Information Point: Ruth

Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!

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Quick overview

Set in the time of the Judges, Ruth is a tight little story about one family being transformed by the goodness and grace that comes from knowing God. Naomi’s family was forced by famine to move from Bethlehem to the foreign land of Moab, where she became a widow. Her sons married Moabite women, and then both died. At the end of the famine, Naomi returned home to Bethlehem with one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth. Ruth began working on the fields of a relative of Naomi’s late husband, who under the Law was eligible to act as a ‘kinsman-redeemer’ – a relative of someone in need who had the responsibility of helping them. This he does, after a closer relative refuses, marrying Ruth. The book ends with a genealogy placing Ruth and Boaz as great-grandparents of King David.

Ruth

Historical and literary context

The book of Ruth is set in the period of the Judges, although the author is unconcerned by political instability. He focusses instead on the family affairs of an unassumingly plain family of migrants. This makes it hard to pinpoint when it was written, although it must have been after the time of David. By making a feature of David’s ancestry, the author clearly intends the reader to compare aspects of David’s life with the story of Ruth. The kinsman-redeemer figure of Boaz is a rightful ancestor of the redeemer-king David. In our time, after Christ, we can see our redeemer-king Jesus reflected in the actions of Boaz.

The form of the book is a short story – a kind of historical novella – which has caused some scholars to question its authenticity as history. Accounting for the artfulness of the storytelling (which those better acquainted than I am with the Hebrew language and Ancient Near Eastern literature hold to be an exemplary piece of writing) there is no reason to doubt the elements of the story as they are told. The story is told in neat, balanced scenes which introduce a difficulty and descend into crisis before the situation is ‘redeemed’. As well as being an effective way of constructing a story, this formula is very often true to life as we experience it. Ruth is a book about the route out of the troughs – God’s goodness and kindness towards his people, of whichever tribe or tongue or nation.

Best-known bits

Love on the threshing-floor. No, not the title of a sleazy movie, but a scene from the Bible of godly humility and generous love. When Ruth turned up uninvited while Boaz when Boaz was sleeping, he was naturally concerned for his reputation. Discretion was warranted because of the conclusions people may have drawn from this late-night meeting. But the encounter was far from shameful. It demonstrates the quality of Ruth’s character in her humble but bold approach in asking Boaz to act as guardian-redeemer for her. It also demonstrates the quality of Boaz’s character in that he joyfully chose to fulfil the duty and ensured that no shame was brought on Ruth for her night-time visit. This is why the story resonates strongly with Christian believers. Like Ruth we bring nothing before God when we seek redemption, and yet we have confidence in his goodness that we can approach him boldly. Like Boaz, God could turn us away in shame, but instead he chooses to redeem us in loving-kindness.

Under the surface

There are contrasts everywhere in the book of Ruth, starkly painted as literary devices to sharpen our attention on the changes in the plot and characters. Ruth is contrasted with Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter-in-law. When Naomi insists that the young women should return to their native Moab and the pagan gods of that land, Orpah chooses to do so while Ruth resists and stands by Naomi’s side as she returns to Bethlehem with a commitment to live as one of her people and to worship her god. The name Naomi is contrasted with her pseudonym Mara; the names mean ‘pleasant’ and ‘bitter’. Once joyful, Naomi becomes jaded at the low-point of the story and eventually finds her disposition transformed by the work of God in her and Ruth’s lives. Boaz is contrasted with the unnamed relative who is closer to Ruth in lineage than he. The potential guardian-redeemer wants to inherit Elimelek’s land but baulks at the idea of redeeming Ruth in marriage. By contrast, Boaz is willing to redeem Ruth without thinking of the land.

Kindness” is the watchword of Ruth. It means a generous love; a deep goodness which flows into action; a powerfully transformative outflowing of excellent character. It’s the kind of love God has for his people. It’s what Ruth shows towards her deceased husband, what Boaz shows towards Ruth; what Ruth shows to Boaz; and ultimately what God shows toward the whole family. As Naomi asked in her bitterness, so he responded in his generosity. The book ends with praise to god for the gift of a son, and a tantalising hint in the genealogy of David that this is just the beginning of God’s blessings poured out through this family.

Key verses

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (1:16)

Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (2:11-12)

Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (4:16-17)

About Ali Gledhill

Ali lives in London, reads quite a bit, writes a little less, rides a bike, serves the church, avoids eye contact with strangers on the train, and has a website profile at gledhillonline.co.uk.