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Ontology of God - Religion Series








Beyond the law - moral development of mercy

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


The things that we believe that God asks of us, as seen in historical religious literature, seem to me to be a window into what God is all about. In creating a construct of characteristics of God (an ontology of one particular kind of relationship) this would seem to be a key type of relationship to explore.

In the shift in the continuum from law to love, "mercy" was an important part in the shift in emphasis from "don't do..." to "do." If we can take the ancient writings as a guide to what God requires of us, which reflects what God is about, then so far these things are "justice, mercy, and charity."

The Law, as shown in the previous chapter, was one of the earliest developments in religion that presented some understanding of what people thought that God wanted of man. As religions continued to grow, such ideas as mercy followed. We can get to this conclusion by conjecture, but there other, perhaps better, ways.

How do you understand, in the development of religion, what ideas were present in people's thinking? How do you trace the development of an idea? For example, what developmental ideas transpired between the development of the notion of law and the notion of love?

Concepts typically don't last long without being anchored to something permanent. If there is an idea that becomes prevalent, somehow that idea has to be communicated, and that is done through signs (signifiers), such as words, which point to the idea (the signified). So the first step is to identify the possible words that might point to that idea.

By knowing the words that represent the concept, you have part of a tool. But that tool is problematic. For example, if you created a word frequency table for a text, such as the Bible, you would find that the word you are searching for not only would not occur very often, it would only be less than .01% of the words in the entire text. This would mislead you into thinking that the text was not "about" that word. A quick scan of an "exhaustive concordance" that lists every occurence of a word in a text shows the limitations of this method.

You could say that conceptually an entire religious text is about "love," but the word "love" itself does not occur very often. The current state of artificial intelligence, in analyzing documents, faces this steep limitation. Evaluating a text is not as simple as doing a word count. It also doesn't help that the ancient greek language, from which modern Bible translations are typically made, had several words for different types of love, yet they are all translated into the English word, "love."

I'm not a linguist, and my method does not involve translation. I depend on the translator's interpretation of the text, and only dig into word meanings for background and technical reasons.

Second, because the concept might not have developed in exactly the way that you understand the specific word, the next step is to map that word to other similar words to create a cluster of words with related meanings. This can be accomplished with a thesaurus, or a lexical reference system that organizes words by synonyms, such as Wordnet®. I also use Roget's Thesaurus of the Bible, as well as concordances, various translations, dictionaries of ancient words showing word roots, searchable electronic texts, and my own mental associations. Having done this, I then begin searching for those words in the historical literature, and examine their usage and development.

This is one way to research. I also know, as already noted, that many ideas occurred among the Prophets to Israel that were never labeled with these words. More on this later.


Kindness is one word (I was taught in college) that is a key word in historian's understanding of religion. The idea of being kind comes from the root idea of "looking favorably toward, beauty, good deeds, mercy, pity." It might also embrace the ideas of charity, compassion, unselfishness, kindness, loving-kindness, and hospitality.

The "kindness" or "loving-kindness" of God is spoken of early in the Bible. You might think that this idea was central to the moral conduct of early religious followers. But the idea of people being "kind" to others was not mentioned in the Bible until the book of Proverbs. Note that material for the book of Proverbs existed well before it was put in writing after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon (598 to 538 BC).

Proverbs is a book filled with observations about life experience. The zeitgeist of the times perhaps made kindness a favored topic in many cultures. In Proverbs, kindness is spoken of with reference to the poor and needy. Even at that, the idea of being kind to others doesn't occur often until the New Testament writers use it.

Similarly, the words "kindness" and "kindly" have little use, not occurring as an action toward others until the book of Ruth. The book of Ruth probably was written during a time of harsh actions that resulted from the inward turn of the Israelites in trying to purify their religion (written after the rebuilding of the Temple in 516 BC). The book skews their inward turned focus outward, raising the question of who should be included in this exclusive community.

Note: In the Bible New Testament, the words kind and kindness are used more often. The Apostle Paul sees kindness as God's instrument for changing us.

At about the same time that the Book of Ruth was written, and the Book of Proverbs was put in writing, Buddha (~500 BC, Hinduism) said, "By the practice of loving-kindness I have attained liberation of heart, and thus I am assured that I shall never return in renewed births. I have even now attained Nirvana." ...loving-kindness is sixteen times more efficacious in liberating the heart than all other religious accomplishments taken together. In "loving-kindness," Buddha had found the keys to "heaven:" rest and joy.

Buddha's writing are sprinkled with words such as "charity, compassion, unselfishness, kindness, and loving-kindness." Occasionally these are in reference to the kindness of God, but mostly these are all pointed outward from men toward others.

Confucius (China, Confucianism, 551 BC), said about perfect virtue, "To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue." ...Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness. If you are grave, you will not be treated with disrespect. If you are generous, you will win all. If you are sincere, people will trust in you. If you are earnest, you will accomplish much. If you are kind, this will enable you to employ the services of others."

