BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 158 (January-March 2001): 36-51

          Copyright © 2001 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

 

                 GOD'S SELF-REVELATION

                         IN EXODUS 34:6-8

 

 

                                                    J. Carl Laney

 

 

TO GET ACQUAINTED WITH SOMEONE, a person can ask others

about that individual. Or a person can meet the individual

personally and ask appropriate questions. In seeking to

know God many Christians study what others say about Him. But

a better way to get to know God is to ask Him about Himself. This

is exactly what Moses did in Exodus 33:18 when he said, "I pray

You, show me Your glory." The answer to Moses' request is given in

34:6-7, in which God revealed several of His divine attributes. This

passage is one of the most important theological texts in Scripture,

because it is the only place where God actually described Himself,

listing His own glorious attributes.

The importance of Exodus 34:6-7 as a foundation for biblical

theology is evidenced by the fact that this statement is repeated

many times in the Old Testament (Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Pss.

103:8, 17; 145:8; Jer. 32:18-19; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2). Echoes of this

self-revelation also appear in Deuteronomy 5:9-10; 1 Kings 3:6;

Lamentations 3:32; Daniel 9:4; and Nahum 1:3. The biblical writ-

ers clearly regarded Exodus 34:6-7 as a foundational statement

about God.

Strangely, this great passage has received little attention from

systematic theologians. For example it does not appear in the

Scripture index of Chafer's Systematic Theology.1 Berkhofs Sys-

tematic Theology cites Exodus 34:6 twice and 34:7 once, but only as

proof texts for certain divine attributes, without discussion or

comment.2 Erickson cites the text in support of the graciousness of

 

J. Carl Laney is Professor of Biblical Literature, Western Seminary, Portland, Ore-

gon.

1 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press,

1948), 8:99.

2 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 69, 73, 370.

 



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                            37

 

God and the persistence of God.3 Grudem recommends the text for

Scripture memory, but offers no comment or discussion.4 Exodus

34:6-7 has fared slightly better in biblical theologies,5 but it is sel-

dom given detailed attention as a foundational text for one's under-

standing of the character and attributes of God.

 

THE CONTEXT OF THE REVELATION (EXOD. 32-33)

 

God's self-revelation to Moses is set in the context of one of the

spiritual low points in Israel's history. Exodus 32 records how Is-

rael's sin of idolatry resulted in the breaking of the newly estab-

lished covenant with the Lord. While the Israelites were camped at

Mount Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain to meet with God and

receive the tablets of the Law. When this took longer than ex-

pected, the people approached Aaron with a request, "Come, make

us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who

brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has

become of him" (32:1).

Three failures can be noted here. First, the Israelites failed to

recognize their exclusive allegiance to the Lord, with whom they

had entered into covenant. The first of the Ten Commandments

stated, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (20:3), but the

people demanded of Aaron, "make us gods [Myhilox<] who will go be-

fore us." Second, they failed to acknowledge that it was God, not

Moses, who had delivered them from Egypt. In his song Moses had

credited God with Israel's deliverance from Egypt (15:1-18). Now

the Israelites were attributing their deliverance to Moses. Third,

the Israelites failed to rely on Moses, their covenant mediator.

Moses had not told the people when he would return from his

mountaintop meeting with God. So when Moses delayed, they gave

up hope and sought someone else to lead them.

Surprisingly Aaron quickly yielded to public pressure by fash-

ioning a golden calf, which he then presented to the people, "This is

your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt"

(32:4). This calf may be reminiscent of the Apis bull cult, which was

 

3 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 321-22.

4 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 209.

5 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zon-

dervan: 1978), 233; Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1961), 1:69, 233; and Eugene H. Merrill, "A Theology of the Penta-

teuch," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago:

Moody, 1991), 54.

 



38                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA I January-March 2001

prevalent in Memphis, Egypt. It may also recall Mnevis bull wor-

ship in Heliopolis. But these places were some distance from

Goshen, the district where the Israelites lived when in Egypt.

Wood suggests that the bull cults connected with the worship of

Horus more likely influenced Aaron.6 Aaron announced to the peo-

ple, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD" (32:5). These words

suggest that Aaron intended for the image of the calf to represent

Israel's God, Yahweh. Cassuto reasons that Aaron's words were an

unsuccessful attempt to dissuade the Israelites from worshiping

the calf and to encourage them to turn back to the Lord.7

On Mount Sinai God informed Moses of the idolatry that had

taken place in the camp. God charged the people with having "cor-

rupted" themselves (v. 7). Then He threatened to destroy the Isra-

elites, suggesting to Moses that He could raise up a new nation

from his descendants (v. 10). This was a real test for Israel's leader.

