A STUDY OF THE BOOK OF RUTH
This study of the Book of Ruth looks at the contrast between
- the beginning of the book in which the family of Elimelech and Naomi seems to have come to the end of the line and
- the end of the book in which the family has been redeemed and, without knowing it, will be the foundation from which the Davidic line of kings and at last the Messiah will emerge.
While the ultimate plan unfolds under the sovereign provision of God, the decisive turning points from a human standpoint will be found in acts of godly kindness and loyalty (hesed) by Ruth and Boaz, acts that are not the norm in their dark times. In applying the message of this book, we will consider how Christians are called to continue the mending and extending of the Messiah's family through loving evangelism.
The Book of Ruth is set in dark times, and perhaps we also live in dark times when godliness does not prevail. This gives great opportunity for acts of godly kindness and loyalty to stand out and make a difference.
The study follows five methods of study:
- Biblical Message
The study is more text-intensive than most Web articles. The original Word document was over twenty pages. If your Internet connection is dial-up or you just hate to read things on computer screens, you may wish to print it out for reading.
I suggest that you do an initial read-through of the Book of Ruth prior to continuing with the study. Use your own Bible, or, if you prefer reading online, there are a couple of Websites where you can select from multiple translations. If you read online, when you are finished, use your browser back-arrow to return to this study.
Step 1. Historical Method
Historical circumstances of events
The events should be set in the latter part of the judges period, about the time of Jephthah or Samson (Judges 11-16), before the time of Samuel. The moral-spiritual life in Israel was deteriorating (Judges 17-21, but see next paragraph). The Book of Ruth offers a narrative that strongly contrasts to the general moral and spiritual decline of the times in which it is set. It is significant that the Book of Ruth is set in Bethlehem, later to be known as David’s hometown, and later still as Jesus Christ’s birthplace.
I am not claiming that the events of Judges 17-21 actually happened late in the Judges period, but only that they typify the moral climate late in the Judges period. Since there are apparent references to Aaron’s grandson Phinehas (son of Eleazar) and Moses’ grandson Jonathan (son of Gershom) in the stories of Judges 17-21, the stories of this section may date from earlier in the period of the judges than we would guess by their placement at the end of this book. This is not certain for two reasons: (1) names were frequently repeated in family lines; for instance, we know that Eli had a son named Phinehas, and we know that a Phinehas in the much later time of Ezra had a son named Eleazar (reversing the name order mentioned in Numbers, Joshua, and Judges), and so there could easily have been other name repetitions in the family lines; (2) son of can also mean grandson of, great grandson of, etc.; Old Testament genealogies were often telescoped, skipping generations not relevant to the immediate point. Probability seems to be on the side of Jonathan and Phinehas being the actual grandchildren of Moses and Aaron respectively, and hence early in the period of the judges. But, whenever the stories of Judges 17-21 actually happened, the stories are intended to convey the moral tone at the end of the Judges period.
Historical circumstances of author and audience
The time of writing must be set after the time that it was known (either by revelation or circumstances) that David was to be king and at a time that there was some need to consider the ancestry of David’s line as part of defending Davidic authority. Five possible eras suggest themselves (I have arbitrarily defined the eras by prophets who were active in them):
- the era of Samuel who anointed David;
- the era of Nathan who prophesied of the Davidic line, called David to account, and aided Solomon’s succession;
- the era of Isaiah who declared the end of the immediate Davidic line, but looked forward to “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (David’s father) as Davidic Messiah;
- the era of Jeremiah who advocated the reforms of the Davidic Josiah;
- the era of Zechariah who advocated the strong governorship of the Davidic Zerubbabel.
There is no decisive evidence calling for a time of authorship later than the Samuel or Nathan eras; at most, there may be evidence of minor later editing. This lack of evidence does not eliminate later times for authorship; it simply does not require them. If nothing else, the range of possibilities suggests that this book could have had many historical applications.
Step 2. Literary Method
Most evangelical scholars now agree that Ruth is an instructive and true short story. Although based in fact, the story is told with extraordinary artistry.
Literary structure of the book
If you have not yet read “Understanding the Bible’s Literary Patterns,” please do so now. Then use your browser back-arrow to return here.
In the structural displays that follow I will show a structural display for the whole Book of Ruth and then show structural displays for its individual segments. The structural displays I present are heavily dependent on the suggestions of David Dorsey in The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Baker Book House, 1999. He should be credited as a source, but not held accountable for my frequent variances.
To view or purchase Dorsey’s book on Amazon.com. click here:
or visit the Christview Ministries Store’s “Resources for Literary Structure Studies”. Then use your browser back-arrow to return here.
In the literary structures I will be using for Ruth, the primary emphases usually coincide with the centers of the structural displays. Secondary emphases often occur at the beginning and end of the structural display. This appears to be a common way in which biblical writers constructed passages.
Overall structural display of the Book of Ruth
A1. Devastation of Naomi’s family (1:1-5)
B1. Naomi’s two female in-laws deliberate whether to support her; Ruth does (1:6-22)
C1. Ruth goes to Boaz’ field: Boaz’s protection and generosity (2:1-23)
Question: Who will feed Naomi’s family?
C2. Ruth goes to threshing floor: Boaz’s protection and generosity (3:1-18)
Question: Who will seed Naomi’s family?
B2. Naomi’s two male in-laws deliberate whether to support her by marrying Ruth; Boaz does (4:1-12)
A2. Restoration of Naomi’s family (4:13-22)
A1 and A2 report the beginning and end of the story. Naomi’s family is apparently devastated, but by an extraordinary chain of events is restored. We then discover that the restoration is precisely the path by which King David comes into being.
B1 and B2 add important components of the story when Ruth decides to remain loyal to Naomi and to follow her God, even though Naomi cannot offer her any hope of a bright future, and when Boaz decides to become the kinsman-redeemer for Naomi’s family, a role declined by the one closer relative because the costs appeared to outweigh the benefits.
But C1 and C2 set in motion the turning points of the story in the harvest fields and on the threshing floor.
