I confess I would rather not write this, solely because I know that it is somewhat like throwing a match into a gas can, but I said I would speak to the issue of the meaning of mercy in the Scripture in response to Mr. Holding’s very odd, way-out-of-center, and simply errant assertions on the subject. And so I shall, as briefly as possible, however, for the traveling, debating, and writing schedule looms ever larger in front of me.
Determining lexical meanings of terms used in Scripture is about as foundational a skill as one can have in handling the Word of God, and yet there are no end to the errors one will find in print and, even more so, on the Internet, relating to the subject. The “look at the first use of the term in the Bible and follow that meaning throughout” error is quite common; we have documented men like Dave Hunt doing the “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance Waltz” where it is assumed a particular English word, such as “whosoever,” can be read backwards into both Hebrew and Greek. The range of such errors is wide indeed.
The fact of the matter is there are often a number of issues that enter into making sure we are accurately defining the lexical meaning of a term. I would recommend to the reader Moises Silva’s work, Biblical Words and Their Meaning (I provide a link to Amazon mainly for bibliographical information, not to push Amazon). I will only summarize a few of the relevant points found in such modern studies as they relate particularly to the claims of Holding regarding Romans 9.
When we consider the term “mercy” found in Romans 9:15-16, here are some of the relevant issues to be considered (almost none of which, btw, appear anywhere in Holding’s original discussions). First, Romans is written in Greek. The meaning of the terms in Greek must then be assumed to be primary. That meaning is to be derived from sound lexical sources that take into consideration both the use of the term in the secular culture, in the New Testament literature, and in the Greek Septuagint, the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Further, if a particular author uses a term or phrase in a peculiar or special way, this must be taken into consideration (John’s use of lo,goj for example would be an example of a term being used by a particular author in a different way than other biblical authors). When this information is taken into consideration, we recognize that words have what is called a “semantic domain,” a range, or maybe better, a circle, of meaning. Some words have a very wide semantic domain, and allow for a very wide range of nuances or shades of meaning, all dependent upon context. Some words have a very narrow, very small semantic domain, and are incapable of major shifts in usage. And, as in all linguistic studies, context is king. The location of meaning in the semantic domain will be dependent upon usage in the immediate and, perhaps, broader context of the narrative or section of teaching (depending on the kind of literature being examined).
In Romans 9:15-16 we have other factors to consider as well. Paul is presenting an argument, a reasoned defense of his assertions going back into chapter eight. He is arguing, even presenting objections and answers within the text. We can, then, expect to be able to follow a context through his argument unless we are willing to dismiss Paul as a coherent or accurate presenter of truthful information (a sad element in much of modern, liberal theology today). He is quoting from the Old Testament, and therefore we must look at the background. But, we must be careful immediately, for Paul is writing to the Romans, not the Jews in Jerusalem. That is, his citations are from the LXX, not the Hebrew text. So while we always should examine the terms being translated by the LXX, it should be remembered that the text being read by the Apostle’s audience would be the Greek LXX, and hence arguments about nuances of Hebrew terms underlying the translation must establish their relevance from strong contextual argumentation; they cannot simply be assumed unless one begins with the assumption that Paul could care less about whether his audience could actually follow his writing or not.
There is one other factor to consider as well: the text cited, Exodus 33:19, contains a clear example of Hebrew parallelism; that is, God says to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” Note that the two terms are expressing a singular thought; that is, in the context, graciousness and compassion must be seen in light of each other. They are not being equated, but neither can they be defined separately from their usage in parallel in this particular text. The Hebrew term translated “gracious” in Exodus 33:19 is !n:x’, which is translated by the Greek term evlee,w, “to have mercy.” It is important to keep in mind which Hebrew terms are being translated by which Greek terms, for at this point Holding, ignorant of the languages, completely dropped the ball and made the most basic kind of error you can in his argumentation, as we shall see. The second Hebrew term, translated “show compassion” is ~x;r;, which is rendered in the LXX by oivktirh,sw, “to compassion.”
Now, the standard lexical sources show no sign of being confused about the meaning of the terms in use in this passage. Specifically, the term that Paul focuses upon in his citation of Exodus 33:19 in Romans 9:15 and brings into focus in v. 16 is evlew/ntoj in the phrase “the mercying God.” This divine action is placed in direct contrast to a string of human actions, that is, man’s willing and man’s running. Despite the heroic efforts of Holding, the simple fact is the language defies him: anyone can understand the phrase “it is not this, but rather is this.” That is what Paul does in v. 16, and Holding, despite all his bravado, cannot even begin to provide any kind of parallel in the OT to such a simple, straightforward expression. The Greek term means to show mercy; it is a divine action, here expressed in the singular present active masculine participle, the phrase literally being “the mercying God.” The focus upon the freedom of God in Exodus 33:19 to show mercy and compassion is here interpreted by Paul (a;ra ou=n providing the connection, i.e., since God says X in v. 15, therefore we conclude Y in v. 16, more of that logical argumentation that is so evident on the very surface of the text) to preclude human activity and instead indicate divine freedom (so much for synergism). The reason the standard lexical sources are united in rendering the term is simple: that is what it means.
With these things in mind, let’s consider the comments by Holding that started this whole “exchange” of sorts to begin with. To summarize, Holding took a brief discussion of the term “gratitude” on pp. 92-94 of Pilch & Malina’s Handbook of Biblical Social Values (hardly a lexical source in the forefront of modern translational scholarship, and surely not something to be taken as trumping standard lexicons), completely misconstrued its relevance (being ignorant of the languages himself), missapplied his misunderstanding to a text the authors never even mention, and ended up coming up with a “translation” and meaning of Romans 9:16 that is utterly without merit or foundation. Here’s how he pulled it off:
Pilch and Malina note that in an ancient context, “mercy” is better rendered as “gratitude” or “steadfast love” — as in, “the debt of interpersonal obligations for unrepayable favors received.” Mercy is not involved with feelings of compassion, as today, but the “paying of one’s debt of interpersonal obligation by forgiving a trivial debt.” To say, “Lord, have mercy!” (Matt. 20:31) means, “Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!” Far from being a plea of the hapless, it is a request to pay back previously earned favor!
All of this is to be understood not in terms of a snotty and undeserving inferior needling a superior (as one might think of it today, to say that God “owes” us something), but as a natural facet of the client-patron relationship in which there is a relationship of “ongoing reciprocity,” in which “those toward whom one has such a debt are equally obliged to maintain the relationship by further favors…” The blind men honored Jesus as the “son of David” and expected their recognition of him to be repaid with favor. None of this is done with ingratitude, as one might suspect today, for God is said to be glorified for His mercy (Rom. 15:9). It is God’s role as a patron to supply the needs of His clients (us) in steadfast love and faithfulness, and it is a role He has willingly and in sovereignty assumed. Pilch and Malina note that the relationship of gratitude here is indeed an “ongoing” one — not “episodic” as it is in our culture.
And the implications of this? The proper social definition of “mercy” brings an interesting twist to, for example, the great Calvinist keystone in Romans 9: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” Understood as the NT writers wrote it, this means: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that pays His debt of personal obligation to us as our patron.” How else this understanding may affect our views is something worth investigating.
Now, if you look to the source being cited, you immediately discover a few things. First, the discussion is about the term “gratitude,” not “mercy.” Secondly, the focus is upon the Hebrew term chesed, “covenant faithfulness” or “lovingkindness,” and that term’s wide semantic domain and range of usage (all of which is quite true). However, the point that seems to have utterly escaped Holding’s attention, and which makes the entirety of his argument utterly without merit, is this: the term chesed does not appear in Exodus 33:19 nor does it lie behind the Greek terms used in Romans 9. What is more (and this is utterly fatal to Holding’s gross misuse of this source), the authors never once cite Romans 9, and Holding’s wonderfully unique rendering of 9:16 is nowhere suggested or promoted by Pilch & Malina. In fact, there is nothing in their discussion of “gratitude” that is even remotely relevant to Holding’s errant application of their comments, and one can even go to their discussion of “steadfast love” later in the book and still there is nothing there supportive of Holding’s rendering. It seems as if Holding thinks such “social context” material can be randomly applied without the first thought of context or usage, and such is simply not the case.
Hence, we see multiple evidences of Holding’s error: his rendering is unsupported by any lexical source; it destroys the context and requires us to think that in Exodus 33:19 God was in fact saying that by showing mercy to Moses He was fulfilling His debt of personal obligation to Moses as his patron. This is truly turning a text completely on its head, and for what reason? An examination of the language, context, sources, and even the singular source used by Holding, provides nothing in defense of such an erroneous rendering of the text.
I have surely seen this kind of abuse of the text of Scripture before: normally, however, it is found in the vapid writings of the Watchtower Society in defense of the New World Translation, or in some attempt to defend Joseph Smith’s meanderings. That is what has made this discussion so distasteful, for here we find in the writings of one who calls himself a Christian apologist the very same kind of misuse of sources so as to substantiate an utterly fallacious misreading of the text that we saw in Hunt’s “Hebrew Original of Acts 1-15” fiasco, or in Hunt’s earlier attempt to say the best “translation” of the text happens to be that of the NWT. What joins Holding and Hunt is 1) their dislike of the sovereign freedom of God in election, 2) their common inability to read the biblical languages, and 3) the first letters of their last names. Well, OK, Holding isn’t actually his last name, while Hunt is. So they only have two things in common, but those two things lead both to the same action: the utter overthrow of the plain reading of a text for no other reason than their stubborn unwillingness to believe what it says.