Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

22 June 2010


I hadn’t been a believer for very long before I started struggling with what exactly the biblical writers meant by the word love. That is, what God meant. I’m rather slowwitted when it comes to things spiritual. In any case, I started studying the word love in the biblical passages I was reading and soon discovered that there are two Hebrew words commonly translated as "love" in English translations of the Old Testament: ahab and hesed.

The first word, ahab, seemed more like our English word love and was applicable in a lot of the same situations in which we use the word. Parents and children, spouses, and lovers all ahab each other in scripture, and, in the Law, God commands his children to ahab not only their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18) but also strangers: “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt (Leviticus 19:34). In the most important passage of the Law to the Jews, a passage that they traditionally commemorated on doorways and gates and bound to their wrists and foreheads, Moses exhorted them to ahab God as well: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The other Hebrew word for love, hesed, was more puzzling. A key word of interest to Jewish theologians over the centuries—the root of a word used in Psalms for the especially devout and of the name of a group of especially pious Jews, the Hasidimhesed is used almost exclusively in passages describing not our love but God’s. Within the translation of scripture I read in those days (the NIV), hesed was translated into many quite different English words: not only love but mercy, kindness, loyalty, faith, devotion, approval, favor, glory, and grace as well as subcategories of these like loving-kindness, unfailing love, and acts of devotion. Other Bible versions, I discovered, were just as varied in their translation of the word hesed.

Jesus himself refers to the word hesed when he quotes Hosea 6:6, a rare biblical instance when the word is used for humans. "[G]o and learn what this means," He tells his audience of hecklers and disciples alike: "‘I desire mercy’—hesed—‘not sacrifice.’" (Matthew 9:13).

In recasting the Hebrew of Hosea 6:6 into New Testament Greek, Matthew uses, possibly echoing the Aramaic word Jesus actually used in speaking, not one of several Greek words for love but eleos, which means mercy. Having studied and puzzled over for years Hosea’s and Matthew’s choices of words for what God was saying, here’s what I think God means.

Yes, I have given you lots of rules to follow, God was telling the famously obedient prophet Hosea and tells us to this day. I have demanded sacrifices to atone for every disobedience imaginable and even for behaviors I never specifically told you were forbidden. But what I really want from you is not merely that you obey my rules but that you love me. And not in the feeble way you love one another. Not ahab. I want you to love me the way I love you. Hesed.

~excerpted from my current writing project, tentatively titled Easy Burdens: Doing the Stress-Free, Guilt-Free Work of God


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I love the idea of posting your word studies. And these words in particular. You are right that hesed is a tricky word given that we don't have a good english equivalent. Even though it is a Hebrew word I think looking at the verse where Jesus' references the passage in Micah gives us insight into the meaning of the word. The section of scripture shows Jesus eating with tax collectors and other "sinners." Throughout my years in the church many times I have heard this passage used as a lesson to show how Jesus came to save all those sinners. The use of hesed/eleos makes me believe that this interpretation is incorrect or a least incomplete. The dialog in that passage between Jesus and the Pharisees shows the dichotomy between the "righteous" and the "unrighteous," the pharisee and the sinner, those who followed the law and those who did not. In this case hesed or eleos is opposed to sacrifice. I think by Jesus referencing this scripture he is, again, turning the law on it's head. A desire to follow God is preferred to flawlessly performing the law of God. In order to show hesed one must understand the meaning behind the law and experience love to live it out. This is a reciprocal relationship between the one who created the convent or law and the person practicing it. A sacrifice is just following a prescriptive path to appease God and maintain social standing.

I think Jesus was saying that those that need the doctor are the pharisees. The righteous of the time provided sacrifice but not hesed. They missed the point and sadly, the same thing still occurs today by the "righteous."

One other interesting thing about this word is it's place in Kabbalah. In that context the masculine loving-kindness that requires no cause or response is counterbalanced by the feminine Gevurah which is restraint and judgement. And both are needed for balance.

You say that you think God wants us to love him in the same what that he loves us. But, if that is the case then wouldn't that be 'sacrificial' love rather than hesed?

Those are just my thoughts. Hope they make sense!

patty kirk said...

Been thinking about this. I think parental love is sacrificial love, largely. A sort of unintentional sacrificial love, if that is possible. Like the love of the prodigal son's father, whom I like to refer to as the prodigal dad.