The following is the text of a talk I gave on “Mercy in the Bible” as part of a Lenten series on the Year of Mercy.
To begin to talk about Mercy in the Bible, let’s start with Creation. According to Genesis, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,” and filled the earth with plants and living creatures, God’s word penetrated the darkness of chaos to bring life and abundance. When humans are created, they are formed according to the contours of God’s very self:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image and likeness of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:27-28)
The Bible’s story of creation emphasizes some important insights: First, God creates the world and everything in it freely, out of love, and God declares it good. Second, humanity, created in the “image and likeness” of God, has a very special role within creation – a role that calls us to observe how God is active in the world and to model our lives after it.
In technical language, we would call this “theological anthropology”, which means that we can learn something about how we are to be human by understanding something of what it means for God to be God. For example: God’s first instruction to the newly created humans is “to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28) . On the surface the instruction seems to indicate only procreation and dominance over creation, but there are more profound ways to understand the divine commandment. “To cause to bear fruit” means to allow creation to flourish through care and attention. And, just as God quelled the chaos of the abyss, “to subdue” indicates overcoming that which is uncontrollable. Therefore, just as God brings order out of chaos and fills the earth with life, so too humans are asked to participate in God’s ongoing creative action by allowing creation to flourish and by dispelling that which opposes its flourishing.
The calling to participate in God’s activity in the world places humanity into a unique relationship with God – one that the biblical authors describe as a covenantal relationship. At its heart, a covenant is simply an agreement between two parties that outlines the relationship between the parties and the rights and responsibilities each has toward the other. Just as we might use the term “contract” in the ancient world, a covenant was used to cement business transactions and political treaties. Among the other Ancient Near Eastern peoples, Israel was unique in conceiving of its relationship with God in terms of “covenant.” By using the language of covenant to describe their relationship with God, the biblical authors indicate that God and humanity have mutual rights and responsibilities to each other, and the whole story of the Bible could be described as the story of how this covenantal relationship is worked out. The content of the covenant is quite straightforward: God will give the Israelites the blessings of land, offspring, and sovereignty, and in return the Israelites are instructed to:
“Love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4)
to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19).
That’s it. In essence all of the laws in the Torah can be whittled down to these two things: the proper worship of God, and care for one another.
Many of us will have had the experience of entering into an agreement with another person or group. One very important question with any contract or covenant is: how can I be sure that the other party is going to keep their end of the bargain? And so contracts and covenants often have stipulations about what will happen if the terms of the covenant are breached. Covenants in the biblical world were similar: each of the parties would have rights and responsibilities, and if these were not met, the consequences would be clearly delineated. This works very well for agreements people, but what do you do if the other party is God?! How can you be sure that God will hold up God’s end of the bargain? What essential characteristic of God provides the assurance of covenantal fidelity?
The writers of the Old Testament articulate God’s commitment to the covenant with the concept of mercy, and when it comes to God, mercy is no cheap gift. God’s mercy is understood in ways that emphasize its eternal nature and profound depths. God’s mercy is recognized as being in inexhaustible supply. It is the aspect of God the psalmists petition for the most often. God’s mercy is a quality that weaves through the stories of the OT and is the quality of God that the biblical writers return to again and again, awestruck that God would look upon humanity with such regard (Ps 8). Building on what we have covered already regarding humanity’s calling to imitate God due to our creation in God’s image and likeness, the recognition of God’s mercy entails recognizing how we, too, are called to act. Let us now explore the concept of mercy in the Old Testament, in order so that we can see how Jesus draws from and builds upon these ideas the New Testament, and finally, how we might go forward with a biblical theology of mercy today.
Mercy in the Old Testament
It is said that the Inuit dialects have over fifty terms to convey “snow” and its various attributes and types. In an article about this phenomenon, a columnist said, “languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers.”1 Thus, the plethora of terms for snow is unsurprising, given the central and ever-present role snow plays in the lives of the people of the north. Although not as numerous as Inuit words for “snow”, the Hebrew-speaking authors of the Old Testament conveyed the idea of “mercy” using a variety of terms, each with its own distinctive nuance. The presence in the Old Testament of several terms conveying “mercy” has a two-fold effect: first: we receive a picture of mercy that is multi-faceted – like a beautiful jewel, mercy has different sides and different layers of meaning. It resists a single definition, instead displaying several important nuances. Second, the proliferation of words for “mercy” indicates that mercy is a quality that is “crucial” in the lives of the biblical authors, affecting all aspects of life. For example, awareness of God’s mercy is identified as a central reason to praise God in the psalms and liturgy (Ps 118; 136), it is established as the reason to imitate God in dealings with others (Hos 6:6; Micah 6:8), and it is recognized as the anchor for how God can still be present in a person’s life despite that person’s misdeeds and sins (Ps 51).
