Many people today have strong reactions to the texts in the Old Testament that depict God acting violently by commanding his people to kill men, women, and children, by exacting vengeance against his enemies, and by bringing severe judgment upon people who fail to obey his commandments. According to Freeman (1995: 6), people who present the God of ancient Israel as a projection of savagery, see him as “a god of brutality and bloodshed, of violence and vengeance; capricious with his favorites, vicious toward his foes, insatiable in his demands for human sacrifice, ungovernable in his outbreaks of petulant wrath.”
In his book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, Gregory Boyd studies these acts of divine violence in light of the cross. Boyd emphasizes that texts depicting a violent God are not accurate representations of God. These texts show that God is willing to allow fallen and culturally conditioned sinners to do to him what they did to Christ on the cross. Boyd wrote, “portraits of God commanding or engaging in violence were literary crucifixes, mirroring the sin of God’s people that God humbly stooped to bear” (Boyd 2017: 548).
Boyd’s book is all about the character of the God of the Old Testament. However, the Old Testament God who appears in Boyd’s book resembles the God of the Old Testament Terence Fretheim described in the introduction to his book on The Suffering of God. Fretheim wrote: “The God of the OT is commonly pictured in the teaching of the church as primarily a God of judgment and wrath, an ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ kind of God, who is often vindictive and punitive, seldom gracious and compassionate.” Boyd’s God is the kind of God who “is believed to need correction in the light of the coming of Christ” (1984: xv).
In discussing the character of God, Boyd wrote, “the cross fully reveals God’s true character” (2017: 651). I argue that on the basis of God’s revelation of his nature to Moses that what we find on the cross is the full and personal revelation of God’s true character, the same character that was revealed in the Old Testament. The difference between how God revealed himself in Christ and the way God revealed himself to the people of Israel has to do with God’s way of reconciling people unto himself. Paul said that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But God was trying to reconcile the world unto himself thousands of years before Abraham.
Boyd wrote that “we must ground all our thinking about God from start to finish in the revelation of God in the crucified Christ as witnessed to in Scripture” (2017:667). However, we must not deny that the Old Testament reveals true aspects of the nature of God. And these revelations of the character of God helped the people of Israel develop their relationship with God. And I argue that it is the revelation of God’s character to Moses on Mount Sinai that can help us to truly understand the problem of divine violence in the Old Testament.
This post and the ones that follow are not a review of Boyd’s book. A review would entail a discussion of many of the issues he addresses in his book. Rather, this series of study will focus on Boyd’s view of the character of God. Specifically, these studies will focus on one aspect of the character of God that Boyd has touched lightly in his book.
When God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, God told Moses what kind of God he was. On that occasion, the Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). In this majestic theophany on Mount Sinai, Yahweh appears before Moses and made all his goodness pass before him (Exodus 33:19) and revealed to him what kind of God he was, a God compassionate and gracious; a patient God and of much compassion, a God abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
What God says about himself is the basis for our understanding of who God is and what kind of God God is. In describing to Moses what kind of God he is, God stressed not only his mercy and compassion, his willingness to forgive iniquity and transgression and sin, but also his justice. As a just God, he does not leave the guilty unpunished. So significant was the revelation of these divine characteristics to Moses that these aspects of the divine character are mentioned on several other occasions in the Old Testament (Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 86:15, 103:8, 145:8, Jeremiah 32:19, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, Nahum 1:2-3).
God’s revelation of his divine character to Moses came after the covenant between God and Israel was broken because of the people’s idolatry. After Moses had declared the Decalogue to the people of Israel, he went up to Mount Sinai to meet with God to receive the statutes and commandments of the Lord. When the people saw that Moses was delayed on the mountain, they believed that he was dead. They immediately turned to Aaron and asked him to make a god for them and as a result the people worshiped a golden calf, which was a violation of the covenantal agreement between God and the people.
Moses understood that God was about to punish the people because of their idolatry. Moses prayed and interceded on behalf of Israel, asking God to have mercy on the people. In response to Moses’ prayer, “Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). When Yahweh assured Moses that he would go with the people on their journey to the land of Canaan, Moses asked God to show him his glory. In response, God said to Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘Yahweh’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19).
What God revealed to Moses was his true character and nature, “all his goodness,” what kind of God he was. Yahweh revealed to Moses several aspects of his character, the basic aspects of the divine nature Moses and the people of Israel should know about their God.
Yahweh is a merciful God. Mercy embodies the nature and character of God. The Hebrew word rāḥam can be translated “to love deeply; to have mercy, to be compassionate.” English translations translate ʼēl raḥûm as “a God merciful,” “a God compassionate,” and “God of tenderness.” The word is related to the Hebrew word for womb and it is used to describe a mother’s love for her child. The Hebrew word raḥûm is frequently used of God to express his relationship with Israel. The word is used to express God’s deep, tender love and his mercy and forgiveness toward his people in the face of deserved judgment.
