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.”
Exodus 34:6-7 is commonly known as a liturgical credo which describes the nature and the character of God. God’s character is described in eight particular adjectives and two statements. A brief study of the meaning of each statement about God and their use in the religious life of Israel is necessary before adjudicating their contextual meaning for Israel’s understanding of God.
The text begins by describing God’s revelation of himself as he passed before Moses. The text is ambiguous about whose voice, either God’s or Moses’, is describing the event. However, for the purpose of this study, it is assumed that God is the one who is speaking, revealing himself to Moses. A unique aspect of God’s revelation to Moses is the double expression of the divine name: YHWH, YHWH.
The Hebrew word rhm and the word hnn, or “gracious,” are often found together, highlighting their complimentary status. Therefore, some of their meanings overlap in their use. In their adjectival form, the words are only ever used in reference to God. The paring of the two words will later become known as the “compassion formula” because of their use in intercessory prayer, especially in regards to the book of Psalms.
The Hebrew word rhm has its roots in the Hebrew word for “womb.” The relationship between the two words draws on motherly love as a metaphor for the understanding of divine compassion. Phyllis Trible suggests that this means “love as selfless participation in life. The womb protects and nourishes but does not possess and control. It yields its treasure in order that wholeness and well-being may happen.”. In other contexts, the word rhm indicates warmth, restoration, free gift, and liberty from sin. But foremost, the word rhm suggests God’s firm, unique favor in spite of sin.]7[
The Hebrew word hnn also points to God’s favor, but additionally has a component quality of beauty. Commonly translated “grace,” “pity,” or “supplication,” the word hnn carries the connotation that it is freely given without need of compensation. God grants hnn to both righteous and sinful people. God gives hnn not out of response to human’s action of faithfulness or lack thereof, but out of God’s inherent character as a graceful and merciful God. Therefore, it is also noted that there is a superior/inferior relationship to the giving of hnn whereby it is bestowed from one who is in a place of high honor to those in a lower position. The notion that God reserves, in God’s innate character, grace out of God’s favor for humanity makes hnn a rich pairing with rhm. This demonstration of grace indicates the disposition of God as parent, provider, and caretaker when the word is often found in passages that includes God’s judgment.
Slow to anger (‘rk ‘ppym)
The expression “slow to anger” is the idiomatic translation of two Hebrew words which mean “long nostrils.” The expression denotes that God’s anger is surpassed by God’s patience. “In Hebrew, the nose is associated with anger, apparently because when a person is angry, his or her face and nose may involuntarily redden and appear to ‘burn’….It is as if He takes a long, deep breath as He deals with sin and holds His anger in abeyance.”
God’s patience is not the absence of anger, for a righteous God is justly angered by sin and disobedience. In fact, in the midst of the Exodus narrative of chapters 32-34, there is exceeding reason for God’s anger—the apostasy of the people of Israel when the people made a golden calf in violation of the demands of the covenant. God’s anger is not absent in this context, nor in other Old Testament contexts where the word appears. In fact, the phrase helps emphasize that God’s patience outlasts or overpowers God’s anger in fidelity to God’s people.
Steadfast love (hsd)
Love is hardly an adequate translation of this Hebrew word, although it is most translated that way in English. The word hsd has a long history in Old Testament studies, and it is filled with a variety of meanings. Paired with verbs meaning strong, steadfast, and unwavering, the word hsd denotes a deep and complex commitment to love. Nelson Glueck’s foundational study on this word notes that as a divine characteristic, the word hsd designates loyalty, mutual aid, and reciprocal love, focusing on the way hsd was an expectation of covenant between God and Israel. Bowen draws on the reciprocal aspect of hsd within the purview of the Hexateuch and translates the word as a term of “loyal kindness.”
Sakenfeld ties the word hsd with circumstances and need, whereby it fills something essential, dictated by a situational superior power to an inferior one, and designates it as binding to a covenantal relationship. However, it is within the covenant relationship that hsd has been found most developed as “devotion.” Clark states that “a deep, enduring, personal commitment to each other is an essential feature of situations in which one human party extends hsd one to another.”
When God is the agent, “it is always in a setting of complexity, dignity, elevation, grandeur, remoteness from ordinary experience, solemnity or sublimity.” As both a characteristic of divine and human relationships, the magnificence of this trait elevates it to the height of morality with expectation of imitation and reciprocity. In the divine self-revelation of Exodus 34:6-7, hsd is declared not once, but twice. It is offered as a divine character trait in its ontology, but furthered as an ongoing trait in relationship with additional generations: “keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation.” The collaborative notion, then, of the word hsd is “related to tenacious fidelity in a relationship, readiness and resolve to continue to be loyal to those to whom one is bound.”
