God is Hesed

Exodus is a foundational book to understanding God’s character.  It contains might acts and words from God that proclaim God’s character.  Central to this revelation of God’s character is Exodus 34:1-9.  This passage has a paradoxical nature and requires many levels of analysis to properly understand what is being revealed.  First, we will look at the various contextual dimensions of the passage, be that historical, literary, genre etc.  Then we will look at the Hebrew and translate key terms in verses five and six specifically.  Lastly, we will finish with an exegesis of the passage and an application for us today. 

            To start, we will look at the historical setting of Exodus.  The historical setting of Exodus has been quite elusive.  There has been virtually no extrabiblical evidence recovered that supports that the Exodus was real, and/or when it should be dated.[1]  As such, we have to analyze the text itself to make an estimation on the historical context.  It has been largely suggested that the events of Exodus should be dated to the thirteenth century BCE.[2]  This is because of references to the city of Rameses, which is a term that stopped being used after about 1100 BCE.  This though is about the extent to which we really estimate on when the Exodus occurred.

            Although we cannot give historical evidence for Exodus, lack of evidence does not therefor mean it did not happen.  Given that the Exodus provides Israel with an origin story of starting as slaves, it’s unlikely that a group of people would entirely make up a story like that.[3]  It is likely that Exodus is really based on actual historical events.  The precise nature of those events though is pretty much lost to history.[4] 

            Next, we need to look at authorship.  The book of Exodus shows evidence of redaction, editing, and multiple authors.  Following the Documentary Hypothesis theory, Exodus can be broken into two categories of priestly material and non-priestly material, with the final editors probably belonging to the priestly authors.[5]  The array of authors in Exodus gives credence to the Jewish tradition of allowing multiple perspectives in the Hebrew Bible. 

Having multiple authors makes it difficult to give a strong date of composition.  That being said, it can be thought that Exodus was first composed and put together during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE.[6]  The experience of the Babylonian Exile and their return back to Judea in 539 BCE provided many points of similarity between their experiences and those of their ancestors.[7]  Again, this is not to suggest that the Exodus was just made up out of nothing, or made up as a way to cope with the current devastation they were experiencing.  The decision to compose the disparate traditions of Exodus during the time of Babylonian Exile would have been to remind the Israelites of the God they serve and provide hope that God will make them into a nation again as they attempt to rebuild.[8]

Now we can start to look at the text itself.  When examining the Book of Exodus, it is clear that it is composed of multiple different styles and genres.  The passage we are looking at Ex. 34:1-9, is found right in between priestly instructions for worship (Ex. 25-31 and 35-40).[9]  This gives us reason to think that Ex. 34 could be something of a priestly pastiche.[10]  As such, our passage of divine revelation was a formula that had been used in other writings before.  This need not take away from the importance of the divine revelation, but should remind us that the Bible was not written in a vacuum but the biblical writers used the tools available to them when writing down God’s word. 

We must also look at the literary function and role this passage plays in the larger context of the Exodus book.  This passage functions as a way to bring Israel back into covenant with God.  Just before this passage in Ex. 32-33, we have the Golden Calf incident.  The Golden Calf incident happens shortly after God establishes his covenant with the Israelites in Ex. 19-24.  In the aftermath of this incident, God is ready to cut ties with Israel since they have already broken their covenantal promise.  In response, Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel and pleads with God not to forsake Israel but to give them a second chance.  In response, we get Ex. 34, where God ends up renewing the covenant in verses 10-28.  Our passage of divine revelation bridges the gap between Moses’ intercession and God’s renewing of the covenant.

