The "Compassionate" God in Exodus 34

Yep, I’m still in Exodus. :laughing:

Today, I was reading about and reflecting upon compassion. My interest comes from a personal as well as professional curiosity, as various psychological studies have noted that compassion (and its cultivation) is a integral component in the formation of safe, secure relationships.

Ex. 34 tells the story of Moses going back up the mountain (Sinai) and God renewing the covenant He made with Israel. Vrs. 4-7 read:

So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

The NIV (and probably others) translate whatever Hebrew word is there as “compassionate”. The ESV on the other hand translates the Hebrew as “merciful and gracious”. These are very similar concepts, but, in my understanding of compassion, they vary slightly. Compassion has to do with being withsuffering with – whereas mercy and grace, while indicting some type of relationship, don’t necessarily have a with-ness about them. They are things that can be bestowed from afar. Compassion cannot be experienced from afar; that would be merely pity.

As God is speaking in this passage, I am curious if anyone might have any insight on the Hebrew word that is used here? I am curious as to “best” translation…that is, a conceptual understanding of how God would describe himself.

Additionally, if someone can point me to a helpful tool to help translate from the original language, that would also be appreciated! :smile:


Certainly I’d agree with you. I’d also say that when I consider ‘mercy’, I feel like it’s given to someone who has done wrong, whereas ‘compassion’ could be for someone who might just be in a difficult situation. I read ‘mercy’ as indicating a moral value whereas ‘compassion’ is less so. Take a look at 2 Kings 13:23 where both terms are used at once. Perhaps their slightly different nuances are amplified in this context:

But Yahweh had mercy on them and showed compassion to them and turned to them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was not willing to destroy them nor cast them from his presence up to now.

Interestingly, when I looked it up using the free Logos Bible app, it gave these separate meanings:

Mercy: favour; have; implore; show or be shown compassion
Compassion: love; greet with love; take pity

‘Gracious’ also replaces ‘merciful’ in some translations.

Perhaps the terms are used fairly interchangably because where Yahwah constantly is ‘merciful’ to the Israelites (giving them what they don’t deserve/have not earned), He is also aware that they are like dust (Psalm 103:14) and easily led astray, so ‘compassion’ is used to highlight His love to them in their waywardness.


I am going to share this from the TDOT, full disclosure I am not a scholar, just a student, but I think this excerpt might help.

The subject of rḥm piel is often Yahweh. A few texts have other subjects: oppressors (1 K. 8:50), the Medes and Babylonians (Isa. 13:18), the king of Babylon (Jer. 21:7; 42:12), the “enemy from the north” (Jer. 6:23; 50:42). In Isa. 49:15 the subject is a mother, in Ps. 103:13a a father, but in both metaphors the real subject is Yahweh. The normal recipient of the compassion or mercy expressed by rḥm piel is the people of Israel as such, or more narrowly Jacob (Isa. 14:1), Ephraim (Jer. 31:20), the house of Israel and Judah (Hos. 1:6, 7), the house of Israel (Ezk. 39:25), the house of Judah and Joseph (Zec. 10:6), the tents of Jacob (Jer. 30:18), Jerusalem and the mountains of Judah (Zec. 1:12), or Zion (Ps. 102:14[Eng. 13]). Only in Jer. 12:15 are Israel’s neighbors the beneficiaries of rḥm. The “wicked” in Isa. 55:7 appear to belong to the people of Israel, of whom Deutero-Isaiah is thinking. In Ex. 33:19 weriḥamtî ʾeṯ ʾašer ʾaraḥēm has universal scope, although the purpose of the text is to emphasize the absolute freedom of Yahweh in his revelation.

Simian-Yofre, H., & Dahmen, U. (2004). רחם. In G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), & D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 13, p. 440). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


Thank you both for these insights! So, I’m at a point then of understanding mercy/grace as elements of an overall compassionate nature. I noticed that in previous chapters of Exodus, God had threatened to leave them – to cease to be with them. But Moses implores God not to do so, and when God renews the covenant, it is foremost about being with them – “I will be your God; you will be my people” and all that. Yes, that involves mercy-grace, but it also involves God working for them to drive out the Caananites.

Agreed – mercy is perhaps most needed when there has been transgression. It also highlights power differences. To be one in a position to dispense mercy-grace-love requires power…or indicates that one holds power over another. Contemporary understandings of compassion (at least from a human side) can involve powerlessness…or, at least, using whatever power one has to be with and seek to alleviate the suffering of another.

:thinking: I don’t really know why I’m in this rabbit hole, but thank you both for being with me here!

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I’m sure all rabbit holes that lead through Exodus are worth going down :grinning:

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Hi @kathleen,

I honor your curiosity. It is a great example for me and everyone else in the community.

It also is a gift as it prompts us all to contemplate God’s character and the Scriptures!

My understanding is that while understanding the words themselves is important, what’s of greater significance is understanding the concept expressed by the passage itself. That is, words are almost impossible to translate apart from the sentences, paragraphs, and broader context in which they appear. For instance, the genre of ‘sarcasm’ will dramatically change how the words within a sarcastic phrase are understood.

For instance, in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, D.G. Peterson writes,

Mercy is a quality fundamental to God’s interaction with humankind. In the English Bible, the noun signifies concrete expressions of compassion and love. Verbal phrases such as ‘to be merciful’, ‘to have mercy on’ or ‘to show mercy towards’ underline further the active and volitional character of mercy. The adjective ‘merciful’ denotes a quality of God and a requirement of his people. The primary Hebrew term for mercy is ḥesed, which refers to the love, compassion and kindness upon which God’s covenant with Israel was founded. The eleos word group is the most frequently used to denote mercy in the Greek OT (LXX) and NT, but the semantic domain includes oiktirmos/oikteirō (compassion, pity, to show mercy) and splanchna/splanchnizomai (affection, sympathy, to show mercy, to feel sympathy for).

That is, mercy and compassion are semantically and conceptually similar words.

Thankfully, they are so constitutive of God’s character that we find examples of God being both merciful and compassionate.

For instance, in Luke 6:36, Jesus teaches, “Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”

Or in Matthew 9:36, we read, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.”

These are just two of many examples.


Thanks for your reply, @Carson, and I totally agree! As I was reflecting, I was aware that I could cross into the territory of trying to draw a boundary between the two, when they are very intertwined, as you also noted. :slight_smile:

What got me started on this was that I am reading about a psychotherapeutic intervention called “Compassion-Focused Therapy”. It’s something that has intrigued me for several years now. While the guy who developed it draws from various psychotherapy approaches/theories, he also notes compassion’s Buddhist roots.

As a Christian, I, of course, want to chime in, “Compassion is also a concept that is throughout the Hebrew Bible!” But I was wondering if, conceptually, they would have the same quality. The Latin prefix com- of course means with, together, so I was wondering if the Hebrew word had that quality.

Of course, Incarnation is YHWH’s ultimate expression of compassion, in the sense that God could suffer…that is, feel/know our human suffering. God is with Israel, and extends mercy to them and feels pity for them. So, in the case of the Old Testament, choosing to (and having the power to) do something about their suffering is compassion. And we are to mirror that compassion. (This is just me processing aloud!)