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Zev Farber





Does YHWH Remit Punishment?





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Zev Farber





Does YHWH Remit Punishment?








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Does YHWH Remit Punishment?

As part of the selichot prayer service, the rabbis cut the biblical phrase וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה “[YHWH] does not remit punishment” to read only וְנַקֵּה, which yields the opposite meaning, “[YHWH] remits punishment.” Although this edit is surprising, the rabbis are responding to a serious tension in the biblical text: Is YHWH a merciful God who pardons, or a vengeful God who will never remit punishment?


Does YHWH Remit Punishment?

123rf, adapted

The Custom of Selichot

It has long been a Jewish practice to recite a prayer service known as selichot (literally “[asking] forgiveness”) in the High Holiday season, in which the congregation invokes God’s “thirteen” merciful attributes.[1] Although it is unclear if such a service existed in Rabbinic times, the core concept can be found already in the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashanah 17a):

אמר רבי יוחנן: …מלמד שנתעטף הקדוש ברוך הוא כשליח צבור, והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה. אמר לו: כל זמן שישראל חוטאין – יעשו לפני כסדר הזה, ואני מוחל להם.
Rabbi Yohanan said: “….[the passage in Exodus 34 about God’s attributes] teaches that [God] wrapped himself [with atallit] like someone leading the prayer service, and showed Moses the way to pray. He said to him: ‘Anytime the Israelites sin, do this service before me, and I will pardon them.’”

Thus, the service seems to be based on the idea that a person who reminds God of his merciful attributes will be forgiven (b. Rosh Hashanah 17a):

אמר רב יהודה: ברית כרותה לשלש עשרה מדות שאינן חוזרות ריקם…
Rav Yehudah said: “A covenant was made with the thirteen attributes, that they will never be returned emptyhanded (i.e., recited without effect)…”

In early medieval times, this was done during the Ten Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Nowadays, Ashkenazi Jews begin to recite selichot in the month of Elul, on the week before Rosh Hashanah, and Sephardim begin on the first day of Elul, and recite them all month.

Redefining God’s Attributes

Selichot has grown into a whole prayer service, with many different parts, but the core of the service remains the recitation of the attributes. This recitation is generally preceded by an opening paragraph that describes God as a king who acts with kindness and forgiveness,[2]and introduces the thirteen attributes with the following:

אֵל הוֺרֵיתָ לָנוּ לוֺמַר שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה.
וּזְכוֺר לָנוּ הַיּוֺם בְּרִית שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה
כְּמוֺ שֶׁהוֺדַעְתָּ לֶעָנָיו מִקֶּדֶם. כְּמוֺ שֶׁכָּתוּב…
O God, you taught us to recite the thirteen [attributes],
So remember for us today the covenant of thirteen,
As you made known to the humble one (Moses) of old, As it is written …

The Selichot prayer then quotes, Exod 34:5-7a, when Moses, after the sin of the golden calf, went up the mountain to receive the second set of tablets:

שמות לד:ה וַיֵּרֶד יְ-הוָה בֶּעָנָן וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּו שָׁם וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם יְ-הוָה. לד:ווַיַּעֲבֹר יְ-הוָה עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא
Exod 34:5 YHWH descended in a cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name YHWH. 34:6 YHWH passed before him and proclaimed:
יְ-הוָה יְ-הוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. לד:ז נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה ✂
“YHWH! YHWH a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, 34:7 extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and [as for] remitting ✂

At this point the selichot prayer cuts verse 34:7 right in the middle of a phrase. In the Torah it continues:

✂ לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים.
✂ he does not remit [all punishment], but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

The simple meaning of the text as a whole is that although YHWH is merciful, he does not simply wipe the slate clean when begged for pardon. Rather, as Rashi (1040-1105) notes, he inflicts punishment on the sinner and his descendants incrementally, over four generations:

ונקה לא ינקה – לפי פשוטו משמע: שאינו מוותר על העוון לגמרי אלא נפרע מעט מעט.
“He does not remit” – according to the simple meaning it implies that [God] does not give up on [punishing] iniquity entirely, but rather he does so incrementally.
ורבותינו דרשו (בבלי יומא פ”ו.): מנקה הוא לשבין, ולא ינקה לשאינן שבים.
But our rabbis offered a homiletical interpretation (b. Yoma86a): “He remits punishment for those who repent, but he does not remit for those who do not.”[3]

The rabbinic midrash quoted by Rashi breaks the two phrases in half, as if they were alternatives, either he remits or he doesn’t remit, depending on whether the person repents, which is likely the reading which underlies the edited version of the verse that appears in selichot.

