Although we live more than 3,000 years after Ruth, we can almost feel her emotions as we hear these words repeated in the modern marriage ceremony.
What attitude do you have while working?
Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (Ruth:1:16).
For centuries, men and women uniting in holy matrimony have looked to Ruth's famous words as a standard of unfailing devotion to each other. Although we live more than 3,000 years after Ruth, we can almost feel her emotions as we hear these words repeated in the modern marriage ceremony. Truly her words are timeless.
Few examples can compare to that of Ruth's devotion to Naomi. Ruth's loyal devotion can inspire us to remain faithful to God, His truth and His Church.
Blessing out of affliction
Ruth's story begins in Bethlehem, in Judah, when a father and mother and their two sons strike out for greener pastures. Their homeland and people were suffering from a severe shortage of food and water.
This famine didn't come upon the land just by chance. There were reasons for these dark days in Israel, then ruled by judges: "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges:21:25).
One Bible scholar describes this epoch: "The period of the judges was between the initial conquest of Palestine under Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy under Saul. It was a time of moral and political chaos in Israel with no strong central government or leader. The people repeatedly turned away from God and neighboring peoples constantly harassed and invaded the disorganized nation" (F.B. Huey, Jr., The Expositor's Bible Dictionary , Vol. 3, p. 509).
God had warned that, if the Israelites forgot His covenant, He would allow persecution and starvation and other physical deprivations (See Deuteronomy 28).
It was during such a stressful time that the members of a humble family in Israel decided they must live as aliens in a foreign land, Moab, on the other side of the Jordan River.
There was little food in Bethlehem and bleak prospects of garnering any. On the other hand, Moab was a fertile region with plenty of rain, and that land provided a haven for many who were hungry.
So it was that Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Chilion, all members of an Israelitish family, packed their belongings and headed east to a fertile garden in Moab. There they settled and were blessed to find food and shelter.
But time and chance take their toll on everyone, even faithful Elimelech's family. Tragedy struck. First Elimelech died, apparently before his time.
Suffering from the shock of life's frailty, at the same time bearing the weight of responsibility of carrying on the family name, both sons took Moabite wives. Mahlon wed Ruth; Chilion married Orpah (Ruth:1:4, 4:10).
Misfortune struck again, and Naomi lost her two sons. Naomi was disheartened and determined to return to Bethlehem, for "she had heard in the coun-
try of Moab that the LORD had visited His people in giving them bread" (Ruth:1:6). She also realized that, in a foreign land, a wife without her husband as provider would find herself in desperate straits.
At first, Naomi assumed her daughters-in-law should return with her (Ruth:1:7). But then, as she considered her plight and options, she realized that her faithful Moabite daughters-in-law would undergo extreme difficulty finding new husbands in Israel. She urged them to remain in their land with their kinsmen and religion (Ruth:1:8, 9).
Ruth and Orpah both could have returned to Bethlehem with Naomi. But only Ruth chose to remain with her, even though her prospects of finding a husband were not good and she would live as a widow in a foreign land. Ruth's determination to stay with Naomi was eloquent testimony to the sterling example Naomi had set for her daughters-in-law.
Naomi's heartfelt urging that Ruth and Orpah return to Moab had to be a touching scene. Naomi told Ruth: "'Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.' But Ruth said: 'Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever 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. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me'" (Ruth:1:15-17).
Orpah returned to her homeland while Naomi and Ruth continued on the road to Bethlehem. Upon their arrival, the town buzzed with excitement, recognizing that one of the two women was Naomi. The women exclaimed, "'Is this Naomi?' But she said unto them, 'Do not call me Naomi [meaning "pleasant"]; call me Mara ["bitterly dealt with"], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. The Almighty has afflicted me'" (Ruth:1:19-21).
So it was that faithful Naomi returned to Bethlehem with her Moabite daughter-in-law as the barley harvest was in full swing. Although Ruth couldn't know it then, her future blessings would spring from these afflictions.
Finding favor at harvesttime
The time of the return of Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem was providential, for it was harvesttime and they had no food. The barley harvest and subsequent wheat harvest were their best chance for finding sustenance. It was during these gatherings that Ruth labored in Boaz's field. Ruth's attitude while laboring in the fields, gathering and winnowing grain, served as a model for later generations of Israelite women.
Little wonder that the book of Ruth would be read in synagogues centuries later during the Feast of Weeks, a yearly festival that concluded the wheat harvest (A.S. Geden, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia , Vol. 4, p. 2528). This celebration was also known as Pentecost ("fiftieth [day]") to the New Testament Church (Acts 2), and it prophetically symbolized Jesus Christ's harvest of Christian lives (Matthew:9:36-38).
