[Note: This is a very long essay, over 30 pages of text, and it covers some of the aspects of divine providence in Ruth chapters 1 and 2, including connections between Ruth and the rest of scripture. A commentary on divine providence in Ruth 3 and 4, as well as a fuller discussion of the chiastic structure of the book of Ruth will have to await the second part of this series, given limitations of space and time.]
The book of Ruth has long been one of my favorite books of the Bible. What, on the surface, is a pleasant romance set in the chaotic times of the Judges, proves to be on deeper examination a much more profound work with a great deal of insight to provide into the workings of God, the purpose of obedience to biblical law by believers, a biblical commentary on singlehood and marriage, and also the relationship of Jesus Christ and the Church, and even some fascinating relationships between the line of Saul and the line of David. All of these deeper layers of meaning exist without taking anything away from its surface narrative as a compelling work of narrative romance set in a provincial town of no particular importance to the people of the time. Let us not forget, though, that due in part to the events of this book, the city of Bethlehem ended up having a great importance not only to the people of Israel, but to all of mankind, through David and Jesus Christ.
It is in light of this deeper significance that I write. It is not my intention (and, furthermore, it is not possible) to exhaust the meanings of this fascinating little book in this essay. What I would like to do instead is, as I did earlier with the story of Naaman the Syrian in 1 Kings 5 , seek to bring the reader in touch with the deeper springs of truth present within the story, therefore allowing them to understand that far more is being dealt with than what is merely superficially apparent. It is primarily my goal to comment on aspects of divine providence within the book of Ruth, to explain how seemingly trivial actions taken by people in a provincial village have cosmic importance. The workings of God are deep and mysterious, but if we understand how the actions of some may shape history thousands of years later, we may be more inclined to be careful about how we choose to live our lives here today.
I thought I would be remiss to begin this essay without explaining my own lengthy personal interest in the book of Ruth. The name Ruth is a common name in my family (including my maternal grandmother), and a love for well-crafted romances has been a particular, if unusual, interest of mine throughout much of my life. The book of Ruth, with its appealing hero and heroines, its story of the outcast finding a home, of the poor finding respect and honor, and of the lonely finding love, is one whose themes appeal to me on a deep personal level. I cannot truthfully claim to be an unbiased examiner of this book, and it is highly unlikely that an essay like this could have been written without a deeply personal belief in the importance of this work and in its relevance to my own life. As someone who has written both other essays  and a play about the Book of Ruth, this Book of the Bible has spoken to me over and over again. It speaks still.
A Historical Introduction
The book of Ruth begins with a historical introduction in Ruth 1:1-5. This introduction provides the setting and many of the named characters of the book, and also introduces some particularly deep theological waters that only grow deeper as the book progresses. Fortunately for our purposes, the Book of Ruth also opens with divine providence in what appears initially to be a particularly tragic form. Let us therefore examine these matters closely.
Ruth 1:1-5 reads as follows: “Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chillion—Ephrathites of Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to the country of Moab and remained there. Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chillion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband.”
It would first appear that this story is simply the tragic tale of an unlucky farmer and his family, where a man and his two weak-blooded sons dies, leaving three poor widows in a strange land. However, there is a lot of deeper waters that one enters into with even these first five verses, and it is worth some digging to get to the bottom of, so that some of the deeper spiritual and historical significance of the Book of Ruth may be understood. This discussion will be lengthy, and may initially appear to have little relevance to the subject of divine providence, but I beg forbearance from the reader.
In The Days When The Judges Ruled
Let us first note that the Book of Ruth is stated at the very beginning to have occurred at the time when the judges ruled over Israel. If one has read the Book of Judges, one knows that the book is a gruesome and gloomy tale of the progressive moral and political disintegration of Israel as they fall prey to bickering and idolatry. It does not make for pleasant reading, containing genocidal civil wars (nearly exterminating the tribe of Benjamin, about which more will be said shortly). Let us therefore be prepare to note parallels between the gruesome and chaotic stories of Judges and what appears to be a fairy-tale romance in the Book of Ruth. The connections bring a depth to Ruth that a superficial reader may miss.
Let us remember that the book of Judges shows a progressive decline in the moral and political fortunes of Israel (the two are related), based on their lack of obedience to God’s law. Additionally, instead of driving out Israel’s enemies God left them there to test Israel’s obedience and to provide Israel with occasional chastening through trials and suffering . We should expect, therefore, that the Book of Ruth touches upon these themes of judgment as well as deliverance (for God did not abandon His people, but raised up Judges). And so we do.
There Was A Famine In The Land
We then find out that there was a famine in the land. This is significant for several reasons. For one, Bethlehem means “city of bread,” and therefore it is tragically ironic for such a city to be “lacking bread” as is the case in a famine. The fact that within the first verse the Book of Ruth already contains a notable pun ought to suggest to the alert reader that puns and the meanings of words and names will have significant meaning within the Book of Ruth. More about that will be said shortly. Let us first note, however, two of the most significant elements of this particular famine, apart from its ironic occurrence in a supposed city of bread.
First, let us reflect upon the fact that famine is often seen as a sign of judgment in the Bible for sin. It is not stated whose sin is being referred to here, but it may very well be one of the periodic judgments for national sin for the frequent idolatry and faithlessness as was present within Israelite society during the time of the judges. Let us reflect in particular that the curses found at the beginning of the Book of Ruth spring from the law itself. In particular, let us examine Deuteronomy 28:15-19: “But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall b your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the produce of your land, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.”
Let us continue these curses in verses 23-24: “And your heavens which are over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you shall be iron. The Lord will change the rain of your land to powder and dust; from the heaven it shall come down on you until you are destroyed.” God promises that drought and flooding will be signs of His curse, for the environment will be hostile to an ungodly nation until that rebellious nation repents of their sins. So Israel was rebellious in the times of Judges, and so they were cursed. Additionally, let us look at one more curse that applies to the family of Elimelech in verse 30: “You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but shall not gather its grapes.” Indeed, as well shall note later on, it is not Mahlon who will end up with the lovely Ruth, but rather the faithful and generous Boaz.
Let us also note that this famine, despite it presumably being a collective judgment on Judah (and perhaps all Israel) for sin, also was a sign of divine providence. For it was through the famine that the family of Elimelech, belonging to the royal line of Judah, went to the land of Moab. And there the two sons of Elimelech married two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Through the means of a famine, then, God provided an entrance into His people for these two young women. Now, the way to redemption was not by any means a pleasant garden path, but it was present nonetheless for the one who walked by faith and not by sight. Therefore, it may be seen that the famine providentially brought just the right family into Moab to marry just the right young woman, namely the heroine of our tale, Ruth.
The Book of Ruth is the second time in the Bible that the town of Bethlehem, Judah makes an appearance in scripture. The first time is in the book of Judges. There was a judge who came from the city of Bethlehem, but that judge, Ibzan, probably came from Bethlehem of Naphtali, the other Bethlehem. No, the city of Bethlehem Judah makes its first appearances in scripture in Judges in the two stories that end the book of Judges, stories as shocking and horrible as Ruth is sublime. The contrast is probably not accidental.
The involvement of Bethlehem of Judah in the first story is minor, but important. Here In Judges 17 and 18 we find that first a man from the mountains of Ephraim named Micah has stolen an amount from his mother and made it into an idol (somehow she is mad when the money is stolen but not when she has found out that it was for an idol). A wandering Levite (a grandson of Moses, apparently, named Johnathan) from Bethlehem of Judah had left that city looking for a place, and found one as a pagan priest in this household idol shrine. Some wandering Danites who had left their appointed land because of their inability to defeat the Canaanites came and made Jonathan a better offer, took Micah’s idols, and went with them to sack a peaceful and unsuspecting town, Laish, which they renamed Dan, where the Levite and his descendents became priests of that pagan place, later the home of one of Jeroboam’s golden calves. The story as a whole shows the religious decline of the Israelites to the extent that they start opening up private temples filled with idols and where even Moses’ own family is implicated in the religious and moral decay. This is a significant issue.
To find the second story, let us go to Judges 19. Here we find a tragic tale of a Levite and his concubine, a tale that has a lot of significance for the early monarchial period, even though it occurs towards the beginning of Judges. Let us begin with Judges 19:1-9: “And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite staying in the remote mountains of Ephraim. He took for himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine played the harlot against him, and went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there four whole months. Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back, having his servant and a couple of donkeys with him. So she brought him into her father’s house; and when the father of the young woman saw him, he was glad to meet him. Now his father-in-law, the young woman’s father, detained him and stayed with him three days. So they ate and drank and lodged there. Then it came to pass on the fourth day that they arose early in the morning, and he stood to depart; but the young woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh your heart with a morsel of bread, and afterward go on your way.” So they sat down, and the two of them ate and drank together. Then the young woman’s father said to the man, “Please be content to stay all night, and let your heart be merry.” And when the man stood to depart, his father-in-law urge him; so he lodged there again. Then he arose early in the morning on the fifth day to depart, but the young woman’s father said, “Please refresh your heart.” So they delayed until afternoon; and both of them ate. And when the man stood to depart—he and his concubine and his servant—his father-in-law, the young woman’s father, said to him “Look, the day is now drawing toward evening; please spend the night. See, the day is coming to an end; loge here, that your heart may be merry. Tomorrow go your way early, so that you may get home.”
Let us note here that this story begins very ominously on a variety of levels. For one, we have one of Judge’s periodic reminders that in these times “there was no king in Israel,” which ought to immediately warn the reader that God was king but that Israel did not worship or respect Him as such, and so they did what was right in their own eyes, even though it was very wrong, as here in this story. Next, let us note that the Levite, like Elkanah the father of Samuel, dwelled in the remote mountains of Ephraim. He was himself probably a member of the Sons of Korah , about much whom could be said, but he is not named here. We should note that he had a concubine, a lower-status woman (a live-in girlfriend in an unofficial marriage) since he did not honor her enough to marry her, however fondly he seems to think of her by coming to get her.
Let us note, therefore, that despite the language of “father-in-law” and “husband” that the Levite did not respect the young woman enough to marry her, but rather preferred to “play house” with her in a position of inferior status. However, she also failed to meet up to her side of the marriage bargain by playing the harlot to him, either religiously or amorously, or both, and then running away to her father’s house. Neither of these parties were blameless. Additionally, we see that the father-in-law, despite being glad to see his Levite “son-in-law,” who should have upheld the law in his own relations, seeks to use the bread of Bethlehem as a trap to lure the Levite into staying far beyond the appropriate time, when they really should have been going after three days. All of these characters, therefore, are seen to act in ways that create additional danger, as we shortly see.
In Judges 19:10-21, we read of the travails of the Levite and his party in finding a safe place to stay for the night: “However, the man was not willing to spend that night; so he rose an departed, and came to opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). With him were the two saddled donkeys; his concubine was also with him. They were near Jebus, and the day was far spent; and the servant said to his master, “Come, please, let us turn aside into this city of the Jebusites and lodge in it.” But his master said to him, “We will not turn aside here into a city of foreigners, who are not of the children of Israel; we will go on to Gibeah.” So he said to his servant, “Come, let us draw near to one of these places, and spend the night in Gibeah or Ramah.” And they passed by and went their way; and the sun went down on them near Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin. They turned aside there to go in to lodge in Gibeah. And when he went in, he sat down in the open square of the city, for no one would take them into his house to spend the night. Just then an old man came in from his work in his field at evening, who also was from the mountains of Ephraim; he was staying in Gibeah, whereas the men of the place were Benjaminites. And when he raised his eyes, he saw the traveler in the open square of the city; an the old man said, “Where are you going, and where do you come from.” So he said, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah toward the remote mountains of Ephraim; I am from there. I went to Bethlehem in Judah; now I am going to the house of the Lord. But there is no one who will take me into his house, although we have both straw and fodder for our donkeys, and bread and wine for myself, for your female servant, and for the young man who is with your servant; there is no lack of anything.” And the old man said, “Peace be with you! However, let all your needs be my responsibility; only do not spend the night in the open square.” So he brought him into his house, and gave fodder to the donkeys. And they washed their feet, and ate and drank.”
