Tyndale Bulletin 46.1 (1995) 179-196.
?HESED AS OBLIGATION:
While there is little dispute that ?hesed is a significant term, opinion is divided
over its meaning. Glueck defines ?hesed in terms of loyalty and mutual obligation
within the context of relationships, especially relationships involving a covenant. More recent studies, however, have minimised this aspect, linking ?hesed, instead,
with ideas of benevolence and kindness. This article looks at the use of ?hesed in
the OT in the setting of human relationships and the relationship between God and his people, and considers, too, the Hebrew terms with which ?hesed is most
closely associated. It concludes in favour of the more traditional interpretation, and considers the significance of this understanding for the covenant people of God.
?Hesed has been the subject of a number of studies, and it would be
1impossible to analyse them all. The purpose of this article is to re-
examine a currently, widely-accepted view that ?hesed may be
defined, principally, in terms of benevolence or kindness and is to be associated only minimally with the notion of duty and obligation. The view that this latter concept should in fact be regarded as primary is expressed by N. Glueck; he defines ?hesed as:
conduct in accord with a mutual relationship of rights and duties,
corresponding to a mutually obligatory relationship... principally:
1The most influential of these are outlined by G. Clark in his recently published monograph The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible (JSOTS 157; Sheffield:
Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) 15-24.
180 TYNDALE BULLETIN 46.1 (1995)
reciprocity, mutual assistance, sincerity, friendliness, brotherliness,
2duty, loyalty and love.
?Hesed is thus interpreted as general behaviour within the norms of an already established relationship. In particular, Glueck links ?hesed
with relationships which are based upon a covenant, and suggests that „?hesed is the real essence of bĕrît, and it can almost be said that it is
3its very content.‟ N.H. Snaith also wants to emphasise the close link between ?hesed and bĕrît; he translates ?hesed as „covenant love‟,
maintaining that „the word represents that attitude to a covenant
4without which the covenant would cease to exist.‟
Other scholars have taken a different approach. Stoebe, for example, challenges the close association of ?hesed and bĕrît and the
5view that the term contains the notion of legal obligation. He
emphasises, instead, the link between ?hesed and ra?hămîm (mercy,
kindness) with which it frequently appears, and interprets hesed as
„goodness or kindness which goes beyond what one may expect or deserve, and which has its sole basis in a willing generosity towards
6others.‟ A similar view is expressed by Zobel who like Stoebe, rejects the notion of legal obligation and concludes that „the most appropriate
7translation of hesed is “goodness”, “grace,” or “kindness.”‟
In the most recent contribution to the debate, G. Clark has produced a semantic study of hesed, considering elements of the
lexical field to which it belongs, and looking at relationships between the various field members. Clark‟s study confirms the close
89association of ?hesed with ra?hămîm and ?tôb but stresses, too, the
elements of mutual obligation and of faithful commitment which are also included in ?hesed but which are generally absent from these
2Hesed in the Bible (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1967) 55.
3Op. cit., 47.
4N.H. Snaith, Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (5th ed.; London: Epworth,
1953) 94-130 passim; quotation from p. 95.
5H.J. Stoebe „Die Bedeutung des Wortes häsäd im AT‟, VT 2 (1952) 244-54.
6Op. cit., 248.
7H.J. Zobel, s.v. Hesed in G.J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (eds.), Theological
Dictionary of the OT, V (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 44-64; quotation from p. 51.
8The Word Hesed, 142-49.
9Ibid., 218-31, 259-60.
ROUTLEDGE: ?Hesed as Obligation 181
II. ?Hesed in Human Relationships
One point of general agreement among scholars is that ?hesed is most
frequently expressed in the context of a relationship and often, though not exclusively, within the setting of the family or clan. It is an attitude and the corresponding action which arises out of, and is in
10accordance with the norms of, particular social bonds. Thus ?hesed
is evident between husband and wife (Ge. 20:13), between father and son (Ge. 47:29; see also Ru. 1:8; 3:10), between other relatives (Ge. 24:49; 1 Sa. 15:6; Ru. 2:20), between host and guest (Ge. 19:19; Ge. 21:23; Jos. 2:12), between friends (1 Sa. 20:8; 2 Sa. 16:17; Jb. 6:14) and between a king and his subjects (2 Sa. 3:8; 2 Sa. 16:17; Pr. 20:28; Is. 16:5). ?Hesed also describes proper behaviour towards others
within the community of God‟s people (Jb. 24:21; Ps. 109:16; Pr.
