[This is going to be a long post because the book of Ruth has become one of my personal favourite books in the Bible.]
The book of Ruth is very fascinating if you take the time to look beneath the surface, and around the edges. By beneath the surface, I mean looking at the story for its details, for its intricate inner-workings. Looking at the characters, their motivation, their imperfections, and the complexity of the situations they face, we begin to unravel a truly compelling story that, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, embraces the ordinariness of day-to-day life. The book of Ruth explores how very ordinary life circumstances, dead-end jobs, struggling through poverty, and exercising basic decency can radically change and even save the world.
By around the edges, I mean looking at the Biblical context outside of the book that situates the action. The opening line of the book says, "In the days when the judges ruled in Israel[...]" (Ruth 1:1a NLT). Not enough attention is given to this fact, and this opening nod to the book of Judges actually gives the reader a crucial hint about the meaning of this story's conclusion.
So let's first explore Ruth by jumping back to chapters 19-21 of Judges. These are, I think, perhaps the most disturbing chapters in the entire Bible. There is a Levite and his concubine - already raising some eyebrows here - who find themselves traveling under some unusual circumstances. When they come to the town of Gibeah, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, a kind old man offers them a place to stay.
But things take an ugly turn. Many men from the city surround the house and threaten to assault the visitors in a scene that is directly reminiscent of the Sodom & Gomorrah story in Genesis. This story plays out worse, however. The Levite sends his concubine out to the angry mob, and they assault her throughout the night and leave her for dead. Things get really weird when the man takes her body, cuts it into twelve pieces, and sends one piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel in protest of what was done.
A massive coalition of the other tribes of Israel gather together, infuriated at this crime. They band together and swear to take vengeance on the tribe of Benjamin. Multiple battles ensue, and eventually Judah and the other tribes are successful at defeating the army of the Benjaminites. Only they don't stop there. They go on a rampage and burn down all the towns of the tribe of Benjamin and kill everything they find. Realizing they have gone way too far in retaliation, even going as far as taking an oath not to allow their daughters to intermarry with Benjaminites, they decide to "atone" for their failures. So they attack Jabesh-gilead, slaughter even more people, kidnap 400 young women, realize they didn't get enough women for all the surviving Benjaminite men, and then go kidnap more girls from a festival near Shiloh, forcing all of them into marriages with the survivors of the civil war.
The very last line in the book of Judges summarizes the root of all this chaos: "In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes." (Judges 21:25 NLT) The authors of Judges, evidently frustrated with the moral decline of Israel in this time, lay bare the crisis: there is an extremely devastating lack of moral leadership among these people, and it is destroying them.
All of that is the background context for Ruth. It's a chaotic nightmare, and as we proceed into the book of Ruth, it's almost a relief to see that Naomi and her family get away from Israel to the land of Moab. A famine forces them from the Promised Land, but for a time they have happy lives. But as the men of the family suddenly begin to die, Naomi is left in a strange land with her two daughters in law. One of them, Orpah, returns to her family in Moab, but Ruth decides to return with her mother-in-law to take her chances in Israel.
Here, we begin to see some of the deep character details that make up the story. Ruth is a Moabite foreigner, but her choice to stay with Naomi demonstrates that something of Israel's Torah laws are already written in her heart. The Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12) required that children make an effort to care for their parents in their vulnerable older age, and Ruth honors this principle by staying with her widowed mother-in-law. It's an act of kindness that will eventually come back to Ruth.
When Boaz enters the picture, we learn that he is "a wealthy and influential man" in Bethlehem (Ruth 2:1). He finds Ruth while she is trying to start working as a harvester in a farming field, and goes out of his way to ensure that she is safe in the workplace and provided for in her basic needs. Not only is this kind and generous on Boaz's part, but it's a crucial picture of what a faithful Israelite man is supposed to be: concerned about the well-being of foreigners, widows, oppressed women, and the moral guidelines given by God in the Torah. Against the backdrop of Judges, both Ruth and Boaz are a breath of fresh air. They are not necessarily perfect people, but they are simple, good-natured, humble, and considerate of others.
These two are finally taking the story in a positive direction.
Naomi sees an opportunity here: Boaz would make a good new husband for Ruth. This man has already done a lot to take care of them; they might as well make this arrangement permanent, right?
So together, Ruth and Naomi hatch a plan. It's a little bit strange, quite bold, and a bit forward even by today's standards. While many people have speculated at a sexual connotation to the events described in Ruth 3:1-15, it seems unlikely that anything more than what is described took place. (See more on this in the Questions section below.) However, it is worth noting that in Ruth 3:14, Ruth and Boaz do take precautions to make sure nobody finds out that Ruth spent the night asleep beside Boaz. There is enough going on to serve as a slight warning - this isn't necessarily the best way to go about proposing marriage, or at least it's not the primary or mandatory way for Bible-believing people to pursue a marriage.