The importance of this passage lies in the cities mentioned. For one, the Levite and his party left Bethlehem of Judah, later the birthplace of David and Jesus Christ, rejecting the hospitality of his father-in-law. They first came to Jerusalem in the late afternoon, but the Levite did not wish to stop in a Gentile city. It was the failure of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to take Jerusalem before the time of David that led the Levite to take the risky and fatal (for the concubine) trip beyond, as is mentioned in Joshua 15:63 and Judges 1:21. After this, the Levite had to choose between two cities. Gibeah was the city of Saul, and Ramah was the hometown of Samuel. (Surely the mention of these cities is not coincidental.) By making the wrong choice, the Levite finds inhospitable Benjaminites instead of fellow Levites of the Sons of Korah further on in Rama of Ephraim.
Of course, there is more to the story, for the reader who wishes to continue on in the rest of the sordid story. The inhospitable Benjaminites of Saul’s hometown were unwilling to host the Levite, but they wished to have carnal relations with the Levite (contrary to biblical law, it goes without saying), being sodomites (see Genesis 19). Given the unfaithful concubine to amuse themselves instead, they brutally rape her, and she ends up dying on the threshold of the house of the old man where she was supposed to find a hospitable place of rest. Not that the Levite is shown in a positive light—he tells his abused concubine to get up and shake it off as if nothing happened, only to find her dead, which he then responds to by cutting up her dead body and sending it off as a war call to Israel, leading the leaders of Israel to give an ambiguous reply about what has never been seen in Israel. Suitably, the tribe of Judah leads the people of Israel to avenge the rape and murder of the young woman of Bethlehem of Judah, and the tribe of Benjamin is nearly wiped off the face of the earth because of the sins of Saul’s hometown against a young woman from David’s hometown, all because a wayward Levite and his unfaithful concubine could not either stop at Jerusalem or make it in time to reach Samuel’s hometown. Strange are the workings of divine providence.
It should be noted as well that the story of the Levite and his concubine find an ironic (though vastly less sordid) echo in the story of Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem in Luke 2:1-7: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Let us note that in this story a man and his betrothed wife come to Bethlehem but find no hospitality, no room in the inn, thanks to the decrees of an autocrat (whose decree allowed prophecy to be fulfilled, and whose decree therefore was providential, however inconvenient). Let us also note that though Joseph and Mary were only betrothed, and not married, and had not consummated their union, that Mary was with child. Joseph thought her unfaithful, like the Levite’s concubine from Bethlehem, but she was not, as it is said in Matthew 1:18-25: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might b fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.”
Let us note the parallels between the story of Jesus’ birth and that of the Levite leaving Bethlehem. We have a Levite going to Bethlehem to retrieve an unfaithful concubine in one, while we have a godly man going to Bethlehem to fulfill a civil responsibility with his wife who was mistakenly thought to be unfaithful in the other. We have cloying hospitality that repels the Levite and leads him to find dangerous housing elsewhere in one, with a lack of room at the inn and a temporary home in a feed trough in the other, perhaps with a few donkeys around. Furthermore, we have a rape and a judgment on a tribe of Israel on the one hand and we have the birth of the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek who came to take away the sins of the world on the other hand. These are intriguing parallels to examine, especially given the importance of Bethlehem, Judah to both stories and the importance of the events of the book of Ruth to the life of David and then Jesus Christ.
The Land of Moab
Let us now take up the relationship between Moab and Israel. Throughout much of the history of Israel the relations between the two countries were very bad. Indeed, one of the most notable extrabiblical documents we have from ancient Israel, the Mesha Inscription, records a nearly genocidal conflict between Moab and Israel where the Moabite king Mesha boasts of great atrocities against Israelite civilians. Nor is this the only record of hostilities between the two nations. Before examining the relevant hostilities during the time of Judges between Israel and Moab, let us examine the origin of Moab.
We previously discussed the parallels between the Levite and his Bethlehemite concubine’s reception in Gibeah, the hometown of Saul that led to that city’s fiery destruction, and the events at Sodom that led to that city’s fiery destruction by divine judgment. Genesis 19:30-38 records that Lot’s daughters, after the escape from Sodom, got their father drunk and had incestuous relations with him, leading to the birth of Moab and Ben-Ammi, the fathers of the Moabite and Ammonite people of what is presently Jordan. Despite (or maybe because of) the family relations, the two people did not particularly get along.
During the time of the Judges one of the times of Israelite oppression was when Moab oppressed Israel, a tale told in Judges 3:12-30. Let us note that just as the tale of Gibeah relates an interesting relationship between David’s ancestry an Saul’s, so does Judges 3, which tells of Moabite oppression and a Benjaminite Judge. Ehud, the son of Gera, a left-handed man (full disclosure: like the author), had been in charge of providing tribute to Eglon, king of the Moabites, and it was he who snuck a sword through the pathetic security system of the Moabites by sticking it on the other side of his body (the Moabite security guards could have been hired by the TSA ). It should be noted briefly that this tale is one of the best ways that discrimination against left-handed people has been countered. That said, it is interesting that we see Benjamin opposed to Moab here, given the hostility of Saul towards David.
At any rate, the sojourn of Elimelech and his family in the land of Moab appears to have occurred during one of the times of peace between the two nations, as there is no record of anything but friendly relations between Elimelech’s family and the people of Moab. Indeed, relations were so friendly that Elimelech’s two sons, after his death, married Moabite women, something that would normally have been considered quite a morally questionable course of action, to put it mildly.
Israel’s relationship with Moabite women throughout its early history was troublesome, to say the least. In addition, there were legal sanctions that prevented Moabites from being accepted into the congregation of Israel under normal circumstances. Let us examine first the law and then the incident of the Moabite women in the Wilderness before commenting on its specific applicability (or not) to the Book of Ruth.
In Deuteronomy 23:2-6, we read two pertinent restrictions on belonging to the assembly of God (the “congregation of Israel”) that relate to the events of the Book of Ruth: “One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation none of his descendents shall enter the assembly of the Lord. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation none of his descendents shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pathor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam, but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever.”
This is indeed very serious business. God places prohibitions on both the illegitimate (and their descendents to the 10th generation) as well as to Moabites and Ammonites forever. On the surface of it, it would appear that no Moabite or Ammonite could ever belong to the congregation of Israel because of their behavior in not showing hospitality (again here providing bread and water is important, as we have seen earlier) and in hiring a false prophet (Balaam) to curse Israel. We will shortly discuss another reason why the prohibition was placed on relations with Moabite women.
Let us nonetheless briefly reflect on an aspect of Israelite citizenship not mentioned here but discussed elsewhere, in Psalm 87 . Whoever converted to God’s ways, no matter their ancestry, was counted as an Israelite. At that point they would no longer be a Moabite, and no longer under the ban of marriage into the community of Israel. Let us also note at this point that almost all of Judah (including Ruth’s in-laws) were themselves at the time debarred from the congregation of Israel as a result of the illegitimacy of their ancestors Pherez and Zerah. This may have limited their choice of marriage partners, and may have forced them either to be the concubines of other tribes (see the story of the Levite and his concubine), to marry within their tribe, or marry believing outsiders (as Boaz’s father married the convert Rehab the innkeeper of Jericho and Boaz married the convert Ruth the Moabitess). This limitation would remain until the tenth generation (the generation of David the King), when the curse of illegitimacy would be removed and Judah would have its full representation within the Assembly of the Lord, the Congregation of Israel.
In addition to the reasons of a lack of hospitality, there was another reason why Moabite women were looked down upon by Israel as undesirable mates. That reason may be found in Numbers 25:1-5: “Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the Lord, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you kill his en who were joined to Baal of Peor.”
Here we find that in addition to being ‘inhospitable,’ the women of Moab were condemned for being ‘hospitable’ in an entirely unacceptable way, luring the menfolk of Israel into the idolatrous worship of false gods like Chemosh with barbaric practices (including human sacrifice). Under normal circumstances, therefore, marriage with the women of Moab would be considered sacrilegious, as it would invite the men of Israel to leave their godly worship and enter into practices of unrighteousness that are abhorrent to God and flagrantly disobedient to His enduring law.
But what if there existed a Moabite woman who was not a honey trap for Israelites to worship false gods with abominable practices, but was herself of a heart and mind and spirit to obey and follow God? How could a young Moabite lady learn God’s ways in a heathen land and become a part of the people of God as a full believer? Such a young woman, as Ruth was, would have to learn God’s ways from a family of believers, and enter into that family’s protection through marriage. And so, in an act of divine providence to this godly young woman Ruth, who was certainly not a ‘typical’ Moabitess by any means, God brought just the right family to her, so that she could come to a faith in God through learning from their ways and behaviors. God shows mercy in strange and indirect ways, but His plans are far above our own.
The Question of Names
As noted earlier, the book of Ruth contains a lot of names with significant meanings. Let us therefore stop for a moment to briefly examine these names and how they are used to express significant and deeper points within the Book of Ruth. We will also discuss some names that have yet to appear so as to deal with the subject in one place and refer to it later on as necessary. As might be surmised, many of the names within the Book of Ruth have notable meanings, some of them ironic.
Elimelech, for example, means “God Is King.” This name was particularly ironic in an age where there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. It seems doubly ironic as a name for someone of the kingly line of Judah. Naomi means “pleasantness,” an ironic name in light of the bitterness she faced in burying her husband and her two sons and returning empty-handed to Bethlehem as a poor widow. In her bitterness (later on, as we shall see), she calls herself Mara, which means bitterness. But God would show her a pleasantness through the young woman Ruth that would restore her joy beyond measure.
Continuing on, let us note that the names of Elimelech and Naomi’s two sons are grimly appropriate. Mahlon means sickly or puny, and Chillion means failing or pining. These inauspicious names are fitting for two young women who died very young, presumably of sickly constitutions. The name Ruth means friendship or fellowship in Moabite, a suitably meaningful name for a young woman who was a friend of the people of God, and who fellowshipped with them with God’s blessing, despite her own ethnic origin. The name Orpah, despite not being as significant, lives on in modern times through the misspelling of Oprah, a suitable name for someone unable to leave aside her ungodly ways despite her familiarity with godly behavior.
Let us note two more names that will appear later in the story. The name Boaz means “swift strength,” and as the name of one of the two pillar’s of the temple of God (see 1 Kings 7:21), his name and his identity as one of the ancestors of David and Jesus Christ is doubly significant. Finally, let us note the name Obed, the name of Boaz and Ruth’s son, which means “He who serves,” a very suitable name for this ancestor of the shepherd kings and servant leaders David and Jesus Christ.
Let us note, in passing, a couple of other salient aspects about the use of names in the Book of Ruth, as will be noted later on in more detail. Sometimes not being named is significant, as the “closer relative” of Elimelech’s is only given the designation peloni almoni, which in Hebrew means “so-and-so.” Additionally, let us note that even though Boaz married Ruth to carry on the name of Mahlon, her first husband, that wherever the genealogy of David and Jesus Christ is presented Boaz is given credit as the father, which is contrary to the usual practice of levirate marriages and a sign of special godly favor to this godly man. This is an important point to consider as we continue.
The Three Widows
The Book of Ruth, after the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chillion, continues with a picture of three widows seeking to return to the land of Judah, in Ruth 1:6-14: “Then she [Naomi] arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had visited his people by giving them bread. Therefore she went out from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to Judah. And Naomi said to her two-daughters-in-law, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. The Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” So she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “Surely we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go—for I am too old to have a husband. If I should have hope, if I should have a husband tonight and should also bear sons, would you wait for them until they were grown? Would you restrain yourselves from having husbands? No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me!” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”
Having stopped at this point for a reason in order to limit the topics of discussion to a more manageable level, let us examine some of the issues this passage touches on, mostly in a subtle way, leaving the connections to be untangled by the reader. In particular, let us dwell a little bit on the fate of widows, the concept of marriage as rest, the love of Orpah and Ruth for their mother-in-law, and the issue of “restraining yourself” as it appears in scripture.
The Life of Widows
Typically in the Bible being a widow is synonymous with being poor and lonely. Sadly, this is all too often the case in the modern world as well. Despite the various government aid programs designed to help the elderly, being a widow (and, if one wanted to be precise, one could include single parents in this list) is almost the surest path to poverty that can be found in the world throughout the whole of human history. This fact needs to be stated, so that the genuine and desperate straits of Naomi and Ruth (and Orpah) is made plain and clear. Without a redeemer, a go’el, to protect them, widows were prey to all kinds of depredations from powerful outsiders, and were often unable even to ensure themselves of their basic livelihood.
To examine the desperate situation of a widow, let us turn to Luke 21:1-4. Here we see Jesus’ on statements on the situation of a faithful and generous widow: “And He [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” The coins used by the widow were lepta, two very small copper coins.
