The Bible is full of inspirational concepts and full of revelatory truth. While the Old Testament points to Jesus of New Testament, it also contains basic doctrines that are established in the New Testament. Hence, words like kindness, faithfulness and mercy have their root in the Hebrew Bible. Hesed is “an interesting and fascinating Hebrew word that has a wide range of meaning.” The desire to study it makes one to learn a great deal about the characters and attributes of God as it relates to His kindness, faithfulness, goodness, mercy and steadfast love. Hesed was explicitly expressed in the Bible, most especially in the Old Testament. God revealed Himself to His chosen nation (Israel) through His personal attributes and characters (Jenkins,2011:1).
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No discussion of hesed would be complete without mentioning its role in the interactions of Naomi, her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, and the redeemer Boaz. It is on this fact that this paper answers the following questions: What does the concept of hesed entails? What is the general overview of the Book of Ruth? How is hesed described in the book of Ruth? And what implications do hesed present to the Nigerian Christians? This paper therefore intends to discuss how hesed was embraced and expressed in the Book of Ruth.
THE CONCEPTS OF HESED
There is a beautiful and rich word in the Hebrew language that powerfully describes the faithfulness, mercy, steadfastness and loving-kindness of the Lord. This Hebrew word is transliterated into English as hesed (Maxey, 2012:1). Hesed (pronounced khesed) is not just a Hebrew word to be translated by exegete as simply “loving-kindness” or “mercy “, it is in fact an attribute of God. The hesed of God is a divine characteristic and is at the center of why God acts as He does in real space and time. (Belnap,2009,1)
Hesed as Jenkins(2011) asserted can be divided into the following three categories: family relationships, relational and religious (1). He went further to describe its occurrences in the Bible in the following words:
Hesed occurs in the family relationships categories seven times in the Old Testament, six times in Genesis, once in 1samuel and once in Ruth. Hesed occurs in nine times in a relational way in the Old Testament- once in Ruth, once in Psalms, once in Esther, once in Daniel, twice in Ezra, once in Job, once Psalms and once Zechariah. Hesed used in a religious category involves forty times in the Old Testament- four timed in Genesis, once in Exodus and Deuteronomy two times in 2nd Samuel, fifteen times in Psalms. Once in 1Kings, once in 2nd Chronicles, once in Job, three times in Isaiah, once in Jeremiah, and once in Ruth. (2)
The Bible also reveals that hesed is an attribute that children of God possess and they are commanded by God to emulate and develop it. Being made in God image, God’s people can emulate the divine attribute of hesed. While the idea of loving-kindness and mercy may seem to be only that of positive emotion, it will be demonstrated that Gods loving-kindness is a two-edged sword. Hesed can also mean a mechanism of judgment and accountability before God. People can be described as having the gift of hesed or having “no hesed,” or no loving-kindness. Hesed is both a Hebrew word and more importantly a Jewish theological concept. Hesed is found approximate 250 times in the Hebrew Bible, with about125 appearances in the Psalms alone. And while the word is not identified specifically as hesed in the Greek New Testament, the Old Testament concept of loving-kindness, mercy and selfless giving can be said to be the very heart of the New Testamnt Gospel. “For God so loved the world that He gaveâ€¦” (Jn 3:16) (Emilio, 2012:4).
AN OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK OF RUTH
The Book of Ruth is named after one of the main characters in the story. There are two books in the Bible that bear the name of a woman. These books are: Ruth and Esther. While Ruth was Moabites, Esther on the other hand was a Jewess. The Book of Ruth has the records of a Gentile woman who came to live among the people of Israel and became the great-grandmother of David, Isreal’ greatest king; while in the Book of Esther an Israelite woman was taking into the court of the Gentile king and became a queen who secured deliverance for her people (Cowle, 2008; 22). Also, Tiessen in his write up portrays the book of Ruth as “one of the most well-crafted pieces of literature in the Old Testament”. He submits that:
Despite its lesser status within the Jewish canon and the Christian Bible, the narrative of Ruth is well known. This popular familiarity is largely due to the engaging and challenging story the book offers: The tale of two women who overcome several formidable obstacles and succeed in preserving themselves and the family line, which eventually leads to the great King David (Tiessen,2010:1)
The name of Ruth is mentioned twelve times in this book which bears her name (Heijkoop, 1989:7). The meaning of this name is friendship. This meaning according to Harlow (1987) reflected in the relationship of Ruth with her mother in-law (Naomi), and other people that came along her way. Even though she was a stranger in a strange land she blended well with the people because being friendly was part of her (5).
