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Friday, June 29, 2007

Hesed and Kindness

I had not expected this simple word to turn into a series. However, the comments demand it. Jeremy Pierce writes,

    I would add is that this isn't mere faithfulness or loyalty. It's faithfulness or loyalty to a covenant. But it also has connotations of love and not just mere faithfulness as a duty.

    My Old Testament professor Saul Olyan preferred to translate it as "covenant love" in order to get that element. Since it's love in the context of a covenant, the faithfulness aspect is sort of implied rather than explicit. That's the one downside of his translation.

Talmida refers to this quote,

    Here too the usual English translation of "lovingkindness" misses a key element. In the Bible, chesed meant living up to a covenantal responsibility, so my Bible professors taught me to translate chesed as "covenant loyalty." Loyalty captures the blend of duty and feelings of concern, connection, and sympathy that we naturally have for those with whom we feel a bond. Doing chesed means feeling that loyalty toward all other human beings. We owe each other our compassion, not only when it happens to well up within us.

    Gemilut chasadim literally means "paying back chesed." Since chesed is showered on us each day, all our lives-from family and loved ones, from the created world around us-the only way to repay it is to do chesed for others.
Dr. Mariottini writes,

    When the word is applied to God, it refers to his faithfulness to the relationship. Thus, the word is best translated “faithfulness,” “unfailing love,” “loyalty.” When the word is applied to human beings, it refers to the loyalty and commitment that people should bring to that relationship. In this case, a good translation of hesed should be “commitment,” “loyalty.”
Bauckham writes,

    Ruth acts with חסד (loyalty or caring responsibility) only because both women act with initiative and mutual support
Here are two dictionary entries for kindness, the word which is most often used to translate hesed in Ruth 3:10.

Concise Oxford Dictionary (the state or qulaity of being kind) kind:

  • of a friendly, generous, benevolent or gentle nature
  • showing friendliness, affection or consideration
  • affectionate
  • archaic loving
  • the quality of being warmhearted and considerate and humane and sympathetic
  • forgiving: tendency to be kind and forgiving
  • a kind act
I think the problem is evident. Kindness can be too easily understood as warmhearted, gentle, affectionate, forgiving and sympathetic. It should, however, be loyal, faithful, and committed. It is love along with covenant, and compassion along with commitment. It is living up to responsibility.

If we take this back to the original context which I started with, it means that Ruth was not just warmhearted and gentle but she was responsible and committed. She contradicted Naomi, she left her own country to accompany Naomi, she worked in the fields to provide for Naomi, she put herself in a compromising position, she initiated a marriage relationship, and she gave her firstborn to her mother-in-law to name. We don't know how gentle she was, we do know she must have been strong and determined. She was loving and committed and fulfilled her caring responsibilities.

  • kindness KJV, RSV, ESV, NIV, TNIV, NASB, HCSB
  • What a splendid expression of love! Message
  • family loyalty NLT
  • truly loyal CEV
  • loyalty NRSV
  • ἐλεος - compassion LXX
Few translations have ventured an alternative to "kindness". Notice that the archaic meaning of "kindness" is "love". With that in mind, "kindness" may have been accurate in the KJV, but no longer accurate in contemporary versions. However, I think Bauckham has the right touch in contemporary language when he uses "caring responsibility". Not only did Ruth remain loyal in spirit, but she acted out of caring responsibility. How about this for Ruth 3:10?

    He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your caring responsibility is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.


At Fri Jun 29, 07:54:00 PM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Ruth 3:10, Revised English Bible:

Boaz said, "The LORD bless you, my daughter! You are proving yourself more devoted to the family than ever by not running after any young man, whether rich or poor."

I like "devoted to the family" here - that seems to capture the essence of what you've been describing for hesed.

At Sat Jun 30, 11:18:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks, I don't have the REB. This expression is original and sounds nice but I think I would pass on it because "devoted to" has an exclusionary sense to it, that one is devoted exclusively to something.

There may be some expectation that women be exclusively devoted to family, but it is certainly not implied by the Hebrew word hesed. Afterall, God was kind to Sarah, Abimilech was kind to Abraham, but there was no exclusive devotion.

Ruth fulfilled her covenant responsibilities, in this case to Naomi.

Here one can see how an idiomatic translation can show bias towards women. I still feel a more formal translation, one which has more concordance in vocabulary is less likely to show bias, but that is only a tendency, not a rule. This is an interesting problem.


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