An Exegesis of Exodus 34.1-9
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.’ So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord.’ 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.’
And Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth, and worshiped He said, ‘If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.1’
Exodus 34:1-9 is a pericope that draws one into the heart and soul of the Biblical experience of God. This pericope acts at the turning point in the composite narrative we call “the Pentateuch” in which Yahweh decides how to respond ultimately to Israel’s choice to apostatize through worshiping before the golden calf. This moment in the Pentateuch narrative reveals the heart of the creator God for God’s covenant people and, by extension, for all of the human family. Exodus 34:1-9′s revelation of Yahweh’s heart and character presents a picture of God that is so foundational to the message given throughout the Scriptures that its themes act as an almost brilliant thread woven throughout the tapestry of Hebrew Scriptures, emerging also intricately interwoven into the Christian New Testament.
In its current form, Exodus 34.1-9 falls into the larger framework of its immediate narrative context, the wider context of the Pentateuch in general, and also its place and influence within the canon in general.
Exodus 34.1-9 falls within the larger context of Exodus 32-342. Though some will argue for far more of an inherent unity3, this section is largely understood to be a composite narrative, reflecting a blending of various traditions, but composed largely of the non-priestly narrative4. Though composite, the narrative traditions are blended deliberately so as to have clear thematic connections which continue throughout and are expanded upon throughout the narrative5. Even the repetitious elements in the narrative are placed deliberately so as to further the themes of Exodus 32-346. Groenwald charts the movement of Exodus 32-34 as actually beginning in Exodus 19 and going through the movements of (1) covenant agreement in Exodus 19-24, (2) the breaking of the covenant through worship before the golden calf (Exodus 32), and (3) the renewal of the covenant narrative in Exodus 33-347. Davis charts out the following key movements in Exodus 32-34: (1) the intercession of Moses which binds all the chapters together, (2) the sections about the ornaments and tent of meeting which appear at first to be randomly placed but in fact continue the themes of repentance and judgment, (3) the covenant renewal of Exodus 34.10-28 which results from Moses’ intercession and expresses the character of Yahweh revealed in our pericope, and (3) the veil tradition which illustrates both Israel’s “restoration to covenant favor” by Yahweh’s grace and also acts as a reminder of “the catastrophe of rebellion”8. As Janzen points out, the language and imagery of the Exodus 34.1-9 draws upon and points to these surrounding events especially the apostasy at the beginning of this section of Scripture9. Davis draws out the over-arching picture this narrative context gives, writing
The basic progression in Moses’ encounters with Yahweh should be fairly clear. First, total extinction is averted, that and nothing more (32:9ff). Next, forgiveness is sought and refused, though a remote kind of help is promised to fulfill the promise of the land (32:30ff). Then, Yahweh’s previous verdict is reversed, and [Yahweh]‘s full personal presence is again assured (32:12ff); but this is only done because Yahweh regards the mediator graciously and not for any merit on the part of the people (v 17). Finally, the forgiveness for which Israel hangs in the balance is offered and declared (34:6ff).10
This immediate context of Exodus 32-34 is surrounded by the larger context of Exodus and of the Pentateuch as a whole. This context places Exodus 34.1-9 within the framework of the story of God’s dealings with the covenant people, Israel. Janzen sees Yahweh’s characteristic of rahmim or compassion, mercy, as linked to Yahweh’s earlier promises of progeny evidenced in Yahweh’s protection of Israel’s male babies in Exodus 1-311. Hamilton points out that the following parallels exist between Exodus 34.6-8a and the Decalogue, particularly Exodus 20.5-612: (1) Both speak of the fate of future generations in terms of positive or negative consequences of their ancestors’ decisions; (2) Both have a different emphasis and reflect a different theological movement: IE, Exodus 20 moves from jealousy to love, while Exodus 34 begins with love, mercy, and grace and only moves to language of judgment as the credo ends; and (3) Exodus 34 places judgment in the context of faithfulness, love, and mercy and avoids the language of jealousy, while Exodus 20 uses jealousy and wrath as the framework for the generational consequences for human failings13. Hamilton also draws parallels between language in Exodus 19 and Exodus 34, arguing that intentional parallels are being made in the text between the initial covenant in Exodus 19-20 and the covenant renewal in Exodus 3414. Durham sees Exodus 34.1-9 actually echoing the call of Moses and the revelation of the Divine name Yahweh15. In Exodus 3 Yahweh reveals Yahweh’s self to Moses as “the One Who Always Is” saying “I really AM” before proceeding to prove this by doing might acts of deliverance16. In Exodus 34 Yahweh again declares Yahweh’s self by name, but now defines more fully what Yahweh means by revealing how Yahweh exists in the world17.