Ruth, in deference to her mother-in-law Naomi, requested permission to go alone into the fields to gather leftover grain: "Please let me go to the field, and glean heads of grain after him in whose sight I may find favor."
Naomi replied to Ruth: "Go, my daughter" (Ruth:2:2).
The Scripture provided a precedent for the custom of gleaning. "The law expressly allowed the poor the right to glean in the fields (i.e., in the corners of the fields; Leviticus:19:9, 10; 23:22; Deuteronomy:24:19-21), but the owners of the fields were not always cooperative. A hard day's work under the hot sun frequently netted only a small amount of grain" (F.B. Huey Jr., The Expositor's Bible Commentary , Vol. 3, p. 527).
God had guided Ruth to the field of Elimelech's kinsman, Boaz. Boaz's neighbors well knew his character, holding him in high esteem (Ruth:2:4). The very word Boaz means "in him is strength" or "man of strength." He lived up to his name.
So it was that Boaz met Ruth, and would protect her and provided for her. "Then Boaz said to Ruth, 'You will listen, my daughter, will you not? Do not go to glean in another field, nor go from here, but stay close by my young women. Let your eyes be on the field which they reap, and go after them.'
"Then she fell on her face, bowed down to the ground, and said to him, 'Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?'
"And Boaz answered and said to her, 'It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before. The LORD repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge" (Ruth:2:8-12).
Boaz had instructed the young men working for him to let Ruth glean not just in the corners but even among the sheaves, where she could gather much more grain than was otherwise possible. He also told them to drop some wheat on the ground for her to find.
Gleaning turned out to be far more productive for Ruth than she had imagined possible. She brought home to Naomi a good supply of winnowed grain, enough for several weeks. In those times, someone could expect to glean only a few pounds of grain per day. Her amount from gleaning shows the regard the young men had for Boaz and his instructions to allow some of their harvested grain to fall to the ground in Ruth's path. It also speaks well of Ruth's diligence.
Naomi was pleased with such favor shown by Boaz to her daughter-in-law Ruth: "Blessed be he of the LORD, who has not forsaken His kindness to the living and the dead! The man is a relative of ours, one of our near kinsmen" (Ruth:2:20).
Ruth honored Naomi's words of encouragement and gleaned "until the end" of the barley and wheat harvests (Ruth:2:23).
Redemption and blessings
Naomi began to see, once again, that God had not forgotten her. This was a critical time for her and Ruth, one that held exciting promise, especially for the daughter-in-law. Boaz was indeed a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi's dead husband.
"Under the Levirate law (referred to by Naomi in Ruth:1:1-13), when a man died childless his brother was bound to raise an heir to him by the widow. This law extended to the next of kin, hence Naomi's plan. Ruth, by her action in verse 7, was claiming this right" (David and Pat Alexander, Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible, pp. 227, 228).
Naomi's plan included careful instructions for Ruth, and her words enhanced the aura of romance: "My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now Boaz, whose young women you were with, is he not our kinsman? In fact, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.
"Then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down; and he will tell you what you should do. And [Ruth] said to her, 'All that you say to me I will do'" (Ruth:3:1-5).
What a trusting attitude Ruth had. Remember, she was not an Israelite; she was a Moabite, a gentile. God was working out His great purpose through Ruth, whose heart and mind were those of a spiritual Israelite led by God's Holy Spirit (compare Romans:2:29 with 2 Corinthians:3:3).
Boaz would not dishonor Ruth
Let's understand the literal meaning of "uncover his feet" (Ruth:3:4). The reader should be aware that the sexually permissive society in which we live is a far cry from the social values of Ruth's time.
"Those who interpret a sexual relation in the events reflect their twentieth-century cultural conditioning of sexual permissiveness. They fail to appreciate the element of Ruth's trust that Boaz would not dishonor her whom he wanted for his wife. They fail to appreciate the cultural taboos of Ruth's time that would have prevented a man of Boaz's position from taking advantage of Ruth, thereby destroying her reputation and perhaps endangering his own" (Huey, p. 538).
The moral character of Boaz and Ruth remains intact.
Boaz knew of another kinsman more closely related to Ruth than he. Boaz, manifesting exemplary integrity, addressed the situation straightforwardly: "There is a kinsman nearer than I," he told Ruth. "Stay this night, and in the morning it shall be that if he will perform the duty of a near kinsman for you-good; let him do it. But if he does not want to perform the duty for you, then I will perform the duty for you, as the LORD lives!" (Ruth:3:12, 13).