Thus, from the standpoint of its literary structure, this passage balances God out by showing that he is forgiving, but also will punish.[11]  We also need to recognize that the divine revelation in Ex. 34:6-7, has touch points found in 20:5b-6 and 33:19. These points reaffirm that God is faithful to his covenant, which is a large reason he will renew the covenant with Israel.[12]  This passage gives a basis and justification for God renewing his covenant, it is on account of his divine character than God decides to renew his covenant with Israel.[13]           

Now we turn to looking at the passage in question.  As God is preparing to reveal himself to Moses, he instructs Moses in similar ways as he has before.  Ex. 34:3 reminds us of the command in Ex. 19 for no person or animal to be on the mountain when God manifests his presence on the mountain.  This time though, Moses is asked to bring up tablets, and God will be the one to write on them.[14] 

God does not let Moses forget why the tablets need to be rewritten though.  They have to be rewritten because Moses שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ the tablets.  This verb is in the piel form, and when in the piel form, it has the connotation of “to smash into fragments”.[15]  Moses did not just break the tablets, but smashed them into fragments, suggesting that they were utterly useless.  God is reminding Moses that he also needs God’s mercy and forgiveness.  The renewal of the covenant is not just for Israel, but also for Moses.

As we move into verse 5, we read very anthropomorphic language being applied to God.  God descended and וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֥ב עִמּ֖וֹ שָׁ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֥א בְשֵׁ֖ם יְהוָֽה.  This phrase is usually translated as “and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.”  The verb here for stood is וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֥ב.  The root of this verb is יצב, which means to take one’s stand, present one’s self, resist.[16]  The verb is in the hithpael pattern and so has a range of meanings.  The three that seem most relevant to this passage would be either the reflexive, reciprocal, or the estimative.[17]  The reflexive meaning seems to fit the context best as God is presenting himself to Moses. 

When we look at other uses of this verb in this form, we see it applied to the Angel of the Lord taking his stand before Balam in Num 22:22 and God standing before Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:10.  Also it is used in 1 Samuel 10 when Samuel is presented to the Israelite people as their king and in 1 Samuel 17 when Goliath takes his stand in front of the Israelite army.  All of these uses, even the ones including God, seem to indicate a real physical standing. 

This feels like an odd way to talk about God given that we usually talk about God being a nonphysical being. Yet if we just look back at Ex. 33 God talks about placing his hand on Moses and turning his back to Moses because Moses is not able to see his face.  Again, this anthropomorphic language of God is frankly uncomfortable.  I do not take this language to suggest that God’s true form is really that of some sort of humanoid.  Rather, I take this language as the way to explain to help us understand Moses’ intimate physical encounter with God. 

Next, we move into verses 6-7.  This passage has been designated as a profound divine self-disclosure, one that no one else has received before.[18]  Being such a profound self-revelation, this credo has been used and alluded to extensively through the Hebrew Bible.  Most notably, it is seen as instrumental to how the minor prophets would wrestle with theodicy.[19]  It is also seen in a few of the psalms, with almost the exact same wording.[20] 

In the beginning of the second half of verse six, we get a repetition of יְהוָ֣ה.  The translators of the Septuagint thought it was an error and deleted the second occurrence.[21]  It is likely though that the repetition was purposeful and was there to add emphasis and exclamation as to exactly who it was that was addressing Moses.[22]  This repetition with the conjunction with אֵ֥ל should make it clear to Moses that YHWH is God, and none other can or should claim that title. 

From here, God begins to express what his characteristics are.  The first thing God reveals about himself is that he is רַח֖וּם.  רַח֖וּם means to love tenderly, compassionate, to designate benevolence.[23]  This sort of love is typically that of a superior being to an inferior being.[24]  When we think of 1 John 4:8 proclaiming that God is love, we should also harken back to God’s most profound self-revelation in Exodus where the first thing he wants Moses to know about him is that he is compassionate, that he loves tenderly.

Next, we come to וְחַנּ֑וּן. וְחַנּ֑וּן means merciful, gracious.[25]  This tells us that God is a god who gives to people above and beyond what they deserve.  Often times when the root of this verb is used, it refers to a stronger person helping a weaker person who has no claim for that sort of kind act. Most of the times when this verb is being used, it is referring to God.[26]  God is continuing his revelation that he is a god of kindness and forgiveness.  One that acts out of love first and brings grace to those he interacts with.

God’s next description of himself is as אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם.  This is an interesting phrase because if translated literally it could mean long nose, or long anger.  This Hebrew idiom though is meant to convey that God is slow to anger.  The idea is that in Hebrew the nose was associated with anger because when someone would get mad, their nose would get red and look as if it were burning.[27]  God having a long nose would indicate that it takes a long time for God’s nose to get red and to burn. 