Would he choose his own exaltation over Israel's preservation? Af-

ter all that he had experienced with these rebellious people, one

can imagine that he was tempted to stand back and let God deal

with them. But instead, Moses interceded on behalf of the people,

and so God withheld His judgment (vv. 11-13). The words "the

LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would

do to His people" (32:14) are not inconsistent with the doctrine of

God's immutability. Announcements of judgment are frequently

conditional. God sometimes withholds His judgment in response to

repentance or intercession because He is unchanging in His com-

passion and grace (2 Pet. 3:9).8

Because of Israel's failure in the matter of the golden calf, the

Lord withdrew His presence from among the people in the camp

(Exod. 33:1-7). He promised to send an angel to lead them into the

Promised Land, but God would not go on in the midst of such sinful

covenant-breakers. Moses was no doubt discouraged by Israel's

failure. He wanted to be with God, and yet God had left the camp.

To resolve this situation Moses set up a small tent some distance

from the Israelite camp, where he could meet with God (v. 7).9

 

6 Leon J. Wood, A Survey of Israel's History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986),

118, n. 37.

7 U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967),

413.

8 See Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "Does God 'Change His Mind'?'" Bibliotheca Sacra

152 (October-December 1995): 387-99.

9 "Tent of meeting" (dfeOm lh,xo) here does not refer to the tabernacle, for it had not

yet been built (see Exod. 40). Cassuto concurs with this assessment (The Book of

 



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                            39

 

Sheltered there from the desert wind and sun, Moses spent time

alone with the Lord. Whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of

cloud descended to the tent entrance and God spoke with Moses (v.

9). This must have been a very special experience for Moses. Re-

flecting on this time he spent with God, he wrote, "Thus the LORD

used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his

friend" (v. 11). The expression "face to face" (MyniPA-lx, MyniPA) is used five

times in the Old Testament to describe close intimacy between God

and His people (Gen. 32:31; Exod. 33:11; Deut. 34:10; Judg. 6:22;

Ezek. 20:35).

More than anything else, Moses wanted to know and experi-

ence God. This desire is clearly reflected in his prayer, "Now there-

fore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know

Your ways, that I may know You" (Exod. 33:13). By desiring to

know God's ways Moses wanted to become better acquainted with

His actions, directions, and manner of doing things. He wanted to

know God more intimately, more intelligently, more personally

than ever before. With this desire in mind he said, "I pray You,

show me Your glory" (v. 18). The word dObKA ("glory") is associated

with a verb that means "to be heavy." The noun is sometimes used

with reference to someone's "weighty" reputation or honored posi-

tion (1 Kings 3:13). The word refers to being "weighty in the sense

of being noteworthy or impressive."10 Similarly it refers to the re-

ality and splendor of God's glorious presence. Sometimes His glory

was made visible in association with the tabernacle or temple

(Exod. 40:34; 1 Kings 8:11; Ezek. 9:3-4).

In Exodus 33:18 Moses was asking for a full self-disclosure of

God's glorious person--a revelation that would sustain and en-

courage Moses, enabling him to carryon as Israel's leader. But

Moses asked for more than God was willing to grant. The Lord re-

sponded by telling Moses that mortal man cannot see God in the

fullness of His divine glory and still survive the experience (v. 20;

see also John 1:18; Col. 1:15). But God graciously accommodated

Himself to Moses by announcing that He would make His "good-

ness" pass before Moses and would "proclaim" His name in Moses'

presence (Exod. 33:19). Durham suggests that "goodness" (bOF) here

may imply the "beauty" of the Lord and so it anticipated a

 

Exodus, 430).

10 John N. Oswalt, "dbeKA'" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R.

Larid Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1980),

1:426.



40                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001

theophany.11 But in this case God gave Moses not a vision of how

He appears but a description of what He is. The promise to pro-

claim His name is probably another way of saying the same thing.

In biblical times a person's "name" (Mwe) was associated with his or

her character and reputation.12 For Yahweh to proclaim His name

meant He would declare or announce His attributes, the essence of

His divine character.

God told Moses that He would place him in the cleft of a rock,

covering him with His hand until He passed by. Then God told

Moses, "I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but

my face shall not be seen" (v. 23). This statement is rich in anthro-

pomorphisms, attributing to God the human features of a hand,

back, and face. Since God does not have a physical body (John

4:24), these terms reveal how intimately and personally God would

disclose Himself to Moses.

