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יהוה רחם

(The Lord’s motherly, merciful, compassionate loving kindness)

By:  David Deschesne

Editor/Publisher, Fort Fairfield Journal

Fort Fairfield Journal - March 29, 2006 p. 9


The Lord is a loving, merciful and compassionate God. The Hebrew word רחם (raw-kham) is a word that is used to describe all of those attributes. In the Old Testament, the King James Bible translates רחם, and its various derivatives, as “mercy” thirty-five times1, “compassion” seventeen times2, “pity,” and its various tenses, six times3, and - interestingly enough - “womb” twenty-four times.4 Only once is רחם translated as “love.”5  


The predominate word for love as used in the Old Testament is אהב (aheb) which means to have affection/desire for something (either sexually or otherwise).6 אהב frequently describes love between human beings such as between a father and son, people may love things concrete or abstract, such as savory meat, vanity, cursing, or God’s commandments. The Lord “loves” men, especially his people Israel, but also “loves” other things, such as the gates of Zion, righteousness and judgment, and the holy temple.7 אהב can be used to describe one’s love of plants, dogs, horses or family. It is a generic, not necessarily intimate love unlike רחם which is used to indicate a closer, more intimate love - as between a man and his wife, or a mother and her baby. In Psalm 18:1, where the psalmist writes; “I will love thee O Lord my strength…” the more intimate רחם is used instead of the less intimate אהב to indicate his love toward the Lord. רחם has shades of the word “fondle” contained within it, that is to be close - to the point of intimacy. Isaiah uses רחם to describe a mother’s love toward her nursing baby (KJV translates “compassion”). “Apparently this verb connotes the feeling of mercy which men have for each other by virtue of the fact that they are human beings (Jer 50:42) and which is most easily prompted by small babies (Isa 13:18) or other helpless people.”8  


The primary word for “mercy” in the Old Testament is כסד (kheh’-sed) which means to be kind, kindness, or merciful.9 כסד is a generic form of the word mercy and is used many times in a legalistic sense when describing an act of mercy because “it’s the right thing to do.” In 1927, Nelson Glueck, shortly preceded by I. Elbogen, published a doctoral dissertation in German translated into English by A. Gottschalk, Hesed in the Bible, which is a watershed in the discussion. His views have been widely accepted. In brief, Glueck built on the growing idea that Israel was bound to its deity by covenants like the Hittite and other treaties. He held that God is pictured as dealing basically in this way with Israel. The Ten Commandments, etc. were stipulations of the covenant, Israel’s victories were rewards of covenant keeping, her apostasy was covenant violation and God’s כסד was not basically mercy, but loyalty to his covenant obligations, a loyalty which the Israelites should also show. On the meaning of the word כסד it is convenient to start as Glueck and Sakenfeld have done, with the secular usage, i.e. between man and man. Glueck argues that כסד is practiced in an ethically binding relationship of relatives, hosts, allies, friends and rulers Sakenfeld goes over the same material and concludes that indeed a relationship is present, but that the כסד is freely given.10 רחם encompasses the meaning of mercy, but links to the word “womb” to refer to the seat of one’s emotions. רחם is a type of mercy that is extended not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because of a deep-seated love and compassion for the person or thing it is being extended toward. רחם recalls in various situations that God’s tender mercy is rooted in His free love and grace.11  


With its connection to “womb,” the adjective רחם describes the depth of feeling a mother’s love can reach for her child. The Psalmist uses רחום - a derivative ofרחם  - in describing the Lord’s “motherly-love” compassion.2 “רחם ‘Compassionate,’ sympathetic to suffering. It may be noted that this quality is linguistically a “female principle,” the word being of the same root as רחם, the mother’s womb.12  


רחם  refers to womb, specifically as a woman’s uterus. Its symbolism encompasses an intimate, feminine, motherly love - types which are absent from the more commonly used, utilitarian word for womb, בּטן (beh-ten) which means generically “the womb” as a hollow place or belly of anything. רחם  illustrates and is typified in the enclosed, comforting, protective nature of a mother’s womb in relation to her unborn child. “(In Psalm 110:3, womb) is a beautiful emblem of the attractive emergence of the sun from the dark gray mists of the east. It may also refer to the bright coming of our Lord Jesus when He returns to dispel the darkness of this earth.”13  


“The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.” (Psalm 145:8 KJV) Now when you read of the Lord’s compassion - indeed, the Lord’s רחם you should be able to overlay all of the images of motherly love, mercy, and the warmth, protective, nurturing nature of a mother’s womb which is contained within the meaning of the original Hebrew word; a collection of meanings that couldn’t make it through to the less descriptive English language.  


1. Gen 43:14; Ex 33:19; Due 13:17; Ne 1:11; Ps 102:13; Pr 28:13; Is 9:17, 14:1, 27:11, 30:18, 47:6, 49:10, 49:13, 54:8, 54:10, 55:7, 60:10; Jer 6:23, 13:14, 21:7, 30:18, 31:20, 33:26, 42:12, 50:42; Ez 39:25; Ho 1:6, 1:7, 2:4, 2:23, 2:23, 14:3; Hab 3:2; Zec 1:12, 10:6

2. Due 13:17, 30:30; 1Ki 8:50, 8:50; 2Ki 13:23, 30:9; Ps (רחום) 78:38, 86:15, 111:4, 112:4, 145:8; Is 49:15, 12:15; La 3:32; Mic 7:19; La 3:22; Zec 7:9 3. “pity” Is 13:18; Am 1:11; “pitied” Ps 106:46; “pitieth” Ps 103:13, 103:13; “pitiful” La 4:10 4. Gen 29:31, 30:22, 49:25; Ex 13:2; Nu 8:6, 12:12; 1Sa 1:5, 1:6; Job 3:11, 10:18, 24:20, 31:15, 38:8; Ps 22:10, 58:3, 110:3; Pr 30:16; Is 46:3; Jer 1:5, 20:17, 20:17, 20:18, Ex 20:26; Ho 9:14

5. Ps 18:1

6. Strong’s #157 7. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, ©1980 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, p. 29

8. ibid, Vol. 2, p. 841

9. Strong’s #2617 10. Theological Wordbook, Vol. 1, p. 698

11. ibid, Vol. 2, p. 843

12. The Torah: A Modern Comentary, ©1981 Union of American Hebrew Congregations, W. Gunther Plaut, ed., p. 663

13. A Dictionary of Bible Types, Walter L. Wilson, ©1999 Hendrickson Publishers, p. 467