Read It Again

who keeps faithfulness for thousands, who forgives wrongdoing, violation of His Law, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, inflicting the punishment of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”  Exodus 34:7  NASB

Yet by no means leave – This is a bit tricky, so pay attention.  Here is the Hebrew text:

 נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֨סֶד֙ לָֽאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד | עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים

I’ve highlighted the critical words in red.  Now the transliteration (in case you don’t read Hebrew) of the highlighted words:

venake lo yenake.

As you can plainly see, the root is the same in both words.  The English translation disguises this fact, but it wasn’t hidden from the rabbis.  The root is nāqâ, “The root nāqâ with the meaning ‘to be clean, pure, spotless’ is found in Akkadian, Arabic and Aramaic. In Dan 7:9 [Aramaic] the Ancient of Days is described as having hair ‘like pure (nĕqēʾ) wool.’ The derived juridical notion ‘to be acquitted,’ ‘to go unpunished’ is found only in Hebrew.”[1]

Notice what Akiva discovers in this double use of the root:

“If Rabbi Akiva was strict regarding mitzvot between human and God, he was even more so in the case of mitzvot between human beings and human beings.  The verse says, “yet not clearing, clearing the guilty’ (Exodus 34:7).  Rabbi Akiva expounded: ‘One phrase says ‘clearing (nakkeh)’ and one phrase says ‘not clearing (lo yenakkeh).’  How can this contradiction be reconciled?  ‘Clearing’ refers to the mitzvot between human beings and God.  ‘Not clearing’ refers to the mitzvot between human beings and human beings.”[2]

Akiva’s insight provides us with a description of two actions in the process of punishment.  The first deals with our offenses before God.  Exodus 34:7 tells us that God will deal with these.  But there is also another kind of sin that needs to be punished, the sins we perpetuate on other human beings.  God tells us that He will also deal with these.  We do not escape judgment simply by begging forgiveness from God.  “Against You only I have sinned,” is not sufficient.  God reminds us that we must also account for our sins against others.  Reconciliation, if possible, means dealing with both God and men.  Clearing and not clearing.

Topical Index:  nāqâ, clear, acquit, punish, Akiva, Exodus 34:7

[1] Fisher, M. C., & Waltke, B. K. (1999). 1412 נָקָה. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament(electronic ed., p. 596). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Abraham Heschel, Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations, p. 177.

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Michael Stanley

This idea seems obvious once you consider how many times we are reminded in Scripture of the commandment to forgive others their trespasses against us. If God were the only party required to offer forgiveness and reconciliation then the commandment for us to forgive others in order that we might be forgiven ( Matthew 6:14-15) and for us to seek reconciliation with our offended brother ( Matthew 5:23) would be unnecessary. In addition, the many Torah injunctions to restore or repay three or four-fold for certain transgressions against another (i.e. theft, fraud) would be meaningless. Why bother with such niceties if YHWH is the only offended party? Bring an offering of appeasement to YHWH ( ask Jesus to cover the sin with his blood) and forget about the person who personally suffered from your transgression(s). It reminds me of our American penal system- “Retribution Trumps Restitution, Rehabilitation and Relationship.”
Thanks Skip (and Rabbi Akiva) for reminding us, that in YHWH’s sight, our moral obligations to each other are just as important to the eternal justice and shalom of the Kingdom Cosmos as is our compliance to YHWH’S insistence that all His children be holy, devoted, loving, merciful, compassionate, forgiving and obedient.

Richard Bridgan

Mankind’s participation in God’s created order- as a creature of such unique form of being that he bears God’s own image- also carries a unique moral obligation… an ethic of looking to the interests of others with the very consideration we sustain for ourselves. 

Indeed, Michael, it is as you say… YHVH’s insistence upon eternal justice, holy and faithful devotedness, compassion, mercy and forgiveness for and toward others (all foundational aspects of God’s cosmic kingdom rule) are no less imperatives for shalom than our willing obedience and thoughtfully enacted compliance.