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