Why Your Great-Grandchildren Are (Probably) Safe from God’s Wrath

“The Lord! The Lord!   a God who is compassionate and merciful,
very patient,
full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
punishing for their parents’ sins
their children and their grandchildren,
as well as the third and the fourth generation.

— Exodus 34:6-7


Walter Brueggemann contends this is an ancient credo, the earliest formulation of a particular attempt by Israel to outline the properties of Yahweh. It occurs within a perilous context, right after the story of the golden calf, when Moses argues with Yahweh, trying to convince him not to destroy Israel for its idolatry at the base of Mount Sinai. This passage in particular comes during the sequence in which Moses asks Yahweh to reveal himself to him, and Moses must hide in a rock while Yahweh passes by and shows him his back.

There’s an uncomfortable tension in this passage, isn’t there? On the one hand, Yahweh is “slow to anger” – Brueggemann says this phrase literally is entertainingly translated “has long nostrils” that apparently allow plenty of time for the anger to subside before it comes snorting out – and full of forgiveness. On the other, he is somewhat vengeful, “visiting the iniquity of the parents” on as many as four generations of innocent children.

We had some lengthy conversations about this in class yesterday, and it’s striking how much we westerners want to reconcile this apparent contradiction. My classmates wanted to water down the meaning of “vengeance” or argue that what appear to be contradictions are actually the result of changing contexts or argue that love requires, not precludes, discipline. Certainly these last two points are true; I don’t know anyone who argues otherwise. But I don’t see them as applicable here. The context is the same, as these are two halves of the same credo, and lovingly disciplining a person for an offense is different than disciplining his great-grandchildren for it.

Now these two halves are not placed in equal balance against each other. Yahweh’s love endures 1,000 generations, his vengeance only four. That’s important to understand. Even so, it’s difficult if not impossible to reconcile “merciful and gracious” with “visiting the iniquity upon the children.”

I’d argue Israel recognized this, too. Which is why the second half of this phrase is almost immediately jettisoned from the rest of the nation’s testimony about Yahweh as presented in the Old Testament.

It’s remarkable how often we see the combination of words and phrases from Exodus 34:6-7a elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. It starts in Numbers 14, when Yahweh is once again threatening to destroy Israel for its unbelief, this time because most of the people have balked at attempting to enter Canaan. Moses intercedes by quoting the entirety of the Exodus 34 credo:

“Now let my master’s power be as great as you declared when you said, ‘The Lord is very patient and absolutely loyal, forgiving wrongs and disloyalty. Yet he doesn’t forgo all punishment, disciplining the grandchildren and great-grandchildren for their ancestors’ wrongs.’ Please forgive the wrongs of these people because of your absolute loyalty, just as you’ve forgiven these people from their time in Egypt until now.”

However, aside from this example, which clearly comes from the same tradition as its antecedent, nowhere else is the second half of the credo used. The Psalms are filled with references to Exodus 34:6-7a, not so much 34:7b.

Psalm 86:4-5, 15:

Make your servant’s life happy again
because, my Lord, I offer my life to you,
because, my Lord, you are good and forgiving,
full of faithful love for all those who cry out to you.

But you, my Lord,
are a God of compassion and mercy;
you are very patient and full of faithful love.

Psalm 145:7-9:

They will rave in celebration of your abundant goodness;
they will shout joyfully about your righteousness:
“The Lord is merciful and compassionate,
very patient, and full of faithful love.
The Lord is good to everyone and everything;
God’s compassion extends, to all his handiwork!”

Note how the second half has been replaced. No longer is Yahweh punishing four generations of people; instead the positive attributes of Exodus 34:6-7a, which had applied to Israel, are now extended to all of creation.

Only once outside of the wilderness tradition does Israel allude to the second half of the credo, and that’s in a polemical screed against Assyria, Israel’s mortal enemy, at the opening of Nahum:

The Lord is a jealous and vengeful God;
the Lord is vengeful and strong in wrath.
The Lord is vengeful against his foes;
he rages against his enemies.
The Lord is very patient but great in power;
the Lord punishes.
His way is in whirlwind and storm;
clouds are the dust of his feet.

Yet even that portrayal, outward facing as it is, is contradicted by the parable of Jonah, who is called to prophecy to the very city condemned by Nahum. And when Ninevah repents of its sins and Yahweh forgives the people, Jonah throws Exodus 34 in Yahweh’s face in Jonah 4:

Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.

The prophets rely a great deal on the language, though not the structure, of the Exodus 34 credo, frequently adding the words “justice” and “righteousness” to Yahweh’s attributes – but invariably removing the second half.

Finally, Ezekiel simply repudiates the second half entirely, quoting Yahweh in 18:19-20:

You will say, “Why doesn’t the child bear his parent’s guilt?” The child has acted justly and responsibly. The child kept all my regulations and observed them. The child will surely live. Only the one who sins will die. A child won’t bear a parent’s guilt, and a parent won’t bear a child’s guilt. Those who do right will be declared innocent, and the wicked will be declared guilty.

Did Yahweh change his mind? Or did Israel? I argue the latter.

The evolution of Yahweh in the text from a vengeful enforcer to merciful forgiver is not tidy nor is it especially linear. Yahweh is portrayed as a merciful forgiver from the beginning, but many of the actions attributed to him are simply incompatible with that description: the destruction of every living thing in the flood, the slaughter of the Israelites after the golden calf incident, the snakes in the wilderness, the massacre of women and children at Jericho, the elimination of Achan’s family after the first battle of Ai, the explicit order for Saul to kill every man, woman and child of the Amalekites, the list goes on and on.

Israel does not whitewash its own perceived history, but as it goes deeper and deeper into relationship with Yahweh, its portrayals shift. The violent oral traditions of the exodus, conquest and early monarchy simply cannot withstand the overwhelming power of Yahweh’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. From a god of vengeance and bloodshed, Yahweh is seen instead as the God of radical love. This doesn’t preclude discipline or anger, but it forces a reconsideration of what those traits look like.

Exodus 34:6-7 represents a deeply conflicted portrayal of God. As Brueggemann writes in Theology of the Old Testament,

I suggest these two characterizations of Yahweh are in profound tension with each other, and that finally they contradict each other. Moreover, if we take these statements as serious theological discourses, then the tension or contradiction here voiced is present in the very life and character of Yahweh (227).

It is certainly present in Israel’s portrayal of the life and character of Yahweh. Like all of us, Israel struggled to grasp the nature of God, and revised its position many times over the thousands of years in which its traditions were collected. We are fortunate the editors of the final texts chose to enshrine those disagreements and contradictions for us to study. We can learn much from the ways in which other people adjust their understanding – if we’ll let them teach us.

I worry that instead we focus too much on smoothing out these bumps, presenting an “error-free” Bible that has no depth, no life and ultimately no room to allow us to make our own mistakes, to change our own assumptions about God. Instead, we become trapped by a fear of misunderstanding God, unaware that not if, but when, we do, we join a great tradition of struggle that dates back to the very beginning of Israel’s story.

One thought on “Why Your Great-Grandchildren Are (Probably) Safe from God’s Wrath”

  1. Thanks for these reflections.

    I’ve taken to interpreting this passage as more descriptive of results than of punishments. Acts have consequences; sinful acts have consequences; bystanders, including or especially children, are caught up in and affected by those consequences.

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