The Character of God as Seen Through the Liturgical Credo of Exodus 34:6-7

וַיַּעֲבֹ֙ר יְהוָ֥ה׀ עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהוָ֣ה׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃
נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד׀ עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, 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).[1]

NOTE: This study on the character of God was written by Jean Sharp, a student in my course “Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.” For the complete series of studies on the character of God, visit “The Character of God.”

Introduction

While God’s character is testified to by the collective wealth of the Christian scriptures, there is nothing more important in theological studies than God’s revelation of his nature and character in Exodus 34:6-7. In it, God offers evidence of not mere supposition, metaphor, or imagery of what kind of God he is, but a true revelation in a multi-faceted, tactile declaration of God’s presence with a people in a historical space and time.

Additionally, the daunting and humanly-impossible task of describing God is given concession through the witness of God’s own self proclamation. In reviewing Israel’s history, the revelation of God’s character is found in Exodus 34:6-7, a creedal statement on which Israel continually draws. This collective understanding of God’s character is utilized as liturgical stability in times of need and crisis, as well as in times of grateful thanksgiving. Therefore, it is only befitting to examine it as a source for the understanding of the character of God, and therefore God’s continued relationship with God’s covenanted community, the church.

For, if the Israelite community depended liturgically on this credo of the character of God, in sickness and in health, it stands to reason that the relational dynamic between God and humanity retains its liturgical significance for the church today. In order to show this relationship, this paper will examine, in brief, the central passage, Exodus 34:6-7, giving special attention to some key terms utilized in the text.

Following the study of these key terms, the relationship of these terms to their developmental use throughout Israel’s narrative will be shown. And finally, there will be an exploration of the implications for the life of the developing Israelite community, giving special attention to how the texts provided for Israel in their story, and in turn how they can be relevant to the church today.

The Context

Before delving into the particularities of the passage, the first step is to examine the context in which Exodus 34:6-7 is found. In the historical-critical methodology, there is much debate on the placement of this text’s writing and redaction. While the majority of scholars recognize its incongruence with its surrounding text (it comes in the middle of Exodus’ description of building the tabernacle), its rightful explanation is highly debated. Most seem to ascribe it to some type of J or JE strand, while others prefer a redaction or supplemental explanation; still others offer a fainter argument for a Deuteronomic redaction. [2]

For the purposes of this paper, two assumptions will be made. First, the dispute does not afford much clarity on the subject (though wisdom literature seems its most apt partner). Second, scholars agree on the special significance that these verses have on the larger life of Israel.

Its presence at the pivotal culmination of Israel’s redemptive story upholds its worth; the juxtaposition of God’s revelation of his character next to Israel’s recent “golden calf” incident confers upon it the weight of Israel’s future with God. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, its linguistic repetition throughout the Old Testament narrative reveals that it is the culmination of God’s self-revealing character (a more detailed explanation of which will be seen in the study of the terms below).

This then means that the text lends itself as a liturgical credo, emphasized by the wisdom tradition, and utilized in various circumstances as a faithful reflection of YHWH and therefore YHWH’s relationship with Israel. These descriptions of God’s character are aspects of his nature for which God can both be held to and appealed to by those who seek him.

The credo’s placement in the midst of Israel’s primary exodus narrative, whereby Israel’s choice for disobedience over fidelity forced God to address their damaged relationship, is the first indication of its special context. Childs situates the circumstance of the text: “The canonical function of Ex. 32-34 is to place the institutions of Israel’s worship within a framework of sin and forgiveness.” In concordance with Fretheim, this commonly held structure views Exodus 32-34 in the larger unfolding Exodus story of God’s redemption of the Israelites, which is strangely not contingent on their obedience to the law or in fidelity of worship to God.[4]

However, this does not indicate that the people’s disobedience does not affect the God-Israel relationship. Therefore, Moses’ plea in Chapter 32 of forgiveness on behalf of Israel’s disobedience sets the stage for God’s revelation in Chapter 34. How does God respond to the covenant commitment being broken by Israel? Threatening disaster, God relented only by the pleading of Moses, who invoked God’s oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet, God changed the way the relationship is to be continued in the covenant community. God’s presence is no longer resting with them, but God will deal directly with Moses. And in God’s revelation, God is described in both God’s faithfulness and God’s capacity for visiting iniquity on those upon whom God deems worthy of such declaration.

To be continued

NOTES

[1] This and any other Hebrew quotation courtesy of Dr. Claude Mariottini. All other scripture references are from The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), unless otherwise indicated.

[2] . For a summary of particular scholar’s stances and the larger debate with textual explanations, see Robert C. Dentan, “Literary affinities of Exodus 34:6f,” Vetus Testamentum 13, no. 1 (1963): 36-7. or John I. Durham, Exodus: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 450-451, or Jan P. Bosman, “The Paradoxical Presence of Exodus 34:6-7 in the Book of the Twelve,” Scriptura 87 (2004), 236-7.

[3] Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 1st American ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 175. In agreement is: Alphonso Groenewald, “Exodus, Psalms and Hebrews: A God abounding in Steadfast Love,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 64, no. 3 (2008), 1372.

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 20-22.

Other Posts on the Character of God

NOTE: This study on the character of God was written by Jean Sharp, a student in my course “Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.”

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Book of Exodus, God of the Old Testament, Golden Calf, Hebrew God, Moses and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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