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The Hesed Factor

How does the Old Testament principle of hesed—"covenant loyalty"— apply to Christians today? The love story of Ruth shows the way.

by Nathan Albright

One of the most popular books of the Bible is the book of Ruth. In this short and enchanting story, we learn how a young Moabite widow became the ancestor of David and later of Jesus Christ through marriage to the wealthy and generous Boaz. Beyond the surface of the story, though, there is a consistent theme of covenant loyalty.

imageThe Hebrew word hesed has been translated into a variety of terms in English. These include favor, grace and loving-kindness. According to Vine's Expository Dictionary, "The entire history of [God's] covenantal relationship with Israel can be summarized in terms of hesed." In other words, "covenant loyalty." Covenant loyalty, while it may seem an odd expression, refers to action done out of a loving heart. If we are acting in love toward others, we seek their best interests and not merely our own. Ruth shows that even when it appears as if we have nothing going for us, our own loving service may be repaid to us in ways that we cannot predict.

There are at least seven ways that covenant loyalty is shown in the four chapters of the book of Ruth. As we go through these examples, imagine what it would be like to be Ruth, Naomi or Boaz. By realizing the great love and work of God in the lives of these righteous individuals, we may see the ways in which God can bring us great glory, even through suffering and misfortune.

Seven examples

The first example of hesed occurs in Ruth 1:16-17. Naomi, an Israelite widow, decided to return to Israel after the death of her two sons in the land of Moab. Ruth, her widowed daughter-in-law, planned to go with her, even though Naomi warned her that there could be no expectation of marriage and children, but rather the bleak prospect of poverty. Still Ruth refused to leave Naomi.

Uttering one of the most moving pleas of hesed in the entire Bible, Ruth said, "Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The L ord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me." With that the two widows went back to Bethlehem.

After Naomi and Ruth reached Bethlehem , Ruth sought to help Naomi (who was probably too old to work at this time) by seeking her permission to glean for the two of them as the poor and strangers were allowed to do (Leviticus 23:22).

Gleaning was not easy work. It meant long hours stooping to pick up small clumps of barley or wheat that had been left behind after the reapers finished harvesting a field. As a young woman, Ruth would have been subject to the unwanted attention of the young men of Bethlehem. As a Moabite woman in a town of Judah, Ruth could expect distrust and scorn. Knowing all of this, Ruth still desired to help her mother-in-law, and Naomi granted her permission.

The third example of hesed occurred when Boaz was generous to Ruth both publicly (Ruth 2:8-9) and privately (verses 14-16). Ruth had been working hard all through the morning, and Boaz granted her the right to glean with his women and eat and drink with his workers. Hearing about her loving service to Naomi, Boaz (who was a close relative of Elimelech, Naomi's deceased husband) decided to take care of Ruth and Naomi.

Boaz secretly ordered his men to intentionally leave some barley on the ground so that Ruth might glean more. This was going above and beyond the duty of a relative and suggests that Boaz was greatly favoring Ruth.

The fourth example of hesed took place when Naomi gave Ruth advice on how to propose marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3:1-4). As a widow without children, Ruth had the right, according to Israelite law, to propose marriage to the nearest relative of her husband to raise up an heir to preserve the family line. Ruth may have been unaware of the custom, and Boaz may have been too shy to propose marriage to Ruth himself. Naomi looked out for both of them in this instance.

Ruth then repaid the favors given to her by Boaz by proposing marriage to him (Ruth 3:9-13). Not only did she propose marriage to an older man who had shown great favor to her, but she did so in a way that did not attract attention to herself or him.

Since she made the request while no one else was around (without compromising her own good reputation for morality), she did not put pressure on him to accept in order to avoid public ridicule. Boaz recognized the great favor and promised to act on it quickly, after giving Ruth more barley as a sign of his sincerity (Ruth 3:15).

Boaz immediately went before the elders of the town and found the one relative closer to Mahlon (Ruth's deceased husband) than himself. Presenting his case skillfully, Boaz wove together the right to redeem the family inheritance of Elimelech (found in Leviticus 25:23-28) with the obligation of marrying Ruth (found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

The relative was interested in having Elimelech's land, but not in marrying Ruth. Since Boaz was willing to raise up an heir to Mahlon with Ruth, he gained the right to redeem the land. Boaz then married Ruth, and their marriage was blessed by the townspeople. This story, told in Ruth 4:1-6 and verses 10-12, is the sixth example of hesed.

The final example of hesed was the favor shown by God to Ruth, Boaz and Naomi. Boaz obtained a wife, Ruth gave birth to Obed, and Naomi served as the nurse. Referring to the child, the people of Bethlehem told Naomi, "And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him" (Ruth 4:15).

The book of Ruth closes with a genealogy from Perez to David. Obed was
the grandfather of King David, the great shepherd king of Israel. Even more importantly, both Ruth and Boaz were ancestors of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and Ruth is one of only three women named in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1.

Application today

How can we show such kindness—such covenant loyalty—in our own lives? First we must find out what sort of needs there are among our friends and family, our congregation or our neighbors. Perhaps there is someone who needs some time and attention, a willing ear to listen to stories or problems. Perhaps someone needs a friend to comfort him or her through a difficult time.

Even if we do not have money to give, perhaps we can give our time and service to help those around us. Maybe we have the expertise to help someone solve a problem he or she is facing. Without expecting or demanding anything in return, we can help those around us.

In turn, God may end up repaying us in ways we cannot foresee. Though Ruth, Naomi and Boaz could not see the end result of their acts of hesed to each other, they acted out of love anyway. So should we. VT

About the author:

Nathan Albright is currently a student at the Ambassador Bible Center and attends the Cincinnati East, Ohio, congregation of the United Church of God.

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