Scripture Reading: Ruth 1-4
Significant Moments in The Story
Naomi’s family leaves famine-stricken Israel for Moab – Ruth 1
Naomi and Ruth return as widows to Bethlehem – Ruth 1
Ruth gleans in Boaz’s fields – Ruth 2
Boaz and Elimelech’s next-of-kin agree that Boaz will marry Ruth – Ruth 4
Obed, the grandfather of King David, is born to Ruth and Boaz – Ruth 4
Kindness and faithfulness
The book of Ruth is a book about hesed, a Hebrew word which can be translated as “kindness” or “loyalty” or “faithfulness”. Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz all speak of hesed (Ruth 1:8, 2:13, 2:20, and 3:10). Ruth and Boaz are put forth as models of what it means to live life with kindness and faithfulness, and their hesed has a direct impact on the life of Naomi. Hesed is also a word commonly used in the Old Testament to describe God. God never appears directly in the story of the book of Ruth, though his name appears frequently. Perhaps Ruth and Boaz are also living parables of the character of God.
The stranger and the alien
The story never lets us forget that Ruth is a Moabite. The Moabites were long-time enemies of Israel, spanning from the Exodus until the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. And yet, it is this foreigner – this enemy even – that models and lives out the faithfulness expected of Israel. What more, Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David, of whose line the Messiah will be expected to arise. Therefore, the story of Ruth would have struck the ears of the ancient Israelites with much the same shock as the Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where the “enemy” turns out to be the good neighbor. Ruth’s story reminds us, at this point in the biblical story, that God has chosen Israel as His people, but his ultimate will and purpose expands beyond the people of Israel. We are also forced by the story to ask the same question that Jesus is asked when he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who is my neighbor?” Ruth’s story calls into question our attitudes towards those we automatically deem our enemy and those who are strangers to us.
God’s more subtle ways
Though God never directly speaks or appears in the story of Ruth, His presence and His work are understood as running throughout the narrative. The story of Ruth has no burning bushes, parting waters, or angel appearances. Instead, we are reminded that God works in the quieter, more subtle ways. A life of faithfulness believes in God’s miraculous and amazing works, but also makes room for the still, small voices and the gentle guiding of God’s Holy Spirit.
“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land …” – Ruth 1:1
The story of Ruth takes place during the days of the judges, a time we have already seen as an often dark and violent period in Israel’s history. Perhaps we see in this verse a subtle hint of Deuteronomic theology (righteousness will be blessed, unfaithfulness will bring curses) – there was a famine in the land because Israel was once again unfaithful. This might be heightened by the fact that we are told that Elimelech takes his family and leaves Israel to go to the land of Israel’s hated enemy, Moab. Is this an act of unfaithfulness? Is Elimelech unwilling to trust that God will provide, and so he forsakes the land God gave Israel to depend upon the land (and the gods) of Moab?
Understanding the setting as the time of the judges also helps us understand the circumstances in place when Ruth and Naomi return to Israel. Here are two single women returning to a land where women have been the victims of horrible violence and exploitation (Judges 19,21). Boaz’s concern for Ruth in Ruth 2:8-9 is perhaps an indication that circumstances have not changed much. The challenge that Naomi and Ruth faced living in Israel was great indeed.
Mara – Ruth 1:20
The name Mara is best translated as “Bitter”, whereas the name Naomi means “Beautiful” or “Pleasant”. Thus, Naomi’s name change indicates that her circumstances have changed her physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In one sense, we could say that, though this book is named for Ruth, it is really a story about Naomi. She is the only character in the story that truly goes through a dramatic change. The woman who begins the story as Bitter, sure that God has intentionally sought to bring harm to her and complaining that she is “empty”, ends the story with all the women of the town pronouncing her blessed. Throughout the story, we have seen this empty woman’s arms be filled with grain and, in the end, with a child who will preserve her family’s name and place in Israel.
Gleaning – Ruth 2:3
Deuteronomy 24:19-22 instructs the Israelites to open their fields to the widows and aliens in their midst. If crops were forgotten, dropped, or left behind in the fields, they were to be left for widows, orphans, and aliens to gather for their own needs. Boaz’s faithfulness is exhibited by his obedience to this law as he allows Ruth and other women to glean in his fields.
