“The Lord! The Lord! a God who is compassionate and merciful,
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.