Ruth: three thoughts

I was named after Ruth in the Bible. I may be biased, but I’ve always thought she was pretty special. I’ve always been interested in the book named after her. As a child, I thought it was the loveliest of love stories. As an adult I still think it’s within the top five loveliest of love stories, but I’ve come to understand so much more about it, about the three main characters, and about God’s incredible love for each one of them. I could write many things I’ve discovered about this book of the Bible, but you don’t want to read something that long, so I’ll let you in on three lessons I’ve learnt.  

1. There’s a phrase that changes my perspective on this love story significantly.

In the days when the judges ruled…” (Ruth 1:1)

I did not read through all of Judges as a child, although I knew of Samson, Ehud, Deborah. I had never heard the final horrific chapters of Judges.  I did not understand that the book was about the nation of Israel declining into the sinful patterns of the nations around them. I had not heard the final section’s repeated refrain “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25; 17:6; 18:1; 19:1).  

Ultimately, I hadn’t placed the book of Ruth, and the actions of the characters in Ruth within the time they lived. I was the poorer in understanding for it. I would now suggest that to understand Ruth, one should first read Judges. When you start Ruth with a background of Judges, there are answers to questions.

Judges is a significantly longer book than Ruth, so for the sake of the length of this article, I am going to briefly focus on the two sections of Judges that I think specifically shed some light on Ruth: chapter 3 [1] and 19-20[2].

When I have read the book of Ruth with other women, there has been a persisting question over whether Elimelech did the right thing moving to Moab with his family.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” (Ruth 1:1)

I don’t know if this was during the events of Judges 3 or not, but having read the chapter, I suspect as readers we should be calling out ‘ no, don’t go there!’.  In Judges 3, King Eglon of Moab defeated and ruled over Israel for 18 years. Moab is no friend of Israelites and it is not a good thing for this man and his family to move there for however long he’s planning to be there. He’s moving into enemy territory. Whether it was enemy territory then or not, having read Judges, those alarm bells should be ringing in our heads when reading the beginning of Ruth. ‘Not Moab, don’t go there.’ And in case you missed it, Ruth’s author reinforces the move “They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.” (Ruth 1:2). In the time of the Judges, this is not an advisable move. 

You may be mentally arguing with me, saying ‘But there was a famine in the land. They had to do something. They might have been starving to death.’ And I would say, yes I agree. This was a serious time. But, in the book of Judges, and in many books in the Old Testament, a famine on the land may be a sign of God’s judgement on the people. If there is a famine in Israel, but not in Moab, which is geographically quite close, doesn’t that concern you even a little?  Rather than move to enemy territory, perhaps the answer was to call out to God, like one of the themes of Judges in that repetitive cycle of sin, judgement, repentance, rescue (judge), sin (judge has died), judgement, repentance, rescue, sin, judgement, repentance, rescue. Moving away from the promised land is not ever the antidote to hardship in the time of the Judges. It is always calling out to God in repentance.

But then we also have the sad irony of the name of the man. Elimelech. A man whose very name means ‘My God is king’. During a time when the writer of Judges reminds us more than once ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ Elimelech should have cried out to the one who was truly king in Israel, but instead he abandoned the meaning of his own name and did what he saw fit in his own eyes. And he ended up dying in that foreign land, followed ten years later by his two, married to Moabite women, sons.  Block argues that “the theme of the book [Judges] is the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of settlement”[3], and in the beginning of Ruth we have a miniature picture of a family in all appearances becoming Moabite, assimilating with a people group that they should not be assimilating with or seeking a treaty of friendship with. (Deut 23:3-6)

2. The important ending that changes perspective.

Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”  (Ruth 4:18-22)

Without the ‘surprise reveal’ at the end of the book of Ruth, we might leave it as a lovely love story about Boaz and Ruth. Yet, this ending makes the story so much more significant. Sometimes, we can lose the ‘wow factor’ when we’re too familiar with Bible verses. Here’s the ‘wow factor’ ending. It turns out that this story, about these Godly, amazing characters, Ruth and Boaz, are King David’s great grandparents! God blessed them is such a huge way, much bigger than merely providing an heir for Mahlon’s land.[4]

 One of the big themes of the book of Ruth is God’s provision. In the book the author descibes the LORD as intervening explicitly in two verses, providing food and family: 

“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.”  (Ruth 1:6)


So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.” (Ruth 4:13)

In each case, the book of Ruth continues to show how much more abundant God’s provision is in these two areas of food and family.  In Ruth 1:4-5 we learn that Naomi is left without food and without family, apart from two foreign daughters-in-law.  By the end of the book of Ruth, Naomi’s future food and shelter are sorted because Boaz has agreed to take care of Naomi and Ruth, and her arms a filled with a new baby. As the women of the village say: 

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

And the story could be finished there. God’s incredibly abundant provision for Naomi’s needs is shown.   But then, even in the next verse, we read that this child, Obed, is the grandfather of the greatest King in the Old Testament! This is the eye-popping moment of the book. 

