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In Nehemiah 1:5 of the NIV Bible, we read a phrase : "[who] keeps [His] Covenant [of love]".

  • Is וָחֶ֔סֶד "va-Chesed" really describing the type of Covenant?

Why does Nehemiah 1:5 in NIV prefer שֹׁמֵ֚ר הַבְּרִית֙ וָחֶ֔סֶד "Shomer HaB'rit va-Chesed" as "[who] keeps [His] Covenant [of Love]" instead of what the Hebrew states: "He guards The-Covenant and-Kindness"?

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    I think you are asking why the NIV seems to be ignoring the grammar.
    – Perry Webb
    Jul 20 at 15:30
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Nehemiah 1:5 New International Version

Then I said: “LORD, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps [h8104 ] his covenant [h1285] of love [h2617] with those who love him and keep his commandments,

The focal word here is H2617, checed, חֵסֵד. It is a versatile word with many meanings.

KJV Translation Count — Total: 248x

The KJV translates Strong's H2617 in the following manner: mercy (149x), kindness (40x), lovingkindness (30x), goodness (12x), kindly (5x), merciful (4x), favour (3x), good (1x), goodliness (1x), pity (1x), reproach (1x), wicked thing (1x).

Even the phrase "keeps his covenent of love", h8104 h1285 h2617, appears several times.

Brown-Driver-Briggs

e. in keeping the covenants, with Abraham Micah 7:20; with Moses and Israel שׁמר הַבְּרִית וְ(הַ)חֶסֶד keep-eth the covenant and the lovingkindness Deuteronomy 7:9,12; 1 Kings 8:23 2Chronicles 6:14; Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 9:32; Daniel 9:4; with David and his dynasty 2 Samuel 7:15 = 1 Chronicles 17:13; 2 Samuel 22:51 = Psalm 18:51, 1 Kings 3:6 (twice in verse) = 2Chronicles 1:8; Psalm 89:29; Psalm 89:34; with the wife Zion Isaiah 54:10.

NASB 1995 gives a balanced translation:

I said, “I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments

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The Hebrew does not say "He guards The-Covenant and-Kindness" -- this is a good example of why you can't do a direct word-for-word substitution and call that a translation.

One particular issue with Hebrew is that it has a much smaller vocabulary than English, so while Hebrew may use the same word to express three different senses, in English there may be three different words to use. Or more, and it would be an incorrect translation to use the same english word in all the situations, so there is not a single english word that maps to each Hebrew word.

Shamar

In this specific case, the verb at issue is shamar, which has as a gloss "guard, protect, keep, obey" and that's just for starters.

But how it is translated in English requires choosing different English words based on the context.

For example, in Genesis 17.9, a correct translation is "Thou shalt keep my covenant", not "thou shalt guard my covenant", although if you did say "guard", most english speakers would, with some effort, be able to figure out you were trying to say "keep".

Similarly, in Gen 24.6, a correct translation of shamar is "take care to do", as in "you must take care that you do not return my son there". One would not say "you must guard that you do not return my son" even though if you did say that, most English speakers would be able to figure out that you meant "take care to do".

Also in Exodus 10.28, a correct translation of "shamar" is "Be careful", as in "Be careful not to see my face". Again, you would not translate this as "guard" even though if you did use "guard", most people would, with some effort, figure out you meant "Be careful".

So in general, translating cannot be reduced to a word-for-word substitution. It is very dangerous to take a basic knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and start "improving" translations done by teams of scholars.

Chesed

The second tricky word here is "chesed", which again has a broad semantic range. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has a 10,000 word article on chesed, dividing interpretation into broad categories, which I will summarize here:

  1. secular usage: reciprocal loyalty, kindness, mutual care, with an emphasis on mutuality and activity (e.g. rendering aid, demonstrating loyalty, etc), often used with kin or those in a dependency relationship (ruler/servant).

In view of the impressive evidence for the mutuality of ḥeseḏ, we may venture the conjecture that even in cases where the context does not suggest such mutuality it is nevertheless implicit, because we are dealing with the closest of human bonds. In the case of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 20:13) as well as Orpah/Ruth and Mahlon/Chilion (Ruth 1:8), it is the relationship between husband and wife; in the case of Israel and Joseph (Gen. 47:29), it is father and son; in the case of Laban/Bethuel and Isaac (Gen. 24:49), it is next of kin; and in 2 S. 16:17, it should be noted that Hushai’s relationship to David is called that of a “friend” (rēaʿ). e. Finally, it is worth noting that, of the passages just discussed, Gen. 24:49; 47:29; Josh. 2:14 use the phrase ḥeseḏ weʾemeṯ. This expression is generally (and correctly) understood as an hendiadys, in which the second noun ʾemeṯ (→ אמן ʾāman) emphasizes the permanence, certainty, and lasting validity of the demonstration or promise of ḥeseḏ. The same phenomenon is expressed by the phrase ʿaḏ-ʿôlām in Jonathan’s request that after his death David will not cut off his ḥeseḏ from the house of Jonathan for ever (1 S. 20:15). That demonstration of ḥeseḏ includes the element of ʾemeṯ is also shown by the use of šqr, “deal falsely,” as an antonym in Gen. 21:23.