Perhaps most significant for the message of the text – with its language of familial legacy – is that wider context of the Pentateuchal narrative as taken as a whole, which places this pericope in the context of delicate network of family relationships: first the family of Abraham, but ultimately the wider network of relationships we call the human family of which Abraham’s family is but a part. Janzen hints at this by pointing out familial and maternal overtones to rahamin or “compassion”18, which we will explore later in this paper. This characteristic of God is connected by Janzen with El Shaddai‘s “blessing of the breast and the womb” to the ancestors of the family of Israel in Genesis 49.2519. At heart, what are these but blessings of family, upon the family of Abraham? Ultimately the genealogies in the Pentateuch, such as Genesis 5-6 serve the narrative function of picturing not just the Abrahamic families of the Ishmaelites and Israelites as one family, but ultimately all of humanity as having a familial relationship going back to our first ancestors, Adam and Eve. These genealogies symbolically express the unity of the human family, placing Israel’s family and our own families in the midst. This points toward the themes of the Exodus 34 credo as being applicable both within the family of Israel, but also beyond it to all the families of the earth. Groenwald beautifully depicts the role that this pericope takes when read in this larger context of the Pentateuch:
[Yahweh] has decided in favour of Israel; [Yahweh] has promised life, care, alleviation of distress, and preservation – indeed, [Yahweh] has filled the whole earth with [Yahweh's] kindness. [Yahweh] has thus granted fellowship to [Yahweh's] people, to all [hu]mankind, to the whole world. And this act, like the promise and assurance of future help and fellowship, is characterized by permanence, constancy, and reliability. This is what Israel and the individual Israelite hear through Yahweh’s word.20
Beyond the context of the Pentateuch, this foundational text – especially its central credo in verses 6-8 – is one that influences and impacts the larger canon of Scripture, first in the Hebrew Scriptures themselves and then later in the Christian New Testament. This credo’s themes are extant throughout the whole Hebrew Scriptures, but its words are specifically repeated eight times in the Hebrew Scriptures: Numbers 14.18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Nahum 1:321. In all but two of these verses – Numbers 14:18 and Nahum 1:3 — the description of judgment about further generations is left out, while keeping the language of mercy and steadfast love22. Finally select sections of the credo are quoted in Deuteronomy 4:31; 2 Chronicles 30:9; Nehemiah 9:31; Psalms 78.38; 86:5; 111:4; 112:4; and 116:523.
The themes of Exodus 34′s credo continue within the Christian New Testament. Groenewald draws connects between the covenant promises and the climax of the Abrahamic covenant promises in the person of Jesus Christ, pointing out specifically that Exodus 34′s hesed is rendered eleos repeatedly in the Septuagint, the same word used repeatedly for the work of Jesus Christ24. In addition to these general examples, I would add the “grace” and “truth” language used in the prologue to the Gospel of John, which emphasizes the inter-related of grace or covenant fidelity and truth which includes revelation of both love and also one’s sinfulness; 1 John’s emphasis on God as love; and the themes of grace, judgment, and Christ’s faithfulness found in Romans all as being influenced by the vision of Divine character given in the Exodus 34 credo. All of these varied texts express the way in which the steadfast love and mercy of Yahweh expressed in Exodus 34:1-9 finds fulfillment in “the breaking in of the divine mercy into the reality of human misery which took place in the person of Jesus of Nazareth with his work of freeing and healing which demonstrated … the covenant loyalty of God, as promised in the Old Testament and shown in action in the history of Israel,” reaching “its climax in the gracious self-humiliation of God”25.
Exodus 34.1-9 is a part of the Pentateuch. Though the Pentateuch’s authors are unknown but scholars largely agree that the Pentateuch is be a compilation of writings taken from four major sources – the Yahwistic source (J), the Priestly source (P), the Deuteronomistic source (D), and the Elohistic Source26. This pericope is a continuation of the non-priestly composite narrative of Exodus 32-3427. The general consensus is that although including some elements from various sources, this pericope is primarily of Yahwistic origin28. The larger Yahwistic narrative is generally understood to originate the southern kingdom, around the 9th Century BCE29. The current canonical form of this pericope is considered post-exilic and includes a creedal style confession of faith (vv6-7) inserted in the middle of the largely Yahwistic narrative30.
Though largely Yahwhistic, this section remains a composition of a number of sources. The oldest section of the pericope is Exodus 34.6-731. Though Wellhausen calls this the Yahwistic Decalogue, there is general consensus that verses 6-7 are a credo designed for liturgical use in Israel’s Yahwistic cult32. This credo was probably in use from the earliest days of Israel’s Yahwhistic religion33. We see similar creedal forms in the Hebrew Scriptures in Deuteronomy 26.5b-9; Deuteronomy 6.21-24; and Joshua 24.2b-1334. As noted previously, evidence for the popularity and centrality of this credo in Yahwhism is its repetition throughout the Hebrew canon both explicitly and implicitly, both in part and in full. In its original form, the credo provided the worshiper of Yahweh with language to confess their faith in Yahweh35. There is some evidence that the current form of the credo may have also undergone editing, as many scholars feel that its addition of language of punishment was added later to counterbalance the language of overabundant grace, mercy, and forgiveness36. Others feel the balance of the judgment and grace included in the credo dates back to the earliest form of the credo37. In either case, the credo shows the balancing of Yahweh’s commitment to punish sin with Yahweh’s overarching position of grace, love, and fidelity to those in covenant with Yahweh38. The language of balance in reference to these two qualities of Yahweh is deceptive however. Though some authors do use language of balance to describe how the credo deals with steadfast love and divine anger or punishment, there really is no real balance here – even in its final form, the credo pictures grace continuing to flow down to the thousandth generation, which divine judgment and punishment only prevails to the third and fourth generation39. Also the credo not only has echoes of the larger themes of the Yahwistic author but even some echoes of themes in Israelite Wisdom texts40.
