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The God of the Bible
Aída Besançon Spencer
Aída Besançon Spencer, born and reared in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and pastor of organization with Pilgrim Church. She earned the Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Th.M. and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and B.A. from Douglass College. She has written numerous articles, essays, and books including The Goddess Revival, God through the Looking Glass, Beyond the Curse, and The Prayer Life of Jesus. She has worked with Hispanic Americans as a social worker, English as a second language teacher, and Bible teacher.
Individualized instruction is what all astute educators talk about, but few do. When our son began kindergarten no one had told us that preschool was a prerequisite. Within weeks he was behind. He was being taught to read phonetically, at a fast pace (since it really was a review for most students). In phonetics a word is broken into its parts and then joined together again. My husband asked my son if he wanted to learn to read. And he nodded, "Yes." So, my husband took out Laubach's literacy manuals, which he had been using for adults. In two weeks our son learned how to read. Laubach uses the whole word approach. A word such as "bird" is placed next to a picture of a bird: "b—bird, b—bird." The student repeats the sound b, the word "bird," and thereby learns toread.Even at a fast pace our son learned.
That is individualized instruction. It is not merely instruction done by an individual to an individual, but even more, an individual teacher using an instructional method that especially suits an individual student's learning style. The content still remains the same. In this case, literacy, the ability to read. The style or method of teaching varies.
God uses individualized instruction with humans also. God decides, "It is not good for Adam to be alone, I will make for him a helper that corresponds to him" (Gen. 2:18). However, what does God then do? Create the helper? No, God brings the animals and birds he had created to Adam so that in the intimate process of naming them Adam could learn whether any of them could be appropriate corresponding (literally, "as if in front") helpers for him. None of them, Adam discovers, will be satisfactory (Gen. 2:20). However, when God creates a woman from Adam's very side, like him in every way, Adam decides she really is that equal helper he had sought, explaining why a wife can be a more than worthwhile reward for leaving parents (Gen. 2:23-24). God had already decided what Adam needed before Adam ever expressed such a need. However, God created an educational process for Adam that would help Adam perceive his need and appreciate its fulfillment. In the same way, God teaches humans about God's self. God acts. Sometimes those actions are individualized. God interprets, especially with the listener in mind.
In this chapter we will highlight what we can learn about God from the first chapter of Genesis and from what the Bible presents as God's own verbal self-revelations.
What Creation Teaches about God
The primary method God employs to communicate to humans is by action: "In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was nothing and empty" (Gen. 1:1-2). The human learns about God by inductive observation. Nothing existed before God made it exist. Therefore, everything is under God's control. "The Spirit of God hovered over the face of the earth" (Gen. 1:2). "Hovered over" is a metaphor here. It is used literally for mother birds who "hover over" their young (Deut. 32:11).
A second method God uses to communicate to humans is figurative language. Why cannot God be more literally described? God has no form. God is a Spirit. Moses explicitly explains to the Israelites:
Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of the heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them. (Deut. 4:15-19)
No human, animal, or inanimate thing has God's form. Jesus reiterates in New Testament times that God is spirit (John 4:24). Therefore, to learn about God we humans need to observe the results of God's work in the world (in other words, God's action) and use analogies to describe God from God's formed creations. To paraphrase Jesus' teachings to Nicodemus, we can observe the working of God's Spirit but we cannot see the Spirit (John 3:8).
Even when God takes on form at the incarnation (John 1:1, 14), the form itself, the human body, is never described as "God." Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus was in the form (morphe) of God before the incarnation. In other words, Jesus before the incarnation, looked on the outside what he was on the inside. At the incarnation, Jesus took on the form (morphe) of a slave (Phil. 2:6-7). The metaphor "slave" fully describes God's loving, others-oriented character, dying even on a criminal's cross so that humans could approach God. Jesus also was born in human likeness (homoioma, schema; Phil. 2:7-8). The outward form was fully human. But unlike other humans, Jesus never sinned (Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was fully God and fully human. But, being human is not a full reflection of God.