From No Remittance to Remittance

The difference between the selichot quote and the biblical quote is stark. The end of the biblical passage is actually a caveat stating that despite his merciful nature, YHWH does not simply remit punishment, but spreads it over three or four generations.

The phrase ‎וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה is, grammatically speaking, a negated infinitive. The entire phrase expresses one idea, with the doubling of the verbal root נ.ק.ה/י serving as emphasis. It would thus mean something like “but he surely will not remit punishment.” This is also how the cantillation marks parse the phrase, i.e., reading the three words as expressing one thought. The LXX adds a direct object to the no remittance phrase, “the guilty” (τὸν ἔνοχον). This is unattested in MT and SP, and likely represents a redaction to soften the sound, if not the substance, of the threat. In any event, the point remains that YHWH does not remit punishment for sin.

The rabbinic thirteen-attributes text, however, cuts the remittance phrase and only includes the one word, ונקה. Isolated from the rest of the phrase, the term has the opposite meaning: “and he remits [punishment].”

While it may be surprising that rabbis “edit” a verse in the Torah, it shows that they intuited a serious problem with the biblical text: the attributes are about God’s compassion and kindness, whereas the caveat, even with the spreading out of the punishment, is harsh. In the end, YHWH will not remit punishment under any circumstances. The dissonance between the attributes and the caveat are further highlighted when we examine other biblical texts that use these phrases.[4]

1. “YHWH compassionate and gracious…”

YHWH’s attributes, similar to Exodus 34:6b, are found in other biblical texts that extol God’s mercy. For example, in Psalm 86, the poet begs YHWH to rescue him from his enemies, and ends by declaring:

תהלים פו:טו וְאַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. פו:טז פְּנֵה אֵלַי וְחָנֵּנִי תְּנָה עֻזְּךָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ וְהוֹשִׁיעָה לְבֶן אֲמָתֶךָ.
Ps 86:15 But You, O Lord, are a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. 86:16 Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant Your strength to Your servant and deliver the son of Your maidservant.

The psalmist refers only to God’s merciful ways. He asks for delivery from his enemies and thanks YHWH for the aid and comfort he provides (Ps. 86:17).[5]

Psalm 103 also makes use of the merciful attributes, and explicitly refers to God’s teaching Moses his ways and to YHWH’s forgiveness of sins (italics):

תהלים קג:ז יוֹדִיעַ דְּרָכָיו לְמֹשֶׁהלִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲלִילוֹתָיו. קג:חרַחוּם וְחַנּוּן יְ-הוָה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חָסֶד. קג:ט לֹא לָנֶצַח יָרִיב וְלֹא לְעוֹלָם יִטּוֹר. קג:י לֹא כַחֲטָאֵינוּ עָשָׂה לָנוּ וְלֹא כַעֲו‍ֹנֹתֵינוּ גָּמַל עָלֵינוּ. קג:יא כִּי כִגְבֹהַּ שָׁמַיִם עַל הָאָרֶץ גָּבַר חַסְדּוֹ עַל יְרֵאָיו.קג:יב כִּרְחֹק מִזְרָח מִמַּעֲרָב הִרְחִיק מִמֶּנּוּ אֶת פְּשָׁעֵינוּ. קג:יג כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים רִחַם יְ-הוָה עַל יְרֵאָיו.
Ps 103:7 He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel. 103:8 YHWH is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness. 103:9He will not contend forever, or nurse His anger for all time.103:10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has He requited us according to our iniquities. 103:11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His kindness toward those who fear Him. 103:12 As east is far from west, so far has He removed our sins from us. 103:13 As a father has compassion for his children, so YHWH has compassion for those who fear Him.

In this psalm, YHWH’s attributes taught to Moses on the mountain are presented as kindness and mercy.[6] YHWH removes Israel’s sin, and has compassion like a parent. Though there may be a hint towards punishment of progeny in v. 9 (“he will not contend forever”), no mention is made about YHWH’s refusing to remit punishment.

In the book of Joel, the prophet uses the phrase as part of his exhortation to the people to repent, since YHWH is forgiving:

יואל ב:יג וְקִרְעוּ לְבַבְכֶם וְאַל בִּגְדֵיכֶם וְשׁוּבוּ אֶל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כִּי חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם הוּא אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה. ב:יד מִי יוֹדֵעַ יָשׁוּב וְנִחָם…
Joel 2:13 Rend your hearts rather than your garments, and turn back to YHWH your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness,and renouncing punishment. 2:14 Who knows but He may turn and relent…

Note the last phrase in the list which does not appear in the Torah versions: YHWH renounces punishment (נחם על הרעה, literally, “regrets the bad [decree]”). This is actually the opposite point to the remittance caveat, but fits hand in glove with the merciful attributes. The same claim is made by Jonah, when he complains that God has forgiven the Ninevites:

יונה ד:ב וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל יְ-הוָה וַיֹּאמַר אָנָּה יְ-הוָה הֲלוֹא זֶה דְבָרִי עַד הֱיוֹתִי עַל אַדְמָתִי עַל כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה כִּי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה אֵל חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה.
Jonah 4:2 He prayed to YHWH, saying, “O YHWH! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know thatYou are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.

