The Original Hebrew Meaning of “Mercy”

One of the most common notions Bible readers encounter is that God dispenses “mercy”—in Hebrew, רחם (racham). For example, Deuteronomy 4:31 declares, “The Lord your God is a God of mercy (רחום; rachum).” Lamentations 3:32 says that God’s “mercies (רחמיו; rachamav) never come to an end.” But what exactly is mercy? Is it God’s feeling of compassion or pity toward people? Does it denote a divine willingness to relent from punishment?

While “mercy” can carry these meanings, there’s a better way to understand the concept from an ancient Israelite perspective. In the biblical Hebrew language, the word for “mercy” (רחם; racham) shares the exact same three-letter root as the word for “womb” (רחם; rechem). Based on the close linguistic connection between these terms, God’s “mercy” toward humanity denotes the same kind of divine protection that a baby has in its mother’s womb.  

Israel’s Scriptures use the word רחם (rechem) to describe a woman’s “womb” many times. As early as Genesis, the text says that God “opened the womb (רחם)” of both Leah and Rachel, which allows the sisters to have children (Genesis 29:31; 30:22). In Psalm 22, the psalmist recounts a lifelong devotion to the Lord, saying, “I was cast upon you from the womb (רחם); you are my God from my mother’s belly” (22:10).

Even God speaks self-referentially in these motherly terms. According to Isaiah, the Lord calls the people of Israel those “who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb (רחם),” telling them, “Even until your old age... and until [you have] gray hairs I will carry you. I have made [you], and I will bear [you]; I will carry, and I will save” (Isaiah 46:3-4).

The prophet likens Israel’s creation and salvation to being carried in a divine “womb” and this image offers an insight into how today’s readers should understand the function of God’s “mercy.”  

When God dispenses mercy, the act displays the divine proclivity for protection. This protective aspect of mercy emerges clearly in God’s interaction with Moses. When the leader of Israel asks to see the glory of God, the Lord tells him, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will declare my name before you.... I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will be merciful (רחמתי; rachamti) to whom I will be merciful” (Exodus 33:19).

Immediately after proclaiming this mercy, God informs Moses, “But you cannot see my face, for a human being cannot see me and live.... Behold, there is a place near me where you shall stand on the rock and, as my glory passes by, I will set you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).

The Lord places Moses into a protective space and holds him with a heavenly hand. In shielding Moses, God bestows mercy upon him.

God had also told Moses that an angel would be sent to guide Israel in the desert. The newly freed people were warned not to disobey God’s messenger, because the angel would not forgive their rebellion (see Exodus 23:21). Yet, shortly after Moses sees God’s glory from the cleft of the rock, he makes a very bold request.

He asks for God (not the angel) to accompany Israel—to “go in the midst of us” (Exodus 34:9)—and he refuses to move anywhere without the Lord’s personal presence. Why did Moses take the risk of upsetting God with this response? And why did he think that the original arrangement of angelic guidance would be insufficient?

Moses discloses his reason: “because this is a stiff-necked people” (34:9) Based on the people’s tendency toward waywardness, Moses asks God to take ownership of Israel: “Pardon our iniquity and our sin and take us for your own!” (34:9).

In response, God renews covenantal promises, saying, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do wonders, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people... shall see the work of the Lord” (34:10).

Moses Israelites Manna

God vows to provide Israel with marvelous deeds that will sustain and protect them as they wander in the wilderness. This divine declaration was a pledge to provide Israel with protective mercy as they moved toward the promised land.

Similarly, when God promises to gather the people back to their land after exile, mercy is the mechanism for restoration: “The Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you (רחמיך; richamekha), and he will gather you again” (Deuteronomy 30:3). Jeremiah reaffirms this restorative mercy with reference to God’s own inner being.

Speaking of the recently exiled northern kingdom of Israel, the Lord asks, “Is Ephraim my dear son? My darling child? For though I speak against him, I surely remember him continually. Therefore, my innards are moved for him. Mercy (רחם; rachem). I will have mercy on him (ארחמנו; arachamenu)” (Jeremiah 31:20).

This prophecy employs visceral imagery to express the mercy that will effect the end of exile. Upon Israel’s homecoming, the people will enjoy a relationship with God that mirrors the bond between parent and child.  

In praying for heavenly mercy, the ancient Israelites asked for protection from trouble: “You, O Lord, you will not withhold from me your mercies (רחמיך; rachamekha); let your fidelity and your truth preserve me always. For innumerable evils have encompassed me” (Psalm 40:11-12).

Just as Scripture links mercy with a mother’s womb, the psalmist also uses the analogy of a father to convey the concept: “As a father has mercy (רחם; rachem) on children, so the Lord has mercy (רחם; richam) on those who revere him” (Psalm 103:13).

And since such mercy comes from God, it endures for eternity: “You, O Lord, will remain forever, and your memorial [will last] from generation to generation. You shall arise, and you will have mercy (תרחם; terachem) on Zion” (Psalm 102:12-13). The psalmists knew that God’s mercy would be everlasting, and that heavenly protection would continue for all time.  

In Hebrew thought, “mercy” is not just a feeling of sympathy or an emotion of concern. Instead, the idea denotes the security that that one receives before birth. Divine mercy is a protective force that the Bible compares with the shelter of a mother’s womb. And just as loving parents develop a rich relationship with their children after they’re born, Scripture describes God as a divine comforter full of parental protection.

Moses felt the safety of God’s mercy at Sinai, and all ancient Israelites were sure of the Lord’s continued care. The prophets spoke of divine mercy leading to the return from exile, and the psalmists extolled their Maker for the many mercies they received through prayer.

When contemporary Bible readers realize the original Hebrew meaning of mercy, they can understand and experience the same sense of unceasing protection from “a God merciful (רחום; rachum) and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in fidelity and truth” (Exodus 34:6).  

A Hassidic rabbi who understood the immensely merciful nature of God once prayed:  

“Lord… we have many sins. You have much forgiveness. I propose a deal:  

Why don’t we exchange our sins for your forgiveness?  

But if [God] were to say: “This is not a fair deal!”

I would say: “Yes, but, if we had no sins, what would you do with all your forgiveness?!”

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg: Head of School at The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies and Founder of the Israel Bible Center, Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg is an Israeli Christian author, experienced educator and expert scholar in Jewish context and culture of the New Testament. One of Dr. Eli’s greatest passions is building bridges of trust, respect and understanding between Christians and Jews. His writing reflects a balanced perspective based on historic and contextual interpretations. As a communicator, he has a unique ability to simplify complex ideas, so they are both memorable and shareable.

Dr. Nicholas Schaser: In addition to his work with Israel Bible Center as Professor of Hebrew Bible, Dr. Schaser is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Macalester College and the Adjunct Instructor of the New Testament at Bethel Seminary (both in St. Paul, Minnesota). Professor Schaser’s research interests include rabbinic literature and the Jewishness of the New Testament, with particular focus on Midrash and the Gospel of Matthew. Teaching widely in both synagogues and churches, Dr. Schaser strives to promote mutual learning and respect between Jews and Christians.

Learn more here.

9/2/2021 5:46:00 PM