Today, I ran across one of the best short definitions of the Hebrew word "hesed" that I have seen. Most English translations translate it as "steadfast love" or "lovingkindness." So for example:
Exodus 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness,
There is no good English word that encapsulates the meaning of hesed. It is used to describe YHWH's covenant love for his people. It is also used to describe loyal relationships. I also heard a famous Old Testament scholar argue that in most cases it is the OT equivalent of the NT word "grace." This gets at an important aspect of it, but again leaves out some key elements. Particularly in our modern context we do not always associate the English word 'grace' with the kind of covenant committee that hesed often describes (and I would argue is necessary for a Biblical concept of grace). Other times the word has more overtones of loyalty and less of the emotional [read:fleeting and transitory] overtones that we think of with the English word "love."
With that in mind, while I was reading a summary on the book of Ruth, I ran into this definition, as it comments on Ruth 2:20.
Hebrew hesed cannot be translated with one English word. This is a covenant term, wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty--in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty. (D.I. Block "Ruth 1: Book of" Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Writings and Poetry [Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2008] p.682)That about covers all the aspects of the word. I like the phrase "that go beyond the requirements of duty." Even loyalty can be seen as sort of dry and stuffy as an "obligation" as if one is "stuck." But hesed never has such negative overtones. In fact, it is crucial to the character of God in the Old Testament. As Naomi says:
"Ruth 2:20 And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness [hesed] has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.”"
That is the character of God. Naomi had walked about from God, she had forsaken her covenant heritage for the sake of food when she left the promised land--and while her family received discipline from the Lord, YHWH still should his covenant love to her by providing a 'redeemer' so that their inheritance in the covenant would not be lost for ever. Even more, from this heritage the promised "seed" would be fulfilled through the future Davidic line. Without God's hesed in the book of Ruth their would be no Jesus Christ.
Here in the book of Ruth, Naomi's family story in a nutshell is the history of Israel: they too were given covenant heritage by God and yet they too walked away. But God did not forget his covenant promises. God showed his hesed to people that were wholly undeserving. It magnifies the grace of God when we see it in light of our sinfulness.