I’ve been of the intellectual, Tillich-y sort of religiosity for a long time, reflecting a lot on how God is beyond our labels and comprehension. I’m sort of a panentheist, in that I believe God isn’t entirely separate from creation. And while I can fully embrace the humanity and divinity of Jesus, one of the things that reading the Bible this way is showing me is that I’m not used to thinking about God with a personality.

A lot of Christians talk about having a personal relationship with God. I think, traditionally speaking, Christianity should be more about our corporate relationship with God as the Church. But have I, in taking that step back, made God impersonal?

Tillich said that everything we could say about God was a metaphor, but also that metaphors were vitally important – and that the most important metaphor is of God as a person, because we can only relate to people in an emotionally intense way. I think I’ve been ignoring that metaphor in favor of thinking of God as an Idea. It was fine for Jesus, the Word made flesh, the second person of the trinity, to have a personality, but God the Father? The God we cannot see?

Chapter 34 contains the famous summary of God’s personality. The NRSV decpits it as a poem, but the NCT does not, which is a shame:

‘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.

So here’s God’s personality in a nutshell: merciful, gracious, slow to anger (“very patient” in Japanese), full of love and faithfulness, remaining steadfast for thousands of years, forgiving sin, but also punishing the guilty, including their children and their children’s children.

I’m comfortable enough with that personality profile, right up to that last bit. Punishing children and children’s children? Isn’t that unfair? Well, if I recall correctly, in one of the later prophetic books, God says he’s done with that system and now only intends to punish people for their own sins. I’ll talk more about the implications of God switching like that whenever I get there (a decade from now??), but for right now, let’s ask why God ever thought that was a good idea in the first place.

One thing is the idea of disincentive. People might be less likely to sin if their children and grandchildren would also be punished. God is appealing to their parental instincts. Of course, lots of people are indifferent to their children or short-sighted or never have children, which might account for God dropping this policy.

But as someone who believes in natural consequences (a kind of karma without reincarnation), I think it’s absolutely true that the sins of parents are visited on children, precisely because we’re too short-sighted or indifferent. Think of the damage we’re doing to the environment, to the world economy (I’m looking at you, European Union), and think of what it will mean to future generations. Maybe God doesn’t have to do any active punishing. Maybe he just has to let us deal with the results of our actions.

Regardless, it’s good to know that his love lasts 250-333 times longer than his anger.

God renews his covenant in this section, covering things discussed in earlier chapters. It was interesting to me that it was almost entirely ritual stuff. Don’t worship idols, celebrate festivals, observe the sabbath, offer the right sacrifices. None of the legal items are considered an important part of the renewal. Also interesting is that it’s not the same as the Book of the Covenant in chapters 21-23. It also mentions bringing sacrifices to “the house of the LORD” (v 26), which was a term that I thought was used for the temple, not the tabernacle. Anachronism?

And lastly, it’s one final thing that The Ten Commandments got wrong, and with it every stupid sculpture unconstitutionally in front of a courthouse: the tablets don’t have the ten commandments on them, they have all of this. I’d like to see how Christianists in this country would feel if, in front of courthouses, we had a declaration against boiling “a kid in its mother’s milk” (v 26).

The Japanese: houhoku suru “to browse, to pasture” (v 3), nintaidzuyoku “very patient, persevering” (v 6), hizamazuku “to kneel” (v 8), kousaku “cultivation” (v 21), okasu “to violate, to trespass” (v 24), motodzuite “to establish, to base on” (v 27), kotogotoku “every” (v 32), ooi o kakeru “to wear a veil” (v 33).

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