Now the story I am about to tell could be an urban legend, an ‘evangelegend’, about Karl Barth, but the point is the same. He is a famous theologian who died in 1968, but the story has a moral nonetheless.
Reportedly, he told this about himself; he was riding on a streetcar in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. He took a seat next to a tourist, and they started to talk.
Barth asked if there was anything you would like to see in the city?” asked Barth.
The tourist replied he would like to meet the famous theologian, Karl Barth. “Do you know him?”
Barth answered, “As a matter of fact, I do know him. I give him a shave every morning.”
The tourist got off the street car at the next stop, quite delighted with himself. He went back to his hotel and told everyone, “I met Karl Barth’s barber today.”
The point is that without realizing the details, we can sometimes interpret stories in radically simplistic ways. The same can be said with the story of Ruth. It is often told, but often without some of the details that make it so rich. Nothing changes lives like a well told story, J.R.R. Tolkien says.
So, I want to trace out five aspects of the whole story of a woman named Ruth today, the book named in her honor. For some time I attended an African American Church in Chicago, and if you know anything about Baptist churches in that tradition. They love to alliterate. So I learned this there. The Book of Ruth is about:
- Reversing Fortunes, reversing trends. “The humble made mighty, the poor made rich, “just like Hannah’s Song, when she says those things and promises a Messiah, a king. (1 Samuel 2:8). I call it the great reversal
- It’s also a book about Reading the Law. Meaning, “how to interpret the law.”
- Removing a Curse. I’ll bet you’ve never heard that before, but it’s true.
- And it’s a book about Recovering Community. How else, except by loving your neighbor as yourself?
- And what can summarize these all is that it is a book about Redemption, the kinsmen Redeemer. This is the love story everyone is familiar with. “Wholistic redemption”…a redemption that is for individuals and families, poor widows and whole nations.
Let’s just read a portion of one of the first scenes. Remember, the whole story starts out in the days of the Judges when there was was a famine so Naomi’s husband from Bethlehem left the land for the country of Moab. He died, leaving just Naomi and her two daughters, after ten years.
“Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband.
Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
At this they wept aloud again.
Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
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. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
1. Reversing Fortunes
I am presuming you know the story of Ruth pretty well, and have heard it once or twice before. There is quite a bit of literary craft that has been put into this book.
It’s extremely balanced, and basically a four-act play; and, unlike some other places of Scripture, the chapter numbers actually do a pretty good job of breaking it up, as you can see here.
Act 1: Prologue/Problem (Death/Emptiness)
Scene 1: Setting the scene (1:1–5)
Scene 2: Naomi returns home (1:6–18)
Scene 3: Their arrival in Bethlehem (1:19–22)
Act 2: Ruth Meets Boaz at the Field
Scene 1: Ruth in the field of Boaz (2:1–17)
Scene 2: Ruth reports to Naomi (2:18–23)
Act 3: Naomi Sends Ruth to Boaz
Scene 1: Naomi Reveals Her Plan (3:1–5)
Scene 2: Ruth at the threshing-floor (3:6–15)
Scene 3: Ruth reports to Naomi (3:16–18)
Act 4: Resolution/Epilogue: Life/Fullness
Scene 1: Boaz at the gate (4:1–12)
Scene 2: A son is born to Naomi (4:13–17)
Ruth compares and contrasts with the Book of Esther in a lot of ways. Orpah and Vashti are persons that appear in the very beginning, and just disappear from the action, never to be seen again in the stories. Ruth is in the world of women, Boaz being the only main man in the whole story. Esther is a woman in a world of men. See the contrast. Ruth is a Gentile woman with nothing in Israel; Esther is a Jewish Queen in a foreign land, far, far, away.
Ruth begins tragically, and in a lot of ways, it’s a book that is more about Naomi than it is a book about Ruth. It starts and ends with Naomi; her and her husband going with her to Moab for about ten years in the midst of a famine. His name was Elimelech, if you remember.
The names in this book are so funny. Elimelech means ‘God is King.’ Naomi – Pleasant, but she changes her own name to ‘Mara’, ‘bitter.’ Ruth is ‘friendship’, Oprha ‘firmness’. The names tell you exactly the person’s role in the story.Naomi changes her name to ‘Mara,’ the name of the place where Moses changed bitter water to sweet water over in Exodus (15). And that’s exactly what happens here too.