How much was two lepta worth? Not much . A lepta was worth 1/128 of a denarius. A denarius was minimum wage, the daily rate for an unskilled agricultural laborer. This means that the widows offering, her whole livelihood, amounted to less than 2% of what an unskilled farm worker made in a day, roughly equivalent to ten or fifteen minutes work as a farm laborer. Compared to the offerings of the wealthy in the treasury, it amounted to nothing, dust on the scale. Yet it was more than all the wealthy people put it—and a sign of just how poor a widow was in the time of the Bible, living on 1/64th the minimum wage of a worker per day.
Given this vivid picture of extreme poverty, we can better understand the Bible’s commands about caring for widows. James 1:27 reads simply: “Pure an undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. Let us therefore note, then, that a true Christian will take care of the widows, of the orphans, of those who have no defender. As Christ is our go’el, our “kinsman-redeemer,” so ought we to be the protector and defender of the powerless and easily exploited as we are able, for in doing so we act like Christ. Given the need of poor widows for protection, do you think we might be able to find such a Christ-like person in the Book of Ruth?
The seriousness of the obligation towards widows ought not to be neglected. For as Paul warns in 1 Timothy 5:8, concerning the rules on accepting widows for the church rolls, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” A believer was responsible, to the best of their abilities, to provide for their own. If someone had the means to support a widowed mother, grandmother, aunt, or sister, they had the responsibility to do so. To neglect one’s own flesh and blood and attempt to cast off that responsibility onto strangers was damnable, as it made one worse than an unbeliever. Let that not be said about any of us.
Let us further note that one of the last thoughts on the mind of our Lord and Savior, our redeemer, as he was being crucified for our sins, was the fate of his own widowed mother, as it is said in John 19:25-27: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple whom He loved [John] standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. It has been surmised that John (and James), the Sons of Thunder, were first cousins of Jesus Christ, and it would make sense for Jesus Christ to leave the care of His mother in the hand of a reliable relative with the means to do so (his own younger half-brothers and sisters may not have yet been established enough or responsible enough at the time to do so). Therefore, giving the charge of His mother to His cousin (who would take care of his aunt) was one of the last seven “words” of Jesus Christ, pointing to the fact that taking care of widows was an extremely important matter, and that Jesus Himself was not only our savior, but also a thoughtful and dutiful son.
And we would be remiss in neglecting to mention at this point the importance of widows in the establishment of one of the (few) genuine Church offices, that of the deacon. As Acts 6:1-4 states: “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Let us note that deacons were originally set up to provide widowed foreigners, who would not receive the same protection and care that ordinary widows would receive (which was meager enough), with their daily bread from church’s property. Let us note as well that it was not the apostles who set up their cronies in the position of deacon, but it was the people who chose from among themselves those with obvious fruits of God’s Spirit working within them and who were wise and honorable. These men presumably had a concern for the well-being of the widows and were busy in service already, before their ordination, for biblically, offices are given to those who have already shown themselves as having the inclination to serve God’s people. The heart and spirit precede the title. Let it be so among us as well, if we wish to follow the biblical model.
Marriage As Rest
The subject of rest is a matter of great importance in the Bible  . There are a variety of rests discussed in the Bible, and enough material to fill books. Let us briefly note, though, some of the more prominent biblical mentions of “rest” in the Bible, and then examine what Naomi means by considering marriage a rest within the context of biblical rest as a whole.
The first rest in the Bible is listed in Genesis 2:1-3: “Thus all the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” God did not rest because He was tired, but rather because the work was complete, and because He wished to provide mankind with a similar weekly gift of time for reflection upon His works, which can only come when mankind takes a break from his work.
Let us note briefly that in this context of God at rest having completed his task, and Adam having completed his task of naming the animals of the Garden of Eden, that God put Adam into a deep sleep and created for him a wife, about which it is said in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” We see therefore marriage intricately connected with the concept of rest from the very beginning. It appears furthermore that part of the “rest” that marriage involves is the becoming one flesh. It is a tradition of Jews, for example, for married couples to enjoy their marital relations on the evening portion of every Sabbath. Not all traditions are bad, and in this case the intimacy and unity of man and wife and the intimacy and unity of Jesus Christ and the Church who are to marry, and of brethren with each other that should exist on the spiritual level (see John 17:11) through the shared Holy Spirit within all believers. For we are all one body, after all.
Let us note, furthermore, that the rest of God, as well as the rest from slavery and oppression in Egypt, when no Sabbath rest was allowed to the weary slaves of Pharaoh, is what provides the historical look from present day perpetual Sabbath observance to the past workings of God through divine providence (see Exodus 20:8-11, 31:12-18, Leviticus 23:1-2, and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Let us note that the commanded rests of God were not limited to the weekly Sabbath but also included Holy Days like the Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks (often called Pentecost), the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles, closing with a festival on the eighth day. (see Leviticus 23). Additionally, the Sabbath was not limited to days, but included a Sabbath year for land to rest and a Jubilee year where slaves were freed and land was returned to its original Israelite inhabitants so that no one would be punished forever for the sins and mistakes of their fathers, and so that no one could profit forever from the labor of generations before (see Leviticus 25).
Let us also note that these do not exhaust the rests referred to by the Bible. Psalm 95 refers to the entrance into the Promised Land as a type of rest that the wilderness generation of Israel was denied because of their unbelief. Hebrews 3 and 4 takes this concept of rest and points towards the future millennial rest of God that yet remains to come (see Hebrews 4:9, Colossians 2:16-17), where Jesus Christ, after marrying His chaste bride, the Church, will establish His perfect and righteous government on this earth (see Revelation 19:6-9, 20:4-6). This is the rest that we have yet to see, and it too, not coincidentally, involves a marriage. Even an unmarried believer, such as myself, can understand deep symbolism in that working of events.
In what practical ways does marriage mean rest when marriage means that two people have to become one with each other and arrange their patterns and habits of life with each other? Let us note, briefly, Ecclesiastes 4:9-11: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone?” This points to a real practical benefit to marriage—the division of labor within a family, encouragement and support during bleak times, a helping hand when one falls, the warmth of someone close. These are mutual obligations, for we are to both give and receive these kind acts of companionship.
Additionally, on a more spiritual plane, Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 provides a helpful examination of the deeper spiritual significance of marital relations: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for her, that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respect her husband.”
In these times of unloving husbands and rebellious wives, of discord in the home and of disunity in the church of God, little of this passage seems to make sense. Certainly in all too many cases the reality of marriages fails to live up to the high biblical standard. Let us note, though, that all husbands are in the place of Christ, with the responsibilities that come from a leadership position as a “priest” within the home, and all wives are a symbol of the Church, with the responsibilities of honoring and obeying their lords. If both men and women obeyed their biblical responsibilities as Paul demonstrates here, and if the Church honored and obeyed Christ as she is commanded to do, we would better understand the rest of marriage in our own lives as children and believers, rather than being left orphans.
At least now we are in a better position to examine Naomi’s blessing of her daughters-in-law for the rest of marriage, given the loneliness and poverty of a poor widow’s life both then and now, even if she did not feel that she would be able to provide an heir for the Moabite women in her charge. Let us reflect, though, that not only widows get lonely. As we are examining (in various layers) the divine providence found within the book of Ruth, let us examine that perhaps it was God’s design to provide a fitting widow to allow someone else the rest of marriage, someone who would love her as Christ loved the Church, and someone she would respect and honor, thus bringing happiness to two people (and three, if you include the gracious mother-in-law). It seems quite likely that God wanted Ruth and Naomi to come to Bethlehem as widows so that he could turn their sorrow into gladness, turn their poverty into wealth, their barrenness into fruitfulness (see Psalm 113, 1 Samuel 2:1-10), and also to provide a worthy mate for a worthy man. Marriage is rest, after all, for men as well as women, let us not forget.
Love For One’s Mother-In-Law
One of the more remarkable aspects of the three widows on their way out of Moab is the love that Ruth and Orpah had for their mother-in-law Naomi. The relationships between people and their mothers-in-law are notoriously poor in culture, and often in life. All too often mothers pit themselves against their sons’ wives, and the standard of the mother is very often present for the wife to live up to, or suffer from in comparison.
When one adds to this the fact that Naomi was a foreigner, and the love and loyalty of both of her daughters-in-law is remarkable. The fact that neither of the poor young widows wished to leave their mother-in-law, even in the face of dire poverty and the prospect of traveling to an unfamiliar land, is a sign that Naomi truly must have been a very excellent and noble woman, even if we did not know this from being shown by the rest of the book of Ruth. The love and loyalty of Ruth and Orpah for their mother-in-law is sign that both young women were genuinely sweet and loving and that the older woman was worthy of their respect and devotion.
And yet Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye after much prodding and returned home to her family. Nonetheless, Ruth refused to leave (more on both of that later), suggesting that the difference between the ultimate reactions of both women was due to a difference in their love. While both young women respected and loved their mother-in-law, for one of them, she was the ticket to the worship of the true God, and for the other she was merely a loving mother-in-law. The difference between the two is a goodbye kiss and a willingness to live the life of a poor young widow in a strange land.
Such a calling has to be done by God Himself, and cannot be the work of any person for themselves. And yet for Ruth to come to faith in God, about which more can and will be said, it was necessary for there to be an example, a bridge, so that she could come to belief while in a foreign land and then enter into the congregation of Israel as a convert. For who can learn unless they are taught, and who can be taught unless there is a teacher? Such was as true in the time of the Judges as it is today, and so Naomi served as that positive example of godly womanhood for Ruth to come to an understanding and a conviction that Naomi’s God would be her own. That is a deep calling, to cling to a poor widow because of a love for her and for her ways. Both Naomi and Ruth are worthy of the highest praise, the one for being the worthy example, and the other for learning from it and following it and taking the opportunity provided by it.
Finally, before leaving this passage, let us discuss the issue Naomi brings up about whether her daughters-in-law would restrain themselves from finding husbands. This subject comes up later, and will be discussed again in that context, but it is noteworthy to ponder that the Bible contains one notable example of a godly foreign widow restraining herself for a levirate marriage. As it happens, this story is referenced itself within the Book of Ruth, as it is the story of Tamar and Judah, the reason why most of the tribe of Judah was illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit the kingship or belong to the assembly of God.
The story of Tamar can be found in Genesis 38. As it relates to restraining herself, let us note that (like Ruth), through no fault of her own Tamar was widowed when God judged her husband Er. Instead of fulfilling his levirate vow, Er’s younger brother Onan decided to take the option of premature ejaculation and enjoy sexual relations with Tamar without providing an heir to raise up his brother, as was his obligation. For this God struck him down. Judah, thinking that Tamar was going to destroy his entire kith and kin, put her off by saying that Shelah was too young to marry, telling her to live with her parents, and then forgetting about his obligations to his widowed daughter-in-law.
Then, when Shelah had become full grown, after Tamar had restrained herself from marrying in faithfulness to her covenantal vow, Judah refused to give his son to her as her husband, but instead managed to have sex with her under the (mistaken) idea that she was a ritual prostitute. After leaving behind his staff and signet ring and cord as a pledge, he wanted to burn her when he found out she was pregnant, until he found out he was the father and was much embarrassed. The birth of the twins Pherez and Zerah as illegitimate children left Judah under the legal problem of not having a lot of legitimate heirs left.
Let us note, though, that this was not entirely the case, as 1 Chronicles 4:21 states that the firstborn of Shelah was Er, which would signify that Shelah did marry Tamar and carry on the name of his elder brother through the levirate marriage. Ironically enough, all surviving Jews by blood would therefore be the descendents of Tamar, whose faith in God (despite the drastic nature of her actions) made her one of only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (incidentally enough, Ruth is as well).
With a story like that of Tamar in mind though, and with the fact that she was probably beyond the age of childbearing, or at least beyond the age of being an attractive widow for a second marriage (unlike Ruth, or example), it is perhaps wise that Naomi discouraged her daughters-in-law from waiting for an heir from her. However by informing them of the nature of the levirate marriage, she implicitly opens the way for Ruth (and Naomi) to find rest later on, despite her own lack of awareness at the time of how or through who that could come about.
Entreat Me Not To Leave You
The Book of Ruth continues with one of the most touching statements of loyalty that can be found in all of Holy Scripture, a passage so moving and so loyal that it is often used in wedding ceremonies. And yet despite the fact that its moving nature can be readily seen, its deeper importance as an oath of loyalty to God (and therefore its significance when used in marriage) is often not seen.
