There are books in the Bible which are quite easy to pass-over or ignore, and Ruth is one of them. It is quite possible for a person to read the book of Ruth and think that it is little more than a cute romance-story, but they wouldn’t even have scratched the surface of its significance. They might even wonder why God bothered including Ruth in Scripture, but they would be missing those beautiful, juicy, tender, “Filet Mignon” gems hiding beneath the surface. So, with that in mind, I want to look at where the book of Ruth fits into the over-arching-narrative of the Bible, and then zoom-in on what we can learn from it.
The Bible is one grand story from beginning to end, which can be broken-up into three “acts“, encompassing many sub-stories. The story of the Bible is of God’s relationship with mankind, and how, after that relationship is broken, God set about to restore that relationship, and make it personal. The Bible both begins and ends in God’s Garden. When one fails to place the Bible events within the context of the Scripture’s meta-narrative, they will miss nuances that they should not miss, and will fail to appreciate the unity of scriptural teaching.
Act I begins with creation, creation of the cosmos, creation of the plants and animals, and creation of mankind, Adam and Eve. Before the Fall, God and man had perfect fellowship, a perfect relationship, as God intended. Genesis 1 & 2 recount those events. Beginning in Genesis 3, we see the Fall, and how it destroyed that perfect relationship between God and mankind. After creating the cosmos by the Word of His power, God knelt in the dust of the ground to make His final and ultimate-creation – mankind (Genesis 2:7), and gave both mankind and animals all of the fruits and plants for food, with one exception; 16 The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”(Genesis 2:16-17)
The penalty for disobedience was death. Period! When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden-fruit, God could have rightly struck them dead on the spot, but He didn’t. He set the stage for Act II in Genesis 3:15:
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall crush your the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”
God could have abandoned or “rebooted” His human-project, but He didn’t. He set-about to redeem mankind which opens in Genesis 4.
Act II tells the story from the promise of a Redeemer to its ultimate-fulfillment by Jesus Christ, on the Cross. While our English Bibles divide the Old Testament and the New Testament between Malachi and Matthew, the Gospels are really part of the Old Testament, because the “old-order” isn’t fulfilled and done-away-with until the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. If you recall, when Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the Temple between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was torn in two, thus removing the veil that had always separated God and His people. Christ, on the Cross, inaugurated the “new-order”
Ruth is part of Act II, and tells part of the story about how God used ordinary people to help fulfill the promise the Genesis 3:15, the coming of the Redeemer. Ruth looks forward to an ultimate-fulfillment, to come later, which the entire Old Testament, from Genesis 3:15 to the Cross, was pointing to.
Act III tells the story of how God again used ordinary people in bringing into reality the ultimate-restoration of His relationship with His chosen people from mankind. Act III is about fulfilling God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12:3, that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Act III closes in the closing chapters of Revelation with God’s people being restored to perfect fellowship with God in His Garden, just as the story began in Genesis 1 & 2. The overarching-story has come full-circle.
Focusing in on Ruth…
From our long-lens view of the Bible, we will now start focusing-in on some of the important, but often-overlooked details in Ruth. We will start with the setting:
Every human story has to have a setting, a discrete time and place. There are times when, as much as might like to be in more than one place at the same moment, it is physically and humanly impossible. God isn’t limited by time and place, because He is infinite. Man is finite.
Ruth 1 begins by giving us a snapshot of its timeline:
Now it came about in the days when the judges governed (Ruth 1:1a)
When did the judges govern? The period of the judges was from just after the death of Joshua until the coming of Samuel. The judges ruled Israel for about 350 years, from about 1400 BC until 1050 BC. Thus, the children of Israel had mostly conquered the Promised Land, and were starting to settle-in. That time can be summed-up with; “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
Can we get closer than that, and where might we find that information? How about Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ, in Matthew 1? Low and behold, we find another data-point in Matthew 1:5a: “Salmon begat Boaz by Rahab;”
Who was Rahab? Rahab is introduced to us in Joshua 2:1-21. She was the innkeeper/prostitute who sheltered the spies in Jericho, and helped them escape safely. She asked for, a received a promise that she and her family would be spared when the Israelites conquered Jericho. That promise was fulfilled in Joshua 6:17-25. So what became of her after that? She disappeared off of the Old Testament “radar“, so we wouldn’t know “the rest of the story” without Matthew 1:5. She settled-down with Salmon, and they had Boaz. This helps us bracket our timeline even more precisely.