 

THE REVELATION OF GOD'S GLORY (EXOD. 34:6-7)

 

God fulfilled His promise to give Moses a fresh revelation of His

glory. Once again He called Moses to Mount Sinai (34:1-2), and He

"descended in the cloud and stood there with him" (v. 5). In its

many uses in Exodus and Numbers, the word "cloud" (NnAfA) is associ-

ated with and represents God's presence. The last phrase in verse

5, "he called upon the name of the LORD,” is somewhat ambiguous.

Did Moses "call upon" the name of Yahweh, or did Yahweh "pro-

claim" His name? Though the Hebrew verb xrAqA can be translated

either way, it seems preferable in this context to understand that

God proclaimed His name or attributes, for this is what He had

promised Moses (33:19). Davies points out that there is no change

of subject for the verbs "passed by" and "proclaimed" in verse 6. He

translates it this way: "Yahweh passed by before him, and (Yah-

weh) proclaimed. . . ."13 This interpretation has the support of a

number of noted commentators.14 What follows, as Fretheim notes,

 

11 John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1987),

152.

12 Walter C. Kaiser, “Mwe," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:934:

13 G. Henton Davies, Exodus (London:SCM, 1967), 246.

14 For example George Bush, Notes on Exodus (Minneapolis: James & Klock,

1976), 243; Brevard S. Childs, Exodus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974),603; Cas-

suto, Exodus, 436; Durham, Exodus, 453; and T. E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville:

John Knox, 1991), 301.



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                            41

 

is a "virtual exegesis"15 of Yahweh's name as God disclosed His

character and attributes to Moses.

 

YAHWEH, YAHWEH EL

 

God began His self-revelation to Moses by pronouncing His divine

name Yahweh (hvhy) twice, followed by El (lxe), the biblical designa-

tion for Deity. This is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where this

precise formula occurs.16 The translators of the Septuagint appar-

ently took the second occurrence of "Yahweh" as redundant, so they

deleted it. Cassuto takes the double tetragrammaton as apposi-

tional, translating "The LORD, He is the LORD."17 Davies interprets

the construction as a doubling of the divine name followed by a

designation and description, "Yahweh, Yahweh, a God. . . ."18 Dur-

ham comments that the double occurrence of  hvhy is "a deliberate

repetition of the confessional use of the tetragrammaton, empha-

sizing the reality of Yahweh present in his very being, linking this

proof to Moses to the earlier proof-of-Presence narratives that are

begun in Exodus 3, and providing an anchor line for the list of five

descriptive phrases to follow."19 It seems clear that the twofold oc-

currence of hvhy emphasizes God's name, thereby causing the lis-

tener to pause and reflect on its meaning and the description that

follows.

The meaning of God's name Yahweh was first revealed to

Moses in Exodus 3:13-15.20 "God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.'

This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to

 

15 Fretheim, Exodus, 301.

16 The abbreviation h.yA ("Yah") does occur twice together in Isaiah 38:11.

17 Cassuto, Exodus, 439.

18 Davies, Exodus, 246.

19 Durham, Exodus, 453.

20 The meaning of the name Yahweh, a worthy study by itself, is beyond the scope

of this article. Many scholars have contributed significantly to the understanding of

this name. Among them are W. R. Arnold, "The Divine Name in Exodus iii.14,"

Journal of Biblical Literature 24 (1905): 107-65; William F. Albright, "Contribu-

tions to Biblical Archaeology and Philology: 2. The Divine Name," Journal of Bibli-

cal Literature 43 (1924): 370-78; E. Schild, "On Exodus iii 14-'I Am That I Am,'"

Vetus Testamentum 4 (1954): 296-302; S. D. Goitein, "YHWH the Passionate: The

Monotheistic Meaning and Origin of the Name YHWH," Vetus Testamentum 6

(1956): 1-9; David Noel Freedman, "The Name of the God of Moses," Journal of

Biblical Literature 79 (1960): 151-56; R. Abba, "The Divine Name Yahweh," Journal

of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 320-28; S. Mowinckel, "The Name of the God of

Moses," Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961): 121-33; and Roland de Vaux, "The

Revelation of the Divine Name YHWH," in Proclamation and Presence, ed. John I.

Durham and J. R. Porter (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1970): 48-75.



