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.”
The Intergenerational Punishment Statement
The second section of YHWH’s revelation of his character to Moses (Exodus 34:7b) is seen as a dichotomous presentation of a just God. In the first half of the statement about YHWH’s character (Exodus 34:6-7a), YHWH’s attributes are pleasant and desirable—compassion, mercy, grace, patience, love, faithfulness, and forgiveness. In the second half, the attributes are unattractive—repercussions and punishment. The question is then, are these traits, in fact, dichotomous, or are they complimentary?
David Noel Freedman argues in his article “God Compassionate and Gracious,” that the underlying assumption of the Israelite people was that YHWH’s condemnation of sin and the punishment of the sinner was the natural and gracious response of a God who held the universe in order and in perfect justice.
God could not be good/right unless God punished evil/wrong. Freedman articulates, that in the Ancient Near East hierarchy of relationships on which the covenant draws (Suzerain/vassal, King/servant, and Husband/wife), inherent in the duality of the relationship was the exchange of kindness and love, enunciated by responsibility on the part of the superior/initiator. Therefore, God always retained the responsibility of holding both gracious love and mercy as well judgment in his relationship with Israel merely because God was the author of their relationship. Israel expected both love (which to our modern ears may not be quickly associated with the aforementioned relationship) and limitations.
Freedman further shows that the people of Israel had accountability in this relationship to which they could be held answerable. And since the idea of personhood in Israel was constructed both as corporate and individual, the punishment could be extended in that way as well. In Israel, the individual represented the whole, and the whole, the individual. In YHWH’s punishment, those who would remember and recount the deeds of that person would also need to reflect on the punishment. “This was not regarded as punishment of the innocent for the sins of the guilty, but rather as total punishment of the guilty.”
Issuing punishment, in spite of divine mercy, however, leads us deeper into the question of the proper understanding and interpretation of Exodus 34:6-7. What is the relationship between forgiveness and mercy and “not acquitting” and “visiting iniquities”? For the answer, we have to acknowledge that in any case where forgiveness, mercy, acquittal, or iniquity is involved, there has been a violation of the covenant, a breach of conduct, or sin.
As YHWH has established righteousness, sin breaks relationship between God and the people. Therefore, the relationship requires salvation. God has stated the character trait with which God intends to act out of—forgiveness and mercy. Does this mean that God “acquits” is contrary to the statement in the latter part of the credo? No. Freedman illustrates how reconciliation is possible only through the recognition of sin, repentance, and willingness to accept the consequences of the action.
God chooses to forgive the sinner, but this does not alleviate the consequences of the sinful act. In fact, consequences are a normal part of the reconciliatory process. The statement which says that God “visits the iniquities” to the extension of the total person, reveals just how necessary the repercussions of sin must be. YHWH’s relationship with Israel is not to be taken lightly. The iniquity with which Israel visits upon that relationship has profound effects on their communal life.
The force of YHWH’s character is at once intensely devoted and intensely righteous. Israel saw these two aspects of God, mercy and judgment, as one aspect of the divine nature, not two aspects juxtaposed against one another. Thus, throughout Israel’s history, these divine characteristics were recounted as a liturgical credo from which the people could draw in times of need. The next section of the paper is an exploration of how this credo was utilized in differing contexts and circumstances in the history of Israel. From the manifold witness of this credo, then, the paper will attempt to understand the credo’s function for Israel and imagine the potential for the life of the church today.
To Be Continued: The Character of God – Part 4
NOTE: For a complete list of studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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 David Noel Freedman, “God Compassionate and Gracious,” Western Watch 6 (1955): 6-24.
 Freedman, 15.
 Ibid, 15-6.