The story of Ruth, although only four chapters long in your Bible, is far to massive of a story to hope to distill in one article. There are too many intertwining themes to be able to simply state “this is what the story means, and this is what you should get out of it.” I am going to focus on one aspect only in this article, and have explored other themes in sermons and Bible classes (I hope to have those linked here soon.) The story of Ruth teaches us, through several character interactions, about the hesed of God. What is hesed?
It’s a difficult Hebrew word to translate, is most often translated as “love,” but almost as often translated as “loyalty, joint obligation, mercy, faithfulness, goodness, graciousness, kindness, favor, etc..” Hesed is one of the most fundamental characteristics of Yahweh, so much in fact that I’ve often heard hesed described by the fruits of the Spirit. Hesed is a “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” kind of love. That’s hesed.
Within the story of Ruth, we find hesed at play in a number of places. Ruth’s refusal to leave Naomi? Hesed. Ruth’s willingness to glean for food? Hesed. Boaz going above and beyond to let Ruth harvest with his workers instead of gleaning, and sending her away at the end of the day with months worth of grain instead of what she picked up that day? Hesed. Naomi devising a plan for Ruth to marry Boaz? Hesed.
But I think the most brave, selfless, and daring act of hesed comes when Ruth goes to Boaz at night with a marriage proposal. Chapter 3 is clear that Naomi wants to get Ruth a husband so she can go on with her life. Ruth takes Naomi’s plan, however, and changes it completely!
Without getting too technical, Ruth invokes two cultural laws here: the levirate and kinsman-redeemer laws. The levirate law saw to it that if a woman’s husband died leaving her childless, the dead husband’s brother must marry the woman and give her a child (Deut. 25:5-10). The kinsman-redeemer law dealt with the responsibility of redeeming land, so it didn’t leave, or at least returned to the possession of the original family to whom it was given (Lev. 25:23-28). Neither of these rules apply to Ruth. Boaz was a relative to Elimelek, Naomi’s husband. Levirate law would fall to a brother of Elimelek, for Naomi, not Ruth, and Boaz was not a brother. Kinsman-redeemer law dealt with Boaz buying back land for Naomi, not Ruth, and Boaz was not the closest relative.
What does all this mean? Naomi wanted to take care of Ruth by finding her a good man to marry. Naomi was only concerned with Ruth. This is Hesed. Ruth’s only concern was Naomi in getting Elimelek’s land back, and this point is vitally important, invoking levirate law using herself as the surrogate for bearing Naomi a child (see Ruth 4:13-17). This is why Boaz says her “kindness” (hesed) is greater than she showed earlier in gleaning for Naomi. Ruth shows hesed toward Naomi, and does not look out for herself. And then Boaz, not bound by either of these laws, decides to carry out Ruth’s plan and as a result, Obed, the grandfather of King David, is born to Ruth, and becomes Naomi’s son! (Ruth 4:16-17)
Hesed is shown most clearly in Ruth giving of herself, and her son, to Naomi.
Hesed floods this story. A hesed so great to self sacrifice for the sake of others. That’s Ruth. That’s also God. No wonder Ruth appears in Jesus’ genealogy! (Mt. 1:5).