When we think about love, we often think about romantic love between a man and a woman. However, the story of Ruth and Naomi highlights the love, faithfulness, and commitment between daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law. The book of Ruth takes place during the period of the Judges, a time of sin, turmoil, and hardship for Israel. While we often think of the book as a romance between Ruth and Boaz, the story really focuses on Ruth and Naomi. After settling in Moab with her husband and sons, Naomi loses everything and is left with her daughter-in-law, Ruth. We learn a lot about God’s hesed towards his people through Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz who demonstrated incredible faithfulness to God and each other in a time of unfaithfulness and sin in Israel’s history. Keep reading to learn more about God’s hesed love, how it is demonstrated in the book of Ruth, and how we can in turn show this kind of love to others.
What is Hesed?
Hesed is an interesting word. It does not easily translate into English and is often rendered in different ways in various English translations. For example, the English Standard Version often translates it as favor or steadfast love. On the other hand, the King James Version may translate it as mercy or kindness.
When we think of God’s hesed, the first word that may come to mind is love. However, hesed is actually a little more specific than the English word love. It can be translated as kindness, loyalty, and goodness.
One key thing you should know about hesed is that it is much more than a feeling. It carries the idea of commitment, and it sometimes speaks of the undeserved mercy or grace one receives from another.
For example, in Genesis 39:21, God shows hesed to Joseph and allows the prison guard to act kindly towards him:
But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.Genesis 39:21 ESV
And in 2 Samuel 9:7, David shows hesed towards Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s grandson in return for Jonathan’s prior kindness to David in protecting him from Saul:
And David said to him, “Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.”2 Samuel 9:7 ESV
Lastly, in 1 Chronicles 16:34, David praises God for his hesed.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!1 Chronicles 16:34 ESV
As you can see, God shows hesed to individuals, individuals show hesed towards each other, and God shows hesed towards entire groups of people.
Naomi and Ruth: What was it like for widows and orphans living in Israel?
Now back to Ruth and Naomi. Earlier I mentioned that Naomi lost everything after moving to Moab with her husband and two sons. They all passed away and she became a widow. Naomi had two daughters-in-law and both were left widows as well.
After deciding to return to Bethlehem, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to return to their home. She knew they would be better off if they did. One daughter-in-law returned home but Ruth decided to stay. The two women were incredibly vulnerable as they were both widows living in Israel during the tumultuous period of the Judges.
In a book looking at the history of Widowhood, Karel Van Der Toorn discusses the underprivileged position of widows in ancient Israel:
It is true that her underprivileged position elicited commiseration and pity; yet she was also slightly ridiculous. By some people she was not merely mocked at but even abused.(Karel Van Der Toorn, Between Poverty and the Pyre : Moments in the History of Widowhood, edited by Jan Bremmer, and Den Bosch, Lourens Van, Taylor & Francis Group, 1995.)
The reason why there were so many laws in the Old Testament about helping and supporting widows is because to be a widow in Israel meant that you were without protection and provision.
Simply put, Naomi and Ruth were walking into an extremely difficult situation. All the men in the family were gone and they were left alone. They had no heir to carry on the family so after they passed away, the family would vanish too.
However, something really wonderful happens in Ruth and God provides for both of these women in ways that they least expected it. Hint: he did it through the hesed of ordinary people.
How do we see Hesed in the book of Ruth?
We see God’s hesed on display in the book of Ruth through the loyalty and faithfulness of the individuals in the story.
Naomi and Ruth
After Naomi urged Ruth and Orpah to return to their homes, this is what Ruth says:
But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return 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. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”Ruth 1:16-17 ESV
I want to make it clear that there was nothing in it for Ruth. In fact, she was walking into a life of potential hardship. There was a famine in Bethlehem-Judah, she was a widow, and she was a foreigner. Not to mention, she was from Moab, and the Israelites and the Moabites didn’t get along very well.
So what made Ruth decide to stay with Naomi? Hesed. She was committed to her mother-in-law and had no intention of leaving her behind.
Later on in the book, Naomi shows hesed to Ruth by essentially putting her in the path of her relative, Boaz. As a young widow, Ruth had more of an opportunity to be remarried and have children than Naomi did. Naomi knew that a marriage to Boaz would help Ruth financially and help her have the children she desired (See Ruth 3:1-5).
Boaz and Ruth
Next, Boaz shows great hesed towards Ruth:
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them…Ruth 2:8-9a ESV
After leaving Moab, Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem right in time for the barley harvest. Ruth ended up gleaning in Boaz’s field. Now, according to the law in Leviticus, landowners were required to leave enough grain for those who were less fortunate (Leviticus 23:22, Leviticus 19:9-10).
Boaz actually went above and beyond this and instructed his servants to leave extra wheat in the field just so that Ruth could have an abundance of grain! (Ruth 2:15-16)
Why did Boaz show such kindness to Ruth? Because of her kindness to her mother-in-law, Naomi.
But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay 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!”Ruth 2:11-12 ESV
Boaz marries Ruth
Eventually, Boaz and Ruth get married. It’s not exactly a fairytale marriage. Let me explain why.
There was a practice known as levirate marriage in Ancient Israel. Levirate marriage was a means of providing an heir for a family after a man died without a male child. The man’s brother would marry his widow and their child would become the legal heir of the deceased man.
There’s another concept known as redemption that we see in Ruth as well. Unfortunately, women could not own property and since all the men in the immediate family had passed away, the land Naomi’s husband owned would have been lost.
Boaz not only married Ruth, he also acted as her “kinsman-redeemer” and redeemed the inheritance she would have lost.
As a result, Ruth and Naomi had greater financial stability and potential for an heir to continue the legacy of their family.
God and Ruth/Naomi
So far in this story, we see many examples of how people have shown hesed to each other. However, I want to point out how God shows hesed towards two marginalized women, Ruth and Naomi.
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son…Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.Ruth 4:13, 16-17 ESV
At the end of the story, Ruth gives birth to a son named Obed. Notice the line about the women of the neighborhood. Although Obed was Ruth’s son, they exclaimed that a son was born to Naomi.
This is significant because an heir provided a lot of protection and security for women. Obed’s birth meant that Naomi would have someone to care for her when she was no longer able to care for herself. Additionally, it meant that the family legacy would not stop even though her sons were gone. The birth of Obed was like a new son being born to Naomi.
God and Israel… and eventually the whole world
Let’s look at the last few verses of chapter four:
Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.Ruth 4:18-22 ESV
Through two struggling widows — one who was a Gentile and came from a nation Israel despised, God paved the way for Israel to receive a king after his own heart. Obed was an ancestor of king David.
But beyond this, Obed and David were both ancestors of Jesus, our Messiah and Savior.
What’s the point? Some takeaways to consider
There are a few key points I want to share from the story of Ruth. It teaches us that…
- God provides for those with nothing
- God cares for the broken and hurting
- God uses ordinary people as a conduit of his blessing
- God is faithful to do what he says he will do
In the book of Ruth, we see God’s faithfulness most clearly through individuals’ kindness towards each other. As I mentioned in the beginning, we often think of love as a romantic connection between two people. However, love is action-based. We are called to love others even when we don’t feel like it and even when there’s nothing in it for ourselves.
In closing, I want to leave you with a line from John’s Gospel:
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.John 13:35 ESV
Consider showing kindness to someone today. You never know how much they might need it. And you never know how your kindness can help fulfill God’s plan for their life. Let’s be like Ruth, more concerned with how we can support our loved ones than we are about receiving from them. Finally, may our love be more than just words. May it be visible in our actions too.