A friend sent me a question posted on facebook about the word mercy. The first part of the question is rather technical but the last part of the question is this:
“Can anyone comment on the meaning of the Heb[rew] letters used in the word mercy and the word picture it portrays.”
So I thought I would take that question on in this post. The Hebrew language is a very concrete language, it deals with abstract concepts like mercy in a very concrete way. If you close your eyes and try to picture mercy you will have a real hard time. Thankfully Hebrew has a concrete way of thinking about mercy.
First lets look at Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon (BDBG) The word for mercy is RaCHaM רחם (Reysh-Chet-Mem) numbered in strongs as H7355.
Meaning: to love. To have compassion. Be compassionate. To be shown compassion.
To be soft. To love. The primary idea appears to be in cherishing, and in a gentle emotion of the mind. PIEL: To behold with tenderest affection, to compassionate; used of the love of parents toward their children, and the love of God towards men. PUAL: To obtain mercy.
It is often helpful to see what other words use the same three letter root. Here we have strongs H7358 (ReCheM) which means ‘womb’. So there is a connection between the womb and God’s compassion and mercy. The word is actually a picture of a womb:
Reysh = Head or Person
Chet = Inner Chamber, Fence, Wall, Hidden Chamber
Mem = Water, Chaos
So in the case of the womb we see a person in the inner water chamber. What is more cherished than a child? The feeling that you get when you hold a newborn is the same feeling God has toward all of His children. The thankfulness that you feel when God gives you a child is a result of God’s compassion and mercy. The safety of the womb is also a picture of God’s mercy where the child is safe, protected, and free from all harm. (If everything goes according to God’s design for gestation.)
Now let’s look at some verses:
When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. -Genesis 29:31
Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. -Genesis 30:22
We can see that these are pictures of God’s compassion on Rachel and Leah. Children are obtained by the mercy of God. He is the one who opens up the womb so that women can bear children. It also shows that God hears the prayers of women who want to bear children. He can make it happen.
by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. -Genesis 49:25 (ESV)
God gives blessings (gifts) from the womb. That is why children are a blessing from God. He is the giver of all good things. This is also why He desires the following:
Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine. -Exodus 13:2 (ESV)
you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the LORD’s. -Exodus 13:12 (ESV)
Everything that is the firstborn is a gift from the LORD, and they belong to Him. All the firstborn males of Israel had to be redeemed from the LORD by a sacrifice. Jesus who is the firstborn of all creation is God’s gift of mercy to the world. Every firstborn male is a picture of this.
The Messiah as the firstborn of all creation was given as a sacrifice before the LORD so that through the Messiah we obtain mercy from the Father. One last verse shows that by through God’s mercy we learn to walk with him by faith.
On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. -Psalm 22:10 (ESV)