Wednesday, May 4, 2011

“A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Scripture: Exodus 34:1, 4-10
“A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

This week we will make the final stop on our quick four-week tour of a few passages in Exodus. We
have witnessed highs and lows as Moses and the people of Israel have learned what it meant to be in
relationship with God. They have learned about the nature of God both from God's direct words to
them and through their experience of God's inescapability.

God tells Moses to make two tablets. Where have we seen this before? The first ones had been
shattered when Moses came down from the mountain and saw that the Israelites had committed
idolatry. The people, with Aaron's help, had broken the covenant with Yahweh. After rethinking the
decision to obliterate the Hebrews, God is determined to offer the people a second chance.

Moses ascends the mountain, clutching the new tablets. God speaks and the first word is the name
YHWH, the Lord. We talked about the richness of the meaning of the name "YHWH" or Yahweh, in
lesson 1. That name gave Moses the authority to confront the pharaoh and lead Israel out of Egypt.
Now God offers a more detailed self-description as a part of reconfirming His covenant commitment to
the people.

Let's look at some the key Exodus passages in which we learn more about God's name:

Exodus 3:13. Moses asks God's name. The divine name YHWH is built on the Hebrew verb "to be"
and is used throughout the Old Testament. In the Jewish tradition, this special name of God is not to be
pronounced as a way to avoid breaking the Third Commandment (wrongful use of God's name).

Exodus 20:2-6. At the beginning of the Ten Commandments, God's actions and character further define
God's name: "I am the LORD your God, who brought
you out of the land of Egypt... for I... am a jealous God, punishing . . . but showing steadfast love."

Exodus 29:46. God's name now signifies Yahweh's desire to be present with God's people: "I am the
LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell with them."

Exodus 34:6-7. God's response to Israel's idolatry reveals that God's name at its most profound level
is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" . . . "forgiving iniquity and
transgression and sin" . .. "yet by no means clearing the guilty."

This is the nature of the God who has embraced Israel in covenant and who has remained with them,
sinful though they be. Let's look in detail at Ex. 34:6-7 and its description of Yahweh.

God is merciful. It is easy to embrace the concept of a merciful God especially when we are the
recipients of that mercy. Mercy may mean delayed or reduced punishment for things we have done
wrong. It may mean complete pardon. We might think of being given mercy by a parent, boss or
even a judge when we get something less than the punishment we probably deserved. Surprisingly,
an understanding of the Hebrew word in this passage that was translated as “merciful” reveals much
deeper meaning. That word is formed from the word that means "womb." In this sense, mercy conveys
a maternal instinct and behavior. The introduction of womb language gives an interesting spin to this
description of God. Thinking about the best or healthiest mother-and-child relationships can open us to
new insight about how God chooses to relate to people. Good mothers protect, nurture, and discipline
their children. They protect them from harm. Our merciful God gives birth to, protects, nurtures, and God is gracious. In Hebrew, the word "gracious" comes from a verb that means "to yearn toward," "to
long for," "to be compassionate," or "to be favorably inclined toward someone." God longs to be with
this people. God cares about the Israelites and wants to be in relationship with them. All of God's
actions in this relationship are expressions of graciousness.

Slow to anger. In Hebrew, anger means "red nose" or "hot nose." "Slow to anger" can be rendered
more literally as "long of nose" or "to be patient." God does not have a short fuse. God can get angry;
Moses and the Israelites know this. But if and when God gets angry God's anger will be directed at
improving the quality of life in the community of the people of Israel.

Steadfast love. “Hesed” is a common Old Testament term for God's relationship with Israel. It
signifies the ties that bind kin together in mutual loyalty and common cause. The Hebrew word when
it is translated "faithfulness" conveys a quality of enduring reliability in a relationship. YHWH is loyal
and reliable, and will not abandon Israel.

Forgiving. The Hebrew word for "forgiving" means "bearing." God agrees to bear the sins of the
people. But that sort of bearing comes with a cost. God cannot be indifferent to those who do wrong;
Yahweh is no pushover. God wants the Israelites to be aware of the long-term consequences of their

Moses offers a confession and requests that God forgive the Israelites and reclaim them as God's
people. God then makes a promise to Moses. God is going to make a covenant with Israel. God is
going to do great things with the Israelites. These things will be amazing and they will be greater than
anything that has ever been seen on earth. After many twists and turns they will be given the land
God has promised them. The people will have good times and bad times in that place. God will be with
them in the midst of all of those ups and downs. There will be times when the people forget God and
the ways God has set out for them to live. But God will not forget them. God will continue to reach out
to the people. God will send prophets to challenge the people and to remind them of the nature of their
relationship. Time and again they will have chances to renew and remember their relationship with

Christians don't read this story as ancient history. We read it and retell it as a part of our family story.
We, too, are a part of God's people. The most awesome thing God did was to fully enter our world in
Jesus Christ. In the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God made it clear that the covenant
of grace is open to all people.

We, too, have opportunities to remember and experience the renewal of God's covenant or promises.
Sometimes we may participate in special worship services that focus on renewal or remembering. For
example, there are services where we renew our baptismal or marital vows. Every time we gather to
worship God we participate in renewing and remembering God's promises. It happens in the ordinary
parts of worship when we confess our sins, hear words of assurance, and pass the peace. It also happens
when we hear Scripture read and experience the proclamation of the good news. God's promises and
presence are particularly visible and concretely experienced when the sacraments are celebrated. When
we share the bread and wine and are fed at the Lord's Table we are touched by the promises of God.
When we share in the promises at a baptism when someone is being marked as a child of God, we are
reminded that we, too, have been marked.


What opportunities do you have to remember God's promises to you and to renew your promises to

Why does it matter that God took the initiative in renewing the covenant?

How is our relationship with God like a healthy mother-child relationship?

What difference does the nature of God make in the way you live your life?


Merciful and gracious God, thank you for loving us with your steadfast love. Help us to reflect that
mercy and grace in our dealing with other people in the coming days. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

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