But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Ruth 1:8 JPS
The dead – Why should God express hesed toward Ruth and Orpah? Naomi’s answer demonstrates that she isn’t an evangelical. She does not suggest that God showers His benevolence on foreigners simply because He loves them. She doesn’t even suggest that God’s benevolence is unconditional. She says that God will show hesed toward these two Moabite women because they have shown hesed toward the dead and the living. In other words, their actions create reciprocal obligation. They did something first. God’s grace follows.
But what exactly did they do? Answering this question places us squarely in the Semitic culture of the Middle East. They showed proper care and respect for the dead. This action demonstrated kindness as no other action could – because the dead cannot repay. There can be no ulterior motive for caring for the dead, and that is precisely why such actions are the epitome of hesed – benevolence shown without any prior moral or social obligation; benevolence that comes purely from the heart.
Now you know why Naomi puts this act first, before the subsequent act of hesed toward her. Even if Naomi receives pure-hearted kindness, there is always the possibility of expected reciprocity. This is obviously never the case with the dead. If Ruth and Orpah are willing to show such kindness toward those who can never repay, then their true character is revealed. We can expect them to continue since we have seen that this is truly who they are.
This raises a very interesting question for our contemporary “stay young forever” culture. What do we discover about our own hearts when it comes to the dead? Oh, I don’t mean, “Do we place flowers on the grave sites of those we loved?” Yes, maybe that is also revealing. Perhaps it is more revealing to ask if we even visit those graves, or are we caught up in the “let go of the past” frenzy to deny our own mortality? But let me ask another question, perhaps a bit more personal. What are your behaviors around those who are dying? How do you act toward those who are ready to pass from this life? Most likely, they also cannot repay. How do you show kindness and respect toward them?
My daughter told me once that she made friends with an elderly woman who is a distant relative. This woman suffers from several diseases of the aged. She is difficult to be around. She often loses track of conversations and forgets who people are. Most of her other family members just don’t want to be with her. It is too difficult. But Rachel engages this woman simply because Rachel’s heart tells her that comfort and care are important even if you don’t know who you’re talking to. Naomi would agree. The dead reveal the true hearts of the living.
Topical Index: dead, hesed, Ruth 1:8