Hesed: Connecting Mercy to Covenant

Resuming a look into the deeper meaning of God’s steadfast love, or “hesed”, now in terms of what it means to covenant and how seriously God takes this agreement. As Christians, we unthinkingly refer to covenant all the time, after all, we talk of “New Testament” and “Old Testament”, we speak of the “covenant in my blood” when joining in the act of taking communion in our churches. But what is Covenant? What sort of agreement is this, anyway? And why should it matter to us?

In modern day language covenant is a legal term. Take a look at the fine print in legal agreements and you are likely to find the term in there somewhere. It is the same in the Biblical context, but given the solemnity of this act, it is usually much more binding and far-reaching than in today’s “evolutionary” law. In certain cases it was the most sacred manner in which people could promise to align themselves together, or to their God. Or in this case, God to them. Marriage is a type of covenant, and the closest to picturing God’s covenant with man. The sharing of lives, and mingling of all future directions and considerations.

There were many types of covenanting, but the most serious was that of “blood covenant“. The sharing of one’s very lifeblood, life force. This sharing meant one could call upon the other even to the point of life, if necessary. And there were usually consequences in the event that one party failed to live up to his end of the agreement. So it was never entered into lightly, nor taken lightly. Yet, there were such special privileges in those covenants that the less powerful party, especially, was eager to enter into them.

Covenants could, by nature of there being two parties who both had responsibilities in that agreement, be broken.

Blood Covenant: A Primitive Rite. by H. Clay Trumbull is book often cited for it’s explanations of covenants as understood within the Bible and in ancient cultures. In commenting on his book, one says this:

“…blood-covenanting in which two persons, through the intermingling of each other’s blood, or by mutually tasting or drinking of it, or by its transfusion into each other veins, establish an eternal friendship, on the basis, thus conceived to be gained, of a common life, soul or nature.”

Trumbull, himself put it this way:

The inter-commingling of blood by its inter-transference, has been understood as equivalent to an inter-commingling of natures. Two natures thus inter-commingled, by the intermingling of blood, have been considered as forming, thence forward, one blood, one life, one nature, one soul – in two organisms.”
(H. Clay Trumbull, The Blood Covenant)

This is the extension that Covenant takes in the understanding of the Bible. One life, and one nature. It is inside this understanding that the “golden rule” takes on so much more inflection: do good unto others as you would have them do unto you. Start looking at others as though you had the same nature, what good would you then do them? And here is where we get a glimmering into hesed as it extends throughout community. What mercy would you have in such a circumstance, and what mercy would you extend?

We tend to dilute our inclinations towards mercy with a blithe “be good to everybody” “love everybody”… with little attention paid to the duty one owes on the basis of relationship. Hesed is spoken of as a “masculine” form of mercy. It is tied to “honor” and “loyalty”, rather than to feelings, alone. It is love, but it is love within form and given an orderly pathway.

From Hesed to Agape, What’s love got to do with it? by Ben Witherington III espresses this:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, hesed refers to a sort of love that has been promised and is owed—covenant love, that is—as in Hosea 1:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son.” Covenant love is the love God promised to give to his covenant people, and which they in turn were to respond with in kind, loving the God of the Bible with all their hearts, minds and strength. Hesed does not suggest some kind of generic love of everyone. Like marital love, covenantal love is given within the context of a relationship where it is already promised and where the recipient is commanded to respond in kind. Covenant love, like marital love, is neither optional nor unconditional; it is obligatory. This is not to say hesed is compelled—just as in a marriage, love cannot be forced—but it is commanded. This love may be freely and graciously given, but, from the biblical point of view, there is no such thing as free love.

In covenant with each other we owe one another, in relationship we sometimes owe certain duties and often this is expressed in modern life, but it often simply remains in that form, simply expectations. If one does us a favor of some sort, we feel an obligation to return it… or we look for whether there is an expected return. In modern life we get so confused, either the expectations are too little or too much and we aren’t sure about the entire concept of duty, but under an agreement of covenant there is expected favor that comes with relationship. And there is hierarchy of favor and priorities based upon how the relationships are structured.

We often understand this intuitively. We speak of what we owe our parents, or what we expect out of the marriage partner, or what we think our children owe us, without giving much thought to the basis for that, it is often an unspoken given within the parameters of our particular community. But the Bible puts form to the fences and gateways, and this is squarely based upon the concept of covenant and its two arms of hesed and tzedek. That word “tzedek” or “tsedeq” is “righteousness” or what is “right”, while “hesed” extends beyond the obligation of what is right into what love and mercy would do; relating lovingly within a situation to a person one is connected with, in some way. I might look at this as tsedeq is what the other calls upon me to do for them based upon rights, while hesed is what I call myself to do for them based upon my love and connection to them.

The Creator calls upon Himself to do many things each day throughout creation. It is His identification with hesed that I believe leads the apostle to say “God is love”. God acts out of love in relationship to all He has made and in this is contained the mercy as we commonly perceive it, but also the warnings which we call judgments. There is a hierarchy of relationship, but an undergirding of faithful provision and care for all He has made. Within covenant obligation of hesed is where we must look for how men and women within the Church must relate, I think. What mercy do we owe one another in the light of covenanting with Christ, and thus being in communion not only with Him, but with each other.

That is where my next conversation on hesed will take me.