Stepping into the Jordan
For me, one of the bright spots of the COVID lockdown was Disney’s release of Hamilton. I was enthralled by the music, particularly Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterful lyrics. There is an intentionality to every line in his lyrics—even every syllable. Here's a link to an interview where Miranda discusses how he wrote "My Shot." It's a great window into the artist's mind and pursuit of the perfect lyrics.
One of my favorite songs in Hamilton is "You'll Be Back," sung by King George III (Jonathan Groff). The song depicts the conflict between the King and the colonies as an abusive relationship between two lovers. King George comes across as slightly deranged, domineering, and abusive. He’s a gaslighter who expects the rebellious colonies to come crawling back once they realize they can’t live without him. The chorus ends with the line, “And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.” In the context of a personal relationship, violence as an expression of love is the hallmark of abuse.
Miranda's portrayal of the relationship between monarchs and their subjects as abusive offers a post-colonial critique of empire. Yet, Lin-Manuel touches on aspects of covenant relationships between rulers and their subjects found throughout the Bible. In particular, what is the nature of the sovereign’s love? Is it an emotional love or something else?
The verb “to love” (and hate) is stuffed with cultural specificity and implications. I love my wife. I love fried chicken. I hate brussels sprouts. Any proficient English speaker understands that my love for my wife is different than my love for fried chicken. We have one word that conveys a whole range of semantic meanings.
The Hebrew word that most closely tracks the English word for love is ʾahav (אהב). God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Gen 22:2). Used 252 times in the Hebrew Bible, this word has much the same semantic range as the English word. It can mean love for another person, love for God, God’s love for Israel, and even the love of doing something.
Another Hebrew word that gets translated as some form of love is chesed (חסד). Various forms of this root word occur 291 times in the Hebrew Bible—more than ʾahav. Modern English translations generally translate it as "steadfast love" or "loving-kindness." The King James Version uses "kindness" and "mercy." However, the Hebrew meaning is more specific: loyalty. In particular, it often reflects obligations, loyalty, and faithfulness as part of a covenant. I think the English translations miss an essential aspect of this word when they opt for "steadfast love" or "loving-kindness." In particular, I think they miss something critical about God's nature and relationship with humankind.
A Word about Covenants
Before we get to the importance of chesed, we need to talk a little bit about covenants as they were understood in the ancient world. There were basically two types of covenants, mutual and unilateral. A mutual covenant could be an agreement between two families to conduct trade or share resources, like a well. A mutual covenant might include a marriage between the families to help strengthen the bond and lessen the likelihood of violation. A violation by either party could break the covenant.
A unilateral covenant was one where a superior party dictated the terms to a lesser party. These were often associated with rulers. When a king conquered a neighboring region, he set the terms for the covenant. The subjects had obligations to the ruler, and the ruler had specific duties to their subjects. If the subjects maintained their end of the covenant, they received “blessings.” If, on the other hand, they violated the terms, they received “curses.” Violations by the lesser party in a unilateral covenant did not nullify the covenant. Their violations resulted in consequences (curses). Only the ruler could break the covenant or change its terms.
The covenants we see in the Bible between God and Israel (and humanity) fall into the unilateral category. God made a covenant with Abraham to bless his descendants; through them, all nations would be blessed. God delivers Abraham's descendants, the Israelites, from slavery in Egypt and establishes a covenant with them. God promises to protect and provide for Israel and give them territory. In return, God gives them rules to live by. If Israel adheres to these obligations, they will prosper (receive blessings). If they violate these terms, they will face the consequences (i.e., curses). Deuteronomy 27–28 summarizes the blessings and curses of God's covenant with Israel.
Christians tend to overlook that God's covenant with Israel presumes they will violate it. In fact, the covenant provides provisions for violations. The book of Leviticus outlines how Israel can make restitution for their transgressions and receive forgiveness for their sins. That's right. The Torah provides forgiveness of sins. We must also remember that “blessing” and “curse” are legal terms, not magical. In other words, God does not send Israel into eternal damnation because they violate a condition of the covenant. They are not "cursed," as if God put a hex on them.
So, what does all this have to do with love and chesed? Actually, quite a lot. Chesed becomes a foundational depiction of God’s character in the Hebrew Bible. Not surprisingly, the first instances of chesed are in the story of Abraham. Here’s an example of how the NRSV translates this word:
The man [Abraham’s servant] bowed his head and worshiped the LORD and said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master.'
Gen 24:26–27 (NRSV)
Here’s my translation of this passage:
The man bowed down and worshipped YHWH and said, “Blessed be YHWH the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his covenant loyalty and constancy with my master.
