God’s Attributes

By Sherry Black

A Reading from Exodus 34:1-17

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready in the morning and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain, and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” 6 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,
7 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.”

8 And Moses quickly bowed down to the ground and worshiped. 9 He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, my Lord, I pray, let my Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

10 He said, “I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth or in any nation, and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

11 “Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. 13 Rather, you shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles, 14 for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. 15 You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice, 16 and you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.

17 “You shall not make cast idols.”


Through their dialogue, through their encounters, God and Moses have come to an understanding, it seems. The LORD appears to Moses in the cloud, an awe-inspiring theophany. And, for the first time, God proclaims his “softer side” to Moses, in all his merciful attributes:

Slow to anger
Abounding in loving-kindness
Keeps loving-kindness for thousands/for millennia
Forgives iniquity
Forgives transgression
Forgives sin (yet)
Does not clear/cleanse the guilty…

Then what’s all this about assigning iniquity to children and grandchildren and generations of descendants?

With sin, only the sinner receives punishment; but iniquity is something else, carrying multigenerational consequences. Iniquity is not merely making a mistake; it involves serious acts of perversity or idolatry that stain the environment. Yes, Yahweh is merciful and forgiving; and Yahweh is also holy and just.

Moses responds by worshipping the LORD, and again appealing on behalf of the Israelites: “If I have found grace, O Lord, go in the midst of us; pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance” (emphasis added). He has experienced God’s character, and wants Israel to continue experiencing it too.

And God proceeds by renewing the covenant he made to do an awesome thing with Israel, to make a way for them to inhabit the land promised them.

The attributes listed above appear either in whole or in part throughout the Hebrew Scriptures; it is likely that they were an early creedal statement. In any case, they are certainly a potent reminder of God’s character and amazing grace, and a revelation we want to share with others.

The Very Rev. Sherry Black is a second-career Episcopal priest, and has been a full-time hospital chaplain for ten years. She also serves a small mission church as priest-in-charge, and is dean of her deanery.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Limerick & Killaloe – The Church of Ireland
Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Bank, N.J.


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