Thus, when God's Spirit "hovers over" the "face" of the earth, we learn that God's relation to creation was an intimate, loving one as a mother hen protecting her chicks, a metaphor God when on earth will repeat (Luke 13:34). God is not a mother hen or an eagle. God has no form. But God is like a hen or an eagle in some ways, being caring and protecting. God is also unlike a hen or an eagle. Their intelligence is limited; God's is not. Their care and protection is more biological than a conscious desire. All metaphors and similes are like and unlike the concept they claim to explain.
"Then God said, `Let there be light'; and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). God's word is powerful. Christians differ over whether creations like light came instantaneously or over time. But, the key deduction from this act is that God's creative ability flows successfully and powerfully from intention.
From action now God moves to contemplation and appreciation: "And God saw that the light was good" (Gen. 1:4). Everything God creates is good. Therefore, we humans can deduce that God is good. "From their fruits, you will know them," Jesus said about humans (Matt. 7:20). What a person really believes is demonstrated by action, not merely words (James 2:22-26). Those people who say "Jesus is Lord" but do not treat Jesus as a Lord they must obey, are not, in God's sight, Christians at all (Matt. 7:21-23). Similarly, from God's actions we can deduce God's character. Thus, David the psalmist sings and exhorts others: "Give thanks to the LORD, because God is good; for forever is his love" (1 Chron. 16:34).
God Communicates through Verbal Self-Revelations
The Bible also has a third method of revelation: interpretive words, descriptive adjectives and nouns. Sometimes actions can be misinterpreted. When I was a community organizer among Hispanic Americans in New Jersey, at one get-together the director of Adult Education, the director of the Young Women's Christian Association (who was Jewish), and a prominent Hispanic woman came to compliment me on my work as an organizer. (Believe me, genuine compliments are rare in any profession!) I knew then that if my actions remained uninterpreted, I would simply get credit as a "good person." I replied, in much fear and trembling, "The reason I am a good community organizer is because I am a Christian." That statement caused a pause in the conversation, but then one of the women replied, "Because I have seen your actions, I take seriously your claims."
So God too interprets God's actions. That is the focus of this chapter. But, as I mentioned, God's interpretations, although always true to God's character or "content," are also individualized toward the person(s) listening. God also accepts and affirms any descriptive adjectives by humans which are accurate. God's character is constant and eternal. But all of God's character is not fully explained in every revelational moment. However, no revelational moment gives an untrue description of God.
God of Seeing
The first name for God recorded in the Bible is given by a human, a woman, a slave of color. When Hagar runs away into the wilderness from Sarai's harsh treatment of her, God sends an angel to communicate to her God's concern and promise. She responds by calling God "a God of seeing," for God had seen her and she had seen God's messenger and yet remained alive (Gen. 16:13). The name she gave God was an accurate one. Therefore, it was acceptable to God.
Similarly, today different people of different nations may give God different names, which is an appropriate action as long as they refer to the same God. Giving the God of the Bible the same name as other gods is not acceptable, because those other names refer to other gods.
What self-descriptions in words does God use? The twelve self-descriptions of this chapter are keys to interpreting God's actions and God's character. In my study of the Bible I have found God's self-revelations to refer to God's various attributes and actions and to individual persons and places. The attributes often interpret specific actions.
For instance, the Bible's first recorded adjectival self-revelation given by God, "I am God Almighty" (Gen. 17:1), precedes a command and a promise that God will make. It occurs after a lengthy relationship between Abraham and God. Abraham is already ninety-nine years old. Possibly Abraham knew about God as a child when his father Terah decided to go to Canaan (Gen. 11:31). Abraham was himself called to go to Canaan when he was seventy-five (Gen. 12:4). Thus, as far as we know, Abraham had known God for at least twenty-four years before the adjective "almighty" was disclosed by God to Abraham. Self-revelation is not required of God. It is a response of love to love. As the apostle Paul, paraphrasing Isaiah 64:4, writes: "What eye has not seen and ear has not heard and upon a human heart has not arisen, that (very thing) God has prepared for those loving him" (1 Cor. 2:9).
