Hesed is a power word in the Bible and the most important word in the book of Ruth. It shows up three times, but the concept runs through the whole story and ultimately drives the action. Naomi says it first when she attempts to part from her daughters-in-law. “May the Lord show [hesed] to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me” (1:8). She says it again when Ruth brings home her gleanings. “He has not stopped showing his [hesed] to the living and the dead” (2:20). Boaz uses hesed to describe Ruth’s actions when she proposes marriage to him. “This [hesed] is greater than that which you showed earlier” (3:10).
The challenge for the reader of the book of Ruth is that English translations of hesed are “too small” and don’t begin to convey either the power of hesed or its prominence in the story.
The problem with hesed is that English doesn’t have an equivalent word for it, which puts translators in a quandary. In the search for an appropriate substitute, they offer English readers a smorgasbord of words like “kindness,” “mercy,” “loyalty,” “loving-kindness,” “loyal, steadfast, unfailing (or just plain) love”— words that certainly touch on what hesed means but by themselves don’t begin to do justice to this powerful, richly laden word.
As a result, we easily skim over references to hesed without realizing we have just stumbled over one of the most potent words in the Old Testament. Hesed is the way God intended for human beings to live together from the beginning—the “love-your-neighbor-as-yourself” brand of living, an active, selfless, sacrificial caring for one another that goes against the grain of our fallen natures.
Hesed is a costly brand of love that involves going above and beyond what anyone has a right to ask or expect. It is the brand of love at work in the actions of Ruth, Boaz, and ultimately of Naomi too.
YHWH is the ultimate hesed-giver. The confidence and hope of God’s people banks on the fact that YHWH is “abounding in love [hesed]” (Exod 34:6). The weeping prophet Jeremiah comforted himself in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem by reminding himself that “Because of the Lord’s great love [hesed] we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21–23).
The book of Ruth puts God’s hesed on display. We will learn along with Naomi that God’s hesed love is indiscriminate, unearned, and persistent. YHWH’s hesed will reach Naomi through the selfless and relentless commitment of Ruth to fight for her, and Boaz will join Ruth in this effort. Events in the field of Boaz this day will give Naomi fresh insight into YHWH’s hesed. What she learns is indispensible to us—because so often we struggle to put suffering and God’s hesed together in our own stories.
This blog post is adapted from Chapter 5 of Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James (Lexham Press, 2018).