We will take a closer-look at Boaz’s genealogy when we look at “types” a bit later.
How old was Boaz when he met Ruth? We aren’t told, so we can’t be sure, but I think it is safe to say that an old, gray-headed man wouldn’t get too excited about marrying a twenty-something woman, but maybe a forty-something man might. This brackets our timeline to closer to the beginning of the period of the judges, within a few years of the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land.
Ruth begins and ends in Bethlehem. The scene immediately transitions into Moab: And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi; and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there.(Ruth 1:1c, 2)
Why the change in scenery? there was a famine in the land.(Ruth 1:1b) Why the famine? “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
As they frequently did in the wilderness, the Israelites again forgot which God they were supposed to serve, and as a result, God sent a famine to punish and remind them.
The journey back to Bethlehem takes place in Ruth 1:6-22. Bethlehem is the setting for the rest of this story.
An important time-stamp for this story is in Ruth 1:22b; And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. Why is this particular time-stamp important? Barley has the shortest growing-season of the cereal grains, so it is the first to be harvested. It would give Ruth the opportunity to work for their sustenance, and there would be plenty of time to store away grains for winter.
Our next time-stamp comes in Ruth 3:2; 2 Now is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maids you were? Behold, he winnows barley at the threshing floor tonight. Naomi has hatched a plan for Ruth to propose to Boaz that he become their kinsman-redeemer, and it doesn’t take long before that opportunity arises. How long have they been in Bethlehem? For the duration of the barley harvest, a few days to a couple of weeks. BTW, who is orchestrating these events? There are no “coincidences” in the Bible. I have known of other very-short courtships, but this one just about takes the cake.
Naomi and Ruth were redeemed, and Ruth was married before they had even been in Bethlehem a month. WOW!!!
I used to have a brother-in-law who remarried shortly after he lost his first wife, but he and his second wife had known each other since they were kids…literally.
Now that we know where it took place, and approximately when it took place, who are our main characters?
Since Naomi’s husband and sons both appear and disappear within the first five verses of Ruth, while they helped set the stage, they aren’t integral to the continuation of story.
Naomi and her family were “Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah” (Ruth 1:2). When the Israelites settled the Promised Land, each Tribe got its allotted area, which was further broken-down by clans and families. Thus, the Ephrathites settled the area around Bethlehem. We find an interesting prophesy concerning the coming Redeemer in Micah 5:2;
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”
Maybe Ephrathah wasn’t so “insignificant” after all.
Ruth was a Moabite, so who were the Moabites?
The Moabites were descended from Lot, Abraham’s nephew, by one of his daughters (Genesis 19:33-37). It was an incestuous relationship, because his daughters feared that Lot’s family-line would die-out, since Lot had no sons and there were no available husbands for them in a cave in the wilderness.
The relationship between the Moabites and the Israelites waxed and waned, but it was at least “cordial” during the time of Naomi and Ruth.
While we recoil in disgust at the mention of incest, there was no cultural-taboo against it during the days of the Patriarchs. God didn’t regulate the “degree-of-separation” for intra-family marriages until He gave the Law at Mt. Sinai. Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister. Abraham sent his servant back to “his brother’s family” to take a wife for Isaac, so Isaac and Rebekah were cousins. Likewise, Isaac sent Jacob back to “family” to find a wife, so Jacob, Rachael and Leah were cousins. Intra-family-marriage, incest, was a very common and accepted practice.
Think about it a moment; How did the earth get populated originally, since mankind began with one couple, Adam and Eve? How did the earth get repopulated after the Flood, since that re-population depended on three related couples? The purpose of this exercise is to help us wrap our heads around the cultures at the times when the Old Testament was recorded. We can’t judge what happened three-thousand years ago by our cultural-norms today.
Our last significant character is Boaz. Who was he?
