The Wellington Abrahamic Council of Jews, Christians and Muslims, hosted a public discussion earlier this year at St Joseph’s Church, Mt Victoria, in celebration of the Year of Mercy. JoEllen Duckor (Jewish), Sr Elizabeth Julian (Christian), and Sultan Eusoff (Muslim), discussed ‘Mercy in our Sacred Scriptures’. Sr Elizabeth Julian’s presentation is reproduced in WelCom as a three-part series: a key understanding of mercy from the First Testament; the biblical underpinnings of the works of mercy; a New Testament perspective on mercy. The first part is presented below.
God’s mercy is never exhausted. There’s always another chance. As Pope Francis said, announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy, ‘No one can be excluded from the mercy of God.’ And in his document of proclamation, Misericordiae Vultus, he begins by saying Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. So mercy is basically a description of God’s nature, God’s central attribute. God cannot be other than merciful. Everything in Jesus’ life speaks of this mercy. All his actions and words witness to, reflect what mercy is. Jesus says to us, ‘Be merciful as God is merciful.’ So we have to imitate God’s mercy.
Pope Francis says the mercy of God is the beating heart of the Gospel (MV12). I would suggest it’s the beating heart of the entire Bible. Our hearts too must echo that beating, that pulsing of mercy. We have to develop a rhythm of mercy – a continuous habit that is as natural and as regular as our own heartbeat.
Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin in 1831, lived such a rhythm of mercy. She said: ‘Mercy, the principal path marked out by Jesus Christ for those who desire to follow Him, has in all ages of the Church excited the faithful in a particular manner to instruct and comfort the sick and dying poor, as in them they regarded the person of our Divine Master, who has said, ‘Amen, I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to Me.’
In the Pope’s Lenten Message, ‘The Works of Mercy on the Road of the Jubilee’, Francis urged us to practise the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. They not just pious feelings, but concrete actions and will keep our heart beating with mercy. So mercy is a verb, an action, mercy is something we do.
Mercy: The Beating Heart of the Bible
Mercy in the First Testament
When we turn to the First Testament, God’s mercy, not God’s wrath, is writ large throughout. Basically, there are four Hebrew words that, in English, translate as mercy (with various nuances): rahamîm, hesed, hanan, and hus.
The root word rhm (to show mercy) refers to the tender love of parents towards children and of God toward humans. Generally the noun rahamîm (mercy, compassion, love) denotes a quality of God. It is the completely gratuitous, unconditional, merciful love that we cannot explain rationally. The word rehem (womb), comes from rhm. Thus, the adjective rahûm (compassionate, merciful) describes womb love, the kind of attachment a woman has for a child. It is only ever used of God. So the prophet Isaiah says:
‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you’ (Isa 49:15).
Throughout the First Testament we see the God who creates, saves and judges but underlying all God’s activity is a God who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6). The first two adjectives – merciful and gracious – never describe people but they describe God in a great variety of settings. For example, the entire formula is found in individual petitions for deliverance and as motivation for national and divine repentance:
‘Rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.’ (Joel 2:13)
Scripture scholars constantly remind us all biblical language about God is metaphorical. The description of God as ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast love and faithfulness’ is considered to be a controlling metaphor since this fundamental character informs all of God’s actions throughout the First Testament. We first find this moving proclamation in the Book of Exodus (34:6-8):
The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed,
‘The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
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,
to the third and the fourth generation.’
And Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth, and worshipped.
This key text is located in a section (Exod 32-34) that describes how the Israelites under Aaron sinned against God by making a golden calf, how God punished their infidelity by sending a plague, how God forgave them, and how Moses acted as mediator in the restoration of the covenant. The theophany or experience of God, which the passage describes, is not so much a description of physical attributes as one of divine characteristics – merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. And because God is merciful, God spreads out the punishment over three or four generations. Even though Moses doesn’t ask for God’s name as he did earlier when he had the burning bush experience (Exod 3:13-15), God gives it anyway! God’s name ‘Lord,’ is a revelation of God’s essential being; God’s essence and is clearly identified with God’s mercy and graciousness. This identification suggests mercy is constitutive of the very nature of God. This passage (Exod 34:6-8) supplies the language Israel will use to speak to God and to speak about God. The rich array of terms – merciful, gracious slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and forgiving, becomes Israel’s most characteristic or typical speech about God. This language will be used repeatedly to describe God both in hymns of praise about God, for example Ps 111:4-9 and in prayers of complaint to God, for example Ps 86:14-15.
The text appears in different versions in different contexts with different functions throughout the First Testament. It is speech to which Israel turns repeatedly in moments of crisis.
As well as the golden calf episode, two other crises evoke God’s mercy and everlasting love: the collapse of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE characterised in terms of a marriage and divorce metaphor (Hos 2:2-23); and the Babylonian Exile in 587 BCE characterised again by divorce imagery (Isa 54). The divine oracle in response to each crisis (Hos 2:19-20; Isa 54:7-10), the speech that resolves each crisis uses the same language as the first oracle: rhm (mercy) and hesed (everlasting love).
The moving proclamation becomes a creedal recital throughout the First Testament, for example, Ps 103:8; 145:8; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Joel 2:13. And Jonah, the reluctant prophet, must have really had the phrase drummed into him. He tries to flee from God precisely because, as he says, ‘I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’ (Jonah 4:2)! Jonah was devastated to learn that the dreaded Ninevites had experienced this merciful God. To Jonah’s way of thinking, surely such a God belonged only to Israel!
Thus Exodus 34:6-8 is a key text in helping to articulate the very character of God throughout the First Testament. It is deeply entrenched in Israel’s memory and used time and time again in different circumstances. This merciful God is the God who over and over again gives people another chance. Although the word ‘merciful’ is not found in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, God’s mercy is writ large there too: God makes clothes for the first couple to protect them after their expulsion from the garden; God marks Cain the murderer for his own protection; God makes a new beginning with Noah after the flood. But again the people forget who they are and alienate themselves from one another and from God. Yet the God of mercy never abandons them, instead gives them another new beginning by calling Abraham and Sarah. This merciful God, the God who over and over again gives people another chance is captured beautifully in Deuteronomy:
Because the LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them. (4:31)
And in the Book of Wisdom:
But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things,
and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. (11:23)
The prophet Hosea provides a moving portrait of a distraught, almost heart-broken but fiercely determined God:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
The First Testament for Christians ends with Malachi’s promise that God would send the prophet Elijah (4:5). Thus God’s mercy has not ended.
Dr Elizabeth Julian RSM is Distance Education Co-ordinator with The Catholic Institute Aotearoa New Zealand.
Part 2 of Dr Julian’s presentation will be published in October WelCom.