A Conversation with Dr. Daniel L. Belnap
RSC: At the 2009 Sperry Symposium you gave a lecture concerning hesed (translated as “mercy” or “loving-kindness”). Is there anything more you can share with us concerning hesed?
Belnap: In November at the Latter-day Saints and the Bible session of the Society of Biblical Literature National Meeting in New Orleans, I explored the possibility of hesed as a concept in the other bodies of scripture, particularly the Book of Mormon. Though hesed is found 256 times in the Old Testament, it has not been found in any other Semitic language—at least not yet. The Old Testament suggests that people outside of Israel may have understood the term, but the Old Testament is a purely Israelite text, so it is still hard to tell. Primarily it is God who does hesed, and we do not find any other deities doing hesed—perhaps other religious traditions at the time had an equivalent, but the word itself is not described anywhere else in any other Semitic language.
These facts suggest that the moral and ethical concept of hesed was unique to ancient Israel. It is found from Genesis to the latter prophets, so it seems to have been pretty common throughout the Bible and is used to describe a variety of similar types of experiences, whether in narrative or poetry. If hesed is that important of a concept to ancient Israel, then can you find it in other gospel texts? Specifically, in this case, can you find it in the Book of Mormon? If hesed played that big of a role in the Old Testament, would it have played that big of a role in the Book of Mormon? These are some of the other questions that I’ve tried to answer. Though I haven’t written about hesed in other books of scripture, I do think the concept is present, particularly in the Book of Mormon, though perhaps not as strongly.
RSC: Is it fair to say that hesed is just the Hebrew for charity or the Greek charis or agapē?
Belnap: No, though both charis and agapē are used to describe hesed. What I have realized is that the Septuagint (LXX) ends up doing the same thing that English translations of hesed have done, namely providing multiple terms to translate the original Hebrew. The primary term for hesed in Greek as used in the LXX is eleos, showing up 215 times in the LXX, but there are about five or six different Greek words that are also being translated for hesed. English has fifteen words translated for hesed. What this means is that there really was no perfect translation for the Hebrew word hesed in Greek (eleos being the closest), just like we don’t have one in English. One of the intriguing Greek translations, is dikaiosunē, is sometimes used when translating hesed, but which carries the primary meaning of righteousness. This happens eight times in the LXX. So obviously the translators of the LXX saw a similarity between their word for “righteousness,” dikaiosunē, and hesed. But they didn’t keep this connection in the entire Old Testament. I find it intriguing that the Greek language has the same problem that the English language does in finding a good word to translate the Hebrew hesed.
Since we are talking about Greek one may ask if hesed as a concept is found in the New Testament. I think it is. You often find eleos being talked about in the New Testament. But you do also find charis. One of the particular phrases that I enjoy is “grace and truth” (for example John 1:14, 17). There John uses charis for “grace” and alētheia for “truth.” In Hebrew, you find hesed and “truth” (Genesis 24:27; 32:10; Exodus 34:6; 2 Samuel 2:6; 15:20; Psalm 25:10; 40:10–11; 57:3; 61:7; 85:10; 86:15; 89:14). So are those exact parallels? I don’t know. You can find it elsewhere as eleos and truth. This, by the way, points to one of the challenges of trying to find out if hesed as a concept exists elsewhere. In the Septuagint I can look at the Greek and the Hebrew. But with the Book of Mormon, we have neither to work with, only the King James English. So we have to look at the King James language and say, when Joseph Smith is translating, he will use language from the Bible that he is familiar with. Therefore, can I look at the English King James translation and see if it suggests that hesed is being referred to in the Book of Mormon? Even though the Book of Mormon is only found in English, it purports to be about a people directly from an Israelite context who would then have been familiar with the concept of hesed, thus can I demonstrate this using only the English translations without at least one original source? It’s tricky, but I think it can be done.
For instance, the most common English translation of hesed is mercy. Mercy words show up throughout both the KJV and the Book of Mormon. By comparing the usages we are able to narrow the terminology that may reflect hesed. For instance, the phrase “tender mercies” (1 Nephi 1:20) may appear a good candidate as it shows up in both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament, suggesting that when Joseph Smith is translating he is drawing from the biblical phrase “tender mercies.” But “tender mercies” in the Old Testament is the translation from hesed but from raham, which means compassion, from the word for “womb.” Therefore, the devotion that you have for a child is not in fact hesed. Is it related to hesed? Yes. The two are often found together (see Psalm 25:6; 40:11; 69:16; 103:4), and in some cases God demonstrates his hesed by providing raham for us. So they are indeed related, but they are not the same. So when I look at “tender mercies” in the Book of Mormon, I can say this is not hesed, which is a useful distinction.