Confucius's perspective seems a bit more motivated by the self-interest of the individual regarding a more practical point of view about what the returns would be for your virtuosity. Yet he embraced even the idea that "injury be recompensed with kindness," even more so than seeking justice for injury. Kindness to others is mentioned only occasionally by Confucius.

Zarathustra (Persia, 628 BC, Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism - early and later Zoroaster) speaks primarily of kindness of God toward men, and only occasionally about kindness of one man toward another. But he understands the power of kindness in the role of pleasing God and counteracting wickedness, saying, "...the thing that counteracts it, namely, when a man unasked, kindly and piously, gives to one of the faithful something, be it ever so little, of the riches he has treasured up."


"Mercy," I would argue, is a word more important than kindness. In English, it precedes kindness, and includes the idea of forgiveness.

Mercy: A disposition to be kind and forgiving.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.)

The word "mercy" (or merciful) has mostly usages in the Bible Old Testament as an action by God. It isn't until the New Testament, in the book of Matthew, that Christ says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He expects people to study this idea. Later he expresses the idea that God has mercy on others, forgiving their debts, so they should forgive others (in a larger sense than monetary).

Echoing Isaiah (read more below), Christ berates those who play at being religious while neglecting things like justice and mercy. (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; 18:33; 23:23.)

For the Buddha, mercy is part of the perfect quality of God, and of the seeker. "Pure is he and wise, loving and full of mercy. As the rays of the sun drown the darkness of the world, so he who perseveres in his search will find the truth and the truth will enlighten him." Mercy is infrequently mentioned by Buddha, yet he asserts its quality is essential, saying, "...the truth which he has taught us lives in our minds and cleanses us from all error. Let us, then, go out into the world, as compassionate and merciful as our great master, and preach to all living beings the four noble truths and the eightfold path of righteousness, so that all mankind may attain to a final salvation..."

The Hindu Upanishads seldom mention mercy, except to instruct to be merciful. The Bhagavad-Gita mentions mercy only as something coming from God.

Zarathustra (Zoroastrianism) seeks mercy from God only at judgment.

For the Egyptians, in the Book Of The Dead, (written down as early as ~1600 BC, but with some texts dating from as far back as 2400 BC) "God is merciful unto those who reverence Him..." Beyond that, justice, truth, and order (Ma'at) were the cornerstones of Egyptian religion, and beyond the broad expression of justice the religion is silent on the concepts sought in this query.

So far, I have found no words in the Mayan religion, which dates much later in history than the Axial Age, corresponding to the words used in this query.


Forgiving others (forgive, forgiveness) is seen a bit earlier and more often. In the OT, Joseph is asked to forgive his brothers (Genesis 50:17). But forgiving others isn't a big idea until in the New Testament. In the New Testament, forgiving becomes a dependency. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. Don't forgive others and you won't be forgiven.

For the Persian and Eastern religions, the word "forgive" draws a blank. Buddha understands and uses the word, but not as an imperative - not something he feels compelled to advise people to do. While many of his teachings must embody a sense of forgiveness, forgiving had not taken hold as an important concept in its own right, of action toward others. Perhaps forgiving was a cultural imperative, just as hospitality was in the Middle East, and didn't have to be mentioned. I don't know.

Benevolence and blessings

Even the idea of being benevolent toward others doesn't get much of a hearing in the Bible OT. God gives and blesses (blesses: congratulates, praises, honors, thanks... or by extension, the visible actions or indications of same. The idea is to set apart or recognize as something worthy and special, and show favor, as applied to creation, man, the Sabbath, God, etc.). The blessings of God are perhaps most fully perceived by the receiver.

Hypothesis testing and other methods

The hypothesis that important and lasting concepts become well defined and attached to symbols (words) that can be searched for in ancient literature doesn't quite hold. Some concepts were present in the vocabulary, but were simply not discussed in religious literature. Forgiveness is one example, in some literature. "Hospitality" is another. We know that the custom in the Middle East was for people to be very "hospitable" toward travelers. Was that an expectation? We see it practiced in the OT, but the word is not mentioned until the NT.

Cultural context is an important element that has to be considered. The Middle East is a semi-arid land, with rugged and inhospitable areas through which travelers would pass. It was difficult for people to take enough food with them on a long journey. They could easily be attacked by thieves in remote areas. Their animals, if they brought them, would also need large quantities of food and water. They typically traveled in groups for safety, making their needs even larger. Wells and springs with water were infrequent and difficult to find.

When people arrived unbidden at another's doorstep, it was both a treat for the for the welcomer and the weary traveler... and a burden. Tired, hot, dusty feet were washed, thirsts were quenched, food was prepared, sleeping arrangements were made, animals were cared for, and stories and news were told. Hospitality was typically the custom of the land for those who took social responsibility seriously. We know from as early as the days of Sumer, that travelers were to be respected and protected. Where this idea came from, we don't know, other than from the growth of civilization in meeting the legitimate needs of the people.

