HESED: Mercy or Loyalty?
By Jim Myers


Recently, I read one of those articles that really set my mental gears in motion.  As soon as I finished it I went straight to my library and grabbed an armful of lexicons and biblical texts, both in Greek and Hebrew.  The article - Hesed -- Mercy or Loyalty? - was written by Rabbi Harold M. Kamsler who lives in Ra'anana, Israel.  It was published in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. XXVII:3

Rabbi Kamsler opens his article with a reference to Psalm 136:1,
a Psalm that is very familiar to both Jews and Christians:

"Oh give thanks unto the LORD; For He is good; 
For his mercy endures forever."

Now, let's take another look the verse, but this time it will be in an interlinear format.  Don't forget that Hebrew is read from right to left:

The word that interests the rabbi is number seven - ADs.x; (root form = HESED).  He points out that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, has influenced the way translators have translated the Hebrew text for centuries.  The Septuagint was translated in Alexandria, Egypt about 250 BCE.  Below is Psalm 136:1 from the Septuagint (Greek is read from left to right like English):

By the way, Psalm 136 is Psalm 135 in the Septuagint.  You may have noticed that the word endures appears in many English translations and that it is in italics.  Take another look at the Hebrew and Greek texts above.  It is not in the original texts, but was added by the translators in order to make a smoother English. 

Does Mercy Fit the Context?

The meaning of the Greek word ELEOS is either "mercy" or "compassion."  Are these meanings of HESED also?  The translation of HESED as "mercy" sounds great in many of the verses of Psalm 136.

2 Oh give thanks unto the God of gods. . .

3 Oh give thanks unto the Lord of lords. . .

4 To him who alone does great wonders. . .

16 To him that led his people through the wilderness. . .

23 Who remembered us in our low estate. . .

24 And has delivered us from our adversaries. . .

25 Who gives food to all flesh. . .

26 Oh give thanks unto the God of heaven. . .

However, "mercy" doesn't sound like the right word in other verses of Psalm 136.  It simply doesn't fit the contexts. 

10 To him that smote Egypt in their first-born. . .

15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea. . .

17 To him that smote great kings. . .

18 And slew famous kings. . .

21 And gave their land for a heritage. . .

I don't think that "mercy" reflects the ideas associated with the words "smote," "overthrew," and "slew" - especially if you happen to be on the receiving end.   Common sense reveals the presence of a translation problem.  However, the problem is with the translation of ELEOS, not HESED.  We must not forget that the original Psalm contained the word HESED.  So, maybe there wouldn't be a problem if we used the translation of HESED instead of ELEOS. 

The Hebrew Meaning of HESED

Let's begin our search for the correct translation with Rabbi Kamsler's comments.  

"These translations use HESED as a single, one-way rather than reciprocal relationship.  HESED, however, describes a mutual relationship between man and between God.  Translating it as `mercy,' `compassion,' or `love' destroys the concept of mutuality. (For a complete discussion see, Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible [Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1967])."


The key to unlocking the full meaning of HESED is identifying the parties involved in the "reciprocal relationship," and discovering the relationship exist in the first place.  Next we must determine why either party would be required to take a reciprocal action. 

The first place we will look for answers to our questions is the Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew Lexicon. 

(1) HESED of man - kindness of men towards men, in doing favors and benefits; kindness extended to the lowly, needy and miserable; mercy.  (rarely) affection or love of Israel to God,  piety; lovely appearance.

(2) HESED of God - redemption from enemies and troubles; in preservation of life from death; in quickening of spiritual life; in redemption from sin; in keeping the covenants, with Abraham; with Moses and Israel.

Now it's your turn to put on your "translator's hat" and come up with an English translation for HESED.  When HESED is used with man it describes the following actions:

(1) doing favors and benefits for men;

(2) kindness extended to the needy;

(3) affection or love of Israel to God;

(4) lovely appearance

Notice the difference when HESED is used to describe the actions of God:

(1) redemption of Israel from its enemies and troubles;

(2) preservation of life from death;

(3) quickening of spiritual  life;

(4) redemption from sin;

(5) keeping the covenants

It's not always easy to find a word in another language to use as a translation.  Rabbi Kamsler suggests that the best English word to use as a translation for HESED would be "loyalty." 

A clear example of the greater accuracy of translating HESED as `loyalty' is evident in 1 Samuel 20:8:

`Therefore you shall with your servant with HESED; for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the LORD with you.  If there be any iniquity in me, then kill me yourself, for why should you bring me to your father?'

David asks Jonathan to make excuses for him when he absents himself from the Rosh Hodesh observance, for he knows that King Saul is plotting to destroy him.  Jonathan turns to David and asks that David reciprocate and remember him, and asks for HESED in verse 14:

`And you shall not only while yet I live show me the HESED of the LORD that I die not, but also you shall not cut off your HESED from my house forever.'"

Rabbi Kamsler continues to shed more light on the subject.

