“The only hope is a certain kind of God”: Reading Exodus 34.6-7 with Terence Fretheim

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October 21, 2013 by jmar198013

Perhaps the most fundamental word in the Bible concerning the character of God (at least up until the Word he spoke through the person of Christ) is found when God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 34.6-7:

The Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed:

    “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.” (CEB)

Versions and variations of this self-disclosure echo throughout the Hebrew Bible, indicating that this was how Israel, as a people, historically experienced God. Of this divine self-disclosure, Terence Fretheim writes:

[I]t is not enough to say that God is the one who saves and blesses . . . [W]hat is crucial is the kind of God who is understood to be saving and blessing. A capricious God can save and bless. Even an impersonal God could engage in such activities (The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984], 24).

Fretheim offers that alongside recurring recitals of God’s mighty deeds (e.g. Deut. 26.5-9; Josh 24.2-14), the interpretive key for how the OT renders the character of God is found in the divine self-disclosure of Exod. 34.6-7 and its recurrent variants.  Fretheim observes that:

This confessional statement occurs many times in various, usually abbreviated forms, and in numerous echoes–throughout the OT [e.g. Exod. 20.6; Num. 14.18; Deut. 5.9-10; 1 Kings 3.6; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2; 2 Chron. 30.9] . . . No other statement can be said to occur so often in the OT . .  [A]ny discussion of the heritage’s norming function needs to consider the crucial role such an understanding of God plays in the evaluative task. In addition to their function in delimiting possibilities of meaning in the materials in which they are embedded, such generalizations provide continuity for any theological presentation of the OT. (25-26)

In other words, the historical events of God’s mighty, saving deeds on behalf of his people do not interpret themselves. They can only be properly understood in light of a God who describes himself as at once patient, loyal, and forgiving; but who also takes the guilty to task. Fretheim also suggests that recourse to God’s character as described in the Exodus 34 tradition is the engine of hope for God’s people in the wake of the Exile. Fretheim notes passages among the prophets that indicate that “the salvific events of the past . . . have lost their salvific value” (26). This perspective is especially accentuated in passages from Jeremiah and Isaiah:

And in those days, when your numbers have greatly increased in the land, declares the Lord, people will no longer talk about the Lord’s covenant chest; they won’t recall or remember it; they won’t even miss it or try to build another one. (Jer. 3.16)

So the time is coming, declares the Lord, when no one will say, “As the Lord lives who brought up the Israelites from the land of Egypt.” (Jer. 23.7)

Don’t remember the prior things;
    don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing. (Isa. 43.18-19)

Hosea also displays similar tendencies:

Though they offer choice sacrifices,
        though they eat flesh,
        the Lord doesn’t accept them.
    Now he will remember their wickedness
        and punish their sins;
        they will return to Egypt. (Hosea 8.13)

They will return to the land of Egypt,
        and Assyria will be their king,
        because they have refused to return to me. (Hosea 11.5)

These passages, Fretheim notes, “suggest that God in effect takes back the salvific significance of the important events of Israel’s past; Israel must now look to the future for such divine action” (26). Robbed of their claim to God’s delivering acts of old, what animates the hope of the exiles? God’s self-disclosure in Exodus 34.6-7 is all they now have. Thus Fretheim observes:

It is just such theological generalizations which are important in enabling Israel, not only to see the continuity in its own story, and interpret it in certain ways, but to be carried through those times when the story seems to have been broken off. They enable Israel to perceive that, even though its own story may be interrupted, God’s story continues. God’s loving and gracious purposes and his faithfulness to promises made will persist, though Israel’s perception may be clouded at times. (27)

A prime example of this hope based on God’s character is found in a famous passage from Lamentations:

I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

My Lord definitely won’t reject forever.
Although he has caused grief, he will show compassion in measure with his covenant loyalty. (Lam. 3.20-24, 31-32)

Fretheim concludes:

In the midst of the great gulf between the past and the future, the only hope is in a certain kind of God (cf. Psalm 79) . . . [W]hat Israel confesses of its God is based not only on inferences drawn from the events of the recitals but also on prior as well as succeeding understandings and experiences of various kinds. For example, Exod. 34:6-7 is represented not as an inference drawn from recent events, but as a direct revelation of God in a theophany. In fact, this confession is tied up contextually not to the Exodus event, but to the sin of the golden calf. Thus, it could be said that it is the way God does not act, in response to human sin, that is as revealing of his nature as the more spectacular salvific events. (27-28)

Fretheim’s insights reveal something fundamental, I believe, about God’s form of holiness, and the holiness to which his people are called. Lev. 19.2 says, You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy. Our tendency is to treat God’s holiness as some transcendent, inscrutable, and awful intrinsic goodness in God that will not allow him to come to the table with us. Might holiness actually be much more concretely related to God’s hospitality–that even though he is a God who by no means overlooks our guilt, accommodates himself to us by loyalty, faithfulness, and forgiveness? And might the call to be holy as God is holy a call to be hospitable to this God in our midst?

It is interesting note how Jesus offered a parallel to You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy in his teaching. Matt. 5.48 famously says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (RSV). Likewise, Luke 6.36 says, Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. In both instances, the surrounding context indicates that being perfect as God is perfect, or merciful as God is merciful, is expressed in our hospitality toward enemies and strangers. It may be that the holiness of God’s people is directly related to practicing a hesed (the word our Bibles often translate “steadfast” or “faithful love,” as in Lam. 3.22) worthy of people who have experienced God’s hesed.

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