Introduction to Ruth as a Book of Chesed

The book of Ruth seems to be a nice tale, perhaps a love story. But why is it included in the Bible? Why is it in Jewish faith one of the sacred Writings (ketuvim) and in Christian faith one of the historical books?

The rabbis had their own way of asking this question, “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?” (Ruth Rabbah). In Jewish speak Rabbi Zeira was asking, since Ruth is not like a book of the Torah, where we learn about things prohibited and permitted and things clean and unclean, of what use is it among the sacred writings? A Christian might say, “Since it is not primarily theological, why is it here?”

Some people have read Ruth as a theological book as a way around this problem. A common Christian reading is to find in Ruth foreshadowings of Jesus as redeemer in Boaz, the גֹאֵל gōeil kinsman redeemer. This way of reading Ruth misses its genius completely and makes it a cheap allegory.

The rabbis answered the question differently, “To teach us how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness [chesed].”

What is Chesed and Why Does it Matter?

It’s one of the Bible’s most important concepts. Chesed חֶסֶד 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.

chesed, hesed, חסד

How to pronounce chesed חֶסֶד:

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 chesed in our lives and having faith in the chesed of God?

Chesed in the Hebrew Bible

In Ruth 1:8-10, Naomi says to Ruth and Orpah, “May Adonai do chesed with you as you have with your dead [husbands] and with me.” A smoother translation would be, “May Adonai deal kindly with you.”

Chesed is about an act of benevolence. In the JPS Commentary on Ruth, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky (who died in the early stages of writing it and her work was subsumed by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi) writes a short study on the usage of חֶסֶד in the Hebrew Bible.

In general it means an act that is not done out of obligation. Yet one act of chesed leads to another, so that a recipient of chesed 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 chesed in rescuing Saul’s corpse and burying it.

Chesed 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).

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

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

The greatest chesed 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 Jews 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 chesed leads us to do chesed for others and starts a chain of chesed, each link in the chain adding goodness to the world.

Chesed in Ruth

Ruth is a book about chesed, a chain of acts of kindness, that transform the lives of some people living in a dark time (the days of the Judges). This chain of chesed leads to something more extraordinary than anyone could have imagined. The lives of a few obscure people in Israel’s agrarian past become seeds of Messianic hope on the earth.

This list is adapted from the JPS Commentary on Ruth, by Tikva Frymer-Kensky and Tamara Cohn Eskenazi:

  • 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 chesed in affirming this marriage.
  • Chesed heals Moabite-Israelite relations in one small circle of people.
  • Chesed is a light in the dark days of the Judges in one place in Israel.
  • A chain of chesed leads to the birth of David and, ultimately, Messiah.

Is this making too much of the role of חֶסֶד in the book of Ruth? The very last word of the book is “David.” And the book of Ruth is post-exilic (meaning it was composed some time after Israel returned from exile in Babylon in 539 BCE). It appears to have been the aim of the author to relate the deeds of human beings, when they are filled with devotion and lovingkindness, to the greatest hopes and aspirations of Israel and humanity.

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