A1 and A2 summary: Famine struck Bethlehem. The marginal farmers were forced into exile. Among them was the family of Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon (makh-lone') and Chilion (kil-yone'). This family went to Moab, a pagan country where the people did not know the LORD. Elimelech died in exile. The two sons took Moabite wives. Then the two sons died, both childless. This left only Naomi and her daughters-in-law.
Naomi, having no other option, set out for Bethlehem whence the family had come. She sought to persuade her daughters-in-law to return to their parental homes in Moab. Her daughter-in-law Orpah refused to turn back until Naomi emphasized that the two young women had no hope of husbands and children through associating with her.
Even then, her daughter-in-law Ruth would not turn back, but swore to take Naomi’s people as her people and Naomi’s God as her God. She would accept whatever fate awaited her at Naomi’s side. Naomi could not see that she had anything to offer Ruth, and perhaps she could not see that Ruth had anything to offer her, but together they traveled on to Jerusalem.
Their arrival created a stir among the Bethlehem villagers. After all these years, some thought that they still recognized Naomi, a name meaning pleasant. When they inquired, Naomi gave an answer that means, “Don’t call me pleasant, call me bitter.” Her stated reason for bitterness is that she had left full, but was returning empty. She was not referring to her stomach, but to her family. She had left with a husband and two sons and now returned with none of them.
For all she could see, this was the sum of it all, nothing. Zero plus zero plus zero equals zero. Everything had come to an end. She was too old to get a husband, and if she did , she was too old to bear children, and if she did, she was too old to live to see grandchildren. She saw her life as basically over. All she had was a daughter-in-law who did not know the culture, the religion, or the laws of Israel, a daughter-in-law who most likely would be unwelcome by her neighbors. Well, they could starve together.
But when we get to the end of the story, it is quite different. Ruth has married Boaz, a relative of her father-in-law Elimelech and her deceased husband Mahlon. The town elders have blessed them with the fertility characteristic of their male-line heritage as descendants of Perez. They have given birth to a son whom the village women declare will restore and nurture Naomi’s hopes in her old age. She who was empty is now full again.
B1 and B2 summary: Ruth distinguishes herself by her unusual choice to remain loyal to Naomi. Boaz likewise distinguishes himself by his unusual choice to restore Naomi’s family.
C1 and C2 summary: Ruth and Boaz recognize in each other godly qualities; they exercise their own godly qualities in ways that restore the family tree culminating in David (and Jesus).
1:1-22 detail (beginning the section labeling anew)
A1. Devastation of Naomi’s family and sojourn away from Bethlehem (1:1-5)
a1. Tragedy: famine and family’s emigration to Moab (1:1)
b1. Respite: names of family members, sojourn in Moab (1:2)
a2. Worse tragedy: Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi with her sons (1:3)
b2. Respite: sons’ marriages, continued sojourn in Moab (1:4)
a3. Even worse tragedy: Naomi’s sons die childless (1:5)
B. Journey back toward Bethlehem and Naomi’s two daughters-in-law deliberate whether to support her (1:6-18)
a1. Naomi and daughters-in-law begin journey back toward Bethlehem (1:6-7)
b1. Naomi’s first speech: return home (prays that Lord will show hesed to daughters-in-law)(1:8-9a)
c1. Daughters-in-law’s first response: both persist (1:9b-10)
d. Naomi’s second speech: return home; no hope, the LORD’s hand is against me (1:11-13)
c2. Daughters-in-laws' second response: Ruth persists (1:14)
b2. Naomi’s third speech: return home after your sister-in-law (1:15)
a2. Ruth’s speech; Naomi and Ruth continue toward Bethelehem (1:16-19a)
A2. Bitter arrival back in Bethlehem (1:19b-22) (1:19b-22)
a1. Townspeople recognize Naomi (1:19b)
b. Naomi’s speech: Don’t call me Pleasant; call me Bitter; I left full but now am empty (1:20-21)
a2. Naomi and Ruth have arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest (1:22)
Key lines appear at Bd (1:11-13) and A2b (1:20-21). Key questions revolve around what it means to return home and what name Naomi/Mara will have in the end.
2:1-23 detail (beginning the section labeling anew)
A1. Ruth tells Naomi her plans (2:1-2)
B1. Ruth goes out and gleans (2:3)
C1. Boaz arrives and hears about Ruth (2:4-7)
D. Ruth and Boaz meet (2:8-13)
a1. Boaz’s kindness to Ruth causes her to inquire in awe of his motives (2:8-10)
b. Boaz prays that the LORD, under whose wings Ruth has taken refuge, will repay Ruth’s kindness to Naomi. (2:11-12)
a2. Ruth rejoices in Boaz’s kindness. (2:13)
C2. Boaz invites Ruth to join in a bountiful meal (2:14)
B2. Ruth arises and gleans again (2:15-17)
A2. Ruth returns to Naomi and joyfully tells her all that has happened. Naomi explains who Boaz is and blesses him (2:18-23)
a1. Ruth returns to Naomi from gleaning (2:18)
b1. Naomi’s delighted question (2:19a)
c1. Ruth’s response (2:19b)
d. Naomi’s joyful praise for kindness (hesed) shown by LORD through Boaz) and explanation of who Boaz is, a kinsman-redeemer (2:20)
c2. Ruth’s response (2:21)
b2. Naomi’s advice (2:22)
a2. Ruth regularly gleans and returns to Naomi (2:23)
Key lines appear at Db (2:11-12) and A2d (2:20). The key question revolves around who will feed Naomi’s family and who will act as kinsman-redeemer.