42        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001

 

you'" (3:14). The words "I AM" translate a first-person form of the

Hebrew verb hyAhA ("to be"). The meaning is that God is the self-

existent One. As Allen states, "He exists dependent upon nothing

or no one excepting his own will."21 When God said, "I AM," He was

referring to His active, life-giving existence. The words "I AM" ex-

press the meaning of God's name, but they are not the name itself.

God's name is revealed in verse 15 as Yahweh. The Hebrew name

Yahweh is probably best understood as derived from a third-person

form of the Hebrew verb hyAhA ("to be"), emphasizing, as in the case of

"I AM," that He is the self-existent One.

The word lxe is an ancient Semitic term used in the Bible as a

generic name for "god" and as a designation for the true God of Is-

rael.22 Scholars have debated the root meaning of the term. Fre-

quent suggestions for the original meaning include "power" or

"fear," but these proposals are challenged and much disputed.23 It

is rare to find lxe in Scripture without some word or description

that elevates and distinguishes the true God from false deities that

bear the designation "god." Yahweh, the God of Israel, is "the great

lxe" (Jer. 32:18), "the lxe of heaven" (Ps. 136:26), and "the lxe most

high" (Gen. 14:18-19). In Exodus 34:6 lxe is used in connection with

the double name Yahweh. God identified Himself to Moses with the

words "Yahweh, Yahweh God." As the double name provides em-

phasis, the designation lxe begins to provide a description. The One

speaking to Moses was none other than Yahweh, the true and liv-

ing God.

 

THE LIST OF ATTRIBUTES

In critical studies scholars have discussed the origin and use of the

list of characteristics revealed in the proclamation of Yahweh's

name. Dentan concludes that in Exodus 34:6-8 and related pas-

sages the entire "formula" was produced by the circle of Israel's

sages and inserted into the Exodus narrative by them in their re-

daction of the Pentateuch.24 Other scholars have assumed a cultic

origin and liturgical use for this summary of Yahweh's characteris-

 

21 Ronald B. Allen, "What Is in a Name?" in God: What Is He Like? ed. W. F. Kerr

(Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1977), 122.

22 J. B. Scott, "lxe," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:41.

23 Ibid., 1:42.

24 R. C. Dentan, "The Literary Affinities of Exodus XXXIV 6f.," Vetus Testamentum

13 (1963): 34-51.



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                43

 

tics.25 Others argue that the origin of the "formula" must be found

in the narrative context of Israel's first disobedience and Yahweh's

judgment. Durham has noted the relationship between God's

dealings with Israel in the Book of Exodus and the things He said

about Himself in His self-revelation. "Yahweh's compassion had

just been demonstrated (32:14), and his tendency to be favorable

was in the process of exercise (33:12-17). His slowness to grow an-

gry had been attested from the moment of Israel's complaint at the

sea (14:11-12), and his unchanging love and reliableness were the

reason Moses had still been able to plead after the terrible cancel-

lation made by the people's disobedience with the calf. His keeping

of unchanging love to the thousands and the removal of their guilt,

their transgression and their sin. . . were in process."26

God had revealed Himself to Moses by His works in relation-

ship with His people. Now in Exodus 34:6-7 He revealed Himself

through words.27

Compassionate. The first thing God revealed about Himself is

that He is compassionate. The word MUHra describes a deep love

rooted in some natural bond.28 This love is usually that of a supe-

rior being (God) for an inferior being (a human). The psalmist de-

clared, "Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the

LORD [Yahweh] has compassion [MHara] on those who fear Him" (Ps.

103:13). Girdlestone defines it as expressing "a deep and tender

feeling of compassion, such as is aroused by the sight of weakness

or suffering in those that are dear to us or need our help."29

The Old Testament uses MUHra thirteen times. Twelve of those

occurrences refer to God, and one (Ps. 112:4) refers to man. When

used of God, the word points up the strong bond He has with those

He calls His children. He looks on His people much as mothers and

fathers look on their children--with concern for their needs and

tender feelings of love.

Another concept associated with God's compassion is His un-

 

25 W. Beyerlin, Origins and History of the Oldest Sinaitic Tradition (Oxford: Basil

Blackwell, 1965), 137-38; and J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (London: Oliphants, 1971),

322-23.

26 Durham, Exodus, 454.

27 The discussion of these attributes builds on J. Carl Laney, God: Who He Is,

What He Does, How to Know Him Better, Swindoll Leadership Library (Nashville:

Word, 1999), 48-56.

