Today’s readings reflect upon the central aspects of God’s identity – the core attributes of God. This may be one of the biggest questions we can ask: Who is God?
Scripture does not always offer us a simple answer. We encounter many different images of God in both the Old and New Testaments. One common misconception is that there is an “Old Testament God” who is an angry, vengeful God. The Old Testament can show God becoming angry. This most often happens when people are not living up to their call to follow god’s commands, especially if they fail in their responsibilities to create a just society. Yet, this is not the only image of God we see in the Old Testament. From a warrior to a mysterious deity orchestrating events in the background to a steadfast protector, there is great diversity in the Old Testament’s images of God.
Despite this diversity, there seems to be an understanding that God has a consistent core, a central list of divine attributes. This list appears in the reading we have today from the Book of Exodus, “The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity continuing his love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless…” (34:6-7). This list of attributes appears again in the book of Numbers (Nm 14:18), in the prophets (Jl 2:13; Jon 4:2) and in the Psalms (86:15, 103:8; 145:8). Depending on the point the biblical author was trying to make, different attributes might be emphasized over others in some of the lists. Some of them emphasize God’s compassion and mercy, others God’s justice. No matter what the focus, the core attributes remain the same. That this set of characteristics is not limited to one area of the Old Testament suggests that they were understood to be a key facet of who God truly is: compassionate, merciful, forgiving, and just. The overall image of God in the Old Testament, then, is one of a steadfast God who cares and feels deeply, who repeatedly forgives and offers second chances.
Jesus is presented throughout the Gospels in a similar way. We see many different aspects of Jesus’ character in the Gospels. Jesus becomes emotional and angry at times (Mk 3:5, 10:13-14; Jn 11:33-38) and even aggressive, as we see with the cleansing of the temple in all four Gospels (Jn 2:13-16, Matt 21:12-17, Mk 11:15-19, Lk 19:45-48,). But, as we hear in today’s Gospel, God loves the world deeply and seeks its redemption, not its condemnation. God sent Jesus to the world for this reason (Jn 3:17). Paul reminds us that God is a God of love and peace, who calls us to also live with love and peace (2 Cor 13:11). This hearkens back to the core attributes we learn about God in the Old Testament.
The question “Who is God?” is both complex and simple. As we have seen, God is multifaceted but contains unchanging attributes, across all persons of the Trinity. We have a God who feels deeply, who becomes angry at injustice, and acts with mercy and compassion. Perhaps most significantly, this God wants us to share in these core attributes. We are to do this by answering the call to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18; Mt 22:37-40). May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you as you strive to live out this call (2 Cor 11:13).
Kate Oxsen, PhD
Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies