The Characters in the Book of Ruth
In some contrast to the first impression we gain of Ruth, we are introduced to Naomi at the low point of her life as she realises that her return to her people is going to be shameful for she has lost everything - husband, sons, and even her inheritance and possessions which she left behind to flee into a pagan nation. There can be no doubt that Naomi viewed her tragic experiences as an act of God's judgment upon her family, yet, even as they begin the journey to Judah (Ruth 1:6), Naomi's address to her daughters-in-law is tender, persuasive, and affecting as she tries to encourage them to return to Moab and find rest in the house of their husband, that is, to return and re-marry again in the land of Moab. At that point, both daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, insisted they would return with Naomi, but, even as the three women weep together (Ruth 1:9) the touching personal nature of their conversation reveals the difference between the women. As they stood there crying, Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye and left her to return to obscurity and, presumably, her false gods (v15), whereas Ruth choses the better part - to follow the only true God. This was probably the lowest point of Naomi's spiritual life but Ruth's entreaty to Naomi is one of the classic gems of beauty in Biblical literature and probably lifted her spirits immensely, for we read that Naomi was silenced by these words (v16-174):___________________________________________
"Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me."
Ruth's vow not to leave Naomi was in itself a confession of her faith in the God of Israel. "Entreat me not to leave thee" means "do not insist that I return," thus Ruth promised Naomi that wherever she went and wherever she lodged she would also go and that "thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." Thereby, Ruth clearly proclaimed her desire to become a follower of the Lord and of the people of Israel. Thus we see the genuine spiritual decision and the character of Ruth's determination to do that which was right and this correct decision would lead to untold blessing in the future! Finally, Naomi sensed Ruth's sincere determination to return with her to Bethlehem and gave up her attempt to dissuade her. We cannot help but consider that it was the influence of her mother-in-law that caused Ruth to willingly entrust herself to the God of Israel and this tells us more of the nature of Naomi than her comments later for, when they reach Bethlehem, they were welcomed by the people of the city, who questioned: "Is this Naomi?," to which she responded: "Call me not Naomi, call me Mara." The meaning of Naomi is pleasant, whereas Mara means bitter (Hebrew: marar) and is related to the word that was used of the bitter waters in Exodus 15:23 (Hebrew: mar). In other words, Naomi was asking that they not call her a name which was no longer true of her personal experiences. Naomi's statement that the "Lord hath testified against me and the Almighty hath afflicted me?" reveals again that she interpreted her bitter experiences in Moab as God's punishment for forsaking the family's inheritance in the community of Israel. She had suffered and been afflicted through circumstances and God=s hand had gone out against her for a purpose that she could not comprehend and now she was acting improperly toward God because she mistakenly believed He was her enemy. Naomi could not recognize at this time that God had cleared the way for His sovereign grace to act in her life, otherwise her attitude would have been totally different. Her short-sighted point of view had left her bitter and nothing seemed pleasant for she had gone out full and had come back empty.
We are introduced to the God-fearing Boaz when he greets his workers with "God's blessing" ("The Lord be with you. And they answered him, The Lord bless thee" - Ruth 2:4) and receives the same in return from people who no doubt had reason to rejoice that they worked for a fair and honest man, for we gradually learn more of his nature in his dealings with this stranger gleaning in his field as the drama unfolds. We learn that Boaz is a gentleman, even when he shows that he has an eye for the newcomer to his fields, and asks his servant in charge of the reapers, "Whose damsel is this?" The flow of the narrative seems to imply love-at-first-sight and, while the final outcome is held in abeyance, the hope of the reader, or listener, is that he will fall in love with the stranger, marry her, and redeem her from her plight of childless widowhood! Thus, not only do we anticipate Boaz as a type of Christ, the bridegroom from Bethlehem, but Ruth is a type of the church, the undeserving Gentile bride, who had nothing with which to commend herself to her master. The servant replied to Boaz' question, AIt is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab." We notice that the servant in charge knew all about her and no doubt Ruth and Naomi would have been a source of much gossip in such a small community, which may well have thought negatively of them, but we notice that the servant spoke well of her as he continued (v74):
And she said, I pray you, let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves: so she came, and hath continued even from the morning until now, that she tarried a little in the house.
Again, Boaz shows himself to be an unusual man when he goes out of his way to address Ruth, for normally a man in that culture would not speak to a woman in public, and certainly a man in Boaz's position would not speak to a servant girl, especially a widow gleaning among his reapers. Yet he said (v8-94):
Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens: Let thine eyes be on the field that they do reap, and go thou after them: have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee? and when thou art athirst, go unto the vessels, and drink of that which the young men have drawn.
Ruth=s response was to fall on her face in gratitude and ask, "Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger (foreigner)?" The grace shown on the part of Boaz was unmerited favour as he demonstrated the typology of the kinsman-redeemer who extended his grace and love to this foreign woman who had no reason inherent in herself to be loved. Boaz answered her, "It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband" (vs.114). Boaz would be aware of everything that went on and, as a responsible leader in the community, he showed that he had not been listening to the murmurings and gossip which always abound in human society, but had been hearing with a spiritual ear which is why he added (v124):
"The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust."
The typology continues to unfold as, at mealtime (v14), Boaz shows his continuing care by inviting Ruth to share the meal with his reapers and dip bread with them in the vinegar after working in the sun all morning in the fields. Again we see a picture of God=s condescending grace typified by this wealthy Hebrew man deigning to eat at the table with a Moabite widow. She sat beside the reapers and he served her roasted grain and he even fed her himself so that Ruth had some left after she was satisfied just as the Lord=s grace and goodness was illustrated in His feeding of the multitudes (Matthew 14:15; Mark 6:35).
The unexpected and unlimited grace which Christians enjoy from our Kinsman-Redeemer is mirrored in Boaz's care for Ruth which goes beyond the demands of the law. "Gleaning" was an activity of the poorest of the people who would follow reapers in the fields and pick up the scraps that remained. Gleaning was a right guaranteed to the poor (Leviticus 19:9) and to widows (Deuteronomy 24:19). Nevertheless, she hoped to "find grace" from a landowner who would allow her to glean in his field. This probably indicates that, typical of the time of the Judges, not all Israelites were devout adherents of the Law. As the reapers passed through the fields harvesting the crop by hand, some scraps would be left behind for the gleaners to gather for themselves. After Ruth left, Boaz ordered his reapers to let her glean even among the sheaves not just the discarded husks. They were not to insult her or rebuke her. He even added, "And let fall also some of the handfuls of grain on purpose for her."4 Thus, the kinsman's provision was more than adequate. One must imagine himself to be in Ruth's position in order to appreciate the significance of the story at this point. A childless, widowed foreign girl returns to her mother-in-law's homeland and chooses a field, happening to meet the one man who can change her future and her fate. Not only is the encounter of their meeting a pleasant one, but she immediately becomes the object of his special grace. What a beautiful picture of the love of Christ and His provision for His bride!
Ruth continued working until evening and, at dusk, she took home an ephah of winnowed barley and also gave Naomi the left-over lunch she had saved. The average receipt of a gleaner was only enough to support a family for one day, so the process had to be repeated constantly. However, Ruth returned home with an ephah (approximately three pecks) which would have been enough to support them for about five days. Naomi was certainly surprised by such a large amount and was even more thrilled to discover that Ruth had already met Boaz and all that passed between them for, on hearing from Ruth, "The man's name with whom I wrought today is Boaz," Naomi's reaction was the equivalent of our "Praise the Lord!" (v20) and, when Ruth repeated all Boaz's words, Naomi identified him as a near kinsman and redeemer. Her blessing to the Lord indicated that He had extended "His kindness to the living and to the dead" (v20). This is the only reference in the Old Testament to this attitude and action (Hebrew: chesed) being extended toward the dead and, in this sole instance, it refers to the memory of her husband and sons. Her excitement was due to one simple fact: the man was near of kin (Heb qaroμb, indicating "near" in time or place) "unto us, one of our next kinsmen" Then she urged her daughter-in-law to obey his instructions: "AIl is good, my daughter, that thou go out with his maidens, that they meet thee not in any other field." We also remember from the last verse in Judges (Judges 21:25) that this was a lawless era, "when every man did that which was right in his own eyes." If Ruth had been forced to work outside the protection of Boaz, she could very well have been assaulted, injured, or dishonoured and this reflects again on the kind-hearted and loving nature of the kinsman-redeemer.