The credo is placed within the context of the Pentateuch’s composite non-priestly account of Israel’s exodus and pilgrimage through the wilderness41. Placed in this context, the credo comes as a response to a number of events in Israel’s journey: the breaking of the covenant by Israel in their making of a golden calf, the shattering of the original covenant tablets by Moses, Yahweh’s threat of destruction to Israel, and Moses’ intercession on behalf of Israel to Yahweh42. Exodus 34 describes God choosing to renew the covenant with Israel in response to Moses’ intercession43. As such, it includes intentional parallels to the language of the original covenant with Israel in Exodus 19-20, as well as language connected with Yahweh’s revelation of the Divine name to Moses in Exodus 344.
There is a mixing of priestly and Yahwistic language in the narrative surrounding the credo, suggesting some blending of both sources, while remaining clearly largely Yahwhistic45. As the credo is placed within the narrative, the credo is transformed from a personal or communal proclamation of faith in Yahweh to a revelation of the divine name and an unpacking of the character of Yahweh46. The literary context of Israel’s rebellion and Yahweh’s threat of destruction to Israel adds poignancy to the language of forgiveness and grace47. The framing of the credo between these events and Moses’ words of repentance, prayer, and intercession following the credo heighten the dramatic tension the credo expresses, as well as highlighting the themes of forgiveness, mercy, and restoration48. Although the credo itself can stand alone as a confession of worship, the context that follows it is particularly fitting to its themes: in the chapters that follow, Yahweh directly addresses the use of metal idols (like the golden calf) in worship, the appropriate festivals to use in worship of Yahweh (as opposed to the one Aaron creates in his apostasy), and Yahweh re-instates Aaron to a priestly role, a sign of Yahweh’s forgiveness of the people for the apostasy which Aaron organized49.
Finally the larger historical context of the time of the final redaction of this narrative seems one to which Exodus 34:1-9 uniquely can speak. The final redacted form of the Pentateuch stems from the time following the exile of Judah and Israel, when the Jewish people have begun to rebuild and reconstruct their community and faith50. Like the characters in Exodus 32-34, they have seen the destruction a broken covenant produced, destruction that they saw as being rooted in idolatry similar to that initiated by Aaron. One has to wonder, how much these post-exilic believers saw themselves in this story of repentance, revelation of Divine mercy, and renewal of covenant which reaches its climax in our pericope. In this context the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal of covenant, and reconstruction following disastrous consequence of sin and idolatry become even more pronounced. How poignant the story of the renewal of the covenant must have been for them and the picture of divine grace described in the Exodus 34 credo.
Exodus 34.1-9 begins with Yahweh’s response to Moses in verses 1-3. As Dozeman points out these verses are a response of Yahweh to the successful mediation of Moses on behalf of the people who had chosen to apostatize themselves through idolatry51. All that follows can be seen as the creator God’s response to Moses, fulfilling Yawheh’s promise to Moses in Exodus 32:32 and 33:19 that “my angel shall go in front of you” to be proven when Yahweh fulfills Yahweh’s promise to “make all” Yahweh’s “goodness pass before” Moses “and … proclaim before” Moses “the name, ‘the Lord’” being “gracious to whom I will be gracious, and” showing “mercy on whom I shall show mercy”52.
Yawheh’s initial response to Moses in a series of commands in verses 1-3, is brimming with hope even in the face of the clear danger Moses and Israel face. The hope can be seen in the the language Yahweh uses to command the cutting of the new covenant stones. As Janzen points out, the fact these stones are “like the former ones” suggests the hopeful possibility that even in the face of Israel’s apostasy before the golden calf, God extends grace, for “Israel was not left with God’s second best but was given a chance to start over again”53. Janzen likens the process which begins here as being similar for Yahweh and Israel to the act of renewing their vows for a married couple reconciling from divorce, pointing out that it becomes a pattern for Yahweh continuing to offer reconciliation and new beginnings with the covenant people in the face of later failings in the prophets and even into the Christian New Testament54. An important shift in how the covenant is cut, however, goes on between the previous covenant cutting and the covenant cutting of Exodus 34: In the accounts of the initial covenant-making, the language strongly implies that is Yahweh who both carves and writes on the first tablets (see Exodus 24:12; 32:16) while in this renewal of the covenant in Exodus 34 Moses must cut the covenant for himself on behalf of Israel, while Yahweh responds by inscribing the words of the covenant on the stones55. This change in process places more responsibility upon Moses, a responsibility that signifies the need for increased commitment, responsibility, and investment from Israel. Things cannot keep going like they have been going between Israel and Yahweh. Even when grace is offered, there is still an important aspect of human responsibility involved. I think the language used to describe the breaking of the tablets which symbolize the breaking of covenant, points toward this: the Piel stem is used instead of the Qal stem to describe the breaking of the stones, a literary choice that does not convey simply breaking of stones but the smashing, shattering, or snapping of the stones, i.e. a break of maximum force and effect56. The covenant, like the stones, was not simply broken but shattered asunder by the actions of Aaron and Israel, so aside from a gracious act of new creation by Yahweh, it would lie in ruins. Knowledge of the depth of Yahweh’s grace to create a new covenant and new relationship out of the shattered pieces of the old ought to impel the believer to a deeper investment from their side of the Divine-human covenant.