Ruth 1:15-22 reads as follows: “And she [Naomi] said, “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.” When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her. Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem. And it happened, when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was excited because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” But she said, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dwelt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law, who returned from the country of Moab. Now they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”
This passage is notable for many reasons. Among them is the different choices of Orpah and Ruth with regards to worship, the self-imprecatory oath of Ruth, Naomi’s bitterness, the use of “is that you” to express a dramatic change in one’s life, the aspect of the “return” of Ruth to a land she had never seen, and finally, the matter of the beginning of the barley harvest. These different aspects of the story of Ruth, briefly touched on by the author, reach much deeper ground springs of meaning and therefore richly repay deeper analysis.
Called And Chosen
We may take Orpah and Ruth to be examples of two Gentile young women who were called into the family of God but who had different responses to that calling. Ultimately, the discouragement of Naomi (who spoke in her bitterness, but not inaccurately, about the life of a poor and lonely widow waiting for someone to undertake a levirate marriage) led Orpah to “count the costs” and realize that widowhood in a strange land was not for her. So she departed from Naomi and returned to her people and her gods. This was the expected choice, to stay with the familiar, to return back to the ways with which one is familiar, despite the fact that better ways exist.
It is the response of Ruth that is more striking in this light. Ruth understands that to go with Naomi to a strange land (Judah) as a widow is making a decisive break with the old ways with which she was accustomed to operate. And yet she is willing to make this decision openly, knowing or at least accepting the hardship that comes along with such a choice. Ruth, a young woman (perhaps only a teenager), made this step in faith, showing herself an example of faith and loyalty in a time of disobedience and treachery. For that loyalty, Ruth shows herself an admirable young woman whose life was richly blessed by God.
As I mentioned earlier, it seems likely that given the thread of divine providence that richly runs through Ruth, that it was God’s design for three people that a famine drive a particular family into Moab to marry particular a particular Moabite young woman who would return and marry a particular worthy bachelor. The whole plot seems set up by God in order to accomplish His goal of setting up the genealogy of His Son with worthy believers. In so doing He shows His concern for all peoples of the world, and not just physical Israel, shows that He cares for the lonely bachelor when most of the world does not, and shows that he can turn sorrow to joy and emptiness to fullness, thus turning what seems like judgment into a rich blessing. These lessons we would all do well to learn—but to receive divine providence we must be under His covenant to do so. That requires a conscious choice to leave the ways of wickedness behind and follow God wherever He may go.
If Anything But Death Parts You And Me
The words of Ruth to Naomi, expressed in Hebrew poetry (which is how the most solemn of utterances in Hebrew are recorded), are so moving and loyal that they have been used in marriage vows. This is altogether proper, but the seriousness of the vow needs to be considered, because using it flippantly will lead to great harm for the one who makes that vow in vain.
When Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; or wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me,” we need to understand what she meant and how seriously she meant it.
First, Ruth is telling Naomi of her absolute loyalty. This loyalty was until death—Ruth was cutting the links between herself and Moabite society, her family, her previous false religion, and was placing herself as an adopted daughter of Naomi and a convert to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There was no attempt to keep a foot in both the Moabite and Israelite world, no posing, merely an open confession of faith in God, required of every believer who wishes to follow God’s ways.
Second, this vow was deadly serious. Ruth made her confession of faith with the formula known as the self-imprecatory oath, which meant that Ruth was putting her life on the line with it. She invited God to take her life, and worse, if she was unfaithful to her vow. There was no going back—she had gone all in with God’s ways. This is vitally important to recognize. A faithful believer, or an eyewitness in court under God’s rule of law, puts their lie in God’s hand when making statements. They willingly place themselves under God’s judgment both now and hereafter if they are unfaithful with their vows to God, as well they ought. Those who take their promises that seriously are like to do whatever is possible to fulfill them.
Lest we think that this is only some “Old Testament” phenomenon that has no standing on Christians today, let us consider what Paul says about the Passover in 1 Corinthians 11:27-34: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood o the Lord. But so let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.”
A lot is being said here, but there are some points that are significant for Christians to follow. For one, taking the bread and wine at Passover is making an annual renewal of the self-imprecatory oath made at baptism when we fully committed to God. Note how serious Paul is about the judgment that comes upon believers here and now—weakness, sickness, and even death come to those who fail to examine themselves. This judgment does not signify that God is angry or petulant or tyrannical, but these judgments for our good, so that we suffer now, learn the lessons of disobedience and are able to escape the condemnation that will come to unbelievers who fail to repent.
Ruth, in making her confession of faith boldly and publicly, was also placing herself under God’s protection as a believer and under the protection of His law. We cannot fail to recognize the many (implicit) references to the protection and enforcement of God’s law in the passages that follow if we first realize that Ruth brought herself under the protection of the law as a full citizen of Israel by virtue of her confession of faith. As Psalm 87 states, all those who believe, no matter where they are born, are counted as if they are born in Zion, for all believers are citizens of the New Jerusalem that is above.
Therefore, in light of what has been previously said, let us consider the use of these moving words in a wedding ceremony. They are entirely fitting and proper, if they are meant seriously. The words of Ruth to Naomi are beautiful and moving, but they are not for starter marriages. They are not for trial marriages. They are not to be said unless one absolutely means it. Then again, the “till death do us part” vow is also a self-imprecatory oath, even if it is not recognized as such normally, placing the married couple under divine judgment if they fail to remain married until death. How many people take their vows that seriously, for a marriage is a promise to God of absolute commitment which binds the married couple before God until the death of one or other spouse, at which point the surviving widow or widower can remarry. This vow seems particularly notable in that that describes the situation of Ruth perfectly. With God there are no marriages for ‘time and eternity,’ for those in the Kingdom of God do not marry nor are given in marriage, being “married” to Christ at the resurrection, and no longer sexual beings. But on the earth, we marry for life, or not at all. And the same is true of our religious commitments as well, and whatever other covenantal obligations we have.
Let us now examine the issue of Naomi’s bitterness. We have already commented on the fact before (regarding the significance of names) that Naomi means pleasantness, and in her grief and emptiness upon her return from Moab she asked her neighbors and relatives to call her Mara, which means bitterness. This act of naming is itself a piece of evidence, among many, for the great importance with which the Bible places on one’s name even beyond the issue of name as reputation, the actual physical name was considered to be a sort of prophecy about the character of the believer . Naomi renamed herself because she did not believe that God had appointed pleasantness for her, having seen her husband and two sons die, and having returned to Bethlehem destitute and alone, except for a Moabite daughter-in-law whose love and loyalty she did not recognize.
Naomi’s bitterness is evident in several ways, albeit briefly, in her comments to Ruth and Orpah after the beginning of the “return” to Bethlehem. For one, Naomi despairs of finding a husband for herself and raising up heirs for her daughters in law to marry. Despite knowing (as we see later on) that there are other heirs who could choose to fulfill the levirate marriage, she despairs of her daughters-in-law finding the rest of marriage as sojourner widows in Judah. Perhaps the matter slipped her mind temporarily, although it is also possible that declaring the right of levirate marriage outside of the direct family depended on a confession of faith, and until Ruth’s dramatic one, neither Ruth nor Orpah had ever made a confession of faith in Moab.
Second, Naomi’s telling Ruth to go back to her gods and then not speaking to her after Ruth had made her confession of faith seems a bit rude. It would seem unusual, perhaps, that Naomi never recognized her own good example to her daughters-in-law, or never saw Ruth’s curiosity in the ways of God. Perhaps, again, Naomi’s grief blinded her to these facts, as grief and depression blind so many people to the more pleasant truths of our existence even in dark times.
This bitterness was on full display in Bethlehem when she told her neighbors to call her Mara and mourned God’s hand of judgment against her, not realizing that He was working providence through the life of Ruth for a more glorious future. Nonetheless, let us not be too hard on Naomi, least of all those of us that have walked her footsteps of grief and loss, wondering why the hand of God has gone out against us when He was working out His own glorious plans while we walked in the valley of mourning for a season unaware at the glorious future that awaits those of us who continue to believe in Him.
Is This/That You?
Twice in the Book of Ruth the phrase “Is this…” or “Is that…” is used as a question to someone whose life has made a dramatic change from the last time they were seen. The first time is here in Ruth 1, where the townspeople cannot believe that the Naomi they knew ten years ago as the matriarch of a family with a husband and two young (or young adult) sons has now returned as an old widow. The question is a sign of the contrast between the past and present, and it is with that gloomy image of loss that Naomi calls herself bitter, embittered over her widowhood, her poverty, and the loss of her husband and family, along with the despair that she would never be returned to a state of fullness.
The second time the expression is used, in contrast, is by Naomi herself to Ruth after the stunning acceptance of Ruth’s marriage proposal to Boaz. More will be said about that when the time comes. The gallantry and generosity of Boaz convinced Ruth (and Naomi, who must have known her relative and his character well) that Ruth’s life at that moment was going to dramatically change. And so it did, which is a big part and beauty of the appeal of the Book of Ruth.
Therefore, we have a parallelism here, one question at the end of the introduction of Ruth, and the other at the beginning of the conclusion of Ruth, forming part of a chiastic structure (for example, Ruth both begins and ends with family and genealogical information, and begins with the barley harvest at Passover and ends with the wheat harvest of the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost, or Shavuot). In the first question we find emptiness expressed, the loss of a spouse, and the death of one’s children, and the second question heralds a glorious marriage and the birth of a child to carry on the family lineage.
Let us also note that even the smallest details in the Bible, especially a Book like Ruth with such an economy of language, is not insignificant in understanding its underlying structure and meaning or the overwhelming importance of divine providence to the events o the story told within. Again, a large part of the enduring popularity and importance of Ruth is in the way that a superficially compelling romance set in a small farming village becomes something so much more important to the universe at large as a result of the repercussions of the decisions of its godly characters.
The Return To Bethlehem
The Book of Ruth makes one of its more puzzling statements when it says that Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem, and being quite emphatic by using the feminine plural tense. It is obvious to see why Naomi was returning to Bethlehem. She had been born and raised there, and it was her hometown that she had left for about ten years, so her return is not surprising or noteworthy in the least. Rather, it is noteworthy that the word “return” is used of Ruth as well. It is that idea we will examine briefly.
The first question we must ask is, how can someone return to a place where they have never been? Ruth, so far as we know, had been born and raised in Moab without ever having visited Israel at all, much less her future home in the town of Bethlehem. Since it appears that the word return is used intentionally without meaning a literal return in the form that we would recognize, it is therefore to recognize two ways in which the mention of a return has deeper significance beyond the Book of Ruth itself.
First, let us note that the word “return” as used in scripture appears to be related to the Greek word metanoia found in the New Testament, a word meaning “to turn around” or “repent.” When God tells Israel to return to Him, he is using the same word, a word that means repent. For someone to enter into the Kingdom of God, and to be saved, they must repent of their sins and be adopted into the family of God with citizenship in His nation (more on that shortly). God calls over and over for Israel to return to him, to repent of their sinful and rebellious ways, even though few do. We might therefore take the “return” of Naomi and Ruth mentioned in Ruth 1:22 to mean that both of them were believers and firstfruits of God. Given the description of their godliness throughout the Book of Ruth, this seems a logical conclusion to make.
Second, let us note that the meaning of “return” in modern Hebrew carries with it very powerful political overtones. Those who are counted Jews have the right to return to Israel and declare their citizenship in the land. This right is called aliyah (or return). The fact that Ruth the Moabitess was said to have returned to Bethlehem means that she was counted a citizen of Bethlehem Judah by the author of Ruth (whomever he or she was) despite her origins in Moab. The fact that she was granted citizenship, as a result of her full confession of faith, not only granted her the full rights of citizenship (therefore showing that identity as Israelite was faith-based and not ancestry-based), but also showed her citizenship in the Kingdom of God, which is also faith-based and not based on ancestry. Her commitment to obeying God’s ways and following His laws brought her under the full protection of those laws, a point that is implicitly, though repeatedly, brought out in the rest of the Book of Ruth. The fact that those same laws are the standard of the heavenly Kingdom of God means that there is one standard over all that does not discriminate on the basis of birth or place of origin but rather one’s faith and behavior. This is a point that as believers we must be very careful to understand.