Now Naomi had a kinsman of her husband, a man of great wealth, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. (Ruth 2:1)
Boaz was related to Elimelech, perhaps a cousin. Boaz was also well-known, well-respected and well-connected in the area, as we will see later when he goes to bat for Naomi and Ruth. He was one of the community’s “movers and shakers”.
As we have seen from Matthew 1:5, Boaz’s father was Salmon and his mother was Rahab. We will delve deeper into his family-history in the next section; Types.
God used “types” in the Old Testament to point forward to a greater fulfillment which was to come. For instance; God chose the children of Israel to be His special people, and yet, not all of the physical descendents of Israel were or will be saved. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time claimed Abraham as their “father“, but rejected Jesus, who was the promised-one who was to come to bless all the nations of the earth. The New Testament equates all believers with “spiritual Israel“, “Abraham’s spiritual seed“. All of “spiritual Israel” will be saved, but not all of physical Israel will be saved.
Ruth, in embracing Naomi’s God as her God (Ruth 1:16-17), became a “type” of all Gentiles who would come to God by faith. Yes, Ruth is, if you will, our “spiritual-mother“. She was also an industrious, hard-working woman who had no problem taking the initiative.
We see Boaz, in redeeming Naomi and Ruth, as the penultimate “type” of the Redeemer who was to come, Jesus Christ. All who come to faith in God through Jesus Christ become part of God’s redeemed family.
Slaves are still bought and sold in parts of the world today. What if a man went to a slave-market and found a young boy or girl who was being sold into slavery, but rather than buying them to be his slave, he bought (redeemed) them to be part of his family? Rather than taking that child home to be a slave, he took that child home, gave them a bath, dressed them in nice, clean clothes, and at dinner time, showed them their place at the family table, where there was plenty of food to eat, and then at bed time, showed them to their bedroom, where they have their own clean bed to sleep in? That child even bears the family-name, since they are a real part of the family.
That is a picture of our redemption and adoption into God’s family, which Jesus procured on the cross on our behalf.
Before we come to faith in God through Jesus Christ, we are slaves to sin and Satan, but when we come by faith to God, Jesus Christ, through His shed-blood and finished-work on the Cross, redeems us, not to be slaves any longer, but to be sons and daughters of God. By redeeming Naomi and Ruth, Boaz made them part of his family. They weren’t poor widows any more. They had a place at Boaz’s table, and Ruth also had a place in his bedroom.
Boaz wasn’t the first kinsman-redeemer in the Old Testament, but he was the first to “get it right“. The kinsman-redeemer custom was well-established long before God enshrined it in His law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The importance of having a male heir in that society can not be overstated. When God didn’t keep His promise of an heir for Abraham soon enough, he tried to short-circuit the process by having Ishmael by Hagar (Genesis 16:3-16). As we saw earlier, Lot’s daughters had children by Lot through incest (Genesis 19:33-37). One of those sons became the father of the Moabites.
One thing we need to note from Deuteronomy 25:5-6:
5 “When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”
Do you see something missing? There is no “marital-status” stipulation for the kinsman-redeemer, so it didn’t matter whether the kinsman-redeemer was single or already-married, or whether he already had an heir or not. Polygamy was not forbidden by God, so it was fairly-common during that time. Contrary to popular-opinion, God never outlawed polygamy in the Bible, with one exception, Elders and Deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13), who are only permitted one wife. Polygamy was still practiced in Israel during the time of Christ.
Redemption often meant more that just caring for the widow, particularly if land was involved. By the time of Ruth, the Israelites had settled most of the Promised Land, and each tribe clan and family got their allotted parcel of land. Thus, when Boaz redeemed Naomi and Ruth, he also redeemed their land, land he would farm to bring them income. Otherwise, that land would lay fallow. It would also pass on to Naomi/Ruth’s son(s). That land could not be sold outside of their family and tribe.
