This is the sixth post on the character of God based on God’s revelation of himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. The specific focus of these studies is the intergenerational punishment statement in Exodus 34:7, “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.” Each study in this series is based on arguments developed in previous posts. If you have not read parts 1 through 5 of this series, I encourage you to read them before you read the present post. The links are listed below.
This post on Exodus 34:7 is the continuation of the previous post. If you have not read Part 5 yet, I strongly recommend that you do so before reading the present post (see link below).
The Guilty Ones Pay for Their Sins
Yahweh changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring upon his people, however, he did not leave the guilty unpunished. Those who were involved in the worship of the golden calf were held accountable for their transgressions for God forgives iniquity and transgression and sin, yet God by no means clears those who are guilty (Exodus 34:7).
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he “stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, ‘Who is for Yahweh? To me!’ And all the Levites rallied round him. He said to them, ‘Yahweh, God of Israel, says this, Buckle on your sword, each of you, and go up and down the camp from gate to gate, every man of you slaughtering brother, friend and neighbour.’ The Levites did as Moses said, and of the people about three thousand men perished that day” (Exodus 32:26-28 NJB).
Boyd (2017: 310-311) calls the death of the guilty people another example of divinely sanctioned violence with Moses. He wrote,
Yahweh is depicted as ordering the massacre of multitudes of others through his servant Moses. For example, in response to the idolatry of the Israelites while he was on Mount Sinai, Moses reported that Yahweh told him to have each of the Levites “strap a sword to his side.” They were to then “go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and the narrative reports that “about three thousand” people died that day (Exod 32:27–28). Moses congratulated the willingness of the Levites to slaughter “brothers, friends and neighbors,” saying that this “set [them] apart to the Lord.” In the view of the author of this narrative, this ruthless bloodshed of their kin apparently rendered these Levites holy and “blessed” (Exod 32:29).
Boyd is more critical of Moses and God than of those rebellious Israelites who worshiped the image of the golden calf. Moses understood the gravity of what the people had done. This is the reason he offered his life as an atonement for the people’s sin. God refused Moses’ offer; he decided to punish those who had rejected him. The rebellious Israelites who violated the first and second commandments rejected God and deliberately rejected the demands of the covenant. They died because the time of visitation had arrived, “in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them” (Exodus 32:34). They died because they sinned against God, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). They died because God is a holy God whose eyes are too pure to behold evil, a God who cannot look on wickedness with favor (Habakkuk 1:13).
Since all have sinned (Romans 3:23), no one can stand in the presence of God apart from his grace and mercy. Since the worshipers of the golden calf rejected God, they sinned and died according to the stipulations of the second commandment. They could have died of natural causes or old age, but dying of natural causes or old age would not communicate to the community the gravity of their sin. The justice of God was on trial. Since God uses agents to bring justice to rebellious people, God used human agents to carry out divine justice. God is a God of love but also a God of judgment. As Freedman (1950: 17) expressed, “The God who has chosen Israel in love, and delivered it from bondage, must nevertheless sit in judgment over his people. He must deal with sin and rebellion. He may be merciful and ready to forgive, but without repentance on their part, there can be no reconciliation. Responsibility, morality, and judgment cannot be separated from his love. They point to the apparent paradox of a God who can choose and reject, forgive and punish, save and condemn.”
But the whole nation was still guilty before God. On the next day, after the worshipers of the golden calf had died, Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to Yahweh; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30).
So, Moses goes back to God and once again he prayed for the people with a bold prayer. Moses said to God: “But now, please forgive their sin–but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32 NIV). Moses comes before God to make atonement for the sins of the people. He is willing to bear upon himself the sins of the people and he offers his own life to spare the lives of people from the death they deserved.
God Reveals His Character to Moses
But the punishment of Israel was not yet over. God told Moses: “Now go, lead the people to the place I told you about; see, My angel will go before you. But on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin” (Exodus 32:34 HCSB). Yahweh did not consume the people and he did not take away Moses’ life. Instead, Yahweh forgave the people and the punishment they deserved was delayed. Yahweh told Moses, “on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin.” The people were forgiven because of Moses, but eventually they would have to give an account to God for their sins.
Then Yahweh sent a plague on the people, because they had made the image of the calf and had proclaimed that it was the god who had brought them out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:4). The plague was sent because the whole nation was guilty of celebrating a festival to an image whom they identified as their redeemer god.
“Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you’” (Exodus 33:4-5).
It is important to take literally what God told the people. He said to them, “I will decide what to do to you” (Exodus 33:5).
Yahweh had not yet decided what to do with the people who had rebelled against him. The future was open to God because his final decision would be based on what Moses and the people would do in the near future. Since the people had not yet made a decision, God could not decide what to do to Israel.
Since Yahweh had not yet decided what to do with Israel, Moses went back to God and told him, “if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways” (Exodus 33:13). Then Moses said, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:14). In response, Yahweh said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name. 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: 33:17-19).
As a result, Yahweh revealed the true nature of his character to Moses:
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).
This is what Yahweh says about himself: Yahweh is a merciful and gracious God, a God who is slow to anger and a God who abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness. Yahweh is a God who keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation, a God who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.
However, notwithstanding his nature as a merciful and gracious God, Yahweh is also a God who by no means clears the guilty. The punishment of the guilty person may be extended to the third and the fourth generation, but not always. All the people, with the exception of the ones who worshiped the golden calf, were not punished for their sin because Moses interceded for them. In the case of the Ninevites, the whole nation escaped the divine punishment because they repented at the preaching of Jonah. The law says that the sinner must die, but the mercy of God allows them to live.