3:1-18 detail (beginning the section labeling anew)
A1. Naomi’s instructions to Ruth at their home (3:1-5)
B1. Ruth leaves Naomi and goes to the threshing floor (3:6-7)
C1. Boaz awakens and finds Ruth lying at his feet (3:8)
D1. Ruth identifies herself and proposes that Boaz spread his wings (double figure of speech for the corner of his garment and marriage) over her, in keeping with his role as kinsman-redeemer (3:9)
D2. Boaz gratefully acknowledges the proposal, recognizing Ruth’s hesed, adding new information regarding the kinsman-redeemer (3:10-13)
C2. Boaz and Ruth awaken in the morning; Boaz’s gift (3:14-15c)
B2. Ruth leaves the threshing floor and goes back to Naomi; her report (3:15d-17)
A2. Naomi’s optimistic instructions to Ruth at their home (3:18)
Key lines appear at D1-D2. The key question revolves around who will seed Naomi’s family. It will be one of two potential kinsmen-redeemers. It is also important to compare 2:11-12 in the previous section to 3:9 in this section.
4:1-12 detail (beginning the section labeling anew)
A1. The elders assemble at the city gate to hear Boaz (4:1-2)
B1. Boaz introduces the case, redemption of Naomi’s estate (4:3-4b)
C1. Kinsman’s first response: I will redeem it (4:4c)
D. Boaz declares that redeeming land includes marrying Ruth (4:5)
C2. Kinsman’s second response: I cannot redeem it (4:6-8)
B2. Boaz redeems Naomi’s estate and commits to marry Ruth (4:9-10)
A2. The elders at the gate bless Boaz and Ruth, mentioning key ancestors (4:11-12)
The turning point is when Boaz informs the would-be kinsman-redeemer that he must marry Ruth and supply heirs to Elimelech if he wishes to buy the land. Careful attention should be given to the ancestors mentioned by the elders.
4:13-22 detail (beginning the section labeling anew)
A1. Boaz and Ruth have a son (4:13)
B1. Women bless child, speaking of him as another kinsman-redeemer (4:14)
C1. Women bless child and Naomi, speaking of restoration and nourishment (4:15a)
D. Women praise Ruth (4:15b)
C2. Naomi becomes nurse of child (4:16)
B2. Women name child Obed (4:17a-c)
A2. Place of Boaz and Obed in line of David (4:17d-22)
One might wish to contrast 1:19c-21 to 4:14-17. This places the beginning devastation and ending restoration in clear contrast. All this is suddenly placed on a much larger stage when we discover that it has to do with the emergence of King David. The characters in the story give no indication that they know the role that they are playing on the larger stage. They are simply living out qualities that God has placed in their lives.
I believe that we should concentrate on the key verses in chapters 2 and 3. These verses provide the turning point of the story; they identify the divine and human qualities that came together in turning this story around. In Ruth’s extraordinary loyalty to Naomi and Boaz’s willingness to assume the role of kinsman-redeemer, going beyond the written requirements of the law by marrying Ruth, we see human beings living out the divine quality of covenant love (kindness, hesed), and it is on this quality that the story turns. God works through these qualities to restore the endangered family line from which the Davidic kings and eventual Messiah will come.
2:11-12 (wings) and 2:20 (redeemer, hesed) will come together through Ruth’s proposal in 3:9 (wings, redeemer) and Boaz's response in 3:10-13 (hesed, redeemer) and lead to the happy ending of 4:13-22.
Step 3. Content Method
First, read the target passage and closely related passages in several translations. Note any significant differences in translations.
Second, select key words and phrases in the target passage.
Third, use whatever resources are available to study the differences in translation and to study the key words (study Bibles, topical or thematic Bibles, cross-reference systems, commentaries, concordances, biblical or theological dictionaries, computer programs). For 2:8-13, 20; 3:9-10 the major difference in translation is that the ESV and the NKJV consistently show “wings” where most translations for the second passage show “corner of your garment.” This would become a keyword for study.
I have chosen three words that I think most repay study:
wings/corner of your garment (kanaph/kanap) 2:12, 3:9 This word literally means wings, figuratively corner of garment, still more figuratively (when combined with spread over) to marry.
kindness (chesed/hesed)–covenant loyalty, steadfast love, merciful kindness, a divine quality that Ruth and Boaz see reflected in the actions of each other.
kinsman-redeemer (ga’al/ go’el)–a near kinsman who is given the responsibility of restoring the ripped fabric of a relatives’ family life and inheritance.
Naomi and Ruth had arrived in Bethlehem in grim circumstances. In a time when there were few options for single women, Naomi had lost her husband and two sons. Ruth, her daughter-in-law, was a foreigner with no citizenship or status in the community.
The only slim bit of hope was that they had arrived during the barley harvest. The law of Moses provided that farmers, when they harvested, were to leave some grain for the poor to glean. Ruth went out to glean and happened into the field of Boaz, not knowing that he was a relative of her deceased husband and her deceased father-in-law. When Boaz discovered who Ruth was, he treated her with great consideration, prompting her to ask why. He explained that her loyalty and kindness to her mother-in-law had won his respect.
Then Boaz blessed Ruth: “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (NRSV). This blessing was essentially a prayer for Ruth. Boaz in effect recognized Ruth as a convert from Chemosh the god of Moab to Yahweh Elohim, the Lord God of Israel. He prayed that her loyalty to Naomi would be repaid, rewarded richly, by the Lord under whose wings she had sought refuge. The image he used compares God to a mother bird caring for her young and Ruth to a fledgling needing the care of the mother. His prayer is that the refuge would be sufficient to her needs.
Boaz immediately took steps to insure that Ruth’s gleaning would go well. When Ruth took her gathered grain home and told Naomi about Boaz, Naomi told Ruth that Boaz was her in-law, one who had the right to reclaim the land Naomi’s family had forfeited in leaving Bethlehem and thereby to care for them.
Blessing Boaz for his kindness, Naomi decided that it would be best if Boaz were encouraged to marry Ruth. She told Ruth what to do. Let me be clear that this is not good advice to young women on how to gain a husband. What Naomi advised was quite risky and could only have worked with some extraordinary aid from God and some extraordinary human qualities on the parts of Ruth and especially Boaz. In other words, as they say about dangerous televised stunts, “Don’t try this at home.”
