Grace in the Old Testament

Jan 24, 2013

Preliminary Note:

It has come to my attention that in the course of my Bible study blogs, when I insert the Hebrew or Greek words (in their respective alphabets), they show up in my blog on my screen in the Hebrew and Greek fonts, but they show up as “gobbledegook” on the screens of many readers. Henceforth, I will usually omit the Hebrew/Greek alphabet and give the transliterations and pronunciations provided by my BibleWorks software, along with the Strong’s Reference Number (SRN).

We are in the process of a long train of studies on the fruits of the Spirit. Our preliminary study involves the subject of grace. In the Old Testament (OT), the Hebrew word for grace is usually H2580 chen {pronounced: khane}. In the Greek, it is G5485 charis {khar’-ece}. It can refer to physical beauty, which is a rare usage, but it is there. In that sense, it is used several times in the Book of Proverbs as “an ornament of grace for thy head.”—meaning simply, an ornament of beauty. Even in a figurative sense, it still has that meaning of beauty.

A second meaning of grace—and this is by far the most common meaning in the OT—is that it is an idiomatic equivalent of the way we often use the words, to like, or to love, as in, “Because I like you, I am going to give you such and such.” Or “If you really love me, brother, then you won’t treat me like that.” Except that in the Bible, we find it stated like these examples: The first is when Jacob died in Egypt.

Genesis 50: 4 And when the days of his mourning were past, Joseph spake unto the house of Pharaoh, saying, If now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying,

And then Joseph requests permission to go back to Canaan to bury his father Jacob. In virtually all of these cases in the OT, the word grace is synonymous with favor. “If I have found favor in your eyes…” “If you really like me, if you think of me highly, etc.”

Another example is when the tribes of Reuben and Gad came to Moses and asked him if they could have the land on the east side of the Jordan river.

Numbers 32: 5 Wherefore, said they, if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan.

If you recall the rest of that exchange, they cut a deal. Moses authorized these tribes to possess the land on the east of Jordan if they would agree to go to war with the rest of the tribes to drive the Canaanites out of the land on the west side of Jordan. So in a sense, the “grace” they sought from Moses was contingent on their agreeing to the selective service system.

Then there is the case of Ruth. When Ruth was treated so kindly by Boaz, she wondered why and so she asked him.

Ruth 2:10 Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?

Was this a case of unmerited favor? Not really. As we read Boaz’s answer, he basically says: Well, I saw how you behaved. I liked your character.

11 And Boaz answered and said unto her, It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore.

So Ruth in effect earned the grace of Boaz.

As we survey the typical usage of the term grace or favor in the OT, we find that this Hebrew word khane is found almost 70 times and it is close to evenly split between being translated as grace and favor. The vast majority of its occurrences are this idiomatic phrase “to find grace or favor” in someone’s sight.

In practically every use of the word grace or favor, it looks like a person is shown favor because of their own merits or who they are. In other words, it appears to not match at all the New Testament (NT), Pauline conception of grace as unmerited favor.

For example, in Genesis 39:1-6, Joseph found grace in the eyes of Potiphar. From our human perspective, you could say Joseph earned Potiphar’s favor. Evidently, Joseph’s behavior, mannerisms, character and work ethic, and so forth were pleasing to Potiphar and for that reason, Potiphar favored Joseph. From God’s perspective, though, the reason Joseph found grace from Potiphar was because of God’s grace upon Joseph.

Genesis 38:3 And his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand.

So in reality, it was God working through Joseph, wasn’t it? Therefore, even though Paul is credited with creating the bulk of NT theology, what Paul was really doing was drawing out truths that were in the OT all along, but were somewhat hidden from our understanding! (To be continued.)

Category: Teaching