful, punishing, and selective and the “God of the New Testament”—loving, merciful, and inclusive

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Yet one of the most important, if not the most important, thesis statements about God’s character in the entire Bible is found in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible/Tanakh). Its the most quoted verse within the Old Testament, Exodus 34:6–7:

“Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”


This verse clearly represents the two opposing but complementary parts of God’s nature, his mercy AND his judgment. The Gospel truths are evident in whom God revealed himself to be long before Christ's incarnation (but not fully blossomed until that point).The Yahwistic worshippers and the exilic Jews both had a valid recognition of Yahweh’s character.

© The Bible Project

Mercy and Judgement

In Exodus 34:6–7, we see the dual aspects of God’s personality: his mercy and his judgment.

He Describes Himself

In the first part of Yahweh’s declaration to Moses, he focuses on his character pertaining to himself,
“[I am] merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness. . .” (6).

 God first says that is merciful and gracious. The word for merciful can also be translated as “compassionate,” while “slow to anger” refers to a slow countenance or a “long nose”1(anthropomorphically speaking, God holds back facial expressions indicating anger; he does not display his anger quickly). The Hebrew word for “steadfast love” (which he abounds, or overflows in) is hesed, referring to the long-lasting fidelity of God’s covenant love with Israel. 

Not only does the Lord proclaim to Moses who he is in himself, but he proclaims how he relates to people.

 Relates to People: In Kindness

First, Yahweh describes how he deals with people in kindness, 
“keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity2 and transgression and sin. . .” (7a)

 As Yahweh’s committed and faithful love overflows in his personhood, he maintains it towards “thousands”, a figurative way of saying “to many people”—as his hesed abounds in himself, it abounds outward to innumerous multitudes. As we will see with God’s justice, this statement is an inversion of Exodus 20:5–6 (from the Ten Commandments, speaking about idolatry),

“Showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (20: 6)

 While God maintains his commitment to those who love and honor him, he also offers forgiveness2 for “iniquity and transgression and sin.”  Here we see an early expression of God’s grace. His abounding, steadfast love is aimed at those who love him—the love is mutual.

Relates to People: In Justice

Contrast this with how he deals with people in justice,

“. . .But who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (7a)

Notice 7a says God “forgiv[es] iniquity”, whereas here he “visit[s] iniquity”. These two parts are parallel, God forgives sin of all kinds—an extremely gracious act. Yet, it's clear that he is just. His forgiveness of sin does not invalidate his punishment of sin. God does not mercilessly punish sinners nor does he ignore their sin.
Looking back to Exodus 20:5, we see that God is specifically referring to punishing the sins of those who hate him:
“I Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” 
In Exodus 20:6, God says he carries on his committed love to those who love him. In verse 5, he punishes those who hate him. These categories clarify Exodus 34:6–7: God’s dealings with people relate more to their heart attitudes towards him than to their mishaps. He is unlike the gods of other nations who smite for every mishap but also turn a blind eye to egregious evil. 

The last contrast to notice is that he maintains his love to thousands while punishing the third and fourth generation of sinners. The point here is that God’s love to the obedient, far outweighs his wrath towards the disobedient. The obedience receive unlimited blessing, the disobedient receive particular punishment. 

The Context


What prompted such a character statement?

This verse, while rightfully revered in its singularity, is intricately wrapped in the surrounding story.

Moses had led the Israelites, under God’s guidance, out of Egypt and to Mount Sinai. There he received God’s law, specifically the Ten Commandments. While Moses was separated from the Israelites on Mount Sinai for an extended period of time, the people doubted that he would return. So, the Israelites decided to create an object of worship, the Golden Calf, and sought it as their new source of divine guidance. 
This angered Yahweh and he wanted to punish Israel, but Moses interceded and God abated the worst of his wrath to destroy Israel. However, the Lord informed Moses that he would not guide Israel with his presence like he did on the trip to Mount Sinai.

“I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Exo. 33:2–3

This startled Moses and he asked God, “Please, send your presence with us” and Yahweh agreed to do so—demonstrating both his wrath and his compassion. 

Moses then asked to see God’s glory, his raw glory; Yahweh said, 
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, ‘Yahweh.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But, you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (33:20)

Conclusion

As God declares Exodus 34:6–7 to Moses, he must physically shield Moses from his presence behind a rock, however, this statement assures Moses and all of Israel that his presence is with them. While the Israelites had forsaken God’s plan and abandoned their leader, Yahweh still chooses to send his presence with them. He threatened to remove his presence in his wrath, but then chose to accompany them in a compassionate way: both the mercy and justice of God are on full display from the get-go.

When you think about the Lord, how do you conceive of him? A God of Justice? A God of Mercy? Or is there a sense of both? Why is it important for us to remember both parts of his character?—focus on one but not the other is a less than complete understanding of who God is. He makes it one-hundred percent clear who he is.

In the future, we'll explore instances in which this verse is quoted throughout the Old Testament and how it informed the Israelites' understanding of God in various situations (and how we can apply this in our own situations). This passage rivals the shema (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) in its importance to the Hebrew people.

Citations

1. The Compassionate But Punishing God, Nathan C. Lane, p. 28.  A doctoral dissertation adapted into a monograph which traces allusions to the verse throughout the Old Testament. This book focuses on a historical-critical methodology rather than a historical-grammatical exegesis (full disclosure: I did not read the entirety of the book prior to publishing this post).

2. Literally, “carries away” (Lane, 29)

3. The Naked Bible Podcast, "Exodus 33–34", Michael Heiser. Highly recommended podcast by a thorough and solidly evangelical scholar. 

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