But do I think there are places where we can find hesed in the Book of Mormon? Yes. The reciprocal nature of hesed, which is one of its characteristics, can be found. The Lord says in the Book of Mormon, I am merciful to those who show mercy (see Alma 41:13–14). This is hesed. The word “loving-kindness” is only translated in the Old Testament from hesed. So anytime you come across loving-kindness in the Old Testament, you know that it comes from hesed and not any other word. So if you find “loving-kindness” in the Book of Mormon, then it’s a good bet that you are looking at hesed. And it does occur naturally in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 19:9). Intriguingly, Nephi puts this phrase in a compound: “his loving-kindness and his long-suffering,” and there are other compounds such as “mercy and long-suffering” (Alma 5:6) that may suggest hesed is in use. Interestingly, “loving kindness” shows up in Doctrine and Covenants 133 as well. Therefore, there are places in our scriptures, outside of the Old Testament, that suggest that ideas similar to hesed ideas are in play.
RSC: You are also versed in Ugaritic studies. How does knowing the Ugaritic language inform your study of the Old Testament?
Belnap: The Bible that we have purports to be mainly Iron Age material. There is nothing comparable to the Bible in ancient Near Eastern studies in terms of a single text that has ritual, historical, poetic, wisdom and prophetic genres all wrapped up in one. But the challenge is that most of it is comparatively late in regards to overall ancient Near Eastern history, even if the texts were written pre-exilically. The texts we have in Ugaritic are all late and middle Bronze Age material. The city of Ugarit was destroyed at around 1250 BC. Therefore, right at the time when the Israelites are beginning to come on the scene, the people of Ugarit and their city have been burned, as far as we can tell. And we would never have known of them if they hadn’t written their stories, ritual texts, and letters on clay. Because these documents were baked in the fire that appears to have destroyed the city, the tablets are, in many cases, very well preserved.
What these tablets reveal is a West Semitic people who spoke and thought similarly to ancient Israel. Though the script is in cuneiform markings, they had their own alphabet similar to the Hebrew alphabet. Yet with those similarities, the cultures are not necessarily the same. For example, some the ritual terminology of the two is similar. The Ugaritic ritual texts speak of shalamu type sacrifices whereas in Hebrew we find shelamiym sacrifices. Ugarit didn’t necessarily have the equivalent of a sin offering but there are burnt offerings and these shalamu offerings, whatever they are. But just because they are similar in vocabulary doesn’t necessarily mean that they are similar in meaning or purpose. Sometimes we make that mistake and assume that they were doing peace offerings in the same way that the Hebrews were, but there is nothing to suggest that they were doing it the same way or for the same purpose.
We find this phenomenon in our culture as well. We often use vocabulary that other people use differently—for example, “sacrament.” We use this word in a certain sense, but Catholics use this same word quite differently. Are there similarities? Yes, of course. But they do not mean the same thing. This same idea can be applied to Hebrew and Ugaritic. They use similar terminology with the same basic meaning, but it doesn’t mean that they are doing it for the same reasons or the same way. With that said, the similarities and differences allow us to understand better the worldview reflected in some of the imagery, terminology and polemics found within the Old Testament.
For instance, Ugarit also held a corpus of mythological texts. Herein they talk about their gods and the relationships of their gods to other gods and to mortals, the primary text being that of the ascension to kingship of the deity Baal. Of course, Ba’al is in the Old Testament as well. So here in the Ugaritic texts we get to see what Ba’al is like outside of Israel. This enhances our ability to look at what the Bible is saying and to think about it more critically and to glean better scholarship. The Ba’al story tells how he becomes king. The story is fascinating because he doesn’t become king because he is all-powerful but rather because he is able to build a coalition which supports him. At one point in the myth, he fights the god Death and loses, but in doing so demonstrates one of the reasons why he should in fact become king, which he does by coming back to life. Intriguingly, Jacob uses this general concept to describe the atonement of Christ. Jacob talks about how Christ will overcome this monster death and hell (see 2 Nephi 9:10) by dying. Thus, Ugaritic can help us understand the Book of Mormon as well as Bible.
It is always better when we have another viewpoint, especially when we receive the idea from the Old Testament that the Canaanites are all horrible, wicked, licentious hedonists. In the Ugaritic texts, we find that they mourn their dead, they weep over the loss of family, and they seek for marriage and children. There is even the story of Kirta where the entire story is about making sure that he gets an heir. So we see that there seems to be a general concern across the cultures of this region of making sure that there is a legitimate heir to inherit the family possessions.
The Kirta story is a tragedy. He gets his heir but forgets to pay his vows to the goddess, so the goddess ends up making Kirta sick. His son assumes the throne, but then Kirta gets better and tries to reclaim the throne, and a struggle ensues. It is a real tragedy, but I find a rich narrative concerning human nature. I also feel that way with the story of Aghat and even of the the Baal myth.
