Hesed, A Strong Mercy

In looking at women’s roles, especially those ascertained by the Church within Christianity, it was apparent there was a difference between the picture of scripture and the usual set of conclusions that are taught and widely written about in the gender issue.

There is something wrong with the way the roles are played out, on both side of the equation. Egalitarianism becomes a free-for-all that starts looking to the secular model to inform them and the Traditionalism of hierarchialists regularly deteriorating into a harsh and restrictive rigidity having none of the gracious ease of Christ’s example and early church form.

I really stood at an impasse in how to get across the principles that I saw in the scriptures, the inherent emphasis on mutuality being lost to a lack of defining Biblical concept. That is until I came upon a post illuminating the Hebrew word, hesed. That was a eureka moment for me- HESED! I think an understanding of this word and the conceptual view it gives of relationships holds a defining key to the gender issue. Maybe I can call it “the hesed factor”.

This is why I want to explore not just the meaning of hesed, but its concept culturally and the implications for the interaction of the genders within the Church and in marriage.

First in this post, looking at the meaning of the word.

There is some debate over how the word has been translated into English, and almost always is termed “untranslatable” in a direct correspondence to one of our own words relating a concept. So the arguments go either in favor of the “mercy” of the historical translation, or lean more to saying “loyalty”. The “eureka!” article I mentioned earlier is one written by Suzanne McCarthy at Better Bibles Blog had this to say,

חסד hesed (Koehler-Baumgartner) – obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants, etc. unity, solidarity, loyalty, between father and son, wife and husband, relatives, people who do favours for each other, faithfulness, protection, etc.

חסד is more than just a kindness; it is a caring provision which is demonstrated by God, and men and women alike in community, to guests, friends and in family and marriage relationships. חסד is usually translated as either “kindness” or “loyalty”.

In the comments she excerpts from 7 Hebrew Words and Phrases Every Activist Should Know:
Here too the usual English translation of “lovingkindness” misses a key element. In the Bible, chesed meant living up to a covenantal responsibility, so my Bible professors taught me to translate chesed as “covenant loyalty.” Loyalty captures the blend of duty and feelings of concern, connection, and sympathy that we naturally have for those with whom we feel a bond. Doing chesed means feeling that loyalty toward all other human beings. We owe each other our compassion, not only when it happens to well up within us.

Gemilut chasadim literally means “paying back chesed.” Since chesed is showered on us each day, all our lives-from family and loved ones, from the created world around us-the only way to repay it is to do chesed for others.

Covenant loyalty would go a long way to helping Christians understand how to respond to their world and operate in a godly way towards others. It is a term that could help define what we mean by “mutual submission”, which often has an odd way of becoming vague beyond comprehension. Who submits first, and to what degree before the other one starts submitting… and in what form do we submit? Covenant obligations outline the ideas and actions with a more concrete guidance. loyalty by itself isn’t strong enough in our ideas to guide us fully, but the two together start to make mental pictures of how we should behave and what we should expect in gender interaction in specific venues, such as marriage or community.

Now we are getting somewhere. It fits well with looking into the scripture examples for illustrations and applications. The Book of Ruth is cited for its strong association with the concept of “hesed”.

“For what reason was the book of Ruth written? To teach us how great the reward is for those who practice hesed” (Midrash Rabbah 2:14).When Ruth asked Boaz why he favored her even though she was a foreigner he told her it was because of her goodness and kindness, hesed, that she showed toward her mother-in-law (Ruth 2:11)

In another place Jacob is cited:

From [JTS]:

“At the age of 147, after 17 years in Egypt, Jacob has a premonition that death is near. The Torah relates: “And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, `Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt (Genesis 47:29)’.”

The Hebrew for “steadfast loyalty” is hesed ve-emet, which literally means “mercy and truth.” Theoretically, the two words as a figure of speech convey a single thought, hence the translation of “steadfast loyalty,” like the phrase “a cold and bitter day” by which we mean to say “a very cold day.” But the midrash rejects the idea that the Torah ever uses two words to say one and the same thing. God’s language is expansive, not redundant. Hence the midrash understands hesed ve-emet as hesed shel emet, “a merciful act of truth.” And what precisely is such an act?

One that is wholly altruistic, for which repayment of any kind is no longer possible, namely, attending to the needs of the dead and the dying. In its own intuitive way, the midrash has cut to the core of Jacob’s request, an appeal to Joseph’s conscience, unenforceable and beyond reward. To bury Jacob in Canaan and not in Egypt would mark an instance of true selflessness.”

At last, we are moving closer to the admonitions in the Christian scriptures which direct the actions of husbands and wives with ideas of submission and in the Church-at-large as all, male and female, are to behave towards one another. Not to look at position and place, and certainly not seeking repayment for making opportunity to fulfill the desired destiny of each other. It is a supportive network of reassurance that is selfless in motivation, yet cognizant of the dignity of self in giving favor to each other, “grace”.