Ruth went to the threshing floor in the dark and waited for Boaz to retire for the night. Then she crept in, uncovered his feet, and lay down to await the unfolding of events. Around midnight, he awoke with a start, perhaps because his feet were cold, and he found Ruth there. It was dark. He asked, “Who are you?” According to the NRSV, she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”
This translation fails to show what Ruth actually said so that it can be connected to the earlier passage. Consider the ESV: "I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer." Most of the translations say something like spread the corners of your garment or spread your cloak over your servant, but the ESV reports what she actually said, “Spread your wings over your servant.” She was echoing the words of Boaz’ prayer. He had prayed that Ruth would find refuge under the wings of the Lord. Ruth uses the very same Hebrew word that Boaz had used in his prayer.
Wings was a triple figure of speech. Besides literal wings, it referred (1) to the place of refuge that a mother bird’s wings provide, (2) to the corners of a garment, and (3) to marriage. Ruth is asking Boaz to become part of the answer to his own prayer by using his own wings, not just to cover her with his cloak, but to marry her.
Ruth is proposing to Boaz. His answer indicates that he probably would not have thought to offer himself as her husband because he considered himself too old for her, but he was delighted with her proposal. Boaz reveals himself as a man of extraordinary honor and propriety in the way he handles the proposal, taking things in a proper order, with full regard for Ruth’s reputation and well-being, clearing away the obstacles, and then proceeding with the marriage.
When empty and bitter Naomi was heading back from Moab to Bethlehem with her two daughters-in-law still following, she said to them, “‘Go back each of you to your mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud” (NRSV). The keyword is translated kindly. Naomi prayed that the LORD would treat her daughters-in-law kindly because they were willing to go with her. Even after Naomi’s most powerful arguments, her daughter-in-law Ruth persisted in the loyalty (same Hebrew word) that had provoked Naomi’s blessing in the first place.
When Ruth went to glean in a barley field near Bethlehem, the owner Boaz treated her with extraordinary kindness even though she was a Moabite. She asked why. He replied: RU 2:11"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. 12 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" (NIV). The keyword is not used directly of Ruth in this passage, but Boaz later tells us that he had that word in mind when he was talking about the kindness and loyalty Ruth had shown to Naomi.
When Ruth returned from gleaning with an unusually large amount of barley, Naomi was full of questions. When Ruth identified the owner of the fields, Naomi exclaimed, "Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!" Naomi also said to her, "The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin" (NRSV).
The translations vary on whether it is Boaz or the LORD who has not stopped showing kindness. The NIV has it that Boaz is the one showing the kindness. The NRSV, NASB, and ESV have it that the LORD is the one showing the kindness. But it does not matter. If the subject of the sentence is Boaz, then it is the LORD’s kindness that he is showing. If the subject of the sentence is the LORD, then he is showing his kindness through Boaz.
When Ruth proposed to Boaz, he responded, "May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in which you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich” (ESV). Boaz uses the keyword which the NRSV translates loyalty, but it represents the same Hebrew word earlier translated kindly and kindness; the NIV and ESV consistently use kindness.
The first instance of Ruth’s kindness of which Boaz here speaks is what she had done for her mother-in-law since the death of her husband--how she had left her father and mother and her homeland and had come to live with a people she did not know before.
The second instance of her kindness is that she did not go out looking for a husband purely on the grounds of best protecting her own interests. She did not go looking for the strongest or most handsome or most romantic husband or, for that matter, the wealthiest. She went to the one who would not only be able to care for her, or even for her and Naomi, but also to preserve the family lineage. And she went to one who had already displayed the qualities of godliness that our keyword summarizes.
Boaz apparently considered himself too old for Ruth, and so he has a personal appreciation of what she has done, but he is most impressed that Ruth is not looking out just for herself, but for both the living Naomi and the dead, childless men of the family. This may not meet our modern notions of romance and marriage, but it does display godly qualities.
In the Book of Ruth, the successful repair of the broken family line hinges on the Hebrew word translated kindly, kindness, and loyalty. It is one of the most important words of the Old Testament. It is pronounced either hess-edd or kay-sed--about halfway between those two is about right for those who can manage it. My favorite translation for it is steadfast love. The word describes the quality of loving faithfulness and compassion that God shows in keeping his covenant promises.
Hesed is first of all a quality of God. Within human relationships, hesed occurs when a first person, who has at least some power, resources, or choices, opts to help a second person with fewer options so that the second one may share in the blessings of the first. When people know God’s hesed, it should begin showing up in their lives.
Ruth and Naomi recognized hesed in Boaz. Boaz recognized hesed in Ruth. Boaz went beyond his legal obligations in helping Ruth and Naomi. Ruth went beyond her obligations to her mother-in-law and to her deceased husband and father-in-law. They chose to give up some of their personal options in order to help others. Ruth and Boaz founded their marriage on recognizing these qualities in one another. By that mutual recognition of hesed, David’s (and Jesus’) family tree was repaired.
Ancient Israel took family, even extended family, very seriously. When there was a need within the family, a rip in the fabric of the family, the family was supposed to take care of it. But, of course, everybody’s job is nobody’s job, so some of the responsibilities were defined.
For instance, if a married man died childless, his brother was supposed to marry his widow and provide children to carry on the dead brother’s inheritance. Obviously, this was not in the interest of the living brother’s inheritance, so conniving rascals sometimes tried to get out of the responsibility, but a great deal of public shame was attached to doing so. The widow could publicly remove her non-compliant brother-in-law’s sandal and spit in his face.
There was no written law extending this obligation beyond a literal brother of the deceased, but the principle of concern for the inheritance of the deceased was maintained.
Boaz suggests that maintaining the family line of the deceased is the responsibility of the nearest male relative who is able and willing to take on a wife. This nearest male relative was called a kinsman-redeemer.
