This may seem unlikely, but the fact is that there is a lack of sound theological studies on mercy in interpersonal relationships in the Old Testament. While the subject of God’s mercy is very popular among theologians and many papers and monographs have been devoted to it, the subject of: ‘mercy in human relations in the Old Testament’ actually appears solely in Biblical dictionaries and encyclopaedias, where it is discussed only in general terms. Therefore works on this subject are exceptional, one of them being that of Father Wojciech Węgrzyniak, available in Polish and entitled Miłosierdzie międzyludzkie w Starym Testamencie (Interpersonal Mercy in the Old Testament); it was written for the Third International Congress of the Apostles of Divine Mercy in Kraków-Lagiewniki in 2008. A part of this study is presented below.
Mercy, as seen in the Old Testament
Mercy in interpersonal relations can be seen in the Old Testament in terms of concrete deeds by individual people, or as a reality to which man is encouraged by God or by other people.
Examples of mercy shown
The attitude of Esau is an act of mercy. Esau, despite losing the birthright and the blessing, does not cause harm to Jacob coming back to Canaan with his whole family and belongings (Gen 32-33). Joseph is merciful in Egypt, when he does not punish his brothers for the fratricide attempt and for selling him into Egypt (Gen 37:42-45); Moses, when he intercedes for his people (Exodus 32:7-14, Num 21:7, Psalm 106:23); David – who, although he had the opportunity to kill King Saul who was persecuting him (1 Samuel 24:26), did not dare to impose a human justice; and who, after the death of the king and his son Jonathan, protected the material well-being of the dead king’s family (2 Samuel 9). This same David mourns the death of his son Absalom, although he rebelled against his father and deprived David of his reign (2 Samuel 15-19). The prophet Elijah shows mercy, when he agrees to be persuaded by the request of the third captain of fifty sent by King Ahab: “O man of God, please let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight. Look, fire came down from heaven and consumed the two former captains of fifty men with their fifties; but now let my life be precious in your sight” (2 Kings 1:13-14). Simon Maccabeus is merciful when he ceases to struggle against the inhabitants of Gezer, after they beg him: “Deal not with us according to our wickedness, but according to thy mercy.” (1 M 13:46). Esther’s intercession for her people with the King, Ahasuerus, is an act of mercy; intercession, for which she could pay with her life (Esther 4-5). Tobias is merciful – he says of himself: “I performed many charitable works for my kinsmen and my people” (Tb 1:3). “I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and had been thrown outside the walls of Nineveh, I would bury him” (Tb 1:17). The suffering Job recalls his deeds of mercy: “For I rescued the poor who cried out for help, the orphans, and the unassisted. The blessing of those in extremity came upon me, and the heart of the widow I made joyful. (…) I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame was I. I was a father to the needy; the rights of the stranger I studied” (Jb 29:12-13,15-16).
The following events can also be considered as acts of mercy: saving the house of Rahab from destruction, because she hid the Israeli scouts (Joshua 1-2); permitting Benjaminites to carry off girls from Shiloh to take them for wives (Judges 21); releasing Israelites from the Babylonian captivity (2 Chronicles 30: 9, Psalm 106: 46); sympathy given to Daniel by the chief chamberlain (Daniel 1: 9).
Calls for mercy
In addition to the examples of mercy shown, in the Old Testament we find many calls to be merciful toward others, and sometimes even toward strangers and enemies: do not oppress foreigners, widows and orphans (Exodus 22: 20-21); do not claim interest on money lent to the poor (Ex 22: 24); give back before sunset the cloak taken in pledge (Ex 22: 25-26a); come to the aid of a strayed ox or donkey, even if they were animals of the enemy (Deuteronomy 22: 1-4, Exodus 23: 4-5); leave something on the field at harvest time for the poor and orphans (Deuteronomy 24: 19-21); give alms (Tb 4: 5-8, 16); give bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked (Tb 4: 16); lay bread on the graves of the righteous (Tb 4: 17); help immediately if possible (Proverbs 3: 28).
Here are other examples of calls for mercy: “My son, rob not the poor man of his livelihood; force not the eyes of the needy to turn away. A hungry man grieve not, a needy man anger not; Do not exasperate the downtrodden; delay not to give to the needy. A beggar in distress do not reject; avert not your face from the poor. From the needy turn not your eyes, give no man reason to curse you” (Sirach 4: 1-5); “To the poor man also extend your hand, that your blessing may be complete; be generous to all the living, and withhold not your kindness from the dead. Avoid not those who weep, but mourn with those who mourn; neglect not to visit the sick – for these things you will be loved” (Sirach 7: 32-35); “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgment, and show kindness and compassion toward each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien or the poor; do not plot evil against one another in your hearts” (Zach 7: 9-10).
The call for Mercy in interpersonal relations is present also in the form of Wisdom maxims: “It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112: 5); “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.” (Prv 21: 13); “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” (Prv 22: 9); “For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as a sin offering – it will take lasting root.” (Sirach 3: 14); “He does a kindness who lends to his neighbour, and he fulfils the precepts who holds out a helping hand.” (Sirach 29: 1); “But goodness will never be cut off, and justice endures forever. Wealth or wages can make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure” (Sirach 40: 17).
Old Testament literature, not only calls for mercy in interpersonal relations, but also promises a tangible benefit for doing so. The words of the prophet Isaiah seem to be a classic text in this regard: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58: 6-11).