God being slow to anger would be a direct causation of him being compassionate and gracious.  God is a god who gives people the benefit of the doubt, and is patient to give them plenty of time to repent when they have sinned.  However, God being slow to anger does not mean that he does not ever get angry.  As a holy God, God has to punish wickedness and judge evil.[28]  This phrase is used widely throughout the Bible in multiple genres like the psalms, prophets, and other books of the Pentateuch.  This was a deep and trusted characteristic of God for the Israelites.  The emphasis is to show that God provides forgiveness beyond human comprehension.[29]

As we get to the end of the verse, God tells us that he is וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד.  The first word here וְרַב meaning many, great, much.[30]  The next word חֶ֥סֶד meaning something like loyalty, faithfulness, goodness, graciousness.[31]  This second word חֶ֥סֶד has been the center of much discussion over the years.  It has connotations and implications of God’s unfailing love, love that God gives without any sense of obligation.[32]  It talks of a love that God gives to those who are in need.[33]  God is a god that freely loves with a loyalty to those he loves without a sense of obligation.  This love is often times directed towards those who are in need.

To conclude the verse, God finishes with וֶאֱמֶֽת. This word וֶאֱמֶֽת means trustworthiness, constancy, truth, faithfulness.[34]  All these words are perfectly good descriptors of God.  However, in this context, it probably would be best to go with faithfulness or trustworthiness.  The point here is that God is consistently who he has revealed himself to be, and we can trust that God will always be that way, he does not change.[35] 

When we finish this verse, we get the picture of God who is first and foremost a god of love, a god of second chances. God’s natural disposition is to be kind, loving, generous, and gracious.  God wants to forgive and is patient in giving people time and opportunity to ask for forgiveness and restoration.   This verse should bring some tension if we are paying attention to the text.  For just a chapter ago, God was ready and willing to end his relationship with Israel.  How can God claim to be gracious, compassionate, and loving, when at the first sign of disobedience from Israel, he was ready to leave them? This paradox is not lost on the biblical writers, as we see the prophets wrestle with this tension.[36] 

In verse seven, God starts off this verse proclaiming that he keeps חֶ֥סֶד for thousands and that he נֹשֵׂ֥א iniquity, transgression, and sins.  The Hebrew word נֹשֵׂ֥א means to lift, carry.[37]  The idea is that God lifts up and takes away iniquity, transgression, and sin from people.[38]  God forgives people in away that they do not have to bear their sin once they have been forgiven.  These three words iniquity, transgression, and sin are in many ways interchangeable and often used as such.  The point here is not necessarily to distinguish between these three here, but to make the point that God can and does forgive any and all types of wrong doing.[39] 

This verse then takes a sharp turn in affirming that God נַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה. This is often translated as “by no means clear the guilty”.  The word יְנַקֶּ֔ה translated by the ESV as “clear the guilty” means to be without blame, remain blameless, leave unpunished, declare to be free from punishment.[40]  The paradox of God’s character comes into stark clarity in this verse.  In the same breath God says that he will forgive sins but also will not leave the guilty unpunished.  What are we to make of this? Here is where context is extremely important.

Earlier we discussed how Exodus was likely written during Babylonian Exile.  There has been deep linguistic analysis of this passage and it has been shown that these two verses could not have been written earlier than Jeremiah.[41]  If this is the case, it would show that this verse, and potentially even more of Exodus really was written after or in the midst of Babylonian Exile.  This is important because it gives a particular context for when this verse was written, thus given some understanding for why it was written in the way it was.  It is possible that the punishment portion has been written with consideration to the experience of the Babylonian Exile.[42]

The idea of God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children would be directly from the experience the exiled Israelites experienced.  They suffered because of the sins of their fathers down to the third and fourth generation.  This still leaves two questions, why does God punish people for the sins of their parents, and how can God still claim to forgive sins but then also not clear the guilty?  We will turn to the first question first.

