The Hebrew text surprises us with unusual, sometimes deeply meaningful, phrases. Consider the story of Joseph. His brothers did not recognize him, but saw only a Lord of Egypt. Joseph did not know what to see in his brothers. Were they murderous thugs or regretful brothers. Had they learned anything after their rash act of jealousy cost him so much?
At the moment Joseph first sees his younger brother, who must have been a young boy when Joseph was taken away, the emotion overwhelms him. He leaves the room because the feeling is too much and he does not wish to let his brothers see how he feels.
Warmth and Compassion, a Hebrew Idiom
nichmeru rachamav, נִכְמְרוּ רַחֲמָיו, is commonly translated “he was overcome.”
But the literal meaning is “his compassions were warmed.”
In Lamentations 5:10 the verb is used of a fever. In Hosea 11:8, God is determined to punish Israel but says, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? . . . All my tenderness is warmed.”
Rachamim is “a loving feeling, compassion.” To say that Joseph’s “loving feeling was warmed” seems strange. The idea seems to be that compassion, mercy, tenderness comes from a place inside us, in our gut.
And in fact there is a variant word, rechem רֶחֶם, that means “womb.” The feelings we have for one another famously come from our gut, and those feelings could be described as warmth, a tingle, a pang of emotion in our inner being.
Scores of verses speak to us about God’s rachamim. God feels. It is as if God has guts just like us humans. And they can be warmed. Some imagine him an emotionless deity, far removed from our doings and being. The Hebrew Bible suggests the possibility he feels deeply, like we do, and is involved in the world.
The experience of compassion, tenderness, affection, warms our inside, perhaps painfully at times. It is typically Hebrew to express this with concrete terminology. Joseph’s inner compassions were warmed and he had to get away to let the heat subside.