If anything, we may find ourselves laughing at the chaotic-good forwardness of Naomi who proposed this plan. This seems like the kind of strategy that could only be cooked up by a tired but bold old woman who has seen and overcome too much in her own time and is, frankly, not interested in waiting around for things to happen or asking for more permission or approval from others than absolutely necessary. There is a charming human-ness to this part of the story, a window into the kind of thing that can happen when the perfect mix of desperation, courage, opportunity, and goodwill come together.
After working out some of the details, Ruth and Boaz are married. Ruth's honor is regained according to the customs and culture of the time, and both she and her mother-in-law are assured that they will be taken care of by a wealthy and influential man. More than that, Ruth and Naomi both find happiness in spite of all the hardships they faced.
And so we reach what is almost the end of one of the quaintest love stories in the Bible. But before we touch the ultimate conclusion, we need to step back. One essential detail of this story cannot be overlooked - the ethnic difference between Ruth and Boaz. Boaz is, of course, an Israelite of the tribe of Judah, living in Bethlehem. Ruth, on the other hand, is a Moabite, from the other side of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Ruth is not only a Gentile, but a living symbol of the fragmentation of the family of Israel.
You see, many centuries before, God had made a promise to Abraham, to give him children as numerous as the stars, and a legacy that would see God's blessing come to the whole world through those descendants (Genesis 12:1-3, 15:4-5, 17:4-8, 22:16-18). But after the first time Abraham hears that promise (Genesis 12), his family was split up: his nephew Lot broke away from the family and moved off to Sodom. This family that is meant to change and bless the world is not getting off to a good start, fragmenting into pieces near the very beginning of their calling! (In many ways, it's not too different from what is still happening by the time of Judges and Ruth.)
So Abraham's descendants went on to be the Israelites, and Lot's descendants went on to be ... the Moabites.
And this means that the coming together of Boaz and Ruth is also a re-uniting of family lineage that had been torn apart for centuries. Abraham's family that was broken up all those generations ago is coming back together in Boaz and Ruth.
The hand of Providence lingers quietly and confidently in the background of Ruth. You can almost see God smiling in the background as all these story threads are being tied up.
And then, the fourth chapter of Ruth launches the rest of the story of Israel's story forward in an astonishing reveal:
"13 So Boaz took Ruth into his home, and she became his wife. When he slept with her, the Lord enabled her to become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. 15 May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!”
16 Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. 17 The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David."
BOMBSHELL. This story was not merely an unexpectedly happy love story for one unlucky woman. It's the ultimate resolution to the problems left hanging in the book of Judges - the happy ending that Judges never got. "In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes." (Judges 21:25 NLT) But Boaz and Ruth had a son, Obed, the grandfather of King David.
At every turn in this story, God is acting behind the scenes, using the simple, everyday acts of loyalty and faithfulness by relatively insignificant people to bring about the future of a whole nation, and to keep his promise to save the world.
Ruth and Boaz appear again in Matthew chapter 1, in a genealogical record. Not only were they the great-grandparents of King David, the first decent king of Israel, but they also ultimately ended up being ancestors to Jesus himself. Their complex and unlikely love story was one small piece in God's plan to restore and redeem the whole world - to truly keep that promise made to Abraham so long ago, "And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 22:18).
Look at your life, in all it's regular-ness, in all the day by day decisions you have to make. Does it seem insignificant to you? Let the story of Ruth be a reminder that what you are up to today, no matter how seemingly trivial, is part of a plan that God is designing for the fate of future generations, and that has already been in the works for generations before you even came around. All of it has meaning and purpose, in some way or another.
- Read Ruth chapter 1.
- What parts of the story do you find relatable? Which characters do you sympathize with the most?
- What do you think of Naomi's words in verses 21-22? What do you think of how she ascribes her suffering to God?
- Naomi asks for her name to be changed to the word "Mara," which means "bitter." Reflect on soures of bitterness in your own life. How do those things relate to the way you think about God, if at all?
- Read Ruth chapter 2.
- Make a list of everything that Boaz does right, and then try to think of a possible modern equivalent. What are some of the social issues that Boaz confronts in the way he treats Ruth?
- Read Ruth chapter 3.
- What is the (obvious) goal Naomi has in mind by getting Ruth to bathe, wear perfume, and put on her nicest clothes before going to see Boaz?
- How do you see the nighttime interaction between Ruth and Boaz? Is it something risqué, or relatively wholesome? Moreover, does that matter to you directly? Does this story have a great or small effect on your overall ethics around sexuality?
- What differences do you notice between the way Ruth and Boaz's culture approaches marriage versus your own culture? How would this situation be different if it were happening today in your culture?
- Read Ruth chapter 4.
- In the conversation with the other possible redeemer, do you think Boaz knew that mentioning he would have to marry Ruth the Moabite might cause the other man to back out of the deal?
- When the people bear witness to the transaction where Boaz acquires Elimelech's property and family, they declare their wish for Ruth to become like Rachel and Leah. In what ways does the ending of this story make that wish come true? See Genesis 35:20-28 for context.
- The book of Ruth may be a challenge to people who feel the need to be exceptional or special. The power of her story lies in how ordinary it is. Read this article and reflect on the concept of "vocation." How does the story of Ruth challenge your own sense of what is important in your life?