The threshing floor – Ruth 3
Winnowing depended on the winds to blow away the chaff, and those winds would blow strongest late in the day and in the early evening. Afterwards, the remaining pile of grain would need to be guarded overnight from theft. Often times, threshing floors would be open air floors on top of a hill to maximize the wind.
Ruth 3 cannot be read without admitting that there is a strong essence of the sensual and sexual in the text. Around the time when Ruth was likely written, threshing floors had a connotation connected with prostitution (Hosea 9:1). To “uncover his feet” was a euphemism used to refer to exposing one’s genitals. The phrases about “making yourself known” and “lying with” were common phrases used to refer to sexual relations. The storytelling in Ruth 3 is exquisite, leaving us wondering exactly what happened between Ruth and Boaz during that night. This tension though only serves to heighten the understanding that both Boaz and Ruth are examples of hesed – Ruth is faithful to her promise to Naomi, and Boaz honors both Ruth and Naomi as well as honors the law which indicates that there is another kinsman that must be given the opportunity to marry Ruth.
Elimelech’s next of kin – Ruth 4:1-12
The story of Boaz’s meeting with the next-of-kin seems rather odd to many modern ears. It was customary that, if a man died without fathering any children by his wife, that the man’s brother would marry his sister-in-law and father children with her (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). These children would be understood to be the children of the deceased man and thus the inheritors of the deceased man’s property. Boaz is not Elimelech’s closest relative, and so he cannot marry Ruth until the closest next-of-kin renounces his right to marry her.
The city gate was often where legal hearings would take place. Often times, townspeople would serve as a jury. Thus, Boaz convenes a legal hearing when he asks the ten men to hear the case between him and the next-of-kin. They will also serve as witnesses to the agreement that Boaz and the next-of-kin make.
Some Questions That Might Come Up
Why does Boaz take the next-of-kin’s sandal in Ruth 4:7-8
The way the story is told – “Now this was the custom in former times” – indicates that at the time this story was written down, this custom was no longer in practice. Deuteronomy 25 states that, in a case where a brother-in-law refuses to marry the wife of his dead brother in the presence of the elders, the widow is to come and pull the shoe off his foot, spit in his face, and announce, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” The practice seems to be an act of humiliation as punishment for not following through on one’s obligation to one’s family. In the case of Ruth 4, the humiliating aspect of the ceremony seems to have been removed, leaving only the removal of the shoe to serve as a visible reminder of the agreement.
Some Reflection Questions
- Meanings of Biblical names are always significant. Elimelek’s name meant “my God is King.” Naomi’s name meant “my pleasantness,” but later asked to be called Mara, meaning “bitterness.” Ruth’s name meant “friendship.” Boaz’s name meant “swift strength.” Who best lived up to their names and who did not?
- Compare Naomi’s attitude at the beginning and end of this story. How does her view of God and the Upper Story change?
- Look at Ruth and Boaz’s interaction with Naomi. What can you learn about the challenges and benefits of caring for an aging parent? What challenges do you face with your parents?
- The period of the Judges was marked by weak faith and irresponsible living, but this foreign woman gives hope. What specific examples of strong faith and responsible living can you find in the characters of Ruth and Boaz?
- The story of Ruth demonstrates laws that God had given Israel to take care of marginalized people (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, Leviticus 25:25, Leviticus 19:9-10). What do these laws and customs reveal about the heart of God for the poor, the widow and the orphan? How could your group care for the less fortunate and thereby reflect the heart of God?
- The love story of Ruth and Boaz stands in contrast to many of the “love” stories we hear today. What can single men and women learn from their example (note Ruth’s reputation in the community, p. 123, 125, Ruth 2-3).
- The word for redeem is used twenty times in this story, making it a key theme. What does it mean to be redeemed? How does Boaz’s redeeming of Ruth compare to our redemption found in Christ?
- What some people might call coincidence others call divine providence. What are some key examples of God’s divine providence in this story?