The Story of Ruth
Normally when we think about the time of the judges, we think of the Israelites trapped in the cycle of falling away from God, receiving God's discipline, and experiencing God's deliverance through one of the judges. Although this cycle probably characterizes to a large degree what happened to Israel during the time of the judges, the story of Ruth illustrates that individual Israelites during this time actually displayed great faith in God and in one another. It really challenges Christians today to remain loyal to Christ in spite of what everybody else is doing in our world.
During the latter part of the period of the judges, a man from Bethlehem named Elimelech with his wife Naomi migrated with their 2 sons Chilion and Mahlon across the Jordan River to the land of Moab because a famine had struck the land of Judah. Eventually both Chilion and Mahlon married 2 Moabite women—Chilion married Orpah, while Mahlon married Ruth. As time passed, tragedy struck the house of Elimelech when all 3 men passed away, leaving the 3 women not only widows but also childless. Naomi, hearing that the famine had abated in Bethlehem, decided to return home. As Naomi was departing, both Ruth and Orpah begged Naomi to let them go with her. Naomi insisted that they return to Moab because she had no more sons to give them.
This statement by Naomi may seem poetic; however, during the days in which she spoke it, poetry was not on her mind. According to Moses, a man's name, inheritance, and posterity were extremely important. In Hebrew thought, a man's name, etc. were carried on by the surviving sons. We still experience this same feeling today as we continue to give children their father's last name—Ford, Risinger, Fitzhugh, etc. Whereas this may seem unfair to women, remember that in Mosaic theology, God created woman to be a help-meet or support for the man and not vice versa.
What happens though to a man who is married but dies before he has any children? In order to assure that his name would continue, God dictated that the brother of the deceased man was supposed to take his brother's widow, marry her, and have children by her. Although the children were physically his, the children were legally the deceased brother's. The children would call the deceased brother their father. Moreover, all the possessions of the deceased brother went to the children. The surviving brother in certain cases had to buy the widow ("redeem her") and her possessions in order to be able to carry out the command of raising up children for his brother. This was called the Law of the Levirate. The brother who performed this action was called the "kinsman redeemer." When Naomi tries to persuade the 2 women to return to Moab because she had no more sons, she was being deadly serious. She has no more sons to take the women to themselves and raise up children for their dead brothers. Moreover, not only is she too old to produce more sons, even if she did produce more sons, the 2 women themselves would be too old to marry them once they were of marriageable age.
The rest of the story is pretty understandable. Naomi and Ruth go to Bethlehem where Ruth tries to provide for them by gleaning in the fields. The law of that day dictated that the gleaners were not to strip the field bare but were to leave enough so that the poor could follow behind them and get enough grain to sustain them. Ruth uses this custom to her advantage to gather food for her and Naomi. While she is gleaning, she attracts the attention of the owner of the field, Boaz, who happens to be related to her by marriage. He takes a keen interest in her and tells his hired men to make sure that she gets far more than she would have gotten on her own. One of his statements bears emphasizing: "May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge" (2:12). The word "wings" can also be translated "cloak." Whether the word refers to cloak or wings doesn’t' really matter yet; the idea is that of somebody greater covering another person in order to care for and protect them. Naomi is impressed not only with the grain that Ruth has gleaned but also with the man she just might have gleaned. Naomi knows that Boaz qualifies as a kinsman redeemer, that is a relative who is qualified to care for her and Ruth.
Naomi has a plan. After the men have threshed the grain, they would normally make merry and spend the night at the place of the threshing floor. Naomi instructs Ruth to go to the threshing floor, uncover Boaz's feet, and lie at his feet. By doing so, she would be telegraphing the message quite vividly that she was interested in Boaz becoming her husband. After Ruth follows Naomi's plan, Boaz is startled during the middle of the night and covers Ruth with his cloak (most likely a reference to 2:12). Nothing sexual follows. At dawn Boaz sends Ruth away assuring her that he will attempt to redeem Naomi and Ruth.
