The Character of God: 
Steadfast Love = Lovingkindness = Mercy = Goodness

Old Testament, Hebrew chesed

Genesis 24:11-49

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 39: Genesis 24:1-4, 10-16, Eliezer and Rebecca, by Antoine Coypel

Deut. 7:7-13; Hosea 2:18-20; Micah 7:18-20

Psalm 25:1-22

Psalm 31:1-24

Jeremiah 2:1-3, 9:23-24, 16:5-6, 31:3-5, 32:17-19, 33:10-11

Other Aspects of God's Character

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Genesis 24:11-49 (3/14/2011)

The Hebrew word chesed is a big word, so big that we don’t even have a single good concept, let alone a single good word, to use to translate it into English.  Consequently, the translations we see this week will be all over the map.  Maybe by looking at chesed in these various contexts we’ll be able to get a feeling for the territory it covers.

We’re starting with a story about God and his people, which at this time means Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, from the Good News translation.  Good News is not alone in using the idea of promise-keeping here in this chapter of Genesis, but other translations use “steadfast love,” “kindness,” and “mercy.”  Something that “steadfast love” and “promise-keeping” have in common is faithfulness, although we’ll wait and see whether we find the concept of faithfulness to be useful by the end of the week.

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 39: Genesis 24:1-4, 10-16, Eliezer and Rebecca, by Antoine Coypel (7/23/15)

Antoine Coypel finished this painting of Eliezer and Rebecca in 1701. The scripture says that Rebecca was young and very beautiful, and Coypel got that just right. It also says that she watered all of Eliezer’s camels and offered him a place to stay for the night, and I think Coypel also captures that attitude by showing her with a modest and charming demeanor. What’s Eliezer pointing at? Is he pointing out his camels? Is he talking about where he’s come from and what a great family she could be marrying into? We can’t see. What we can see is that Rebecca’s friends are amazed and excited! Scripture doesn’t say that, but Coypel does, and I think he’s probably right.

Previous Step. Next Step.
Eliezer and Rebecca. Rebekah Chosen as Isaac’s Wife. Click to enlarge. See below for provenance.
"Eliezer and Rebecca" by Antoine Coypel, from the Gamble family Bible,
now in the private collection of Regina Hunter. Photography by Daryl Lee.

Deut. 7:7-13; Hosea 2:18-20; Micah 7:18-20 (3/15/2011)

The Contemporary English Version uses the phrase “steadfast love” to translate chesed – not just love, but enduring love.  Two of the scripture passages for today also refer to the covenant, which is an enduring agreement, and that is probably not a coincidence.    

Yesterday I suggested that maybe “faithfulness” has something to do with chesed, so I was interested to find this line today:  “You will show faithfulness to Jacob and chesed/steadfast love to Abraham.”* 

Now, as a rule, this kind of parallel structure implies that the two ideas are related, just like those word quizzes you took in school:  “dog is to wag as cat is to (yowl, hiss, purr).”  And you think, “Dogs wag their tails when they are happy, so the correct answer must be ‘purr.’ ” 

Since I know that Jacob is one of the patriarchs who come from the family of the patriarch Abraham, this could mean that faithfulness is one of the aspects of chesed.  Then I noticed that all three readings say that God is faithful.  Chesed is too big a word to mean faithfulness alone, but I’m definitely beginning to think that faithfulness and steadfast love are two parts of chesed.  Keep the faith.

* Again we see that my lack of planning is made up for by the consistency of scripture.
Psalm 25:1-22 (3/16/2011)

The King James Version translates chesed in a variety of ways, two of which we see today:  lovingkindness and mercy.  The “mercy” in vss. 6 and 16 are two other Hebrew words.  

In English, at least, lovingkindness could be the same as steadfast love; however, mercy seems to me to be something else.  This is apparently not how it seemed to the rabbis who translated the OT into Greek, however, because they use eleos (the ordinary New Testament word for mercy or pity) twice for chesed and once for one of the other two “mercies.”  Apparently they thought God’s love is intimately related to God’s mercy.
Psalm 31:1-24 (3/17/2011)

David’s prayer and confident expectation is that God will rescue him.  David has been in trouble before, and God has taken care of him.  He is in trouble again – he doesn’t say what kind of trouble – and because of his previous experience he believes that God will rescue him again.  One of the important reasons to study your Bible is to learn from the experience of others what God is capable of doing and willing to do for you.  David attributes God’s willingness and ability to take care of him to God’s chesed.

Today’s translation renders chesed as “steadfast love” all three times it occurs in Psalm 31.  This is interesting, because the Greek Old Testament translates it as eleos, which is almost always translated “mercy” or “pity” in the New Testament. As I said at the first of the week, translators can’t decide on just one word for chesed – it’s too big an idea.  But I think I’m coming to understand chesed as “God’s enduring and merciful lovingkindness.”
Jeremiah 2:1-3, 9:23-24, 16:5-6, 31:3-5, 32:17-19, 33:10-11 (3/18/2011)

Jeremiah preached mostly during the Exile, and he was a troubled prophet.  He always seems to know that God is perfectly capable of saving Israel, but at the same time he seems to fear that Israel has been so sinful for so long that maybe – just maybe – God is not going to save Israel.  So in these passages, chesed seems to be contrasted with God’s justice, in a way we haven’t seen earlier in the week (Jer. 16:5).  I hope for mercy, but I worry that I might get justice.

Yesterday we saw that the Jewish Publication Society Bible translated chesed three times in 24 verses of one psalm as “steadfast love.”  Today we see that the English Standard Version translates chesed three different ways in 15 verses of Jeremiah:  “devotion,” “steadfast love,” and “faithfulness.”  This week we’ve also seen “promise-keeping” and, if you count the Greek Old Testament, “mercy.” 

The important thing to remember is that these are all correct, because we don’t have a word in English that encompasses the whole meaning of chesed in Hebrew.  I finally got around to looking chesed up in the lexicon, which defines it mainly as goodness or kindness, but also as mercy and lovingkindness.  (Given the contexts we’ve seen this week, I understand why the translators feel that goodness and kindness – while they are very fine – don’t completely do the job.)

In the Greek Old Testament, this idea of “God’s enduring and merciful goodness and lovingkindness” is usually represented by the word eleos, normally translated as “mercy” or “pity” in the New Testament.  Next week, let’s pay particular attention to whether we think eleos is bigger than mercy alone.
Other Aspects of God's Character
Glory, Old Testament, New Testament
Holiness, Old Testament, New Testament
Longsuffering, Old Testament, New Testament
Steadfast Love, Old Testament, which is Mercy in the New Testament
Graciousness, Old Testament, which is Grace in the New Testament
Jealousy, Old Testament
Intolerance of Sin, Old Testament, New Testament

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