This didn’t matter to Boaz, but it sure mattered to the other potential kinsman-redeemer;
4 Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there, and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz spoke was passing by, so he said, “Turn aside, friend, sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. 2 He took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. 3 Then he said to the closest relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the land of Moab, has to sell the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. 4 So I thought to inform you, saying, ‘Buy it before those who are sitting here, and before the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if not, tell me that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am after you.’” And he said, “I will redeem it.” 5 Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the deceased, in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance.” 6 The closest relative said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, because I would jeopardize my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself; you may have my right of redemption, for I cannot redeem it.”(Ruth 4:1-6)
Notice that he was all-ears when it came to buying the land, but he got cold-feet when Boaz mentioned him having to marry Ruth. Some commentators have speculated that the reason he got cold-feet was that Ruth was a Moabite, but that doesn’t square with what he said; “I cannot redeem it for myself, because I would jeopardize my own inheritance.” It is far more likely that he didn’t have his own heir yet, so Ruth’s son would become his heir also, and he didn’t want that to happen. Again, that didn’t matter to Boaz, even though we aren’t told anything about his prior status.
I am an only-child, and I only have one son, JD, so unless JD has a son, my family-lineage ends with him. Even though my daughters have sons, they carry their father’s family-name, not mine. It wouldn’t be a “tragedy” if JD doesn’t have a son in my 21st century culture, because nothing is riding on it, but it would have been in that culture. Newlywed men were even exempt from military service for the first year of their marriage, so he could hopefully produce an heir. (Deuteronomy 24:5)
While we are still on the topic of kinsman-redeemers, we need to look at one more historical-footnote from Boaz’s genealogy; “Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar” (Matthew 1:3a)
Judah was the patriarch from whose line Boaz, David, and ultimately, Jesus Christ would come, but who was Tamar? Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. Yes, you read that right. Here is the “condensed–version” of that story, which you can find in Genesis 38.
Judah married and had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Judah married-off Er to Tamar, but Er was a scumbag so God killed him.
Next in line was Onan, but when Onan had sex with Tamar, “he had the fun but didn’t finish the job“, so God killed him too. Kinsman-redeemer failure!!!
Shelah was still a kid, so Judah sent her back home to wait until Shelah was grown, but Hell was going to freeze-over before Judah gave Shelah to Tamar.
Seeing that Shelah was grown, but Judah hadn’t given him to her, she tricked Judah into having sex with her, and became pregnant with twins, Perez and Zerah.
There was a penalty for refusing to perform the duty of a kinsman-redeemer. For Onan, it was death, and later in the Law, it was public-shaming. Boaz, ever the gentleman, didn’t shame the other kinsman-redeemer, we simply will never know who he was, because the writer of Ruth omitted that detail. Boaz happily married Ruth, they had a son, Obed, and the rest is history.
There is another custom we see in Ruth that we need to be aware of. There was no welfare, public assistance, or other social-safety-net for widows like Naomi and Ruth. Most women only had one skill-set – being a wife and mother, and had no “marketable” skills otherwise, so if they weren’t able to remarry, all they had left was their body – prostitution, but God hadn’t forgotten about them, and He didn’t want His people to forget them either.
God had commanded the children of Israel to care for the poor, the stranger and the alien by giving them the opportunity to glean in their fields. They had been commanded to not harvest the corners of their fields, nor were they allowed to go back and get anything they missed, but they were to leave it untouched so that those less-fortunate than them could have a place to get food. (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22, and Deuteronomy 24:19-22)
19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow.
21 “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. (Deuteronomy 24:19-22)
Another interesting command goes along with this one: 17 “You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
Not only were they to provide for the needs of those who were poor and needy, they were also to make sure that the alien and orphan got the justice they deserved. They weren’t to be treated as “second-class citizens” in the courts of law. Did you notice the reason why God gave these commands?
Imagine the reaction of farmers today if they were told they couldn’t harvest all of their grain and produce, but that is exactly what God’s Law required. What was not harvested was to be available for those who had no other means of sustenance. It wasn’t “welfare“, because they had to work for it, by harvesting it themselves. That was known as “gleaning“, and we see it taking place in Ruth 2, when Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s fields. Even though it was her legal-right, she still asked permission first.
Something else we shouldn’t ignore: 17 “You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
While the justice system today seems to be tilted in favor of the rich and well-connected, God didn’t allow that kind of favoritism with His people. That was why, when Boaz took Naomi and Ruth’s case to “court“, they got a fair hearing (Ruth 4:1-10). Ruth 4 also ends with a blessing on Ruth and Boaz’s union (Ruth 4:11-12).
