The Book of Ruth, a little tale of only four chapters, is arguably the sweetest book of the Bible and perhaps in all literature. Its sweetness is accentuated by its position within order of the books of the Septuagint and of the Christian versions dependent upon it, for there it comes immediately after the Book of Judges and immediately before the Book of 1 Samuel/ 1 Kingdoms.
The Book of Judges is the extended narrative of Israel’s history prior to the establishment of the monarchy under Saul, and it documents an era of rebellion and lawlessness, a time when “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Its final stories tell of the gang rape and murder of a concubine, her dismemberment and distribution throughout the twelve tribes, and the civil war that followed. With this horrific story, the Book of Judges concludes.
The Book of 1 Samuel opens with the story of the birth of Samuel, the fornication and corrupt acts of the sons of the high priest, and their being slain as God’s judgment upon them in a battle with the Philistines during which the Ark was lost. On hearing this news right after the battle, the high priest collapses from shock and dies, and his daughter-in-law, the wife of his slain son, also immediately dies in childbirth after giving birth to a son. Her last words were, “The glory of God has departed from Israel.”
It was between these two horrific narratives in Judges and 1 Samuel that we now find the story of Ruth. Its idyllic charm and gentleness forms a vivid contrast to the stories surrounding it; it stands out like a flower in the desert, the perfume of its sweetness calming our hearts and bringing us back to the good earth.
The plot may be told in a few words. During a famine in the time of the Judges, an Israelite man migrated to neighbouring Moab with his wife and two sons in order to find food and keep his family alive. He settled down in Moab, and after he died, his sons married Moabite girls. After about ten years, both the boys died too, leaving their wives widows. The father’s widow, Naomi by name, decided to return home to Israel, assuming that her daughters-in-law would remain in their own homeland with their families. One daughter-in-law did, but the other refused to leave her. Her name was Ruth, and she was determined to stay with Naomi her mother-in-law no matter what. Despite Naomi’s pleading, Ruth was adamant: “Do not entreat me to leave you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May Yahweh do so to me and more also if even death separates me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17). So it was that Ruth returned to Israel with Naomi, despite their bleak and desperate plight.
Naomi found her kinsman Boaz, a rich landowner, who allowed Ruth to glean in his fields. Ruth worked tirelessly to support herself and Naomi, and Boaz was so impressed by her devotion and hard work that he made special provision to keep her safe and make sure she had enough food. When Naomi heard of his generosity and kindness, she counseled her to stay in his fields along with his other workers until harvest and gleaning were over. More than that, she counseled her to offer herself in marriage to him in a quiet moment late one night after the festivities of harvest were over. This was less a matter of romance than of law, for the Torah said that if a man died without issue, his brother or kinsman must marry the widow and raise up children for the dead man who would inherit his property. This Boaz did speedily, buying the land belonging to Naomi and marrying Ruth.
The story concludes with a happy ending: Boaz married Ruth and she bore him a son. Naomi rejoiced in the child and became his nurse. They named the child “Obed”; he later became the father of Jesse, and Jesse later became the father of David the king. This brief summary cannot convey the charm of the story itself, nor its power to captivate the human heart. I encourage you to read it for yourself; it is only four chapters long.
It is significant that all artists portray Ruth as a beautiful woman (see inset) despite the fact that the text says nothing whatsoever about her being beautiful. Scripture tells us that Sarah was beautiful (Genesis 12:11), and that Rebekah was beautiful (Genesis 24:16). Arguably Rachel was also beautiful, for Jacob was content to work seven years for her, and this time “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Genesis 29:20). But nothing is said about Ruth being beautiful. Nonetheless, her inner beauty shines forth so much that every artist paints her as a beautiful woman. This is a testimony to the power of a sweet spirit, the hidden person of the heart, which is precious in God’s sight (1 Peter 3:4).
Ruth’s devotion and heroism offers us several abiding lessons.
The first is the beauty of courage and of determination to do one’s duty whatever the cost. Ruth knew that the smart thing to have done (at least as the world counts such things) was to take Naomi’s advice and return to her own people. But when she married into Naomi’s family, she did it with all her heart and soul, choosing them, their God, and whatever fate would befall them. The story attaches no blame to her sister-in-law who left Naomi and returned home, and no blame would be attached to Ruth if she did the same. Yet Ruth still clung to Naomi, refusing to leave the old woman in her hour of need. She knew that leaving her beloved Moab would mean leaving friends, family, support structure, and security, and going to dwell in a foreign land where she would be regarded as an outsider and vulnerable.
She also knew that the prospects for survival there were far from certain. Indeed, the act of gleaning in another’s field marked her out as one of the poor (see Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19). But despite these challenges she clung to Naomi and worked tirelessly to support her. Ruth tells us that doing our duty is more important than our personal happiness or fulfillment.
Secondly, the story of Ruth reveals that God accepts all who come to Him, regardless of whether or not they have a right to do so. God had covenanted with Israel, not with Moab, and the people of Moab were often at war with Israel. Indeed, God had commanded Israel not to marry Israelite sons to the daughters of foreigners (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Given this, one might have expected Ruth to find little welcome in Naomi’s homeland, either from Naomi’s neighbours or from her God. Yet Yahweh accepted and blessed Ruth the Moabitess, fulfilling the people’s prayer that He make her like Rachel and Leah, who together gave birth to all the sons of Israel (Ruth 4:11). God looks upon the heart, not the lineage.
Finally, Ruth is an image for all of us Gentiles who convert to the God of Israel and become Christians. As Gentiles, like Ruth, we too were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and were strangers to the covenants of promise (Ephesians 2:12). Yet God allowed us to come to Him, and He accepted us as we took refuge under the shelter of His wings. Ruth came to the God of Israel and found abundant welcome. Through the grace of Ruth’s descendant Christ, we can find such a welcome too. Like Ruth our spiritual ancestor, regardless of the cost, let us do our duty in quietness of spirit and devotion, and trust that we will receive our final reward.