This book of Ruth is in connection with the geneology of Jesus Christ as recorded in (Matt 1.5). Heijkoop (1989) also asserted that, “The book itself beautifully illustrates how the Holy Spirit gathers up family circumstances in a manner which quite naturally directs the mind and thoughts to a very important truth”(7). This special story in the Book of Ruth draws one’s attention to the most precious titles of the Lord Jesus Christ. The word “kinsman” as used here could be translated as “Redeemer” or “Avenger”. This little book of only four chapters has drawn tributes from very many, and it has even been described as ‘the Perfect Story.’ It is told simply and directly. Cundall and Morris (1968) in their own assertions described this book in the following words:
The book is a book about friendship. The devotion that Ruth shows to Naomi and the care that Naomi exercises towards Ruth run through the book. It is simple a tale of friendship. The three principal characters of the book are depicted as being mindful of their obligations to the family. Ruth does not forget her duty to Naomi, and consequently to Elimelech, Naomi seeks out a marriage that will preserve the name of her deceased husband while Boaz marries the Moabites to raise up the name of the dead (241).
It is better to see the book as a tale told because it is true and because it shows something of the relationship between God and man. The book of Ruth raises the question of whether or not Yahweh can be trusted. The incident suggests to Naomi that God had abandoned her or He is no more reliable. The author of the is unknown, but the last verse of chapter 4 points to the fact that it was written during the time of king David because the is where the list of Ruth’ descendants ends. (Harlow,1987; 6). The story according to Reid (2000), is told from a female point of view and certainly seems to commend Naomi and Ruth to believers (25).
HESED IN THE BOOK OF RUTH
The book of Ruth revolves around the concept of hesed. Hesed is an active concept and it is considered as an essential part of the nature of God. The word is frequently used to describe the gracious and merciful practices of God (Farmer, 1991: 96). Human beings, as said earlier are also expected to show hesed to one another. The Book of Ruth is about a stranger who had probably not encountered God personally but might have been hearing her mother in-law talked about that God. This gentile woman acted as an agent of God’s hesed when she showed hesed to Naomi. When Naomi thought that every hope was gone, this non- Israelite woman that brought hope by showing kindness to her mother in-law. In accordance with this, Farmer asserted:
Ruth’s speech in 1:16-17constitutes an act of hesed. By committing herself and her future to the Lord, Ruth becomes the means through which God will transform Naomi’s emptiness into fulfillment. The Lord will be able to work through the loving-kindness of Ruth to change a crises situation into an occasion for hope.
The Book of Ruth is a special book Christians should study and ponder well upon. It has an unhappy beginning, an uncertain middle and a happy ending. The tragedy that befell Naomi made her to forget that YHWH is still in control and that He can still bring redemption. This reflected in her statement:
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!” 14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” ( Ruth:8-15) NIV
Naomi tried to convince the women to go back home She even reminded them of their mother’s house. She knew the weak spot of Moabite’s female. The existence of Moab was the result of willfulness of the part of Moab’s first mother, who at all costs had to have a relationship with a man and have children. (Gen 19:30-38) And the daughters of Moab had manifested the same willfulness (Heijkoop 31-33). Naomi directly blames YHWH for the tragic circumstances of her life. Believing that everything came from God. Her situation can be related to that of Job. Job accepted the misfortune that came upon him is from God. He said: “Have pity on me, my friends, have pity, for the hand of God has struck me. Why do you pursue me as God does? Will you never get enough of my flesh?” (Job 19:21-22). NIV
Bruggeman, quoted by Tiessen explained the thoughts of job in relation to that of Naomi in these words:
“Job asks: Is God reliable? And Job, in his rage, entertains the option that Yahweh is not.” Naomi, like Job, is in the throes of tragedy and likewise expresses and entertains the option that Yahweh is not reliable. Notice that in 1:13b Naomi asserts that the hand of Yahweh is against her, and thus she excludes her daughters-in-law who also have experienced profound loss through the deaths of their husbands (4).
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Naomi also pointed to her lonely position. A life without a husband and no children who would give her hope. All was God’s fault. Not only did Naomi try to keep her daughters-in-laws from joining her by depriving them of any hope of help, but she had also given them a total false picture of God, who actually is the husband to the widows and helper to the strangers. She indicated that God was responsible for all her misfortune, instead of admitting that she had brought those things upon herself by leaving God and His appointed place where they would have blessings (Heijkoop,36). She and her entire family chose to go to Moab neglected the place where they would have had the experience of God’s hesed as the Psalmist expressed: “Behold, the Lord’s eye is upon those who fear Him who revere and worship Him with awe, who wait for Him and hope in His mercy and loving-kindness, To deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine” (Ps 33:18-19).
Naomi’s great effort to dissuade her daughters-in-law from accompany her seems strange, especially in view of her desire that they become true children of the Lord God of Israel. However, it seemed to be the only course she could take in view of her dire circumstances (Parker, 1980:144). While Orpah yielded to the advice of her mother in-law, went back to her own people and gods. Ruth clave to her, “And Ruth said, Urge me not to leave you or to turn back from following you; for where you go I will go, and where 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 Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts me from you (1:16-17).
The strong desire of Ruth to go with Naomi symbolized her commitment to her and her God. Ruth was neither obliged for expected to become her mother-in-law’s source of support. But once they were back in Bethlehem she was the one who went into the fields to glean the bits of grain that the harvests missed. Ruth indeed was a good daughter in-law. Her kindness was a total self sacrifice. She took the initiative in providing for their needs by suggesting that Naomi let her glean ear of corn. Gleaning, according to Parker (147) was a “special provision of God written into the law to provide for the poor, especially for strangers, widows, and orphans” (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut.24:19). The practice required that owners should leave at harvest the corners of their fields and the droppings of the harvesters to care for the unfortunate groups of people.