We should not think that God ever did mean that children were punished for the sins of their parents.  In fact, Ezekiel 18 speaks directly against that.  The reason it does is because while Babylon, some people were using that proverb “that God visits the iniquity of the father on the children” to mean that God punishes children for the sins of their parents.  When this started happening, God told Ezekiel to tell the people to stop using that proverb because it was causing misunderstanding.[43]  For it is evident in Deuteronomy 24:16 that God does not punish the children for the sin of the parent. 

The point that we are to take from “God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children” is the reality that sin has consequences, and God does not wipe away the consequences of sin.  God is more than willing to forgive, but he does not always interrupt and stop the natural consequences of sin.[44]  So, sometimes those who did not commit a sin, end up suffering the negative consequences of that sin.  This is a way to remind people of the horror of sin.  Sin does not just destroy the individual and the individual’s life that sins, it also impacts those around the individual. 

With this we can finally turn back and see how verse seven is truly a paradox, not a contradiction.  God is more than willing to forgive those who sin, but this does not mean he erases the consequences of those who do sin.[45]  Also, it should help us also understand that for those who do not seek forgiveness, God does not just forget their wrong doing.  God will not pardon the unrepentant and will not view them as innocent.[46] 

In response to this self-disclosure, Moses immediately bows and begs God to forgive the stubborn Israelites and to bring his presence into their midst.  Moses response is an indication of his recognition of God’s holiness.  It is not in spite of Israelite being a stiff-necked people Moses asks for God’s presence, but it is because of this that he pleads for God’s presence.[47]  God has made it clear that he will not relent his justice and holiness, but that his love is greater than our brokenness.[48]  Moses recognizes that this is the kind of God that the Israelites needs and so he makes haste to restore Israel’s relationship with God. 

As we look back at the passage as a whole, there are a few things we should take from this passage.  First and foremost, God’s loving and gracious character is the most fundamental and important thing about God.  We also should see God as a deeply personal God who is willing to come down to meet us and interact with us.  Liturgically, it reminds us that we need to continue to go to God in repentance, and we can trust that God will give us forgiveness, but he will not drop his standard for how we are to live.[49]  He may be a God who has high standards, but he provides grace and forgiveness to those who genuinely seek it.[50]  It is on the basis of God’s character that our covenant with God is secured.  In response to God’s character, we can trust that God will keep his promises, and we should live in full devotion and worship of God. 

As much as we can trust God to be consistently himself, we have to remember that his character does have paradoxical nature.  We need to be weary of trying to box God in to acting a certain way and be in awe of his limitless freedom to act however he so pleases.[51]  This adds mystery and ambiguity to God’s presence, or lack thereof.  In a world where things are not black and white, and where God’s character seems to be constantly challenged, it is imperative for us to be committed to his covenant.  It is in or commitment and devotion to God that we experience God to be all that he claims to be.

This passage is ripe with theological and spiritual wisdom that could be explored much further than this paper.  That is why it is so often quoted, alluded to, and used within the Bible itself.  It is a foundational way Israel understood who God was and it should be so for us today.  God’s revelation of his character her is displayed throughout the pages of the Bible, embodied by Jesus, and then expounded upon even further in the New Testament.  It is because of God’s character that we can continue to trust and hope in the promises he has given to us.

Bibliography

Barker, Joel. “FROM WHERE DOES MY HOPE COME? THEODICY AND THE          CHARACTER OF YHWH IN ALLUSIONS TO EXODUS 34:6–7 IN THE BOOK OF           THE TWELVE.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 61, no. 4 (12, 2018):          697-715.

Bosman, Jan P. “The Paradoxical Presence of Exodus 34:6-7 in the Book of the Twelve.” Scriptura 87 (2004): 233–43.

Carol A. Newsom, et al. Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition : Revised and Updated.       Vol. 3rd ed., twentieth anniversary ed, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991.

Groenewald, A. (2008). Exodus, Psalms and Hebrews: A God abounding in steadfast love (Ex     34:6). HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 64(3). doi:10.4102/hts.v64i3.72

Isbell, Charles D. “The Liturgical Function of Exodus 33:16-34:26.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 29,  no. 1 (January 2001): 27–31.

Johnstone, William. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible: Exodus. Eerdmans Commentary on     the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2019.

Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 629 (January 2001): 36–51.

