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.”
There are, of course, many more places in the Old Testament where the credo can be found, at time cited in part, at time only as a brief reference. Because of the limitation of this paper, the explorations of these texts will not be reviewed in this study. A study of the word hsd alone would require many more pages to portray this aspect of God’s character. However, from the few texts examined in this study, there are several truths to be gleaned about the credo and the character of God.
The Exodus credo as recited throughout Israel’s history refers to the larger understanding of YHWH and YHWH’s relationship to Israel and to his creation. The assumption on Israel’s part is that this self-revelation of YHWH is the greatest affirmation of God’s dependability and authority. It is for this reason that, in many differing circumstances, the credo is recited as an appeal to YHWH’s mercy and grace.
And yet, equally, on many occasions the credo is not distinctly formulated in all its parts, meaning that those who quote from it do not find it necessary to quote it in its entirety or even in its complete intent. However, as in accordance with natural human tendencies, the beneficial attributes of God’s character are recited whenever the worshiper is in need of God’s help. Additionally, regardless of redaction placement, or the compilation issues, the credo is rooted in Israel’s experience. This allows for continual intertextual interpretation and ongoing understanding of YHWH’s work in the world.
This paper has examined, in an effort to understand the character of God, the liturgical credo of Exodus 34:6-7 and its subsequent references in the Old Testament. Upon examination of the text, the character traits of YHWH were revealed to Israel in the midst of their apostasy, at the incident with the golden calf, through Moses in correlation with the replacement of the two tables of the covenant. As YHWH’s self-revelation, Moses and later, the Israelite community, received the most objective description of YHWH’s character, although as noted above, even the proclamation of YHWH’s character is not devoid of relationship and context:
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).
God’s mercy and graciousness, as has been noted previously, are tied with the notion of womb and motherly protection in regard to the uniquely special way God is inclined to be merciful and forgive sin. Also, as seen above, God’s mercy and grace are the most often quoted parts of the liturgical credo, and hence, hold a special place in the way Israel perceived their relationship with YHWH. The character of God is furthered in this way when the righteous anger of YHWH is seen to be tempered by God’s “long nose,” as the translation of “slow to anger” indicates.
Appreciated in Nehemiah, and counted on in Jonah and Psalm 145, this trait of YHWH gives shape to the view that God is inherently good, and therefore acknowledges evil, despite YHWH’s patient disposition toward dealing with it. God’s hsd is used uniquely to describe the special kind of steadfast love, longstanding loyalty, and tenacious fidelity God provides to the people, regardless of their ability to be faithful in return.
Although Israel was unfaithful to the demands of the covenant, YHWH inhabits the superior role expectation of the covenant and further ensures the grace necessary to be fully just and fully merciful through outlining the intergenerational totality of sin’s repercussive affects. And while Israel tends to ignore this aspect of the credo in recitation, the implications are rooted in the experience of YHWH’s self-revelation, underlying scripture’s contextual reality, as seen in Joel, Jonah, and in Psalms 103 and 86.
As the continuing people of God, adopted through Christ as the first fruits of the new creation, the modern church has the continued task of fidelity to the God whose character was revealed in the story of Israel in Exodus 34. What then is the role of Exodus 34:6-7 in the ongoing narrative of God’s people? Clearly, the liturgical credo is found in the continuing interpretation of the text through the life of Israel. This multifaceted view of ongoing work is also the work of the church.
Inherent to YHWH’s character are the traits listed in the credo. The traits themselves are not void of the story of Israel. Therefore, the church’s task today is to continue to appropriate and respond to the unchanging character of YHWH, not as ontological statements for displaced use, but in discernment and fidelity to the story Israel has lived in accordance with the God who covenanted with them. As seen in the multitude of scriptures above, the credo can be utilized to call upon YHWH to be YHWH, or to invoke praise.
And in other circumstances, the invocation of the credo even reveals to the people of Israel the extent of their own perspective, and the audacious and lavish boundary-breaking way YHWH is trying to recover a people for YHWH’s name. The task is truly ongoing. Yet, just as the credo reveals the true character traits of YHWH in his relationship with Moses and Israel, so too, the church must be cognizant of this relationship as the fundamental legacy of the credo itself—YHWH is a God faithful to YHWH’s character with and for creation.
STUDIES ON THE CHARACTER OF GOD
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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 Some particular echoes heard throughout the scriptures that other scholars have identified are as follows: Deuteronomy 5:9-10, 1 Kings 3:6, Lamentations 3:32, Daniel 9:4, Nahum 1:3, Hosea 1:6, Jeremiah 32:18-19.
 I think it quite possible to explore further the implications of this as an oral society who regularly recited and recounted precise word-for-word accounts.
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In the Christ the fullest explication of the credo in Exodus 34 finds its fulfillment, yet the conferring of “grace upon grace” (John 1) should not be read to mean that God, who was sending people to hell for their sin before, is now suddenly willing to live with it. He is still the holy God, and still “by no means clearing the guilty.” Entrance into His kingdom is by a meaningful act of repentance, signifying a changed life. The ongoing fidelity of God to the credo in Exodus 34 is something we need to recall more and more, not less and less, dismissing it as some kind of “Old Testament” view of God. He does not change.
I agree with you. I have written a book (not yet published; I am still looking for a publisher) in which I develop precisely what you say in your comments. Read my book (when it is published).