The Idea of Delayed Punishment
The statement on intergenerational punishment says that the punishment of God upon those who reject him may be postponed until the second, third, or fourth generation. The reason for this delay is, again, the mercy of God for the sinner. Yochanan Muffs wrote: “There is available to the righteous an inexhaustible fund of divine grace which they enjoy, as do their progeny after them for a thousand generations; But God also wants to treat the wicked in a kind fashion. God bears their sins but does not expunge it entirely” (1992: 20).
The Hebrew word for “forgive” is nāsā’. When the word nāsā’ is used together with the words “sins” and “iniquities,” the expression means “to load sin upon oneself,” and “to (have to) bear (the punitive consequences of) one’s guilt.” God forgives the sins of Israel by bearing the people’s sins upon himself. This bearing of sins is a demonstration of God’s grace: “He bears the sin is an expression of grace. The punishment has been delayed, the people have been forgiven, but the forgiveness is not complete” (Muffs 1992: 21).
The idea that God forgives the sinners but does not revoke the punishment is found in the book of Psalms. The psalmist said: “Yahweh our God, you answered them, you were a God of forgiveness to them, but punished them for their sins” (Psalm 99:8 NJB). This text says three things about God:
“Yahweh our God, you answered them” — God is a God of mercy.
“Yahweh, you were a God of forgiveness to them” — God is a God who took upon himself the people’s sins.
“Yahweh, you punished them for their sins” — God is a God who does not clear the guilty.
The concept of delayed punishment is clearly illustrated in the story of Ahab. Ahab was an evil king. The writer of Kings says the following about him: “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him” (1 King 16:30). The prophet Elijah told Ahab that a severe punishment would come upon him and his house because of all his sins. “When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house’” (1 Kings 21:27-29). The sins of Ahab were forgiven because he repented, however, as Muffs wrote (1992: 18), “The repentance saves the sinner. But the sin must still be paid for and expunged.”
Isaiah talks about deferred punishment: “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off” (Isaiah 48:9 ESV). And so did the author of Ecclesiastes: “because the punishment decreed for an evil act is not promptly carried out; therefore people who plan to do evil are strengthened in their intentions” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 CJB).
The concept of deferred punishment is hard for people in the twenty-first century to accept. Muffs talks about modern sensibility: “One might ask how a human being could make peace with such Divine forgiveness. This whole procedure is the height of cruelty—it has nothing to do with mercy, at least according to modern sensibility. This merely goes to show how different the moral sensibilities of the ancients are from our own. Those wicked people whose punishment has been delayed because of their personal repentance or the merit of their fathers think that it is a good thing, even if their children bear the sins of their parents” (1992: 19).
The Wages of Sin
In light of the punishment of those who sinned against God, one might ask, “was the punishment of the evil doers justified?” People criticize God as a violent God because he punished those who sinned against him. Society today has a low view of sin and practically no idea of the holiness of God. If people would believe that sin is a great offense agaisnt God, then there would be no problem in accepting the punishment of the evil doers in Exodus 32:28, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Jesus said: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
Jesus said that those who reject him “are condemned already.” In the mind of some people, these are not words of love. For Jesus to say that people are condemned already because they do not believe could be considered by some an act of violence, but people who reject Jesus will die in their sins because God “by no means clears the guilty” unless they repent and believe. Jesus Christ, our God and Savior (2 Peter 1:1), said to some of the Jewish leaders, “if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24 NJB). For Jesus to impose the death penalty for the act of unbelief could also be considered an act of violence.
But sin is sin and as Paul said, “the wages of sin is death” (Roman 6:23). The people who sinned against God by worshiping the golden calf died, just as Paul said that sinners die because they are sinners—“the wages of sin is death”—and because God “by no means clears the guilty” unless they come to repentance. It does not matter whether they die of natural causes, by the plague, by the hands of their enemies, or by the hand of members of the community who were set apart to execute divine judgment. The three thousand people died because they rejected God and because they were sinners: “the wages of sin is death.”
We may evaluate the punishment of those who sinned against God by considering what Fretheim says about divine punishment: “Moreover, God’s extraordinary patience reveals the length to which God will go for the sake of the future of the relationship. In patience, God goes beyond justice again and again. Judgment is thus never simply a juristic matter, as if measured objectively in terms of an external ordinance. A relationship is at stake, not an agreement or a contract or a set of rules. The judgment that does fall may be in fact entail an ‘eye for an eye’ correspondence, but that comes only on the far side of slowness to anger revealing a fundamental ‘lack of fairness’ on God’s part, if God’s actions are measured in terms of a strict standard of justice. In terms of any straightforward legal thinking, God is too much lenient. But such corresponsive thought is important; for should judgment come, it will be seen to be absolute fair in terms of any human canon of accountability” (1984: 125).
People in the twenty-first century may not accept the way God deals with human sins because God by no means clears the guilty. As God said, “on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin” (Exodus 32:34). God’s way of dealing with sins and iniquities is strange to modern sensibilities, but, as God said, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Dozeman, B. Thomas. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
Ellington, Scott. “Who Shall Lead Them Out? An Exploration of God Openness in Exodus 32:7-14.” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 14 (2005): 41-60.
Freedman, David Noel. “God Compassionate and Gracious.” Western Watch 6 (1958): 6-24.
Fretheim, Terence E. The Suffering of God. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Fretheim, Terence E. “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” Horizon in Biblical Theology 10 (1988): 47-70.
Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.
Muffs, Yochanan. “Who Will Stand in the Breach?: A Study of Prophetic Intercession.” In Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel, Pages 9-48. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992.