3. Now combine my first two points and look at the main characters in the book of Ruth.

When we read the final, awful, chapters of the book of Judges, we read what the common Israelites lived like. They are confused in their understanding of God, (eg. Judges 17), they are depraved, at civil war, and oddly enough, the little town of Bethlehem gets quite a mention[5]. There are no likeable people in this final section of the book of Judges. 

Against this backdrop, compare Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. 

Some people may question Naomi’s faith because of her bitterness in Ruth 1, but throughout the book she calls on the name of the LORD regularly.  In Ruth 1:8, Naomi prays for God’s hesed[6] to be shown to Ruth and Orpah. She uses the word that encapsulates one of the biggest themes of the book. In Ruth 2:20, Naomi recognises God’s hesed, in the amount of food Ruth has brought back from Boaz’s fields. 

Ruth is a foreignor, a Moabite. And in case we ever forget, the author of Ruth writes it repeatedly throughout the book. Yet, her big speech in Ruth 1:16-17 is astounding, especially when compared to the backdrop of the final chapters of Judges. 

“For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”  (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth calls on the name of the LORD, and she declares that she follows him. She works long hours in Boaz’s fields, to provide food for herself and her mother in law, and remarkably the characteristic of God, ‘hesed’ that is so big a theme of the book, is used to describe her actions in Ruth 3:10. This is a far cry from the times in which she lives. She is not a woman of her home or her times. One might even argue that although the book of Judges contains the ‘Canaanization of Israel’, we see in the book of Ruth, the ‘Israelization of a Gentile’.

And then we turn to Boaz. He cares for the foreignor and his distant relative by marriage, he is a man of his word and integrity. When we read of the truly disgusting way the women are treated at the end Judges, Boaz by comparison is phenomenal. He did not take advantage of Ruth on the threshing floor and he also protected her reputation. (Ruth 3:14). At great cost to himself, he took on a woman whose first son would carry on her first husband’s name, and he took on her mother-in-law and provided generously for both of them. He was considerate, not wanting Ruth to feel awkward in the fields, (Ruth 2:15), and throughout the book, Boaz calls on the name of the LORD and refers to the LORD. 

And this Boaz and Ruth are ancestors of King David. These characters that know God’s ‘hesed’ and display it by their actions, are ancestors to the king who metnioned God’s ‘hesed’ more than any other author in the Old Testament, in the Psalms. And this couple who gave of themselves, one as a kinsman-redeemer, are, through David, ancestors of the ultimate example of God’s hesed, the greatest of all kings, Jesus.

The loveliest of love stories? The book of Ruth, when we dig a little deeper into it, pushes us towards our redeemer, as we see the ‘canaanization’ of the world around us, and as we read of the one who stands out above all others, who is the very expression of God’s love. Although Ruth is really a part of the greatest love story ever, an early chapter in the story yet to unfold, even without knowing the ultimate ending, I’d say the book of Ruth is at least in the top five best love stories.

This article was first published on Equal But Different.

[1] Although nobody knows for sure when in the age of the Judges the events of Ruth took place, it is most commonly believed to be during this time.

[2] The events of these chapters are recorded at the end of the book for thematic purposes, but most likely happened much earlier in the chronology of the events.

[3]Daniel Block, The New American Commentary Vol 6, Judges, Ruth, p.58.

[4] Ruth 4:10

[5] Intererstingly Gibeah, Saul’s hometown is central to the last chapters of Judges as well. We have an embyonic David vs Saul origin story.

[6] A hard word to define in English. Block writes: “…all the positive attributes of God – love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, covenant faithfulness; in short, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring to the one who expresses it.” Daniel Block, The New American Commentary Vol 6, Judges, Ruth, p.605.

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