The attitude of Ruth towards Naomi by volunteering herself to take care of her is an expression of hesed which actually belongs to YHWH. One would wonder how a gentile could display the attributes that God’s children should possess. Emilio responded in the following words:
How then did Ruth, a Moabitess, come by this divine trait which was originally given by God to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? The answer to this mystery is not found in the Holy Bible. However the Talmudic explanation is of value and interest because it helps clarify the theology of hesed which is found in both the OT and NT. Simply put, the Sages held that Ruth was a direct descendent of Abraham by way of Lot. They teach that Ruth was the daughter of Eglon and the granddaughter of Balak who were direct descendents of Moab – the son of Lot and nephew of Abraham. Thus Ruth was an inheritor of the seed of lovingkindness which Abraham planted in Lot (Emilio, 2012)
The hesed that Ruth showed to Naomi made it possible for her to meet her “redeemer”. Ruth met Boaz and received unexpected praise and favour.
11 And Boaz said to her, I have been made fully aware of all you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and mother and the land of your birth and have come to a people unknown to you before. 12 The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under Whose wings you have come to take refuge! 13 Then she said, Let me find favor in your sight, my lord. For you have comforted me and have spoken to the heart of your maidservant, though I am not as one of your maidservants. 14 And at mealtime Boaz said to her, Come here and eat of the bread and dip your morsel in the sour wine [mixed with oil]. And she sat beside the reapers; and he passed her some parched grain, and she ate until she was satisfied and she had some left [for Naomi]. 15 And when she got up to glean, Boaz ordered his young men, Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. Ruth 2:11-15
The writer of this paper has discovered that Ruth and Boaz are like-minded people. The similarities between them are emphasized. Reid (2000), enumerates their similarities as follows: Boaz praised Ruth for her kindness to Naomi (Ruth 2:11-12) and Ruth praised Boaz for his generous kindness to her (Verses 10, 13). As Boaz enters the field, he pronounced a kindly phrase, “The Lord be with you!”(verse 4). This suggests that Boaz is such a leader who values and respected his employees. The workers’ respond, “The Lord bless you!” Boaz is clearly a good, kind man; who is suitable for good, kind Ruth (41).
Studying this Book one will discover that God is at work even in the lives of his people. Ruth’s story reveals loud and clear that through the ordinary and unpredictable aspects of everyday life, one experience the reality of God’s care (Reid, 2000:25-28).
IMPLICATIONS OF HESED FOR NIGERIAN CHRISTIANS
Hesed in the book of Ruth is significant to the Nigerian Christians. It expresses how good and faithful YHWH is to His promises. He “remembered Naomi in her low estate” (Psalm 136: 23), even though she and her family brought the tragedy upon themselves. Many Nigerians’ Christians today run to Oversee countries because of the economical situation of their father land. Some of them are lost not remembering home again. The writer of this paper is of the opinion that there is still hope for Nigeria. The situation can still be better than what it is, if only Nigerian Christians can hope in God and trust Him absolutely.
Similarly, hesed in the Book of Ruth stresses both family and community loyalty. Naomi thought first of the welfare of her daughters-in-law. She always acted with their best interest in mind. Boaz was noble. Ruth was loyal. Kent, (1980) submits that the simple narrative also amply illustrates the Lord’s providential care. God is clearly at work in the lives of those open to Him (143). Nigerian Christians are to commit to one another so as to be of help to one another in terms of needs; an adage says “a friend in need is a friend indeed”
Also, as God expressed hesed (mercy) to His people, He expects them to reciprocate. God was ever faithful and devoted to His people (Israel) in the ancient time and He is still the same God of the contemporary times. In like manner does He expect faithfulness, total dedication and devotional life from the Nigerian Christians. The Christian leaders are expected to be faithful and dedicated to the position they are holding. They should be mindful of the welfare of their followers. As God is good and loyal to His promises, Boaz was good and kind to his followers so the Nigerian Christians should be good and loyal to one another. Also, Nigerian Christians should see God as a God of love and should demonstrate that love into their personal lives and ministries towards others. By doing this, Christians will be able to demonstrate to the world in words and deeds that their lives are grounded in the character of God who loves and desires to redeem the world through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that God can use anybody, no matter how rough the background may be. Willingness and readiness is what He desires. In like manner, Christians should pay sacrifice of taking other people’s problem upon themselves. They should be mindful of poor and the needy around them.
Hesed, is indeed a word denoting emotion but it is more a word of action. On the other hand, hesed is a gift from God, that is to say, God imparts a measure of His loving kindness to His children. And He expects all His children to express it to one another. Hesed, as used in this paper reveals the characters of three major people, Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. Many in this world have experienced the tragedy of Naomi and long for God to be present and active amidst situations where He does not always act in the way human beings expect. But absolute trust in Him will end in a happy way.