The legal passages of scripture specify four duties for a kinsman-redeemer:
1. To re-purchase property once owned by a relative, but sold out of economic necessity.
2. To purchase the freedom of relatives who out of economic necessity sold themselves into bond-slavery.
3. To avenge the killing of a relative.
4. To receive payments making amends for wrongs previously done to now-deceased relatives.
Narrative and poetic passages, including the Book of Ruth, suggest three more duties:
5. To assist a relative in a lawsuit so that justice is done.
6. To raise up the name of the childless deceased on his property by marrying his widow and providing heirs for the deceased relative (this may be seen as an expansion of the law which applied to brothers of the deceased husband.
7. To care for a widow of a relative facing old age without anyone to care for her.
Ruth had proposed to Boaz on the basis that he was a kinsman-redeemer. But Boaz knew that Elimelech and Ruth’s husband Mahlon had a closer relative who was first in line for the job of kinsman-redeemer. Catching this relative near the city gate, and gathering ten elders as witnesses, Boaz first presented the issue as if it was just a matter of redeeming the land that had belonged to Elimelech. Boaz says that Naomi is selling the land and that it is up to a kinsman-redeemer to keep it in the family.
Probably what had happened was that Elimelech had already sold the use of the land before they left for Moab. Since he was leaving in the midst of a famine, he probably was not paid much, and that money was long gone. That sale would remain in effect until the next year of jubilee, which occurred every fiftieth year, or until someone in the family re-purchased the remaining years until jubilee. Such a re-purchase for the family was called redeeming the land.
The kinsman-redeemer who was first in line probably understood that the redeemer of the land would be responsible to provide for the living of Naomi, but, since she was past normal child-bearing years, he would not be expected to marry her and to provide heirs for her. By purchasing the use of the land until jubilee and waiting for Naomi’s death, he would add the land to his own immediate family’s holdings and pass the land along to his children. That sounded like a good deal. He said, Yes.
But then Boaz added, “Of course, you understand that there is a second widow involved, Ruth the Moabitess. And the person who redeems this land will be expected to marry her to raise up a name for Elimelech and Mahlon.” The first kinsman-redeemer had not thought of that. Now he saw that he would be expected to buy the land, to care for two widows and any children he had by the younger widow who was herself a foreigner, and then to turn the land over to the eldest male child he had by the foreign woman. This did not sound like a good deal to him.
I think we may guess that he felt that he would be spending money that would otherwise go to his existing children to provide an inheritance for half-breeds. He did not think that he could afford that. What Boaz suggested was not required in the written law, but it was in keeping with the spirit of the law, and once that fact had been pointed out, it would have been shameful to take the land and not follow through as Boaz clearly was prepared to do.
With ten elders of the city sitting there listening to this conversation, there was no way to finesse a way around Boaz’s challenge. “Be my guest,” the first kinsman-redeemer said to Boaz. Boaz had crafted his presentation to produce exactly this result, in front of ten witnesses, and he quickly seized the opportunity to buy the land and marry Ruth with the blessing of the elders.
Boaz thus fulfilled the role of kinsman-redeemer, one who mends the torn family fabric, sacrificing personal interests for the well-being of others. If his life is blessed and enriched in the process, as the elders pray that it will be, then so much the better. The path to blessing is often a path of risk.
By New Testament times, changes in property laws, inheritance laws, criminal justice laws, and marriage laws had eliminated most of the specific Old Testament duties of a kinsman-redeemer, but the principle of mending the social fabric through self-giving love remains valid to this day. Jesus fulfilled this role for the whole human family.
Some other important words are
- return/go back/renew (shub/sub) 1:6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 21, 22; 2:6; 4:3; 4:15
- repay and richly (shalam and salem) In 2:12 both words are used in one phrase–both related to shalom, restoring wholeness and harmony.
- reward (maskoreth/masekoret) 2:12
- take refuge (chasah/hasah) 2:12
Step 4. Biblical Message Method
The next to last thing to do in reading a book of the Old Testament is to consider its place within the Biblical canon (official list of Bible books in a given order) and to see how it contributes to the overall Biblical message. There are three steps to this process. First, we look at the book in relation to the books most closely related to it. Second, we look at the book in relation to the rest of the testament in which it appears. Third, we look at the book in relation to the other testament.
The books most closely related to the Book of Ruth
Within ancient Judaism, the Book of Ruth is one of five festival scrolls, the Megilloth: Song of Songs (Passover), Ruth (Pentecost), Lamentations (ninth of Ab), Ecclesiastes (Tabernacles), and Esther (Purim). The Book of Ruth was used in connection to the Pentecost festival, originally a harvest festival. It is easy to see why this book about the harvest season came to have this association. If we may leap ahead a bit to a New Testament perspective, Pentecost becomes the season of remembering the sending of the Holy Spirit to make believers fruitful in their mission of bringing others into the family of faith, a great harvest indeed! Christian Pentecost is the story of the ongoing mission of the ultimate Redeemer, who brings the faithful from death to life.
We could also profitably examine Ruth in relation to the books placed near it in what many consider to be the Hebrew canonical order (different from ours): the three books leading into it are Psalms, Job, and Proverbs, while the three books leading out of it are Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations.
For instance, Paul House in Old Testament Theology suggests that we might look at the theme of the vindication of the righteous in the Psalms, Job and Lamentations, and that we might look at the theme of the virtuous woman in Proverbs and Song of Songs as these themes relate to the Book of Ruth. Comparison of Moabite Ruth to Edomite Job may be especially useful in considering the ways that suffering and loss may be redeemed.
I find it even more profitable to look at the Book of Ruth as it appears in the Christian canon: the two books leading into it are Joshua and Judges while the four books leading out of it are 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. We may consider the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and particularly the town of Bethlehem as described in the closing chapters of Judges, and then we may look ahead to see the line of David emerge from the Book of Ruth in 1 and 2 Samuel and following.
We need to look back to the end of Judges, where the Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah versus the tribe of Benjamin theme appears, and then we need to look ahead to 2 Samuel when the conflict between the lines of Judahite David and the lines of Benjaminite Saul is reported. A number of commentaries consider this theme in detail. But you can contemplate it yourself straight from the Bible. What strikes me is how starkly the godly qualities of Ruth and Boaz stand out against their background. We will comment further on this below.
