Ruth

Good morning! Today it’s a delight to share with you one of the gems of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth. This book is set in the time of the Judges, and it displays a much more compassionate response to foreigners than that which we have read in Judges. Ruth is a lovely piece of literature, using word plays and sophisticated reversals to show the action of God and people “behind the scenes” working for personal kindness that later turns into national blessing. If you’re in the practice of reading my commentary first but have not read the book of Ruth before, do yourself the favor of stopping here and reading the Bible passage first this time.

Read the Book of Ruth. (Note that the link is only to Ruth 1, since copyright limitations prevent the display of a full book of the NRSV Bible. Use the links at the end of the chapter to read the other three short chapters.) Once you’ve done that, or if you’ve read the book before, read my reflection and (please!) share your insights also. My thoughts below focus on the three main characters: Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.

Naomi is the character who experiences the most change in this short story. At the beginning, she is struck by tragedy—both her husband and sons die, leaving her a widow in a foreign land without a male protector. Then famine strikes, making things all the worse. Naomi grieves her circumstances, names them as God’s doing, and gives voice to hopelessness. When she and Ruth come from the Moabite famine to Bethlehem (literally “house of bread”), Naomi still sees no future—she asks the townspeople to call her “Bitter”, blaming God for the calamities of her old age. Nevertheless, with time Naomi starts to recognize God’s work in the connection that develops between Boaz and Ruth. She then becomes a “co-conspirator” with God, putting a plan in place for Ruth’s provision by encouraging her to get closer to Boaz. We see her come around to feeling blessed again by the end of the story, with a grandson on her lap and the future of her family assured.

The key laudable characteristic of Ruth is her fidelity. As a daughter-in-law who could have returned to her family in Moab when her husband died, Ruth is loyal to Naomi beyond expectation. Her words have been used in countless weddings through the years for their timeless declaration of unconditional love. She is also dutiful daughter-in-law when they return to Bethlehem, a diligent gleaner whose work ethic recommends her in the eyes of others. She demonstrates prudence, not taking undue risks where there were evident dangers from being an “unattached” foreign woman in the fields with a lot of men. But she also seizes an opportunity for blessing, following Naomi’s direction and sleeping near (or with) tipsy Boaz on the threshing-floor (she uncovers his “feet”, likely a euphemism for genitalia). Ruth’s valor makes possible each development that drives the story to its happy conclusion.

Boaz is the other righteous character whose fortunes change over the course of the story. He takes seriously his role as a kinsman-redeemer, and honorably cares for not just his workers but also for the women who glean in his fields. “As it happened” he took an interest in Ruth, but we’re to see this as the work of a matchmaking God. Boaz demonstrates fairness in recognizing Ruth’s value, especially because she might easily be discounted as a foreigner. Boaz reveals some chagrin over being an older suitor on the threshing-floor, where he appreciates Ruth’s attention and loyalty, then agrees to seek her welfare after their midnight encounter.

The resolution of this little story reveals its larger intention of promoting God’s blessing through unlikely foreigners. The nearest living relative to Naomi is not willing to redeem Elimelech’s inheritance because (according to the laws of “levirate marriage” in Deuteronomy 25) he must try to produce a male heir with Ruth to carry on the name of Elimelech’s dead son. Therefore, Boaz redeems Ruth and by God’s blessing they bear a son, Obed, whom Naomi (“bitter” no more) practically adopts as her own. Note two things in the closing verses which essentially give the moral of the story. We see a repeated reference to Perez, the son borne of Tamar and Judah (after she held him accountable with public shame to be her “kinsman-redeemer” in Genesis 38). Ruth and Tamar have in common a vindication of their righteousness. Then most significantly, the son of Ruth’s union with Boaz, named Obed, becomes the grandfather of King David. So a Moabite woman is the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, whose descendants later go on to include Jesus himself. The writer wants us to see how God works in hidden ways to bring feast out of famine and blessing out of loss, using faithful outsiders like Ruth, without whose righteous behavior none of these developments would have taken place at all. Happy reading!

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Samuel 1-4. Thanks for reading!

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