We all know that one attribute Yahweh uses to reveal himself is “steadfast love” (hesed, cf. Ex. 34:6–7). The term is difficult to convey in English, so translations differ on how to express it. Should it be “lovingkindness” (ASV), “steadfast love” (ESV), “mercy” (KJV), “faithfulness” (NASB), or simply “love” (NIV)? Most commentators agree that none of these translations express the word fully, but touch on components of it. So, there is much for us to learn from the context in which we find this word. One of those contexts is the book of Ruth. Ruth demonstrates Yahweh’s hesed as he shows kindness to his people, and they likewise show kindness to one another.

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Hesed in Ruth 1:8

The word hesed, “kindness,” only occurs three times in the Ruth narrative, but its influence encompasses the entire narrative. The first time is in Naomi’s first speech (1:8). She asks Yahweh to “deal kindly” with her daughters-in-law because of the kindness they had shown to her and her family while they were in Moab. Naomi’s words reveal that actions performed within a relationship, even acts of kindness, came with an expectation of reciprocation.

The concept of reciprocity is prevalent in communal societies, including ancient Israel: favor begets favor. Since she was now ceasing their kinship bond and releasing them from their obligations to her, she could not reciprocate their benevolence. She therefore calls on Yahweh to pay back her foreign daughters-in-law for their kindness. Naomi’s following words specify the nature of the kindness she desires: “May Yahweh give you . . . Find rest, each in the house of her husband” (1:9). She wants Yahweh to give them “rest” through remarriage; she wants them to find security in a new household.

Notice in these words the interweaving of God’s providence and human action—she asks God to “grant” rest but also commands her daughters-in-law to “find” it. This description of their lack highlights a need that requires fulfilling by the end of the narrative, but also foreshadows the importance of divine-human interaction in effecting that resolution. When Ruth finds rest through marriage to Boaz, it can be viewed not only as the outcome of human initiative but also of divine kindness: acts of kindness led to a blessing and Naomi asking for further kindness, which eventuates. In the Ruth narrative, acts of kindness trigger a perpetuating feedback loop.

Hesed in Ruth 2:20

The second use of hesed is also on the lips of Naomi (2:20). She calls for Yahweh to bless Boaz for his kindness, as manifest in the abundant provision of grain for Ruth. He had granted her gleaning privileges and protection against assault. But there was only grain in Boaz’s field to glean because Yahweh had given his people food (1:6). In 2:20 there is probably a double referent for the doer of kindness—God and Boaz—and the former answers Naomi’s prayer by granting the latter a wife, a son, and a name of national renown.

God’s providence and human initiative can thus also be viewed through the lens of kindness. Boaz’s acts of kindness induce a blessing from Naomi, which leads to greater acts of kindness from Yahweh. Ultimately, God blesses not just one family or clan or town but an entire nation and beyond. Again, we can detect a virtuous cycle: Boaz responds in kind to Ruth’s first act of kindness.

Hesed in Ruth 3:10

The third use of hesed is on the lips of Boaz (3:10). He blesses Ruth for two acts of kindness. The first is her loyalty to Naomi, which required her to turn her back on her family and homeland. This kindness led to his generosity to her in his field (2:8–9, 11; cf. 1:16–17). Her loyalty to her mother-in-law also led to another request for God to reciprocate: “May Yahweh repay your deed, and may your wages be complete from Yahweh” (2:12). This reinforces the narrative’s presentation of a positive feedback loop for acts of kindness and God as the rewarder of good deeds. The second act of kindness Boaz identifies is Ruth’s selection of him as a husband, despite the presence of more eligible candidates (3:10).

Blessing again follows kindness as Boaz blesses Ruth, setting up the expectation that God will grant her request—a husband to secure her “rest.” Boaz, however, is the human agent who ensures her redemption. Viewed in this light, his guarantee to her at the threshing floor and his legal maneuvering at the town gate can be understood as acts of hesed. Yet, since her selection of Boaz, as a member of Elimelech’s clan, allows for the possibility of an heir to inherit Elimelech’s land and to continue his name, there is an anticipation that God will bless them with a son as well. When God does so by granting them Obed, we can view it as an act of hesed, and, as is consistent with the pattern in the rest of the Ruth narrative, the women proclaim a blessing on Yahweh.


Although the word only occurs three times in the narrative, its importance is magnified by its appearance at key points in the narrative and its presence in the narrative’s virtuous feedback loop. Its first use is in the first speech of the narrative, in which Naomi sets up the expectation that God will reward Orpah and Ruth for their acts of kindness. The second and third instances of hesed are also at points of emphasis in the narrative. Naomi’s speech to Ruth is the turning point of act 2 and the major turning point of the narrative overall. Boaz’s speech to Ruth forms the climax to act 3. These peaks of the narrative naturally highlight hesed.

Moreover, acts of kindness as catalysts for blessing and greater acts of kindness traverse the whole narrative, from beginning to end. The feedback loop connects human with divine acts of kindness, and although the first kindness is attributed to the Moabite daughters-in-law (1:8), tracing the feedback loop back, we find that the initiator is Yahweh (1:6). And as we follow the loop to its conclusion, we also find Yahweh—the giver of life (4:13) and the sustainer of the nation (4:17–22). God’s providence is unveiled as acts of kindness. Viewed canonically, this is not surprising since he proclaimed that hesed is one of his core characteristics (esp. Exod 34:6–7), as shown in his repeated actions throughout Israel’s history (see, e.g., Ps 136).

Hesed and Divine Providence

Reading the Ruth narrative in its historical context reveals that God’s providence is broad enough to encompass both acts of sin and acts of hesed. The period of the judges lacked a king and was marked by anarchy and unrest (Judg 17:6; 21:25). In contrast to the virtuous cycle in the Ruth narrative, the book of Judges can be plotted as a downward spiral of disobedience. Yet God still worked through the judges with their imperfect motivations; for

instance, God gave Samson the victory, although his motivation was revenge (16:28–30). From the Ruth narrative, however, we might deduce that God prefers to achieve his will through acts of hesed. That such actions please him can be seen in the outcome of the narrative, for it is through such actions that God raises a king who would unite the tribes of Israel and bring to them the blessings of rest and peace.

Hesed and Human Actions

That is not to say that the motives and actions of the characters in the Ruth narrative were perfect. Elimelech’s decision to leave the promised land was questionable, Naomi’s faith was so shaken that she expressed bitterness toward God, the nearer kinsman-redeemer declined to act as a levirate, and Boaz’s choice to do more for the widows was nudged by Ruth’s further act of kindness.

The characters go about their lives seeking mundane ends, including their own survival and that of a family line. Yet, seemingly insignificant decisions and actions can be powerfully transformative. It is not as though the characters set out to perform acts of kindness. Instead, as the opportunity arose, they were driven by kindness in response to kindness to perform acts of loyalty and generosity, breaking the bounds of obligation to help those who could not help themselves. That these actions are marked by initiative and risk again hints at the functioning of faith. If God, in his providence, can reward acts of kindness, such acts can be undertaken in trust. He rewards acts of kindness with blessing, acting through humans to bring kindness and blessing to the world, often in ways beyond a person’s deserving, expectation, or understanding. Such are the ways of a God whose heart is hesed.

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How has Yahweh shown hesed to you? And how is He calling you to show hesed to others? Leave a comment below!

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