On that same day, Boaz waits for a relative of his who is more closely related to Naomi than Boaz and who would therefore have prior claim to Naomi, her land, and Ruth. When Boaz asks him if he wants to redeem the land, the relative jumps at the idea; however, when Boaz also informs him that buying the land would necessitate his marrying Ruth, he backs off. The reason is that he would lose money in the matter because first he would have to pay Naomi for the purchase of the land and then he would lose the land to the son Ruth would produce by him. The land would revert to the family of Elimelech. The son would be considered Mahlon's heir, not his. He relinquishes his claim to the land of Boaz.
LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF RUTH
At first blush, it seems hard to see why the story of Ruth would be chosen as one of the major stories in the OT used to describe the life and ministry of Jesus. If looked at as being simply a beautiful short story about the relationship between Boaz and Ruth, this little book really does not justify being used in this curriculum; however, several elements emerge from this story which actually do warrant its being studied. First, this story serves the purpose of describing the lineage of David the king. According to Moses, God had chosen the tribe of Judah to produce kings for the nation of Israel. In fact, Shiloh—a messianic name for Jesus—was to come from this tribe. This book goes into detail to prove that David was in fact a Jew and that he met the qualification God set for the kings of Israel, that is, that they be Jews. Since Jesus was directly descended from David, this story also legitimizes His claim to be the King of the Jews. Second, this story highlights a major theme which the NT addresses in detail—redemption. Whereas in the story of Ruth, Boaz was redeeming a piece of land with Ruth attached, the NT speaks of the redemption of people who were enslaved to Satan but whom Christ purchased with His blood by dying on the cross. Just like after the redemption of the land in the story of Ruth meant that Boaz now owned the land and Ruth, so after the redemption of souls the NT describes, we now belong to Jesus. This story more than any other story in the OT points to our redemption in which Christ is the Redeemer who purchases us for Himself.
Whereas these are the major points in the story of Ruth, other elements need to be addressed as well. First, we see God's unseen hand working in the details of everyday life in order to accomplish His will. A famine drives Elimelech and his family to Moab where they become attached to Ruth. The death of the men in Elimelech's family drives Naomi with Ruth back to Bethlehem. Ruth "accidentally" chooses Boaz's field for gathering grain. Boaz "happens" upon seeing Ruth in the field gleaning. There is no major word from the Lord operating in these scenes. Instead, we simply see God operating and putting things together in order to bring Ruth and Boaz together so that David and Christ might come.
Second, the story of Ruth shows us that all of life is meaningful. I fear that many times, unless I get some major revelation from God, I feel like God is not really doing anything. The truth, though, is that sometimes God is silently working and doing some marvelous things to accomplish something major in my life. Ruth leaving Moab is not some great spiritual event; it's the story of a young woman who dearly loves her mother-in-law and wants to cling to her mother-in-law and to her mother-in-law’s God. Going out to glean the fields never made the top ten list of what people would consider major spiritual events, and yet that is exactly what God used to bring Boaz and Ruth together. Simply because we don't "see" God working does not mean that He is not working. It may simply mean that God is using little things to accomplish His great and overall purpose not simply for my life but also for future generations.
Third, this story in conjunction with the story of Rahab illustrates the true nature of the people of God. Today, many sincere conservative Christians live in awe of the Jewish people, giving them a superior status to other races. Whereas it is true that God has earmarked the Jewish people for certain privileges, the truth is that membership to the people of God has never been restricted to the Jewish people. Neither does being a Jew automatically qualify you to be a member of God's people. This passage along with the passages about Rahab and even the institution of the covenant of circumcision shows us that the necessary qualification to be a member of God's people is what Peter dictated in his sermon to Cornelius: "in whatever nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him" (Acts 10:35). It doesn't matter who I am, how much money I have, or whatever natural beauty or characteristics I have, if I fear God and do what is right, I am pleasing to Him, that is I am going to be a member of His family.