Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Flyover Country: Ruth

David Jeremiah writes, “Perhaps the greatest romance in all of scripture is found in the book of Ruth.” Ray Stedman calls Ruth “a beautiful story of a romance”. Bible.com’s reading plan for Ruth actually refers to the book as an “OG chick-flick”.

Okay, that last one is a little hard to stomach. If you had never read the book of Ruth and heard only those sorts of comments about it, you might be forgiven for expecting the book to be a little on the trivial side, or for not reading it at all.

Thankfully, there is considerably more to Ruth than romance.

One Sentence Summary: A reminder to Jews that Gentiles are a critical part of God’s plan of salvation.

Background and Purpose

The author and date of the book of Ruth are unknown. Like many Old Testament books, the first century inspired Hebrew text of Ruth was probably drawn from written and/or oral sources anywhere from 150 years to several centuries after the events described in it, which are thought to have taken place around 1140 BC. The reference to the “days when the judges ruled” in Ruth 1:1 place its authorship sufficiently into the period of Israelite monarchy that a historian might reasonably refer to the period of the judges as a past era. That monarchy actually commenced with Saul a century after the events chronicled in Ruth, but a reference to King David in Ruth 4:22 suggests the book of Ruth was actually written quite a bit later than that, at a time when it had become obvious to Israelite scribes that David was not just the second in a long line of Israelite kings, but its most significant monarch prior to the reign of Christ, and that his lineage was of both technical and spiritual note.

While the book of Ruth is often lauded as an exceptionally well-crafted Hebrew romance (which it is), its primary purpose in the canon of scripture seems to be to account for the presence of another Gentile woman in the line of David and ultimately in the line of Christ (Matthew also mentions Rahab, whose story is told in the book of Joshua). The book of Ruth is the story of a Moabite who becomes an accepted citizen of God’s people and an ancestor of both Judah’s kings and Israel’s Messiah. That the ancestry issue is vitally important to the writer seems evident from the double mention of David in chapter 4, with which Ruth closes. Of course, there are plenty of other valuable lessons in Ruth, both for its original Israelite readership and for modern readers.

Organization and Content

The story of Ruth is told with great economy in four acts with very definite beginnings and endings (which have become the English chapter divisions), followed by a genealogical postscript of five verses.

Despite the name of the book, the story arc of Ruth initially concerns her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite woman whose family sojourns in Moab during a famine. Naomi loses everything that matters to her in the first five verses of chapter 1, and receives much of it back in verses 13-17 of chapter 4.

The key moment in the book occurs later in the first chapter, when Naomi decides to return to Israel and Ruth refuses to leave her, insisting that Naomi’s people will be her people, and Naomi’s God her God. Everything good that happens later in the book is a product of Ruth’s stubborn loyalty and desire to become a proselyte of what would later become Judaism.

So Ruth and Naomi return to Israel with nothing, dependent on the charity provisions of the Law of Moses for their survival. In the course of working industriously to provide for her mother-in-law, Ruth’s sterling character draws the attention of a godly older bachelor named Boaz, who turns out to be a relative of Naomi. This eventually results in a proposal of levirate marriage, which under Israelite law allows Boaz to redeem the property of Naomi’s dead husband and marry Ruth. Naomi’s fortunes are restored, and Ruth gives Boaz a child, the grandfather of Israel’s great king.

Value to Modern Readers

One undervalued feature of the book of Ruth is its utility as a historical document that well illustrates in which ways the Law of Moses both succeeded and failed in the early days of the Israelite nation, and how it was worked out in practice. We get to see the negotiation of a levirate marriage blow by blow, the practice of leaving gleanings in the fields to provide for sojourners and the poor in accordance with God’s commands, as well as a number of customs of the period that had symbolic value (the uncovering of the feet, the passing of the sandal). We also see where the Law was not being enforced consistently or faithfully: as a young foreign woman unprotected in the fields during the years of the judges, Ruth was very much in danger of being raped on the job.

That said, I have more often heard Ruth used from the platform as an illustration of salvation, as an example of God’s marvelous providential care, as a lesson in the importance of loyalty, hard work and kindness, or as a model for Christian courtship. One author even insists Ruth is “a pivotal study in Bible prophecy” and “an essential prerequisite to understanding the book of Revelation”. In this view, Naomi symbolizes Israel, Ruth prefigures the Church, and Boaz serves as the Christ-analog, the kinsman-redeemer. While such an interpretation is certainly intriguing, it is difficult to see how this feature of the book might have been evident to most of its readers throughout history.

Finally, in our modern era Ruth also works as a non-preachy anti-bigotry narrative. Boaz’s age does not count against him in the marriage department, Ruth’s race does not disqualify her from blessing, and her gender does not make her into either a victim or a mere pawn. In fact, she basically proposes to Boaz. Her ultimate blessing is a product of laudable character, consistently good choices, paying attention to her mother-in-law’s advice, taking the occasional risk and a non-trivial bit of (mostly uncredited) providential care from the God to whom Ruth had chosen to devote herself.

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