  1. chesed as reference to good deeds:

a. Before we can summarize our observations, the other occurrences of ḥeseḏ in secular usage should be mentioned, to round out the picture that has been sketched. The active nature of ḥeseḏ is underlined by the use of the verb ʿāśâ in Zec. 7:9 and Ps. 109:16. Similarly, the pl. ḥasāḏîm in 2 Ch. 32:32; 35:26; Neh. 13:14 refers to the “good deeds” of Hezekiah, Josiah, and Nehemiah; in Neh. 13:14, this phrase is reinforced by the explanatory clause “that I have done for (ʿāśâ + be) the house of God and its furnishings.”

and also:

In addition, however, the element of doing mišpāṭ comes very much to the fore in this group of occurrences. In Mic. 6:8, mišpaṭ and ḥeseḏ appear in parallel in the statement of what God requires of mankind. Hos. 12:7(6) says the same: “Hold fast to ḥeseḏ and mišpāṭ.” And on a throne established upon ḥeseḏ shall sit a judge who seeks mišpāṭ and ṣeḏeq (Isa. 16:5). We have what amounts to an interpretative elaboration of the concept mišpāṭ when the absence of ḥeseḏ and similar concepts spoken of in Hos. 4:1 leads in v. 2 to swearing, lying, killing, stealing, adultery, and murder. In like manner, the requirement of Zec. 7:9, “Render true judgments (mišpaṭ ʾemeṯ), show ḥeseḏ and raḥamîm each to his brother,” is interpreted in v. 10: “Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.” And according to Ps. 109, forgetting to show ḥeseḏ leads to persecution of the poor and needy (v. 16), together with love of cursing and dislike of blessing (v. 17). Those who act according to this divine requirement can therefore be called ʾanšê-ḥeseḏ (Isa. 57:1; Prov. 11:17 [sg.]); in Isa. 57:1 we find the ṣaddîq in parallel, and in Prov. 11:17 the “cruel man” (ʾaḵzārî) is cited in contrast. It follows from these principles that iniquity (ʿāwōn) can be atoned for through ḥeseḏ and ʾemeṯ.

  1. religious usage:

Our observations to this point illustrate the great semantic range of the word ḥeseḏ in religious usage. The recipients of God’s kindness include Abraham (Gen. 24), Jacob (Gen. 32:11[10]), the men of Jabesh-gilead (2 S. 2:5f.), the anointed of Yahweh (2 S. 22:51 par. Ps. 18:51[50]), David (2 S. 7:15; 1 K. 3:6; 1 Ch. 17:13; 2 Ch. 1:8), Job (Job 10:12), Ruth, Orpah, and Boaz (Ruth 1:8; 2:20), but also the thousand generations of the devout (Ex. 20:6; Dt. 5:10; Jer. 32:18). His kindness can mean success in finding a bride (Gen. 24:12, 14, 27), increase in possessions (Gen. 32:11[10]), active aid in the establishment of a dynasty (2 S. 7:15; 1 Ch. 17:13; 2 Ch. 1:8), or success and prosperity in general (2 S. 2:6; cf. 15:20). This variety shows that in demonstrations of divine ḥeseḏ we are dealing with the same phenomenon as in human actions. The recipients and manifestations of God’s kindness largely coincide with secular usage.

The above is only a small sample of different examples of English translation targets for chesed.

Different translations

In light of the above, we should see now how the major translations approach the use of shamar and chesed in this passage, with all translations using "keep" for shamar, but some translations emphasizing

  • the mutuality aspect of chesed (e.g. God reciprocates with love and faithfulness those who love him and are faithful to him)
  • the good deeds aspect (kindness, mercy)
  • still others the faithfulness aspect.

The following are some examples of how this passage is translated:

  • ESV

And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,

  • KJV

And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments

  • NRSV

I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments;

  • JPS Tanakh (1985)

I said, “O LORD, God of Heaven, great and awesome God, who stays faithful to His covenant with those who love Him and keep His commandments!

  • RSV

And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments;

  • YLT

And I say, ‘I beseech thee, O Jehovah, God of the heavens, God, the great and the fearful, keeping the covenant and kindness for those loving Him, and for those keeping His commands,

  • LEB

I said, “O Yahweh God of the heavens, the great and awesome one who keeps the covenant and loyal love for the ones who love him and for those who keep his commands.

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The BDB lexicon and the Gesenius's grammar give no indication of NIV's translation (the waw in particular) being valid.

הַבְּרִית וְ(הַ)חֶסֶד keepeth the covenant and the lovingkindness Dt 7:9, 12; 1 K 8:23 = 2 Ch 6:14, Ne 1:5; -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 339). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

However the Jewish Publication Society's translation translates these words similarly.

I said, “O LORD, God of Heaven, great and awesome God, who stays faithful to His covenant with those who love Him and keep His commandments! (Neh. 1:5, JPS Tanakh)

As well as HCSV:

I said, Yahweh, the God of heaven, the great and awe-inspiring God who keeps His gracious covenant with those who love Him and keep His commands, (Neh. 1:5, HCSV)

Of course the translation of חֶ֔סֶד varies, but these translations seem to ignore the וָ.

Senses in the Old Testament:

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