Yahweh is a gracious God. The Hebrew word ḥannûm means to be gracious, to have pity, to show favor. This word occurs thirteen times in the Hebrew Bible, eleven times in combination with the word raḥûm, the Hebrew word for merciful, compassionate. In the Hebrew Bible all occurrences of the word ḥannûm refer to God. This word describes the gracious acts of Yahweh.
Yahweh is a God who is slow to anger. The declaration that God is “slow to anger” is the English translation of a Hebrew idiomatic expression which literal means “long nose.” Although the God of the Old Testament is known as a God of wrath and anger, the declaration that God is “slow to anger” indicates that divine anger is surpassed by God’s patience and long-suffering.
Yahweh is a God who abounds in steadfast love. The word translated as “steadfast love” in Hebrew is ḥesed. This word is difficult to translate into English because it is used in different contexts in the Hebrew Bible. Because the word ḥesed contains so many shades of meaning, Routledge (2008: 110) says that the word is used to express how God responds to his people. The word ḥesed is “his continued faithfulness and love toward them; his commitment to act in accordance with the covenant relationship, and, in bearing with their failure, his commitment to seek the continuation of the relationship in the face of all that threatens it.”
Ḥesed is the primary word used in the Hebrew Bible to express God’s love for the people of Israel. When the Bible talks about God’s ḥesed, the use of the word ḥesed is based on the covenantal relationship God had with Israel. In this context the word means “faithful love, fidelity, everlasting love.” The association of ḥesed with divine mercy means that, as Freedman said (1995: 12), when correctly interpreted, ḥesed in the Hebrew Bible corresponds “in importance and general meaning” to the word agape in the New Testament.
Yahweh is a God who abounds in faithfulness. The Hebrew word ʼĕmet means faithfulness, fidelity. When the word is applied to God, the word is used to express God’s faithfulness and dependability. In addition to express the kind of God God is, the word also describes his works: “all his work is done in faithfulness” (Psalm 33:4).
Yahweh is a God who keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation. The Hebrew text says that God’s ḥesed, his faithful love is extended to one thousand generations. This means that God’s steadfast love has no limits. He remains faithful, always showing his grace and compassion to Israel from generation to generation.
Yahweh is a God who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. The Hebrew text uses three different words to express human sin. The Hebrew word ʽāwōn means iniquity, guilt. The word refers to an action that deserves punishment. The word peshaʽ means to rebel, to transgress, to revolt. The word is generally used to refer to a rebellion against God’s authority. The word ḥāṭāʼ means sin, to miss the way. The word is used to emphasize that people are missing the moral and spiritual standards God has established for them.
The Hebrew word translated “forgive” is nāśāʼ. The word means “to lift up, to bear, to carry.” When the word is applied to God forgiving sins, the word indicates that God forgives human sins by bearing the sins of the people upon himself (Freedman 1999:34).
This is the gracious and merciful God who revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. But, when people read the Bible and study the character and nature of God, they have a hard time understanding the reason God visits “the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). This statement about intergenerational punishment appears in four different texts in the Old Testament: Exodus 20:5; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18-19; Deuteronomy 5:9-10.
The question many Christians and non-Christians ask is how can a merciful and gracious God punish the sins of the fathers by punishing their children, grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren?
To answer these questions, it becomes necessary to study the four texts that discuss the problem of intergenerational punishment: Exodus 20:5; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18-19; and Deuteronomy 5:9-10. The statement about intergenerational punishment in these four texts is almost identical, indicating that it was a conventionalized statement intended to express one aspect of divine justice. These four texts have gone through a long process of transmission which will not be discussed in these series of posts. Rather, the studies of these four texts will follow the historical sequence as they appear in the canon. Such an approach will provide the proper background for the application of the statement and how it changed during the many centuries of the history of Israel.
Sakenfeld (1975: 317) has shown that God’s revelation of his character to Moses as a merciful and gracious God and as a God who does not clear the guilty (Exodus 34:6-7) is the key to understanding the tension between Israel’s “deserved destruction (for disobedience of covenant stipulations) and her ongoing existence as a community under Yahweh.” When studied in its historical, sociological, and theological contexts, the statement about intergenerational punishment will reveal that the God of the Old Testament is not an unjust God, a God whose wrath cannot be contained. Rather, a careful study of these texts reveals, as Rodney Duke has expressed, “not the immorality of God, but the amazing faithfulness of God, a God who acts not only rationally and justly, but primarily mercifully” (2015: 347).
In his book Boyd lists all four texts that mention intergenerational punishment. However, he only discusses two of them. In discussing Exodus 34:6-7, Boyd says that the revelation of God’s character to Moses on Mount Sinai is “the normative conception of Yahweh” in the Old Testament. He wrote (2017; 282): “A clear expression of the normative conception of Yahweh in the OT is Moses’s confession that Yahweh is a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exod 34:6–7). The fact that this confession is so frequently repeated throughout the OT and is found in every section of the OT arguably indicates that it came to be viewed as the normative revelation of Yahweh in ancient Israel.” In citing God’s revelation of his nature and character to Moses, Boyd deliberately omitted the last clause of the confession which reads: “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7).
