28 Sep 2019

Hesed: The Gospel of Ruth

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Love, Mission, Proverbs, Ruth, Women

I love doing seminars on the Five Megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). I’ve spent many days reading and praying through them. It does not take long to read any of them. These books, both intimately connected to the worship of the biblical calendar (Passover and Pentecost) are profoundly rich. Sadly they are often fairly ignored books in the Bible.

A Dystopian World

Ruth is probably the most popular of the Five. Ruth is set in a time of political chaos, the Philistines were rampaging through the land, while national leadership was a joke. Samson was a perpetual teenager seeking selfish sexual gratification and Jephthah was a Conan the Barbarian type. The one bright light, nationally, was when God raised up the prophet like Moses – Deborah! This is the setting of Ruth, the time of the “Judges.” Watching Conan with Casper last night reminded me of the “days of the Judges.” Ruth lives in a dystopian world.

Into this time of chaos and fear we have the scroll of Ruth. Ruth is, in my opinion, a counter voice to the mess of Judges. God does not work only or perhaps primarily through the “great men of history” to bring about God’s kingdom. God works through women and even the aliens!

The Story of Ruth also take place during the barley harvest (1.22; 2.23) and is associated with the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) or Pentecost. It is read during that festival to this day.

A Pagan Woman Models the Heart of the Matter

In fact Ruth is a marvelous commentary on the central theological value in the Hebrew Bible, Hesed. Hesed is the heart of God, as Yahweh declares in Exodus 34.6. The concept is sprinkled across the Hebrew Bible and saturates the Psalms (the term occurs over 150x in the Psalms). See Reflecting on God’s Hesed: The Heart of God.

Preachers in Evangelical/Restoration circles do not talk nearly enough about hesed, sometimes so infrequently that disciples do not even know the word nor what it means. Yet it is the central character trait of Yahweh and it is the primary virtue in human relationships. It is the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the “Jesus Creed.” See God Creed, Jesus Creed: Center and Circumference of Christian Faith.

In Ruth 1.8 we encounter some radical teaching on hesed. Naomi says to her widowed daughter in laws, Orpah and Ruth,

Go on. Go on back, both of you to her own mother’s house, and may Yahweh do HESED with you, AS YOU HAVE DONE with the dead and with me.” (my translation)

Do you see that? Ruth, the Moabite – a pagan, has imitated the God of Israel. “She has practiced hesed. She may not even have known that Yahweh claims this as God’s own. But the scroll, through Naomi, declares Ruth acts like Israel’s God. May Yahweh do for her what she has already done. She did hesed.

Moses speaks of hesed a lot. Yahweh claims hesed is the beginning and the end of God’s identity (Ex 34.6). The Psalms refer to Hesed well over a hundred fifty times. In the days of the Judges hesed was hard to come by. It was not in Samson. It was not in Jephthah.

Where could hesed be observed?

The scroll of Ruth’s divinely inspired answer to that question is: hesed was seen in Israel’s archenemy, the female widowed pagan … Ruth!

The book of Ruth does not merely teach hesed through a command. Ruth shows us what hesed “looks like” in 3D.

The alien from Moab practiced the central characteristic of the God of Israel in her relationships, her husband and her Israelite mother in law. She practiced the second greatest command of the law of God and in doing so she imitated Yahweh.

Meanwhile the heart of God was missing from the people of God … has this ever changed? (See Jonah!)

When the Holy Spirit wanted to teach God’s People what it meant to faithfully love [hesed is faithful, committed, costly love] our neighbor as ourselves, that Spirit told the story of an alien. A foreigner.

It dawned on me as I was reading Ruth over lunch that Ruth is the “Old Testament” Samaritan. When Jesus wanted to tell a deeply committed Bible student the real meaning of hesed for our neighbor, he also chose a foreigner, an enemy, one that was thought to be theological trash. He confronted the Bible student with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Parable of Hesed.

A Note on Canonical Order

One more Ruth nugget for today. There is more than a slight chance that some intentional arrangement has occurred in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Ruth follows the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew order not Judges. This is fascinating.

First, Proverbs ends with the personification of Lady Wisdom and describes her as a “worthy woman” (lamely) or a woman of noble character (better) or perhaps a woman of great value/abilities or a woman of valor. This is in Proverbs 31.10. This Hebrew phrase only occurs one more time in the whole Bible. Where? In the very next book in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth. This is what Boaz calls Ruth on the threshing floor in Ruth 3.11. Boaz address Ruth the Moabite with the exact epitaph that describes the great woman in Proverbs.

Second, Lady Wisdom, the woman of ability and valor, is a teacher. In fact she teaches the central truth of God, hesed.

English translations completely obscure this. They read, as the NIV,

faithful instruction is on her tongue.” (31.26)

The NRSV has “the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” This is better because it recognizes she is a teacher.

But the text says, “she opens her mouth and the teaching of hesed is on her tongue/fill her mouth.”

A woman preaches the central claim about Israel’s God.

These are among the last words in Proverbs. The next person we see is the story of Ruth! Proverbs ends with a woman preaching God’s heart (hesed) and the next book shows a pagan woman, Ruth, practicing God’s heart (hesed) Ruth is the very embodiment of hesed. This is quite intentional.

Final Words on Ruth

Our world today is much like the time of the Judges. Not merely that everyone does what is right in their own eyes. But that we are in a world devoid of hesed. It seems that hesed is not only devoid in the world but it is scarce among God’s own people.

I wonder if the Spirit want’s us to hear – maybe for the fist time – that Ruth is not the story of a Disney Princess. Ruth is the story of shocking hesed from directions we automatically discount, the alien. Sometimes it is the outsider who looks the most like God.

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