In the Old Testament, mercy in all its articulations is understood as having its origins in God. In fact, the closest the Old Testament gets to a definition of God is in Exodus 34, where God proclaims in Moses’ presence:
“The LORD, the LORD,
A God compassionate and gracious
Slow to anger,
And abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness
Keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
Yet by no means clearing the guilty…” (Exod 34:6-7)
This passage is found repeated often throughout the Bible, in whole or in part. The words that I’ve put in bold are the ones I’d like to concentrate on, and all, despite their differing terms in English, are as synonyms for mercy in the Old Testament. Let’s start in order, with the first one in bold “compassionate”.
“A God compassionate….”
This word, in Hebrew: rahûm, is often also translated as “compassionate”. It is the quality of God that perceives the reality of the human condition, but loves and acts on humanity’s behalf anyway. It is often used to describe God’s patience – God is slow to anger – but the understanding is that it is coupled with justice. That is, God’s compassion does not ignore the transgressions of the people, but continues to love in spite of the failures of humankind. For example: When Solomon dedicates the newly constructed Temple, he says,
“forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you; and grant them compassion (rahum) in the sight of their captors, so that they may have compassion on them” (1 Kings 8:50).
Solomon is saying: “Please be merciful in spite of our faults, and if you show us mercy, those who oppress us will also show us mercy.” This word, rahum, reveals mercy to be a freely offered gift from God that the biblical writers acknowledge they have done nothing to merit. It reveals that an important aspect of mercy is forgiveness, in which sins and wrong doings are not an obstacle to continued love. In Psalm 78, the psalmist recounts the trials in the desert while the Israelites sought to enter the Promised Land. He acknowledges that the period of wandering was not easy and that some people strayed:
“But they flattered him with their mouths, they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant. Yet he, being compassionate (rahum), forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them;” (Psalm 78:36-38)
Rahum tells us that God is always open to a person’s repentance and will respond with compassion and forgiveness as a mother might hold her arms open for an embrace. Indeed, not only is rahum is only ever used of God in the Old Testament, it is also, fascinatingly, derived from the same root word as “womb”. In Hebrew all of the words are based on roots words of three consonants. This word, rahum shares its root with rehem, or “womb”. It conveys a deeply interior and nurturing quality that wants to promote the flourishing of the people. Therefore, according to the biblical authors, when God shows compassion, God demonstrates a maternal quality that loves beyond all faults and becomes a place of refuge. Through the prophet Isaiah, God makes the maternal connection of his actions clear, asking rhetorically, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion (rahum) for the child of her womb?” (Isa 49:15). The answer is no – God will not ever forsake the people, even if they forget (that is sin against) him. God’s compassionate mercy is a mercy that forgives.
“A God compassionate and gracious…”
The second term, “gracious”, in Hebrew is hanun. It is often found paired with our first term, and the two together have a poetic assonance, “rahum we’ hanun…”. Hanun is where we get the names “Hannah” and “John”, and it means exactly how it is translated here: to be “gracious” or to show “favor”. It is by far the most frequently occurring term for mercy that is found in the psalms when the psalmist petitions God to heed his or her prayer:
“Be merciful to me , O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge;” (Psalm 57:1)
“Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me….” (Psalm 56:1)
“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress…” (Psalm 31:9)
In other words: “God, I am in difficulty! Assist me from my affliction by showing me your grace/favour/compassion/mercy!” This is the facet of mercy that conveys God’s abundance and benevolence, and it is the quality of mercy that elicits hope and trust from the believer. Hanun is rooted in prior experience of God’s actions: God is known to be good and compassionate, and so God’s mercy is sought on the basis that this is what God has always done! In fact, some psalms remind God of this, in effect saying: “Remember how you showed us favor in the past by saving us from slavery in Egypt? Please act this way towards us now because we are in distress!” The first term, rahum – compassion, articulated God’s mercy as encompassing forgiveness, hanun, or graciousness conveys the overflowing abundance of God’s regard for humanity. Thus, we begin to build a picture of God’s mercy that is unconditional and plentiful.