The Beginning of the Barley Harvest
In order to understand the significance of the timing of the events of the Ruth, we need to have an understanding of God’s Holy Days. Let us note as well that the temporal markers of Ruth have also made it a book that is traditionally read in Jewish synagogues on the Feast of Weeks, but that the events of the book take place over the entire period of the Feast of Weeks, starting from Passover onward, and that as a book about the first two harvest Feasts we can expect its meaning to touch upon the greater significance of the harvest festivals with which it is associated.
First, let us go to Leviticus 23:4-8 to examine the Passover briefly: “These are the Feasts of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times. On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it. But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord for seven days. The seventh day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it.”
Let us not forget that in Exodus 12 the Passover was limited to those who had fully converted to God and entered into His covenant people by eating the lamb (symbolic of Christ) and being covered with the blood of the lamb (symbolic of Christ’s blood shed for our sins). Let us also note that it was not only the children of Israel but also a “mixed multitude” that came up with Israel into the land of promise (Exodus 12:38) having been adopted into the nation of Israel through their conversion to God. Ruth’s confession of faith put her in the congregation of Israel, under the wings of God’s shekaniah blessing and protection.
Let us continue our examination of the timing of the Book of Ruth by examining the often neglected Feast of Firstfruits or Wave-Sheaf Offering  in Leviticus 23:9-14: And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord. Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the Lord, for a sweet aroma, and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-forth of a hin. You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”
In this particular festival, we see that the lamb without blemish again symbolizes Jesus Christ, who was our wave-sheaf offering, the firstborn from the dead who had to open the way to salvation for all of humanity, the first to triumph over the grave so that the rest of His brethren, those who believe in God and obey His commandments, could follow after him. Additionally, let us note as well that no grain could be eaten or harvested before the firstfruits of the firstfruits had been offered up to God. The fact that the action of Ruth 2 and 3 occurs in the context of the barley and wheat harvests means that the wave sheaf had been offered, so that the harvest of the firstfruits could then begin. As it is in spirit, so it is also in the flesh.
Let us finally note the commentary on the Feast of Weeks, which the Jews call Shavuot and which most Christians call Pentecost, which is recorded in Leviticus 23:15-22: “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you have brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loafs of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flower; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firsfruits to the Lord. And you shall offer with the bread seven lambs of the first year, without blemish, one young bull, and two rams. They shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering made by fire for a sweet aroma to the Lord. Then you shall sacrifice one kid of the goats as a sin offering and two male lambs of the first year as a sacrifice of a peace offering. The priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits s a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. And you shall proclaim on the same day that it is a holy convocation to you. You shall do no customary work on it. It shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God.”
There is a lot of symbolism here about the Feast of Weeks that could be discussed, such as the fact that the loaves of the firstfruits (like believers themselves), are still leavened, still dealing with sin, and so a sin offering and peace offering are still necessary to bring believers, even among the firstfruits, to God. Additionally, the seven week long feast and celebration on the 50th day mirror the Sabbath years and Jubilee celebration which start on Atonement, showing some sort of link between Atonement and the Feast of Weeks regarding Jubilee and freedom.
That said, though, let us note its specific relevance to the Book of Ruth. The Book of Ruth ends during the Feast of Weeks as Ruth proposes the levirate marriage to Boaz, he redeems her and her land, and restores an heir for Ruth, raising up an heir after her dead husband (even though the rest of the Bible recognizes the son as his own and not Mahlon’s). Ruth is confirmed in this book as a firstfruit herself. Additionally, let us note that the last verse of this passage, in forbidding people to completely harvest their land, was an enforced form of workfare for the poor and stranger who had no land and needed to work the land of others to eat—it was enforceable by the civil and religious authorities to provide a way for poor and landless people to eat. As it happens, Ruth was such a poor and landless stranger herself, bringing her under the protection of this Festival law. For these reasons the Book of Ruth is fittingly read in synagogues every Shavuot, as it is a very appropriate book for the Feast of Weeks. And, it should be noted, gleaning and harvesting are a very important part of the Book of Ruth, as we shall shortly see.
The Obviousness Of Providence
It is in the first part of Ruth 2 that the obviousness of divine providence becomes very apparent. While the divine providence shown in Ruth 1 exists at a very powerful and profound level, its action in tragedy is not as obvious. However, the “coincidence” of Ruth 2 is so obvious and readily visible that the first part of Ruth 2 makes it very clear just where God’s providence was working all the way along. In looking at Ruth 2:1-7, we learn quite a bit about Boaz, about Ruth, and about the workings of God’s providence for both of them.
Ruth 2:1-7 reads as follows: “There was a relative of Naomi’s husband, a man of great wealth, of the family of Elimelech. His name was Boaz. So Ruth the Moabitess said to Noami, “Please let me go to the field, and glean heads of grain after him in whose sight I may find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” Then she left, and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers. And she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered him, “The Lord bless you!” Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” So the servant who was in charge of the reapers said, “It is the young Moabite woman who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ So she came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house.”
Let us note a few aspects about this passage that are particularly revealing. First, let us note the obviousness of the workings of divine providence that are pointed out by the author in bringing Boaz and Ruth together. Second, let us note what the passage says about both Boaz and Ruth. Finally, let us note briefly on the obedience to the law of God shown here on the sides of both Ruth and Boaz, one of the themes that underlies the whole Book of Ruth.
Signposts of Divine Providence
This passage contains very obvious signposts of the workings of divine providence. As mentioned earlier, God appears to have designed it so that Ruth came into contact with a husband who would bring her into Israel but would die young so that she could return to Bethlehem as a widow to providentially be a wife for a deserving man. In short—her widowhood was part of the plan of God to bless both her and Boaz. Ruth 2 helps make that particular truth plainly obvious.
For one, two times in three verses the narrator of Ruth points out that Boaz was of the family of Elimelech. Considering that Ruth was a somewhat shy and modest young woman, seeking to obey the law in her request for a husband, and Boaz appears in the Book of Ruth as similarly shy in matters of the heart, but also an openly law-abiding man, the fact that his identity as a near relative of her father-in-law points out the divine providence of God’s bringing the two of them together intentionally to accomplish His will.
Additionally, it is plainly obvious that divine providence is at work because God directs Ruth’s steps unknowingly to work at the Boaz’s part of the field. Even though Ruth did not know whose field the land belonged to, God did, and God wanted her to be right there. One can see in these references the fact that God designed for Boaz and Ruth to be thrown together in a place where each could see the godliness and true beauty of each other, and where Ruth could find a husband and a better life than that of a poor widow, and where Boaz could find a loving wife of his own.
What This Passage Says About Boaz
This passage, though short, manages to say a fair amount about Boaz. Considering this is the first passage in which we are introduced to the man, the passage manages to say a great deal about him by showing him in action rather than merely telling. We should therefore pay attention to both what this passage tells us about Boaz and what it shows us about Boaz. In learning about the Book of Ruth’s portrayal of Boaz we can see his character in action, and see how the author of Ruth presents him as a godly man.
Let us first note that Ruth first describes him as a man of great wealth and a relative of Elimelech. It was noted earlier that his name means something like “Swift Strength” and that it appears as the name of one of the two pillars in Solomon’s temple. Boaz’s identity as a relative of Elimelech’s and a man of great wealth offers the solution to the problem of Naomi and Ruth as poor widows. For one, as a relative he is able to serve as the go’el, as the kinsman-redeemer, the type of Christ for these women protecting them and defending their rights, and providing for them. Additionally, as a near relative he would be able to marry Ruth and raise up a son for his relative, Mahlon. It is also pointed out that he is a man of great wealth—so therefore he has the means to be generous in providing for both Ruth and Naomi, as will become important later in the story. Given his consistent portrayal as a godly man, we can assume he has great wealth not only on earth, but also in heaven.
Let us note one more aspect of his identity as a relative of Elimelech, though, that is important later on in the story. Considering that Boaz is named as a relative of Elimelech, we may therefore assume (and this point will be repeated later on with further evidence) that Boaz was probably considerably older than Ruth, probably middle aged, while Ruth is consistently portrayed as young, no older than her early-to-mid 20’s, maybe even as young as her teens, depending on when she married Mahlon within the ten year period Noami was in the land of Moab before her sons died. The favorable action of God in putting Boaz and Ruth together means that God viewed the heart of both, and was not concerned with their ages, and that there is to be no stigma attached to being a single middle-aged or older person, or any need for such a person to consider a loving relationship impossible, because God can provide, as he provided for Boaz.
Let us also note that this passage shows Boaz as a busy and hardworking man. While the harvest is going on he travels back and forth between his own land in the fields outside the town and the town himself. He is well-off enough to have a servant in charge of his reapers, suggesting he has at least a team of them. He is able to discuss business with his servants in a friendly manner, and he shows a sharp eye for detail. He is, in short, shown as both hardworking and attentive.
We also see that Boaz and his servants are godly men. After all, they are shown to use the covenantal name of God Yahweh (or one of its many variant forms), probably best translated “The Eternal” in English, and they are also shown blessing each other. Boaz blesses his servant asking God to be with him, and his servant returns the blessing to Him, asking God to bless him. We see, therefore, the godliness of Boaz shown in that his mouth is primarily used for blessing and not cursing. That is a lesson we could all stand to learn better.
Let us also note that Boaz was instantly attracted to Ruth. In asking, “whose young woman is this,” though, he notes his interest in her in proper terms, wondering what family she comes with, and prompting the servant (who surely notices the tone of interest in his voice) to provide a detailed description of information, including where she came from, who she came with, how she came to be working in the field, and her hard work once she got there. Such detailed information further suggests that Boaz is hardworking, in that the head of the reapers praises those same qualities in Ruth, with some comments about her resting a little.
What This Passage Says about Ruth
There is a lot said about Ruth, especially her hard work and modesty of character, in Ruth 2:1-7. Let us explore these elements and examine what they say about Ruth’s character and the sort of model of behavior Ruth may serve at for women, especially women in her state as poor widows. By appreciating and understanding the character of Ruth, we may better see the qualities of women that God appreciates, and that men should respect and women should emulate in our own times, given the timelessness of God’s ways and the constancy of what God desires and requires of mankind. There are three specific qualities about Ruth noted in Ruth 2:1-7: her modesty, her attractiveness, and her diligence in working. All of these are good qualities to cultivate for women today.
First, in this passage we note Ruth’s modesty, a quality that appears elsewhere in the book of Ruth (see Ruth 3:1, 5). Ruth could have both demanded or refused to work, but she did neither. She had a proper sense of duty in asking Naomi for permission to glean for their food, knowing that Naomi was an older woman (and possibly not physically healthy enough to engage in the difficult work of gleaning barley and grain off of the ground). But at the same time Ruth appears to have been a rather shy and diffident young woman who was not a forceful and aggressive person, and so she couched her dutiful request to work for the two of them as a polite request rather than a demand. And, unsurprisingly, Ruth’s request was granted by Naomi, who understood her needs as well as the noble character of her daughter-in-law. Not only did Ruth show modesty in dealing with Naomi, but she also modestly requested the reapers to be allowed to work in the field, something she could have demanded in accordance with God’s laws (see Leviticus 23:22). In this day and age we are used to seeing and expecting young women to be exceptionally pushy and demanding, but a refreshing aspect of Ruth’s character throughout the Book of Ruth is her modesty and gentleness. She shows a consistent faith in God, an obedience to God’s laws, and a modest graciousness that wins favor in the sight of all who are around her (and, implicitly, through the workings of divine providence to provide a place of honor for her as wife and mother, in the eyes of God as well). Seeing how graciousness often leads to grace, we would do well to emulate such behavior ourselves, rather than striving to offend as so often is the case.
Additionally, in this passage we see the attractiveness of Ruth to Boaz. As we have noted earlier, Boaz commented immediately upon seeing Ruth, asking whose young woman she was. His workers, possibly sensing his interest, gave him an immediate reply pointing that she was the young woman who came with Naomi back from Moab. Given the fact that the people of Israel were probably not inclined to think very highly of the Moabites, it appears that the attractiveness of Ruth to Boaz was itself an aspect of divine providence in prompting the single Boaz to show an even greater interest in Ruth than strictly as a relative looking out for the interests of Naomi. Though Proverbs 31:30 reads: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised,” we ought not to understand this as an attack on physical beauty. Generally speaking, people are most attractive when young and grow less attractive as they age (though this is not always the case). Those who use their beauty and charm to manipulate and control others are seeking after a treasure and power and glory that does not last, but fades away like all fleshly aspects of this life. But those who, like Ruth, cultivate a right relationship with God and others shall be praised. And that is the case with Ruth—she is still praised and worthy of praise more than three thousand years after she lived, as the record of her godliness has been recorded in scripture as an inspiration to all men and women.