Other ‘benefits’ of practising mercy are given when the call is for active love of one’s neighbour. Mercy takes away sins (Si 3: 14), brings blessings (Si 7: 32), brings love of others (Si 7: 35), brings success (Ps 112: 5), and welfare (Dn 4: 24).
It therefore seems that the Old Testament man knows what mercy is and is summoned to show mercy; he knows mercy’s positive effects and every now and again gives an example of such a merciful conduct.
Where mercy went silent
Despite a relatively rich view of mercy in interpersonal/human relations, there is a limit beyond which there seems to be no mercy – for example as a result explicit or implicit order of God, or when man stands against another man, inconsiderate towards God Himself.
With God’s permission
The principle of ‘limited mercy’ is clearly expressed in the Book of Sirach: “No good comes to him who gives comfort to the wicked, nor is it an act of mercy that he does. Give to the good man, refuse the sinner; refresh the downtrodden, give nothing to the proud man. No arms for combat should you give him, lest he use them against yourself; with twofold evil you will meet for every good deed you do for him. The Most High himself hates sinners, and upon the wicked he takes vengeance.” (Sir 12: 3-7).
A whole range of acts also fits this perspective, whereas today such acts would come across to us as cruel: the killing of three thousand people by the sons of Levi at the order of Moses, because they had made the golden calf (Exodus 32: 26-29), the stoning of a man who collected wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15: 32-36), the murder of 24,000 Israelites who practiced prostitution with Moabite women (Numbers 25: 1-9) and a whole series of conquests of the Canaanite cities, during which entire cities with all their inhabitants were murdered (cf. the Book of Joshua). One of the more tragic examples concerns the prophet Elisha:
“From there Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. ‘Go up, baldhead,’ they shouted, ‘go up, baldhead!’ The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces.” (2 Kings 2: 23-24).
Although such Old Testament events may seem shocking today, it should be noted that the ‘merciless’ conduct was always justified. People who directly or indirectly threatened the purity of faith in the one God could not count on mercy – regardless of whether they belonged to the chosen people, or were strangers. Legally it is expressed in the following way:
“If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or your intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. And all Israel, hearing of it, shall fear and never again do such evil as this in your midst.” (Deuteronomy 13: 7-12)
Over and above the acts which seem merciless to us today, but which in the Old Testament are committed with God’s consent or even at His command, any other type of mercilessness is severely condemned by God.
God delivers a verdict on Edom, “Because he pursued his brother with the sword, choking up all pity; Because he persisted in his anger and kept his wrath to the end” (Amos 1: 11). Also He will not take pity over his people, because “No man spares his brother, each devours the flesh of his neighbour. Though they hack on the right, they are hungry; though they eat on the left, they are not filled.” (Isaiah 9: 18-19). God opposes the leaders of the people (Isaiah 3: 14-15) and legislators (Isaiah 10: 1-2), and He will never forget merciless acts:
“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’ The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” (Amos 8: 4-7).
Hope for mercy unlimited?
In an attempt to summarize what has been observed about mercy in interpersonal relations in the Old Testament, let us return to the intercession of the first Patriarch for the people of Sodom. As in the case of Abraham haggling with God, one reaches a limit not to be crossed, so it seems that the mentality of the people of the First Covenant was such that they could only show mercy to others up to a point. There are some situations in which even the closest relatives cannot count on mercy, and those who seem to be in one situation surprisingly merciful, in other situations show no mercy (1 Samuel 24: 26; 2 Samuel 19; 1 Kings 2: 8-9).
Is there any hope of going beyond that limit and practicing unlimited mercy? Why does Abraham’s discussion with God stop at ten righteous people? Why does not Abraham try to save the city because of five righteous people? Why does not he dare to ask for salvation because of even one righteous man, his nephew Lot? For Abraham, a man of the Old Testament, it seemed incredible that God could be so merciful. With his concept of God as a just judge, it was difficult for him to ‘bargain’ for anything more. And it is his understanding of God that did not allow him to fight for man to the end. All his friends from the Old Testament faced the same dilemma. They sensed that God was more merciful than man (2 Sam 24: 14), but they could not comprehend that God might be infinitely merciful. And since they limited God’s mercy, they also limited mercy in human relationships.
It was not until the coming of Jesus Christ, who revealed the merciful face of God the Father to the world, that all the limits which Old Testament man put on Divine and human mercy were overthrown. Had Abraham been aware, in God, of the mystery of the crucified Son, he would have known that to save not only the destruction of Sodom, but the whole world, the life of one righteous person, Jesus Christ, would have been enough. And then he himself would probably have been merciful to Sodom down to the last of its inhabitants.
Father Wojciech Węgrzyniak
Complete text with footnotes:
Father Wojciech Węgrzyniak, Miłosierdzie międzyludzkie w Starym Testa- mencie (Interpersonal/Human Mercy in the Old Testament), in: W szkole miłosierdzia św. Faustyny i Jana Pawła II. Referaty z III Międzynarodowego Kongresu Apostołów Bożego Miłosierdzia (In the School of Mercy of St. Faustina and Pope John Paul II. Papers from the Third International Congress of the Apostles of Divine Mercy), Misericordia, Kraków 2008, pp. 95 – 120
Translated by Orest Pawlak