Undercurrents ripple through the narrative of Ruth. The author, in contrast with the majority of the canon, has created a work which uses literary form and technique, rather than direct communication to convey the motifs, none more significantly thanחסד. Throughout the four chapters the theme of חסד can be found both in isolation and interwoven between the various dialogues. Botterweck and Ringgren state that “ three elements constitutive of the חסד concept: it is active, social, and enduring” (Botterweck and Ringgren 51). An investigation of this motif of חסד will depict these three elements as well as broaden our understanding of this oft used term and through this, Ruth, herself, can be understood as a vehicle of חסד.
חסד In Isolation
Upon reaching the boundary of Moab, Naomi allows her daughter-in-laws to return back to their homes, thus freeing them from any familial obligations. Her release of Orpah and Ruth reflect the חסד which they have shown to her over the past years. Further, a blessing of חסד from the LORD is delivered. Ruth 1:8 states both the effect of the blessing “the LORD deal kindly with you” and the cause, “as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” חסד is a social function. And as a social function, it is reciprocal in nature. Routledge describes the reciprocity of חסד as mutuality (Routledge 181). The cause and effect of חסד does not necessary have to come from the same person. In Ruth 1:8, חסד originates from Ruth and Orpah towards Naomi, and then returns to them through the blessing from the LORD.
Ruth’s encounter with Boaz in the field shows חסד as an active step. Bush quotes Sakenfield’s justification of Boaz’s חסד (Ruth 2:20) in her four-part characterization: 1) stems within an existing relationship, 2) an urgent need is present, 3) freedom of action, 4) kindness beyond expectation (Bush 135). In this חסד is shown to be evident in action, not in word alone. Chapter 2 illustrates Boaz’s active generosity in providing for Ruth, protecting her, and providing for Naomi.
Boaz, the source of חסד, in turn becomes the receiver of חסד. The reciprocity of חסד is once again shown, but in Boaz’s words, the third aspect of חסד, it’s enduring nature is evident. Ruth 3:10 speaks of a former חסד and a latter חסד. The former חסד being the committment Ruth has shown to Naomi. As Campbell conveys, Boaz had admired Ruth’s committment to Naomi in Chapter 2 (Campbell 66). Therefore the comparison of this former, exalted חסד, adds to the deep appreciation for the latter חסד. The latter alluding to either the committment to Boaz or the committment to Mahlon in the carrying-on of his name. Considering Boaz’s appreciation for her not selecting another, it can be concluded that the latter חסד is her choice to commit to Boaz in marriage. חסד is shown to be enduring in nature through the commitment. The relationship between חסד and ברית, though not obligatory, is fundamental. In 1 Samuel 18:1-3, as Routledge states, David urges Jonathan to show חסד in accordance with the covenant of friendship established between them and before Yahweh (Routledge 183). The concept of חסד as part of a covenant committment is not for the sake of legalistic obligation, but for it’s enduring permanence.
In the three instances of חסד referred in Ruth, the attributes of חסד as active, as social, and as enduring are prominent. When taken in isolation, these portrayals reveal חסד, itself, but when taken collectively, as will be shown, Ruth’s character as a vehicle for חסד is revealed.
Tapestry of חסד
In comparison of חסד in all three instances in Ruth, there are at least two constant threads that can be identified. These threads which connect from one to the next, paint a broader picture of חסד and illuminate the חַ֖יִל of Ruth, the virtuous woman.
In all three instances, חסד is depicted in parallel. In Ruth 1:8, Naomi highlights a חסד done for both her and her dead husband and sons. Ruth 2:20 illustrates this parallelism further in stating that Boaz to showed חסד for the living and the dead. In both cases, the living is Naomi and Ruth, the dead ultimately refers to the family line which is ended. Finally in Ruth 3:10, Boaz again speak of a former חסד and a latter חסד. The former being Ruth’s חסד towards Naomi, the latter being the חסד she shows him. This idea of חסד in parallel illustrates that חסד does not happen in isolation. There is a characteristic of חסד which ensures that חסד spreads from one individual to another. חסד done for one, will automatically be felt as ripples to another. Was Ruth’s loyalty first to her husband, “the dead”, and from that loyalty, חסד flowed to Naomi? Was Boaz’s חסד to Ruth ultimately beneficial to Naomi? This unintentional dispersion of חסד, of loving-kindness, underlies one of the greatest strengths and characteristics of Ruth. The young widow is known for her submission, for her obedience, and for her loyalty. Ruth ultimately is the means by which Naomi is fully redeemed and Boaz is glorified by God, yet she performs this greatest of חסד as a humble servant. Landy reasons that the two instances of חסד [Ruth’s חסד for Naomi and Ruth’s חסד for Boaz] are complementary, and invest Ruth with a continuum of חסד (Landy 308). The narrator has made Ruth a channel for חסד to reach others.
