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August 1, 2010

by: Charleeda Sprinkle, Assistant Editor

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“Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa. 49:15). In this sense, Yeshua (Jesus) also revealed God’s compassionate heart when He lamented over Jerusalem and said, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Luke 13:34).

Two synonyms for compassion are “mercy” and “grace.” Each, however, has a little different emphasis. Mercy (chesed) contains the element of steadfastness, and grace (chen) focuses more on undeserved favor. Rachamimis so close in meaning to mercy that it is often translated as “mercy” instead of “compassion.” Rachum (H7349), or “compassionate,” is also often translated “merciful.” So, when compassion, grace, and mercy are used in English translations, it’s good to do a word study to see which Hebrew word is being used in order to get the fullest meaning of what’s being communicated.

However, of the three words, rachamim is the most emotional, as when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers: “Joseph hurried out for he was deeply stirred [rachamim]over his brother, and he sought a place to weep; and he entered his chamber and wept there” (Gen. 43:30, NASB). In its verb form, racham (H7355), “to have compassion,” can be viewed as stronger in emotion than some types of love. For instance, whereas agapelove (in Greek, which has no Hebrew equivalent) describes a love that acts regardless of feelings, rachamis very much tied to feeling.

God’s Nature

When Moses asked to see God’s glory and God passed before him, God called out His name. Jewish people call this the Thirteen Attributes of God. “And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, merciful [rachum]and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth’”(Exod. 34:6). Verse seven continues with the enumeration of God’s attributes. Out of 12 translations I checked, only two translate rachumas “compassionate” instead of “merciful.” In Judaism, compassion is the fourth attribute, as they list “the LORD,” “the LORD,” and “God,” as the first three attributes. Christians, on the other hand, would most likely say compassion was the first attribute listed.

But why does God say “the LORD” twice? YHVH,the unpronounceable name of God, is used here. (Jewish sources say it cannot be pronounced; Christian sources translate it as Yahweh or Jehovah.) Whereas Elohim, another name for God,depicts God’s might and justice, often as creator, YHVH  is used when He wants His compassion emphasized. The Jewish Encyclopedia online explains that YHVHis used twice in verse six to allay Moses’ fears, as this was spoken to Moses after the golden calf incident. Notes in the Stone Edition of The Chumash(Gen.-Deut. in Hebrew and English) comments that the two mentions refer to two different kinds of mercy: both before and after a person sins.

Jewish aid workers in Haiti
Photo by Isranet

In the New Testament, Yeshua was also “moved with compassion.” The Greek equivalent to rachamimis splagchnistheis. William Barclay’s commentary on Matthew points out that “apart from its use in some of the parables, it is used only of Jesus.” He goes on to list what kind of things moved Yeshua with compassion: (1) the world’s pain—for the sick, the blind, and the demon possessed (2) the world’s sorrow—for the widow whose son died (Luke 7:13) (3) the world’s hunger—for the multitudes He fed (4) the world’s loneliness—for the lepers banished from society and (5) the world’s bewilderment—for those who wanted desperately to know God but were like “sheep who have no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

Is It Our Nature?

If God is compassionate, then we should be also. The opposite of compassion is cruelty, and we see this borne out in thousands of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies of the Nazi cruelty they endured. In Judaism, compassion is central to their way of life. Rabbi Dovid Sears has written, “Moreover, compassion must not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, one of a number of religious duties in the Judaic conception of the Divine service. It is central to our entire approach to life.”

This is why Israel drops notices by air into Palestinian cities to warn families ahead of time of air attacks against terrorists by their Air Force. This is why army doctors treat the Palestinian wounded along with Israeli soldiers during an incursion into Gaza. This is why Palestinians use their children as shields, knowing Israeli soldiers won’t shoot them. This is why Israel spends millions on helping people around the world after natural disasters.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 19th century, admonishes, “Do not suppress this compassion, this sympathy especially with the sufferings of your fellowman…See in it the admonition of God that you are to have no joy so long as a brother suffers by your side” (Horeb, chap. 17, section 126).

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