RSC: How then do we reconcile the viewpoint of the Old Testament that all Canaanites are bad with this information from Ugarit?
Belnap: Well, most scholars would say that the Old Testament was not trying to present history of the Canaanites so much as give a polemic as to why the Israelite should not become a part of the surrounding culture. The Book of Mormon helps illustrate this principle. It says something to the effect that if they, the Canaanites, were more righteous than we, the Israelites, were, then they would have not lost the land (see 1 Nephi 17:33–35). If we use the Book of Mormon as our guide, then we see that perhaps these other cultures had the truth at some point, but had turned to other gods. But just because they turned to other gods didn’t mean that all the laws of morality and ethics flew out the window. For instance, contrary to popular belief, at Ugarit we don’t find any evidence of sacred prostitutes. We do find this in the Bible and in writers like Herodotus who wrote these fantastic adventures of the Greek world and of the Greco-Roman Hellenistic period. Now scholars are beginning to look at these histories in light of newly found original texts, and they don’t quite match up. Does that mean that the people at Ugarit were doing things the way the Lord wanted them to? No. But the idea of them as completely uncaring about the divine or their spiritual welfare is not true, nor is it reflected in the texts. They were indeed concerned with the spiritual.
RSC: Tell us more about the Ugaritic corpus. What does it contain?
Belnap: Beyond the literary texts that I’ve mentioned there are letters—personal correspondence, there are economic transactions, there are ritual texts and administrative texts, even divinatory texts, the types of things that you might expect to find. The excavation is ongoing and so the possibility of new texts being found is always present.
RSC: How did you choose Ugaritic studies as an area of emphasis?
Belnap: I am not only interested in Ugaritic studies but in larger northwest Semitic studies including Phoenician, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and others. But one thing I like about Ugaritic is that it has a corpus that is manageable. There are thousands of Akkadian texts, and I just don’t have the time nor desire to go through all of them. Same thing with Egyptian and those that do focus in these areas like Egyptian and Akkadian end up focusing again on a more specific time periods within that culture because there is no way in today’s world that one can encompass the entire corpus. With Ugaritic we don’t have that problem. It is a nice, small corpus. It is manageable. But there is enough of it that you can do work in it. Also, I have great interest in ritual, so I can dissect ritual throughout their entire corpus.
RSC: What exactly is ritual studies?
Belnap: It is the study of a type of social behavior in which individuals engage in a formalized behavior that is meant to either bring one into a group, to maintain the group’s solidarity, or to exclude someone from a group. It is about social organization. Ritual has to do with finding a place and meaning within the social order.
RSC: Tell us about one of your favorite Old Testament stories.
Belnap: One of my favorite stories that I often use in class is 1 Kings 22. This is the story of Ahab and Jehoshaphat as they are about to go to war. I like this story because of the humor within it and because we can find at least two or three gospel principles in this story. Here Ahab is being attacked by the Assyrians. Knowing that he can’t fight on his own, he asks Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, for help and Jehoshaphat agrees. After all, they are related through marriage. When they get ready for battle, Jehoshaphat asks Ahab if there are any prophets that they can consult before going into battle. Ahab asks four hundred prophets if they should go to Ramoth-Gilead to fight or not. Well, the prophets come back and say to go and the Lord will deliver him. Jehoshaphat asks if there is a prophet of the Lord that they can consult, suggesting that these four hundred were not prophets of God. Ahab says there is another prophet named Micaiah, but Ahab hates him because he never speaks forth good prophecies. Jehoshaphat says let it not be so and they send for Micaiah. Micaiah answers with “Go, and prosper: for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king” (v. 15). But Ahab is not stupid—he is evil but he is not stupid. So warning bells go off in his brain thinking that this prophet gave the same answer as my false prophets earlier so something must be wrong. So he turns to Micaiah and says, “How many times shall I adjure thee that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the Lord?” (v. 16).
This further suggests a concealed history between these two individuals and Micaiah responds, “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the Lord said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace” (1 Kings 22:17). The interpretation is that Ahab is the shepherd of Israel and will die, which takes us back to Micaiah’s original answer. Was it a false prophecy? No. He just never got around to answering which king the Lord would deliver. So Ahab says to Jehoshaphat, I told you so, and even when the prophecy sounds good, it is bad. Well, this seems to get Micaiah a little angry, and he continues to prophesy and demonstrates that this is not personal but rather a true prophecy of the Lord that will actually come to pass. But it is the last part of the story that I like the most. Ahab goes out into his army and picks a soldier and asks him if he would like to be king for a day, presumably Ahab thinks that if the prophecy is about the death of himself as king, then he make a pretend king who will be killed in Ahab’s stead. So Ahab becomes a common soldier for the day, and a stray arrow comes out of nowhere and takes out Ahab. Moral of the story? You simply cannot outrun prophecy.
RSC: Thank you again for your time and insights.