The dramatic tension and sense of danger for Israel which refusing Yahweh’s invitation to new creation brings is heightened by the commands for Moses and Israel regarding the preparations required for meeting Yahweh. As Dozeman points out, after the command to cut the stones, Yahweh warns of danger of one not approaching the divine presence on the holy mountain appropriately, a key theme in the priestly writings, especially in the priestly descriptions of the initial cutting of the covenant57. These parallels, including warnings to keep uninvited guests away from the mountain, as well as the name used for the mountain, echo previous events in the Exodus narrative in ways that heighten the sense that worship for Yahweh must be respected instead of trivialized as it was in the golden calf incident (or the pre-exilic idolatry that is a recent memory of the redactor’s audience) lest the danger Israel faces without Divine grace break out if Israel rejects this offer of grace and refuses to learn the lessons of its idolatrous past58. This sense of potential danger is heightened by the fact that in the previous chapter, Yahweh warns Moses that Moses can only see Yahweh from behind a rock-face with Yahweh hiding part of Yahweh’s form from Moses, lest the fullness of Yahweh’s glory destroy Moses59.
This sense of potential danger one faces without grace is further underscored by the fact that the blending of the Yahwhistic and priestly accounts of this story creates a doublet, which Durham suggests is included to show create another level of dramatic buildup60. Hamilton points out that the command to clear away the sheep and cattle also furthers the sense that creatures can only stand in Yahweh’s presence by Yawheh’s grace, as even non-human creatures cannot survive the unmediated presence of the Creator God on their own merits61.
The language used for Moses’ obedient cutting of the stones in Exodus 34:4 draws parallels which point back to the events of the golden calf and, in their final redaction, point its post-exilic audience to the pre-exilic idolatry which they have learned to see through the eyes of faith as the cause for their fall to Babylon Particularly, the word pasal used for chisel or carve here is a root word for pesel, a Hebrew word for idol62. By intentionally using a word for the cutting of the stone tablets that draws connections with idolatry, the authors and redactors of the text are making clear that the written Word of Scripture alone is to be the central icon of Yahweh for Israel, not any other carved image such as golden calves used by Aaron or the other idols later used in the events which led to the exile63. Moses’ actions of cutting the stones of the covenant is not just a private act; rather, he acts as mediator on behalf of Israel, signifying their participation in and investment in the covenant which Yahweh is renewing64, through acts such as abandoning the idolatry and apostasy which has made this covenant renewal necessary.
Beginning in verse 5 we see the descent of Yahweh and the proclamation of the divine name. Dozeman suggests that the language to describe Yahweh’s descent draws on previous imagery common to the non-priestly accounts in the Pentateuch, particularly Exodus 19:965. Durham points out that the cloud of divine presence that accompanies Yahweh’s theophany both hid Yahweh’s presence and acted as a symbol of it, furthering the theme that Yahweh both draws people into a place of revelation while also setting boundaries to protect the ones experiencing revelation from the full glory of Yahweh that created beings cannot experience while remaining in the land of the living66. This furthers the dramatic tension leading up the divine revelation of verse 6-8, as well as highlighting the necessity of divine grace.
This dual nature of hiddeness and revelation does not, however, convey a sense that somehow God is hiding one’s self to avoid relationship. On the contrary the imagery used points to the fact that what occurs is God-initiated, an act by which the relationship of Israel and Yahweh is restored from the side of the one party who is fit to restore it, Yahweh67. Even though Moses is the only Israelite permitted to scale the mountain and experience this theophany, it is not simply a private epiphany but rather a Divinely driven renewal of the original covenant with Israel, including a deeper revelation of Yahweh as the forgiving, merciful initiator of the covenant-partnership, a concept which becomes foundational to later Israelite and Biblical theology68. Moses’ role in this interchange becomes one of mediation, a continuation of his role in the previous chapter as intercessor to God on behalf of Israel69.