Explaining the reason for his omission of the multi-generational punishment, Boyd wrote: “Some readers may have noticed that I ended the quotation of Exod 34:6–7 without adding the final sentence about Yahweh not leaving the “guilty unpunished” and his punishing of “children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” I omitted this phrase not because of the contemporary sentimental distaste for reflecting on the judgment of God, as this chapter will make abundantly clear. I rather omitted the last clause because, with one exception, this clause is omitted in all other references to this confession” (page 282, note 6).
According to Boyd, one reason for the omission of the declaration that God visits the guilt of the fathers onto their children is because “Ezekiel would later explicitly repudiate the idea of God punishing children for their parents’ sins (Ezekiel 18, cf. 33:10–20).” However, what Boyd does not mention is that between the time God revealed himself to Moses and the time Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon, more than six hundred years had passed. In six hundred years things, people, and even God change. God does not change in his nature and character. He is always a compassionate and merciful God. God’s love never changes. What changes is the way God deals with people. The Old Testament reveals that God is impacted by what people do. God answers prayers, changes his plans when people repent, and changes his mind in light of the decisions people make.
Boyd also fails to acknowledge that in the seventh century BCE, the prophet Nahum used the formula that speaks about Yahweh not clearing the guilty: “The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3). Another use of the statement on intergenerational punishment in the seventh century comes in the reaffirmation of the words of the Decalogue by the writers of the Deuteronomic History: “you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Deuteronomy 5:9).
Even Jeremiah, a prophet who ministered in the last days of the Southern Kingdom, knew Yahweh to be a God who visits the guilt of the fathers upon their children after them: “You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the LORD of hosts” (Jeremiah 32:18). In this text, Jeremiah links retribution of the guilt of the fathers on their sons. Thus, as late as the seventh century, the statement that Boyd eliminates from what Yahweh says about himself, was still being used and quoted by the religious community of Israel. If the intergenerational punishment statement was known and repeated this late in Israel, then the change did not occur prior to Jeremiah, as Boyd seems to suggest.
Boyd refers to Exodus 20:5 when discussing a passage in Hosea where the prophet says that God ignores children: “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children” (Hosea 4:6 NIV). Boyd then explains why Hosea said that God ignores children: “While the imagery of God ignoring children for what their parents did certainly reflects Hosea’s pre-Christian conception of God, the organic connection between offenses and punishment in this passage is nevertheless clear” (2017: 838). He then makes an indirect reference to Exodus 20:5: “Ezekiel specifically taught that children are never punished for their parent’s sin (Ezekiel 18). This insight arguably corrects the earlier Israelite conception of Yahweh ‘punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation (Exod 20:5).’”
The statement mentioned above, that “Ezekiel specifically taught that children are never punished for their parent’s sin (Ezekiel 18),” is not correct. In a future post I will discuss Ezekiel’s view on individual responsibility and explain the reason Boyd’s statement is not correct.
In his study of trans-generational punishment in the Hebrew Bible, Wénin (2007: 67-77) questions whether in the statement “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5), punishment by violence or death is the first and only possible meaning. Since the verb pāqad should be translated as “visit” and not as “punish,” he says that it is possible that the statement may refer to a God who comes to see that the fathers’ sin has consequences on the sons for several generations, that is, what a father may know in his lifetime what will happen to his children because of his sin, and that constitutes his punishment.
In his declaration to Moses, God reveals himself as a God who forgives and as a God who punishes. When God forgives, he is showing the compassionate side of his character. When God judges, he does so as a righteous judge who must uphold the moral order which he has set in creation, promote good, and restrain evil in the world. As Freedman puts it, “The basic purpose of judgment is to render a verdict of right or wrong, guilty or innocent. God does not declare the guilty innocent, nor the innocent guilty, under any circumstances. Following a verdict of guilty (the usual one in the biblical story of God and Israel), the normal procedure is to impose penalties in accordance with the nature and gravity of the crime. Emphatically, the wages of sin is death.”
In my next post I will study the intergenerational punishment statement in the second commandment (Exodus 20:5-6) and what happens to children when their parents sin.
NEXT: “Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 3: Exodus 20:5-6.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Boyd, Gregory A. Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. 2 Vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Duke, Rodney K. “‘Visiting the Guilt of the Fathers on the Children’: Is God Immoral? The Evangelical Quarterly 87 (2015): 347-365.
Freedman, David Noel, “God Compassionate and Gracious,” Western Watch 6 (1995): 6-24.
Freedman, David Noel, “nāśā,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Pages 24-40. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
Routledge, Robin, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.
Sakenfeld, Katharine D. “The Problem of Divine Forgiveness in Numbers 14.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37 (1975): 317-30.
Wénin, André. “Dieu qui visite la faute des pères sur les fils” (Ex 20,5): En marge d’un livre récent de B. M. Levinson.” Revue théologique de Louvain 38 (2007): 67-77.