The Concept of Ḥesed

THE CONCEPT OF ḥesed is important to understanding the book of Ruth since it is used to describe both secular and divine-human relationships. Unfortunately, it is a Hebrew word that no one English word can begin to convey accurately. Being expressive of relationships, the term connotes altogether the notions of covenantal loyalty, faithfulness, kindness, goodness, mercy, love, and compassion.15 While paired with a wide range of other Hebrew words, no single word can replace it in its relationship to the others, and thus none can provide an exact synonym. A summary of a number of major points concerning ḥesed is helpful:

  • Ḥesed springs from and is based on relationship, usually some sort of prior relationship. Because of this, it is inherently tied to the concept of covenant (berît)16 and is expressive of the deep and abiding loyalty and commitment between the parties of that covenant.
  • While ḥesed contains an emotive quality that highlights issues of motive,17 it is fundamentally an action. Ḥesed recognizes and acts to relieve an urgent essential need on the part of the recipient. It is not just something nice for someone to do gratuitously or because it expresses “special favor.” When it is a specific act, the essential need it meets is normally “deliverance from dire straits”; when it is a series of acts, it comes out as ongoing protection “from similar dangers.”18 Ḥesed refers to an act performed for the benefit of a person in real and desperate need, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between the parties concerned.19
  • It is performed for a situationally weaker person by a situationally more powerful person. This is most clearly illustrated in God’s acts of ḥesed for his people.
  • It is a voluntary act of extraordinary mercy or generosity, a “going beyond the call of duty.”20 Because it is performed by a situationally more powerful person who has options, ḥesed is something such a person can decide not to do. No sanction can really force it. However, because some sort of prior relationship is clearly or assumedly the background for ḥesed-acts, side-by-side with the option not to act is a clear-cut responsibility to act.21

Yahweh is the one who models ḥesed (over two-thirds of the word’s total number of occurrences are God’s ḥesed to humans). Clark argues that it is “a characteristic of God rather than human beings; it is rooted in the divine nature.”22 It is not only the basis on which the divine-human relationship is established, but the means and enablement for its continuance. Ḥesed precedes, and indeed gives rise to, the covenant (berît), which then provides additional assurance that God’s promise will not fail. While the righteous may call for help based on a relationship in good order, there can also be appeal for help based not on any human merit, but rather on the faithfulness of God to help the undeserving to bring forgiveness and restoration. In this, there is a connection with God’s raḥamîm (maternal compassion). The manner of caring, committing, initiating, and responding that God demonstrates in the concept of “doing ḥesed ” becomes the definition of responsible human behavior. The ḥesed of Yahweh that is experienced and known in the community comes to define what human ḥesed can be, ought to be, and sometimes is.23

In human contexts, ḥesed is loving commitment within a relationship, most often, though not exclusively, within the setting of the family or clan. It represents the social bonds of loyalty toward others within the community of God’s people. Ḥesed is mutual: Those who are shown ḥesed are expected, not by law but by social and moral convention, to reciprocate.24 This has particular implications for the social life of God’s people where ḥesed , expressed in right conduct toward one another, is expected both because of the mutual relationship established through membership of the covenant community and as a proper response to the ḥesed shown by God. Because ḥesed is ultimately voluntary, it is not a legal obligation, though its failure is taken seriously.25

The book of Ruth employs ḥesed on both the divine and human levels. The word occurs three times in the book. In Ruth 1:8, there is a clear reference to Yahweh’s ḥesed (the passage also contains a reference to human ḥesed ). The Lord’s ḥesed is the factor that eventually leads to the successful remarriage of Naomi’s daughter-in-law, so that it cannot help but be recognized in the provision of a “kinsman-redeemer” (gōʾēl) for Ruth (cf. 4:14). Moreover, while not stated, Yahweh’s act of “giving” a child in Ruth 4 should certainly be understood as an act of ḥesed .

Interestingly, the only human actors who are explicitly said to have exercised ḥesed are Orpah (once) and Ruth (twice) (1:8; 3:10). Thus, ironically, Moabites (in particular Ruth) are the people who most clearly manifest ḥesed in this book.

Boaz’s acts of ḥesed are only seen by way of allusions. In Ruth 2:20 the text is ambiguous as to whether Boaz’s or Yahweh’s ḥesed is in view. The NIV translates: “ ‘The LORD bless him!’ Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. ‘He has not stopped showing his kindness [ḥesed] to the living and the dead.’ ” This translation seems to understand the reference to be to Boaz (though not necessarily). The NRSV, however, translates: “Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness [ḥesed ] has not forsaken the living or the dead!’ ” This translation clearly understands the reference to be to Yahweh.26

Could this be a case of deliberate ambiguity?27 Whatever the case, throughout the book, ḥesed is the underlying factor in various acts of loyalty and mercy. It is the issue of ḥesed that serves as the basis for the discussion between Boaz and Ruth as negotiations are made (3:9–13).

Thus, the ḥesed that humans show to one another is among the most fitting means God can use to display his own ḥesed. This is certainly a contrast to the book of Judges, where loyalty within the bounds of the covenant is scarce. — Younger, K. Lawson, Jr. 2002. Judges and Ruth. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.