28 L. J. Coppes, "MHarA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:841.

29 R. B. Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1970), 108.



44                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001

 

conditional choice. "I . . . will show compassion on whom I will show

compassion" (Exod. 33:19). God's compassion is extended by His

sovereign decree to those whom He chooses. God's compassion is

also linked with His faithfulness. "For the LORD [Yahweh] your

God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you

nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them"

(Deut. 4:31). And because He is compassionate, He is also forgiv-

ing. The psalmist declared, "But He, being compassionate, forgave

their iniquity and did not destroy them" (Ps. 78:38). Through the

exercise of His compassion, God spared a repentant people who

were deserving of judgment. Deuteronomy 30:1-3 reveals that re-

pentance from sin will be met with God's compassion and restora-

tion to blessing. A brief survey of prophetic literature reveals that

Yahweh's compassion provides the basis for Israel's future restora-

tion (Isa. 49:13; Jer. 12:15), national redemption (Mic. 7:19), and

eschatological hope (Isa. 14:1; Jer. 33:26; Zech. 1:16). Anticipating

the future blessings for His people, God declared, "For a brief mo-

ment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you"

(Isa. 54:7).

God is a compassionate Father. He loves His own, those whom

He chose. And He will never forsake them. He will always be avail-

able in believers' times of need, seeking their good for His ultimate

glory. Although infinitely holy, His compassion allows Him to deal

gently with weak and failing people. He is full of tender sympathy

for the sufferings and the miseries of human frailty. Because of His

compassion He is always ready and willing to forgive sins and to

restore people to Himself.

Gracious. The second fact God wanted Moses to know about

Himself is that He is gracious. The Hebrew adjective NUn.Ha depicts "a

heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one

who has a need."30 The verb NnaHA usually refers to a stronger person

coming to help a weaker one who has no claim for such favorable

treatment. Most of the occurrences of this verb in the Hebrew Bible

have Yahweh as the subject. Jacob explained to his brother Esau

that his family and property were due to the fact that God had

"dealt graciously" with him (Gen. 33:5, 11). In praying and fasting

for his dying son, David said, "Who knows, the LORD may be gra-

cious to me, that the child may live" (2 Sam. 12:22). Showing such

grace seems to be a divine prerogative, for Yahweh declared to

Moses, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious" (Exod. 33:19).

Often God's grace is seen in His delivering of His own from their

 

30 Edwin Yamauchi, "NnAHA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:302.



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                45

 

enemies or from their sins (Pss. 26:11; 51:1; 123:3).

The word "gracious" is used thirteen times in the Old Testa-

ment, eleven times in combination with MUHra ("compassionate").

Like the verbal form NnaHA the adjective NUn.Ha denotes the free favor of a

superior given to one who is needy but undeserving. Yamauchi

notes that all the occurrences except one refer to Yahweh, who is

favorable toward the afflicted and needy (Exod. 22:27; 34:6;-2

Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17, 31; Pss. 86:15; 103:8, 111:4; 116:5; 145:8;

Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2).31 The single exception to this pattern, in Psalm

112:4, uses the adjective to describe the God-fearing person, who

shares certain characteristics with God. Yet with humankind this

attribute is not perfect. The kindness people extend to others may

not be unbiased or without hope of reward. With God, things are

different. He has no ulterior motives. Because God is gracious, He

will hear the cry of the poor (Exod. 22:27). Because God is gracious,

He will not turn away from the repentant (2 Chron. 30:9). Because

God is gracious, He will not forsake His people (Neh. 9:17, 31).

The grace of God is featured throughout the Bible, from Gene-

sis to Revelation, emphasizing the theological basis for God's good-

ness and kindness toward His people. Ryrie wrote, "Christianity is

distinct from all other religions because it is a message of grace.

Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God's grace; salvation is

by grace; and grace governs and empowers Christian living. With-

out grace Christianity is nothing."32

Slow to anger. The Bible reveals that God has a legitimate ba-

sis for anger: The sin and disobedience of His people dishonors and

displeases Him (Exod. 32:10). But God's anger, though fierce (Num.

25:4; 32:14; Josh. 7:26; Jer. 25:37), is not sinful or evil. It is

grounded in His holy character, which is offended by the sinful re-

bellion of His creatures. God's anger often issues in His chastising

(Pss. 6:1; 38:1) and punishing (2 Sam. 6:7; Jer. 44:6) His people.

Yet while God may be rightfully angry over sin and disobedience,

He is not quick to become angry. The Hebrew expression MyiPaxa j`r,x,

("slow to anger") is used ten times in the Bible to refer to God's pa-

tience in dealing with those whose sins arouse His wrath. The ex-

pression includes the noun j`r,x,, meaning "long," and MyiPaxa, a word

for "nose." In Hebrew the nose is associated with anger, apparently

because when a person is angry, his or her face and nose may in-

voluntarily redden and appear to "burn."

