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RuthThe book of Ruth was probably written during David’s lifetime or immediately after his death, since it deals with his lineage. It’s the story of a woman from Moab. Moab, as you should recall, was the nation created from the incestuous relationship Lot had with his daughters after fleeing Sodom. It is interesting to note that God used a Moabite, who was from such a disdainful background, so prominently in the lineage of King David.
The book of Ruth actually begins with a woman named Naomi and we are given the setting: “In the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). By itself, this period could refer to any of the several hundred years between the end of Joshua and the end of Judges, but given the ending of Ruth we can tell that the events really took place near the end of the reign of judges, rather than at the beginning.
Naomi’s story begins with her husband moving to Moab from Bethlehem. He naturally took his family along with him. But while there, he died, leaving Naomi alone with her two sons. These two sons both took Moabite wives: Orpah and Ruth (Ruth 1:4). After “about ten years” both the sons died, leaving Naomi “without her two sons and her husband” (Ruth 1:5).
Because her husband and sons had died, Naomi decided to leave Moab and told her two daughters-in-law: “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house.” (Ruth 1:8). But they refused to leave. Naomi insisted, and Orpah left her, “but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). Indeed, she insisted: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. 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” (Ruth 1:16). And when Naomi saw she was determined to go with her, she ceased trying to convince Ruth to depart.
We can therefore conclude that Ruth had converted to Judaism fully at this point. This is why she identifies with the Jewish people, and more than that with the Jewish God. However this also meant that, in returning to Israel, she would be going to a country where she would be an alien. Despite the dangers that came with that, she refused to leave her mother-in-law.
When they got to Bethlehem, the people were astonished that Naomi had returned. Naomi was depressed, however, and said “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21). Mara meant “bitter” and I expect that most Christians would probably quickly affirm that Naomi was speaking out of grief here. But it would be wrong to assume that because she was speaking out of grief that she was not speaking accurately. She has said nothing here that other passages of Scripture do not affirm as truth. God does sometimes bring about calamity on people (just ask Job). And it can feel like He is dealing “very bitterly” with us. The psalms attest to that as well. So while I would not use this passage as conclusive proof that God did actually deal bitterly specifically with Naomi, I would also argue that her views are consistent with everything else we have read. I am sure God would have said that she had not sinned by anything she had said here, just as Job had not sinned with his lips when he acknowledge that the bad was just as much from God as the good was.
In any case, chapter two of Ruth introduces us to one of Naomi’s husband’s relatives, a man named Boaz. He is called “a worthy man” in verse 1. Ruth asked Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor” and Naomi approved (verse 2). Gleaning from the fields is something that you may recall was permitted by Law, and in fact God had commanded that people who owned fields leave behind enough for the poor to glean so they would not starve.
Soon enough, Ruth entered into the field owned by Boaz, since the young man in charge of the reapers was actually a servant of Boaz. Boaz inquired about who she was, and he was told “She is the young Moabite woman” (verse 6). So it should be noted that Boaz was fully aware that she was not an Israelite. Still, his heart was such that he went to Ruth and said, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn” (Ruth 2:8-9).
There are a few things we can note from this. First, despite knowing she was a Moabite, Boaz still called her “my daughter”, which showed he considered her kin. And, as you recall, since Boaz was related to Naomi’s husband, they were actually related, although not in any way by blood. This also indicated that Boaz was probably quite a bit older than Ruth was, since she seemed to fit in closer in age to the “young men” whom Boaz had commanded not to touch Ruth (and we will see it confirmed later). Thus, Boaz was also protective of her. The final aspect of this is that Ruth was given the right to drink the water that the men had drawn, which again is unique in that culture since 1) it would have been allowing a woman into a “men’s only” area, and 2) she was an alien taking from the fruits of Israelite workers.
Ruth therefore rightly asked, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (verse 10). And Boaz responded, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (verse 11-12).
Thus, we see that her kindness toward Naomi was widely known. This indicates to me two things. First, that it was unusual, which is why it was spread around the area; and secondly that the person who would have mentioned this would have been Naomi herself, probably to Boaz directly. Now at this point, we could question whether or not Boaz had any particularly romantic feelings for Ruth. Clearly, she was considered a beautiful women (especially if he had to command the other young men to leave her alone), but it wasn’t that beauty that drew Boaz. Rather it was the beauty of her actions toward Naomi. She had sacrificed everything to live as a foreigner, when she had not been required to do so. And that, more than anything else, caught the eye of Boaz.
So he ordered his servants to allow her to harvest as much grain as she wanted, and not to rebuke her for gleaning anything. Indeed, he even commanded them to leave some grain from the bundles precisely so she could harvest it herself (cf. verse 15-16). When she returned to Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned and asked where she had gone, including: “Blessed be the man who took notice of you” (Ruth 2:19). When Ruth informed her that it was Boaz, Naomi exclaimed: “May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead! The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers” (verse 20).