But it’s alright; the end of the story is made sweet. Right now, though, it seems like the worst situation possible. How many times do you and I find ourselves like Naomi? Naomi feels bitter, looks at the world and says she’s got nothing and has nothing. How many times have you wanted to give up and felt like you were the worst person you’ll ever meet? But Ruth, the girl who had nothing but love and loyalty, the “’til death do us part” kind of love for Naomi, is who God uses to change everything.
And sometimes I wonder if the church thinks it has to have something tangible in order to alleviate the pains of this world: more seats, more programs, more members, more money, more significance.
But Ruth, the girl who had nothing, nothing but love and loyalty; love and loyalty to an old-bitter woman is the means through whom the curse of sin and death is lifted. The girl who had nothing is the one who gives Israel everything it has, the line of King David which ultimately Jesus comes from too one day. If the church just focused on love and loyalty first, the world probably would see a lot more change for the good.
But Ruth is a Moabite; and the Moabites have a history with Israel. For starters, the nation of Moab came about because Lot got drunk and his daughters seduced him. But beyond that, they are the people who hired Balaam, the prophet, to come and curse Israel. Obviously he couldn’t and didn’t, and instead prophesied for their blessing. Balaam tells the Moabites simply to entice the Israelites with their women (Numbers 31:16). And that’s exactly the tactic Moabites took (Numbers 25:1): Moabites are known to have seduced the Israelites. It’s a well known fact the Moabites were always known for enticing the Israelites into sexual immorality.
So you see to the first readers how Ruth is going to seem like the seductress all throughout the story.
They would think: “She is a Moabite, and we have seen this scene plenty of times before. Even Naomi has fallen for her charm, out in the plains of Moab.”
Revelation 2:14 says about one of the churches John writes to,
“Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.”
So Ruth’s character is so contrary not only the seductions of Numbers 25 but the seductions of Genesis 19. She is showing that redemption can come among her people as well as Naomi’s. But there are some problems: the Old Testament Law says some pretty specific things against the Moabites, and so the book of Ruth shows us how the Law is supposed to be interpreted.
Actually, all of Ruth is almost an interpretation of Deuteronomy 22-25. The whole story of Ruth revolves around this verse and so it shows us how to read the law.
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:3)
2. Reading the Law/Recovering Community
The books of Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah both wrestle with the question of intermarriage with foreign women, particularly the Moabite people (Ezra 9:1-3, Neh. 13:1-3). Nehemiah 13:1-3 quotes Deut. 23:4 verbatim.
On that day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel.
Nehemiah and Ezra based on this text propose a program of separation from marriages with Moabite people while Ruth exemplifies a Moabite included in Israel. Are these two visions opposed to each other? Actually, no.
They work together, hand in hand, to present a vision of restored family and community; Ruth, as a Gentile, is actually more like Israel than the Jews themselves are acting; she loves her neighbor (Naomi) as herself and loves the Lord her God, the perfect summary of Old Testament Law.
What emotionally wrecks Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9:1-3 and Nehemiah 13:23-27) is that the ‘non-Judahite’ women are not undergoing the process of transformations similar to Ruth. Their children from mixed marriages can’t even speak ‘Judahite’. ‘Judahite’ is probably is not just a language, but a culture.
The children are estranged from the culture that communicates the truth of God and the ethics that identify God’s people. Nehemiah’s main concern is not only the women per se, but their children, specifically that they are estranged from their culture.
So my question is to you, friends and peers and students; is do your children: your nieces, your nephews, your cousins, the sons and daughters know the story of God’s people?Do they know the stories of the gospel? Do they know how God has worked in the past? Would they be able to tell you about Ruth and Naomi and how they relate to the gospel? That the promised Messiah comes through them? Would they be able to tell you the significance of Bethlehem and of Boaz, the kinsmen redeemer? Would they be able to tell you that true love is taking action for those who are poor? Do they show it in their actions?
