On Compassion and Mercy
We have noted before that Hebrew likes to think in concrete images, rather than in abstractions, and the word we translate “compassion” is no exception. It is rachamim. It is immediately cognate with the word rechem, which means womb, and which itself, in turn, appears to derive from words meaning “soft”; similar words are found in related languages to mean “tender”, “motherly love”. When used to describe compassion between people, the female human reality is immediately understandable. Whereas the word is used to denote God’s compassion, however, scholars are careful to note that the Bible nowhere speaks of God as heavenly Mother, but instead uses the picture of the womb as a place of care, nurture, growth and protection, to convey the nature of divine compassion. It is noteworthy that the first mention of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus specifically calls “he”, describes him as “brooding”, “hovering gently”, using a word that also means “cherish”.
Moving to the New Testament, the word we translate “mercy” is eleos. Orthodox Christians remind us that this is related to the word for olive oil, elaion, which was used as balm in Bible times, as we see in the story of the Good Samaritan, where Doctor Luke describes the Samaritan pouring oil onto the man’s wounds. Mercy is often defined from the pulpit by saying that God does not treat us as our sins deserve. From the Bible word we can see, however, that there is more to it than merely the withholding of punishment. In the Bible, God’s mercy towards us is a pouring of the soothing oil of the Spirit onto the hurts and wounds we bear as saved sinners in a fallen world.