Littrell, Amie D. “The Origin of the Divine Punishment Limit to the Third and Fourth      Generation (Exod 34:6-7).” Biblical Research 60 (2015): 7–14.

Mark S. Smith. Exodus : Volume 3. New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Old Testament.            Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2011.

Meyers, Carol. Exodus. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.

O’Brien, Mark A. “The Dynamics of the Golden Calf Story (Exodus 32-34).” Australian Biblical Review 60 (2012): 18–31.

Seow, Choon Leong. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007.

The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill, 1996.


[1] Carol A. Newsom, et al. Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition : Revised and Updated. Vol. 3rd ed., twentieth anniversary ed, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

[2] Carol A. Newsom, et al. Women’s Bible Commentary

[3] Mark S. Smith. Exodus: Volume 3. New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Old Testament. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2011.

[4] Mark S. Smith. Exodus

[5] Mark S. Smith. Exodus

[6] Johnstone, William. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible: Exodus. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand       Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2019.

[7] Littrell, Amie D. “The Origin of the Divine Punishment Limit to the Third and Fourth Generation (Exod 34:6-7).”  Biblical Research 60 (2015): 7–14. 10.

[8] Johnstone, William. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible: Exodus.

[9] Mark S. Smith. Exodus

[10] Littrell, Amie D. The Origin of the Divine Punishment Limit. 10.

[11] Isbell, Charles D. “The Liturgical Function of Exodus 33:16-34:26.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 29, no. 1 (January      2001): 27–31. 28.

[12] O’Brien, Mark A. “The Dynamics of the Golden Calf Story (Exodus 32-34).” Australian Biblical Review 60          (2012): 18–31. 29.

[13]Barker, Joel. “FROM WHERE DOES MY HOPE COME? THEODICY AND THE CHARACTER OF YHWH IN ALLUSIONS TO EXODUS 34:6–7 IN THE BOOK OF THE TWELVE.” Journal of the Evangelical      Theological Society 61, no. 4 (12, 2018): 697-715. 698.

[14] Groenewald, A. (2008). Exodus, Psalms and Hebrews: A God abounding in steadfast love (Ex 34:6). HTS               Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 64(3). doi:10.4102/hts.v64i3.72. 1373.

[15] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill, 1996. 1404.

[16] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 427.

[17] Seow, Choon Leong. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007. 298.

[18] Barker, Joel. “FROM WHERE DOES MY HOPE COME?” 699.

[19] Barker, Joel. “FROM WHERE DOES MY HOPE COME?” 698.

[20] Groenewald, A. (2008). Exodus, Psalms and Hebrews. 1368.

[21] Bosman, Jan P. “The Paradoxical Presence of Exodus 34:6-7 in the Book of the Twelve.” Scriptura 87 (2004):       233–43. 235.

[22] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 629 (January 2001): 36–51.  42.

[23] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 1214.

[24] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 43.

[25] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 333.

[26] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 44.

[27] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 45.

[28] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 46.

[29] Groenewald, A. (2008). Exodus, Psalms and Hebrews. 1374.

[30] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 1171.

[31] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 337.

[32] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 47.

[33] Groenewald, A. (2008). Exodus, Psalms and Hebrews. 1374.

[34] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 68.

[35] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 47.

[36] Barker, Joel. “FROM WHERE DOES MY HOPE COME?” 714.

[37] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 724.

[38] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 48.

[39] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 49.

[40] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 720.

[41] Littrell, Amie D. The Origin of the Divine Punishment Limit. 10.

[42] Littrell, Amie D. The Origin of the Divine Punishment Limit. 11.

[43] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 50.

[44] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 50.

[45] O’Brien, Mark A. “The Dynamics of the Golden Calf Story (Exodus 32-34).” 30.

[46] Laney, J Carl. “God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8.” 50.

[47] Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991. 304.

[48] Bosman, Jan P. “The Paradoxical Presence of Exodus 34:6-7” 236.

[49] Isbell, Charles D. “The Liturgical Function of Exodus 33:16-34:26.” 29.

[50] Meyers, Carol. Exodus. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. 264.

[51] Bosman, Jan P. “The Paradoxical Presence of Exodus 34:6-7” 242.

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