Another thing that has to be considered is that people don't take ideas and run with them overnight. Populations develop slowly, and their development through history, I believe, is based on their existing good traditions that they build on. For example, the Biblical narrative of the Israelites, shows that they first learned to follow God, a specific God (the identified God of Abraham) through the wilderness, and then they were given some basic laws to follow (Ten Commandments). They were then, through hundreds of years of history, shown example after example of God's justice, forgiveness, and mercy. These were examples to emulate. It wasn't until the time of the Prophet Isaiah that they were pressed to do these things, as God had already set the example in doing toward them.

Mercy and kindness are demonstrated as an action toward others, and were known to people in ancient days - religions didn't invent the action. A word symbol, in the appropriate language, was attached to the concept. During the Axial Age, the concept of "kindness" seemed to take hold in many religions. There is some indication that "kindness" perhaps embraced all of the related concepts sought in this query into individual ideas, such as mercy, hospitality, compassion, and forgiveness. From "mercy," The Israelites separated out the important idea of "forgiveness," and made it blossom.

Opposites can also give a clue to the nature of things. What is the opposite of kindness and charity? The Prophet Isaiah (742 to 687 BC) devoted himself to expounding on this issue. When the Northern Tribe of Israel, Judah, became conquered and annexed to the Assyrian Empire, Isaiah scolded and berated his people for all of the evils that they did.

He told them that they prayed and made sacrifices for God, but God was sickened by them because their hands were covered in the blood of their sick actions. He especially warned about their treatment of the poor, mentioning their oppression of them a dozen times. They must cease doing harm and learn to do good. That is, Isaiah explained, they must seek justice, correct oppression, support and protect the welfare of the fatherless, and advocate for the widow.

If they continued their vile ways, they would end up with nothing but misery. But Isaiah was not a prophet of gloom and doom. They could change their ways and would then be forgiven and blessed. He counterpoises his statements with forgiveness and hope, describing beautiful and idyllic days ahead.

The ideas expressed by Isaiah were hardly different from the codes of justice already laid down (as seen in the previous chapter). But Isaiah's focus was on social action. Isaiah's words are the first time in recorded history that so much emphasis was placed on the morality of social action.

Near the books end, Isaiah concludes, the sacrifice God wants is for you to "...let the oppressed go free... share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor to your house... and clothe the naked...


What is important, it seems to me, in analyzing text, is finding key texts that use the key words within a contextual reference that has a wide perspective over the entire literature, and summarizes the key thoughts or intent. Hopefully I have noted here some key texts from various religions.

The Axial Age was a breakthrough age for many major religions. In keeping with the spirit (intent) of the basis laid earlier in antiquity for religion: Justice? Yes, absolutely, as already demanded in earlier history. Care for the widow and orphan - part of doing justice. Fairness in trade - certainly.

Specifically in various religions: Fulfill the law out of love (Buddha - Hindu). Don't return an injury for an injury (Confucius - Confucianism). Repay injury with kindness (Confucius). Kindness, loving-kindness - all of the religions. Mercy, forgiveness (Israel - Judaism). Care of the poor and needy (Isaiah - Judaism).

We can encourage people to treat each other in certain ways. But the social structure has a flaw. That is, we are all human and we all do things that separate us from others. In society, and as individuals, there has to be mercy and forgiveness. As the Buddha so wisely noted, "People will forgive great wrongs which they have suffered, but they will never be at ease about the wrong which they themselves have done. They will persecute their victims to the bitter end."

The qualities of mercy and forgiveness must have a high profile in our world. We have to know that our wrongs are forgiven. We have to be able to forgive ourselves. Without this, the pain of guilt can't heal and there is a defensive animosity toward ourselves that makes us remain separate from others, even if it means continuing to hurt them.

What does the religious thrust at 800 BC to 300 BC, ~ the Axial Age, add up to? It was a shift in a continuum from law to love. It was part of a shift in emphasis from "don't do..." to "do." If we can take the ancient writings as a guide to what God requires of us, which reflects what God is about, then so far these things are "justice, mercy, and charity."

In action, these three things involve righting wrongs (such as unfair trade and crime), protecting the defenseless against the ravages of hunger and lack of shelter, being kind to others, and forgiving those who injure us. People in all religions have always turned to God for justice and mercy. This was the example shown to them through God's treatment of them. This is the essence or spirit (intent) of morality.

In the Bible NT, Christ confirms the concept that trying to be religious without showing mercy is offensive.

The Prohet Micah, summed up the words of his contemporary Isaiah, in words that rumbled like thunder through history, telling what was known about God: Micah 6:8 (RSV) "He has shown you what is good. What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

In the revelation (revealing) of God to man, there was more to come... Next: love.

- Scott


The Axial Age is a controversial identification of a historical period. For more on the Axial Age, visit: Was there an Axial Age? at

Another interesting and relevant site: The Web Chronology Project. "...hyperlinked chronologies developed by instructors, and historical articles prepared by students, intended for use in history classes. The chronologies present alternatives to conventional historical periodizations."

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