On Exodus 34:6-7

In the Old Testament, God engages rarely in self-description, preferring to let divine actions speak more loudly than descriptive words about God’s character. At Sinai, however, God makes an exception and makes this fundamental disclosure to Moses. “Yhwh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and filled with loving devotion and faithfulness. Who continues in passionate devotion for a thousand generations. Who bears with iniquity, rebellion, and sin, but never overlooks it. Who visits parents’ iniquity on their children’s children, as far as the third generation.” (Exodus 34:6b-7)

Many Christian commentators are drawn to the explanatory statements about sin, which function rhetorically to set God’s judgment of sin (“the third generation) over against the enormous expansiveness of God’s great love (“a thousand generations”). Israel, however, understood the main sentence to be the quintessential expression of God’s divine nature. The declaration that Yhwh is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving devotion reverberates through Israel’s narrative, prophetic literature, and psalms. Compassion and grace convey divine kindness, while loving devotion and faithfulness express unrelenting commitment to relationship. Together, the four terms express this core truth: God is for you. Unequivocally. Actively. Resolutely. Without fail and at all times.

In its time, this confession emphatically distinguished Israel’s God from the deities of the surrounding nations, who were notoriously fickle and given to unpredictable fits of anger. These were gods to be feared, and relating to them was largely a matter of trying to stay on their good sides. Israel’s testimony, however, consistently affirmed that Yhwh’s anger was kindled slowly and, with few exceptions, only in response to willful and persistent breaking of the covenant relationship, through idolatry, disrespect, and oppression of the powerless. Yhwh’s momentary anger was an expression, in the negative, of Yhwh’s commitment to the relationship, and it paled in comparison to Yhwh’s unbreakable “for you” love.

This is an understanding of God that has little in common with the stern and aloof God of some contemporary theological formulations. The aloof God is a demanding God, quick to anger, and full of judgment and retribution. This is a God who defines people by their sins and who is hypervigilant to punish any affront to his divine sovereignty. This is a God who is to be feared. This is the God who is being rejected by droves of former believers, who want no part in a faith that defines itself more by what it is against than by what it is for. Who seek a relationship with God but see instead churches intent on maintaining and restoring the rules. And who might yet might be persuaded by Christians who emulate the Crucified One, who by word and deed said “I am for you,” all the way to the Cross.

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