The Concept of Chesed

The book of Ruth holds out the practice of chesed as the ideal lifestyle for Isra’el. Every blessing enjoyed by Ruth and Bo’az at the story’s end derives from their firm loyalty. The storyteller holds them up as role models of living by chesed. Through them, the reader learns the heavy demands of chesed.8

The Hebrew word chesed has no English equivalent. Being an expression of relationship, the term means faithfulness, kindness, goodness, mercy, love and compassion, but primarily loyalty to a covenant. YHVH is the One who models chesed. It is a characteristic of Ha’Shem rather than human beings; it is rooted in the divine nature. Chesed precedes the covenant (b’rit), which provides additional assurance that YHVH’s promise will not fail. While the righteous may call for help based on a relationship with El, there can also be an appeal for help based not on any human merit, but rather on the faithfulness of ADONAI to help the undeserving to bring forgiveness and restoration. Again, God models “doing chesed” for us. The chesed of the LORD that is experienced and known by His children comes to define what human chesed can be, ought to be, and sometimes actually is.9

And as Robert Hubbard describes in his commentary on Ruth, the author stresses the idea of chesed through two sets of contrasting characters. First, he contrasted the two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth (1:8-17). Without criticism, he reported Orpah’s return to Moab in obedience to Na’omi’s commands. She represents one who does the ordinary . . . except that it is not chesed. By contrast, Ruth represents one who does the extraordinary - the unexpected. She was not content to rejoin her Moabite family, remarry, and live, as her contemporaries would have. Her commitment was to Na’omi’s people and God – even in the afterlife (1:17). Further, even in Beit-Lechem, she refused to seek a husband for her own advantage (3:10). Instead, she sought a marriage for Na’omi’s benefit. In such compassionate devotion she stands out from her peers as one who does chesed.

Second, the writer contrasted Bo’az over the unnamed kinsman (see Ba – Bo’az Obtains the Right of Redemption). Again, the kinsman turns out to be average in character, one who gladly passed on his duty to someone else when he gained no economic advantage. One may not fault him for this action, for Israelite custom permitted it . . . but it is not chesed. By contrast, willing to sacrifice his own means, his own life for two impoverished widows, Bo’az far exceeded him and modeled the extraordinary demands of chesed.

Such commitment requires taking unusual risks. Again, both Ruth and Bo’az illustrate this aspect of chesed. Ruth demonstrated great courage in going out to glean in Beit-Lechem’s fields! She risked ostracism – perhaps even physical abuse – because of her gender, social status, or race. She also faced possible rejection when she asked for special gleaning privileges (2:7). But the ultimate risk shadowed her nighttime visit to the threshing floor. She could not foresee Bo’az’s reaction to such feminine forwardness – anger, embarrassment, awkwardness, acceptance? Nor could she calculate the lost reputation and new accusations to result, were she and Bo’az discovered. On the other hand, much was to be gained – the survival of Na’omi’s family – so she took the risk. Along similar lines Bo’az took some risks in bringing her case before the ten elders of the town (4:1-8). He could not anticipate how the proceedings at the gate would go. Nor could he determine how the town would interpret his taking a Moabite wife, or the initiative in the matter. Again, the gain was worth the risk. Both did what chesed demanded.

Though rare, risky and restrictive, the practice of loyal, compassionate devotion – in a word, chesed – pleases YHVH so much that one may reasonably expect repayment in kind from Him (1:8 and 3:10). Such reward is the generous gift of a sovereign LORD who graciously chooses to honor human chesed. Only those who do it may receive it.10

 

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