God's being "slow to anger" means that He takes a long time

 

31 Ibid, 304.

32 Charles C. Ryrie, The Grace of God (Chicago: Moody, 1963),9.



46                    BIBlIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001

 

before getting angry. It is as if He takes a long, deep breath as He

deals with sin and holds His anger in abeyance. In discussing this

concept Hamilton suggests that God's nose becomes so long that it

would "take forever to burn completely."33 However, this wrongly

seems to suggest that God would never actually become angry and

express His divine wrath, a view not supported by Scripture (Exod.

4:14; Num. 11:1; 22:22; Josh. 7:1). Because God is holy, He must

respond with wrath and judgment on sin and disobedience. His

righteousness demands that He not leave wickedness unpunished.

Such lenience would be contrary to His holy character. But God

does not hasten to punish the sinner. Instead, He exercises His at-

tribute of longsuffering. God's prolonged and patient dealings with

the wicked should not be interpreted to mean that sin is not seri-

ous or does not matter. Rather, God's patience gives the wicked

time and opportunity to repent. As Peter wrote, God is "not wishing

for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).

God is in no hurry to judge sinners. Yet there will be a day

when the wicked must stand before God's great,white throne and

be judged according to their deeds (Rev. 20:11-15). Meanwhile God

continues to demonstrate His patience and grace. Though His an-

ger is being kindled by human sinfulness, it is being kindled very

slowly.

Abounding in lovingkindness. The next thing God revealed to

Moses about Himself is that He is "abounding in lovingkindness

and truth." The word bra ("abounding") is used to describe what is

present in abundant quantity or quality. The phrase tm,x<v, ds,H,-bra

occurs thirteen times in the Old Testament.34 Some scholars say

this phrase is a hendiadys, a figure of speech in which two words

represent one idea. Cassuto, for example, says this phrase speaks

of the attribute of "lovingkindness of truth," or "true and faithful

lovingkindness."35 Others say the phrase could refer to God's "true

love" or "faithful love." However, since there is no absolute cer-

tainty that the compound phrase reflects a single idea, and no con-

sensus as to the idea being represented, it seems preferable to treat

the words as separate attributes of God.

The Hebrew word ds,H, variously translated "kindness" (JB),

"lovingkindness" (KJV, NASB), "love" (NIV), or "steadfast love"

(NRSV), has the basic meaning of "unfailing love" or "loyalty." The

 

33 Victor P. Hamilton, "j`rAxA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:72.

34 Genesis 24:49; 47:29; Exodus 34:6; Joshua 2:14; 2 Samuel 2:6; 15:20; Psalms

25:10; 61:7 (Heb., 8); 85:10 (Heb., 11); 86:15; 89:14 (Heb., 15); Proverbs 3:3; 20:28.

35 Cassuto, Exodus, 439.

 



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                            47

 

Septuagint uses the Greek word e@leoj ("mercy" or "compassion") in

translating ds,H,.

Glueck points out that in ancient treaties the term ds,H, was

used to describe an aspect of the covenant relationship between

kings and their subjects.36 As the king was expected to demon-

strate ds,H, to the people with whom he had entered into covenant,

so his subjects were to show ds,H, toward their king. This "love" on

the people's part suggested loyalty, service, and obedience. As an-

cient kings entered into a relationship with their subjects, ex-

pressed in terms of "covenantal love," so God established His cove-

nant with Israel, promising His loyalty to His people and calling

for their loyalty in return.

Not all scholars agree with Glueck's view that ds,H, is so closely

tied to fulfilling prior covenantal duties. Others hold that ds,H, ex-

presses love in a more general sense, emphasizing the freedom of

God to love without any sense of obligation. Sakenfeld argues that

ds,H, denotes free acts of rescue or deliverance, which includes the

idea of faithfulness.37 Clearly God's relationship with His people

Israel was formalized and defined by a covenant (Exod. 19:5; 24:8;

31:16; 34:10), but there is freedom, initiative, and grace in Yah-

weh's ds,H,. That is, all of God's favor is based on His love (Deut.

7:8). God entered into a covenant with His people because of His

love. The covenant simply guarantees the perpetuity of His love.