The unfolding drama starkly contrasts the two men. The nearer relative reacted agreeably to Boaz's mention of Naomi's land of inheritance, but, when Boaz noted the added responsibility of redeeming Ruth's inheritance, the man quickly declined. "And the near kinsman said, 'I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I ruin my own inheritance. You redeem my right of redemption for yourself, for I cannot redeem it. Buy it for yourself'" (Ruth:4:6, 8).
Today, as we read the account of Ruth, we know that the closest relative unknowingly denied himself a great opportunity. Boaz not only redeemed all of Naomi's inheritance, he claimed Ruth's as well.
"Moreover, Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, I have acquired as my wife, to raise up the name of the dead on his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his place. You are witnesses this day. And all the people said, 'We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the LORD will give you from this young woman'" (Ruth:4:10-12).
So God blessed Naomi and Ruth through Boaz. Boaz took Ruth as his wife, and she bore him a son. Then Naomi's friends said to her: "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a near kinsman [redeemer]; and may his name be famous in Israel!" (Ruth:4:14).
Ruth became a forebear of Jesus
God blessed Ruth's faithfulness with her son, whom she named Obed. It was through Obed that Ruth became the great-grandmother of King David and direct ancestor of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Who would have thought Naomi would return to Bethlehem with only her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth? Who could have guessed that Ruth would figure in the lineage of Jesus Christ? No human being could have worked out this scenario. Faith in God and God's purpose contribute to such miraculous results.
Had Ruth, a Moabitess, not proved faithful to her Israelite mother-in-law, she would not have returned with her, nor would Ruth have met and married Boaz, nor would she have had a son, Obed, who would become an ancestor of David and Jesus Christ.
Think for a moment all that worked against such an extraordinary outcome. By chance, Ruth met Naomi's son, Mahlon, whose family was forced by hardship to live as resident aliens in her country of Moab. By chance, she married Mahlon. By chance, her father-in-law, her brother-in-law and her husband all died in her homeland.
By chance, she insisted on returning with Naomi to Israel, to live as an alien in a strange land, away from her family, relatives, religion, homeland. By chance, she met Boaz and gained the opportunity to be redeemed and married.
By chance, Boaz married her, and together they had a son who figured in the direct lineage of the very Son of God.
Or did all of this occur by chance? To the casual observer, it might seem as if this all happened by chance. But, for those who live by faith-the same faith that Jesus Christ exercised here on earth-it becomes obvious that these miraculous events were directed by Almighty God. Ruth defied all the odds, and, even though she was a gentile, figures directly in the physical lineage of our Savior.
Ruth's faithful example extends far beyond her physical lineage. She figures prominently as a forerunner of spiritual Israel, the Church of God. She typifies the Old Testament prophecy to Abraham of the New Covenant Church, which would include gentiles and Israelites alike: "And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" through Jesus Christ (Genesis:12:3).
Ruth's example acknowledged
Ruth's relationship to God while living among Israelites is aptly described by Peter in the New Testament when God gave the first gentiles His Holy Spirit: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts:10:34, 35).
God's impartiality is a bountiful blessing that neither Ruth, Boaz, nor Naomi could know during their time. But we are privileged to know such inspiring truths.
Ruth's example of faith was customarily recited in the temple and later in the synagogues during the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. Her example helps to signify our role and salvation in God's Church.
For instance, in Leviticus 23, God identifies two loaves of leavened bread offered during the Feast of Weeks: "You shall bring from your habitations two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the LORD" (Leviticus:23:17).
These two loaves of leavened bread represent, at once, God's faithful disciples in both the old and new dispensations, but they also represent the two separate and now fused races of people who comprise the Church: gentiles and Israelites.
The leaven signifies our human nature, in a general sense, and the sin that so easily besets us (compare 1 Corinthians:5:6, 7 with Matthew:16:12 and Hebrews:12:1). The baked loaves show that all God's people, whether gentile or Israelite, whether part of the old or new dispensation, will have their faith forged through the fiery trials experienced in this life (1 Corinthians:3:11-15; 1 Peter:1:7).
The focus of the book of Ruth highlights the barley and wheat harvests in Palestine, a time of reaping rewards from hard work and a foretaste of humanity's spiritual redemption. Even Bethlehem means "the house of bread." This motif shows God's strict adherence to detail. But, in a broader sense, God's prophetic plan is revealed through the story of Ruth and its correlation to the entire New Testament.
It is inspiring to read the contrast of Ruth's faith to that of the Israel of her time. Her undying devotion to Naomi and her redemption by Boaz attest to her humble obedience that transcends time, race and culture.
Although we leave Ruth at the end of this story, we can't forget her righteous and faithful example.