Read the passage here.
This week and next week, we are going to look at the book of Ruth. It’s a short book – one that you can read probably a couple of times in an hour – so I hope that you take the time to read through it. What we’ll do this week is discuss the overall story and talk about some general considerations. Next week, we’ll dig into it a little bit deeper.
One of the interesting things about Ruth is that it’s located in a different place in the Christian canon than in the Hebrew canon (that is, the scriptures that the Jewish people use). Specifically, in the Hebrew bible, Ruth is located in a different place. Whereas the Christian bible places Ruth immediately after Judges (where we’re discussing it), in the Hebrew bible, Ruth is located between Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) and Lamentations.
Now this isn’t super important – it’s not in any way required that we read the books of the bible in order. But it does suggest something about the role of the Ruth story in the respective theologies.
At any rate, we are dealing with Ruth here because it is the next book in our bibles. And I want to consider how Ruth fits into what we’re doing – that is, trying to understand the biblical story.
Now in the narrative that we’ve been following, we’ve just finished up the book of Judges. And Judges, as we’ve noted, is a decidedly depressing book (or at least it can be). Because Judges is a vivid picture of the failures and decline of the nation of Israel to be the people of God. At the end of Judges, we see Israel in as bad a situation as they’ve been, spiritually speaking. We’ve seen people forget their God, the God who delivered them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land. We’ve seen people who are serving the gods of the land, or of their own making, instead of Yahweh. And we’ve seen a nation divided against itself, a people broken.
And it’s into that space that we get the story of Ruth. And the opening verses set the stage. We read:
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.Ruth 1:1-5
Now it’s worth noting that Elimelek’s family, including Naomi and their sons, leave their homeland to go to Moab. Now I also want to acknowledge that, in Ruth, Moab doesn’t seem to be presented as Israel’s enemies – and certainly Ruth, as a Moabitess, isn’t represented as a pagan, or otherwise ungodly, person (it’s actually the opposite). But certainly, in Judges, we see that Moab was one of those nations that oppressed Israel.
Jd. 3:12 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and because they did this evil the Lord gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. 13 Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms. 14 The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.Judges 3:12-14
And who exactly are the Moabites? Well, for background, we go all the way back to Genesis and the story of Lot. At the destruction of Sodom, which we touched on last week, Lot and his daughters escaped the city to the mountains. If you remember the story, Lot’s daughters, worried that they will not find husbands and have children, get their father drunk and have sex with him. The Moabites are the product of that sin.
Gen. 19:36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonitesof today.Genesis 19:36-38
Now again, the book of Ruth doesn’t seem to present the Moabites as especially evil or ungodly (though that might be assumed by the original hearers). I’m spending time on this merely to point out that it’s out of this context, out of the context of Moab and Ruth, a Moabitess, that the story of Ruth comes.
Now after these opening verses, the death of Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, and Naomi’s two sons, Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, that they should go back to their people in Moab. Naomi recognizes that the loss of their husbands is devastating – especially in a culture where a woman’s place and worth is dependent upon their husbands. Orpah eventually agrees – this is probably the wise thing to do. But Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and vows to return to Naomi’s hometown with her.
In chapter 2, Naomi and Ruth have returned to Bethlehem. Ruth, seeking food for herself and Naomi, goes to work in the field of Boaz, the third major character in this story. Boaz notices Ruth and shows favour to her. Boaz encourages Ruth to continue gleaning in his field, essentially promising her safety and security. We read:
2:8 So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. 9 Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”
10 At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”Ruth 2:8-12
When Ruth returns to Naomi and tells her of this encounter, Naomi says that Boaz is one of their kinsman-redeemers (in the NIV, “guardian-redeemer”).
Now here, we encounter one of the cultural elements that are important to understanding this story. We don’t need to dig deeply into it, but a kinsman-redeemer is a family member (i.e. a relative of Naomi’s husband) who can take over the deceased husband’s responsibilities for his widow and family. And this, in part, has to do with land, with inheritance.
So, Elimelek and Naomi had left Bethlehem because of the famine in the land. However, as part of the nation of Judah, they had part in the inheritance of Judah. When they went to Moab, they left that inheritance behind. Had they gone back together, they could claim that again (buy it back). But Elimelek died in Moab. Because of the way the legal system worked, the right to that land would not pass to Naomi. But a close relative could buy it back, or redeem it.
