The title for my sermon this last Sabbath was “A Severe Mercy” (you can listen to it here). Focusing on Hosea 1:3-2:1, I shared some reflections on how God, though full of mercy and love, had to say “no more” to Israel at one point (illustrating this to them, among other ways, in having Hosea name his daughter “Lo-Ruhamah,” or “no mercy”), only to still promise them a glorious future.
What I somehow overlooked last week, while preparing the sermon, was the profound etymological significance of the Hebrew word that Hosea uses to explain God’s withholding of mercy. While going through my daily reading of the Hebrew Bible this morning, I noticed an interesting word that pops up in Genesis 20:18 where it is said that God had “closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” The word for “womb” is rechem – the noun from which the word “mercy” or “compassion” (rachum) derives.
There is no disputing the etymological connection. Scholars are seemingly unanimous in their opinion that “compassion” and “mercy” are directly related to “womb” in the ancient Near Eastern way of thinking. In fact, all cognate languages also demonstrate this connection. Thus, mercy and compassion are inextricably linked to the emotional connection a mother has for a child in the ancient Near Eastern worldview (which, I do not believe it can be disputed, far exceeds the connection a father has to his children). As one person has noted, mercy and compassion “would have been directly related to the maternal instincts of a mother for the child from her womb, or the kind of feelings one has for that which is totally helpless.”
What I find so remarkable, however, is that the very first attribute that God ascribes to Himself when revealing to Moses His glory is this rachum: “And the Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful [rachum] and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth . . . ” (Exod 34:6). Though word order doesn’t necessarily equal primacy when it comes to God’s attributes, I still find it intriguing that the very first attribute God ascribes to Himself is a characteristic that is spawned in a woman’s womb.
This gives Hosea’s message all the greater profundity. God announces to Israel that they have become so depraved and rebellious that He is being forced to finally turn His back on the instinctive love of a mother – indeed, a very instinctive love and mercy and compassion that God Himself possesses.
All this reminds me of the late Carsten Johnsen’s daring thesis that God’s love is most closely resembled by the love of a mother. Writing in his book Agape and Eros, he explains the basis for this thought:
The commanding reality behind a woman’s greater alterocentricity [other-centeredness] is evident enough. Her biological assignment is to bear children, and to care for them in such a way that they may become fully developed human beings. Those maternal tasks, so naturally assigned to her, help her – or in a way, they constrain her – to be other-centered; that is, to find her main values outsider herself – in ‘the others.’ . . . God’s basic trend is that of turning outward – like the natural mother does, to use the best illustration we could ever find in an imperfect world. This simply means – on any plane of living personalism – the fact of seeking, and finding, the center of one’s life outside oneself, rather than in oneself; that is, looking to the objective world, the world around one, the world of the ‘objects,’ as the place where one comes across one’s dearest values. (pp. 16, 163).
Let us, therefore, appreciate the great motherly love and compassion that God possesses – and applaud its reenactment that naturally takes place in the heart of mothers.