Because God is "almighty," Abraham therefore should daily walk conscious of God's presence ("walk before my face") and should be "whole, complete, perfect," fully mature (Gen. 17:1). "Almighty" (shaday) may come from shad, "female breast" (e.g., Lam. 4:3) or shod, "violence, havoc, devastation" (e.g., Isa. 22:4). If the former, God thereby is saying to Abraham, I am personally concerned in your well-being as a mother to her young. Remember my love and concern. I want you to mature fully from child to mature human. If the latter, God thereby is saying to Abraham, be conscious of my personal presence and become fully mature. I have the power to help you and to punish you. Power is especially important with the promise God will make: "And I will make my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you with all might" (Gen. 17:2). Before God promises Abraham he would be the ancestor of many nations, God uses the self-description, "all powerful." Or possibly, only a God who is like a nursing mother could enable Abraham to be the first of many. God also uses the same adjective "almighty" when communicating to Jacob and again the title holds the promise for an ancestor of many. Jacob is also commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" because "a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you" (Gen. 35:11). God as "almighty" has the power of parentage.
God I Will Be
The second recorded adjectival description by God comes as an answer to Moses' request. After God observes the suffering of Abraham's descendants at the hands of the jealous Egyptians, God responds in compassion and chooses to deliver them by sending Moses to Pharaoh (Exod. 3:7-10). When Moses responds in terror at the idea, God allays his fears by telling him "I will be with you" (Exod. 3:12). Is Moses simply trying to deflect God again when he tells God that of all things, the Egyptians would most want to learn God's name? Nevertheless, the name God gives Moses is "I will be" (Exod. 3:14).
I always read this with a smile. I see it as God's humor. What kind of name is this—"I will be"? Nevertheless, even amidst the gentle humor are many profound points. "I will be" at least is a reminder to Moses that God promised "I will be with you." The God who answered the Israelites' cry will be with them in their distress and with Moses in his deliverance. Moses learns that at any time the people can call on their God because God will be with them (Deut. 4:7; Ps. 145:18). The Jewish Paul too explains thousands of years later to the Gentiles of his time that God always will be with them because in God "we are living and we are moving and we are being" (Acts 17:28). Jesus highlights this name also during his lifetime, declaring, "I myself am the bread of life," "I myself am the light of the world," "I myself am the gate of the sheep," "I myself am the good shepherd," "I myself am the resurrection and the life," "I myself am the way and the truth and the life," "I myself am the true vine." When Jesus tells his fellow Jews, "before Abraham was born, I myself existed" (John 8:58), his listeners knew he was claiming identity with God and they sought to stone him as a blasphemer (John 8:59).
God uses the verb "I will be" as a reminder of God's promise to Moses. It is also a way to suggest God's great potential for the future. Jews and Christians believe in the God who "will be," the God who is always in the process of acting. ("I will be" is in the imperfect tense.) What new thing will God do (Isa. 43:19)? God is the hope for the future. God is "the first" and "the last" (Isa. 44:6).
The vowel points for the verb of being seem to be the basis for God's unpronounceable name YHWH (Exod. 3:15; 6:3), suggesting a certain mystery to God's nature. Of whatever God revealed to Moses, the Masorite editors of the Old Testament wrote down only the consonants. They wrote the vowels for another Hebrew word, adonai, or "Lord." The vowel points we now have do not go with the consonants as written in the Hebrew. Therefore, this God of the future will be doing a work we humans may not fully expect. God's mysterious name reminds us of God's own mysterious and unique nature.
God of Your Ancestor
God does not simply leave this self-revelation as "I will be." God also tells Moses that this God, who is about to deliver them from their suffering, is known to them: "The LORD, the God of your ancestors," "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Exod. 3:16). Another technique God has used in communication is reminding the listener of God's relationship to the listener's relative. To Isaac, God becomes "the God of your father Abraham" (Gen. 26:24). To Jacob, God becomes "the God of Abraham" and "the God of Isaac" (Gen. 28:13). God reminds Jacob of God's relationship with his father again before Jacob ventures to Egypt (Gen. 46:3). And when Moses meets God at the burning-but-not-burning-up bush, God now tags on the name of Jacob: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Exod. 3:6). "I am the God who has already established a covenant relationship with your father." "I am not unknown to you." Eventually God is simply described as the God of the Hebrews or of Israel.