The point here is that YHWH’s mercy leads him to pardon the Ninevites and renounce their punishment. In fact, it is telling that this renouncing punishment is exactly what Moses asks God to do after the sin of the Golden Calf, and which God does:

שמות לב:יב …שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ וְהִנָּחֵם עַל הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ… לב:ידוַיִּנָּחֶם יְ-הוָה עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ.
Exod 32:12 …Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the punishment of Your people…. 32:14 And YHWH renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.

It is possible that the Exodus text inspired the ending in Jonah and Joel, both late texts. Alternatively, they may simply be invoking a variant version of a popular liturgical statement underlying all these texts (including that of the Torah).

2. YHWH Does Not Remit Punishment

The idea that YHWH never remits punishment contradicts the merciful attributes text in substance and tone, but fits with other biblical texts that describe YHWH as a vengeful God, who does not forgive easily, some of which use this phrase, or a variant of it, to emphasize the point.

For example, the Decalogue uses God’s unwillingness to acquit [6] as a threat against anyone who swears falsely in YHWH’s name (Exod 20:6; Deut 5:11):

לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת שֵׁם יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה יְ-הוָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא אֶת שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא.
You shall not swear falsely by the name of YHWH your God; for YHWH will not acquit one who swears falsely by His name.

The message here is clear and simply: Do not swear falsely in YHWH’s name for if you do YHWH is guaranteed to punish you.

An Avenging God: Polemic Against the Merciful Attributes?

The exact phrase “he will not remit” appears in Nahum as part of his description of YHWH’s vengefulness:

נחום א:ב אֵל קַנּוֹא וְנֹקֵם יְ-הוָה
נֹקֵם יְ-הוָה וּבַעַל חֵמָה
נֹקֵם יְ-הוָה לְצָרָיו
וְנוֹטֵר הוּא לְאֹיְבָיו.
א:ג יְ-הֹוָה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם
(וגדול) [וּגְדָל] כֹּחַ
וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה
א:ו לִפְנֵי זַעְמוֹ מִי יַעֲמוֹד
וּמִי יָקוּם בַּחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ…
Nahum 1:2 YHWH is a passionate, avenging God;
YHWH is vengeful and fierce in wrath.
YHWH takes vengeance on His enemies,
He rages against His foes.
1:3 YHWH is patient,
And of great power,
And he surely does not remit [punishment]
1:6 Who can stand before His wrath?
Who can resist His fury?…

Nahum is delivering a threat–ostensibly against the Assyrians of Nineveh—assuring his Judahite audience that the day will come when YHWH will have his vengeance against his enemies. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet is because the time has not yet come, but assuredly, YHWH has the power and he does not remit punishment.

Moreover, Nahum has a unique usage of ארך אפים here. In the attributes texts, the term is used in the positive sense of “forbearing,” but Nahum uses it here in the negative or “Godfather” sense of taking his time and picking his moment.[7] It seems possible that Nahum is even polemicizing with the attributes texts here: “No, YHWH is not merciful; he is vengeful.”

Punishing Edomites

Another example of a similar phrase to the remittance phrase—using the same root (נ.ק.ה) but in niphal as opposed to piel form—is Jeremiah’s curse against the Edomites:

ירמיה מט:יב כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְ-הוָה הִנֵּה אֲשֶׁר אֵין מִשְׁפָּטָם לִשְׁתּוֹת הַכּוֹס שָׁתוֹ יִשְׁתּוּ וְאַתָּה הוּא נָקֹה תִּנָּקֶה לֹא תִנָּקֶה כִּי שָׁתֹה תִּשְׁתֶּה.
Jer 49:12 For thus said YHWH: If they who rightly should not drink of the cup must drink it, are you the one to go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished: you will have to drink!

Admittedly, this is not an evocation of the attributes, but the point is the same: YHWH does not remit punishment, everyone will “drink the cup” of punishment eventually.

