Amazing but divergent concepts of grace

Jew in the Christian World 

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Immortalized in the most popular of Christian folk-hymns, grace seems an unlikely topic for a Jewish Bible study class.

Well-known to Christians, the term is generally familiar to Jewish audiences only in the expression grace after meals (birkat hamazon). It doesn’t appear in Jewish vocabulary lists, on informational websites, or throughout indices of hundreds of Jewish print resources on basic Judaism, God, spirituality, Bible, theology, or values. And yet, it frequently appears in English translations of the biblical text, triggering student queries.

According to Strong’s Concordance (an alphabetical index of biblical words and their citations), the word grace appears 38 times in the King James version of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) as a translation for the Hebrew word chen.

However, chen appears an additional 31 times in the text where it is translated as favor or occasionally as gracious, precious, or pleasant.

There seems to be no consistency among either the Christian or Jewish translations. Note the following examples.

In the introduction to Noah (Gen. 6:8), chen is variously translated as follows:

• But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord (King James Version)

• But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD (New International Version).

• But Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH (Everett Fox, Hebrew literal).

• But Noah found favor with the LORD (Jewish Publication Society, Conservative)

• But Noah found grace in the eyes of HASHEM (Stone, Orthodox).

Chen also appears with varying translations when the only characters are human, as when the estranged twins reconcile (Gen. 33:10) and Jacob requests of Esau to accept his gift:

• If now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present… (KJV)

• If I have found favor in your sight (eyes)… (New Living Translation, Fox, and Stone).

Here are some equally surprising patterns. Just prior to the Exodus, the Egyptians gladly turn over their riches to the Israelites in a text where chen is almost universally translated as favor (Ex. 11:3), as in the Lord “gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians“ or “made the Egyptians look on the people with favor.”

On the other hand, both Christian and Jewish texts consistently translate chen as grace when Esther, the Jewish maiden readied for a royal tryst, gains more of the king’s “grace and favor” than all the other maidens (Esther 2:17).

How can these inconstant translations of chen be explained?

The term chen derives from the Hebrew root meaning pardon, favor, graciousness, compassion, and mercy.

In a biblical context, chen connotes the unmerited favor of one human toward another, or of God toward humankind. It is numbered among God’s principal attributes (chanun, gracious or grace-giving, in Ex. 34:6-7).

Thus, while translations may vary in other respects, in both Jewish and Christian Bibles the use of the word grace always signals God’s role as a main character or implies God’s behind-the-scenes involvement.

In Christian theology, grace is the unearned, undeserved divine gift of unconditional love, mercy, favor, acceptance, forgiveness, sustenance and salvation from God through Jesus to those who accept him as messiah and savior (Romans 5, Ephesians 2).

This fundamental tenet is the cornerstone of Christian faith memorialized in John Newton’s famous lyrics: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me!… How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believed.”

In Jewish thought, grace — more often expressed as God’s lovingkindness or mercy — is balanced by God’s justice.

The rabbis of the Talmud explain that God created the world with both, because lovingkindness alone would have allowed sin to proliferate and justice alone would have condemned all of creation (Genesis Rabbah 12:15). Therefore, the rabbis continue, that God’s favor, forgiveness, and mercy are not automatic, for that would unbalance justice. Nor are those attributes earned or deserved, because that would suggest human control over God.

Throughout the Torah and expressed directly by the prophets (Isaiah and Joel, in particular) is the notion that God’s mercy is conditional upon our attempts to act in the image of God, to obey the commandments in their quest to repair the world, and to repent when we miss the mark.

The great 13th-century Spanish Torah scholar Nachmanides (Ramban) captures this balance between mercy and justice and the conditional nature of grace: “When Thine is the love, O God, and Thine the grace, that folds the sinner in its mild embrace: Thine the forgiveness bridging o’er the space ‘Twixt man’s works and the task set by the King.”

In Jewish thought, it is through doing that we open the door to tikun olam (repair of the world) and God’s favor, mercy, and forgiveness.

In Christian thought, it is through believing that the door to God’s grace and personal salvation is opened. Because this Christian notion is generally associated with “grace,” the English term rarely appears in Jewish literature.

Chen: Such a tiny word to embody two fundamentally different religious philosophies: amazing grace.


Literature to share

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman: Don’t miss this debut novel that realistically captures the sights, sounds, and experiences of Jewish life in early 20-century Russia while telling a thoroughly enjoyable epic tale. Fast paced, dramatic, and filled with plot twists and engaging but not always likeable characters, this is historical fiction at its best.

Under the Egg by Laura Fitzgerald: Targeted to middle school students, this unexpectedly smart and fast-paced mystery novel with an interesting female protagonist introduces a little-known aspect of the Holocaust: Nazi theft of Jewish art. Some familiarity with the Holocaust would be advantageous, but the story stands on its own. A recommended addition to the library of young teens.

To read the complete June 2015 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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