As in the previous theophany in Exodus 19, a key element of this Exodus 34 theophany is an auditory element, i.e. Yahweh speaking in verses 5-770. Though the language used in Hebrew is unclear as to whether the speaker of this section is Yahweh when taken in isolation, there is broad scholarly consensus based on literary context that what follows in these passages is Yahweh’s own speech to Moses, including the text of the credo71. Though the bulk of the words Yahweh is described as uttering originally were a liturgical piece used as a confession of faith by the people of Israel in worship, its insertion into this narrative by the redactors of the narrative makes it a stunning self-revelation of Yahweh to Moses and, through Moses, to Israel and, through Israel, to the whole human family72. Yahweh’s speech specifically unpacks the meaning of the name Yahweh, a symbol for the character of Yahweh73. The revelation of the Divine that follows here is a sign of the continued presence of Yahweh which Moses asked for in prayer in the preceding chapter and “would indicate that Yahweh is the Present One, the One who is there with [Yahweh's] own to act in their behalf as they have need”74. The revelation of the Yahweh’s character is Yahweh’s un-packing of the meaning of that name in answer to Moses’s prayer. As Durham suggests, “To Moses’ request for a look at” Yahweh’s “presence, Yahweh replied, ‘I will reveal to you what I am, not how I look”75.
Yahweh begins by doubling the divine name Yahweh, likely to emphasize its significance This name has the sense of meaning “the One Who Always Is”76 and continues with a description of God’s mercy and grace. This phrase, which Hamilton renders “compassionate and gracious” is rahum wehannum, an example of Hebrew of assonance and a common descriptor for God in the Hebrew Scriptures77. Despite some debate about the significance of the etymology, there are clear etymological connections between the word used here for compassion, rahum, and the Hebrew word for womb, rehem78. Dozeman sees this word’s etymological link to womb as pointing toward compassion being a feeling of emotion for someone with almost physical overtones, similar to the feeling a mother would have for those she has born 79. Janzen describes this compassion as “the feeling a mother has for the children whom she carries and feels in her womb, then carries in her arms and nurses at her breast, and afterwards continues in faithful compassion toward”80. In human relationships, this type of motherly compassion is needed to make life possible; without motherly nurture, provision for physical and emotional needs, modeling of relationships, one would not just not fail learn the morality and empathy that makes justice possible but one would also have great difficulty surviving81. Janzen describes this motherly compassion which Yahweh feels for us as illustrated in Judges 13:7 and Psalm 13:7; one might also consider Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1, and the birth narratives of John the Baptizer and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke as further example of this maternal compassion of Yahweh82.
Janzen further argues that this word is connected with familial and kinship connections in the Pentateuch, providing a relational context for the election of Israel, the exodus, the covenant, and the overarching justice-centered morality found in much of the covenant. Janzen suggests a literary connection between this compassion and El Shaddai, a name for God that recurs in the accounts of Israel’s ancestors when being promised the “blessing of the breast and the womb” (Genesis 49:25), including blessings “field and flock, of breast and womb, of steadfast love and faithfulness”83. The use of this description of compassion or womb-love for Yahweh had the added significance of demonstrating to Israel that the Yahweh with whom they are in covenant is the same God whom their ancestors had known as El Shaddai, who blesses the womb and the earth with fertility84.
The sound-alike word of “compassion” or hanum is rooted in a verb meaning to “yearn for, long for, be merciful, compassionate, favorably inclined toward”; an adverb meanly “freely, without cause, undeservedly”; and a noun meaning “favor, grace” which is commonly used to say one will “find favor in someone’s eyes”85. Dentan explains that this language of divine compassion or grace is less common in the Pentateuch which tends to have a greater emphasis on divine anger then in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, but is commonly used in Wisdom literature such as the Psalms to convey the sense of being bestowed favor or being looked at with favor86. Drawing on how the theme of anger and jealousy tends to be more strongly emphasized in the Pentateuch than compassion, Dozeman argues that Exodus 34 introduces a new concept of God, a changed picture of Yahweh, into the Pentateuch:
Yahweh the jealous God now becomes Yahweh… the merciful and gracious God… The revelation of grace means that Yahweh will not act immediately and automatically with the emotional rage of an offended lover, often indicated as hot breath, especially through one’s nostrils, as in the case of the divine response to the golden calf … [which] made God’s nose hot87.
Taken together these adjectives “disclose the parental heart of God toward the covenant people, even in the face of the most grievous behaviors”, a heart like a mother’s, who would love and look favorably on her child simply because it is her child, having nothing but potential, not yet having opportunity to do anything to earn or lose one’s favor by its actions88.