If God so chooses to define God's self by referring back to a previous covenant-maker, would we also today be amiss to call God by the name of our familial or racial ancestors, and then tag on our name too? When we renew the covenant our mother and/or father has made with God, then God becomes our God too, even as Ruth tells Naomi, her mother-in-law: "Your God will be my God" (Ruth 1:16). That is why the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can also be the God of Hagar and Ruth and of "all flesh" (Jer. 32:27). God can be the God of "all flesh" because all are invited to be specific members of God's covenant (Rom. 3:29).
God of Bethel
That personal interconnection is established by God not only by referring to an earlier parent or ancestor, but also to a place that has specific significance for an individual. When Jacob is escaping Esau, God appears to him in a dream. In response, Jacob pledges that this Lord will be his God under certain conditions (Gen. 28:12, 20-21). God reminds Jacob of his pledge later in a dream, defining God's self by referring to the place where God had made those pledges: "I am the God of Bethel" ("Bethel" means "House of God," Gen. 31:13). This title does not mean God is limited to the place Bethel. Rather, God simply reminds Jacob of the place where he had "anointed a pillar" and where he had "made a vow" (Gen. 31:13).
God the Healer
God chooses titles that have significance to people. God also chooses titles that remind people of actions God has done. When the Israelites could not drink the polluted water at Marah and the Lord shows them how to clean it, God then uses the description "I am the LORD who heals you" (Exod. 15:26). The self-description was also a reminder that they would not receive illnesses as punishment for disobedience if they obeyed God's statutes. To reinforce this lesson, after this event God led the Israelites to Elim, which overabounded in fresh springwater (Exod. 15:27).
God Who Delivered from Slavery
Even the law God gives the Israelites is preceded by a reminder of God's actions: "I am the LORD your God who led you out from the land of Egypt from the house of slavery" (Exod. 20:2). Obedience to the law is then, by implication, a loving response to God's caring and powerful acts. Because God is so special, the Israelites need no other deities (Exod. 20:2-3; Deut. 5:6-7). Because God led them out from an oppressive people, the Israelites are themselves not to oppress other people with dishonest or oppressive business practices. They can live peacefully and comfortably and be successful in battle if they continue to obey God.
God of Hosts
Who first coins the phrase "the Lord of hosts" is unclear. "Hosts" literally are army troops. The verb saba' signifies "wage war, serve." As a term for God it first occurs in the narrative of 1 Samuel (1:3). It seems to be a term especially associated with the ark of the covenant, in particular the mercy seat between the two cherubim (Exod. 25:22; 2 Sam. 6:2). Since God had used the ark of the covenant as a symbol of God's presence in several striking victories (Josh. 3:3, 11, 14-17, Jordan River; Josh. 6:6, Jericho's wall; 1 Sam. 5:6-12, tumors among the Philistines), the ark also came to be associated by the Israelites as a symbol of God's victory in war (1 Sam. 4:3-4). And indeed cherubim or angels were (and are) God's warriors (2 Kings 6:17). Hannah calls God the "LORD of hosts" when she wants a child, one reason being to vanquish her enemy Peninnah. Samuel uses the term when he comes to anoint Saul and charge him to wage war against the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2). David shouts out at Goliath that David will be victorious because he is supported by "the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel" (1 Sam. 17:45). Nathan also uses this term for God when addressing David, reminding David that all his military victories were due to God (2 Sam. 7:8-9). Thus, the Lord of hosts seems to be a title that not only reminds people of God's previous actions, but also promises God's future actions.
God the Creator
God uses terms that highlight specific connections and also more general relationships. When Jeremiah is called to speak to the rulers of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon, God begins by using the more specific "the LORD of hosts" and "the God of Israel," but then goes on to add the more general actions: "I have made the earth, humanity and the animals that are upon the face of the earth with great power and outstretched arm" (Jer. 27:5). God reminds the listeners of this more general covenant established by the act of creation. Then God goes on to declare that neither Israelites nor surrounding neighbors will be able to stop the approaching victory of people from afar, the Babylonians (Jer. 27:6). This description of God in more universal terms then becomes a basis for a more universal decree.
God alludes again to creation as a means by which to highlight God's omnipresence: "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" (Jer. 23:24). Therefore, since God not only created the world, but also sustains the world, no one can lie in God's name without God's knowledge (Jer. 23:24-25). Jesus also reminds his disciples that the Father is "Lord of heaven and earth" and therefore powerful and sovereign enough to choose to whom God's revelation will be given (Luke 10:21).