The rest of the Old Testament
We could consider the book in light of the theology of the whole Old Testament canon. With Ruth we might explore the themes of righteous suffering, merciful providence, covenant loyalty (hesed), and redemption (ga’al). We might consider the hope for the Davidic Messiah. Robert Hubbard shows many ties between Ruth and the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, especially regarding the promise-fulfillment theme: God fulfills promises even when great obstacles have emerged in the lives of chosen families. The point may be to show the fulfillment of Genesis 49:10 regarding the tribe of Judah. We might look at the themes of childlessness, miraculous pregnancies, unusual provisions of wives and children in the Davidic line (see Ruth 4:11-12 and Matthew 1:3-6 for hints of the Old Testament stories to search out). We might consider the place of foreigners such as Ruth among the Old Testament people of God.
The New Testament
In what ways, if any, does the story of Ruth provide background for the stories of Elizabeth and Mary? What is the Christian version of the virtuous woman? The virtuous man? Does God still work through faith, loyalty, and kindness to bring his plans to fulfillment? How does the story of Ruth fit into the fulfillment of the Davidic Messiah to which the New Testament testifies? What does the New Testament teach us about righteous suffering, merciful providence, and covenant loyalty? Can we trust God to provide? How does the place of foreigners among the people of God shift as we move from the Old to the New Covenant? God’s plan for the Book of Ruth was the sustaining of a messianic line; what is God’s plan for the New Covenant people? (Uniting all things in Christ?) What role does living out God’s character play in bringing that plan to fulfillment?
There is a tradition of reading the Book of Ruth as a detailed allegory of redemption with Boaz as a type of the Messiah-Redeemer and Ruth as a type of the church, the bride of the Messiah-Redeemer. Clearly, Boaz’ bringing of Naomi’s family from emptiness to fullness is a type of Christ’s redemption of the church. There are a few benefits, but many interpretive dangers in attempting a more detailed allegory. In general, it is best to stick with the plain meaning of the text unless we are humbly transparent in saying that we are pushing beyond the plain meaning of the text in order to offer metaphors for a point that is firmly established elsewhere in scripture.
Comments developing the Biblical Message in relation to the Book of Ruth
First, the Book of Ruth is set in the latter period of the Judges. There is a pattern in the Book of Judges: Israel would sink into sin– spiritual evil, moral evil, and social evil--and the LORD would allow enemies to overwhelm and oppress them. Then people would cry out to the LORD, and he would raise up a deliverer/judge who would call them to reform their ways; he would then drive out the enemy, and the pattern would begin again.
There were many judges, but the major ones whose records are predominantly positive are the early ones: Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah. Gideon got off to a good beginning but turned rotten in the end.
From there, things went downhill. Gideon’s son Abimelech was not really a judge, but a self-appointed would-be king, thoroughly and violently rotten. Jephthah and Samson were judges who partially accomplished their tasks, but in less than exemplary ways. During this period of decline, things across Israel were going from bad to worse.
The last five chapters of the Book of Judges describe no judges, but describe some of the most decadent events in the biblical history. Although the events in these chapters may have occurred earlier than the time of Jephthah and Samson, the Book of Ruth is set in such a terrible time.
Second, the Book of Ruth is set in a time when the hope for the future was for a great king who would descend from Jacob’s son Judah. Jacob had prophesied of his son Judah that the scepter would not depart from his family until the one came to whom it belonged. In blessing Boaz, the town elders of the little farming and herding village of Bethlehem looked back to Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel, and to Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, and especially to Tamar’s son Perez. They felt that Boaz’s significance was linked to that of Judah and Perez. And in the last verses of the book we see that the lineage runs from Perez through Boaz to the great king David.
The Book of Ruth shows that this great lineage almost came to an end, at least through Elimelech; in fact, it appeared to have come to an end. So much is this the case, that the question the Book of Ruth raises for us is, “Why did this part of the lineage not come to an end?” There are divine and human answers to that question, both together, not one without the other. For the moment, we need to pause and gaze with wonder at the miraculous work the LORD accomplished in restoring this family.
How New Testament believers get connected to the family tree
The New Testament shows that the lineage of Joseph and perhaps of Mary goes back to the genealogy recorded at the end of the Book of Ruth. So Joseph’s and Mary’s son Jesus is at least a legal descendant of this line, and, if Mary is also of this line, then he is a physical descendant as well.
Jesus was killed on the cross without having had children, yet his royal line goes on through people’s faith in his gospel, through repentance, through baptism into his church. We believers are children of God, little brothers and sisters of Jesus, because we have received him as the Son of God, the Christ, crucified Savior and risen Lord of our lives, because we have died to (and been forgiven of) our sins and have been raised to walk in newness of life, reborn from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul says in Romans 8:15-17, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (NRSV).
The message of salvation is offered through sharing the good news: Romans 10:14-17 “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (NIV).
The Christian spiritual family tree is extended through sharing the good news of salvation in deeds of love and words of hope.
The role of kinsman-redeemer in Israel is modeled after the character of God who hears the cries of the needy and oppressed and comes to answer. Long before Boaz’s time God had modeled the role of kinsman-redeemer in rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt. Long after Boaz’s time, he would do so again in returning the Jewish exiles from Babylonian captivity. For reasons such as these, Israel praises God by calling him “our Redeemer.”
The ultimate kinsman-redeemer is God’s Son Jesus, who though equal with God, is not ashamed to be called the brother of sinful human beings like us, laying down his life to rescue us from sin and death and hell, and to give us an eternal inheritance of reigning with him in a perfected new creation.
Step 5. Application Method
The story begins with the family of Naomi apparently devastated, but ends with the family restored. The turning point hinges on surprising actions of hesed (godly kindness/covenant faithfulness/steadfast love/loyalty) by a young Moabite widow and a much older man of Judah. Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz do not understand the full significance of their choices, but their faith, loyalty, courage, and kindness mend much brokenness and become the means by which the promised Lion of Judah will emerge. Boaz becomes the instrument God uses to answer Boaz’s prayer for Ruth, and then to do much more on a larger scale than any of the actors in this real-life drama know.