11:17; Is. 57:1; Mi. 6:8; Zc. 7:9).
Another, linked, aspect of ?hesed is its mutuality. ?Hesed is
expected of those to whom ?hesed, or another act of kindness, has
been shown (e.g. Ge. 21:23; 40:14; Jos. 2:12; Judg. 1:24; 8:35; 2 Sa. 2:5-6; 10:2; 1 Ki. 2:7). In such cases ?hesed may be freed from its
family or clan context and based upon the bond established through the giving and receiving of help, rather than an already existing relationship. Thus, having shown ?hesed to the Israelite spies, Rahab
expects ?hesed to be shown to her and her family (Jos. 2:12):
10See, e.g., Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, 37; Zobel, TDOT V, 53. W.F. Lofthouse
(„Hen and Hesed in the Old Testament‟, ZAW 51  32-33) notes that it is the
existence of a recognised tie that distinguishes ?hesed from ?hēn (grace, favour).
Clark observes that „?hesed refers to an act, performed for the benefit of a person in need, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between the parties concerned‟ (The Word Hesed, 192; cf. 164-86).
182 TYNDALE BULLETIN 46.1 (1995)
Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show
kindness (?hesed) to my family, because I have shown kindness
(?hesed) to you.
Rahab‟s initial kindness may have been based on the relationship
between host and guest, thus justifying its description as ?hesed.
Another possibility is that she showed kindness to the spies in order that they would show her a similar kindness. If so, then her initial action could be seen to be based, not on an actual, but on an anticipated relationship and that, too, might justify it being called
?hesed. In either case, she expected that her act of kindness would be rewarded by ?hesed.
Though this expected reciprocation of ?hesed was not a legal
11obligation, its failure was taken seriously. Thus when Israel did not
demonstrate due ?hesed to Gideon and his family the nation earned not only the disapproval of the writer of Judges, but also divine judgment (Judg. 8:35; 9:16-20, 36); Jehoiada expected that God would call Joash to account for a similar omission (2 Ch. 24:22). ?Hesed and bĕrît
In considering the relational and mutual aspects of ?hesed, it is
12important to note that despite criticism of Glueck‟s position, there is
13a close relationship between ?hesed and bĕrît.
In Genesis 21:23 Abimelech urges Abraham to respond to the
?hesed he has been shown, by showing ?hesed in return.
Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with
me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country
where you are living as an alien the same kindness [?hesed] I have
shown to you.
The ?hesed demonstrated by Abimelech is in receiving Abraham as a guest (cf. Ge. 20:15), and showing him hospitality. In view of that action, and in accordance with the norms of the relationship thereby established, Abimelech expects Abraham to show ?hesed in return,
both to him and to the country in which he is a sojourner, and he calls Abraham to confirm that response by an oath. The agreement thus
11See, e.g., K.D. Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible
(Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978) 24, 44-45.
12E.g., A. Jepsen „Gnade und Barmherzigkeit im AT‟, Kerygma und Dogma 7
13See also Clark, The Word Hesed, 125-132, 136
ROUTLEDGE: ?Hesed as Obligation 183
established is described (in v. 27) as a treaty or covenant. It is clear
14that the acts of ?hesed precede, and therefore do not require, bĕrît.