Finally, the third aspect we notice from Ruth 2:1-7 about Ruth’s character is her hard work. If you have ever worked in a field or done any kind of agricultural labor, you will know that gleaning, picking up the small bits of grain and barley that fall from the harvesters working ahead of you, is not easy work. It requires stooping down often and is very hard work on the back. She started her work early in the morning, and it was now mid or late morning, and Ruth has worked steadily through that time, except for resting for a little while. God required landowners to let the poor and widows glean for their food (Leviticus 23:22) as a form of charity. Nonetheless, this charity was not what we would consider welfare, where the able-bodied poor passively receive benefits, but it was workfare, where God commanded that landowners provide an opportunity for the poor to work, but also required the able-bodied poor to work for themselves. Naomi, being more elderly, was not judged as able-bodied, but Ruth, being a healthy young woman, was able-bodied, and so she worked to provide food for herself and her mother-in-law through the hard work required of agricultural laborers. Indeed, we may note that Ruth’s willingness to work hard in Boaz’s fields is what brought her to his attention in the first place. Her diligence provided the opportunity for God to work his providence through the actions of both Ruth and Boaz, giving us an example of how our own labor can lead to God’s blessings not by our merits alone, but by the workings of God’s grace.
Let Me Find Favor In Your Sight, My Lord
It is in Ruth 2:8-14 that we find the first interaction between Ruth and Boaz, and the interaction is rich with foreshadowing and intensification of their mutual interest. Here again we see Boaz acting as a kinsman-redeemer and as a protector of Ruth. We see Boaz show immense generosity to Ruth, we see Ruth’s modest response (which fits her overall pattern of behavior), and we also see the immense respect that Ruth shows in bowing down at Boaz’s feet for his generosity. Since some of these aspects of respect may make modern readers a bit uneasy, it is worthwhile to discuss the larger context of Ruth bowing down to Boaz as well as the multiple motives of Boaz’s kindness toward Ruth in the first place.
Ruth 2:8-14 reads as follows: “Then Boaz said to Ruth, “You will listen, my daughter, will you not? Do not go to glean in another field, nor go from here, but stay close by my young women. Let your eyes be on the field which they reap, and go after them. Have I not commanded the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” So she fell down on her face, bowed down to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” And Boaz answered and said to her, “It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before. The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” Then she said, “Let me find favor in your sight, my lord; for you have spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not like one of your maidservants.” Now Boaz said to her at mealtime, “Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed parched grain to her; and she ate and was satisfied, and kept some back.”
There is a great deal of interest in this particular passage, much of it said rather briefly and matter-of-factly, that has a great deal of connection with other parts of scripture. Let us therefore examine some of these connections today. First, let us look at the concern that Boaz shows for Ruth and the motives for that concern. Then, let us look at how Boaz resembles Christ in both his providing of bread for Ruth as well as the blessing he gives her. Then, let us examine the parallels between Boaz and Ruth and Jesus and the Samaritan at the well. Then, let us look at the respect given by Ruth to Boaz and what it says about the relationship of men and women in biblical times, as well as a discussion of why this high degree of respect was not considered idolatrous. Finally, let us look at the process of how Ruth became counted as an Israelite and how this was recognized within the law, prophets, and writings.
Boaz: Kinsman Redeemer And Would-Be Husband
Boaz had at least two motives in helping Ruth. One motive was as a kinsman-redeemer who was well off and able to provide for his destitute relatives. The second motive was as a man who was clearly attracted to a virtuous, modest, and beautiful young woman. In our day and age we are used to casting aspersion or considering it as blameworthy if someone shows the second type of motive. Nonetheless, the Bible consistently shows God (the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ) as showing both motives of a protector figure and a lover toward Israel. If we take Ruth as symbolic on a secondary level of God’s love for Israel and Christ’s love for the Church of God (similar to the secondary level of the Song of Solomon), then we see that these same dual motives exist in the way God feels about His people.
There are several passages which indicate these mixed motives of God, and that would explain and justify Boaz’s own mixed motives, and provide us an example of what sort of behavior is considered to be acceptable and why. In Ezekiel 16 we have a moving picture of God’s love and concern for Israel. We see Israel as an unwanted baby that is adopted by God. God serves as an adopted parent for Israel and then marries his ward when she comes of age, by making a covenantal marriage with her, giving her great gifts, like food and fine clothing and gold and silver. But Israel proves unfaithful to God and uses the gifts given by God to hire adulterous lovers. This is a moving and deeply sad picture of a nation favored by God that rejected God’s ways while still considering itself entitled to God’s blessings. But this same picture of God’s mixed motives in dealing with Israel—the motives of protecting as well as marrying, are also present in Boaz.
And this presents a problem of how the views of the Bible and the views of our society conflict with each other. If a wealthy middle-aged gentleman in our times wished to provide for an attractive young widow, and if they married, our feelings as a society would probably not be unmixed. There would probably be false accusations of pederasty and exploitation on the part of the man or of avarice and greed on the part of the young woman. Here in the book of Ruth we see neither party as present with an evil motive. In fact, the motives of both Boaz and Ruth are judged as godly in the highest way, and their union is given a full blessing by God Himself through Ruth’s inclusion in scripture as well as the pivotal role of Boaz and Ruth as descendants of David and Jesus Christ. God therefore endorsed the marriage of Boaz and Ruth without qualification, even though such a marriage in our own time would be looked upon in many “Christian” circles with a large degree of scorn and contempt for both parties. Ironically enough, and probably unintentionally, this heaps contempt and scorn on God for His love for a much younger “woman,” the Israel of God.
So, how did Boaz provide for Ruth in Ruth 2:7-14? For one, Boaz made Ruth a part of his own workforce, by giving her full access to his fields, protection from the unwanted advances of workers who might take advantage of a young woman without a known defender, water when thirsty, and food. By doing so, Boaz openly declared to his entire workforce of his interest in protecting and providing for Ruth, putting them all on notice as to her full acceptance among his people and the duties they had of respecting her also. This was no small deed—and it probably also let the other workers know of Boaz’s personal interest in this young woman as well. In addition, Boaz gave a (divinely inspired) blessing on the virtue of Ruth, stating that he had been fully informed of all of her love and concern for her mother-in-law and how she had abandoned her homeland and family and had become a refugee in a land she did not know. That Boaz took the time to become fully informed of her actions suggests a very high degree of interest on his side. Boaz’s actions further signified that he saw her as an Israelite and treated her as such, despite the fact that Ruth expected to be considered as an unloved and unwanted foreigner. Boaz’s attentions must have made a great mark on the witnesses to this scene who saw Boaz’s immense graciousness and favor, as well as the graciousness of Ruth in response.
Both in his generous provision for Ruth’s needs and in his blessing of Ruth and his open acceptance and treatment of Ruth as a relative, Boaz was acting from the highest character. He does not take advantage of Ruth’s poverty or his wealth and power to seduce Ruth or induce her into becoming his mistress or concubine. We would expect most wealthy and corrupt people to use their wealth in such a fashion. Nor do we find any evidence from Ruth’s typically modest and shy response that she lusted after and coveted after his wealth either. Boaz’s generosity—from both motives of kinsman-redeemer as well as potential husband—are done with the highest of character and are morally blameless. His interest in her (which must have been fairly obvious) was handled in such a way that it did not in the least endanger either his virtue or hers. And it would appear that a great deal of the attraction of Ruth to Boaz was not merely in her beauty, but also in her modesty and virtue as well. Those who are virtuous will find virtue in others attractive.
The Typology of Boaz and Jesus Christ
There are many aspects of Boaz and Jesus Christ that are typologically connected. In this passage we see the typology expressed in several manners. For one, we see Boaz acting as Jesus Christ by providing for the needs of Ruth for protection, acceptance, and food and water. In one conversation, Boaz takes care of all of the “basic” needs of survival, safety, and belongingness that are required for someone to be able to reach higher levels of enjoying and living life. This pictures Christ as the Good Shepherd who supplies our needs. Additionally, Boaz serves as a type of Jesus Christ in his blessing that Ruth will receive a full blessing from God as a result of her faith and her good works. Additionally, the way that Boaz shows his love for Ruth is similar to the way in which God shows His love to His people through the giving of spiritual gifts, as well as words of affirmation, quality time, affection, and acts of service, speaking at least a little bit in all five languages of love. These aspects of the connection between Boaz and Jesus Christ are worthy of our notice and emulation.
One way that Boaz models Christ is in providing for Ruth’s needs the way that Jesus Christ provides for the needs of His people as the Good Shepherd (see John 10:1-15). Unlike hirelings who are only looking for their own profit from their half-hearted care of the sheep, both Boaz and Jesus Christ showed love and concern without any demand for love in return. After all, a hireling seeks his material ‘needs’ through his work with a flock, but a good shepherd provides food and protection and love and identity to his flock through loving service. What sort of needs does Boaz provide for Ruth? He gives her food at lunch time and provides her with the opportunity to work in his fields the entire harvest season, as well as water from the well when she is thirsty. This is providing for the basic survival needs of food and water (she had shelter already, with Naomi). Boaz also provides protection and safety from the unwanted advances of aggressive young men by his openly stated promise of protection. He also provide Ruth, a refugee and foreigner, a sense of belongingness and love by calling her ‘daughter,’ giving her an accepted and honored place among his maidservants, and in calling down a blessing from God for her abandoning her homeland and false religion to join the people of God in a land she did not know. His love and concern is of a “good shepherd” for his sheep, a combined motive of love and protection that is described of Uriah’s concern for Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:3 in the story told by the prophet Nathan to David. Just as the Messiah is our good shepherd, so also a husband is called to be a good shepherd of his own family (Ephesians 5:22-33).
Another way in which Boaz served as a type of Christ was in his blessing given to Ruth. Boaz said to Ruth, “It has been fully reported me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before. The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” Jesus Christ himself said of his love for Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37 that He had wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her chickens, but they were not willing. To come under the protection of God requires the will and consent of the believer (there is no “irresistible grace” involved). This blessing is similar in many ways to the blessing given by God to Adam and Eve during the first marriage, where God commanded that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be cleaved to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The blessing of Boaz hints at Ruth having made a marriage covenant with God. Likewise, the blessing promised to believers by Jesus Christ is that they are called to the marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19:9). And how did God repay the good works of both Boaz and Ruth? He brought them together in marriage. Here we see some striking similarities between Boaz and Jesus Christ in terms of the marriage symbolism of the Book of Ruth.
Boaz also shows his similarity to Jesus Christ in the use of all languages of love at one time to convey his concern and regard for Ruth. He gives her gifts of grain and employment, just like Jesus Christ gives us the gifts of the spirit as believers (see Ephesians 4:7-16) to demonstrate His love and for us to practice our love for the brethren. Boaz offered quality time by spending his meals with her, just as Jesus Christ wishes to spend quality time with us in fellowship (Hebrews 10:24-25) on His Sabbath days (Hebrews 4:9), besides our daily prayers (Matthew 6:9-13). Additionally, Boaz gave Ruth affection by calling her daughter and considering her as one of his maidservants, just as Jesus Christ calls us brethren (Hebrews 2:10-14) and God calls us His children (Hebrews 12:3-11). Boaz performed acts of service in giving generously to Ruth and in providing her with safety and water and an honorable place in his household. Likewise, Jesus Christ performed acts of service by redeeming us from the death penalty we deserve for our sins (Hebrews 9:14) and in serving as the captain of our salvation (Hebrews 2:9). In addition, Boaz provided words of affirmation by blessing Ruth for her devotion to God and her mother-in-law, just as Jesus Christ offers believers words of affirmation and blessing when we are condemned by our self-critical hearts (1 John 3:19-20). Boaz and Jesus Christ both speak to believers in all languages of love, however our hearts may be reached, so that we may feel and believe in the love that God has for us, and so that Ruth would recognize Boaz’s love and concern no matter what language of love her heart spoke. In showing a model of complete love, Boaz serves as a type of Christ as well.
Ruth And The Woman At The Well
There is a profound way that also shows the connection of Jesus Christ and Boaz through the promises of water to be given to a (Gentile) woman. We can see and draw parallels between the stories and compare the virtue of Ruth with the lack of virtue of the Samaritan woman of Sychar told in John 4:1-26. Let us notice some of the parallels in location, in the behavior of Jesus Christ and Boaz, and in the behavior of the Samaritan woman and Ruth. In looking at these parallels we can see part of the rich depth of Ruth in providing a counterpoint with the behavior of the Samaritan woman, and in showing the grace of God to both sinners and the godly, showing God’s love for all mankind. Since this parallel has been noticed by only a few people , let us discuss it a little bit here.