There is one more quality that is often translated as “mercy” that our passage from Exodus employs, and this “steadfast love”.
Hesed: God’s Mercy is everlasting and it Saves (Exod 34:6; Pss 118; 136)
In the passage from Exod 34, the words “steadfast love” translate the Hebew term hesed. When I spoke about God’s mercy as the characteristic of God that ensures the permanence of the covenant, this is it! Hesed is the characteristic of God that underwrites the covenantal relationship with Israel. It is the guarantee that God will remain faithful to his covenantal promises. Hesed has no satisfactory equivalent in English, and this is why it is translated variously as “steadfast love”, “loyalty”, “devotion”, and, most commonly as: “mercy” because it conveys how incredible it is that God, who is so powerful, would enter into a relationship with us. Mercy is so much a part of the meaning of hesed that when the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek, “hesed” was rendered using the Greek word for “mercy”.
So what purpose does hesed serve? Hesed, that steadfast loyalty and devotion, is the reason why the people can call upon God’s forgiveness and compassion and graciousness in the first place! God’s steadfast love is the enduring characteristic of God that ensures that God will not simply go find another group of people to tend to when the current crop begins to go astray, but, once committed, God will be, as Psalm 62 puts it: a rock, unshakeable in his mercy, his hesed (Psalm 62:1, 12). In many ways the Catholic marriage vow provides an excellent definition of hesed: “I promise to be true to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health; I will love you and honour you all the days of my life.” In other words: no matter what happens, I am with you.
Hesed is such a key attribute of God that it is celebrated in the liturgical life of Israel, forming the refrain of one of the greatest rehearsals of salvation history in the Bible. In Psalm 136, beginning with Creation, working through to the salvation from Egypt and the settlement in the Promised Land, every line is interspersed with the antiphonal refrain: “for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever”. God has intervened on the part of the people not in casual way or on a whim, but with intense and eternal devotion. Pope Francis describes this refrain as breaking through the “dimensions of space and time, inserting everything into the eternal mystery of love. It is as if to say that not only in history, but for all eternity [humankind] will always be under the merciful gaze of the Father.” (Pope Francis, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy”).
Mercy as God’s defining Quality
All of these terms: rahum, hanun, hesed — God’s compassion; God’ graciousness; God’s everlasting loyalty — are often rendered into English as “mercy”. By holding all of these terms together, we begin to generate a multi-dimensional picture of God in the Old Testament. In my work on the Bible, one of the most frequent concerns I encounter goes something like this: “In the Old Testament God is angry and wrathful; he destroys and kills. In the New Testament God is more loving and attentive.” An immediate problem this presents is that God is portrayed as rather inconstant – a Jekyll and Hyde type of deity who makes a sudden switch as we turn the page from the Old Testament to the New.2 If instead if we focus our attentions on God as constantly characterized by mercy, we uncover a portrait of God that encourages us to greater reflection on who God is, and this is where it gets interesting. Remember Theological Anthropology? If we are created in God’s image and likeness, what we learn about who God is then teaches us about who we ourselves should strive to be. That is: if God is merciful, we too should be merciful – and in his gospel, Luke says just that: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
God’s Mercy is meant to be imitated (Hos 6:6; Mic 6:8)
God’s mercy is, therefore, meant to be imitated. The Prophets of the Old Testament knew this as well as Luke. If God’s commitment to the covenant was insured by God’s hesed, the people were, likewise, to be steadfast to the covenant by means of following the stipulations of the law. The law required that the people worship God and only God and to care for one another. What comes to the fore in the biblical material is the constant insistence that worship of God without caring for one another, is empty and meaningless. Phrased another way: by caring for one another the people will actually be giving God his due. Writing in the 8th c BC, Hosea says: “For I desire hesed and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). Amos says, “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21, 24). Both Hosea and Amos make the point that liturgical worship practices are meaningless if they are not accompanied by care for one another. It is like saying: what good is going to daily mass if you kick the poor person at the door on the way out? Micah in the 7th c BC adds his two cents: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8). That is: just as God demonstrates compassion, graciousness, and steadfast love, so too are the followers of God called to do the same. If these are the things you know of God, then you, created in God’s image, are called to do the same, and in so doing you uphold your end of the covenant.