Thinking through principles of application
In order to apply this story, we need to consider God’s plans for our lives, how those plans appear endangered and what qualities might be used by God to restore his plans.
What are God’s plans? Where are we headed?
On the ultimate scale, God’s plan is to unite all things in Christ, letting Christ and his faithful people reign over a perfected new creation, a restored earthly paradise, a heavenly sanctuary, joined as in Eden.
On a world scale, God’s plan is for his faithful people, the church, to represent the saving gospel of Jesus Christ in words and deeds, with boldness and integrity, inviting people to faith.
On an immediate personal scale, God’s plan is for members of his church to be equipped and empowered to serve their roles of glorifying him and ministering in his name.
What appears to threaten the plans? What is our situation?
God’s people are distracted by living in two realities, the world system where they must earn their living and pursue their vocations and the Christian system which speaks of a purpose for their lives different from the purposes that come from the world system. God’s people must remain in the world system (their ministry must take place there), but they must learn how to live so they are not of the world system.
As we look around, we see a church often enough deprived of Biblical knowledge and authentic spiritual experience desperately seeking in many ways to please the world, but often sacrificing its distinctive transforming message in the process. Church members must find secure grounding and equipping for their God-given assignments of ministering in the name of Jesus.
What qualities might be used by God to restore his plans? How might we best serve God’s plans?
Ruth, an alien who has adopted faith in Yahweh, and Boaz, a rare person who not only obeys the law, but goes beyond its demands, lived with extraordinarily godly qualities in a corrupt culture. It is not that we are to imitate their specific actions (Ruth’s visit to the threshing floor is not good general advice for husband-hunting), but that we are to emulate their qualities that reveal the character of God.
The most basic divine qualities of hesed, agape (Greek word for self-giving love), charis (Greek word for grace, unmerited gift), etc., rooted in scripture and prayer, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and embodied in the daily living patterns of faithful human beings, may be the qualities that mend brokenness in our lives and set the church on the path to fulfilling God’s plans for it.
1. Faith in the impossible
The thread by which the hopes of the world hung was not only slender, but frayed so thin as to be invisible. But what is impossible from a human standpoint is not impossible to God. That does not mean that we should go around thinking that whatever unlikely thing we would like to see happen will happen. That is a misuse of the faith principle.
But, if something is in the will of God, if it accords with his purposes, plans, and promises, then the fact that it appears unlikely or impossible is no mark against its happening.
How does this fact apply to our lives? In order for this fact to apply, we have to be fulfilling a role, knowingly or unknowingly, in God’s plan. There is no reason to expect God to do impossible things unless they fit his plans for restoring creation to his purposes.
Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz had not a clue, but they had qualities that kept them available to God. But, unlike Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, we do have a clue, and more than a clue. God has revealed his purposes, plans, and promises much more fully than he had in the days described in the Book of Ruth. Most clearly, he has revealed his will through Jesus Christ. It is as disciples of Jesus Christ, serving his gospel, fulfilling his great commission, that we have most right to expect to see the impossible come into being.
When we serve Jesus, we may often feel that we are hanging by a frayed thread. That is the way of it when people are really doing all that Jesus calls them to do.
It may seem that we never have enough time or money or energy or people to do what we are called to do. You know what? We don’t! God-things do not happen because people can do them on their own. God-things happen when people offer all they have in faith, and then God supplies what is lacking.
Christians often feel that they are in fragile and vulnerable positions. They may feel that there is a spiritual famine, that they are being forced into exile in a hostile environment, that their hopes are stripped away from them one by one. When Christians feel abandoned, they can sometimes conclude that they have moved from circumstances that are full to circumstances that are empty, from pleasant to bitter.
But that is not the point of this story. This story is about how, when all seems lost, God can turn things from bitter to pleasant, from empty to full.
This is not a side point for Christians. It is a point that is at the very center of our faith. When the perfect Son of God was killed on a cross, all appeared over. But God turned that death into the means of saving the world from its sins, and he raised his Son from the dead, not just one major miracle but two: salvation and eternal life. Amen.
Given that foundation for our faith, who are we to limit God? When all seems hopeless, he will find a way. When we seem powerless, he will give us the resources to do what he calls us to do.
The African-American spiritual asks, in my paraphrase, Do you sometimes feel discouraged, that your work is in vain? Do you feel that you cannot preach or pray or explain the Bible like the great leaders of Christian history? Do you feel that the thread is frayed, that you are about to go into free-fall?
The answer? “There is a balm in Gilead,” which is a poetic way of saying, God heals and makes whole. God takes the simple things we can do and magnifies them beyond our imagining. Rejoice, God has a plan of which we can be part. One time when Naomi’s husband and two sons died, and all seemed lost, God supplied a young Moabite widow and an older Bethlehemite man, and suddenly things were moving again.
God will supply what is needed for us to take our places in the plan also. We may trace the lineage from when God formed Adam up to the time of Elimelech. There are familiar names such as Seth, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and Perez. But Elimelech and his two sons have been removed, their lines apparently having come to an end. All that is left is the frayed end of the line. Ah, but here comes Boaz with the answer. Boaz is grafted in to provide descendants for his relative Elimelech. Then we have Obed, Jesse, David, and so on until, far down this line, we come at last to Jesus.
But who is Jesus’ child? The line apparently comes to another end at the cross. Yet through the cross and resurrection we get a new way of extending the family tree. Jesus has no son to carry on his genetic or legal lineage, but we may be adopted as little brothers and sisters of Jesus, fellow children and heirs of God.
The process of building the tree is no longer biological reproduction, but evangelism, helping people develop a faith relationship with Jesus as their Savior and Lord. We may be part of this line through our faith, and we may play our parts in building the tree as we help others find such faith.
God chose to answer Boaz’s prayer by letting him be part of the answer. God does not need us in order to carry out his purposes. God has the power to do whatever he chooses.