3. YHWH Punishes Iniquity and Children

In general, stating that God punishes iniquity (פקד עון) is the language of threat. For example, Isaiah warns the people to hide in their homes:

ישעיה כו:כא כִּי הִנֵּה יְ-הוָה יֹצֵא מִמְּקוֹמוֹ לִפְקֹד עֲו‍ֹן יֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ עָלָיו וְגִלְּתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת דָּמֶיהָ וְלֹא תְכַסֶּה עוֹד עַל הֲרוּגֶיהָ.
Isa 26:21 For lo! YHWH shall come forth from His place to punish the iniquity of the dwellers of the earth; And the earth shall disclose its bloodshed and shall no longer conceal its slain.

The Decalogue uses the imagery of punishing multiple generations to underscore YHWH’s frightening and vengeful attributes (Exod 20:2-5; Deut 5:7-10):

לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי… לֹא תִשְׁתַּחְוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם כִּי אָנֹכִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְו‍ֹתָי.
You shall have no other gods besides Me…[8] You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I YHWH your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.[9]

The phrase here is a threat: Do not serve other gods, for if you do, YHWH will not only punish you but your children, their children, and even their children’s children. Bernard Levinson, professor of Bible at the University of Minnesota, has noted that this is exactly the threat in Esarhaddon’s treaty, if they choose another king over his son and future king, Ashurbanipal:

As long as we, our sons, our grandson live, Assurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, shall be our king and our lord. If we place any other king or prince over us, our sons, or our grandsons, may all the gods mentioned by name hold us, our seed, and our seed’s seed, to account.[10]

The Attributes of Exodus 34 in Context

Thus, in the Exodus 34 passage, we have three different phrases combined to create one text. The opening phrase is generally used to extoll YHWH’s mercy, while the next two—the ones that make up the remittance caveat—are generally used to describe YHWH’s vengefulness.

But the remittance caveat fits poorly in context. YHWH teaches Moses about his attributes (vv. 5-7) after the sin of the golden calf (ch. 32), immediately before making a covenant with him (vv. 10-11). The reason YHWH begins their interaction with a recitation of his attributes goes back to his threat in chapter 33 that though Israel may proceed to the Promised Land and conquer it, they will have to do so without him (YHWH):

שמות לג:ג …כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ.
Exod 33:3 …For I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people, lest I destroy you on the way.

Moses is very upset by this, and later in the chapter asks God to reconsider:

שמות לג:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אִם אֵין פָּנֶיךָ הֹלְכִים אַל תַּעֲלֵנוּ מִזֶּה. לג:טזוּבַמֶּה יִוָּדַע אֵפוֹא כִּי מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲנִי וְעַמֶּךָ הֲלוֹא בְּלֶכְתְּךָ עִמָּנוּ וְנִפְלֵינוּ אֲנִי וְעַמְּךָ מִכָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
Exod 33:15 And he (Moses) said to Him, “Unles/s You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. 33:16 For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?”

YHWH responds by letting Moses know that he will teach him his attributes, which will reveal that YHWH is by nature merciful and give Moses an opening to ask for Israel’s pardon:

שמות לג:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל טוּבִי עַל פָּנֶיךָ וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְ-הוָה לְפָנֶיךָ וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם.
Exod 33:19 And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name YHWH, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.”

This promise is fulfilled in chapter 34, when YHWH declares his name and tells Moses about his merciful nature. Moses then takes this opportunity to formally request Israel’s pardon:[11]

שמות לד:ח וַיְמַהֵר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּקֹּד אַרְצָה וַיִּשְׁתָּחוּ. לד:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנָי יֵלֶךְ נָא אֲדֹנָי בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲו‍ֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ.
xod 34:8 Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage, 34:9 and said, “If I have gained Your favor, O Lord, pray, let the Lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!”[12]

Moses’ request does not really lend itself to “spreading punishment over four generations” to lessen the blow; it is a yes or no request. Moses asks YHWH to pardon Israel and come with them to the Promised Land, and YHWH does. Although he does not respond directly to this request, YHWH immediately makes a covenant with Israel through Moses (vv. 10, 27),[13]implying that Moses’ request has been granted.

A Theological Redaction

Considering the jarring nature of the caveat in context, I suggest that it is a later addition to the text. In the original text, without the caveat, YHWH simply declares that he is merciful and forgiving, and Moses takes the opportunity to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites and receives it.

The redaction was added by a scribe who was uncomfortable with the idea of YHWH remitting sins, and was likely influenced by the later, Priestly theology that sins create permanent stains on a people or a land, and cannot simply be “forgiven” but must be atoned for through a ritual such as sacrifice, or a punishment.[14]

In the Priestly tradition, atonement is necessary even for unintentional sins; certainly, egregious rebellions against God such as the sin of the golden calf would demand something even more. Thus, if YHWH agrees to withdraw the threat of their destruction, it must be because he is going to make Israel atone for its sins in some other way, by spreading out the punishment so that it is not too destructive.[15] We can see the same process occurring in the account of the spies in Numbers (see excursus).