Mercy in the New Testament
In the New Testament, Jesus draws upon the multi-dimensional nature of mercy as it is put forth in the Old Testament, and he fervently renews the prophets’ exhortations for the people to imitate God’s mercy in their regard for each other. Jesus takes the wonderful insight of theological anthropology: if we know something about God, we know something about how we are supposed to be — and applies it to the concept of mercy: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). This instruction is drawn directly from the definition of God as compassionate, merciful and steadfast (Exod 33:19; 34:6).
Now, one thing I often share with my students is: if there is an instruction or teaching in the bible, it is there for a reason because people were clearly doing or not doing something and the biblical author wants to set things straight. There are no empty commandments in the bible! So we might ask ourselves: why is Jesus saying this? Why did he need to remind the people to be merciful? Shouldn’t being merciful be something that is obviously a good thing to do? Answering these questions will help to give us a sense of mercy in the New Testament and how it draws upon and builds upon the concepts of mercy in the Old.
Shouldn’t Mercy be an Obviously Good thing to Do?
Among the beatitudes, the beatitude for those who are merciful is the 5th out of nine beatitudes recounted by Matthew (Matt 5:7). Not only is it numerically the centre of the list (which in the ancient world, tells us that it is important), but it is also the central hinge between the beatitudes of those who suffer (#s 1-4) and those who help them (#s 6-9). Mercy, Matthew seems to say, is what will make the remaining beatitudes possible.
There is another implication of the Mercy beatitude: the beatitudes in general bestow blessings upon people who are either suffering hardships or those who are putting their necks on the line to help them (for example: those who are mourning, or the peacemakers or those who are persecuted). But then smack in the middle there is “blessed are the merciful”…..which, given the quality of rest of the beatitudes, implies that showing mercy is somehow a difficulty or hardship.
Honour and Shame
Honour/shame society: honour was accumulated by recognition by someone higher up on the social ladder than you. For example, if you were a carpenter or tradesperson, and you were recognized by a wealthy patron, your honour and status would increase. And, provided you continued to provide good service and were trustworthy, the honour you accumulated in your lifetime would pass to your children. Conversely, if it were discovered that you were a shifty and dishonest carpenter, you would bring shame not only upon yourself, but also upon your entire household. You could also damage your status by providing service to someone who was in a position of dishonor. Because they had no honour to give you – no way of socially recognizing you – your own honour would suffer. And so, if one encountered a person with a leprous skin disease, or a debilitating mental illness, or someone of ill-repute like a tax collector or prostitute, one risked being lowered on the social ladder. In the first century Roman world in which Jesus lived, the motivation for social interactions was to maintain or improve one’s social status.
Viewed through the honour/shame system, we can see the radical nature of Jesus’ message to be merciful, because showing mercy meant putting oneself in a position where one was 1. assisting a person of dubious honour and therefore 2. One was not going to receive any honour in return. Jesus’ message is simple and powerful: When you show mercy, the honour comes not from human institutions, but from God because God is the source of mercy and the source of all honour:
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).
Not just in this passage, but in Luke’s gospel in particular, we see an emphasis on mercy that prompts the people of the gospel to rethink the normal structures of their daily life. Luke’s vision of mercy also asks us to reconsider the social structures we adhere to, and to broaden our scope of when and to whom mercy should be offered.
Passages to Explore
Luke 6:32-36 Love your Enemies
Luke 10:29-37 Good Samaritan
Luke 14:7-11 Banquet Etiquette
Luke 15:11-32 Merciful Father
What attributes of mercy are demonstrated in this passage?
How do the people in your chosen passage go beyond their expected social roles to show mercy?
Have there been moments in your own life where you’ve experienced mercy that has transformed you?
A Biblical Theology of Mercy
In preparation for today’s talk, I did what any of my students would do: I googled the word “Mercy” to see what would happen. The definition that popped up was a bit jarring:
“Mercy: [noun] compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”
This secular definition of mercy places emphasis on the power differential between the person offering mercy through compassion or forgiveness and person in need. If we’ve ever received mercy from someone and felt uncomfortable about how vulnerable it made us feel, this power differential is likely why! It suggests that the motivation behind showing mercy is a power play that makes the other person beholden. In contrast, a biblical theology of mercy gives us a different perspective on what should motivate us to show compassion and forgiveness, graciousness and steadfast love, and that is to be merciful as the father is merciful (Luke 6:36), thereby living out our calling to live in God’s image and likeness.
2 In fact, with few exceptions, most of the violent bits of the OT are actually about humans behaving badly, rather than a malevolent God.