What Does Ḥesed Mean in the Hebrew Bible?

John Hobbins commented on my post from yesterday regarding my use of the English term “loyalty” as a translation for the Hebrew  חסד (ḥesed) in the Yhwh Creed (e.g. Exod 34:6-7). He suggested I consult the discussion in the recently published JPS Commentary on the book of Ruth by the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Here is an excerpt from her brief but excellent essay in which she argues that “ḥesed refers to acts of benevolence that one does out of kindness, not out of any obligation”:

Ḥesed might seem self-contradictory. On the one hand, God is said to have ḥesed “because you requite for each person according to his deeds” (Ps. 62:13), and the psalmist associates ḥesed with justice: “you love righteousness and justice, your ḥesed fills the earth” (Ps. 33:5). On the other hand, God will always perform good acts for the Davidic house, whether or not David’s descendants deserve it (2 Sam. 22:51), and Moses invokes ḥesed to prevent God from giving Israel the punishment that they justly deserve (Num 14:19). But this seeming contradiction actually conveys a profound message. The greatest act of benevolence God can do for us is to give us a sense that there is justice in the world, that there is some degree of predictability, and therefore that we can control our fate (at least to some extent) by controlling how we treat each other and how we act toward God. Yet, sometimes we don’t want justice because we have acted unjustly. Rather, we want compassion—we want to be forgiven, or to have our broken deeds fixed. In these moments, true benevolence chooses to suspend justice. It is as if ḥesed has cumulative force: one good deed provokes another and another, and each adds goodness to the world. Benevolence toward others and toward the world generates good acts even when they are not earned, and it certainly demands good acts when they are. But sometimes this force weakens and even fades away. Then, both we and God need to forget about the idea of measure for measure and simply perform good deeds—acts of random lovingkindness. (xlviii-xlix)

Insofar as loyalty does not necessarily imply unobligated acts of kindness, loyalty would not capture the image of ḥesed Frymer-Kensky identifies in the text of Ruth and the larger Hebrew Bible (though Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Frymer-Kensky’s co-author, occasionally uses the word loyalty to describe Ruth’s actions in her subsequent introductory essay, “Ḥesed in Ruth”). Ruth’s loyalty “to the dead and to [Naomi]” (Ruth 1:8) is an act of random lovingkindness, internally motivated and not an obligation externally dictated. The question remains as to how much weight one should assign to the book of Ruth for defining ḥesed for the larger Hebrew Bible. That being said, it must be weighed!

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9 thoughts on “What Does Ḥesed Mean in the Hebrew Bible?

  1. I would think that God’s acts of ḥesed are also “internally motivated and not an obligation externally dictated” – though I would hesitate to call them – or those of Ruth – “random.”

    In short, I think an excellent case can be made for the view that ḥesed fundamentally refers to unmerited generosity, with God as subject also; furthermore, as Frymer-Kensky explicitly notes, “ḥesed entails forgiveness,” Her proof text, 1 Kings 2:31, is luminous, the meaning of loyalty is excluded in that passage.

    As Frymer-Kensky also notes, ḥesed denotes the fact that God “continually infuses benevolence into the historical chain of events” per Exod 20:6, Deut 7:9, Jer 32:18, and Num 14:18-19, “even if such beneficence has not been earned by the human chain of ḥesed.” The Numbers passage tips the scales in favor of this interpretation: God’s requested forgiveness is clearly something he is not obliged to do, except perhaps in the sense of noblesse oblige.

    1. Perhaps “spontaneous” would be preferable to “random.” I was using Frymer-Kensky’s own language, but I agree that random isn’t exactly what you or she (or the book of Ruth) is describing.

      John, I assume you’ve done more research into this matter than I have. What have you found to be the greatest weakness(es) of “loyalty” studies like that of Glueck (Hesed in the Bible, 1967) and Routledge? Do you see any weight on the side of those who argue for loyalty, and relegate their examples as outliers?

  2. My undergraduate Hebrew professor used to (half-jokingly) refer to ḥesed as “in-spite-ofness” in other words, Yhwh is loyal to Israel in-spite-of their turning from him, etc. Essentially the “unmerited generosity” that John suggests in his comment.

  3. Hi Joseph,

    I don’t remember offhand what Glueck’s and what Routledge’s arguments and proof texts were; feel free to lay them out if you wish. I could if necessary summarize Sakenfeld on this topic. My problem with traditional word studies is that they often seem to be futile exercises in pinning down a commonly attested semantic component, not so much of the word, but of the larger semantic complex in which the word is deployed, and then over-generalizing on that basis.

    I would like to make a more modest point: a strong connection between God’s forgiveness and his ḥesed in the creedal confession in Exod 34:6–7 emerges in the application it is given in Num 14:18–19; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2 [where the creedal formula is taken to describe God’s modus operandi outside of a covenantal context) and; Neh 9:17 (where the sense of the formula is summarized by an introductory formula: “a forgiving God”). Kindness and generosity is what ḥesed references in these instances, not loyalty. Finally, I would point to Ps 136 in which it seems terribly obvious that ḥesed means beneficence.

    I would like to see you cite ḥesed passages in which the sense I argue for (and Frymer-Kensky argues for) does not work.

  4. When I was working on Exodus 34:6-7, it was to discern the trajectory of the creedal confession through Joel and Jonah (though I argue the trajectory is Ex -> Jonah -> Joel), so I haven’t done the research on the word ḥesed yet. My colleague John Meade (LXX Studies) has researched the subject, and he concluded that Ruth’s ḥesed is the exception, not the rule. I imagine he would chime in, but his dissertation defense is next month, so he is otherwise occupied. I am uncommitted, as I haven’t done the necessary research. I think you raise legitimate observations; I was just trying to anticipate the counterargument.

  5. Hi John,

    I am no expert on the topic of ḥesed, and unfortunately, as Joseph said, I am preparing for my dissertation defense so I have little time for dialogue, but I would like to hear your thoughts on the use of the word ḥesed in Exod 34:5-7.

    As I understand the issue, the question is over whether ḥesed is the cause of covenant relationship (as Francis Andersen, “Yahweh, The Kind and Sensitive God,” in God Who is Rich in Mercy, ed. Peter
    T. O’Brien and David Peterson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).) or the result of it (N. Glueck). Is it the gracious part of YHWH’s nature, which causes him to enter covenant or perform any other spontaneous act of mercy or is it what causes him to remain faithful to the covenants he enters freely and graciously (and can this act be called ḥesed properly).

    Exod 34 is a great example of YHWH’s ḥesed on display, but the question is over what is highlighted, his grace/kindness or his faithfulness/loyalty. In the context there is certainly a reference to his freedom (I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion 33:19). But in the background is also Exod 32:13-14, where Moses pleas before YHWH not to destroy the people because of the oath he swore by himself to the patriarchs. Verse 14 says YHWH relented from the disaster that he spoke.

    When you get a chance to respond, I would be interested in how you sort out this problem. Thanks.

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