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Moses and the God of Mercy

DM 101: Week 4

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 5, 2005)
The Biblical Story of Divine Mercy

When Moses brought the people of Israel through the desert to Mt. Sinai, despite their unfaithfulness and faintheartedness, the Lord stressed His patient and merciful love for them in the very first of the Ten Commandments that He gave to them on the holy mount (Ex. 20:5-6): "I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love [hesed] to thousands [of generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments."

It is clear what was gradually dawning upon the people of Israel: Divine Mercy is no longer seen as just something that "tempers" God's retributive justice — that takes the "edge" off of it, so to speak. Rather, His Divine Mercy far surpasses His justice. The sins of the people may have ill-effects, even down to the third and fourth generation, but for those who follow His commandments and love Him, God promises blessings for thousands of generations.

When Moses went up to Mt. Sinai again with two new tablets of stone, and the Lord wrote upon them once again, He prefaced this second giving of the Law to Moses in a way that shows that His mercy is of the essence of the mystery of who He is (Ex 34: 4-9):

So Moses cut two tables of stone like the first; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mt. Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tables of stone. And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin ..."



And then Moses prayed to the Lord:

If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray Thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thy inheritance.



Later, when the people of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, upon hearing from the scouts that they had sent out that the land was indeed rich and fertile, but inhabited by strong and valiant people who could not easily be conquered, the people again grew fainthearted, and considered choosing another leader than Moses and returning to Egypt. As a result of their rebelliousness, Moses had to plead for mercy upon them again from the Lord (Num 14: 19-21):

And now I pray Thee, let the power of the Lord be great as Thou hast promised, saying, "The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and fourth generation." Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray Thee, according to the greatness of Thy steadfast love, and according as Thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.



God still punished the Chosen People for their distrust and rebelliousness, stating that except for the few who remained faithful, none of the rest would make it to the Promised Land. Nevertheless, He promised that their children would enter the Promised Land, after wandering 40 years in the desert. God did not abandon His Chosen People and did not withdraw His covenant promises from them.

Moses continued to exhort the people of Israel to trust in the Lord's mercy right up until the end of his life. In the midst of his final admonition to his people, he had a prophetic vision in which he foresaw the history of his people — their infidelities, punishments, and sorrows — and yet also their conversion to God, and that the Lord would never forsake them (Deut 4:30-31):

When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in these latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, because the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you, nor altogether destroy you, not forget the covenant by which He swore to your fathers.



Here we have the beginnings of another development in the understanding of the people of Israel of the mercy of God. As we have seen, in Genesis, Divine Mercy seems to be portrayed as something that tempers or softens God's strict, retributive justice. On Mt. Sinai, Divine Mercy is proclaimed to be far greater than His justice. Now in Deuteronomy, toward the end of the life of Moses, we are told that even God's acts of just punishment of His people are expressions of His mercy: His mercy expressed in chastising His people, so that they will return to faithfulness to the covenant he had graciously made with them, and so that they might enjoy all its blessings.

The Dominican Fr. Hyacinth Woronieki, OP, summed up these insights from the Moses story as follows (Mystery of Mercy, p.9-10):

In this manner the mystery of Divine Mercy was revealed to mankind by God Himself in the most ancient rudiments of our faith on Mt. Sinai. We have learned that in the relations of God and Israel there was no place for indulgence, for disregard of God's will as expressed in His commandments. God demanded obedience and fidelity, and punished severely all iniquity, but His mercy surpassed that rigor, and was always ready to aid those wishing to revert from their evil ways and to side with the Lord faithfully. Even the austere punishments ... had for their purpose to bring [the sinner] to his senses and to convert him to God, so that even God's justice served His mercy.



This series continues next week with a discussion of the message of Divine Mercy in the Psalms of David.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.