Yahweh's "loyal-love" is an undeserved, selective affection by

which He binds Himself to His people for their sake. He graciously

and sovereignly grants gifts and blessings beyond anything they

might hope for. And He grants these blessings contrary to what

people deserve. His abounding ds,H, will never diminish or be ex-

hausted since it is founded on His character and covenant com-

mitment. And so the psalmist wrote, "Give thanks to the LORD, for

He is good; for His ds,H, is everlasting" (Ps. 136:1).

Abundant in truth. Besides being "great" (bra) in His loyal love,

God also abounds in tm,x<. The word tm,x<, which can be translated

"truth" or "faithfulness," is associated with the verb NmaxA, "to con-

firm, support, or establish." The basic idea of both the verb and the

noun is that of firmness, certainty, and dependability.38 This word

is frequently applied to God as a characteristic of His divine na-

 

36 Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, ed. Eleas L. Epstein, trans. Alfred Gottschalk

(Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1967).

37 K. D. Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry

(Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1978), 1-13.

38 J. B. Scott, “NmaxA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:51-52.



48                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001

 

ture. The chronicler used it in describing the "true God" (2 Chron.

15:3). The term is fittingly applied to God's words (Ps. 119:142,

151, 160). As a characteristic of God, tm,x< is the means by which

people come to know and serve Him (1 Kings 2:4; Pss. 25:5; 26:3).

In Exodus 34:6 the word may emphasize "truth," or it may fo-

cus on "faithfulness." Both, of course, are equally true of God. But

reliability, stability, and faithfulness seem to be fundamental to

tm,x< when applied to God. And because He is reliable and faithful,

His words can be trusted. As Scott comments, "As we study its

various contexts, it becomes manifestly clear that there is no truth

in the biblical sense, i.e. valid truth, outside God. All truth comes

from God and is truth because it is related to God."39 God's Word is

as sure as His character. Jesus affirmed this when He said, "Your

Word is truth" (John 17:17).

Keeping lovingkindness for thousands. God's attributes are not

revealed merely to be discussed and admired. They reflect the na-

ture of God who extends Himself and His divine mercies to those in

need. The word translated "lovingkindness" in verse 7 is ds,H,, used

already in verse 6. Once again God was revealing His steadfast,

loyal love frequently exhibited in terms of covenant loyalty toward

His people. But here He declared that He does not limit the exer-

cise of His ds,H,, but that He extends this abounding love to the mul-

titudes. The participle rceno, translated "keeping" or "who keeps,"

does not mean "retaining." Rather it means that God extends His

ds,H, to those in need. Cassuto says the word "thousands" means

"thousands of generations."40 This fits the context, which mentions

"generations" at the end of verse 7. God extends His loyal love to

thousands of generations, the distant descendants of the Israelites

who were with Moses at Mount Sinai. God keeps on working to ex-

tend His loyal love to the thousands of people who need His help

and deliverance.

Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. Another great truth

God wanted Moses and His people to know about Himself is that

He is willing to forgive. Although this is not the last of the divine

attributes God noted in this passage, Bush regards this statement

as "the climax of the present proclamation."41 The word xWAnA ("to for-

give") means "to lift up, carry, take away." The verb is used figura-

tively here and elsewhere of God's "taking away" sin (Ps. 32:1, 5),

 

39 Ibid., 53.

40 Cassuto, Exodus, 440.

41 Bush, Exodus, 2:246.

 



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                49

 

so that the guilty receive pardon and forgiveness. This use of xWAnA

appears often in requests for forgiveness (Gen. 50:17; Exod. 10:17;

32:32; Num. 14:19; 1 Sam. 15:25; 25:28). As Kaiser notes, "Sin can

be forgiven and forgotten, because it is taken up and carried

away."42

Three words are used to describe the actions and attitudes

that God forgives. The first word, NOfA ("iniquity"), refers to an action

that involves crooked behavior, a turning away from the straight

and narrow way. The second word, fwaP, ("transgressions"), refers to

a breach of relationships, civil or religious, between two parties

(Gen. 31:36; Isa. 58:1). In the context of international relationships

the cognate verb designates a revolt against rulers. In a religious

sense it refers to a rebellion against God's authority. Livingston

regards it as a "collective which denotes the sum of misdeeds and a

fractured relationship."43 The third word, hxAF.AHa ("sin"), is related to

the verb xFAHA, "to miss the way." Missing God's standards or failing

to fulfill His requirements constitutes an act of sin. Cassuto is not

convinced that Moses intended to differentiate between three va-

rieties of sin; he says that the three are synonyms that are used to

cover "the entire range of wrongdoing."44 While this may be the

case, there are significant differences in nuance between the words.

