Wrath and mercy
Exodus 34:1, 4-10
[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 9/13/10]
Exodus 34, when read along with the two previous chapters, gives us one of the Bible’s most profound portrayals of God. In fact, these verses capture the basic message of the Bible as a whole about as well as any other single passage.
From Exodus 32 we learned of the Hebrew people’s turn away from God, even after God had delivered them from slavery and gifted them with Torah to guide their common life in service to God’s shalom.
In that story we read of God’s intense anger in his words to Moses: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (32:10). Remarkably, and to his eternal credit, Moses disobeys God — he does not “let God alone” but rather intercedes on behalf of the people: “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people” (32:12).
Now, when we turn to Exodus 34, we realize that Moses’ pleas were heard. God does change God’s mind! Instead of all-consuming wrath, God brings healing mercy.
Love and wrath are not equal
What an amazing message we read here, in light of what has happened before. Here we learn that Moses has helped God recommit to the purposes God had in delivering this people from slavery in the first place.
God’s core motivation is expressed in this way: I am “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” (34:6-7).
God also notes the reality of negative consequences: I “by no means clear the guilty, but visit the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (34:7). These consequences are significant, but let us note a couple of points here.
First, these verses make it absolutely clear that God’s love and God’s wrath are not equal parts of God’s character. The love goes to the thousandth generation, the wrath only to the third and fourth. And second, the consequences are best seen as the natural outworking of misbehavior. Of course, how we live our lives impacts our children and grandchildren. We don’t need God’s direct intervention to cause our negative acts to ripple through the generations. However, God’s point here is that there is a limit and that healing and love are far more basic.
The witness of God’s people
And what is the point of this healing work God promises to do? The story points us back to God’s original purpose in calling Abraham and Sarah and in delivering the Hebrews from slavery.
“Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the Lord; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (34:10).
God says, I will heal your brokenness, so that you might show your neighbors the ways of shalom. We may link these words in Exodus 34 with the wonderful promise God gives in Isaiah 2: “In days to come … many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come let us go up to … the house of the God of Jacob… .’ He shall judge between the nations… . They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”