However, it is also apparent that the covenant was made in order to secure the continuation of mutual acts of ?hesed. This suggests a close
association between ?hesed and bĕrît, in which the existence of a bĕrît
assures the permanence of ?hesed. Abimelech calls for Abraham to
show ?hesed on the basis of the ?hesed shown to him—and might
expect him to do so without any specific agreement; nonetheless he requests a covenant as the basis for and guarantee of future acts of
A similar situation is in view in 1 Sa. 20:8, where David urges Jonathan to show ?hesed in accordance with the covenant of
friendship established between them and before Yahweh (cf 1 Sa. 18:1-3):
As for you, show kindness (?hesed) to your servant, for you have
brought him into a covenant with you before the LORD…
Here, the bĕrît was established on the basis of their friendship, and on the basis of friendship alone David might have appealed for Jonathan to show him ?hesed. However, it is to their covenant relationship that David appeals. This suggests that while bĕrît is not a prerequisite for
the demonstration of ?hesed, where a bĕrît exists it provides a firm,
and in this case the primary, basis for ?hesed. This is further
emphasised in 1 Samuel 20:14-17 where, in order to guarantee that
?hesed will continue to be shown to him and to his family through succeeding generations, Jonathan enters into a covenant with the house of David—just as Abimelech had done with Abraham. Thus, once again, the existence of a bĕrît is regarded as an assurance of the
permanence of ?hesed.
14Cf. Jepson, „Gnade und Barmherzigkeit‟.
184 TYNDALE BULLETIN 46.1 (1995)
Hesed and other Associated Terms
In the above instances, ?hesed refers not only to a kind or benevolent
response but also to a dutiful response which, whilst not legally binding is represented as a social and moral obligation. Whether in the context of family or social relationships, the ties of friendship, the bonds established by the giving and receiving of help, or the commitment of covenant partners, ?hesed corresponds to right
behaviour towards others within that relationship. This may be expressed as „goodness‟ or „kindness‟, but an equally significant
element is that it is what is proper and appropriate; ?hesed thus
includes, too, such ideas as duty, loyalty and faithfulness and this is further confirmed by the many occasions where ?hesed, both human
15and divine, is linked with ‟ĕmet (faithfulness). Clark notes that
16ra?hămîm and ?hesed are very closely linked, and this is
acknowledged, too, by Glueck who observes that „from ?hesed to
ra?hămîm is but a short step‟; however, as Glueck goes on to say, ?hesed „embodies the idea of obligation which is not at all the case
17with ra?hămîm‟. A close relationship has also been observed
18between ?hesed and ?tôb. Again, however, the element of
commitment between the parties concerned provides an important
19distinction. This embrace of ideas associated with faithfulness and commitment and
15Referring to human affairs and relationships: Ge. 24:49; 47:29; Jos. 2:14; 2 Sa. 2:6; 15:20; Pr. 3:3; 14:22; 20:28; Ho. 4:1; referring to divine qualities: Ge. 24:27; 32:10; Ex. 34:6; Pss. 25:10; 40:10-11; 57:3, 10; 61:7; 85:10; 86:15; 89:14; 108:4; 115:1; 117:2; 138:2; Pr. 16:6; Is. 16:5; Mi. 7:20. See also Pss. 98:3; 100:5, where
?hesed is linked with ‟emūnâ. For a more detailed analysis, see N.H.Snaith,
Distinctive Ideas, 100-101; G. Clark, The Word Hesed, 149-156, 235-55.
16Op. cit., 142-49.
17Hesed in the Bible, 62. Note also W. Eichrodt‟s description of ra?hămîm as „a
quite spontaneous expression of love, evoked by no kind of obligation‟ (Theology
of the OT [London: SCM, 1975] I, 237-38); and Clark‟s conclusion that
„commitment between participants is important with ?hesed but not with
ra8?m2m‟ (The Word Hesed, 263).
18E.g., by Stoebe, „Die Bedeutung‟, 248; see also Clark, The Word Hesed, 219-31.
19E.g., Clark, op. cit., 260-61.
ROUTLEDGE: ?Hesed as Obligation 185
also those associated with kindness, compassion and goodness is a
20significant feature of ?hesed.