We learn more about the nature of Naomi, for she was the one with first option on Boaz as the kinsman-redeemer but, with a kind, loving spirit, she relinquished this right to her daughter-in-law, Ruth when she spoke to her: "My daughter, shall I not seek [security] rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?" Now the harvest season was over a time of celebration followed the completion of the winnowing and examination of the harvest, and they would eat, drink, and celebrate and then Boaz would go to sleep, so Naomi instructed Ruth how to approach him (v4-5). Ruth shows again her humble nature, willing to follow Naomi and her nation's ways in pursuit of the only true God, and she obediently went down to the threshing floor and did all that Naomi had instructed her, waiting until kind-hearted Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was happy and contented with the celebration of the completed harvest. He made a bed for himself near his heaps of grain and lay down and we read (verse 7) that Ruth went in at midnight, lifted up the cover, and lay down at his feet. Boaz was startled and "bent forward," and was surprised to find a woman lying at his feet. He exclaimed, "Who are you?" and Ruth identified herself and added, "Spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid, for thou art a near kinsman." Although Naomi's bold venture was undoubtedly based upon her inward assurance that Boaz and Ruth were already genuinely attracted to one another, even with that presupposition the scheme would have been improper and utterly unwise had it not been for the ancient Hebrew law concerning the kinsman-redeemer (cf. Ruth 2:20). Ruth used a Hebrew metaphor, to which Boaz had alluded in an earlier conversation (2:12), in which the "wing" (Hebrew: eber) was an emblem of protection, as with baby birds which run under their mother's wings to escape the birds of prey. God used Boaz as the vessel to answer his own prayer on behalf of Ruth. It was customary for a Jewish husband to cover his new wife with the end of his tallit (or tallith, Hebrew prayer shawl) to signify that she was under his protection13 (cf. Numbers 15:38; Ezekiel 16:8-14; Deuteronomy 22:30). In effect, Ruth was asking Boaz to accept his responsibility as kinsman and to take her as his wife. In spreading his garment over her (literally, wing) over her, he gave the sign of acceptance, acknowledging his role as redeemer and his willingness to marry her and, after she requested redemption, he granted it in the words of verses 10-114:
"Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter. for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, fear not, I will do to thee all that thou requirest. for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman."
The implication of this meant that she was proposing marriage to him and asking that she be taken into his family as his wife, and thus, come under his protection. Every indication in the story certainly emphasizes that there was nothing immodest or questionable about this practice, since both Ruth and Boaz are shown to be above reproach throughout the entire account. Ruth had stayed within the prescribed family program of levirate marriage, become obedient to Hebrew customs, and her demeanor during the past two months had been exceptional so that she had acquired an excellent reputation. She had come to Bethlehem in circumstances which meant that every eye was on her and many tongues would be ready to spread malicious gossip about her. But she had behaved herself in such a way that her virtue and her unspotted character had become known through-out the town and, more importantly, to Boaz. We now learn more about the integrity and honesty of Boaz for, having acknowledged his role as redeemer and having agreed to fulfill it, he adds in verse 124: "And now it is true that I am thy near kinsman: howbeit there is a kinsman nearer than I." We have observed all the good things about this developing relationship between Boaz and Ruth and see how much good will came out of it for the two widows but, even when Boaz acknowledges that there is a closer kinsman, he again shows his godly character by adhering to the accepted social system and he assured Ruth her that if he discovered that the closer relative would redeem her, "let him do the kinsman's part." If the other man was unwilling, however, Boaz declared:"then will I do the part of a kinsman to thee, as the Lord giveth," and advised her to "lie down until morning" (v13). We observe the potential bride and groom, together throughout the night, but separated by the possibility that another closer redeemer existed who could claim the right of redemption still behave in exemplary fashion. Ruth lay at his feet until morning and got up before anybody could recognize her and Boaz cautioned her not to let anyone know that she had been there. He again shows his utter care for her safety, integrity, and health by keeping her with him through the night, and he was also wise to recognise that others might inaccurately speculate about what went on between them that night and thus threaten his approach to the nearer redeemer. We also notice that he remained aware of her personal plight and, no doubt, Naomi's too, for he poured six measures of barley into her cloak to take back with her to her mother-in-law in the city.
