Chesed: Mercy and lovingkindness vs shame
Chesed is a Hebrew word that has two contradictory and seemingly opposing meanings such as mercy and lovingkindness, and on the other hand shame and disgrace. So, how can these two conflicting meanings be reconciled? This will be the subject of our study in this article.
The moral laws in the Torah against the sexual immorality in Lev 18 outline the prohibition of sexual abominations and go with a straightforward warning to the children of Israel not to walk in the laws of the Egyptians and Kanaanites, but to walk in the laws of YHVH by which they should live.
He warned His children that unless they adhere to the Torah He would drive them out of His land so that the land would be defiled no more by sexual abominations.
This kind of abominations we explained in the article “The abomination to uncover the nakedness of the father“.
The laws against incest are introduced in Lev 18:6 with the explicit prohibition that no one is to approach anyone from his relatives to “uncover nakedness”.
In Lev 20:17, a sexual intercourse with a half-sister is described with the Hebrew word חֶסֶד chesed, as we read,
And a man who takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness: it is a shameful thing. And they shall be cut off before the eyes of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, he bears his crookedness. (Lev 20:17)
This incest is classified as a disgrace and an abomination before YHVH (Lev 18:29-30) along with all other sexual intercourses with relatives listed in chapter 18 (see also Lev 18:9-11).
Another application of chesed is found in Proverbs, as it appears in JPS translation,
Righteousness exalts a nation; but sin is a reproach (חֶסֶד chesed) to any people. (Pro 14:34)
Here chesed is used for dishonor, disgrace, and shame. This is better seen in the chiasm of Pro 14:34-35:
A. Righteousness exalts a nation;
B. and reproach (chesed) to the peoples is sin.
A. The king’s delight is toward a wise servant,
B. But his wrath is towards him who causes shame (bush).
In the chiasmal structure, we see that “righteousness” in statement A (in verse 34) parallels with “king’s delight” in statement A (in verse 35); and “reproach (chesed)” in statement B (in verse 34) with “shame” in statement B (in verse 35).
Hence, it is apparent in the chiasmus that chesed equals to בּוּשׁ bush, “to cause shame”, “to ashame”, hence chesed means “shame”.
With that being said, we see that chesed is a very strong word for a transgression against the laws of the Lawmaker.
However, there are many places in the Scripture where this word is used in the diametrical opposite way. Just one example out of many is found in Psalms,
All the paths of Yehovah are חֶסֶד chesed and truth to those who guard His covenant and His testimonies. (Psa 25:10)
Here it will be quite inappropriate to translate chesed as “shame”, is it not? JPS translated chesed here as “mercy”, while other translations as “lovingkindness”.
In many other places, other than “mercy” chesed is translated as “kindness”, “lovingkindness”, “goodness”, and “favor”. As a matter of fact, chesed is rarely used with the meaning of reproach, wicked, or shame versus the overwhelming positive use of “mercy” and “lovingkindness”.
In the next instance חֶסֶד chesed is coupled with another Hebrew word with a similar meaning חֵן chen, as we read in Genesis,
But Yehovah was with Yoseph, and showed lovingkindness (חֶסֶד chesed) to him, and gave him favor (חֵן chen) in the sight of the keeper of the prison. (Gen 39:21)
We explained the meaning of חֵן chen, commonly translated as “grace”, “favor”, in the article “By grace you are saved. But what is grace?“
Another example is Psa 117:2,
For His חֶסֶד chesed is great over us, and אֶמֶת emet (the truth) of Yehovah is everlasting. Praise Yah! (Psa 117:2)
In this short psalm, if chesed is translated as “shame”, and not “mercy” or “lovingkindness”, we find two seemingly contradictory terms: “shame” and “the truth of YHVH”. Each of these seems to annul the other, as the psalmist clearly highlights both at the same time.
However, the two terms are not as contradictory as it first appears, if chesed is translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness”.
The Hebrew word חֶסֶד chesed comes from the primitive verb חָסַד chasad, as it is found in 2Samuel,
With the merciful (chasid) You show Yourself merciful (chasad), with the upright man You show Yourself upright, (2Sa 22:26)
As it is in the case of the noun, the verb chasad is used very rarely too: only in 2Sa 22:26, Psa 18:25, and Pro 25:10.
Plead your case with your neighbor himself, And do not disclose the secret of another; Lest he who hears it put you to shame (chasad), And your evil report turn not back. (Pro 25:9-10)
So, how can we reconcile these opposing translations of the Hebrew word חֶסֶד chesed? In order to reconcile it, we need first to understand it. But in this case, it will be difficult to find directly the literal meaning of chesed or chasad in the textual contexts in which these words are used.
In such cases, we need to find an indirect approach to the issue, as such an approach will require a search for the literal meaning of one of its derivatives.
Such a derivative is the word חֲסִידָה chasiydah, which means a stork (see Lev 11:19). What is the characteristic for the stork? A stork has a long and bowed neck. And here comes the moment.
Chasiyadah is a feminine form of חָסִיד chasid, which means kind, religiously pious (a saint), godly man. Chasid is also a member of a Jewish sect that observes a form of strict Orthodox Judaism.
But how will connect chasiydah or chasid to our word chesed, which means either “mercy”, “lovingkindness”, or “shame”?
The common element of chasiydah, “stork”, and chasid, “pious, godly man”, is that in both cases one bows his neck: the stork bows neck to find food its Creator has provided, and the pious man bows neck in humility before YHVH Elohim.
Therefore, the original meaning of the primitive verb חָסַד chasad, perhaps means to bow the neck in courtesy. The bowing of the neck is a sign of respect and kindness to someone, but also is a sign of shame, when a reproach is brought on him. Hence, chesed means both “mercy” (lovingkindness) and “shame”; all depends on the reason why one bows neck.
And when YHVH shows mercy, He bows His neck in lovingkindness.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.