God Is Jealous
God not only reminds people of God's past and potential actions, God also chooses attributes to highlight to remind people of actions humans should take. The Israelites should not make covenants with other deities not only because these other deities did not save them from the Egyptians, but also because "the LORD, `Jealous' is his name, a jealous God he is" (Exod. 34:14). The Lord's covenantal relationships are unique. God is not a "bigamist."
God Is Compassionate
As one reads in the early chapters of the Bible, God's self-revelations appear to build upon each other, which shows that God is slowly educating humans, especially the Israelites who are to reach out to others (Exod. 19:6). In Exodus 20, God uses God's mysterious name (YHWH, 20:2), when reminding the people of their deliverance from Egypt and explaining that God is monogamous, and therefore will punish those who disobey the covenant but reward those who obey it (20:5-6). However, when Moses asks God if he could learn more about God, God pronounces God's mysterious name and elaborates on the self-description already given earlier in Exodus 20: "LORD (YHWH) God, compassionate and merciful, slow to be displeased and greatly loving and faithful" (Exod. 34:6).
In this series of adjectives lies the heart of God's character. They summarize the adjectival self-descriptions already mentioned. "Lord" alludes to the God who "will be," the God who has created the world and is now sustaining the world and is in the process of new, mysterious acts, powerful and omnipresent. Since this God is spirit and not form, only qualities describe this God's essence, not shape.
What are those qualities? All five qualities are synonyms. First, God is compassionate. Rahamim is the plural of "womb," raham. God has a motherly compassion. This term alludes back to God "almighty." The Aramaic suggests "be soft, gentle." God's first quality is a motherly one. Like a nursing mother whose very body reminds her of a nursing child (Isa. 49:15), God too never forgets or abandons or destroys the people who have made a covenant with God (Deut. 4:31). Because God is compassionate, God forgives repentant people (2 Chron. 30:9). Because God is compassionate, God gives food to those who keep the covenant (Neh. 9:19-21). In the Old Testament the term in the plural is used mainly of God, except for Psalm 112:4 where it refers to generous and just people who help others even at night.
A similar image is used by Jesus to express compassion. Splagchnon, especially in the plural, are the inward parts of a mammal, especially the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and womb. Jesus exemplifies compassion (splagchneuo) when he sees the widow of Nain mourn her only son, the crowds harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, and the blind men who ask to see. In every case the "gut-level" feeling is followed by action. Jesus tells the widow not to weep and he acts to allay her situation by commanding the son to arise (Luke 7:13-15). Jesus tells the disciples to pray for more workers and then appoints some to go out (Matt. 9:38-10:1). Jesus touches the blind men and causes them to regain sight (Matt. 20:34).
The second quality listed in Exodus 34:6 is a synonym of the first quality: hannun. This noun in the Bible is used only of God. It appears to refer to active concern for those who are in severe physical or economic distress. When God heard and freed the Hebrews from slavery, God demonstrated "grace" or "mercy." When God listens to the poor because the rich have taken their garment overnight as a pledge for interest, leaving the poor with nothing to warm themselves in their sleep, that is "mercy" or "graciousness" (Exod. 22:27 ). When God preserves the life of the person near death, that too is "mercy" (Ps. 116:5-6).
The third quality is a different way to express compassion. God takes a long time before becoming angry or displeased. God was angry with Moses when Moses did not trust God to help him speak (Exod. 4:13-14). God chose Aaron to replace him anyway. God was angry with the Israelites who complained of manna and their travels even after all the marvelous miracles God had done to free them (Num. 11:1, 10). Fire ensued. When Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses' marriage and leadership, God was angry with them (Num. 12:9). Leprosy ensued. When Balaam attempted to deceive the Hebrews, God was angry (Num. 22:22). An angel blocked the donkey's advance. When some of the Israelites began to have adulterous relationships and worship the Moabite gods, God became angry with them (Num. 25:3). Those people had to die. When the Israelites were too terrified to enter Canaan, God was angry with them (Num. 32:9-10). They had to wander for forty years.
