Where You Go…

I can just hear the story being told as the women baked bread together at the village stove. Told to warn their children, told to strengthen their sense of community, told because it was tragic.

Orpah and Ruth, two Moabite women, married for love. There’s no way that their parents arranged for them to marry Mahlon and Kilion, the sons of the immigrant widow, Naomi. The two young men were from Bethlehem, their father died right after they set up camp in Moab. Their family never did fit in, they didn’t worship the gods of the Moabites, they claimed that they worshipped the one true God. They evidently had come to Moab looking for a better life, said there was a famine in Bethlehem. People were starving. They were desperate. They came to Moab and the two boys, …they married Orpah and Ruth. No children, either of them. Married ten years, and then they died leaving their Israelite mother, Naomi, and their Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth.

Moab throughout Israel’s history had been a place of hostility, and Naomi had not found a better life. Broken and mourning, she packed and prepared to go back to Bethlehem. She gave her daughters-in-law a choice. They had married her sons, and the five of them had been a family for the last 10 years, an island of sorts in the midst of Moab, with its idol worship and immorality. Until she released them from their obligation, they were packing up to go with her. But Naomi knew what it was to be a foreigner, to be a young widow in a strange land, and she didn’t want that for them. “Go back, go home to your mothers. I pray to my God that you will remarry and be happy.”

Eventually, Orpah complied with her mother-in-law’s urging and kissed Naomi goodbye, but Ruth was determined to go with Naomi. Ruth’s words are often quoted at weddings (and I sometimes wonder when people ask me to include them if they realize the depth of commitment that these words express, that this is the promise of a young widow to her mother-in-law). They are beautiful words, covenantal words, “Where you go, I will go; where you spend the night, I will spend the night; your people, my people; and your God, my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do to me and more if anything but death separates you and me.” Beautiful words of hesed.

Hesed is a Hebrew verb that we can’t translate into English – not because we don’t know what it means, but because we don’t have words in English to capture what it means. Hesed is used in the Old Testament to describe God’s character. In Exodus, God is described as merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in hesed and faithfulness. We tend to translate hesed as “steadfast love,” or sometimes as “kindness,” “mercy,” “devotion,” or “loyalty.”

Hesed is more than an emotion, hesed is sacrificial love in action. I was listening to a comedian in the car the other day, and he was talking about newlyweds and how they are such experts on marriage. The punch line to his joke was that they say the first three months are the hardest, but it’s really the last three. Hesed is what we promise when we vow “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health” we weather life’s storms together because of our hesed for one another. It is more than love, more than loyalty, more than faithfulness. One author defines hesed this way, “Hesed is a bone-weary father who drives through the night to bail his drug-addict [child] out of jail. Hesed is a mom who spends day after thankless day spoon-feeding and wiping up after her disabled child….Hesed is love that can be counted on, decade after decade. It’s not the thrill of romance, but the security of faithfulness.”

I was awed this week by a story of hesed in the New York Times. The report was on the devastation in the Bahamas and told of a blind man, Brent Lowe, who was evacuated on Tuesday night to Nassau for dialysis. As he receives dialysis three times a week, he wonders if his eldest daughter survived the storm. He was talking with her on the phone as the storm blew in, but now the phone lines are down. The sustained winds of 185 miles an hour easily blew the roof off his concrete house, where he, his son, and 6 neighbors huddled in the bathroom. The water swirled up to Brent’s chin. So, he put his 24 year-old son with Cerebral Palsy, who isn’t able to walk, on his shoulders, and this blind man clutched his neighbors and made his way to the closest home still standing, about 5 minutes away. Brent Lowe, now homeless, wonders about the future. 90 percent of the houses in the area where he lived are without roofs or have completely collapsed. When asked if he will return, he said, “I have to go. That’s where my family is. My kids are there, my brothers, my sisters, they’re all there.”

That is hesed. Perhaps we can’t translate hesed into English, but we can learn to live it – hesed is love, the way we are shown love by God – love that withstands the storms of life, love that carries and saves, love that binds us one to another. Love that says, “Where you go, I will go.” Amen.