4 May 2012

Exodus 34:1-35

"The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, 'The Lord.' The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, 'The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.'" (vv. 5-7)


Today's passage forms a climax to the chapters that we read over the last couple of days. In this story the relationship between God and Moses and the people of Israel is both restored and taken further.

There is an element of restoration here in that the chapter begins with the command to take two tablets of stone like the former ones (verse 1). We are reminded that Moses came down from the mountain holding two tablets of the covenant that God had given him (Exodus 31:18) but broke those tablets when he discovered that the people were worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32:19). Although the experience of God's presence is for Moses alone, the covenant is restored with Moses and with Israel (verse 27).

The great encounter with God is not described as visual. God proclaims - first God's name (verse 5) and then God's nature (verses 6-7). Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels and God's name in Hebrew is YHWH. When vowels are add this becomes YAHWEH. This seems to be a form of the verb 'to be' - thus the name means something like 'I am' or 'I will be what I will be'. The first answer to Moses' request to see God's glory is the proclamation 'I am'. The second is a description of what God is like. In Exodus 33:12, Moses asked to know God's ways and to be assured of God's favour - now he hears that God is merciful and gracious and forgives, but also again there is a reminder that sins are not always forgiven. We can find the idea that the sins of the parents are visited on the children shocking. This is a difficult passage, but we need to remember that it comes from a time which emphasised the individual less and membership of groups (including families) more.

The fact that Moses' face shines at the end of the chapter (verse 29) is slightly mysterious but does, at very least, tell us that the encounter with God has changed Moses and that Aaron and the Israelites could see the effect.

To Ponder

  • The first time God made a covenant (promise) with Israel, the people promised to obey and promptly made a golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6). This time there is no mention of the people doing anything. What significance do you see in this?
  • How do you understand the idea of a God who makes a covenant with one people in the context of the Christian understanding that God loves all people?

Bible notes author

The Revd Judith Rossall

Judith Rossall is a Methodist tutor at Queen's Foundation in Birmingham. Before moving to Queen's, she was a circuit minister and taught at STETS in Salisbury.