The first aspect of parallelism of interest is in the locations. Bethlehem was the city of David, where Jesus Christ was Himself born, and Judah was the tribe that was promised the scepter of rulership through David and Christ (see Genesis 49:8-12). The Samaritan woman lived in the city where Jacob’s well was that had been given to Joseph as part of the double blessing of the firstborn provided by Jacob to his favorite son and the eldest son of his favorite wife (see Genesis 48:1-22). So from the very location of Ruth and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman we see a connection between both together through the blessing and birthright promises of Jacob given to Judah and Joseph. Additionally, both Ruth and the Samaritan woman were foreigners—Ruth being from Moab, a people with heathen customs and a false religion, and the Samaritan woman being descended from people brought by the kings of Assyria to Israel after the captivity of Samaria (see 2 Kings 17:24-41), and the Samaritans too were a people of heathen customs and a false religion. Here we see that the situation of the two women in the two parts of Israel were very similar.
Additionally, we see some striking parallels between the behavior of Boaz and Jesus Christ in these two parallel passages. For one, both Boaz and Jesus Christ behave rather chivalrously towards the women, especially because both men offer water to the women and both show considerable kindness in talking respectfully to women who were looked down upon by Israelites. Additionally, both are Jews, specifically, from the same city (Bethlehem). Also, both of them make a point out of knowing as much as possible about the women they are talking with. Boaz has been fully informed about Ruth’s kindness to her mother-in-law after the death of her husband and her devotion to God, and Jesus made himself fully aware of the fact that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands and is living (in sin?) with someone who is not her husband. Additionally, both Boaz and Jesus Christ in their conversations with these “foreign women” talk about the true worship of God. These are some of the more obvious parallels between Boaz and Christ in these stories.
There are also some striking parallels between Ruth and the Samaritan woman, aside from the obvious fact of both of them being foreigners. Both of them were in need of water, and were strangers who were being called by God to enter into His family through the preaching of those in the line of Judah. There are some striking differences that nonetheless serve to mark Ruth and the Samaritan woman as parallels and anti-types rather than as being types in the way of Boaz and Jesus Christ. For one, Ruth is portrayed as a virtuous and chaste widow who was loyal to the family of her husband’s family, and whose desire to marry again was entirely proper within biblical law in the context of the levirate marriage (to be discussed later at more length). On the other hand, the Samaritan woman had married (and presumably been divorced) five times, and was currently living (as a concubine, one would assume) to someone with whom she was not married. Here we see a striking but parallel difference in terms of the chastity of Ruth and the history of sexual sin (possibly adultery or fornication) in the case of the Samaritan woman. And yet both are still called into God’s kingdom, showing God’s kindness and graciousness both to the just and the unjust, not willing that any should perish but desiring that all would accept God’s free offer of repentance, forgiveness of sin, and the possibility of eternal life after accepting God’s Holy Spirit, repenting of one’s ways, and living a godly and obedient life. Both of these women received that offer, and both responded to it very sincerely. Rain falls on both the just and the unjust for God’s purposes.
Husband As Lord
We now come to an exceedingly difficult problem to deal with when it comes to our appreciation of the Bible. Ruth bowed down to Boaz for his generosity. Later, in proposing marriage to Boaz, she slept at his feet. This is an exceptionally humble, even humiliating thing to do. Some cultures (including the Thai culture) have a cultural code about feet that makes touching someone with your feet to be exceptionally rude, and it also makes the sort of bowing down at a king’s feet that is expected to show “honor” to royalty exceptionally humbling and humiliating for others. It is in the context of idolatrous regard that most Westerners believe with the angels of Revelation (see Revelation 19:10) that no one save God is to be bowed down in worship. So there is an interpretive problem here that must be addressed. Let us now discuss how Ruth’s bowing was not idolatrous worship, and examine the way in which a husband or employer was a lord so that the cultural context of Ruth may not be so troubling to believers today.
In the entire book of Ruth there is no indication at all that Ruth’s humility toward Boaz was anything particularly self-debasing or idolatrous. For one, Ruth’s bow seems to have been a bow of appreciation for the great and unexpected honor that was shown her. Even those among us who are Westerners and fairly fierce about not bowing to anyone see nothing objectionable about a musician bowing slightly to an audience as a sign of appreciation for applause and attendance at a concert, and that is a similar concept to what is meant here. The bowing given by Ruth to Boaz seems a spontaneous but acceptable sign of appreciation to his immense grace and favor. It is not a degrading sort of action that would be similar to bowing at the feet of a monarch and pretending to be their little dog, as is expected in oriental monarchies, and is sternly and harshly rejected by fiercely proud Westerners.
Nonetheless there is definitely a sense that one understands from Ruth, even given that Ruth is a particularly modest and humble and self-effacing and gracious young lady as portrayed in the book of Ruth, that women gave men much more respect in biblical times than is the case now. This was not simply an “Old Testament” matter, though. 1 Peter 3:1-6 gives the following politically incorrect advice to wives: “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won over by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear [respect, reverence]. Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.” Attempts to merely consider Peter’s advice to the women of his time as culturally dependent fails at least in part because it suggests the fact that the same behavior that was expected by wives of old, and modeled consistently by Ruth, for example, was expected of Christian wives, and therefore is presumably also expected of Christian wives today.
This implication is strengthened when we look at Paul’s timeless advice about the duties expected of husbands and wives to each other. Ephesians 5:33, at the end of a lengthy passage that describes how husbands are supposed to love their wives with the self-sacrificial love that Jesus Christ showed for the Church, says of the relationship of men and women: “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Both Paul and Peter speak to Christian audiences in divinely inspired writings that are fully applicable to Christians today that women are to respect their own husbands as lord, and that husbands are to love their wives as themselves. The troubled marriage and family life of the contemporary Church would be far better if more husbands were like Boaz and more wives were like Ruth. Wives should not be treated harshly and feel any terror, and men should not feel in the slightest disrespected by the conduct of their wives. The fact that husbands are commanded to cherish their wives does not make them any less manly or worthy of respect, and the honor and reverence and respect that women are commanded to show to their husbands honor and respect as lord does not in any way signify that women are less important, for it is also true that God does not distinguish believers and their rewards and blessings in His kingdom based on gender, class, or ethnicity (see Galatians 3:26-29). Nonetheless, that equality within the Church still requires respect for the office of husband, even if it does not make men better than women (and the author would strenuously and harshly reject any implication that women are better than men, as is commonly joked in this debased and ungodly society).
Ruth’s Israelite Citizenship
Earlier, the comment of Judah’s possibly limited marriage partners due to the curse of illegitimacy that was on almost the whole tribe thanks to the Tamar incident (see Genesis 38, Ruth 4:12), we noted that while illegitimate children were forbidden from the congregation of Israel to the tenth generation in the law (see Deuteronomy 23:2) and that Ammonites and Moabites were never allowed into the congregation of Israel (see Deuteronomy 23:3-6) because of their lack of hostility, it is also obvious that even in the times of ancient Israel the acceptance of faith led to a change of identity from one’s old ethnic identity to being counted as a citizen of Israel (see Psalm 87:4-6). Therefore, once Ruth made her oath to follow Naomi and follow God or else accept God’s curses and judgment, she put herself under the jurisdiction of God and made herself a spiritual Israelite, fully protected and subject to God’s laws and covenantal blessings.
It is worthwhile to ask ourselves if this position is supported at all in the context of how Israelites actually behaved. We know, for example , that when Naaman converted to the biblical faith in 2 Kings 5 and was healed of his leprosy, that he asked for soil to be brought from Israel back home with him, presumably because he understood that he was to be counted, at least spiritually, as an Israelite citizen, of which the dirt of Israel was a visible sign of that new citizenship thanks to his faith in God and obedience to God’s ways. The confession of faith (and a baptism in the Jordan river, seven times) led to a self-professed oath in serving and obeying God, and that triggered Israelite citizenship, a demonstration that just as for Ruth a confession of faith was sufficient to be seen as a citizen of Israel because of one’s faith in God. The examples of Ruth and Naaman, both rich in divine providence, are important pieces of evidence that belonging to Israel has always been about grace and never about race, contrary to the thoughts of many both who glory in their kin or who cast aspersions on a straw man conception of Israel.
But, to bolster the rather singular stories of Ruth and Naaman, which are rare examples, what indications do we have that Israelite citizenship was granted on the grounds of faith and not ancestry? We find that ground in Isaiah, in a passage that has a lot of relevance for both Boaz and Ruth and the way that God viewed them even before their marriage . In Isaiah 56:1-8, God gives a standard of righteousness and justice and obedience (including to the Sabbath) that is applicable for all peoples and all walks of life. In discussing those who might think themselves excluded from the picture of God’s Sabbaths (one of which, Pentecost, is a key element in the book of Ruth, which is often read on that day both Jews and Christians ), Isaiah names two groups of people—Gentiles and eunuchs. Interestingly enough, Ruth and Boaz belong to these two separate groups, at least if you view them in a broader sense. Isaiah tells the foreigner that God will accept the outcasts of all peoples who choose Him, and will accept their offerings and bring them to His holy mountain (Jerusalem). In short, Isaiah prophecies that those who believe God, no matter of what nation, are counted by God as Israelites. In addition, Isaiah also speaks to the eunuchs, of which Boaz was (at least spiritually) before his marriage with Ruth. Instead of heaping blame upon unmarried bachelors for their supposed unworthiness of love and belonging and happiness, as would be done by many “Christians” today, Isaiah promises believing bachelors that they will receive a place and a name better than sons and daughters and an everlasting name. Neither bachelors nor Gentile believers are in any way second-class citizens in the family of God, according to Isaiah. We ought to act the same way ourselves.
And When She Rose Up To Glean
If it was not obvious enough already that Boaz had serious interest in taking care of Ruth from his specific questions to his workers as well as his obvious favor to her during the mid-day meal, his behavior toward Ruth in Ruth 2:15-23 would have made it obvious to even the most obtuse of Boaz’s employees that Boaz was deeply interested and concerned in Ruth’s well-being, and it was entirely obvious to Naomi as well, when she found out about it. In fact, Ruth seems the most shy and diffident concerning the interest of Boaz, and the one slowest to take advantage of it, which speaks highly both to her noble character as well as the fact that God’s divine providence in providing for Ruth (and Boaz) depended on the wise advice of a woman far more clever and worldly wise than Ruth herself.
We see the special instructions of Boaz toward his employees and how they exceeded the moral standard of God’s law (showing how God’s law has always provided a bar for godly people to exceed rather than simply a harsh and negative condemnation of sin), the hard work of Ruth, the quickness of Naomi to understand the interest of Boaz in Ruth, and the symbolic importance of discussing the end of the wheat and barley harvest in Ruth 2:15-23, which reads: “And when she rose up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. Also let grain fall from the bundles fall purposely for her; leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her.” So she gleaned in the field until evening, and beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. Then she took it up and went into the city, and her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. So she brought out and gave to her what she had kept back after she had been satisfied. And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where have you gleaned today? And where did you work? Blessed be the one who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who has not forsaken his kindness to the living and to the dead!” And Naomi said to her, “This man is a relation of ours, one of our close relatives.” Ruth the Moabitess said, “He also said to me, ‘You shall stay close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.’ “ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, and that people do not meet you in any other field.” So she stayed close by the young women of Boaz, to glean until the end of the barley harvest and wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law.”
Let us examine several elements of this passage. First, let us talk about how Boaz’s behavior exceeded the minimum standard of God’s law and provides an example for how the law has always motivated godly people to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law. Second, let us examine how the generosity of Boaz and the hard work of Ruth combined to provide immense generosity without leading to any shame or wrongful dependency. Third, let us examine the importance of Boaz’s generosity on Naomi, both in her recognition of Boaz’s interest in Ruth as well as how it led to a restoration of her faith and spirits. Finally, let us look at the context of the passage of time at the end of this passage in shaping our appreciation of the climax of Ruth.
