Essential Hesed

January 6th, 2022 / No Comments

In my forthcoming book, Pluriform Love, I propose a new theological category: Essential Hesed.

In this essay, I offer an excerpt from the book. Much precedes this and much comes after. But I offer this as a taste of what Essential Hesed says…

God’s Steadfast Love

Is God’s covenantal, loyal, and steadfast love for creation something God can freely break? Or should we take literally the claim God’s steadfast love endures forever? Should we say hesed is essential in the divine nature, which means God cannot break covenant? Or is it arbitrary?

The Bible doesn’t answer these questions straightforwardly. In some passages, God threatens to withdraw hesed. In others, God cannot withdraw hesed and must keep covenant.

The merciful and gracious God “keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation,” but “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).

The God whom Jeremiah says threatens to remove “steadfast love and mercy” (16:7) is the same whose hesed the Psalmist says, “endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 100:5).

Joshua says God “will not forgive your transgression or your sins” (Josh. 24:19). But Nehemiah says God is “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them” (Neh. 9:17). 

Does God Have Split-Personality Disorder?

What do we make of this?

Is God fickle? Is God conflicted? Must we hope God’s in a good mood when we go astray?

Does God have split-personality disorder?

To put it philosophically, is God’s hesed contingent or necessary?[1]

Strategies for Overcoming Biblical Tensions

In this book’s first chapter, I identified strategies biblical scholars use to address divine violence. These strategies can apply to passages that say or imply God might be unfaithful or stop loving.

One strategy appeals to the overall biblical witness. This witness, in general, points to a God of steadfast love. This approach discounts the minority witness and affirms God’s faithful love for all creatures and creation.

A related strategy distinguishes between who God is and what some texts say God is. Terence Fretheim recommends this when dealing with biblical passages that portray God as violent or unfaithful. “The God portrayed in the text does not fully correspond to the God who transcends the text, who is a living, dynamic reality that cannot be captured in words on a page.”[2] Fretheim claims God is a loving and living reality based on the broad textual witness.[3]

Some Christians appeal to the revelation of faithful love in Jesus as the most accurate account of God’s steadfast love. In this strategy, Jesus’s faithful love trumps biblical passages that portray God as unfaithful or as threatening to withdraw love. Just as Jesus loved everyone he met, says this argument, God loves all creation.

Another strategy says we find theological development in scripture itself. It admits writers sometimes misunderstand or misrepresent God. They sometimes project upon God their cultural constructs or personal neuroses. Over time, this argument says, the idea that God loves faithfully arose to prominence, nullifying claims to the contrary. Writers move from seeing God as occasionally unpredictable and vengeful to believing God is faithfully loving. Humans learn, and this learning leads them to believe divine love is steadfast.

Hosea and Gomer

Take the story of Hosea and Gomer as an example of this strategy. The point of this book is that Hosea’s love for Gomer is analogous to God’s love for Israel. Just as Gomer was unfaithful and broke Hosea’s heart, Israel has been unfaithful to the Lord. And, metaphorically, God’s heart breaks.

In response to unfaithfulness, God threatens punishments and humiliation. But God cannot follow through. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” the Lord asks rhetorically. “How can I hand you over, O Israel?” (Hos. 11:8) God won’t give up because “my heart recoils within me,” and “my compassion grows warm and tender.I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.” The following lines make the key claim in the passage: “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hos 11:9).

The phrase, “I am God and no mortal,” suggests Creator differs from creatures in a crucial way. Unlike creatures, hesed is an essential attribute of God’s nature. God must remain loyal in love and cannot abandon creation. “The expression ‘abounding in loyalty,’ is used in the Old Testament only of God, never of human beings,” says Katherine Doob Sakenfeld.[4] Creatures can fail to love. Hesed is necessary for the essentially loving God.[5]

In fact, Hosea says God takes creatures as an everlasting bride. “I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (2:19-20).

God Can’t Stop Loving

Mortals can stop loving; the God of essential hesed cannot.

“What began as hesed, granted as a matter of course,” says Walther Eichrodt, “has become, as a result of the thoroughgoing questioning of the old conception, a completely new concept of faithfulness and love.” Hesed tells us something fundamental about who God is. It signifies “the most profound meaning of the relationship between Creator and creature.”[6]

In this passage and others, says Edmond Jacob, hesed “is no longer the bond upholding the covenant, it is the very source of the attitude which impels God to enter into relation with his people.”[7]

Hesed, says Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “is that attribute of God, that attitude and action of God.”[8]

Hesed is essential to who God is and how God acts.

Essential Hesed

If we embrace the idea God’s nature is essential hesed, we interpret biblical passages differently. For instance, the Lord says, “I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips” (Ps. 89:33-34).