Now redeemers were people who would be able to inherit the land after their relatives died, and along with that were to marry the widows of men who had passed away as a way of keeping the lineage intact. Therefore, Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz, instructing her to wash and anoint herself (Ruth 3:3) and then find where Boaz rested for the evening. Once there, she would uncover his feet and lie down until Boaz told her what to do. This seems quite confusing to us, since these are not our own customs, but essentially this was an attempt to have Ruth woo Boaz, so that he would buy the land from Naomi and marry Ruth. Clearly, the way Boaz had treated her previously indicated he had some interest in her, but since marriage and romance were quite different in the ANE, we don’t want to read too much of our modern understandings into this passage.
Ruth did as Naomi instructed, finding where Boaz and gone to sleep, which (because he had been drinking “and his heart was merry” (verse 6)) was in a heap of grain. She uncovered his feet and lay down there, and verse 8 tells us: “At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet!” Ruth identified herself and then informed Boaz that Boaz was a redeemer.
Boaz responded by saying, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter” (verse 10). Again remember that this term of endearment was not literal, for she was only a daughter by marriage, and even then only in a loose sense of the word. Still, Boaz continued: “You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. …And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the LORD lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning” (verse 10, 12-13).
It is clear that Boaz had already seen that he was a redeemer. But it is equally clear that he truly is not a young man, as he specifically pointed out that she had “not gone after young men.” Furthermore, we find out that he was not even the primary redeemer for Ruth. Therefore, it seems that Boaz had not considered trying to pursue his right as a redeemer, for he had assumed that Ruth would have gone after a younger man or that the closer redeemer would have already purchased the land from Naomi. But since she had shown up at his feet, indicating her willingness to marry him, he agrees to it, so long as the redeemer nearer to her did not press his claim.
When Ruth returned to Naomi, her mother-in-law astutely observed: “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today” (verse 18). And indeed Boaz did. In chapter 4, he went to the city gate and waited for the redeemer he had spoken of to Ruth. When he arrived, Boaz informed him of the land that was due him as the redeemer and said, “If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you” (Ruth 5:4).
This redeemer then said words that would have sparked fear in Ruth, had she heard them: “I will redeem it.” So Boaz informed him, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance” (verse 5). At hearing this, the redeemer relinquished his claim and gave it to Boaz, because he risked impairing his own inheritance if he took Ruth as a wife.
The elders witnessed this transaction and Boaz took Ruth as his wife and conceived a son (verse 13). The son was named Obed, and verse 17 tells us: “He was the father of Jesse, the father of David” and the book of Ruth ended with the genealogy of David from Perez on.
So what can we glean from this text? This is the first book of the Bible where God’s role takes a backseat to the action. While His name is mentioned, there’s no indication in the text that God is influencing anything that goes on. Yet clearly Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi are all very religious people and their moral character guides their steps.
It seems that Boaz was interested in Ruth even before these events unfolded, as she was a beautiful woman, but he was not willing to step outside the bounds of the law. When there was another redeemer who had “first right” (for lack of a better term) to redeem the property and therefore marry Ruth, Boaz did not seek to defraud him, but plainly explained the situation to him.
Ruth, too, is depicted as a woman who loved the LORD, and as such had a fierce devotion to her mother-in-law after the deaths of both of their husbands. Despite being a Moabite, Ruth demonstrated the character of a servant of God far better than most Israelites at the time did. Consequently, Ruth would be in the lineage of David.
Yet at the same time, Naomi is also viewed as a holy and righteous woman, yet without the joy that Ruth and Boaz would gain. Naomi is still a faithful and honorable woman. She sees that Boaz is interested in Ruth, and she knows that they would make a good couple, and so she acts to ensure the two meet. This despite the fact that, due to the deaths of her husband and sons, she lived in a state of profound sorrow.
Ultimately, we do not know if we will be a Ruth or a Naomi in our own lives, but either way we are to live faithfully to how God has called us to live. Naomi is praised just as much as Ruth in this book, despite the fact that she had received such sorrows. Given the circumstances of how Naomi, an Israelite woman, is faced with such pain while her daughter-in-law, born from the sin of incest, gains happiness ought to give us a pause when we think about these events. We do not know what God will do in our own lives, whether we will be blessed in the worldly sense or whether we will face trials. Nevertheless, even when we face trials, we can still be a Naomi who brings about joy for those she loves.
And all without the promise that she ever received any joys in this life herself. She had a higher purpose, though, in that she never stopped believing in God. Indirectly, Naomi also influenced the very lineage of Christ, by blessing her daughter-in-law the way she did. Despite the pain of her earthly life, Naomi would have learned this when she got to heaven, and I’m sure she would have rejoiced.