The Law And The Godly Believer
It is falsely thought by many who (inaccurately) consider themselves believers of God that the law is merely some mean and strict and harsh set of rules that only remind us of our sin and evil and that are entirely worthless and unprofitable for believers today. The behavior of Boaz here offers a refreshing break to the ranting and raving of antinomian heretics so common in conversations about God’s laws, providing a balanced view of law that presents the way in which the law serves to motivate the godly believer to exceed the bare minimum standard. Let us first look at the law which required Boaz to provide an opportunity for Ruth to glean, referenced twice already, in Leviticus 23:22 and expanded upon in Deuteronomy 24:19-22. Then, let us look at how Boaz’s obedience far extended beyond the minimum requirements of the law. Finally, let us look at the implications of Boaz’s behavior for ourselves when it comes to the proper role of God’s law as a motivating factor in our lives as believers.
As part of the law of the Feast of Weeks, God required the landowners of Israel to provide opportunities for foreigners and the poor, like Ruth, to glean. This law appears first in Leviticus 23:22, and is then elaborated and expanded on in Deuteronomy 24:19-22. The law, as it originally appears in Leviticus 23:22, reads: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 24:19-22 expands the law beyond grain and barley, and it reads: “When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.”
It would appear as if the reminder of Israel’s slavery and exploitation in Egypt served to prevent the people of Israel from exploiting the poor and marginalized people of their own society. It is all too easy for the exploited to become the exploiters once they possess land and power and money, and it was the intent of God to prevent this from happening by providing a way for the poor and landless to gain enough food to eat during all three harvests of the year—the barley and grain (spoken of in Leviticus 23:22) as well as the fall harvest of olives and grapes (discussed in Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Once a landowner went over their land once, they were forbidden from going back to efficiently and fully exploit the economic potential of their land. They were commanded by God to provide what was left over from the initial harvesting for the poor and foreigners who had no land, with the promise that God would be generous to those who were generous in caring for the poor among God’s people.
Boaz appears to have been one of the few generous people who took God’s law and offer seriously. Boaz not only met this minimum standard of generosity, but he far exceeded it in at least two pivotal ways. For one, Boaz commanded his workers to allow Ruth to harvest in the sheaves. This was not required by law, and was an act of considerable generosity. It was the sheaves, after all, that provided the main harvest, and the source of profit for the farmer in Boaz’s day as well as our own. The widows and the poor were only entitled by law to what was left over from the sheaves, but Boaz gave to Ruth out of what was rightfully his to harvest. In addition, he specifically commanded the reapers to intentionally leave wheat and barley for Ruth to glean, again going above and beyond the minimum legal standard, which simply required the gleaners not to try to pick up what they had accidentally dropped but to leave it for those like Ruth. Additionally, Boaz twice explicitly forbade his workers from rebuking or discouraging Ruth, probably because he recognized Ruth as sensitive. Not only did Boaz show immense kindness in providing for Ruth’s well-being in a way that did not shame her or lead to dependency and passivity, but he also showed concern for her emotional needs as a rather sensitive young woman. Here Boaz shows great love and concern for the physical and emotional well-being of Ruth, as well as showing his noble character as a godly man worthy of emulation.
The actions of Boaz with regards to Ruth have implications for our own use of the law. If we are godly people like Boaz, the law provides a minimum standard that we can exceed in showing our love for God and for our fellow man. If the law of Moses, which we tend to view as harsh and unmerciful and unloving and ungracious, could motivate a godly man to show the highest generosity and sensitivity to a foreign young woman under his protection, should we be any less able to use the law as a minimum standard to far exceed in our own lives as believers led by the Holy Spirit of God Himself? If the law can provide an opportunity for Boaz to show his love and concern for Ruth can the law be only evil and unworthy of our attention as believers today? If such graciousness and lovingkindness could be shown by someone in the dark times of ancient Israel, can those of us who live in the light of Jesus Christ be any less inspired and motivated by God’s laws to show our love for God and each other?
Grace And Works In Ruth
Through the generosity of Boaz and the hard work of Ruth we see how godly generosity is supposed to be provided, through the combination of generosity on the part of those who have great resources as well as hard work on the part of those receiving the generosity, in order that harmful dependency and passivity is to be avoided. Not coincidentally, the relationship of Boaz’s generosity and the hard work of Ruth is a perfect picture of the combination of God’s grace through Jesus Christ and our hard work as Christians to obey His laws and ways. The combination of God’s grace and our works leads to blessings through divine providence in ways that build our character while showing the generosity of God in a way that does not shame us, embarrass us, or take away from our free will.
We have already noted that Boaz exceeded the minimum requirements of the law by allowing Ruth to glean among the sheaves (which were his by law to harvest) and in intentionally leaving barley and wheat for Ruth to glean without her knowledge. In the same way, God gives us grace that we do not deserve, unmerited pardon for our sins and blessings that we could not hope to merit through our imperfect behavior. God gives us all better than we deserve through our own actions, and thoughts, and behavior. Here we see, once again, Boaz serving as a model of Jesus Christ’s unselfish generosity, not seeking his own profit or glory but serving others and striving to meet their needs. Boaz’s generosity and love should serve as a model for us to go and do likewise as we are able.
But Boaz’s grace was only part of the picture. Boaz’s grace in providing extra opportunities and extra barley (and later wheat) to glean served to benefit Ruth and Naomi through Ruth’s hard work. Ruth was not aware that Boaz had shown exceptional generosity. She was too busy working hard gleaning, stooping down and picking up the grain from the ground, to realize that Boaz had shown her immense grace. And that is the role of works in our own walk as believers. We work as hard as we can to obey God, to live in righteousness, to provide for our needs through our labors as we have opportunity, and while we are busy working, doing what God has commanded us to do (or going beyond that minimum standard), God provides grace to us in ways we do not often recognize at the time, mixing our works with His grace to bring His plans into fruition without coercion or taking away our free will.
In that way, the workfare model of biblical generosity is a perfect match with the workfare model of godly character that develops gradually through obedience mixed with God’s grace and subtle divine providence working to meet our needs in ways that we do not expect, but that we ought to appreciate. Such generosity, whether by Boaz or God, is done in such a way as not to make us work any less hard in our lives, nor is it done in a way that removes our free will or our personal responsibility to work for ourselves as best as we are able. It simply provides us with what we need without shaming us or making us passive recipients of the largesse of the government or God, and while preserving our role as active agents working as best as we can. Furthermore, such a model resolves the tension between works and grace that exists both in a self-righteous view that our works are sufficient and in the misguided antinomian view that our works are unnecessary. The blend between works and grace that explains our spiritual salvation is also God’s design for providing for our physical needs in the material world, providing a rebuke both to greedy and selfish elites as well as to those who are unwilling to take responsibility for themselves and work as best as they are able. Thus Ruth provides a fit model both for our spiritual and our economic lives as a mix between grace and works.
Naomi’s Restoration Of Faith
The role of the generosity of Boaz in restoring the faith of Naomi is hard to overestimate, and it is worthy of discussion. As you may recall, Naomi was rather despondent and gloomy and depressed after the death of her husband and her two sons and her return alone (except for Ruth) and completely destitute and broken back to her hometown of Bethlehem. Her state of sorrow and anguish and depression upon her return to Bethlehem is hard to overestimate, telling her neighbors that instead of calling her Naomi they should call her Mara (or bitter) (see Ruth 1:21), seeing the loss of her husband and her sons as a sign of God’s affliction rather than divine providence that was to provide her with further blessings.
As believers we all feel the same way when times are difficult and when it looks as if nothing good will come out of our struggles, our defeats, our losses, and our suffering. We all have moments—minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years where we doubt God’s love and concern for us while we struggle deeply with immense problems. And yet the story of Naomi’s restoration of faith when she recognizes and sees that God is still blessing her through the love and hard work of Ruth as well as through the generosity of Boaz reminds us that even if life may seem like a grim struggle against starvation and despair, and even if it may seem as if we are lonely and unloved, that God has a greater purpose to us that is far more obvious once it is recognized, providing meaning to the suffering that we face in this present evil world.
And so we see that when Naomi is in town actively looking at Ruth’s productive labor, that she recognizes the hand of God in the generosity of Boaz to Ruth. Once she sees Ruth with more barley than she could have gotten through her own unaided effort, and once Ruth told her that it was Boaz, their relative by marriage that had provided such generosity to Ruth, then Naomi, rather than feeling miserable about her own losses, blesses God and Boaz for their kindness to the living and to the dead, and recognizes the wisdom of Ruth remaining with the people of Boaz and working in his fields. In addition, Naomi plants a little seed of longing in Ruth, perhaps intentionally, by pointing out that Boaz is a relative, someone who may be willing to fulfill other needs of Ruth rather than simply material needs, having shown himself to be a gallant gentleman in feeding his two widowed relatives in such a noticeable way.
We see in this passage a bit of the reason why Ruth must have been drawn to Naomi during better times, before their shared lonely period of widowhood and poverty and loneliness. For one, Naomi seems to be a remarkably intuitive woman. She recognizes that the barley is more than Ruth could have done on her own, giving quick praise to the person who gave Ruth notice. And when she finds out that it was Boaz, a kind bachelor relative of theirs, who has shown the generosity, her praise and her intuitive understanding that the generosity of Boaz was a sign of divine providence from God are clearly stated. Naomi is a very intelligent woman, one able to understand the deeper motives of Boaz from his generous and noble actions, using her knowledge of his character gleaned from years of life as a relative as well as her understanding of Ruth’s attractiveness to think and plan for solutions to their situation as poor widows, as well as the loneliness of both Ruth and Boaz. And, given the rest of Ruth, we see that the intuitive wisdom of Naomi is fully in accordance with the wisdom of God in providing for the well-being of both Ruth and Boaz together. Here we see another aspect of God’s divine providence, that the plans of the godly often correspond with God’s own plans, once part of God’s actions have been seen, allowing the rest of God’s plans to be recognized and understood and actively embraced by the intuitive believer.
A Question Of Timing
It has become popular in some religious circles to assume that the resurrection and marriage supper of Jesus Christ will occur on Pentecost, just as the Bible implies that the giving of God’s law and directly states that the giving of the Holy Spirit were both done on that same day. One of the few (and vague) indications that would exist for such an idea would be the fact that the marriage of Boaz and Ruth (discussed in vivid detail in Ruth 3 and 4) itself took place at or around the Feast of Pentecost. The weakness of such a leap of assuming that the symbolism of the marriage between Boaz and Ruth as referring to the marriage of Christ and the Church at Pentecost is that no such close connection between types is necessarily warranted by a reading of the book of Ruth.
After all, there are at least a couple of reasons aside from any prophetic importance for the Book of Ruth in its close relationship with the Feast of Weeks that marriage connects with Pentecost in this particular context, and it is worthwhile to discuss that at least briefly given the popularity of the Pentecost resurrection theory among some people. For one, the period of the Feast of Weeks provides the courtship of Boaz and Ruth during the course of the harvest, allowing both a fuller appreciation of the character of the other through their experience working together in the fields and seeing the other behave around relatives and coworkers during the harvest. Additionally, all of God’s harvests would appear to have been times where marriages were likely—not only because harvests generally mean more food and celebrations in general, but because the fellowship aspects of God’s festivals would have encouraged such celebrations as weddings among those who obeyed God’s commandments and who would naturally think of times when food and fellowship were plentiful as the ideal times to share joyous occasions like weddings.
As a result, one ought to expect that any festival (save perhaps the Feast of Unleavened Bread or the Day of Atonement, whose prohibitions on certain types of festive foods, or in the case of Atonement on eating at all, would seem to discourage the feasting and celebrating of a wedding) would be a suitable timing for a physical wedding. The fact that the book of Ruth shows a fairly short courtship over the course of seven weeks of working in a field culminating in an early morning wedding proposal by a shy and modest young woman, does not necessarily imply that the courtship of Jesus Christ and the Israel of God (which has taken place for thousands of years) or that the wedding or its timing are exact parallels between the two stories, only that the ultimate meaning of Ruth is not only a happy marriage for Ruth and Boaz, two worthy believers, but also ultimately points to the marriage between Jesus Christ and spiritual Israel, even if the specific timing of those two weddings differs. Our knowledge of types can sometimes lead us to attempt to prove too much when we fail to distinguish between the essential and the inessential elements of a story with regards to its secondary allegorical meaning of relating to God and the Church, and by not understanding precisely which details are shared between the primary literal story and the allegorical secondary meaning. We would be wise to remain humble in the face of our ignorance about the day or the hour of the return of the Messiah, and of the resurrection of the righteous dead and living at the last trumpet.
 Iaian Provan, V. Philips Long, & Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 158.
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