The first thing that happens in this chapter is the command to recreate the two stone tablets. These new tablets are cut by human hands, while the last ones were possibly shaped by God (the text says that they were "inscribed by the finger of God", they do not state who cut or shaped them). Since the tablets are inscribed with the words of the testimony, when Moses smashed the last pair of tablets, it was more than a sign of anger or frustration: it was an annulment of the covenant itself. Now, after Moses's intercession, the LORD is willing to re-commit to the covenant, and the first sign of that is the reconstruction of the tablets which is ordered here.
After Moses crafts the tablets and returns up the mountain, he has the divine encounter that was promised in the last chapter, that the LORD would "show [Moses] your glory". Just as was implied in chapter 33, the LORD appears as both a physical manifestation and announcing his moral and personal character, and all this is to be considered the glory of the LORD. Here is what the LORD says, from verses 6 and 7, one of the most compact self-representations that the LORD makes in basically the entire OT.
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.Compassion and grace are the two attributes that the LORD ascribed to himself in the prior chapter. As I stated then, this is in the context of (mostly) forgiving the Israelites' sin, so it seems appropriate to me. Probably the most interesting part here is the juxtaposition of "lovingkindness to thousands" vs. "visiting the iniquity... to the third and fourth". This gives us both a sense of the greatness of God's love to many, while reserving punishment for "the guilty". Have we even seen the love of God before? I don't remember. I know we've seen the blessings of God on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we have seen the favor of God over Joseph and the sons of Israel, but I don't believe it was ever spoken about as love.
The LORD in Genesis was positioned as the divine sovereign, the king to whom the patriarchs made obeisance. Now, in this declaration of the LORD's name and character, this astonishing manifestation of manifestations, the LORD is calling himself the God of compassion, grace, love and mercy. While his justice runs to three and fourth, his love runs to thousands. The patriarchs (usually) didn't need mercy; Abraham was a righteous man. Jacob is the most troubled of the patriarchs, but he didn't have nearly the problems of rebellion and sin that we see now. I am amazed how this rebellion and sin, combined with the prayers of Moses, draws out mercy and forgiveness from the LORD. Most people think of the OT as the book of wrath, and I understand why, but in this declaration we see that even in the OT, this is not what God calls himself, this is not how his nature is self-defined.
The thing that I found most confusing when I first read this is how the LORD can say, I forgive iniquity and punish people for their iniquity. It seems like a contradiction. The second thing that bothered me about it is how sin appears to result in generational punishment; it seemed unjust to me that children are punished for the sins of their fathers.
To the first issue, I think the best way to read this is that the LORD is expressing mercy in the first part and justice in the second part: mercy in forgiving people their sins upon request, but justice demands punishment for the sins that are not forgiven. Mercy and justice are fundamental attributes of God, so it makes sense that we would see them here when he declares his name. Without mercy, humanity has no hope, because the sin and curse of Adam has doomed the world to die. Yet, without justice, there is no fairness or equity in the treatment of one person versus another. You can have justice without mercy and the result is death because man cannot survive without mercy. I don't believe you can have mercy without justice, because I don't see how forgiveness can exist without fairness. Mercy is the forgiveness of equitable punishment: without equity, then one person may be punished less than another, but it's not mercy, it's injustice.
To the second issue, I think I've substantially addressed this issue previously back in Ex 20. Partly, the bible treats families as units because of the way that parents bring up their children in the same ways that they know. For instance, how many times are child abusers themselves former victims of child abuse? We live in a more individualistic time than the Hebrew people did, but parents still shape their children in the same ways. Nevertheless, as I noted in Ex 20, the bible actually prohibits punishing children for the acts of their fathers. If this seems like a contradiction, there isn't much more I can say to address that.
Immediately after this encounter, Moses prays once more that the LORD would go with the people, as well as forgive the people of their sins and iniquity. In such a short time, it seems that forgiveness has become a really big theme here. Also, Moses is again primarily concerned with the welfare of the people under his leadership, in spite of their poor treatment of him.
Just as Moses is commanded to fashion new tablets, the LORD initiates a new covenant, yet one that is virtually identical to the prior covenant from chapter 24. Verse 10 clearly shows that this is a different covenant than the last one, which like the broken tablets is considered by the LORD to be broken by the people and no longer in effect.
The laws of the covenant are substantially the same as before. The LORD reaffirms the principle of separation by outlawing any treaties with the natives, commanding the destruction of their religious sites, or else the Israelites would risk spiritual adultery (Hebrew, "zanah", to commit adultery). This is a striking term, because it implies that the Israelites are married to the LORD, that following other gods would be adultery. Now the first commandment is starting to make more sense. Just as Adam and Eve were married, so the LORD wishes to "marry" his people. This is radically different from the lordship treaties we have previously seen, because lordship does not imply intimacy, does not imply "yada", does not imply emotional bonding. Relating to God like a spouse is a really important biblical theme that we will see again and again, so I will address the subject again. For now, just remember that the LORD considers idolatry and following other gods to be adultery, spurning him to pursue other "lovers". No wonder the LORD calls himself "jealous" (v. 14). I promise to talk more about this later.
The LORD affirms the Passover and the three feasts, the redemption of the firstborn, the Sabbath, and a few miscellaneous rules. While only a subset of the prior covenantal laws are listed, we can infer that the rest of the covenant is also implicitly included.
Lastly, Moses's face shines. This is another way that man reflects the image of God. Though the relationship between man and God is broken by sin and the curse, when Moses spends time with God, speaks with God and learns to follow the LORD's ways, he comes to reflect the glory of the LORD in his own appearance, and this glory scares the other Israelites. Just as the dwelling place of the LORD, between the cherubim on the ark of the testimony, is shrouded by a veil and the tabernacle, the glory that resides on Moses's face had to be covered by a veil. Yet when Moses speaks to God, the veil is removed just like one's shoes are removed when treading on holy ground. The removal of shoes, the removal of the veil: in all things, there shall be no barrier between the heart and body of a man or woman seeking God and the holy one.
The people are afraid of the glory they see on Moses, just like they are afraid of the cloud and the fire and the earthquakes and all the things on the mountain. The people live behind the veil of the tabernacle and the veil that covers Moses, because they are "obstinate", yet they hold the covenant and I believe God wishes to raise them up and train them to follow his ways, that they too might live behind the veil, because the intent of the covenant is to reverse the sin and curse of Adam. Going forward, we will observe whether the people follow the covenant and grow into the ways of the LORD like Moses has done.