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The Divine Attribute Formula in Psalms

Hilary Kapfer
Harvard University

Course: The Psalms or an Introduction to the Hebrew Bible
Syllabus Section: The Hebrew Bible in the Psalms (in contrast to a section looking at the use of psalms in the Hebrew Bible) or a section on inner-biblical interpretation
Audience: Divinity students or undergraduates


  1. 1. To provide students with a brief survey of the reuse of the divine attribute formula in Exodus 34.6–7 throughout the Hebrew Bible and especially in the Psalms.

  2. 2. To provide students an opportunity for careful textual comparisons, textual analysis, critical thinking, and discussion of modern issues.


  1. 1. Pre-class readings and assignment

  2. 2. Introductory background lecture on the mercy of God in the Hebrew Bible

  3. 3. Lecture on the mercy of God in the Psalms

  4. 4. Discussion Section Activity and Questions

  5. 5. Further Reading

Pre-class reading assignments

Biblical Readings in the New Oxford Annotated Bible: If students are unfamiliar with the context in which these passages occur, they should also familiarize themselves with the surrounding verses.

Bible Passages

Exodus 20.5–6
Exodus 34.6–7
Numbers 14.17–19
Deuteronomy 5.9–10
Deuteronomy 7.9–10
Nehemiah 9.16–17
Joel 2.13
Jonah 4.2
Nahum 1.3
2 Chronicles 30.9
Jeremiah 32.18
Psalms 78 (especially verse 38)
Psalm 86 (especially verse 15)
Psalm 99 (especially verse 8)
Psalm 103
Psalm 109 (especially verses 13–16)
Psalm 145 (especially verse 8)

OBSO Reference Articles

Mercy of God
Word of God
Ten Commandments
Inner-biblical Interpretation

Background Lecture on the Mercy of God in the Hebrew Bible

God reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 34.6–7 by describing himself with a formula that is recycled throughout the Hebrew Bible:

"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."

God's self-characterization describes the deity as both merciful and punishing. He asserts that he punishes children to the third or fourth generation for the sins of their parents yet also keeps his steadfast love to the thousandth generation. The passage appears to hold the attributes of mercy and justice in tension. However, it is also possible that the entire formula speaks to God's mercy. The act of divine forgiveness requires God to bear the iniquity of the sinner, whose sin would render the land unsuitable for the divine presence without expiation. The divine act of punishing children for the sins of their parents may, in fact, be a display of divine mercy, not retribution. Instead of punishing the sinner for his sin, which could result in the sinner's death, God bears the sin and disperses his wrath slowly over the course of several generations, rather than all at once, so that the original sinner does not perish.

Several biblical passages support this merciful understanding of God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7. Firstly, Moses quotes the formula found in Exodus 34.6–7 during an episode in the wilderness in which God threatens to destroy the entire congregation except for Moses (Numbers 14). Moses intercedes on behalf of the people by quoting a portion of Exodus 34.6–7 that ostensibly appeals to God's attribute of justice; Moses quotes only a part of the familiar formula, but instead of asking God to keep steadfast love for this generation, he reminds God that he punishes children for the sins of their parents (Numbers 14.18)! Moses, however, is not asking God for more punishment. He is requesting mercy, which Moses suggests could come in the form of God bearing their iniquity and slowly meting out punishment over the course of three to four generations so that the entire congregation does not die as one man. This interpretation of God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7 is confirmed by 1 Kings 21.27–29: Although Ahab, the king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, has committed egregious crimes, his repentance prompts God to show him mercy by punishing his sons instead of the sinner himself. Likewise, in 2 Kings 20.17–19, the generally righteous Hezekiah, king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, faces punishment, but when he learns from the prophet Isaiah that it is his children who will suffer the punishment, he deems the divine word to be good since he himself will not suffer.

Moses is not the only Israelite to quote portions of God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7. Various parts of the formula are recycled throughout the Hebrew Bible. In an oracle indicting Nineveh, the prophet Nahum quotes only the portion of the formula that refers to God's vengeance (Nahum 1.3). By contrast, the prophet Joel promises that if the people of Israel repent, God will show them mercy. Joel quotes only those portions of God's self-description that refer to his gracious, loving, and merciful nature. He omits the portions that refer to punishment (Joel 2.13). Like Joel, the prophet Jonah also quotes only the merciful parts of the formula (Jonah 4.2). However, Jonah's modified quotation is a complaint that God is too merciful!