Positive Use of Non-Remittance: Jeremiah to the Exiles

A related idea is expressed twice in Jeremiah, in a statement of comfort aimed at the exiles:

ירמיה מו:כח אַתָּה אַל תִּירָא עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב נְאֻם יְ-הוָה כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנִי כִּי אֶעֱשֶׂה כָלָה בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדַּחְתִּיךָ שָׁמָּה וְאֹתְךָ לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה כָלָה וְיִסַּרְתִּיךָ לַמִּשְׁפָּט וְנַקֵּה לֹא אֲנַקֶּךָּ.
Jer 46:28 But you, have no fear, my servant Jacob — declares YHWH — For I am with you. I will make an end of all the nations Among which I have banished you, but I will not make an end of you! I will chastise you in measure, though I will not remit punishment.[16]

Why does Jeremiah invoke non-remittance as part of his attempt at comfort? It would seem that this theological idea that God must carry out punishment but tries to be measured was necessitated by the realities of exile. The Judahites needed to explain to themselves how it is that YHWH could have rejected them, by allowing the Babylonians to exile them from their land, but at the same time, want them to return.

Jeremiah’s answer is that YHWH must punish sin; it is an ontological necessity. That being the case, YHWH has meted out the punishment and the slate has been wiped clean, thus they can look forward to the future return. The redaction of Moses’ prayer appears to come from the same milieu.[17]

Selichot: Returning to the Older Biblical Conception

With his new theological creation, the redactor assimilated the negative punishment tropes into the positive forgiveness texts of Exodus 34. And yet, the phrases still carry with them their original negative valence of multi-generational punishment and God’s refusal to remit punishment. For this reason, the rabbis, when crafting the selichot prayer, decided to return (unbeknownst to them) to the earlier text,[18] in which God is entirely merciful and compassionate, and does, in fact, remit sin. [19]


Theological Redaction of the Spy Story

After the Israelites react to the report of the spies by refusing to enter the land, YHWH declares that he will destroy them utterly with a plague (Num 14:11-12). Moses then attempts to convince YHWH not to do this (Num 14:13-19). First, he argues that the other nations will imagine this to mean that YHWH was insufficiently powerful to fulfill his promise to bring them into the land (vv. 13-16). Then, he brings up YHWH’s merciful attributes:

במדבר יד:יז וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר. יד:יח יְ-הוָה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן וָפָשַׁע
Num 14:17 Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying: 14:18 YHWH! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; bearing iniquity and transgression;
וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים.
But he will not remit [punishment].[20] He visits the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.

Having declared that YHWH is merciful, Moses makes his request:

יד:יט סְלַח נָא לַעֲו‍ֹן הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד הֵנָּה.
14:19 Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.

Without the remittance piece, indented above, the text is clear. Moses argues since God is merciful and is powerful enough to bear iniquity without reacting, God should express his mercy here and forgive Israel and not destroy them. The inclusion of the remittance caveat in this context is strange. Moreover, just like in Exodus 34, the caveat does not fit YHWH’s reaction:

במדבר יד:כ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ. יד:כא וְאוּלָם חַי אָנִי וְיִמָּלֵא כְבוֹד יְ-הוָה אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ. יד:כב כִּי כָל הָאֲנָשִׁים הָרֹאִים אֶת כְּבֹדִי וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְמִצְרַיִם וּבַמִּדְבָּר וַיְנַסּוּ אֹתִי זֶה עֶשֶׂר פְּעָמִים וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ בְּקוֹלִי.יד:כג אִם יִרְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָם וְכָל מְנַאֲצַי לֹא יִרְאוּהָ.
Num 14:20 And YHWH said, “I pardon, as you have asked.14:21 Nevertheless, as I live and as YHWH’s Presence fills the whole world, 14:22 none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, 14:23 shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it.

YHWH’s response is that he has pardoned them and will not actively punish/destroy them as he originally told Moses that he would. Nevertheless, YHWH will also not help them by bringing them into the land. Instead, this generation will die in the wilderness and the next generation will enter the land. Not only does this reaction lack any connection to the idea of intergenerational punishment, it actually demonstrates the opposite: YHWH holds a grudge against the perpetrators, but their children are in no danger at all.

Thus, again I suggest that here too the remittance caveat is a later addition, for the same reasons discussed above about why it was added into Exodus 34. Originally, Moses simply declared YHWH’s merciful attributes, with no caveat, and moved directly to asking for Israel’s pardon.


September 7, 2018


Last Updated

June 9, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).