"A further very early biblical indication that man may call upon God for His HESED when a mutual relationship has been established is found in the story of Abraham and his servant, whom he sends to Haran to find a wife for Isaac.  As the servant nears the entrance to the city he prays (Genesis 24:12):

`O LORD God of my master Abraham, 
send me good speed this day and show HESED to my master Abraham.'

"We use HESED very appropriately when currently we give the title of Hasidim to those who are loyal to the covenant with God." 

Why Greek Instead of Hebrew Meaning?

Again, we will turn to Rabbi Kamsler's article.  His very interesting comments will help us understand how a Greek meaning replaced the Hebrew meaning of HESED.

"This interpretation (mercy) of the noun HESED appears as early as the Septuagint translation of the second century BCE, where the Hebrew word HESED becomes the Greek e;leoj (ELEOS) that has in turn been translated into English as `mercy.'"

Why would the English translations of a Hebrew word be governed by the meaning of the Greek word found in the Septuagint?  The answer may be linked to the growth of Christianity.  The Jesus Movement, along with other Jewish sects, moved beyond the borders of Judea after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.  The very popular Greek Septuagint replaced the Hebrew Bible as "the Scriptures" in many of the communities.  One reason is probably obvious - the non-Jewish world was much more familiar with the Greek language.  Therefore, the preference of Greek over Hebrew isn't any wonder.  In many ways we see the same thing in our world today.  However, instead of Greek, the language of choice is English.  Even though millions of Christians and Jews know that their Scriptures were written in either Hebrew or Greek, or both - there hasn't been a mad rush to learn those languages. 


The dominance of the Septuagint and its use of ELEOS continued for centuries.  It not only became the Bible of many communities, but it also became the "source document" for translators.  This is seen in many very famous translations.  One of the first is the Latin Vulgate (5th century CE) in which we find "mercy" - "quoniam in aeternum misercordia ejus."   By the time Jerome produced his translation it had been over 700 years since the Septuagint translated HESED as "mercy." 

Jerome, however, wasn't the last to use the ELEOS translation.  The meaning had traveled from Alexandria to Rome, but it didn't stop in Rome.  Over 1200 years later it pops up again in Germany.  This time it is through the pen of Martin Luther as he writes his translation - "denn seine Guete wahret ewiglich."  The trend continued.

You would think that Jewish translators would surely not use the meaning connected to ELEOS, wouldn't you?  A German-Hebrew Prayer Book printed in Berlin in 1866 reflects the same understanding of Psalm 136 as that of Luther - "denn ewig wahrt Gnade."  The French Jews follow the same path with their translation - "car sa grace est eternelle" - and also the Italians - "che la Sua misericordia e eterna."  Even the Jewish Publication Society of America followed the same path with their English translation - "His steadfast love endureth forever."

As in many other cases, "tradition" seems to have been the prevailing force in the minds of translators.  Instead of searching for the most accurate meaning for the words of the Bible, they allowed tradition to limit their field of vision.  One of the important benefits of making our Linguistic Method the Standard for translating the Bible is that neither tradition nor theology dominates the translator's work.

Psalm 136 - Corrected Version

I bet you are ready to see what Psalm 136 looks like when we incorporate the "reciprocal understanding" of the Hebrew word HESED.  A few other correction have been made, but because of space limitations I will not be able to comment on them at this time.

1 Give thanks to YAHWEH; For he is beautiful; Because forever is His loyalty.

2 Give thanks to the ELOHIM of the ELOHIM; Because forever is His loyalty.

3 Give thanks to the MASTER of the MASTERS; Because forever is His loyalty:

4 To Him who alone does great wonders; Because forever is His loyalty:

5 To Him that by understanding made the skies; Because forever is His loyalty:

6 To Him that spread the land above the waters; Because forever is His loyalty:

7 To Him that made great lights; Because forever is His loyalty:

8 The sun to rule by day; Because forever is His loyalty;

9 The moon and stars to rule by night; Because forever is His loyalty:

10 To Him who smote Egypt in their first-born; Because forever is His loyalty;

11 And brought Israel out from among them; Because forever is His loyalty;

12 With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm; Because forever is His loyalty:

13 To Him that divided the Red Sea in sunder; Because forever is His loyalty;

14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it; Because forever is His loyalty;

15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea; Because forever is His loyalty:

16 To Him that led his people through the wilderness; Because forever is His loyalty:

17 To Him that smote great kings; Because forever is His loyalty;

18 And slew famous kings; Because forever is His loyalty:

19 Sihon king of the Amorites; Because forever is His loyalty;

20 And Og king of Bashan; Because forever is His loyalty;

21 And gave their land for a heritage; Because forever is His loyalty;

22 Even a heritage unto Israel His servant; Because forever is His loyalty:

23 Who remembered us in our low estate; Because forever is His loyalty;

24 And has delivered us from our adversaries; Because forever is His loyalty:

25 Who gives food to all flesh; Because forever is His loyalty.

26 Give thanks to EL of the Skies; Because forever is His loyalty.

Doesn't that not only sound better, but also make more sense?