This shifting of Yahweh’s way of relating to Israel is illustrated in the Pentateuch itself. Earlier in the Pentateuchal narrative, Yahweh’s jealousy takes center stage, with the punishments to be inflicted on individuals and future generations for apostasy being listed first, and blessings seemingly an afterthought. In the presentation here, God’s favorable disposition is the first word and the judgment for apostasy such a seeming afterthought that some wonder if it is a later edition to the text itself89. Yahweh in fact is slow to anger and judgment, language that literally means “long of nose”, a term similar to our modern phrase of “not having a short fuse”90
The language used evokes the idea of God initiating, keeping, and preserving God’s relationship with the covenant people. Yahweh does not just love, but abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love not to just the third or fourth generation within which the penalties of wrong-doing will be felt but down even as far as to the thousandth generation. Yahweh does this through keeping steadfast love and forgiving. “Keeping” is rendered as prolongs by Hamilton and has the sense in Wisdom literature of the act of guarding, tending, and keeping akin to what a watchman or guard would do91. Janzen defines “steadfast love” or hesed as the tie that binds kin together in mutual loyalty and help, a help fit to the specific need of a given situation92 Dentan suggests that hesed has to do with loyalty, loving-kindness, love, steadfast love, but that such love is only sometimes connected with the idea of covenant, nor necessarily dependent on one’s performance in a covenant93. Janzen suggests that “faithfulness”, or ‘emet, has the sense of that which is enduring and reliable, and paired together the two words suggests a loyalty that is “enduring and reliable”94. This language suggests that “Yahweh‘s mercy toward Israel is independent of their responding in the right way. Even when Israel is disobedient is is still the recipient of the divine goodness”95. Yahweh then is the initiator, the sustainer, the guardian of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.
Yahweh’s role as initiator, keepr, and sustainer of the covenant relationship brings us to the language of forgiveness. Hamilton suggests that the Hebrew word translated forgive here means to become the party who takes on responsibility for, or bears the burden of the iniquity96. Janzen says that to forgive here means to bear, in the sense of bearing with and putting up with, an action that includes a cost of pain and sorrow for Yahweh, made necessary since bearing that pain and sorrow is the only way Yahweh can forgive sin and remain in relationship with the offending party97. This divine forgiveness is totally exhaustive, for “[w]hen speaking of God’s forgiveness, [this text] seems to search the Hebrew lexicon exhaustively to make sure to miss not ‘sin’ family world – ‘who forgives iniquities and rebellion and sin”98.
The language about Yahweh visiting the consequences of sin to the third and fourth generation is actually based on the earlier prohibition against idolatry in Exodus 20:4-6 which is restated in similar terms in Deuteronomy 5:8-10 99. Exodus 24 is no simple re-statement of the same description of divine anger and justice, but rather a tempering of anger and justice by the Divine compassion, forgiveness, and commitment to steadfast love and fidelity 100. The earlier statement of retribution for apostasy is re-framed so that God’s justice is no longer held in antipathy to mercy, but instead becomes what Janzen calls “a component in” God’s mercy and grace 101. The context for this shift is that now that God is presented as the one wronged in our harming others, God must act not just for the sake of the one wronged, an acting against a sin that is also for sake of the one doing wrong who is warping their character and not living up the image of God 102. As Janzen puts it, “God’s compassion and grace keeps justice from becoming harsh and unyielding. God’s justice keeps compassion and grace from becoming harsh and unyielding. God’s justice keeps compassion and grace from becoming the kind of softness that indulges children in their peccadilloes until they become self-centered tyrants responsive to nothing but their own whims and appetites”103.
The themes of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures come to bear in this narrative and credo, themes which are continued even into the Christian New Testament.
In particular, we see the importance of prayer and intercession. To use a common evangelical turn of phrase, Moses does not just look out for his own interests, but stands in the gap for Israel. As the witness of the Psalms reflect, this call to be a person of prayer is central to the call of Israel, and prayer is not just for the individual, but also for the community and the world.
The mediation of Moses in this passage becomes an archetype both for the ministry of the priests and of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. It seems to even inspire reformers like Ezra and Nehemiah as they stand in the gap for their people in times of covenant renewal. In the New Testament, the significance of mediation continues in the references to Christ fulfilling Moses’ priestly role of mediator in Hebrews, the Christian’s call to pray in 1 Timothy, and the New Testament description of the believing community as a community of priests in 1 Peter that is the foundation of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
The image of Yahweh as One who is full of mother-love, full of compassion, grace, and mercy, yet also calling us to accountability for our actions is a constant theme in the Scriptures. This theme is applied in slightly different ways in the extended Deuteronomistic history beyond the Pentateuch, reoccurs in the prophetic writings, and is set to song in the Psalms. We see themes of Divine compassion and grace extending beyond the Hebrew Scriptures as they find expression in the Sermon on the Mount’s image of a Father God who pours out grace and mercy on the good and the wicked alike (Matthew 5-7); in Jesus’ table fellowship with those deemed as sinners and outcasts by the religious of his day, which Jesus explains with a parable of a loving father (see Luke 15); in the language of grace and truth in the description of the revelation Jesus brings in John 1; with these themes of God’s love conquering the consequences of sin which is placed as the centerpiece of the Pauline theology expressed in books like Romans and Galatians; and in 1 John where we learn that there is no fear of judgment for the Christian believer since the God revealed in Jesus Christ is love.
