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Mercy of God

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Mercy of God

    The concept of a loving and merciful god is ancient, found in hymns to Egyptian, Sumerian, and Babylonian deities. In the Ugaritic texts, the high god El is formulaically described as merciful and compassionate, with a cognate of the same word used two millennia later in Muslim characterization of God. Several Hebrew words have traditionally been translated by the English word “mercy,” including ḥānan, ḥesed, and especially rāḥamîm. The last is derived from the word for uterus (reḥem), and is remarkable both for its maternal nuance and for its persistence in biblical and nonbiblical descriptions of male deities. The nuance is made explicit in Isaiah 49.14–15, a rare instance of maternal metaphor to describe the God of Israel.

    One of the oldest characterizations of Yahweh is found in Exodus 34.6–7, quoted or alluded to frequently (e.g., Num. 14.18; Joel 2.13; Pss. 86.15; 103.8; 111.4; 145.8; Neh. 9.17; Jon. 4.2; Eph. 2.4; cf. Ps. 77.7–9). This ancient liturgical fragment describes Yahweh as “merciful (raḥûm) and gracious (ḥannûn), slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love … forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin … yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children,” and thus raises one of the most profound dilemmas of monotheism, the tension between divine mercy and justice. Biblical tradition itself offers a partial corrective to the theory of inherited, and thus implicitly collective, guilt, notably in Ezekiel 18. But the more profound paradox of a God believed to be merciful and forgiving on the one hand and ultimately just on the other remains unresolved. The Bible is of course not an abstract theological treatise, and so it is not surprising that there is no detailed exposition of the problem. But it is one to which biblical writers frequently return, in narratives (Jonah; Luke 15), dialogue (Job; cf. Ecclesiastes; Rom. 9), and especially in prayers (Ps. 130.3–4; Dan. 9.7–9; cf Hab. 3.2), where the hope of the worshipper is that God's mercy will prevail over his justice (see Hos. 11.8–9; James 2.13). This hope is based on the realization of the essential unworthiness of those chosen by God; the election of Israel, and the salvation of the Christian, were motivated by gratuitous divine love (Deut. 7.7–8; Ps. 103.6–18; Titus 3.5).

    God's mercy is also a model for human conduct. “Those who fear the Lord” are characterized as “gracious (ḥannûn), merciful (raḥûm), and righteous” in Psalm 112.4, phrasing that echoes the immediately preceding description of Yahweh in the similarly acrostic Psalm 111.4. Resuming this theme, Jesus commands his followers to imitate divine mercy according to Luke 6.36 (cf. Matt. 5.43–48). See also Covenant; Evil; Grace; Suffering.

    Michael D. Coogan

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