The Ten Commandments also reuse a portion of God's self-description. In the Book of Exodus, God delivers the Ten Commandments directly to the people of Israel. In the second commandment, God describes himself as punishing children for the sins of their fathers but rewarding the descendants of those who observe his laws (Exodus 20.5–6). Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy and depicts God as describing himself in the same way. However, during the course of Moses' exhortation to the Israelites to be faithful to their covenant with God, he modifies God's self-description as a God who punishes the children for the sins of their fathers. Although Moses acknowledges that God "maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations" (Deuteronomy 7.9), he claims that God "repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him" (Deuteronomy 7.10). Moses appears to modify God's self-description. He omits the attribute that describes God as punishing children for the iniquity of their parents and instead claims that God punishes the individual sinner personally. In an Aramaic translation, the Targum Onqelos, of the Ten Commandments, the translator added an interpretation to the second commandment; the guilt of the parents is only visited upon "rebellious children" to the third or fourth generation of those who hate God "when the children continue to sin as their fathers did."

As Moses' alteration of God's self-description in Deuteronomy 7.10 and the interpretation of the Aramaic translator of the Ten Commandments indicate, the divine punishment of innocent children presented a theological problem for some groups. In Deuteronomy 7.10, Moses solves this problem by claiming that God's justice is immediate and individual, which denies the statements made in important texts like Exodus 34.6–7 and the second commandment. Unlike Moses in Deuteronomy 7.10, the Aramaic translator does not solve the theological problem by rejecting the notion that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. Rather, the interpreter suggests that God punishes only those children who are also guilty of sins, like their parents. This solution eliminates the theological problem by refuting any notion of innocent suffering. Other texts from the Hebrew Bible also suggest that some groups in ancient Israel were troubled by the notion of a just God who punishes children for the sins of their parents. For example, in the prophecies in Jeremiah 31.29–30 and Ezekiel 18.1–4, God overturns a traditional proverb expressing the notion that children suffer for the sins of their parents:

"In those days they shall no longer say:
'The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge.'
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge"
(Jeremiah 31.29–30).
"The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die"
(Ezekiel 18.1–4).

Whereas Moses revised God's self-description in order to reject the notion of divine punishment of children for the sins of their parents, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel accomplish the same solution by delivering a prophecy from God himself to overturn this notion. In another example, the Book of Chronicles rewrites the history of Israel. Whereas the version of Israelite history known from the Book of Kings blames earlier generations and their leaders, especially King Manasseh, for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, Chronicles explains Israel's changing fortunes as the result of individual retribution rather than intergenerational punishment. The author of Lamentations did not deny that God punishes children for the sins of their parents, but his complaint suggests that this practice was not considered just:

"Our ancestors sinned; they are no more,
and we bear their iniquities"
(Lamentations 5.7).

As the above examples indicate, the tension between divine punishment and mercy found in God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7 created theological problems for numerous groups in ancient Israel. However, to alter this entrenched notion of God's mercy and justice required revising divine speech, which would also present a theological challenge for those who quoted, reused, or reinterpreted the divine attribute formula found in Exodus 34.6–7.

Most modern biblical scholars regard the speaker of Exodus 34.6–7 to be God himself, but the Hebrew text is ambiguous. Grammatically speaking, Moses could possibly be the speaker of the quotation, although this interpretation makes the least sense in the context. God's self-description is in the third person, which also complicates the issue since the reader expects a first person statement. Moses' quotation of the formula in Numbers 14.18 acknowledges that God is the speaker in Exodus 34.6–7, and God himself delivers the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, so the reuse of the formula in Exodus 20.5–6 appears to confirm that this formula was indeed understood to be divine words. As discussed earlier, parts of the Exodus 34.6–7 formula are recycled in places throughout the Hebrew Bible. In some places, like the prophecy of Joel or Nahum, for example, the altered quotation is also presented as divine speech, albeit through an intermediary. In other cases, human characters modify the divine formula (for example, Deuteronomy 7.9–10; Numbers 14.18; Jonah 4.2).

Lecture on the Mercy of God in the Psalms

In addition to the recycling of God's self-description by various prophets throughout the Hebrew Bible, the formula also recurs in the Book of Psalms. Psalms are human prayers addressed to God. Just as psalms sometimes are quoted elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, so too are parts of the rest of the Hebrew Bible at times quoted in the prayers of the Psalms. God's mercy, as expressed in his self-description formula in Exodus 34.6–7, is a recurring motif in the psalms.

Psalm 78 retells Israel's history. During its recounting of a rebellion in the wilderness, the psalm praises God for his role in bearing his people, "Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath" (Psalm 78.38). This passage reuses terms familiar from God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7 and places them in an historical context in which that formula was used to appeal to God's merciful nature (Numbers 14, especially verse 18). In Numbers 14.17, Moses recalls God's promise to be merciful, and then quotes parts of the formula. Moses omits the portion of the formula that refers to rewarding children to the thousandth generation and instead appeals to the portion that recalls that God punishes children for the iniquity of their parents. In the recounting of this episode, Psalm 78 mentions neither the punishing nor rewarding of children. It refers to God's merciful attributes, but ignores the attributes that are more frequently associated with justice than with mercy. As rationalization for God's mercy toward the Israelites, the psalmist explains, "He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again" (Psalm 78.39). We will come back to the issue of divine mercy and human nature in our discussion of Psalm 103.

