Hesed: Loyalty or Lovingkindness?

John R. Neal
Amridge University
Turner School of Theology
Biblical Etymology & Exegesis (FD 9353)
Dr. Rodney Cloud


Hesed: Loyalty or Lovingkindness?

Introduction and Overview
Of Views on Hesed

Nelson Glueck’s study of the word hesed, which first appeared when his doctoral
dissertation was published in the summer of 1927 (in German I might add), became a “landmark
in the study of the history of ideas of the Bible.”
His work was published again in 1961 and
later republished in English (by Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati) in 1967. Dr. Glueck argued
that hesed carried the idea of covenant love or loyalty.
The chapter by Gerald A. Laure gives a history of different scholars and their writings on
the subject of hesed since the year Glueck’s work first appeared. He summarizes the works of
some 21 different Old Testament scholars from various backgrounds for the next forty years
(beginning with Lofthouse in 1933 and concluding with E.M. Good and his article on Love in the
Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible series from 1962). While most agreed with Glueck’s
conclusions, some disagreed with his loyalty concept.
An even more recent work is an online publication by John Meade who examines the
contrasting views between Francis Anderson and that of Glueck.
He covers more recent

Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, Trans. By Alfred Gottschalk, Introduction by Gerald A. Laure, Edited
by Elias L. Epstein. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), ix.

John Meade, O.T. Hesed in the N.T. Online Publication, Summer 2006. Accessed June 2012.

treatments of hesed (since the 1960’s) by men such as Francis I. Anderson in his article,
“Yahweh, The Kind and Sensitive God,” in God Who is Rich In Mercy, Ed. By Peter T. O’Brien
and David Peterson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986). Anderson held the belief that hesed depicts
that “spontaneous love which expects nothing in return.” God’s hesed is “prompted” by “love”
and not out of a sense of “obligation” or covenant.
In contrast, Glueck believed that hesed is
love tied into a covenant. Meade comes to an unusual conclusion in his article in that the truth of
the meaning of hesed is found in the middle between these two positions. He sees the issue not
as an either/or, but a both/and (as one of my beloved Greek teachers often said).

The Hesed Word Group
The term ococç, a noun masculine singular, occurs some two hundred and forty-four
times in the Hebrew Bible.
Brown-Driver-Briggs divides the meaning of this noun up into two
main categories: Man’s hesed and God’s hesed. Under the heading of man’s hesed one finds:
“kindness towards men” by showing favor to others; kindness extended to the “lowly, needy, and
miserable, mercy; affection; lovely appearance.
Under the heading of God’s hesed, they give
the meaning as “kindness” or “lovingkindness” of God by “condescending to the needs of his
creatures.” Lovingkindness is seen in the form of redeeming one from his “enemies and
troubles.” Hesed is as a divine attribute of “kindness and fidelity.” God’s hesed is “abundant.”

Ibid, 2.

Ibid, 3-4.

John R. Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson, The Hebrew-English Concordance To The Old
Testament With The New International Version. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 559-61.

F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon With an
appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 338.

The term refers to the “mercies, deeds of kindness” shown towards Israel, or the kindness shown
to and promised as a covenant to David.

The more recent lexical work by Holladay (which is based upon Koehler and
Baumgartner’s lexicon which first cites Glueck as an authority on hesed, Brown-Driver-Briggs
did not have Glueck’s work available to them) gives the definition or meaning as: “obligation to
the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants … loyalty …
faithfulness.” The hesed found in “relation to God to people or individuals, faithfulness,
kindness, grace.” The plural form carries the meaning of “individual acts flowing” from the act
of “solidarity … (of men) godly deeds … (of God) evidences of grace.”
One can see that
Holladay’s lexical meaning is more in tune with Glueck’s suggestion of hesed meaning loyalty.
The verb ooo|ç is found only twice in the Hebrew Old Testament and each times as a
Hithpael Imperfect. This verb form is found once in 2 Samuel 22:26 (the psalm of David he
writes after the LORD delivers him from Saul) and in the parallel psalm in Psalm 18:25/26.
There is no known connection or link with the cognate languages of either Akkadian or Ugaritic.
Some find a connection with an Arabic term (in connection with Proverbs 25:10) meaning
“envy.” The Piel here in Proverbs means “to put to shame” or to show “contempt.”

Ibid, 339.

William L. Holloday, A Concise Hebrew And Aramaic Lexicon Of The Old Testament, Based upon the
Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, 1983), 111).

