Hesed and Ruth

I wrote this post for my main blog at DerekLeman.com/Musings. Although the style is a touch more homiletical than others on the Reading Ruth site, the content fits well with Lesson 3 on Ruth 1:8-10.

It’s one of the Bible’s most important concepts. Hesed should be a word on your lips, whether you know Hebrew or not. For Jews it should be as easy as saying Shabbat or shalom. For Christians it should be as easy as saying agape or ekklesia. Sometimes spelled chesed or khesed, it is pronounced KHE-sed (the e’s are short as in “bed” — kh is a sound made in the throat in between a k and an h — accent is on the first syllable). It is used 297 times in the Bible.

It is notoriously hard to translate. One traditional rendering is “lovingkindness” (a pretty good choice). Other common renderings: kindness or mercy. I think mercy is not a good translation (so Micah 6:8 should not contain the word mercy).

What is so important about hesed? Why should we make it a point to learn more about the word, about the concept, about having hesed in our lives and having faith in the hesed of God? This lesson on hesed was inspired by my work this morning in the book of Ruth. At https://readingruth.wordpress.com I have been posting lessons in translating and interpreting Ruth. Today’s lesson I am preparing is on Ruth 1:8-10. In it, Naomi says to Ruth and Orpah, “May Adonai do hesed with you as you have with your dead [husbands] and with me.” A smoother translation would be, “May Adonai deal kindly with you …”


R. Zeira said: This scroll [of Ruth] tells us nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, either of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach us how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness [hesed].

This list is adapted from the introduction to Ruth in the JPS Commentary by Tikva Frymer-Kensky and Tamara Cohn Eskanazi:

  • Ruth refuses to abandon the widow, Naomi.
  • Boaz goes beyond obligation to show kindness to Ruth and Naomi.
  • Naomi seeks a way to help Ruth.
  • Ruth offers herself to Boaz and encourages him to become her redeemer.
  • Boaz extends his care to Ruth and Naomi.
  • Boaz goes even beyond all this and marries Ruth.
  • The community acts with hesed in affirming this marriage.
  • Hesed heals Moabite-Israelite relations in one small circle of people.
  • Hesed is a light in the dark days of the Judges in one place in Israel.
  • A chain of hesed leads to the birth of David and, ultimately, Messiah.

Frymer-Kensky started work on the JPS Commentary on Ruth and passed from this world while she was working. But an edited, brief article about hesed is part of her surviving work in the commentary.

Hesed is about an act of benevolence. In general it means an act that is not done out of obligation. Yet one act of hesed leads to another, so that a recipient of hesed often feels an obligation to reciprocate. Frymer-Kensky gives the example of 2 Samuel 1:5-6, in which David promises to do good to the city of Jabesh-Gilead because they showed hesed in rescuing Saul’s corpse and burying it.

Hesed can involve forgiveness. In the days of King Ahab, God gave Israel victory over the Syrians (Arameans). The defeated Syrian king was told that if he came repentant back to Ahab, he would be spared, because the Israelite kings were known for hesed (1 Kings 20:31).

Hesed can refer to acts of unmerited generosity from God (for which Christians would use the word grace). God does hesed for Abraham (Gen 24:12, 16), Jacob (32:11) David (1 Kgs 3:5), David’s descendants (Psa 62:13). God does hesed for a thousand generations (Exod 20:6; Deut 7:9; Jer 32:18).

Frymer-Kensky notes that hesed can seem like a contradictory concept. Is hesed strictly measure for measure justice or is it unmerited generosity? In favor of the idea of hesed as being for those who merit it, we have Psalm 62:13, “You require each person according to his deeds” and Psalm 33:5, “you love righteousness and justice, your hesed fills the earth.” But in favor of unmerited generosity, we have promises such as 2 Samuel 22:51, in which God will do hesed for David’s descendants regardless of their merit. Moses in his prayer in Numbers 14:19 calls on God’s hesed for forgive undeserving Israel.

The greatest hesed of God, says Frymer-Kensky, is when he suspends justice to give us what we do not deserve. That is the textbook definition of grace in Christianity, by the way, and while Christian often wrongly think of Judaism as a religion of merit, we pray, “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no deeds [to merit favor].”

Frymer-Kensky says God’s act of hesed leads us to do hesed for others and starts a chain of hesed, each link in the chain adding goodness to the world. The story of Ruth is a story of such a chain of hesed and how it changed the lives of a circle of people and changed the world, bringing from it the Messiah.


1 Comment

Filed under Extra Insight

One response to “Hesed and Ruth

  1. Pingback: Lesson 3: Ruth 1:8-10 | A Close Reading and Translation of Ruth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s