Seeing justice as an outgrowth of love may seem strange to some contemporary Christians who picture a God who on the one hand loves us infinitely, but on the other is quick to throw us into everlasting torment in hell. Yet Christian tradition at its best consistently includes images like that of Julian of Norwich who depicted a loving maternal image of God who promised a time when all would be well because God’s love triumphs over evil, drawing all God’s children out of the grips of evil105. Likewise as renowned a voice as Martin Luther King pictures justice as being able to be an instrument of divine love and an expression of it, when he proclaims:
Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic… Power at its best… is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands in the way of love106.
Finally the language of family sets this theme of grace overcoming the consequences of our failings in the most poignant of contexts, the family system. First, this credo is placed in the context of the family descended from the 12 sons of Israel. Then it sets it through the story of Abraham in the context of the Abrahamic families including not just Israel, but also Edom and the Ishmaelites. The genealogies set these families in the context of the wider Semite families including the Moabites and Ammonites, and even when traced through Noah all the families of the earth. Genesis depicts all of us as one human family going back as far as Noah, and through Noah to the first ancestors who are symbolized by Adam and Eve.
This suggests the promise of grace is not just an individualistic promise but also a promise to families of grace and accountability from the Creator God, with the promise that accountability will be an out-flowing of grace – not just the family of Israel, but to all the families who are joined with Israel in the human family in the Pentateuchal genealogies This promise brings hope, letting us know that though there are consequences God has decreed within our families for our failings, Yahweh pledges a fidelity, grace, and mercy that is stronger than any patterns of human brokenness and human failing, however strong and damaging.
The points for application of Exodus 34.1-9 are manifold, as varied as life itself. Yet for the purpose of this paper, let us look at the practical applications of just the three themes we have just described.
First, the theme of mediation calls us to examine our life of prayer. Do we recognize as believers that our Mediator is Christ, a high priest who can identify fully with our predicament? Do we come with confidence to Christ, knowing our prayers to God will be answered through Christ’s loving mediation for us? Or do we live in fear and uncertainty as to where we stand with God and whether prayer is effective for us?
Also do we recognize that our baptism seals us priests of God, so that all who have trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ are called to join in intercession and mediation for others, expressing their faith in a way that has concern for those hurting around us, especially those who may not know how to approach God or are not ready to make those steps themselves? We need to recognize that the grace extended to us by God is not just for our benefit. It also has communal dimensions and calls us to become like Moses, vessels of divine grace who do not just receive grace and assurance from God, but also shared it in our families, our communities, and in the world as a whole.
We need to examine our views of God. Too often we envision God as relating to us as King Saul is portrayed as relating to David in the later years of his reign – in erratic, unstable ways, where Saul was unable to decide whether to accept and embrace David or fling a spear at him and was ready to turn on David without even a moment’s warning. Is this how, in our heart of hearts, we view God? Many of us depict God as no more sane than Saul is pictured, envisioning a God who in one breath speaks love to us, yet at the same moment is waiting for the next shoe to drop, always ready to curse us in this life and damn us forever in an unending torture chamber in the next. This is not the God who reveals God’s self to Moses as abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, slow to anger, quick to forgive, with loving-kindness that lasts a thousandfold times longer than the results of our failings. Is our God a God whose word to us is not both “yes” and “no” but forever “yes” in Jesus Christ? Does our God embody the New Testament fulfillment of this vision of Yahweh we find in Romans 8, a love that cannot be conquered by any force or do we envision God based on some other image of God we have collected over the years?
I think too we need to deal squarely with the elephant in the room in our Christian theology: How can a God who tortures anyone for all eternity without end based on short-lived sins committed in passing human existence truly be the God who pours out God’s love, forgiveness, grace a thousandfold in comparison to dealing out comparingly short-lived punishment? Could other understandings of the imagery of final judgment and hell be more in line with a message of restorative justice that is an outworking of divine love which is a natural result of this Exodus 34 credo? Could we be projecting into our images of God, judgment, and hell our own fears, anxieties, hatreds, and desire for vengeance instead of truly seeing these things in light of how God is revealed in Jesus Christ?
In our families, we need to hear the hope of this credo that the patterns of brokenness which often end up trapping us in cycles of codependency, abuse, alcoholism, and the like need not be the prisons they have become for us our whole life long. Instead the power of the loving-kindness, mercy, and fidelity of the Creator God revealed as Yahweh to Moses and as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to us in Jesus Christ has a grace that is greater than these prisons. This God of the Exodus and of Easter can step into our exiles and captivities and break us free from them, setting us and our families in promised lands of freedom.
We can also have hope based on the Exodus 24 credo whenever we face the crises in the larger human family of which we are all a member, realizing our history of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, religious wars, lack of care for the poor, are all simply those same patterns of brokenness we see in our individual families writ large. We can find along with individuals like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Troy Perry in Jesus a pattern for how to confront these powers that be. We can have hope knowing that the love of God can bring transformation to the thousandth generation these cycles of brokenness in the human family. We can know the pain, heartache, and damage that wreaks our world and our lives is not the last word but, as we work together with God, we can become agents of transformation and change for our communities, our society, our world.