Micah contemplated God's marvelous attribute of forgiveness

when he said, "Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and

passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession. He

does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in un-

changing love" (Mic. 7:18).

Not acquitting unrepentant sinners. The next attribute fea-

tures the other side of God's forgiving grace. Although He delights

in forgiveness, His grace cannot abrogate His justice. Those who

refuse to repent are responsible before the holy God.

The Hebrew text could be translated, "He will most certainly

not acquit [the guilty]." The word translated "acquit" (hqAnA) means

"to be clean, pure, or spotless." Fisher and Waltke note that of the

forty Old Testament occurrences of this verb the vast majority have

an ethical, moral, or forensic connotation.45 In a judicial context it

takes on the meaning "to be acquitted" or "to go unpunished." A

 

42 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “xWAnA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:601.

43 G. H. Livingston, "fwaPA," in ibid., 2:741.

44 Cassuto, Exodus, 440.

45 M. C. Fisher and Bruce K. Waltke, "hqAnA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old

Testament, 2:597.



50                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001

 

husband is "acquitted" of any guilt if he, in declaring his wife un-

faithful, follows the legal procedures required by law (Num. 5:31).

The word is sometimes used with a negative particle, thereby

yielding a strong warning of accountability and judgment. Proverbs

6:29 declares that the one who commits adultery with his neigh-

bor's wife "will not go unpunished" [hq,nA.yi].  In Exodus 34:7 the verb is

used with the negative xlo, to affirm that God will not regard the

unrepentant sinner as innocent. Because God is holy and just, as

well as loving and forgiving, the unrepentant will face the most

serious consequences of their sin and rebellion. God does not leave

sinners unpunished (Exod. 20:7; Job 9:28; Jer. 30:11).

Not erasing the consequences of sin. The last phrase in God's

self-revelation to Moses reflects on the consequences of sin. While

it is in God's nature to forgive the repentant, it is not in His nature

to remove the natural consequences of foolish and sinful behavior.

Some people assume that the words, "visiting the iniquity of fa-

thers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and

fourth generations," mean that God punishes children for the sins

of their parents and ancestors. But Ezekiel 18 shows that this is

not the case.

Of course it would be unjust for God to punish children for the

sins of their parents. Yet this is exactly what some people were

saying in Ezekiel's day, as expressed in their proverb, "The fathers

eat the sour grapes, but the children's teeth are set on edge" (Ezek.

18:2). They were saying that in allowing the Babylonians to destroy

Jerusalem, God was punishing the people for the sins of their an-

cestors. God responded by saying that they should not use that

proverb any more (v. 3). Then He announced, "The person who sins

will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniq-

uity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity;

the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the

wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself (v. 20). It is also

evident from Deuteronomy 24:16 that God does not hold children

responsible for the sinful actions of their parents.

The fact that God will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the

children" means that children can expect to experience the conse-

quences of the sinful behavior of their parents. While God is willing

to forgive and pardon, He does not interrupt the certain and natu-

ral consequences of sinful behavior. And some of these conse-

quences are experienced by children and grandchildren. When a

parent goes to prison, the children suffer loss. Sadly, many children

have suffered the tragic consequences of growing up in a family

with an alcoholic or abusive parent. God does not interrupt the

natural consequences of foolish and sinful actions. Children do reap



God's Self-Revelation in Exodus 34:6-8                            51

 

what sinful parents sow. Yet the influence of evil is limited to a few

generations ("to the third and fourth generations"), while God ex-

tends His ds,H, ("loyal love") "for thousands."46

 

THE RESPONSE OF MOSES (EXOD. 34:8)

 

Earlier in his encounter with God, Moses had prayed, "Show me           

Your glory" (Exod. 33:18). In response God revealed Himself to

Moses in a most unique and memorable way. God passed in front of

Moses and proclaimed His own attributes. How did Moses respond

to the Lord's self-revelation? He "made haste to bow low toward the

earth and worship."

When Moses saw God in the light of His self-revelation, he saw

himself with new insight. No longer could Moses stand in God's

presence. And it did not take him a long season of deliberation to

decide what response was appropriate. Having heard God pro-

claiming His attributes, Moses "made haste" (rhamA) to prostrate

himself on the ground in worship. Good theology is the foundation

and impetus for God-honoring worship. May all who aspire to

proper theology be as quick to understand and practice its implica-

tions.

 

 

 

46 Cassuto, Exodus, 440.

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu