Now return to YHWH your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil Joel 2:13
Gracious – If there were ever a Hebrew phrase worth remembering, this is it: hannun ve.rahum (gracious and compassionate). Don’t forget the guttural h. While the words don’t have the same poetic repetition in other languages, in Hebrew we see their phonetic similarities. But there are a lot more common elements than just the sounds.
Hannun is never used to describe the mercy of men. It is a God-adjective. It’s found in the classic self-definition of God’s character (Exodus 34:6). It is used to explain God’s benevolence toward specific categories of people, namely, the oppressed, those who reverence Him, those who repent and those who are under judgment. It is sometimes translated as merciful. It is connected to hen, a noun that means “grace” or “favor”, but it has the unusual characteristic of being only about God. The pictograph of “grace” is “a fence around life.” The first letter (h) is “fence.” The second letter (n) is “life.” The adjective hannun adds to this picture. Can you see what is added? The n is repeated two more times. God’s grace builds a fence around life three times. Now what do you suppose that means?
Most of us think like Greeks. We imagine that the life God rescues is each individual life. So, when we think about God’s fence around life, we think in individual terms; that God rescues my life by fencing me in. But God’s perspective is a bit bigger than that. What does God think about when He puts a fence around life? Well, He certainly thinks about individuals, but His perspective also equally includes community. God’s grace shows itself in actions toward the community. Evangelicals have a tendency to limit grace to individual salvation, but this isn’t the way the Bible typically understands rescue. It is a community affair. It was from the very beginning. Adam and Havvah are a community. So are we. Furthermore, God’s view of life stretches across the ages, recognizing that each person is represented as part of a lineage. Now you know why God says that He hears the bloods of Abel crying from the ground. Each of us represents many of God’s children, past and future.
Moreover, God’s view of life is not temporally limited. We think of life as the time between birth and the grave, but obviously that is not how God views life. Grace is an eternal attribute and necessity. God’s fence doesn’t end when the last human being dies. There is much more to life than we can imagine and some day we will be privileged to experience more of it.
So, it’s appropriate that this adjective, used exclusively of God, is not just about a fence around one life, but rather a fence around many lives. Perhaps we need some spiritual adjustment here. If God’s graciousness is so expansive, maybe our feeble attempts to mimic His character must be enlarged. Maybe our benevolence needs to take on a community and an eternal perspective. How can it do that? We could start by recognizing our tendencies toward exclusion. We could make sure that we are as open to include others as God is. We could open our hearts to those we consider enemies or outsiders. We could ask if our grace has edges because apparently God’s does not.
Topical Index: Community