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(January 1963): 34-51.
Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman et al. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009.
Durham, John I. Exodus. World Biblical Commentary 3, edited by David A. Hubbard, et al. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987.
Groenewald, Alphonso. Exodus, Psalms and Hebrews: A God abounding in steadfast love (Ex
34:6). Hervormde Teologiese Studies 64, no. 3 (2009): 1365-1378. http://www.doaj.org/doaj?
=en (accessed March 16, 2012).
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kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/where_do_we_go_from_here/ (Accessed April 23, 2012).
2See Davis and Durham in Davis, Dale Ralph. 1982. Rebellion, Presence, and Covenant: A Study of Exodus 32-34. Westminster Theological Journal 44 (1982) 71, 73, 75, 59, 81, 83-84. http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/02-Exodus/Text/Articles/Davis-Ex32-Rebellion-WTJ.htm (Accessed March 16, 2012) and in Durham, John I. Exodus. World Biblical Commentary 3, edited by David A. Hubbard, et al. Waco, TX: World Books, 1987, 450-451, 454.
Durham, John I. Exodus. World Biblical Commentary 3, edited by David A. Hubbard, et al. Waco, TX: World Books, 1987, 450-452.
27Compare Dentan, Robert C. Literary Affinities of Exodus 34.6ff. Vetus testamentum 13, no. 1. (January 1963): 36-37; Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 452; Durham, John I. Exodus. World Biblical Commentary 3, edited by David A. Hubbard, et al. Waco, TX: World Books, 1987, 451.
28Again see Dentan, Robert C. Literary Affinities of Exodus 34.6ff. Vetus testamentum 13, no. 1. (January 1963): 36-37; Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 452; Durham, John I. Exodus. World Biblical Commentary 3, edited by David A. Hubbard, et al. Waco, TX: World Books, 1987, 451.
39Compare Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 737; Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011, 576; Janzen, Gerald J. Exodus. Westminster Bible Companion. Patrick D Miller, et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 255-256.
41Dentan, Robert C. Literary Affinities of Exodus 34.6ff. Vetus testamentum 13, no. 1. (January 1963): 36-37; Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 452; Durham, John I. Exodus. World Biblical Commentary 3, edited by David A. Hubbard, et al. Waco, TX: World Books, 1987, 451.
43Davis, Dale Ralph. 1982. Rebellion, Presence, and Covenant: A Study of Exodus 32-34. Westminster Theological Journal 44 (1982), 74,78-79, 81-83, 85-87; Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 35-40.
46Durham, John I. Exodus. World Biblical Commentary 3, edited by David A. Hubbard, et al. Waco, TX: World Books, 1987, 454 ; Janzen, Gerald J. Exodus. Westminster Bible Companion. Patrick D Miller, et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 252.
50For the post-exilic context for the final redaction of the Pentateuch, as well as the context I discuss see Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Kingsbury Fortress, 63-64 ; Friedman, Richard Elliot. Who Wrote the Bible? (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1987), 217-233
54Janzen, Gerald J. Exodus. Westminster Bible Companion. Patrick D. Miller, et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 250-251. Examples Janzen gives of this pattern being repeated are Isaiah 54.4-8; Jeremiah 4; Hosea 2:2-23; 3:1-5; and John 3′s language of being “born again”.
57Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 734, with parallels between this and the priestly account of the original covenant cutting on pp 732-733.
58See Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 732-734; Groenewald, Aphonso. Exodus, Psalms, and Hebrews: A God Abounding in steadfast love (Ex 34:6). Hervvormde Teologiese Studies 64, no. 3 (2009): 1374-1375.
71Compare Davis, Dale Ralph. 1982. Rebellion, Presence, and Covenant: A Study of Exodus 32-34. Westminster Theological Journal 44 (1982), 79; Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 735; Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011, 575.
72Dentan, Robert C. Literary Affinities of Exodus 34.6ff. Vetus testamentum 13, no. 1. (January 1963): 37; Janzen, Gerald J. Exodus. Westminster Bible Companion. Patrick D. Miller, et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 255.
73Dentan, Robert C. Literary Affinities of Exodus 34.6ff. Vetus testamentum 13, no. 1. (January 1963): 37; Janzen, Gerald J. Exodus. Westminster Bible Companion. Patrick D. Miller, et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 255.
78Compare Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Eerdmans Critical Commentary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 738; Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011, 573; Janzen, Gerald J. Exodus. Westminster Bible Companion. Patrick D. Miller, et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 252;
90Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011, 574; Janzen, Gerald J. Exodus. Westminster Bible Companion. Patrick D. Miller, et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 255.
91Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011, 574, with Job 7:20; 27:18; Proverbs 13:3; 16; 17; 24:12; 27:18; and Psalm 31:23-24 being his references.
106 King, Martin Luther. “Where Do We Go From Here?” King Papers Project Website. Http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/where_do_we_go_from_here/ (Accessed April 23, 2012).