ELEOS & Jesus

If the meaning of HESED could make such a big difference in the Hebrew words of the Tanakh, could it also make a tremendous difference in the words of a very famous Hebrew speaking person named Jesus?  I have written articles for many years about the Hebrewisms of his language.  What if the translators made the same mistake with Jesus' words as they did when they translated HESED as ELEOS in the Septuagint?  Let's take a few examples of how returning to the meaning of HESED would affect the teachings of Jesus.

Matthew 9:9-13

And as Jesus passed by from there, he saw a man, called Matthew, sitting at the tax collection place.  And he said unto him, "Follow me."  And he arose, and followed him.

And it came to pass, as he sat to eat in the house, behold, many tax-collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with the tax-collectors and sinners?"

But when he heard it, he said, "They that are well have no need of a physician, but they that are sick.  But go and learn what this is:  I desire loyalty (ELEOS), and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."

When Jesus said "I desire loyalty, and not sacrifice," he was quoting the first part of Hosea 6:6:

For I desire HESED, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings.

Most English translations use the word "mercy" in both Hosea and Matthew.  What happens when we replace it with "loyalty?"  Does it make a difference? 

Matthew 12:1-9

At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the grainfields; and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears and to eat.  But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said unto him, "Behold, your disciples do that which it is not lawful to do upon the sabbath."

But he said unto them, "Haven't you read what David did, when he was hungry, as were those that were with him?  He entered into the House of God and ate the consecrated bread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, neither (was it lawful) for them that were with him (to eat it), but (it was) only for the priests.  Or have you not read in the Torah, that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are innocent?  

But I say unto you, that one greater than the temple is here.  But if you had known what this means - I desire loyalty (ELEOS), and not sacrifice - you would not have condemned the innocent; because a person is master of the sabbath.  And he departed there and went into their synagogue.

This is a very good example of the difference between the values of Jesus and the Pharisees.  They believed that the reason that God gave them the Torah (Bible) was so that they would strive to keep every word, down to the last letter.  Their primary goal in life was to "do exactly what their Bible said."  They valued their Bible more than anything or anyone.

On the other hand, Jesus taught that something was of far greater value than just blindly keeping the words of their Bible - the preservation of life!  Did God want David and his men to starve when there were twelve huge loaves of bread just sitting in the Temple?  Obviously, Jesus believed that David was engaged in an act of righteousness, a mitvah not a sin.

The punch line of Jesus' lesson came in verse 8, another verse that has been mutilated by generations of translators.  Your Bible probably reads something like this:

For the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath Day.

This translation has been used by many Christian denominations as justification for not observing the Sabbath Day (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).  A much better translation would be:

Every man is master of his own life and responsible for his actions, even on the Sabbath.

Then, as if his teachings weren't enough for them - "he went to their synagogue."

Matthew 23:23-24

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees - actors!  You tithe mint, anise, and cummin, but have left undone the heavier matters of the Torah - judgment  (KRISIN), loyalty (ELEOS), and faithfulness (PISTIN).  These you ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone.  You blind guides - you strain out the gnat, and then swallow the camel!

You can almost see Jesus' message develop as he wrestles with the more "orthodox" members of his society.  I am sure that after discussions like the one discussed in the previous section there were those who accused him of wanting to do away with the Torah.  This is revealed by Jesus' words above as he discussed the tithe.  But  first before we deal with the tithe, I want to look at the Greek word that the translators decided NOT to translate for some reason - u`pokritai,.

Every translator has three choices as he or she works on a translation:

(1) Translate - bring the meaning from one language to the other.

(2) Transliterate - bring the sound from on language to the other.

(3) Completely ignore the word and write nothing.

In this case, they decided to transliterate u`pokritai,, instead of translating it.  I think using the translation is much more powerful - Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees - actors! 

Probably in response to the words of those who misunderstood his position on "keeping the Torah," this time he makes it very clear.  He has not been teaching his followers that they should not follow the teachings of the Torah.  This can be clearly seen in his words - "You tithe mint, anise, and cumin . . . These you ought to have done. . . ." 

The point Jesus makes this time is that within the Bible there are instructions that have a much higher priority - "weightier matters" - things that should take a much higher priority in their lives - "judgment, loyalty, and faithfulness."  

By the way, did you notice that they were tithing "things," not money?

The Power of Tradition

Matthew 23:24 has a very interesting history in the history of English translations of the Bible, especially the King James Translation:

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

The word "at" was a printer's typo that was made in the early copies of the KJV.  By the time came for the printers to correct their mistake the verse had become so well known that officials decided to leave it alone - tradition prevailed over fact.  The correct translation is:

You blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!

As you can now see, Jesus made his point very clear - wake up and deal with the most important matters first instead of ignoring them to deal with minor issues! 

Do you know any GNAT SWALLOWERS?

Well, we are out of space so I am going to ask you to look up the other four verses in which ELEOS is found in the Synoptic Gospels - Luke 1:50, 58, 72; and 10:37.  Write or e-mail and let me know what you think about using "loyalty" instead of "mercy."  



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