John Hobbins commented on my post from yesterday regarding my use of the English term “loyalty” as a translation for the Hebrew חסד (ḥesed) in the Yhwh Creed (e.g. Exod 34:6-7). He suggested I consult the discussion in the recently published JPS Commentary on the book of Ruth by the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Here is an excerpt from her brief but excellent essay in which she argues that “ḥesed refers to acts of benevolence that one does out of kindness, not out of any obligation”:
Ḥesed might seem self-contradictory. On the one hand, God is said to have ḥesed “because you requite for each person according to his deeds” (Ps. 62:13), and the psalmist associates ḥesed with justice: “you love righteousness and justice, your ḥesed fills the earth” (Ps. 33:5). On the other hand, God will always perform good acts for the Davidic house, whether or not David’s descendants deserve it (2 Sam. 22:51), and Moses invokes ḥesed to prevent God from giving Israel the punishment that they justly deserve (Num 14:19). But this seeming contradiction actually conveys a profound message. The greatest act of benevolence God can do for us is to give us a sense that there is justice in the world, that there is some degree of predictability, and therefore that we can control our fate (at least to some extent) by controlling how we treat each other and how we act toward God. Yet, sometimes we don’t want justice because we have acted unjustly. Rather, we want compassion—we want to be forgiven, or to have our broken deeds fixed. In these moments, true benevolence chooses to suspend justice. It is as if ḥesed has cumulative force: one good deed provokes another and another, and each adds goodness to the world. Benevolence toward others and toward the world generates good acts even when they are not earned, and it certainly demands good acts when they are. But sometimes this force weakens and even fades away. Then, both we and God need to forget about the idea of measure for measure and simply perform good deeds—acts of random lovingkindness. (xlviii-xlix)
Insofar as loyalty does not necessarily imply unobligated acts of kindness, loyalty would not capture the image of ḥesed Frymer-Kensky identifies in the text of Ruth and the larger Hebrew Bible (though Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Frymer-Kensky’s co-author, occasionally uses the word loyalty to describe Ruth’s actions in her subsequent introductory essay, “Ḥesed in Ruth”). Ruth’s loyalty “to the dead and to [Naomi]” (Ruth 1:8) is an act of random lovingkindness, internally motivated and not an obligation externally dictated. The question remains as to how much weight one should assign to the book of Ruth for defining ḥesed for the larger Hebrew Bible. That being said, it must be weighed!