Abounds in faithfulness (‘emeth)
The Hebrew word for faithfulness, or truth, is paired with hsd here, and often elsewhere in the Old Testament. The term is based on the basic ideas of firmness, support, certainty, truth, trusting, upholding, and fidelity. The term indicates a combination of reliability and personal relationship. Only once in the Old Testament is the word “faithful” applied to a human (Nehemiah 7:2). Jepsen argues that the idea is less of an inherent characteristic of God, and more of relational dynamic: YHWH can be counted on to eternally act reliably on YHWH’s word in keeping with YHWH’s relationship with humanity. YHWH’s word is the stability and faithful witness to truth. It is God, then, on whom all truth is based. Therefore, it is in God’s faithfulness and committed love that the next description of God finds full meaning.
Forgives (ns’) iniquity, transgression, and sin (‘wn, ps’, ht’)
In the final statement (of the first section of the text), the word ns’ denotes a “lifting, or carrying of” iniquity, transgression, and sin. Most of the times, the word is translated as “forgive.” The following three words refer to wrongdoing. While all three words refer to offenses, there are a few distinctions articulated well by Laney,
The first word, “iniquity”, refers to an action that involved crooked behavior, a turning away from the straight and narrow way. The second word, “transgressions”, refers to a breach of relationships, civil or religious, between two parties….In a religious sense it refers to a rebellion against God’s authority…The third word, “sin”, is related to the verb, “to miss the way.” Missing God’s standards or failing to fulfill His requirements constitutes an act of sin.
The variety of ways that wrongdoing is illustrated by these words exemplifies to a minuscule degree the number of ways human beings choose to disobey and move away from a relationship with God. It is significant, then, that YHWH extends, in YHWH’s own character, the “bearing,” or “lifting” of trespasses against the relationship. This reveals a God who both knows humanity and is dedicated to a reconciled relationship.
Yet, the text goes on to declare that YHWH “will surely not acquit (nqh) the guilty,” but “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” In other words, God will not remove (from those who are guilty) the natural consequences of their sins. God’s mercy extends to those in relationship with him. But, with parental compassion, YHWH’s children will be subject to the pain they have caused in the world, to themselves and to others—so much so that it will have consequences not only for themselves, but also for their children and their children’s children.
To Be Continued: The Character of God – Part 3
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
NOTE: Did you like this post? Do you think other people would like to read this post? Be sure to share this post on Facebook and share a link on Twitter or Tumblr so that others may enjoy reading it too!
I would love to hear from you! Let me know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like my page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, follow me on Tumblr, Facebook, and subscribe to my blog to receive each post by email.
If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of topics.
 Moberly makes a case for YHWH as speaker using context-setting foundations, and Dentan argues from literary grounds that the worshiper makes the assertions about God. See R. W. L. Moberly, “How May We Speak of God?: A Reconsideration of the Nature of Biblical Theology,” Tyndale Bulletin 53, no. 2 (2002): 177-202. See also At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32-34, ed. David J. A. Clines, Philip R. Davies, and David M. Gunn (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983), 86; Robert C. Dentan, “Literary Affinities of Exodus 34:6f,” Vetus Testamentum 13, no. 1 (1963): 37.
 This is such a rarity in the Hebrew Bible that the Septuagint (LXX) omitted the second YHWH in its translation. The significance of the repetition is speculative.
 There exists one exception of the use of “hannûn,” where in Psalm 112:4 the word does not refer to God but to a human being.
 Horacio Simian-Yofre, “rhm,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 13:449.
 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Overtures to Biblical Theology Series (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 33.
 Mike Butterworth, “̛ēl rahûm,”” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3:1093-1095. See also Simian-Yofre, op. cit., 13:437-452.
 Simian-Yofre, op. cit., 13: 452.
 Terence E. Fretheim, “hannûn,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, Ed. by Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 2:203.
 Fretheim, op. cit., 2:203-206.
 Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology: Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 242.
 Edwin Yamauchi, “hnn” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 1:302-4.
 J. Carl Laney, “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001): 45-6.
 Gordon R. Clark, The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible, ed. David J.A. Clines and Philip R. Davies (Sheffield: JSOT,1993), 16-24.
 Clark provides a good synopsis of the views presented by Glueck, Bowen, and Sakenfeld from which I have drawn for my argument below. For their studies on hsd see: Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, ed. Eleas L. Epstein, trans. Alfred Gottschalk (Cincinatti: Hebrew Union College, 1967); Boone M. Bowen, “A Study of CHESED” (Ph. D. diss., Yale University, 1938); K. D. Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978).
 Clark, op. cit., 16-224.
 Clark, op. cit., 259.
 Clark, op. cit., 261.
 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 217.
 Jack B. Scott, “‘emet,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 1: 51-53.
 Alfred Jepsen, “‘emet,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 1: 311.
 Ibid, 1: 313.
 Laney, op. cit., 49.