In a petition in Psalm 86, the psalmist recycles clustered language from the formula found in Exodus 34.6–7. For example, in verse 5, the psalmist praises God, "For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you." The psalmist refers only to those portions of the original formula that appear merciful, rather than those that might be associated with divine justice. Although the use of only certain parts of the formula appears to be popular among those who quote it, the psalmist appears also to modify the formula itself. As it appears in the Ten Commandments, the formula claims that God keeps steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love him while punishing to the third or fourth generation those who reject him (Exodus 20.5–6, Deuteronomy 5.9–10). In Psalm 86, however, the psalmist makes this mercy available to "all who call on you." The formula is used for the purposes of intercession in Numbers 14.18, although in the case of Psalm 86, the psalmist appears to seek divine assistance against his human enemies, not against an angered deity, as was the case in Numbers 14. In verse 15, the psalmist contrasts God's mercy with his human enemies, who do not know God. The expectation that humans emulate these divine attributes will be discussed in connection to Psalms 111–112. The use of God's self-description as a means of intercession appears again in Psalm 99. Verse 6 recalls Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, who "cried to the LORD, and he answered them." Although the Hebrew Bible only records one example of Moses reusing God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7 for the purposes of intercession, verse 6 suggests all three figures did and verse 8 suggests that they were successful: "O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings." The psalmist, however, does not emphasize mercy while ignoring divine justice. Verse 4 draws particular attention to God's justice, and, as verse 8 makes clear, even Israel's greatest leaders have experienced divine correction for their misdeeds. The psalmist's interpretation of Exodus 34.6–7 appears to recognize a tension between divine mercy and justice.

Psalm 103 presents a strong contrast to the tension between mercy and justice found in Psalm 99. Expressing unqualified forgiveness of sins, verses 3–18 expand upon the list of attributes with which God describes himself in Exodus 34.6–7. God's mercy is so great that the psalmist claims, "He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103.9–10). God is not concerned with justice at all; his mercy far exceeds his punishment. Although the psalmist extols this divine attribute, this characteristic angers the prophet Jonah (Jonah 4.2). Although God's capacity for mercy appears to be infinite, the psalmist makes clear that it is also conditional. One must fear God and keep his commandments in order to receive his mercy (Psalm 103.11, 13, 17–18). These qualifications appear to be more stringent than the inclusive "all who call on you" that benefit from God's mercy in Psalm 86.5. Psalm 103 does not neglect the intergenerational element of God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7. According to the psalmist, "But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments" (Psalm 103.17–18). The psalmist omits the detail that his mercy will extend to the thousandth generation. This is surprising because of the psalmist's proclivity for hyperbole (Psalm 103.11). While a thousand generations likely represented eternity for ancient Israelites, God claims that his justice extends only to the third or fourth generation. Although Psalm 103 does not use the same language of intergenerational punishment, it does reflect the degree to which God's mercy appears to be greater than his punishment in Exodus 34.6–7. The psalmist asserts that God will not keep his anger forever (verse 9), although his steadfast love is eternal. The psalmist likens God's mercy to that of a father for his children. This analogy is entirely one-sided. Although fathers often do have compassion on their children, the Hebrew Bible contains instructions for fathers to be diligent to enforce discipline, not mercy, when raising children (Proverbs 13.24, 23.13–14, 29.15, 17).

In stark contrast to Psalm 103, Psalm 109 focuses solely on the attributes of justice in its request for retribution against enemies. This appeal to the formula for the sake of God's vindictive attributes compares to Nahum's use of the quotation in his prophecy against Nineveh (Nahum 1.3). In 109.8–12, the psalmist asks God not only to punish his enemy with death, but also to extend his enemy's suffering to his children. The gender inclusive language of the NRSV often obscures the fact that Exodus 34.6–7 and the passages that quote it refer to punishing children (sons) for the iniquity of their father, not parents. The plea in Psalm 109.14, then, is especially thorough in seeking to have the children of his enemy punished: "May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the LORD, and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out." Like Psalm 86, the psalmist does not appeal to God's self-description as a means of intercession to protect himself from the vengeance of any angry god, as it was used in Exodus 34.6–7 and Numbers 14.18. Rather, he seeks personal vindication from his human enemies.

