The Word in the Wings
From the study: kindness in the face of fear
By: KAYA WEAVER
Glorify Dance Theatre has begun work on a new ballet, Chesed, that will premiere in March 2023. The ballet explores different facets of the meaning of “chesed” to explore how humans relate to God and to each other through generous, loyal love. For the next few weeks on The Word in the Wings, we’ll look closely at a few passages of Scripture where the word “chesed” occurs and learn about how this kind of love works and what God intends it to accomplish.
First, a note about pronunciation: the title of the ballet is a Hebrew word, transliterated into approximate English spelling. Since it includes a sound that doesn’t exist in English, you might also see it spelled “khesed” or “ḥesed.” The “ch,” “kh,” or “ḥ” indicates a sound that linguists call a “voiceless velar fricative,” which sounds similar to the “ch” at the end of the Scottish word “loch” (lake).
Why does ḥesed matter?
Ḥesed is a word that piques a Bible-reader’s curiosity because it appears many times throughout the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) but is difficult to translate into English because of its multi-layered meaning. Ḥesed is love with particular characteristics that occurs in particular circumstances. One key context where ḥesed appears is when God describes the divine character in Exodus 34:
6 The LORD passed before him [Moses], and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 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.” (New Revised Standard Version)
In these verses, the English phrase “steadfast love” translates the Hebrew word ḥesed, which occurs twice in God’s self-description. These verses are then referenced over twenty times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Ḥesed is one of the words that is central to understanding what kind of God Yahweh is. It’s also an attribute that God wants humans to reflect. The prophet Micah writes,
6:8 He has told you, human, what is good; and what does Yahweh seek from you, except to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
When God’s people wonder if they can please Yahweh with offerings (Micah 6:6-7), the prophet reminds them of Yahweh’s core desire that the people walk in step with God and embrace God’s “kindness” (another translation for the Hebrew word ḥesed) as a way of relating to each other.
With the central importance of ḥesed in mind, where do God’s people begin? What choices can people make to embrace God’s ḥesed, and what circumstances generate relationships that exemplify this kind of love?
One narrative that illustrates how ḥesed begins is the story of Rahab, found in Joshua 2. The story picks up shortly after Joshua succeeds Moses as Israel’s leader and begins bringing the people into the land God has promised to give them, which is still occupied by other nations.
1 And Joshua son of Nun sent out from Shittim two men on foot, secretly, saying, “Go, look at the land and at Jericho.” So they went, and they came to the house of a prostitute woman, and her name was Rahab, and they laid down there.
2 And it was told to the king, saying, “Look, men came here in the night from the people of Israel to search out the land.”
3 And the king of Jericho sent to Rahab saying, “Bring out the men who came to you, who came to your house, for they’ve come to search out the entire land.”
Hearing about a potential threat to Jericho, the king reaches out to Rahab and informs her that the men who have come to her house are hostile agents. He gives this information as a basis for instructing her to turn the men in. The king’s logic assumes that Rahab’s interests align with those of Jericho and that her loyalty, or at least her sense of obligation, is to himself.
4 But she had taken the two men and hidden them, and she said, “The men came to me, but I didn’t know where they came from.
5 And it happened that the gates would close at dark, so the men went out. I don’t know where the men went; pursue them quickly so you might fence them in.”
6 But she had taken them up to the roof, and she had hidden them among the flax stalks she had arranged on the roof.
7 And the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan by the fords, but the gate closed after the pursuers had gone out after them.
The king’s men don’t try to coerce Rahab to answer them, nor do they question the explanation she offers. They see no reason to doubt her loyalty to Jericho, and they assume her information is trustworthy.
Rahab is in a position of relative power. She knows more about the spies’ whereabouts than the king’s men know and can control what information the king’s men receive. She also has power to influence the spies’ fate, to reveal them in an effort to protect Jericho and her own integrity before her sovereign, or to obscure what she knows and protect the spies’ lives and their mission.
In her response to the king’s men, Rahab takes advantage of her presumed loyalty to easily avert attention away from herself and her house, thus protecting the hidden spies (Alter, p. 12). But lying to the king’s men suggests that Rahab’s loyalty lies elsewhere. If her deceit is discovered, she might be punished by the king for aiding Jericho’s enemies.
It’s also unclear how much Rahab and the spies have communicated thus far. The spies may have chosen a prostitute’s house as an inconspicuous lodging, but they haven’t specifically asked Rahab to cover for them if their subterfuge is suspected. Why does Rahab volunteer this kindness, at risk to her own security, for the sake of a pair of strangers?
8 But they were still lying down, and she went up to them on the roof.
9 And she said to the men, “I know that Yahweh has given you the land and that dread of you has fallen upon us and that all inhabitants of the land have melted away before you.
10 For we heard how Yahweh dried up the waters of the Reed Sea before you when you went out of Egypt and that you dealt with both Amorite kings across the Jordan, with Sichon and Og, that you utterly destroyed them.
11 And our hearts melted because we heard that no more breath arose in anyone before you, for your God is God of the heavens above and the earth below.
Having committed to protecting the spies, Rahab confesses her fear of the events that their presence portends. Rahab expresses no hope that the city of Jericho might be spared the reported fate of Egypt or the Amorites; she expresses full confidence that Yahweh is sovereign over the whole heavens and earth (Alter 13) and that Yahweh will also give the land she occupies into the Israelites’ hands.
