The Thirteen Midot
The stories of G-d's interactions with Moses and the people of Israel fill the book of Exodus. One passage, in particular, is overflowing with G-d's revelation of Himself. It's the passage where G-d commands Moses to create two new stone tablets after the Israelites' sin of the golden calf.
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations." Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. (Exodus 34:5-8)
After G-d gave the commandments to the Israelites verbally and they agreed to do all He commanded (Exodus 24:3), Moses went up on the mountain to be with G-d (Exodus 24:15). While he was away, the Israelites fell into the sin of the golden calf (Exodus chapter 32). Moses then returns, sees their sin, and breaks the stone tablets of the covenant in his anger (Exodus 32:19).
G-d reveals His compassion and mercy in the fact that He did not immediately obliterate all those who sinned in the matter of the calf. In fact, He calls Moses back up on the mountain to create a new set of tablets. It is in this context we find what are known as the thirteen midot: the Thirteen Attributes of G-d, also known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The Talmud describes these in detail in Tosephot Rosh HaShanah 17b.
Let's take a brief look at G-d's attributes that He reveals in this moment.
YHVH (Strong's #3068) - the special four letter name of G-d given to Moses at the burning bush.
This name reveals G-d's covenant-keeping nature.
(The Talmud notes that G-d is merciful before a person sins.)
YHVH - stated a second time as an intensive.
(The Talmud notes that G-d is also merciful after a person sins.)
El (Strong's #410) - Hebrew for "mighty". El is also short for Elohim which is the Hebrew word for G-d.
This word reveals G-d as Deity.
(The Talmud notes that G-d is all powerful.)
Rachum (Strong's #7349) - Hebrew for "full of compassion". This Hebrew word is related to the word for "womb" and motherlike compassion associated with womanhood.
This adjective reveals G-d's nature as compassionate and merciful.
(The Talmud states G-d is compassionate.)
Channun (Strong's #2587) - Hebrew for "gracious".
This word reveals G-d's character as the G-d of Grace.
(The Talmud states G-d is gracious.)
Erekh aphayyim (Strong's #750 and Strong's #639) - Hebrew for "slow to anger" [literally "slow nostrils"- when someone is angry they flare their nostrils].
This phrase reveals G-d's patient nature.
(The Talmud notes G-d is slow to anger.)
Rav chesed (Strong's #7227 and Strong's #2617) - Hebrew for "great in kindness" or "great in covenantal devotion".
This part reveals G-d's character as abundantly kind.
(The Talmud states G-d is abounding in kindness.)
Emet (Strong's #571) - Hebrew for "trustworthy" or "truth".- This word reveals G-d's character as "Truth". Yeshua said He is the Way the "Truth" and the Life (John 14:6).
(The Talmud states G-d is kind even after His scrutiny of our conduct.)
Notzer chesed lo'olafim (Strong's #5341, Strong's #2617, and Strong's #505) - Hebrew for "keeping covenant devotion for thousands" [of years? generations?].
This phrase reveals G-d's character as consistently faithful and kind.
(The Talmud states G-d's kindness extends to future generations.)
Nosei avon (Strong's #5375 and Strong's #5771) - Hebrew for "forgiving of iniquity" [avon being intentional sin: iniquity].
This description reveals G-d's character as forgiving of iniquity.
(The Talmud states G-d forgives sins committed willfully.)
[Nosei] peshah (Strong's #6588) - Hebrew for "[forgiving of] transgression" [peshah being rebellious sin: transgression].
This part reveals G-d's character as forgiving of rebellious sin.
(The Talmud states G-d forgives sins committed in defiance of His will.)
[Nosei] chatah (Strong's #2403) - Hebrew for "[forgiving of] sin" [chatah being accidental sin].
This word reveals G-d's character as forgiving of accidental sin.
(The Talmud states G-d forgives sins committed unwittingly.)
V'nakeh lo yanakeh (Strong's #5352, Strong's #3808, and Strong's #5352) - Hebrew for "not leaving unpunished" [the guilty].
This phrase reveals G-d's character as the righteous judge.
Here the Talmud states G-d acquits the repentant sinner, but that is not what what is written here. It says He will not leave the guilty unpunished. The Sages were forced to deal with the apparent conflict of this last attribute with the rest of G-d's character. This thirteenth attribute creates a "dissonance" in the pattern of what G-d just revealed. It doesn't fit with all the gracious, merciful, and compassionate character traits that came before it.
We might understand this by way of a simile...a song in this case:
Some songs have a dissonant chord structure just before the final chord. (Think about some of the old hymns that have an "ayyyy...men" at the end. The "ay" in that "ayyyy...men" is usually a dissonant chord.) In these chords, the middle of three notes in the chord sounds too high. It is only when that center (or 2nd note) "comes down" that the dissonance is resolved and the chord sounds finished and complete.
In a similar way, it was only when the "second note" of the G-dhead (the Son) came down to dwell among men (John 1:14) that the apparent dissonance is resolved to a complete "chord of grace". For those who do not accept the arrival of that second note (the Messiah Yeshua) the dissonance still remains and sets their teeth on edge (Jeremiah 31:29).
This is the "song" of G-d's new covenant: He has provided complete grace, compassion, and mercy to those He has chosen, even in full view of His righteous justice. "Sing to the Lord a new song, Sing His praise from the end of the earth!" (Isaiah 42:10).