Essential hesed interprets “will not” remove steadfast love or be false to faithfulness and “will not” violate the covenant or alter the word to mean God “cannot” do so. If God everlastingly loves creation, God will not, because God cannot.

God’s hesed is olam and essential to who God is.

I am not claiming every Old Testament passage confirms God’s love as everlastingly hesed. Scripture is inconsistent. In advocating essential hesed, I’m making a theological decision to privilege “the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever” as telling the truth about who God essentially is and how God always acts. And I’m saying Old Testament statements to the contrary give an inaccurate account of God.

Why Essential Hesed Matters

Privileging hesed and considering it essential to God is in many ways fruitful. Saying God necessarily and everlastingly expresses hesed for creatures and creation assures creatures of their Creator’s steadfast love.

Take the issue of God abandoning, for instance. Essential hesed fits the words of Moses that “it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6,8). It fits the apostle Paul’s claim that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Essential hesed says we can’t be separated from God’s love. The God of steadfast love will never leave us nor forsake us, because God cannot do so. Our disobedience cannot break relationship with God, by anyone or anything, not even by God. God cannot abandon.

Some people worry God does not love them. Theologies that champion God’s sovereign freedom from creation instead of God’s steadfast love for it justify that worry. Theologies that don’t embrace essential hesed or something like it say God chooses whether to love the world. God may or may not love others. It depends.

The God of essential hesed must love everyone and everything, and God has always been doing so.

It’s difficult to overemphasize the value of knowing God always and necessarily loves us. Such knowledge proves crucial when we experience self-doubt or self-loathing. It makes all the difference in making sense of suffering too. Because of God’s essential hesed, we are assured God always loves us, even when we do not feel lovable.

Essential hesed supports the empathetic dimension of my solution to the problem of evil. As one engaged in give-and-receive reciprocity, the covenantal God of steadfast love suffers with those who suffer. As essentially related to creation, God will not and cannot ignore creatures. Everlasting hesed assures us God loves the harmed and hurting in a relationship of suffering love.

God unconditionally loves and accepts us and all creation.

Worshiping A Forgiving God

The confidence that comes from essential hesed sustains wholehearted trust in and worship of God. If we are unsure God loves us, we cannot trust God wholeheartedly. A God who loves half-heartedly might betray us.

This lack of confidence can prevent us from worshipping God unreservedly and enthusiastically. Essential hesed, by contrast, offers a conceptual basis for affirming God’s covenantal love as rock-solid. We can worship without reservation the God whose steadfast love endures forever.

God’s forgiveness included in essential hesed is also good news. The steadfast love of God always forgives those who break the promises of covenant. And because we both harm and are harmed, we both hurt others and are hurt, it’s good news that God’s essential hesed always pardons perpetrators and empathizes with victims. God will not and cannot stop loving us.[9]

The steadfast love of the Lord applies to all and endures forever.

[1] Some Christians appeal to the social Trinity as a metaphysical foundation for saying God always and essentially loves. Essential hesed does not require this claim, because it says God always and essentially loves creatures and creation. But Christians who embrace social Trinity should also embrace essential hesed. Doing so allows one to say God everlastingly expresses love among members of the Godhead and everlastingly loves creation. For an argument on the compatibility of the Trinity and the theology I propose, see Thomas Jay Oord, “Analogies of Love Between God and Creatures: A Response to Kevin Vanhoozer,” in Love, Divine and Human: Contemporary Essays in Systematic and Philosophical Theology (New York: T & T Clark, 2020).

[2] Terence Fretheim and Karlfried Froelich, The Bible as Word of God: In a Postmodern Age (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 116.

[3] On this, see Eric Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2009).

[4] Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Faithfulness in Action: Loyalty in Biblical Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 49.

[5] Karl Barth comes close to affirming essential hesed when he calls hesed “an inner mode of being in God Himself.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, eds. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), 353.

[6] Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 1, J. A. Baker, trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 239

[7] Edmond Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock (New York: Harper, 1958), 106. Jacob refers also to Hos. 2:21; Jer. 3:12; Is. 54:7ff.

[8] Sakenfeld, Faithfulness in Action, 56.

[9] What some call “lament theodicy” is prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. If this is understood to mean humans lament in response to evil, I accept it as crucial for acknowledging that genuine evils occur. Bad things happen God does not want and cannot prevent singlehandedly. But some understand lament as saying God could stop evil singlehandedly but chooses not to promptly or not at all. I reject this understanding of lament theodicy. It does not portray God as steadfastly loving. Tim Reddish addresses these issues in Does God Always Get What God Wants? (Eugene, Or.: Cascade, 2018).

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