Rahab’s estimation of Yahweh’s power suggests that her kindness to the spies is a calculated risk. The king of Jericho has assumed that Rahab would entrust matters of national security to him, handing over the spies, but Rahab does not believe that the king of Jericho can stand against Yahweh. Where Rahab appeared in control of the earlier situation with the king’s men, she now casts herself among those who are utterly helpless before the Israelites and their God. Believing that the outcome is out of her control and that she cannot entrust her security to the king in this circumstance, she transfers her loyalty to Yahweh and God’s people instead.
12 But now, swear to me by Yahweh, since I have done ḥesed with you, that you also will do ḥesed with my father’s house, and give me a sign of good faith.
13 And let my father, mother, brothers, and sisters live, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.”
The narrator first introduces Rahab by her profession as a prostitute (Joshua 2:1), and later the reader learns that her house is built into the city’s outer wall (Joshua 2:15). Rahab is situated socially and geographically on the margin of her society. When Rahab speaks, we learn a little more about her hopes and motives. She protects the spies to gain security not only for herself but also for her family. It’s easy to imagine that Rahab has sacrificed her body and her other prospects to support the family she now acts to protect, and in repayment her society relegates her to the city’s edge and instrumentalizes her for access to information about comings and goings at the wall. The life Rahab knows is marked by being used and left aside. In a moment of crisis, she doesn’t fall back on preserving this familiar life but reaches toward the new possibility of having her ḥesed returned rather than taken for granted.
Biblical scholar Katharine Doob Sakenfeld demonstrates that in some instances of ḥesed, an existing intimate relationship such as marriage or kinship provides the basis to request an act of loyalty or kindness (pp. 25-26). Where the relationship between people involved is neutral or potentially hostile, as between Rahab of Jericho and the Israelite spies, an initial act of ḥesed can also provide the basis for a request (Sakenfeld, p. 46). Since the spies are strangers from an enemy nation with no relational obligation toward Rahab, she initiates ḥesed by doing unsolicited kindness for them. In so doing, Rahab has “created an obligation” (Sakenfeld, p. 69), reaching out with the first act of kindness to establish a relationship where the spies might be bound to reciprocate in her moment of dire need.
Rahab also reinforces the spies’ sense of obligation by asking them to swear ḥesed in the name of Yahweh. Rahab may not know the full extent of God’s covenant with Israel, but she has at least observed that Yahweh intervenes in history to benefit Israel (Joshua 2:9-11). She infers that the Israelite spies might owe some loyalty to the God who acts so powerfully on their behalf, so she asks for an oath that holds them accountable to God (Sakenfeld, p. 70) and grants her assurance beyond the spies’ new and tenuous commitment to Rahab herself. By staking God’s name and reputation on their ḥesed to her, it’s as if Rahab is asking the Israelite spies to fulfill their relational obligation to Yahweh by doing ḥesed for her, heightening the stakes for the spies in their interaction with her.
In addition to heightening the stakes to further obligate the spies’ ḥesed, Rahab also asserts a particular, salient position for herself by appealing to the spies’ faithfulness to Yahweh. Instead of submitting to fear and destruction, Rahab boldly claims for herself and her family the right to live despite any failures or foibles, a claim supported by her embrace of the person of Yahweh as sovereign over heaven and earth and the character of Yahweh as a God who asks humans to show ḥesed. By asking for ḥesed in the name of Yahweh and by means of her own ḥesed, Rahab transforms herself in the eyes of the Israelites from dismissable to indispensable.
14 And the men said to her, “Our lives in place of yours to die; if you will not tell this business of ours, then it shall be when Yahwheh gives us the land that we will do ḥesed and faithfulness with you.”
It’s not clear that Rahab knows how central kindness is to Yahweh’s character, but as the Israelites have often been reminded, God abounds in “steadfast love,” or ḥesed (Exodus 20:6, 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:10, 7:9). For the spies to repay Rahab’s ḥesed with neglect or violence would be out of step with Yahweh’s revealed character. They agree to Rahab’s request, stipulating only that she continue to guard their secret as she does when the king’s men are at her door.
Kindness in the face of fear
In Rahab’s story, the circumstance that engenders ḥesed is one of desperation and shifting balances of power. Rahab anticipates the destruction of Jericho and knows it is out of her hands; the deliverance she requests of the spies is ḥesed because it is essential for her survival and depends on the spies’ free decision to spare her (Sakenfeld, p. 10). In the one moment where she holds sway over the king’s men and the spies’ fate, she uses her power to do kindness instead of violence toward those who pose a danger. Her choice shifts the balance in the spies’ favor, giving them the opportunity to use their power in turn to do kindness for Rahab. The “situational reversal” of power and the way Rahab’s free act of kindness becomes the basis for kindness from the spies mark the resulting relationship as one of ḥesed (Sakenfeld, p. 69).
Rahab embraces ḥesed by choosing courage in the face of fear. While she is vulnerable in her desperation, she doesn’t close herself off defensively from those presented as foreign and enemy. Instead, she opens herself to the overwhelming reality before her, acknowledging her state of utter dependence. She reaches out from her vulnerability with kindness in the hope of connecting with the strangers enough to elicit kindness in return. Rahab realizes the very possibility she hopes for by being the first to embody ḥesed.
Biblical quotations in this post are my own translation except where otherwise noted.
The Hebrew Bible: Prophets, by Robert Alter (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).
The Meaning of Ḥesed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry, by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002).
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