H.W.F. Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, Trans. By Samuel
Pridea (Brenton 1987) (Myers 2010) (Mariottini 2010) (Witherington 2003)ux Tregelles. (Grand Rapids: Baker,
1979, 1988), 293.


The adjectival form, o¢io|ç, occurs some thirty-two times in the Old Testament with the
idea of the faithful or pious ones.
B.D.B. points out that this term is in use during the time of
the Maccabean period to refer to that political group (or religious group) of Jews who are “pious”
and “zealously” opposing the “Hellenization of Judea.”
Since none of the cognate languages
give us any hint as to the meaning of the word group hesed, exegetes are dependent upon the
context to determine the meaning (as in the case of my investigation into the term para/klhtoj in
reference to the Holy Spirit in John 14-16).

Glueck’s Contribution to Hesed
Glueck’s study of hesed begins in the first chapter by showing the meaning in a secular
context. He shows that in five different categories, hesed carries the idea of a covenant or
relationship between two people (or groups of people). Hesed can only exist between people in
close relationships and between people who “share an ethically binding relationship.”
begins by showing those who “practice” hesed with one another.

This close bond is seen in the tie that exists between ones relatives and tribes. Jacob asks
Joseph to show him loyalty and truth before his death (Gen. 47:29), while Abraham asks Sarah to
show loyalty unto him (Gen. 20:13), and even Boaz gives praise to Ruth for showing this same
hesed to the family of her deceased husband (Naomi in particular, Ruth 3:10). When Abraham
sends his servant to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac, the servant asks Nahor’s family to

Ibid, 561-62.

B.D.B., 339.

Glueck, 37.

Ibid, 35.

show this same loyalty and truth to his “master” (Gen. 24:49). King Saul remembers the hesed
that the Kenites showed unto the Israelites as they were coming up out of Egypt (1 Sam. 15:6).
There is loyalty between a host and his guest (as with Lot, Gen. 19:19), loyalty between an ally
and his relatives (in the case of David and Jonathan, 1 Sam. 20:14, 15), between friends (2 Sam.
10:2; 16:17), hesed between a ruler and his subjects (Abner’s loyalty to Saul and his son Eshbaal,
2 Sam. 3:8), and even loyalty in the sense of “merited obligation” (the spies in Judg. 1:24 who
promise to show hesed to the man they find if he would show them a way into the city).

There is the sense of hesed or loyalty which exists as a “mutual relationship of rights and
duties” which exists between family members or among those who share a “similar tribal
ancestry.” There is the kinship relationship of a father and a son where the idea of faithful loves
exists (Jacob asking Joseph to bury him in Canaan) as an example of hesed. There is the
husband and wife relationship where hesed exists. This may help explain why Abraham asks
Sarah to tell everyone she is his brother (for fear of being killed) because she must show hesed or
loyalty, faithful love to him.
There is loyalty to be found in the Ruth narrative (Ruth 3:10
where she shows hesed to her dead husband by willingly marrying her kinsman redeemer,
There is the evidence of loyalty that is shown by the conduct between friendly tribes
(i.e., the Kenites and Israelites, 1 Sam. 15:6).
Glueck closes out this chapter by showing, in
further detail, how this loyalty exists between a host and his guest (Gen. 19:19), a “Ger” and the

Ibid., 35-37.

Ibid., 38-39.

Ibid., 40-42.

Ibid., 42.

one he is protecting (Gen. 21:23), between allies, friends, a ruler and his subjects, and loyalty as
“mutual aid.”

In the second chapter, Glueck expands his discussion upon the use of hesed in the
prophets as relating to the “reciprocal conduct” between mankind (man to man) and between
man and God. He points out that the real message behind books like Hosea is not merely a
physical, husband-wife relationship, but the type of dedicated, loyal love out of a heart of
faithfulness that dedicates one to his or her spouse just as God shows towards us. Our loyalty
towards God is wrapped around the love and knowledge (a knowledge of God’s truth) we
possess towards God.
Even the usual interpretation of Jeremiah 2:2-3 about God’s reflecting
upon the fond memory he has for his hesed towards Judah is more than just love, but more of a
deeper love (the idea of wholly dedicated, even piety).

In chapter three, the author shows how God’s hesed is bound up with the notion of
covenant. This reciprocal relationship can be found in God’s faithfulness and loyalty with
Abraham (Gen. 24:27, 29) and to the rest of the patriarchs (Deut. 7:12). One cannot deny that
the hesed God promises to David and his household is founded upon a covenantal relationship (2
Sam. 7; 2 Chron. 17:13-14). This loyalty towards the Israelites is dependent upon God’s people
remaining faithful unto him. This is why the Old Testament writers depict Israel’s relationship

Ibid., 42-55.