After imploring God to punish his enemy and his offspring, the psalmist charges his enemy with not remembering to show loving-kindness (hesed), which is a prominent term used to describe God's mercy in the divine attribute formula in Exodus 34.6–7. The mercy of God, as expressed in divine attribute formula, becomes a standard by which humans are judged to be righteous. Just as God is gracious and merciful in Psalm 111.4, those who fear him are similarly described in Psalm 112.4. This notion, found both in Psalm 109 and 112, that righteous humans ought to exhibit mercy, grace, and loving kindness like God differs from the interpretations offered in Psalm 78 and 103. Divine remembrance of the mortal and ephemeral nature of humanity motivates God's mercy toward the rebellious Israelites (Psalm 78.39). In Psalm 103, human frailty again lies behind God's abundant displays of great mercy (Psalm 103.10, 14–16). The infinitude of God's steadfast love in verse 17 contrasts with the finite nature of humanity in verses 14–16.

As the preceding discussion has hopefully made clear, God's self-description in Exodus 34.6–7 has inspired a great deal of inner-biblical interpretation. Because the original formula is presented as God's own words about himself, the modification of these verses in other portions of the Hebrew Bible is sometimes surprising. In many cases, the prophet or text quoting the formula omits portions of it that do not suit the new purpose for the formula. In the Book of Psalms, certain aspects of the formula may be highlighted while others ignored. Given the liturgical nature of the psalms, this selective use of the divine attribute formula is not entirely surprising; in certain contexts, communities or individuals engaged in prayer may indeed want to focus solely on mercy or on justice without holding them in tension or exploring their interrelated nature. In certain Jewish liturgical contexts in the present day, Exodus 34.6–7 is quoted, but the reference to intergenerational punishment is omitted.

Discussion questions

  1. 1. What does the formula contained in Exodus 34.6–7 mean in its "original" context?

  2. 2. Consider the reuse of this formula in Exodus 20.5–6, Deuteronomy 7.9–10, Numbers 14.18, Joel 2.13, Jonah 4.2, and Nahum 1.3. Why is the quotation not repeated in its entirety?

  3. 3. Compare the changes introduced to the underlying principles of the divine attribute formula in Deuteronomy 7.9–10. How do they compare to the prophecies in Ezekiel 18.1–4 and Jeremiah 31.29–30? Why do the writers of Exodus Deuteronomy use a different method of overturning the concept of divine retribution for the children of sinners from the method used by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who quote a human proverb, not a divine proclamation of God's nature?

  4. 4. What does the formula contained in Exodus 34.6–7 mean in the Psalms? Does every psalm engage with Exodus 34.6–7 in the same interpretive manner?

  5. 5. Psalm 103 and 109 both make use of the formula about YHWH's mercy found in Exodus 34.6–7, but for very different purposes. Can both of these be legitimate interpretations of Exodus 34.6–7?

  6. 6. Why does each psalmist reuse only parts of the Exodus 34.6–7 formula and not the entire quote? As the other biblical quotes above indicate, it was not uncommon for ancient interpreters to quote only a part of formula. Does this set a biblical precedent for cherry picking biblical passages as they suit one's theological purposes?

  7. 7. If the writers of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms felt comfortable altering or disagreeing with the word of God and including those disagreement in sacred texts and prayers addressed to God, does this suggest that all interpreters can and should challenge elements of the Bible with which they disagree?

  8. 8. Are humans capable of attaining the standard for displaying loving kindness that God has set as a model for emulation?

  9. 9. Scripture is generally regarded as the unalterable word of God. How does the revising of God's words in Exodus 34.6–7 and reincorporation into later texts affect ancient and modern notions of canon? Consider the "canon formula" found in Deuteronomy 4.2 (cf. 12.32): "You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you."

  10. 10. Is there a canonically and contextually "responsible" way to use the word of God in human prayer?

Further Reading

  • Crenshaw, James L. "Popular Questioning of the Justice of God in Ancient Israel." Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 82 (1970): 380–395.
  • Daube, David. Studies in Biblical Law. Vol. reprint ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Dentan, Robert C. "The Literary Affinities of Exodus XXXIV 6f." Vetus Testamentum 13 (1963): 34–51.
  • Fishbane, Michael A. Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
  • Greenberg, Moshe. "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law." In Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume; Studies in Bible and Jewish Religion, pp. 5–28. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1960.
  • Kaminsky, Joel S. Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1995.
  • Kaminsky, Joel S. "The Sins of the Fathers?: A Theological Investigation of the Biblical Tension Between Corporate and Individualized Retribution." Judaism 46 (1997): 319–332.
  • Levinson, Bernard M. Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Levinson, Bernard M. "The Case for Revision and Interpolation within the Biblical Legal Corpora." Theory and Method in Biblical and Cuneiform Law (1994): 37–59.
  • Levinson, Bernard. "The Human Voice in Divine Revelation: The Problem of Authority in Biblical Law." In Innovation in Religious Traditions: Essays in the Interpretation of Religious Change, edited by Michael A. Williams and et al., pp. 35–72. Walter de Gruyter, 1992.
  • Muffs, Yochanan. "Who Will Stand in the Breach? A Study in Prophetic Intercession." In Love and Joy; Law, Language, and Religion in Ancient Israel, 9–48, 1992.
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