Jepsen rightly notes that ?hesed designates not only
particular actions, but also the attitude that gives rise to them, and thus any full definition of ?hesed must take the motive for action into
21account. From the above discussion it is clear that specific acts of
?hesed are not, nor are they expected to be, motivated solely by a benevolent or generous disposition. ?Hesed is not simply kindness or
goodness. To restrict its meaning to such terms focuses too much on the inclination of the one from whom ?hesed is expected, and does not
adequately convey the obligations of relationship that form the basis for that expectation. ?Hesed is more than an emotional response to the
need of another. Behind the action lies, also, a sense of duty and faithful commitment to do what is right—which is re-inforced by the
pressure of social convention or even the possibility of divine retribution (Ge. 21:23; Jos. 2:12; 2 Ch. 24:22, etc). On the other hand, ?hesed may not be defined solely in terms of the dispassionate discharge of legal or moral obligations. The ?hesed -relationship
requires not only mutually beneficial action, but also a right orientation of attitude and will; a commitment not only to the relationship, but also to the one to whom ?hesed is to be shown.
?Hesed is frequently rendered „love‟ and where this properly takes on board the notion of commitment, often lacking from its modern-day understanding, then it goes some, but not all, of the way to expressing
22the full breadth of meaning of the term. ?Hesed expresses,
essentially, faithfulness and loyal conduct within the context of a relationship; it is an inward commitment and disposition of goodwill together with its outward expression in dutiful and compassionate action. The precise nature of that action depends upon the context, the
20Clark‟s analysis of terms which collocate with ?hesed points to closest
association with (respectively) ‟ĕmet, ?tôb, ra?hămîm, ’emūnâ, bĕrît, mîšpā?t and
?sĕdāqâ (op. cit., 108). There is a significantly smaller degree of collocation between ‟ĕmet and ?tôb, and very little between ‟ĕmet and ra?hămîm. Thus
despite similarities, no one of the words commonly associated with ?hesed can
replace it in its relationship with the others, and thus none provides an exact synonym.
21Kerygma und Dogma 7 (1961) 266. Stoebe, „Die Bedeutung‟, 247-8, suggests
that ?hesed refers to that benevolent attitude which is worked out in specific acts of kindness (ra?hămîm). Against this, see K.D. Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed,
22This aspect of ?hesed‟s meaning is sometimes included in a qualifying adjective,
e.g., „unfailing love‟, „covenant love‟, „leal love‟, etc.
186 TYNDALE BULLETIN 46.1 (1995)
relationship and also upon the relative positions and abilities of parties
23within that relationship.
I. God’s ?hesed
This more general understanding of ?hesed as proper conduct within
the context of a mutual bond has significant implications for the relationship between God and his covenant people.
Clark notes that in two-thirds of its total number of
24occurrences, ?hesed is shown by God to people; he thus describes it
as „a characteristic of God rather than human beings; it is rooted in the
23Cf. Clark‟s description of ?hesed as „an emotion that leads to an activity
beneficial to the recipient… a beneficent action performed, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between two persons or parties, by one who is
able to render assistance to the needy party who in the circumstances is unable to help him- or herself‟ (The Word Hesed, 267; my emphasis). Sakenfeld (The
Meaning of Hesed, 24, 44-45) identifies similar conditions, noting that for an action properly to be called ?hesed the one receiving the act of kindness must be
unable to do what is needed him- or herself, the action must be completely necessary, and the one in need of help must have no control over whether ?hesed
is given. However, not every instance of ?hesed sits easily with the conditions set
in that form (for example, it is difficult to say that the ?hesed shown or required in
Ge. 21:23; 2 Sa. 2:6; 10:2; 1 Ki. 2:7, etc., is completely necessary). It is going too
far to insist that these are implicit within the meaning of the term, since in those cases where they are present it is only to be expected that when one asks help of another it is because he or she is in need and cannot help him- or herself. 24The Word Hesed, 49, 53. Out of 282 occurrences, 187 have God as the agent.
ROUTLEDGE: ?Hesed as Obligation 187
25divine nature.‟ Further evidence of this is seen in the prominent place given to ?hesed in the formula expressed in Ex. 34:6 which represents, in varying forms, an orthodox summary of the attributes of God:
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow
26to anger and abounding in love ( ?hesed) and faithfulness.