In other words, God is not pleased with lack of trust, lack of appreciation, criticism, deceit, and infidelity. But God's punishment does not always last forever (Exod. 32:14; Micah 7:18-20). The fire stopped. The leprosy disappeared. The wandering ended. God's punishment comes only after a while, after clear and persistent warnings. As the apostle Peter explains, the Lord is patient: "one day from the Lord is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" because God does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8-9). God takes a long time before punishing, but eventually God will punish if a person does not stop unloving and unjust acts.
The last two qualities are very frequent in the Old Testament and in themselves summarize the entire list: "greatly loving and truthful" (Exod. 34:6). Jesus' glory, glory uniquely coming from the Father, "only-begotten," was "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Hesed may refer to love, kindness, goodness, benevolence, grace, and beauty. It is a broad word that includes leading and guiding people (Exod. 15:13), helping someone in difficult circumstances, keeping one's word not to kill a family (1 Sam. 20:14-15), never giving up on someone recalcitrant (Jer. 31:3-4), forgiving people's sins, and remaining with someone when times are difficult (Ruth 1:8). Someone who has this kind of love is completely trustworthy and generous. No other deity has God's "steadfast love" (2 Chron. 6:14). God's "steadfast love endures forever."
`Emeth includes the love and support of a nursing mother and the trustworthiness of a loving parent. It includes "firmness, faithfulness, truth, reliability, stability." The verb `aman means "confirm, support." When a woman takes care of a nursing child, that is "faithfulness" (Num. 11:12; Ruth 4:16). When a person can rely on someone for honest wages and to keep their word, that is "faithfulness" or "honesty." When a vine is tame and healthy, that too has "integrity" or "truth" (Jer. 2:21). When evil is punished, that too is "firmness" (Ps. 54:6 ). This "truth" is "a shield and a buckler," a protective and offensive weapon which lasts forever (Pss. 91:4; 117:2). `Emeth is the quality of faithfulness and firmness which leads a child from infancy to complete maturity.
God has hesed and `emeth when God is personal, individually communicating, monogamous, jealous, treating each person as unique, reminding people of covenants and victories, and a healer.
This same list of qualities describing God occurs again and again throughout the Old Testament. Jonah knew God would forgive the Ninevites if they repented (Jonah 4:2), but he wanted them destroyed. Joel too promised God would not punish his listeners if they repented with all their heart (Joel 2:13). God helps, does not always accuse, forgives, has compassion like a father's, and takes care even of sinners.
A synonym for compassion is "comfort" (naham). God too is the one "comforting" or "soothing" (Isa. 51:12). Comfort can simply refer to answered prayer or reward. It is the opposite of anger or punishment. Frequently, it refers to soothing, as a mother soothes a distressed child or as a brother or relative soothes fearful family members. God too soothes, removes fears, and protects because God is both loving and powerful, and is not deceitful. Comfort may also refer to family and friends who soothe someone who is mourning a deceased loved one.
Exodus 34:6 is the core of God's revelation to Moses. It has an addendum. This same God "preserves love to thousands, bearing away sin and faithlessness and transgression, yet punishing the people not yet punished, visiting a sin of parents to children and to children of children to the third and to the fourth generation" (Exod. 34:7). Jeremiah rephrases this sentence. God "visits the sin of parents to a bosom (or lap) of children after them" (Jer. 32:18). Few readers would question the first clause: God "preserves love to thousands." God's love is great. Here the great number of people afflicted are highlighted. God can be loving because repentant people's sins are taken away from them. They become pure and innocent. Yet in contrast, as suggested by God's anger and truth, those who are not pure and innocent will be judged.
Whenever some people read the second half of the sentence they become disturbed. How can a just and loving God punish the children of sinners? Is that not unfair? First of all, God clearly and explicitly tells Moses that "You shall not put to death parents for their children and children shall not be put to death for the parents, people shall be put to death for their own crimes" (Deut. 24:16). God also reminds Jeremiah and Ezekiel that only the person who sins shall die. In other words, children of sinful parents are not excluded from God's loving protection and presence simply because of parental sin.
Second, rather, the emphasis in Exodus 34 is a warning to parents. "Parent, your sin has collective ramifications. When you sin it affects your children for four generations." Jeremiah's imagery is provocative. It is as if a parent were to have a radioactive possession that at death is then thrown onto a child's lap. When a parent sins, that affects the child's upbringing and those practices are passed down through the generations. God apparently puts a protective guard after four generations. But this addendum reminds Moses that breaking God's covenant affects the innocent too.
