The Word in the Wings
The Word in the Wings > From the study: kindness for all
From the study: kindness for all
By: KAYA WEAVER
Glorify Dance Theatre has begun work on a new ballet, Chesed, that will premiere in a few weeks (tickets available here!). The ballet explores different facets of the meaning of “chesed” to explore how humans relate to God and to each other through generous, loyal love. For the last few weeks on The Word in the Wings, we’ve looked at a few passages of Scripture where the word “chesed” occurs to learn about how this kind of love works and what God intends it to accomplish.
Even though Ruth’s ḥesed toward Naomi makes her vulnerable as she voluntarily forsakes her own future prospects in order to stay with her mother-in-law, Ruth’s exposure to loneliness and insecurity gives way to greater security as Ruth is able to provide food for Naomi by gleaning in Boaz’s field. This redemptive force of ḥesed becomes even more evident as Naomi in turn seeks security for Ruth. Together, the two women draw Boaz himself into their self-giving system, and Yahweh works through them to provide security beyond Naomi’s imagination.
NAOMI EMBRACES RUTH
Ruth 3:1 And Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek security for you, that it may be good for you?
2 And now, isn’t Boaz our relative, whose maidens you were with? Look, he is winnowing the threshed barley tonight.
3 So wash and anoint yourself, and put your cloak upon yourself and go down to the threshing floor, but don’t be known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.
4 And it will happen when he lies down, then you’ll know the place where he lies, and you’ll go and expose the place of his feet and lie down, but he will tell you what to do.”
5 And she said to her, “All that you’re saying to me, I will do.”
In the course of seeking security for Naomi, Ruth gleans in the fields of a man named Boaz and gains favor in his eyes (Ruth 2:13). Once bitter over her bereavement, Naomi has now warmed to Ruth’s overtures of loyalty and endeavors to reciprocate by seeking security for Ruth, setting her up for a suggestive encounter with Boaz. When both her sons die in Moab, Naomi despairs of being able to fulfill her obligation to Ruth as a mother-in-law by providing her with a new husband; according to the tradition of levirate marriage, the widow of an Israelite man would marry his brother, who would be obliged to provide offspring in his deceased brother’s name (Alter, p. 626). But Ruth’s initiative to not only stay with her mother-in-law for companionship but to go out and labor for Naomi’s dignified survival puts her in an unprecedented position: she has made a positive impression on a man of means who is also close enough kin to bear some familial obligation toward Naomi and her daughter-in-law. Naomi seizes the unexpected opportunity to return Ruth’s kindness of working for Naomi’s security during the harvest by seeking Ruth’s ongoing security through a prospective husband.
Ruth herself never expects Naomi to provide her such security when she promises to stay with her mother-in-law. Ruth’s ḥesed is satisfied when Naomi graciously receives her companionship and support. In keeping with the book’s earlier imagery of abundant harvest and leftover grain, Naomi’s initiative to seek security for Ruth grows out of Ruth’s initial act of ḥesed and the generative circumstance her ḥesed creates.
A REDEEMER EMBRACES NAOMI AND RUTH
6 So she went down to the threshing floor, and she did all that her mother-in-law had commanded her.
7 And Boaz ate and drank and made good his heart, and he came to lie down at the edge of the heap, and she came secretly, and she exposed the place of his feet, and she laid down.
8 And it happened in the middle of the night that the man shook and awoke; and look, a woman lying at the place of his feet.
9 And he said, “Who are you?” And she said, I’m Ruth, your maidservant. And you will spread your cloak over your maidservant, since you are a redeemer.”
Ruth’s secrecy and assertiveness suggest the careful balance of her position. She acts boldly, approaching Boaz and making herself impossible to ignore, and in trust, subjecting herself to the consequences of Boaz’s decision to act as “a redeemer” and to the possibility of shame if he doesn’t do ḥesed as she and Naomi hope (Davis, p. 72).
Up to this point, Ruth has used her power–her physical capacity to labor in the fields and her autonomy to choose where to go–to remain with and support her mother-in-law. Now that she has done everything in her power, she turns to a man of means and relative of Naomi’s and invites him to use his power to carry her ḥesed to completion, to marry Ruth and thereby cover the two women with a degree of security they can’t provide for themselves.
10 And he said, “You are blessed of Yahweh, my daughter. Your second ḥesed is greater than the first, to not go after the young me, whether poor or rich.
11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid; all that you say, I’ll do for you, for every gate of my people knows that you are a woman of valor.”
Boaz recognizes the extent of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi. Earlier, he recognizes her honorable action, deserving Yahweh’s reward, in leaving behind her home to care for her mother-in-law (Ruth 2:11-12); this is her first ḥesed. He acknowledges that her invitation to him is a further act of ḥesed toward Naomi; she could pursue a husband among “the younger men,” which would tie her to another family and complicate her commitment to Naomi, but instead she approaches Boaz, who, in marrying Ruth, would provide for both women as “a redeemer” who could provide offspring in the name of Naomi’s deceased son.