When Ruth returned to the house we see the eagerness with which Naomi asked her whether she is betrothed to Boaz and learn again of the kind of man who has so impressed Ruth, for she repeats the words of his pledge and shows how he even remembers their personal plight with the added gift of barley: "Go not empty unto thy mother in law." (Ruth 3:16-174). We can recognise the eternal truths of God's dealings with men in His caring for their every need and are reminded of the advice in James 23:
14 What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
Naomi recognised God's love at work in the man and showed her confidence by telling Ruth that they could rely on Boaz to complete the good work he had started and, sure enough, he is found in the early hours at the city gate of Bethlehem, waiting for the close relative of whom he had spoken. Boaz asks him to sit down and does everything "by the book," again demonstrating his integrity by calling ten more men of the city, who were passing by, to become a legal committee of witnesses to attest to everything that transpired. The scene between Boaz and the nearer kinsman reaches its climax as the latter backed out, saying, "I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance; redeem thou my right to thyself, for I cannot redeem it." The way was now clear for Boaz to announce to the assembled elders that he would take both the land and Ruth and the city elders pronounced their blessing (v11-12) on the new family.
In this union we see the nature, character, and perseverance of the three characters "vindicated" by God, for the sweet-natured Ruth became the wife of Boaz and in time gave birth to a son, Obed ("worshipper") a name given to him by the neighbourhood women who came to rejoice with Naomi because she had a redeemer. So we find that Naomi, who was "the empty one," was now full as the doting and fulfilled nurse-maid and the women (v15) predicted that Boaz would care for Naomi by renewing her life and giving her security for her old age and Ruth was declared to be of more worth than seven sons! The demonstrable faith revealed by these women, despite the bitter state in which Naomi had returned to Bethlehem, has now brought them from obscurity to a position where they are remembered as heroines of the faith and ancestors of King David (ref. Matthew 1:5-6) and, most wonderfully, in the lineage of our Mighty God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ!
It may seem surprising that the one who reflects God's love so clearly in this book is the Moabite woman Ruth. Yet her complete loyalty to the Israelite family into which she has been received by marriage and her total devotion to her desolate mother-in-law mark her as a true daughter of Israel and a worthy ancestress of David. She strikingly exemplifies the truth that participation in the coming kingdom of God is decided, not by blood and birth, but by the conformity of one's life to the will of God through the "obedience that comes from faith" (Romans 1:5). Her place in the ancestry of David signifies that all nations will be represented in the kingdom of David's greater Son represented in this typology by the kinsman-redeemer, Boaz, the "perfect gentleman."
While the story is a personal account of a family's real experiences under the providential care of God, it is also the historical link with the past. In essence, the very Davidic line of Christ was threatened during the chaotic period of the judges; and God Himself had overruled to preserve "the seed of the woman" which would ultimately bring forth the Messiah who was to crush the head of the serpent! It is also interesting to note the reference in the benediction to Tamar who was also a Gentile (Canaanite) girl and was also in the line of Christ's ancestors. There can be no doubt that the inclusion of both Ruth and Tamar is intended to remind us of the ultimate desire of God to extend His grace unto all people. The relationship between Boaz and Ruth becomes a beautiful picture of the love of Christ for his Gentile bride - the church. He loves her with pure grace and undeserved favor while she has nothing with which to commend herself to Him - and yet, because of His loving-kindness (Hebrew: chesed), He extends to her the opportunity of redemption.
The drama of redemption which unfolds in the book of Ruth is one of the most beautiful stories in all of ancient literature. This tiny book alone provides us with the clearest insights we have into the personal family details of a devout Hebrew family of the pre-monarchial period. It stands as a refreshing contrast to the chaotic and the disheartening ending of the book of Judges. In this dramatic portrayal of the meeting and marriage of the great-grandparents of David we see the true heart of God, who is always interested in the personal details of the lives of His children. As in the account of Abraham's servant seeking a bride for his master's son (Gen 20:4), we discover that the will of God certainly extends to the matter of finding one's life's partner. This reminds the reader that God is interested in every detail of his personal life, and the will of God is never brought about by panic or manipulation. Nothing really happens by chance in the life of the believer, for even what appear to be circumstantial quirks of history are really under the sovereign control of the Lord of History - Jesus Christ! The book of Ruth also provides us with the clearest portrayal in the Old Testament of the concept of redemption and certainly provides the contextual biblical understanding of the activity of Christ as the Redeemer of the church, which becomes his Gentile bride. In the sovereignty of God over human history, Boaz becomes a perfect type or illustration of Christ, who would also come forth from Bethlehem and go out into the fields of harvest and call unto Himself a Gentile bride, to whom He would extend all the love that grace could give to redeem and endue her with all the rights and privileges of heir-ship that she might bring forth His "seed." One day all who have found faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob shall rejoice together in heaven, "… for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready" (Rev 19:7). On that glorious day her redemption shall be complete!
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