Ibid, 56-59.

Ibid., 57-58.


with God as being like that between a husband and a wife. There is the expectation of a faithful
love. This type of hesed also demands that we fear God and obey his commands.

Where Does “Mercy” Come In?
If we agree with Glueck’s conclusions that hesed is best rendered as loyalty or faithful
love in the Old Testament, where does the idea of mercy or lovingkindness come from? To
understand why some English versions translated this term as mercy, one must go back to the
LXX and see how they often translate this word. In looking at all of the occurrences of the noun
hesed in a Hebrew concordance, I compared this with how the Greek translators rendered this in
the LXX. In looking at just their rendering just through the book of Ruth (due to time
constraints), I found that mercy (e)/leoj and the derivatives) stands for this term some thirty-four
times (rendered mercy in all of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth), while righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) is
used only four times.

Numerous other scholars now accept Glueck’s work and show how the mercy idea is
probably brought over into our misunderstanding of the concept of love and mercy even in the
New Testament.
The concept of mercy even comes into the various modern versions through

Ibid., 70-102.
Kohlenberger and Swanson, Hebrew-English Concordance, 559-560. Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, The
Septuagint With Apocrypha: Greek and English (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987). While this is not a
technical LXX, comparison was made with the modern LXX text at www.academic-bible.com (the German Bible
Society). Accessed July 2012.

Jim Myers, “Hesed: Mercy or Loyalty,” in http:/biblicalheritage.org/Bible%20studies/hesed.htm.
Accessed July 2012. Claude Mariottini, “Forsaking Their Hesed,” Tuesday, March 16, 2010.
http:/doctor.claudemariottini.com.2010/03/forsaking-their-hesed.html. Professor Mariottini deals with Jonah’s
used of hesed in his prayer. Ben Witherington III, “From Hesed to Agape, What’s love got do with it?” Bible Review
19:06 (December 2003).

the early Latin Vulgate translation which renders hesed as clementia (or “clemency”),
benevolentia (our word “benevolence”), and misericordia (“mercy” or “grace”). This concept
not only impacted the early English versions, but also the German translation of the early
This history of the Bible gives the best explanation of how mercy became attached
to hesed (and I believe the above authors are correct).

This brief overview of the usage of hesed concludes that the idea behind this term is that
of loyalty and not lovingkindness. The word does express in certain passages the concept of
God’s love (as in Hosea), but even there the meaning is that of faithful love. There must be a
relationship or a covenant for hesed to exist in the Old Testament. The covenant is not one-
sided. For God to keep his loyalty to his followers, they must abide by the requirements of the
This paper only highlights Glueck’s main arguments supporting the notion of hesed
meaning loyalty. Many books have been written on this subject and will continue to be written.
Further study could be devoted just to the theological implications in both the Old and New
Testament. Is Paul’s concept of “mercy” comparable to the Old Testament idea of covenant
loyalty or to lovingkindness? Hopefully this will give the reader an opportunity to do further
study to help formulate their own personal Old Testament theology of covenant loyalty.


Brenton, Sir Lancelot C.L. The Septuagint With Apocrypha: Greek and English. Peabody, MA:
Hendrickson, 1987.
Brown, F., S. Driver, and C. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and Englsih Lexicon WIth an
appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.
Gesenius, H.W.F. Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee LExicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Translated by
Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, 1988.
Glueck, Nelson. Hesed in the Bible. Edited by Elias L. Epstein. Translated by Alfred Gottschalk. Eugene,
OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011.
Holladay, Willaim L. A Concise Hebrew And Aramaic Lexicon Of The Old Testament, Based upon the
Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, 1983.
Kohlenberger, John R. and James A. Swanson. The Hebrew-Englsih Concordance To The Old Testament
With The New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Mariottini, Claude. "claudemariottini.com." March Tuesday 16, 2010.
http:/doctor.claudemariottini.com/2010/03/forsaking-their-hesed.html (accessed July 3, 2012).
Meade, John. O.T. Hesed in the N.T. Summer 2006.
Myers, Jim. ""Hesed: Mercy or Loyalty"." March 16, 2010.
http:/biblicalheritage.org/Bible%20studies/hesed.htm. (accessed July 3, 2012).
Witherington, III, Ben. ""From Hesed to Agape, What's love got to do with it?"." Bible Review, December

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