I want to preface this post by saying that little of it is my own work. Almost all of comes from two of my seminary professors, Carl Laney and Gerry Breshears, as well as student of theirs. Since the subject is important I thought it would be worth repeating the information here.
Perhaps the most important question humans can ask is, “What is God like?” In my opinion it’s far more important than the question of whether or not God exist. Many atheist reject not God, but someone’s wrong idea of God. Our idea of God is both important and practical because God provides the standard by which we should live. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children,” says Ephesians 5:1. The big question for Christians then is, “What does the Bible say God is like?” The different ways that believers answer this question is one of the reason for our the diversity of Christian denominations and traditions. Calvinist and reformed churches emphasize God’s supremacy and sovereignty (control over the world). Puritans emphasize God’s holiness, while fundamentalists emphasize his truthfulness (i.e. the Word). Luther considered God’s graciousness to be so important that he doubted the truth of the book of James. Evangelicals, while borrowing from all these, traditionally emphasize the work of God, specifically, the justification and regeneration aspects of salvation. This is all to say that we need to pay careful attention to what God says about Himself.
Exodus 34 contains an instance of God talking about Himself. Unlike most places in the Bible, where God speaks through a prophet, or even Isaiah 6, in which angels talk about God, Exodus 34 contains a direct quote from God about God. God gives us autobiography rather than biography.
We are able to listen in on this self-disclosure because of Moses. Moses boldly asks to see God’s face. This is an odd request because God, being fully spirit, has no face. Yet God’s response is not to correct Moses’ choice of words or remind him that such language is just an anthropomorphism. Instead, God tells Moses that no human can see God’s face and live. (Astute observes will notice an apparent contradiction. Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, while verse 20 seems to say the opposite. I think this tells us at the least that God is a complex being. It probably also tells us that Moses experienced God’s triune nature.) Nevertheless, God will allow His glory to pass by Moses while He covers Moses with His hand. When God removes His hand, he will show Moses His back. What God’s back looks like is a mystery, likely one we will have to wait until heaven to understand. What then does God decide to say to Moses in this inmate revelation of Himself? The answer is found in Exodus 34:6-7.
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loyal-love and faithfulness, maintaining loyal-love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
I am afraid that many of our favorite attributes fail to make it on this list. However, the later authors of Scripture considered this passage to be important. They allude to it more than any other passage in the Bible. I’ve compiled a simple list here. The first five attributes are especially repeated often. In Hebrew they are compassion (רַ חוּם), graciousness (וְ חַ נּוּן), slowness to anger (אֶ רֶ ), loyal-love (חֶסֶד), and faithfulness (אֱמֶת). Because of how fond the Biblical writers were of this passage we can view it as a kind of pivot point on which the rest of the Bible turns.
Now it would take a long time to go through each characteristic individually. In this post I will stick to the first one because it is the most unexpected. Love frequently makes the list of characteristics we use to describe God, but compassion almost never. Compassion is also interesting because it has so many contemporary connotations. George Bush popularized the term “Compassionate Conservatives” for a time, while bumper stickers spelling out the word using religious symbols are currently in vogue. In Hebrew it is the word rachuwm, and comes from the word râcham. Râcham is also the root of racham which can mean compassion or womb. I will try to flesh out the word’s meaning.
Because Western civilization has its origin in Greek thought, we tend to make the heart the center of emotion. In the world view of the Hebrew Old Testament emotions came from the gut, which was also the seat of reasoning and will. (Here is an interesting word study on the subject). Compassion is a kind of strong emotion arising from the pit of the stomach. It can be felt both by men and women, especially in regards to their children.
Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion (racham) grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. Gen 43:30
Compassion is a warm, fierce, and blood-filled emotion. This revelation of God’s character comes at an emotionally charged point in God’s relationship with Israel. Israel has just sinned with the golden calf. God in red hot wrath tells Moses to step out of the way so that he can annihilate Israel. Moses pleads with God to spare the Israelite and God relents from his anger. Again, odd but true. In the midst of this God reveals Himself as a warmly compassionate and fiercely caring parent, willing to extend grace to a rebellious child.
Parent child relationships are unlike any other relationship. Neither party choose each other, yet they are bound together through blood. Things which my destroy a friendship or business relationship cannot break the bonds of a parent-child relationship. God displays the passionate compassion of a parent in his relationship with Israel throughout the Old Testament. In the book of Numbers alone we find several more situations where God desires to kill Israel, yet does not because of Moses’ intercession. Through a litany of rebellions which would overwhelm the love of an human, God’s compassion for Israel remains strong. The warmth of His compassion overcomes the warmth of His wrath.
If compassion is a central characteristic of God, then His followers should orient their lives to be ones of compassion. Such is no easy task. Compassion is a not platonic love, sterile and disentangled from emotions. Rather it is a messy, flesh-filled love. Unfortunately, Christian theologians in the past have allowed God’s love to be colored by the platonic love of Greek philosophy more than the love of the Bible. Real love and compassion involves intense emotions and commitment along with allowing oneself to be wounded. We have the best human example of this kind of compassion in Christ.
Jesus was God’s expression of compassion to humanity. In our helpless struggle to live a righteous life, our arms and legs flailing, God came down in the flesh and blood to rescue us. Jesus was frequently moved to compassion when he saw people, which led him to heal, teach, and feed them. Of course, he also experience the vulnerability to rejection that comes along with compassion. Christ provides the model from which to incarnate compassion in our own lives.