People from around the world are Christians, and Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ruth all point to one basic fact. To be included in the blessings of Israel, it’s not an ethnic inclusion, but an ethic inclusion.You are part of the community that receives God’s favor (either the Church or Israel depending on the era) when you share the right heart and ethic of ‘love your Lord, the true Lord, and love your neighbor’. It is also a reminder people have always tried and been required to understand the spirit of the Law, as Christ always does, rather than the letter. (1 Cor. 3:6)
Ruth is more like Israel than Israel ever was because she loves the Lord and her neighbor. And that’s how people can be included in the Christian community today, it’s by exactly the same profession today. If they love the Lord and their neighbor, just like Ruth says of Naomi in 1:16-17.
Moving on to chapter two and three, as we know, Boaz meets Ruth, tells her to glean in his fields, and although it is a wonderful tale of two people coming together, notice that the book is not focused on the individualism that the present culture is accustomed to.
The concept or application of waiting for ‘your Boaz’ or ‘your Ruth’ is not to be found here. Even Ruth’s own child was for somebody else, for Naomi. (Ruth 4:13-14). “A child has been born to Naomi.”
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel.”
The desire for family, and house, and home is good, but underneath and in relation to the ultimate purposes of a life lived for God and one’s neighbor.So as pastors and ministers, and elders and deacons in our churches; as congregants and as laity, are we going to forget the poor and the lowly?
Do you do go out of your way, and sacrifice time, money and resources for others? Are you going to go out of your way to help them? Are you going to take action promptly like Boaz?…that’s true love. And are you going to remember most that you can only do it because of the promised Messiah?
Ruth and Boaz do these sorts of things. Ruth restores the faith of her mother-in-law. To Naomi Ruth, is better than seven to Naomi (4:15). And that’s why she is called Naomi’s daughter in law that many times, seven times throughout the book. Ruth is the one who God chooses to remove the curse.
3. Removing a Curse
Ruth even gives Naomi, and by extension Israel, the redemption they never had before. Naomi gains new faith, a new life, because of Ruth. Ruth isn’t like the ones that came before.See this verse again.
“No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the Lord
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:2-3)
Notice that number ten. It was the very first number we saw at the beginning of this book. Naomi wandered around for ten years. And it’s a number that shows up in the end. Did you ever notice the genealogy at the end? The only books to have genealogies in them other than Genesis-Exodus are Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Ruth. And Ruth’s is ten generations long. Do you know why?
Because Tamar and Judah, back in Genesis 38, had a child illegitimately. The Tamar story is the beginning of the 10-generation curse of children born out of wedlock. Tamar prostituted herself with Judah; and so he had a son with his daughter-in-law. So Ruth is the remedying of that whole scene, ten generations away.
The neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” (Ruth 4:13-17)
So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Now these are the generations of (1) Perez: to Perez was born (2) Hezron,
and to Hezron was born (3) Ram, and to Ram, (4) Amminadab,
and to Amminadab was born (5) Nahshon, and to Nahshon, (6) Salmon,
and to Salmon was born (7) Boaz, and to Boaz, (8) Obed,
and to Obed was born (9) Jesse, and to Jesse, (10) David.
David is ten generations away from Tamar, whose son was Perez, the one who had the scarlet thread around his finger.
This is why we call Jesus’ salvation the scarlet thread: it’s the cord Perez had tied around his hand (38:25), the cord Rahab let down at Jericho (Joshua 2:21), and the lips of the beloved in Song of Songs are called ‘a scarlet thread’ (4:3).
The scarlet thread, the line of David is what lifts us from the fall. And this all happens in Bethlehem. The place where one day the great visitation happens, the incarnation of Jesus, the one who ultimately removes the greatest curse, the curse which fell upon all humanity.
And Ruth isn’t just part of the plan for removing the curse for Israel, but for the nations too. Let’s turn to chapter three, the climactic scene with Ruth at the threshing floor.
Remember how at first it seems like Ruth is seducing Boaz. It’s supposed to sound that way. The author is doing this on purpose.
So she went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law had commanded her. (Uh-oh, it seems even Naomi has fallen for Ruth and told her to do something ilicit!)
When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry (Boaz seems like he is in a state of compromise), he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down.
It happened in the middle of the night that the man was startled and bent forward; and behold, a woman was lying at his feet. (She comes to him in the middle of the night. What else would that seem like?)