Seen in the cross-section of all three accounts is that חסד breeds חסד. Duguid confirms that “Covenant includes God’s kindness to his people and their consequent kindness to one another” (Duguid 163). Ruth’s חסד to Naomi results in Boaz’s חסד to her. Gow assesses Boaz’s חסד towards Ruth as a result of “Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law [which] might be charactersized as an act of חסד (kindess)” (Gow 54). Boaz’s explicitly states as much in Ruth 2:11. Continuing on, Boaz’s חסד to Ruth results in Ruth’s חסד back to Boaz (Ruth 3:10). Finally, Ruth’s חסד to Boaz results in his final חסד to Ruth, Naomi, and Mahlon in redeeming them along with his name (Ruth 3:13). Linked חסד, seen as snowballing through the narrative, mirrors Ruth’s own expression of חסד. As Angel illustrates “Ruth lived in a world where ambiguity was pervasive: God’s intervention or lack thereof in her suffering and salvation, and the motivations of the members of the society on whom she depended. Nevertheless, she remained steadfast in her commitment to Naomi, Mahlon and God” (Angel 99). In allowing herself to be utilized by cause and effect, with the knowledge that God is sovereign, Ruth is in a barrel-ride, sent from one scene to another performing or, rather, releasing חסד along the way, and as Boaz states, each one greater than the last.
The collective usage of חסד shows two new attributes. First, חסד flows out from one person to another. Through a direct act of חסד, indirect benefactors surface. Ruth is depicted as the opened floodgate for חסד in the narrative. Second, חסד breeds חסד. The narrative of Ruth is seen as a passing of חסד from one to another and back until the climactic חסד of redemption is acheived. Ruth submissively allows herself to be passed from one scene to another as the source of חסד. חסד and Ruth’s character are inextricably codependent.
חסד in lay-terms is understood as loving-kindness, but the Book of Ruth does not once mention love. So what is missing from this understanding? חסד is not as Routledge states an “emotional response” (Routledge 185). חסד is not done for the purpose of satisfying obligation. As Prager articulates “The law is not the point of the megilla but the context, the framework for a way of life that elicits the human goodness that characterizes the story” (Prager 20). Seen through the references of חסד in Ruth a more evolved understanding of חסד is revealed. In the isolated references, חסד is seen as active, as social and mutual, and as enduring. In the interwoven analysis, חסד is uncovered to be both diffusive as well as compounding. Taken together, a new understanding of חסד is an active, social, and enduring kindness which is both diffusive and compouding, from one individual or group to the entire community. Ruth is characterized as an individual who chooses to be the channel or medium by which חסד flows in all its attributes. As she herself declared, וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי. There is no better description for one who is willing to be used by God for His חסד.
Angel, Hayyim. “A Midrashic View of Ruth amidst a Sea of Ambiguity.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 1 Apr. 2005: 91–99. Print.
Botterweck, G. Johannes, and Helmer Ringgren, eds. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986. Print.
Bush, Frederic. Ruth-Esther. Waco, Tex.: Thomas Nelson, 1996. Print.
Campbell, Edward F. “Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth : Hesed and Change.” Austin Seminary Bulletin (Faculty ed.) 1 Mar. 1990: 64–74. Print.
Duguid, Iain M. Esther & Ruth. P&R Publishing, 2011. Print.
Gow, Murray D. The Book of Ruth: Its Structure, Theme and Purpose. First Edition edition. Apollos, 1992. Print.
Landy, Francis. “Ruth and the Romance of Realism, or Deconstructing History.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1 June 1994: 285–317. Print.
Prager, Yossi. “Megillat Ruth: A Unique Story of Torat Hesed.” Tradition 1 Dec. 2001: 15–22. Print.
Routledge, Robin L. “Ḥesed as Obligation : A Re-Examination.” Tyndale Bulletin 46.1 (1995): 179–196. Print.