Speaking of that blessing; Did you notice that curious reference to “the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah“? Knowing the back-story of Judah and Tamar, would WE ever admit that there had been that kind of chicanery in our ancestry? Probably not, but Perez WAS an important ancestor, not only to the family of Boaz, but as an ancestor of King David, and to his greater-son, Jesus Christ.
Maybe we shouldn’t have expected any better behavior from Judah, since in Genesis 37:12-36, Judah conspired with the rest of his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. If Judah had ever had any moral-compass, it was long-gone by the time Genesis 38 opens. He didn’t even pretend to “keep it in the family” when he got married, as did his father, Jacob, rather he married a Canaanite woman in Genesis 38:2. Ah, but he certainly came by some of his chicanery honestly, because Jacob was a shyster from the get-go. That apple certainly didn’t fall far from the family-tree, but we also need to remember that “bad company corrupts good morals“, even if his morals weren’t very good to begin with.
Another sharp-eyed writer brought something else to my attention recently, and it relates to Ruth’s “proposal” to Boaz. That, in and of itself, was highly-irregular, but beyond that, there was something else that I had missed from Ruth 3:1-5:
Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? 2 Now is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maids you were? Behold, he winnows barley at the threshing floor tonight. 3 Wash yourself therefore, and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 It shall be when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies, and you shall go and uncover his feet and lie down; then he will tell you what you shall do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you say I will do.”
What I missed, is that “best” is always noted as an added-in word in all of the most accurate translations, including the NASB and NKJV. What if Ruth had been working naked, as was common in the day, because the work was hard, hot, dirty and sweaty, and clothing was hard to come-by and expensive? What if Naomi was telling Ruth that, unlike her work-days, when Boaz saw her working like a servant (naked), she needed to dress herself up so that she looked more like a wife, rather than like a servant? It would not have been improper for Ruth to have been working naked, because it is quite likely that Boaz’s workers, including his servant-girls, were also working naked.
That still hadn’t changed in Jesus’ time, because, when He spoke of the Great Tribulation, the fall of Jerusalem, in Matthew 24, He said “Let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.” (Matthew 24:18) That the farm-worker would be working naked was simply assumed. It was also common for fishermen to work naked for that same reason, to not ruin their clothes. Remember Peter in John 21:7?
We, in our 21st century Western culture, can’t relate to only having one or two garments because clothes are so cheap and plentiful. Even though I prefer to be au naturel, I do have to get dressed to do some things and go some places. I have enough T-shirts to be able to wear a different one every day for a month and still not run out of clean T-shirts, but there are still parts of the world where people barely have one set of clothes, let alone a closet-full of clothes. My father ministered in parts of Eastern Europe that were that poor. Clothes were only washed when it was warm enough for everyone to take them off. Then, just about the whole village went naked, and nobody thought a thing about it.
God had announced His plan of redemption back in Genesis 3:15, and He WAS going to accomplish it. Along the way, God used many seriously-flawed people to accomplish His purposes. Hebrews 11 recounts many “heroes of the faith“, and included in those heroes are people like Rahab, Samson and David, all people that nobody would regard as “saints“, and yet they are held up to us as faithful men and women whom God used. Many were “ordinary” people who were given extraordinary missions to fulfill.
Boaz didn’t have to turn-in his “man-card” in because of what he did. If anything, he showed us what a REAL man looks like. He begins as Ruth’s PROTECTOR, becomes her’s and Naomi’s PROVIDER, pleads their case in court as their DEFENDER, and willingly takes Ruth to be his wife as her LOVER. Come to think of it, isn’t that what Jesus has done, and is doing for us? Their similarities aren’t coincidental. Boaz, as Naomi and Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer, was a type of Christ, and foreshadowed that ultimate kinsman-redeemer to come, Jesus Christ, our great kinsman-redeemer.
That, at the end of the day, is the story of Ruth. Three “ordinary” people whom God used to fulfill His promise of the coming Redeemer. May He use us as He used them.
Sola Deo Gloria!