The JPS Commentary on Ruth is a delightful blend of scholarship and inspiration. Tikva-Frymer Kensky, who began the commentary and died before its completion, certainly has an investment in the word תִקְוָה tikvah, the basic meaning of which is hope. Perhaps that is why, in commenting on Ruth 1:12, she writes a short word study on it. The results of her study are insightful and suddenly many ideas in the Hebrew Bible are illuminated by the concept of a cord which should not be cut, a cord of hope, which people need to make it in this often troubling life.
The idea of tikvah as a thread or cord is perhaps best illustrated in Joshua 2:18, “When we invade the country, you tie this length of crimson cord to the window through which you let us down.” That is a “cord of crimson thread,” תִקְוַת חוּט הַשָּׁנִי tikvat khoot ha-shanee (and khoot is thread in this phrase while tikvat is rendered “cord of”).
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, who completed the work of her teacher Frymer-Kensky, says:
The imagery in this idiom suggests that our life is spun out like a cord, and hope arises from the strength of that cord, representing the prospect of a viable future. Indeed, tikvah, used in this sense, appears four times elsewhere in the Bible in parallel with the Hebrew akhareet “future.”
The four examples of tikvah being used in poetic parallel with the word “future” are instructive:
- Jeremiah 29:11, For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you — declares the Lord — plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a hopeful future.
- Jeremiah 31:17, And there is hope for your future — declares the Lord: your children shall return to their country.
- Proverbs 23:18, For then you will have a future, And your hope will never fail.
- Proverbs 24:14, Know: such is wisdom for your soul; If you attain it, there is a future; Your hope will not be cut off.
As Frymer-Kensky notes, the Proverbs passages have the idea that a good future means not having your cord cut. The word for “cut” is karet, a word famous in Torah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible in phrases like “they will be cut off from their people.” As individuals we are attached by a cord to the covenant promises of God and the possibility of a good future is a cord we wish to maintain. God is a master of attaching us to the cord and reattaching us when we sever the connection.
She uses also the example of Job 14:7, “There is hope for a tree; If it is cut down it will renew itself; Its shoots will not cease.” The idea of a shoot coming from a stump is found in many places like Isaiah 6:13; 11:1; and in the “Branch” imagery in Jeremiah and Zechariah. The concept of Messiah is similar to the cord of hope which is cut off but which God renews.
The Israelites complain in Ezekiel 37:11, in Babylon, “Our bones are dry, our tikvah is lost, we are cut off.” But we know how that chapter ends. The dry bones receive the breath of God and there is life.
Naomi in Ruth 1:12 feels cut off from family (her husband and sons dead) and she is pushing her daughters-in-law back to the house of their mothers. But the book of Ruth is about hesed (see the post “Hesed in the Bible”). Not only do people show lovingkindness (hesed) toward each other in Ruth. But also God has a surprise for Naomi. She who feels cut off from the cord of hope will be reattached by God in a miracle of human love.