Because of Ruth’s reputation as “a woman of valor,” Boaz agrees to participate in her loyal love toward Naomi. Ruth’s incredible ḥesed compels Boaz to also act out of self-giving commitment to the security of others. Ruth has once again initiated ḥesed by making herself vulnerable, and as in the first instance of her ḥesed, her exposure generates an opportunity for more kindness in response. Boaz’s assent satisfies Ruth’s second ḥesed and generates an enclosure of security that now envelopes Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. In his agreement, Boaz simultaneously offers protection and affirms Ruth’s own good judgment, marking their relationship with the strength of mutual trust (Davis, p. 83), a defining feature of ḥesed. From the diminishment of famine and death, ḥesed not only fills and sustains Naomi but overflows and expands the bond between her and Ruth to encompass a growing family.
True to his word, Boaz clears up his redemption right with Naomi’s other kinsman and agrees in the presence of witnesses to take responsibility for her family’s inheritance and to marry Ruth, “in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place” (Ruth 4:9-10, NRSV).
Ruth 4:11 Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem;
12 and, through the children that the LORD will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (NRSV)
The people who witness Boaz’s act of redemption compare Ruth to Rachel and Leah, identifying her as a member of their kin and as someone who will contribute to the growth of their nation. When Ruth first vows her loyalty to Naomi, she professes allegiance to the God of Israel as an element of her commitment to her mother-in-law; Ruth’s first act of ḥesed entails identifying with Israel as the people of Yahweh both by her proclamation and by her embodiment of Yahweh’s characteristic kindness. Boaz and the people of Bethlehem recognize and confirm that Ruth’s ḥesed identifies her as one of God’s people along with them (Danielson, p. 260). Ruth’s ḥesed leads the Israelite people to embrace her and bless her marriage with Boaz, which grants her the security of belonging with God’s people (Davis, p. 109) and also opens the door for full restoration of Naomi’s family.
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.
14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!
15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”
16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (NRSV)
In accordance with the people’s blessing, Ruth bears a son. The narrator identifies Ruth’s conception as God’s intervention, and the women call the child Naomi’s. The God who seems set against Naomi at the narrative’s outset now provides the offspring she despaired of ever producing–not from her own womb, but through her loving daughter-in-law. The bereaved Naomi may have wished she could still produce a single son to provide for her in her old age, yet what is impossible for Naomi to do out of self-preservation, Ruth does for Naomi out of generous love. What God provides through expansive ḥesed, beginning with Ruth, encouraging Naomi, and inspiring Boaz, is beyond what Naomi imagines. Her exposure to the hand of Yahweh in her desolation ultimately results in superabundant blessing and security by that same hand.
RUTH’S ḤESED, ḤESED FOR DAVID, AND ḤESED FOR ALL PEOPLE
When a person chooses the vulnerability of kindness and is met with receptivity and reciprocity, exposure gives way to enclosure, a secure bond of mutual concern and commitment. This enclosure is a generative structure; as two covenant partners walk in love, new loves are inspired or born as kindness begets kindness. God holds out ḥesed for Naomi, not simply covering her immediate needs but inviting Ruth to participate in God’s purpose with Israel, to provide for Naomi in a manner that brings the two women together with Boaz and the rest of God’s people, who are ultimately blessed by their descendants, the line of David which carries forward the messianic promise (Davis, p. 114).
God relentlessly pursues humanity through ḥesed with an eye toward its expansive dynamic. God extends kindness toward us and requires that we respond by showing kindness to others (Micah 6:8). God’s ḥesed to a person or a people is not an isolated action. Rather, the subtle dynamics of ḥesed render it powerfully expansive, an action that necessitates response and, when people respond in kind, can grow to include infinitely more people in the security and trust generated by mutually self-giving love.
In 2 Samuel 7:15, God promises never to remove ḥesed from David’s offspring. The prophet Isaiah remarks on this promise and envisions it carried forward.
Isaiah 55:3 Incline your ears and come to me; listen and let yourselves live, and I’ll cut a covenant with you forever, David’s loyal love which is sure.
4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Look, a nation you don’t know calls out, and a nation who doesn’t know you runs to you, for the sake of Yahweh your God, and for Israel’s holiness, for he’s made you beautiful.
In response to God’s ḥesed, David witnesses to the people–not just to Israel but to foreign nations as well–concerning God’s character. The beauty of God’s people reflecting God’s kindness draws others to them, much as Ruth’s ḥesed inspired Boaz to join her in loyally supporting Naomi. God promises ḥesed to David forever, and that promise to one king becomes a promise for all people because of the expansive nature of ḥesed. God’s kindness for one is an invitation to participate in extending God’s kindness to all.
Scripture quotations are my own translation except where otherwise noted.
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