Exodus 34 is the Yahwist’s version of the Ten Commandments, which was treated in an earlier entry, along with the fact that Exodus 34:1 is a lie—Yahweh does not, as the text claims, write the same material on these new tablets of stone that were on the original tablets (#134-135)! Today’s contradiction treats a different matter and fits in with the Conflicting portraits of Yahweh penned by the Bible’s different authors.
The Yahwist tradition preserves the following hymn in Exodus 34:6-7 and Numbers 14:18:
Yahweh, Yahweh, a merciful and benevolent god, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and faithfulness, keeping fidelity for thousands of generations, bearing crime and sin—though he does not acquit—reckoning father’s sins upon sons and upon son’s sons, upon a third and upon a fourth generation.
Even though this is supposedly from the Yahwist source, its placement right after the Elohist’s Golden Calf story is not fortuitous. In both the context of Exodus 34 and Numbers 14, this chant immediately follows from one of Yahweh’s more normal behavioral routines. The context of Numbers 14 is more apparent and also comes from the Yahwist.
And Yahweh said to Moses: “How long will this people reject me and how long will they not trust me, with all the signs that I’ve done among them? I’ll strike them with an epidemic and dispossess them, and I’ll make you into a bigger and more powerful nation than they are”(Num 14:11-12).
This is the same response we find in the Elohist version in Exodus 32:9-10:
And Yahweh said to Moses: “I’ve seen this people and behold, it’s a hard-necked people. And now leave off from me, and my anger will flare at them, and I’ll finish them, and I’ll make you into a big nation.”
Not incoincidentally, in both episodes Moses needs to placate the deity, reminding him of his covenant, the patriarchal promise, and his reputation among other nations if indeed he destroyed his own people.
The portrait of Yahweh as a god slow to anger is a bit of an exaggeration at best when we see how often and erratically his anger does indeed flare. For example:
- “Yahweh’s anger flared at Moses” when Moses had expressed his uneasiness with bringing his message to the elders (Ex 4:14).
- Yahweh’s “anger will flare” against those who oppress any widow or orphan (Ex 22:23).
- “Yahweh’s anger flared very much” against those who grumbled and desired to eat meat and he struck them down (Num 11:10-34). See #125.
- “Yahweh’s anger flared” against Miriam and Aaron who questioned Moses’ authority and Miriam was plagued with leprosy (Num 12:9-10).
- And “Yahweh’s anger flared at Israel” for having bowed to the god of the Moabites: “And Yahweh said to Moses: ‘Take all of the leaders of the people and hang them in front of the sun, and Yahweh’s flaring anger will retreat from Israel’” (Num 25:3-4).
With the exception of the last example, all of these are from the Elohist source, and there are numerous others in the Priestly and Deuteronomic literature as well. These are not portraits of a deity who is slow to anger as the Yahwist passage above asserts.
Moreover, these are not even historical events of Yahweh killing off thousands of his people due to his erratic nature. Rather this portrait of the deity, and these stories of his flaring anger, are theological in nature and meant to demonstrate the beliefs and agenda of their writers. Many of these narratives depict a common taboo: the challenging or questioning of Moses’ authority. Since Moses was the Elohist’s hero, and more significantly the authoritative figure for the Levites in general, these narratives warn against challenging the authority of the Levites in these authors’ own time periods. Most likely the Elohist was a Levite himself.
These archaized stories, therefore, serve as precedent examples of what happens when one questions the authoritative role of the Levites. The story of Uzzah (2 Sam 6:6-7), a commoner who actually reaches out and saves Yahweh’s ark of the covenant from crashing to the ground but nevertheless incurs Yahweh’s wrath and is instantly killed by Yahweh also functions to highlight Levite agendas—likewise, the 50,700 non-Levites whom Yahweh smites just “because they gazed upon the ark of Yahweh” (1 Sam 6:19).
These texts are none other than stories created by Levite priests to show that under no circumstances are non-Levites to touch, even gaze upon, Yahweh’s ark! Only Levites are permitted to do this. These are powerful narratives that reinforce Levite ideology by presenting their deity as a spokesperson for their own agendas. In the present case, Yahweh’s flaring anger is utilized by these Levite scribes for the composition of ancient stories whose purpose was to legitimate their sole unquestioned authority and role among the people—lest Yahweh’s wrath be released. Such stories are also found throughout the Priestly source, written by Aaronid priests, which we will look at in later chapters.
What Yahweh says, and how he is depicted, then, often correlates with the specific views and beliefs of the Bible’s many authors. In the above excerpt Yahweh is depicted as merciful; yet in the Priestly literature you will not find this adjective being used for the deity. In fact, the Priestly writer never uses words such as mercy, kindness, or forgiveness. Yahweh is rather portrayed in terms of justice or balanced retribution, and sins are only atoned through sacrifices not forgiveness (see forthcoming #321). Yahweh is also variously depicted as punishing sons for father’s sins to the third and fourth generation, and contradictorily as not (#136).
Contradictory theological portraits of Yahweh exit in the Bible because different authors variously depicted Yahweh depending on the agendas or beliefs they wished to convey. Similarly, there are also many contradictory laws placed on the lips of Yahweh by the various authors of these once separate traditions (e.g., #137-138, #139-140, #141, #142, #144). And we have not even broached the topic of the contradictory portraits of the deity present between the Hebrew canon and the Christian canon, whose writers wrote centuries later, had varying beliefs and values, and who lived in extremely different political and religious worlds.
For example, there is the statement in Exodus 34:7, against the theological claims of the New Testament, that Yahweh does not vindicate the sinner; he must bear the punishment for his crime (see #146).