Thursday, April 17, 2008

Deepening Our Understanding of God

Thursday, April 17, 2008 -- Week of 4 Easter

Today's Reading for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 961)
Psalms 50 (morning) [59, 60] or 114, 115 (evening)
Exodus 34:1-17
1 Thessalonians 2:13-20
Matthew 5:21-26

As we follow the narrative of scripture in a linear way, we see some development in humanity's understanding of God. Through time, we understand God in a less punishing and less tribal way. God reveals the deeper aspects of God's divine nature. The restoration of the covenant offers an excellent way to see that pattern.

The first covenant which Israel broke is found in Exodus 20. (The stones on which 10 Commandments from that covenant were written were destroyed by Moses after the golden calf betrayal.) Now we are in Exodus 34, and there are significant differences as God renews the covenant.

Look at the two descriptions of God's character:
Exodus 20:5-6: I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. God's punishment is emphasized as the first characteristic of the divine nature.

Compare with Exodus 34:6-6: 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 parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation. The first element that is emphasized is God's mercy and grace, with an expanded description including God's forbearance, steadfast love and faithfulness. This second description also adds God's forgiving nature, and does not limit God's steadfast love only to "those who love me and keep my commandments." In later generations, the prophets Jeremiah (31:29) and Ezekiel (17:21) will amend the judgment of the parents' sin upon the children, and declare that only the person who sins will be punished for their own sin.

The new description of God as "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" became a central tenet in Judaism. It shows up in at least five other texts in the Hebrew scripture, and seem to have functioned as some form of creed or confession of faith.

Christians might say that the revelation of Jesus continues the direction of this process, revealing God's compassionate, forgiving and loving nature even more radically.

Yet as I read this pivotal chapter, as inspired as I am by the deepening understanding accenting God's mercy over God's judgment, I am also deeply troubled by the tribalism that remains part of the Mosaic understanding. "See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going... You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles." This is genocidal language.

Later texts will challenge this tribal view. Jonah will resist God's call to preach to Nineveh, fleeing to Tarhsish because he knew that God is "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." Jonah will pout because God shows mercy to Nineveh. Isaiah will see the Temple as a place of prayer for all nations and will declare Jerusalem to be a peaceful place of gathering for all in a restored, loving creation. A later writer will tell the story of Ruth, a righteous Moabite, who becomes the ancestor of David.

Jesus will perform the same miracles of feeding and healing among the non-Jews as he did among his own people. The early church will open the covenant community to Gentiles without requiring circumcision or adherence to the law of Moses. In Acts, Peter will say, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

Slowly, it seems that humanity continues to grow more and more to recognize the deeper nature of the expansive love and mercy of God. In Jesus we see divine love poured out completely, to absorb even our evil and death, returning not condemnation and judgment, but resurrection, love that overcomes evil and death. Slowly humanity begins to appropriate the deepening nature of the revelation of God's immeasurable love for us and for all.


Audio podcast: Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week. Click the following link: Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location --

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 9:35 AM, Anonymous zenith said...

Lowell: I have met a lot of people who can't come to terms with a loving and forgiving God. Some have been abused as children and still see God as like their father and mother. Yet I know His grace has changed many people who had troubled lives. Why do you think some can realize the transition to God's grace and some cannot. It is rather tragic isn't it?

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

Dear Zenith,

Yes, it is tragic. I have met so many people who have internalized the messages they received from their churches and/or parents about an angry, judging, punishing God. They have heard that message so often from days when they were so vulnerable, that they have difficulty accepting the reality of a loving God.

It's not unlike the trauma of someone who has been sexually abused. It is hard to trust when you have been made into an object of violence -- physical or spiritual violence.



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