Now I don’t point this out to suggest that what matters here is land. Rather, I want us to think in terms of redemption or restoration. What Boaz represents here is not property or wealth, but rather restoring Naomi and her family (here, Ruth) to their place as a full part of Israel.
Now from here, the story continues. Ruth and Naomi make a plan to present Ruth to Boaz. That may sound worse than I mean it. In chapter 3, we get this encounter between Ruth and Boaz where, after a party of sorts, Ruth goes to a sleeping Boaz, uncovers his feet, and lays at his feet. We read:
7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!
9 “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer d of our family.”
10 “The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. 12 Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. 13 Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”Ruth 3:7-13
As is often the case, there are a number of cultural considerations here that need to be taken into account. However, it seems fairly clear that Ruth is proposing to Boaz in his role as the kinsman-redeemer; or, Ruth is asking Boaz to fulfill his role as kinsman-redeemer and marry her. To this, Boaz enthusiastically agrees.
However, one final matter has to be dealt with before Boaz can follow through. In Boaz’s response to Ruth (3:12 onward), he notes that there is another relative who is closer to Elimelek – essentially, he has the first opportunity to redeem Elimelek’s land. In chapter 4, we see that Boaz presents this opportunity to this relative. We read:
2 Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so. 3 Then he said to the guardian-redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek. 4 I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, do so. But if you will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line.”
“I will redeem it,” he said.
5 Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.”
6 At this, the guardian-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.”Ruth 4:2-6
So Boaz, following the appropriate laws and customs, having first offered the opportunity to his relative (who declined), marries Ruth. He redeems the land and property of Elimelek and his sons, and effectively restores the fortunes of Ruth and Naomi.
Boaz and Ruth have a son and name him Obed. And Obed was the father of Jesse; and Jesse was the father of king David.
This is the story of Ruth. And, even though we might struggle a little with understanding all of the cultural particularities, it’s apparent that this is really just a very lovely story. And it seems to me a particularly nice story, having just finished up thinking about the time of the Judges. In Judges, we read story after story of how the Israelites failed, rebelled against, and rejected God. We read about how their falling was due to their own failure. Judges, as we said, is a decidedly depressing book.
But Ruth is very different. Ruth, set also during the time of the Judges, is a very simple yet uplifting story. And the story of Ruth reminds us that, even in the midst of those days when Israel had no king, God was still working.
But it may not be obvious that God is working. It is made clear in the epilogue that Ruth’s story is part of God’s redemptive purposes – Ruth leads us directly to David. But within the story itself, there are no obvious signs. That God – YHWH – is important to the characters is fairly clear – this is indicated numerous times in the story. But beyond that, God’s activity isn’t really made apparent.
But maybe that’s the point. Or at least, it’s worth paying attention to. Ruth’s story is a lovely story – but it’s not a remarkable story. There’s nothing supernatural going on in Ruth. There are no armies, there are no kings, there are no kingdoms rising and falling. No burning bushes, no floods, no locusts, no angels.
And yet, God is working. God is present in this story, too. Our inclination is to look for God in the big and splashy. We think that God moving and God doing means earthquakes and fire from the sky. Our inclination is to think that God is only in the wondrous so we never see Him in the ordinary.
But maybe the space between natural and supernatural isn’t as great as we think.
For whatever reason, we have been led to believe that what matters (or at least what matters more) are the grand gestures. We think that God is more with us when he turns 5 loaves and 2 fishes into enough to feed thousands, than when he causes the crops to grow over many months, year after year. We think that God was more present with Paul on the road to Damascus than He was in the many months of discipleship and many years of missionary work afterwards. We think that the miraculous is more miraculous if it happens suddenly and dramatically than when it happens slowly and steadily. We think that miracles are synonymous with unexplained phenomena rather than flowing from enduring faithfulness.
My simple point is that, for all its simplicity, for all its ordinariness, the story of Ruth is no less a demonstration of God’s grace, mercy, and power than the story of the ten signs in Egypt or the crossing of the Red Sea. And God’s presence is no less with Ruth gleaning in the fields than it was with Israel wandering in the wilderness. And God’s purposes are no less being fulfilled in us, in our everyday lives, in our everyday struggles, than they were with the Israelites taking the promised land.
Maybe Ruth’s story seems a little ordinary. But maybe the ordinary is the point? Maybe in the ordinary, in our everyday, we can find that God is working out His purposes, bringing forth His glory, in and through us.