Exodus 34:6-7 also has a major impact in the New Testament. Jesus' mission was "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). Jesus has authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10). Jesus came to earth "to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). "I am gentle and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29). No wonder John can declare: "God is love" (1 John 4:16). And few humans could ever have guessed that God's love would be so great that God would come in the person of Jesus to die as a final scapegoat for all transgressors.
God Is Holy
God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt because of a great love and compassion. But the Hebrews too had to remember that they were not simply running away; they were also running to. They must become like the God who led them, and unlike the humans who oppressed them. They are not to eat animals that defile "for I am the LORD your God, therefore purify yourselves and be pure because pure I am" (Lev. 11:44-45). God is "pure" or "holy" (qadash), set apart, consecrated. Because God is holy, the Israelites must honor their parents, keep the sabbath rests, not worship or consult idols, do offerings according to God's instruction, leave food for the poor, have integrity in work, be just, and not slander. Because God is special, we humans need to follow certain laws to be special or set apart too. Some of these laws no longer are necessary for believers: laws about food and the sacrificing of animals and the keeping of certain festivals. However, God still remains holy and God's people also are to be holy, even though the specific laws may vary, as Jesus, the Holy One on earth, prayed that his followers "in the world" not be "from the world." The larger principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself remains valid.
Because God is holy, God has no evil side (1 John 1:5). No one can ever be tempted to do evil by this God because "every good gift and every perfect present is from above coming down from the Parent of lights, from whom there is no movement of turning shadow" (James 1:17).
God Is One
God is monogamous, not only because God is loving and faithful, but also because God is one God. Moses wants the Israelites to learn and teach this truth: "Hear Israel, LORD is God, LORD is one" (Deut. 6:4). "Lord" is the Tetragrammaton, the four consonants, YHWH. Who is the Lord is defined by two words: "God" and "one." The Hebrew for "God" is `elôhîm. It is an abstract plural noun. The plural ending indicates an intensification of the characteristics. Whatever makes God to be God is present here. God is also "one," not many gods (1 Cor. 8:4-6). God is one; therefore, only God deserves our total allegiance (Deut. 6:5). The abstract plural `elôhîm and "one" allow for the possibility of three Persons in One. God has always had one name (Matt. 28:19). But this one name has three Persons. Thus, when God created humans in God's image they too have one name ("Human" or Adam) but two genders or persons, male and female (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-2). The church also, Christ's body, is one church (Eph. 2:14) in which every individual is important. Marriage between two people makes them one flesh (Eph. 5:31). God's oneness is a truth that affects many areas of life.
Many of the attributes God has revealed are summarized in Moses' talk to the Israelites before they enter the land of Israel:
"For the LORD your God is God of the gods and Lord of the lords, the Mighty, the Great, the Strong, and the Wonderful, who is not partial and does not take bribes, executing justice for orphan and widow and loving every stranger, giving each one food and clothing" (Deut. 10:17-18).
"Your God, the one present with you, is a great and awesome God" (Deut. 7:21). This God with all these marvelous qualities is "great," "mighty," "old," and someone to fear or reverence. Here is God's mysterious, holy name. God is unique. This God is "almighty," a powerful Parent, Creator of the world and active in everyday events and places. But what does God do with this power? Because of God's compassion, grace, love, and faithfulness, God uses this great power to be just, to make sure those humans with less power, the parentless child, the single mother, and the foreigner, are treated justly and provided with their necessities.
Therefore, God's people too are to love the stranger (Deut. 10:19) and take care of the widow and orphan (Exod. 22:21-24). God is the God who made everything and everyone and reminds the Hebrews that they too were strangers once. With a strong heritage and support, James can conclude that "pure and undefiled worship to the God and Creator is to care for orphans and widows in their trouble, to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). That is because our God is a compassionate God who uses power individually and concretely, employing an angelic host and a community of followers, to respond with deliverance and wholeness and education to those under oppression, to those who are obedient.
But how has this great God been revealed in the United States? What have true Christians, as opposed to alleged Christians, communicated about God?