The Hebrew highlights the covenantal relationship God made with Abraham. God chose Abraham and made promises to him. Abraham’s servant celebrates God’s faithfulness in maintaining the covenant promises to God made to Abraham. God keeps God’s promises. The servant's reaction may seem over the top, but in the ancient Near East, gods were considered fickle, capricious, and self-serving. It was entirely within the realm of possibility that God would choose to nullify the covenant without notice.
The Hebrew Bible expresses a similar sentiment in Exodus. Moses and the Israelites are at Mt. Sinai to receive the covenant with God. God passes before Moses on the mountain and proclaims:
YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in covenant loyalty and faithfulness; Keeping covenant loyalty for thousands and forgiving iniquity, transgression (rebellion), and sin; surely not freeing the guilty; visiting a father’s iniquity on the children, and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.
Ex 34:6–7 (My Translation)
God’s declaration to Moses is that God is loyal to the covenants that God makes. In other words, God is not changing the terms or throwing away the covenant God makes with Israel.
One of the more surprising places this sentiment shows up is at the lowest point in Judah’s history: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the exile of Judah’s inhabitants in 586 BCE. The book of Lamentations wrestles with God’s role in the destruction and world events. Through five poems, Lamentations recognizes God is responsible for the destruction and the only deity capable of making things right. In frank terms, Lamentations doesn't let God off the hook. The poet questions the severity of God’s judgment against people of the covenant:
Look, O LORD, and consider! To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy. You invited my enemies from all around as if for a day of festival; and on the day of the anger of the LORD no one escaped or survived; those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed.
Lam 2:20–22 (NRSV)
It’s a pretty brutal description. The poet doesn’t pull any punches. There’s no doubt who the poet thinks is responsible: God.
It would be easy for the poet to conclude that God had unilaterally decided to nullify the covenant. Yet, that's not where the poet goes. Instead, the subsequent section affirms God's continuing loyalty to the covenant. Unfortunately, English translations obscure the covenant language:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” Lam 3:22–24 (NRSV)
Here is my attempt to remove this obscurity:
The covenant loyalties (chesed) of the LORD never expire, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your trustworthiness. “The LORD is my allotted portion,” says my life, “therefore I will wait for him.”
Despite the atrocities God unleashed on the Kingdom of Judah, God did not nullify the covenant with God’s people. God’s covenant loyalty (chesed) endured. This paradox reminds me of a line from King George’s song in Hamilton, “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” While the song portrays the relationship between the sovereign and subjects as one of abusive personal love (in Hebrew, ʾahav), it accurately portrays covenantal “love” (in Hebrew, chesed). It’s a distinction worth considering.
Chesed is not based on feelings or emotions but on loyalty. It reflects a binding commitment that endures violations by the other party. True, there are plenty of passages where the Hebrew verb ʾahav describes God’s love for God’s people and our love for God (e.g., Deut 6:5; 7:13) and numerous metaphors that use interpersonal relationships to express God's relationship to God's people. The prophets regularly describe Israel’s worship of other gods as adultery or “whoring after other gods.” But chesed is the common verb to express God's "love" concerning the covenant.
At this point, you might be thinking, so what? Here’s the problem: when we think of God’s love only in terms of interpersonal love, it becomes too easy to assign other attributes of interpersonal relationships, like feelings and emotions, to God’s relationship with humankind. Even worse, if someone's only experience with love is in abusive relationships, it can warp their understanding of God's character—much like King George in Hamilton. In some way, I think a proper understanding of God’s chesed helps address questions about how a "loving" God can tolerate evil or even inflict violence.
Our modern conception of love also de-emphasizes the communal aspects of our relationship with God. Even when God’s covenants were with select individuals, their overall purpose was for the larger community. Blessings and curses of the covenant were communal more than individual. Even those who remained faithful to God were exiled—even God's prophets.
The Hebrew Bible emphasizes that even when God's people rebel, God is loyal to them. God never gives up on the people of God’s covenant(s)—EVER. But God’s chesed goes even further. The prophet Ezekiel has a vision of the glory of God departing from the temple before its destruction. But God's presence doesn't simply leave. God's glory goes into Babylonian exile with the people. Despite God’s judgment against the nation, God does not abandon them. God goes with them and will ultimately bring them back.
That’s a message we would do well to remember. God’s loyalty to God’s covenants is never-ending. If I had to choose, I think I’d prefer God’s chesed to God’s ʾahav.