27?Hesed is closely linked, too, with divine covenants. The
formulation „covenant of love ( ?hesed)‟ to refer to the Sinaitic
28covenant, and the ongoing commitment that God‟s people expect in the light of it, indicates that ?hesed was viewed as the content of
divine bĕrît. The close association between ?hesed and bĕrît is seen
further in several passages where the terms appear in parallel (e.g., Pss. 106:45; 89:28; Is. 54:10). This relationship is expressed in two complementary ways. In Psalm 106:45 bĕrît and ?hesed occur together
and in that order:
for their sake he [Yahweh] remembered his covenant (bĕrît) and out
of his great love ( ?hesed) he relented.
Here ?hesed may be interpreted as the faithful love of God expressed towards his people because of the covenant relationship between them. ?Hesed is the content of the divine bĕrît, and the covenant provides the
basis for God‟s continuing ?hesed. In Psalm 89:28 the words again
appear together, but the order is reversed:
I [Yahweh] will maintain my kindness ( ?hesed) to him forever and
my covenant (bĕrît) with him will never fail.
In this case, ?hesed is not, primarily, the content of bĕrît but rather the
basis on which the covenant relationship will be enabled to continue. ?Hesed precedes, and indeed gives rise to the bĕrît, which then
25Op. cit., 267.
26See also, e.g., Nu. 14:18; Ne. 9:17; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; cf. Ex. 20:6; Dt. 5:10.
27Cf. Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, 73-79; Clark, The Word Hesed, 128-132.
28E.g., Dt. 7:9, 12; 1 Ki. 8:23 (2 Ch. 6:14); Ne. 1:5; 9:32; Dn. 9:4.
188 TYNDALE BULLETIN 46.1 (1995)
provides additional assurance that God‟s promise will not fail (vv. 34-
In the light of the foregoing discussion, we may conclude that when God entered into a covenant with Israel he bound himself to show ?hesed to them. It was because of his covenant with Abraham that God demonstrated his ?hesed in delivering Israel from Egypt (Ex.
2:24) and, in the light of the special relationship established through the Sinaitic and Davidic covenants, God‟s people could expect God to go on showing ?hesed to them. It was upon this unfailing and enduring
30divine love that God‟s servants based their confidence and their
31appeal for deliverance in times of trouble. Sakenfeld notes that these
32appeals fall into two groups; these correspond broadly to the
association of ?hesed with ideas of righteousness and grace.
1. ?Hesed and Righteousness
Sometimes the appeal to be shown divine ?hesed is based upon the
uprightness of the one in need. In this case, ?hesed is used in the same
way as in a secular context: one in need calls for help on the basis of a
33relationship that is in good order. Understood in this way, there is a
significant overlap between ?hesed and the ?sdq (righteousness) word
group. Righteousness in the Old Testament is not simply to do with meeting legal criteria but rather, as with ?hesed, it is concerned with
29Zobel (TDOT V, 60-61) argues that this represents a pre-Deuteronomistic understanding of the relationship between ?hesed and bĕrît, particularly with
respect to the Davidic covenant, where God‟s ?hesed is stressed (e.g., 2 Sa. 7:15)
with the idea of bĕrît introduced primarily to reinforce the promise of ?hesed (e.g.,
Ps. 89:28, 49 cf. Ge. 21:23; 1 Sa. 20:8). He argues that the idea of ?hesed as the
content of bĕrît is a feature of Deuteronomistic theology and therefore comparatively late. However, for the introduction of a bĕrît to provide the
required reinforcement, it must already have been very closely associated with
30E.g., 1 Ch. 16:34; 2 Ch. 5:13; 20:21; Pss. 107:1; 118:1-4, 29; 136; Je. 33:11. 31E.g., Pss. 6:4; 44:26; 86:5-7; 89; 107; 119:88, 159; 143:12; Mi. 7:20. See W. Eichrodt Theology I, 233-35.
32The Meaning of Hesed, 148.
33E.g., Ne. 13:14, 22; Pss. 26:1-12; 36:10; 44:17-26.