We see here in the definitions that the word hesed is moving through a transition of meaning within the culture. The present Jewish culture translating it as more of a social obligation of kindness to specific people, the needy to old, the infirm. The older meaning encompassing what we should expect within our relations with one another, the argument is said for Biblical scholars to be closer to the older concept.

No one English word adequately embodies its full meaning. You will most often find it translated in your Bible with the words such as lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, or steadfast love. Although hesed may seem completely foreign to many, most have heard of “Hasidic” Jews. “Hasidic” is a form of our word hesed, and describes those who aspire to practice and walk in hesed. In the true Biblical sense of the word, we need to be a “hasidic” people.

1. Hesed is connected with lovingkindness. Hesed is God’s “lovingkindness in condescending to the needs of His creatures” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon , p. 339). It refers to unfailing and steadfast love. “Revive me, O Lord, according to Your lovingkindness (hesed)” (Psa. 119:159).

2. Hesed is connected with mercy. Hesed also means, “grace; mercy; . . . goodness” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary, p. 232). It involves intervening on behalf of one who is suffering in adversity or distress. It embraces an active interest and concern for the well-being of others. “God is my defense, my God of mercy (hesed)” (Psa. 59:17).

3. Hesed is connected with covenant loyalty. Hesed is often linked together with the Hebrew word for “covenant” (berit). This occurs so often that hesed “can be a synonym for covenant” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 661). Notice the connection between hesed and covenant in the following verse: “He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy (hesed) for a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9, 12). Hesed “applies primarily to God’s particular love for His chosen and covenanted people. ‘Covenant’ also stresses the reciprocity of the relationship” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary, pp. 233-234). When the Lord shows hesed to His people, He is being loyal to His covenant.

Hesed is “translatable by the word ‘loyalty’ in that it connotes God’s (or human beings) consistent (‘steadfast’) reliable allegiance and willingness to do good (‘love’) on behalf of another” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, p. 613). Hesed is not merely a feeling of warm affection toward another, it is deeply rooted in a covenant relationship with expectations of faithfulness for all parties involved.

4. Hesed is connected with truth. Hesed is yoked together sixteen times with the Hebrew word for “truth” (‘emet). “All the paths of the Lord are mercy (hesed) and truth, to such as keep His covenant and His testimonies” (Psa. 25:10; 85:10; 89:14). Many in our day are trying to remove truth from God’s grace. They claim that truth and doctrine are subjective and unimportant elements in relation to grace. However, one cannot have God’s hesed without God’s truth. “In mercy (hesed) and truth atonement is provided for iniquity” (Prov. 16:6). Forgiveness of sin only comes when hesed is connected with truth.

-by Kevin Maxey

I think we are grasping the richness of this word by now, and it is starting to dawn on us how key this is to understand how to behave within covenant of the Fellowship of Christ. I hope to continue to discover some of how this can enlighten us concerning the functions of women in the church.

6 thoughts on “Hesed, A Strong Mercy”

  1. Thank you for this post. I really appreciate the way you have fleshed out the meaning of “hesed”. I have a verse from Ps. 33 as a border on my living room wall: “Let your unfailing love rest upon us O Lord, even as we hope in you.”

    At some point, I would like to have a painting made of the word “hesed” and another one of the Hebrew word translated “hope” in that verse. Then, I’d like to mount them under the border with a good and semantically full English translation of the words somehow incorporated as part of the matting around the painting. Kind of hard to describe, but I can picture it in my mind.

    I feel like I could chew on the fullness of those words for a long time and still be encouraged and challenged each time I do so. Even with just that one verse. To say nothing of every time those words are used in Scripture.

    I really appreciate the connection you made with “Hasidic” as well as the implications of hesed for all of us living out covenant life with God and each other. Thanks for giving me a lot to chew on. I don’t grasp all the scholarly explanations and arguments, but what I do follow is interesting and helpful to me.

  2. Your artistic vision of the word hesed sounds wonderful- I’ve often had in mind using phrases above the doors and around the walls- but I never seem to accomplish it. Have you seen the examples in the Arts and Crafts homes? Yours sounds so lovely, it would be wonderful if you do work it out:)

    This concept of hesed has brought so many things together for me, the Hebrew has has explained so much that was missing from my own vocabulary of proper relationship.

  3. Thanks for the post if you want to see a good example of what you DON’T WANT on the TRADITIONAL side of things you really need to read Jensgems blog. It’s pretty heartbreaking.

  4. I’m checking it out David, but truthfully? I know plenty about what is not wanted, and I am presently searching for what is wanted. Information on that is a rarity I am finding.

  5. I found your analysis EXTREMELY enlightening and very helpful. I’m doing a bible study for my parish on the book of Ruth (mind if I quote you ;) ?! ) and this analysis of Hesed is PERFECT ! So glad you ignored you mom’s advise to ‘never discuss religion’. I agree … if we don’t discuss our faith and the basis thereof, what’s there worth talking about ?! thanx for posting !

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