He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative.”
This sounds almost like the scene of Lot and his daughters in the cave, but it’s actually the complete opposite. Ruth seems like the adulterous woman of Proverbs (Prov. 7:4-5), but turns out to be the virtuous woman. Instead she turns out to be Lady Wisdom (Prov. 8).
Ruth is a Moabite; their history comes from the closest thing to hell in the Old Testament: from the scene near Sodom and Gomorrah. Ruth is a book about reversing the curse of her own people if they come to love the Lord like this. Ruth turns Moab’s heritage inside out, reverses her heritage as well as Naomi’s. “The incest in the cave is linked with the tryst on the threshing floor:”
- Women plot to preserve the family, Gen 19:31; Ruth 3:1
- The male has been drinking, Gen 19:32; Ruth 3:7
- The female seeks him out and lies “beside” him, Gen 19:33; Ruth 3:7
- The female receives “seed” from the man, Gen 19:36; Ruth 3:15
- Two women “receive” a son, Gen 19:37-38; Ruth 4:13, 17
But Ruth does not uncover Boaz, like Ham did for Noah, or Lot’s daughters did to him. She waits for him. And Boaz loves the same way takes action, and takes action immediately. True love goes out of its way for others. Boaz does; he is truly his ‘sister’s keeper’, his brother’s keeper. True love takes action, but it also does things in their correct sequence and properly and is patient.
That’s why we advocate for purity until marriage. Boaz is that example; Ruth is that eample. And Boaz and Ruth picks up on this marriage metaphor that goes throughout the whole Old Testament. True love brings relief and rest. Peter Leithart uses a bunch of questions to ask yourself if you are like Boaz.
Are you a rest-bringer to your family, your community?
“Now, consider: Are you a rest bringer? Dads, are your wife and kids relieved when you come home from work, or do they scatter because they know the fireworks are about to begin?
Brothers and sisters, do your siblings delight in your presence in the home – or do they run for cover? Moms, do your words and actions and tone create an atmosphere of peace in your home, or do you increase the stress level?
Are you making your home, your workplace, your friendships – are you making these places zone of peace, outposts of the new creation?”
Ruth is the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Whoever was writing Ruth or Proverbs clearly had one or the other in mind. Clearly, between Proverbs 31 and the Book of Ruth, someone is copying off of somebody else (in a good way).
- ‘Woman of Excellence’ (31:10, 29) [Rare Phrase]
- ‘Her lamp does not go out at night.’ (31:18) [Similar Setting]
- ‘Known at the Gates’ (31:23) [Similar Theme]
- ‘act worthily’ (31:29) [Similar Phrasing]
- ‘She considers a field and buys it’ (31:16) [Similar Setting]
Book of Ruth
- ‘Woman of Excellence’ (3:11) [Rare Phrase]
- Does her most valiant act at night (3:13) [Similar Setting]
- ‘Known at the Gates’ (4:1) [Similar Theme]
- ‘act worthily’ (4:11) [Similar Phrasing]
- “Considers a field”… Not a direct parallel, but the whole story revolves around acquiring a field: though Boaz’s is the one who does it. [Similar Setting]
One of these passages predates the other and the similarities are either summarized or expanded upon, depending on which way you understand that process.
Many women in the Bible do heroic deeds (like Esther, Deborah, Rahab, Hannah), but Ruth is the one who has the most obvious literary connections to the Proverbs 31 kind of woman. So, I conclude this with the question: are we Proverbs 31 kind of people?
Are we, the community faith like Ruth or Ham, Boaz or Lot, Naomi or Balaam? Are we people who are sweet like Naomi’s name, or Mara, bitter? Are we transformed by the reality of the Son of David’s birth? Are we our brother’s keeper?
“Søren Kierkegaard points out that love in Christianity isn’t just a feeling, as it is for Romanticism; rather, ‘love is the works of love’; that’s why Christ can command love, while only a fool tries to command a feeling. Love isn’t calculated, controlled, predicted, or expected, but is a eucatastrophe, ‘good catastrophe’ (Tolkien)”
And that’s what the story of Ruth portraits, a eucatastrophe! Just so often like our lives.