On Palm Sunday, some Pharisees complained to Jesus about his disciples celebratively greeting him as the Messiah; the Pharisees asked that Jesus silence the disciples. Jesus replied: "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." God did not need the disciples to praise Jesus; he could have produced that praise supernaturally from the stones. But God chose to give the disciples the privilege of filling in for the stones.
When we pray, we should be prepared to have God allow us to become part of the answer to our prayer. It is not that God needs us in order to answer the prayer. It is that he wants to grant our lives the significance and integrity that comes from our participation in the answer. Plus, an answer to prayer that includes the commitment of faithful people is more interesting to the world, and carries greater weight in testifying to the reality of God’s work in our lives.
God knows our limits. He will not ask us to do anything that he cannot enable us to do. We need not be afraid that if we pray for something, God will turn our prayer against our best interests by making us pay for the answer.
There are some things for which we can legitimately pray without becoming involved:
- A married man may legitimately pray for a good husband for a young woman without divorcing his wife and offering himself. A man who would do such a thing to his current wife wouldn’t be a good husband for the young woman anyway.
- A mother may pray that her children will acquire wisdom without her taking over all their decisions; they will never become wise if she makes their decisions for them, or even if she always tells them what they should do, or that they wouldn’t have been in this mess if they had only listened to her.
- There are limits to our proper involvement.
And it is not wrong to pray for the prospering of causes to which we cannot afford to contribute. There are far more good causes out there than we individually can support. If we are giving one tenth of our income to God’s work and giving further amounts from our prosperity as we are able, then we may, without feeling guilty, simply pray blessing on groups that we cannot help finance. But we can still pray. And God may still use us in some way we have not imagined.
Not all assistance is financial. Sometimes when we pray for someone, perhaps thinking that our prayer is financial in nature, God may reveal something to us that will supply some other benefit for that person--perhaps we will be able to introduce them to someone with a creative approach to their problems, or perhaps we will be able to connect them to a source of physical, emotional or spiritual healing that makes their lives run more smoothly.
God answers prayers in amazing ways. When we pray, we need to expect that we may end up, perhaps in some quite surprising way, as part of the answer. And what a privilege it is! Boaz was surprised and thrilled by the way his prayer was answered. Perhaps we will be as well.
We do not go to the Book of Ruth for all-around advice in romance or family arrangements. True, we would do better if we evaluated romantic possibilities by recognizing the quality of hesed in others and by cultivating that quality in ourselves. But we live in a very different culture with very different laws and customs. Marriage plays such a strong role in the Book of Ruth because lineage was at issue. The question was how the line leading to the kings of Judah and ultimately to the Messiah was to be preserved.
We receive our salvation and membership in the family of God through believing the gospel and receiving the Holy Spirit. We do not do this through marriage and conception, but through someone’s sharing the good news with us. The Greek word for sharing the good news translates into English as evangelism. Forget whatever associations you may have with that word. It just means finding ways to help people know Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
If the family of Elimelech and his two sons was to be preserved, someone had to step forward to keep the line going. Boaz was the man for the job. If the church of Jesus Christ is to be built as God wants it to be built, many persons must step forward to share the gospel. If you are a believer, you are called to that task. When we look to the Book of Ruth, we are looking not for tips on romance and marriage, but for tips on spreading the family of Jesus.
When others recognize rare hesed--steadfast love, kindness, compassion, loyalty, and promise-keeping--among Christian believers, they are much more likely to allow us to introduce them to Jesus.
I am not saying that we evangelize by our deeds and so don’t need strategies or words. In addition to the kindness that they showed, Naomi had to come up with a bold strategy, Ruth had to speak bold words, and Boaz had to take bold actions. And so must we have plans and words to bring our evangelistic mission to completion.
I am just saying that the mission is much more likely to be fruitful if we have first experienced God’s steadfast love, and then let that love flow through our lives in our relationships with others, with both fellow believers and unbelievers.
Jesus’ family tree is still being mended by hesed. It is when godly qualities of steadfast love show through us that others will be predisposed to think that what we have to say about God will be good news.
Not only do we receive the work of Jesus our Redeemer, saving us from our sins, but also we are shaped by his redeeming work, shaped in his likeness, so that we are willing to give of ourselves for the redemption of others, for the mending of the torn fabric of the people of God.
We live in a time when the fabric of the people of God is indeed torn. Many church leaders, seminary teachers, and pastors have bought into approaches that depart from the authentic saving gospel, and they are making shreds of the true message and mission of the church. Some depart from the gospel by abandoning the revealed will of God in favor of compromising with the moral climate of our culture. Others depart from the gospel by abandoning the redeeming love of Jesus in favor of judgmental legalism. The faithful will be required to stand up and be counted by faithfully serving the true gospel and the redemptive mission of the church.
This is not unique to our time. Boaz and Ruth also lived in a time when corruption was rampant. They succeeded in mending the torn fabric that was within their circle of influence, and so may we. The specifics of our individual callings will vary widely, but the basic qualities that determine our success or failure are much the same.
Qualities such as integrity, loyalty, courage, morality, obedience, generosity, and compassion make a difference. In short, they are the qualities of Jesus. Modeling our lives after the Ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer Jesus and letting his Spirit produce his likeness within us makes all the difference.
The Book of Ruth was read at Pentecost, the annual Jewish harvest festival. For Christians, this festival speaks of how the Holy Spirit equips us to take part in the great harvest of souls for the eternal kingdom of God. We might therefore follow the Book of Ruth with studies of Mark and Luke-Acts. The study of Mark will show how Jesus enables us to become fruitful. The study of Luke-Acts, centering on the Pentecost story, will show how the Holy Spirit equips us for our mission as harvesters. The point is that, as hesed brought the characters in this story from emptiness to fullness, so Christ our Redeemer and the Holy Spirit our Advocate bring us from emptiness to fullness as children and servants of God.
If you would like to study more about the Book of Ruth, consider my recommendations for Commentaries on the Book of Ruth.
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