The story of Ruth: A sunny oasis in a dark eraWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Ruth, the woman as well as the book, is a favourite among many readers of the Bible, and it’s easy to see why. Hers is a beautiful story, beautifully written, and it occupies a special place in both Judaism and Christianity.
In the Jewish arrangement of Scripture, Ruth is part of the megilloth, or five small scrolls, along with the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther. Each of these short books is an outlier, unique in style and content, and each is read on an appropriate feast day in the Jewish calendar.
In the Christian Old Testament, however, Ruth is among the historical books, a small, sunny oasis wedged between the dark history of the Judges and the murky, tortuous rise of the Israelite monarchy recorded in 1 Samuel.
Ruth is a lovely story but also much more than that. It’s not just a biblical sorbet to cleanse the palate between two major chapters of Israel’s history.
On the contrary, the story of Ruth offers a gracious interruption to the canonical flow of Scripture on several levels: historical, literary, ethical, theological, cultural, messianic. Like a brightly lit subject against a dark background, Ruth highlights the hope, kindness, peace and joy that are integral to God’s overarching story of redemption.
A bright chapter in a brutal history
The story of Ruth is set during the time of the judges, one of the darkest periods in the history of Israel. It was an era when there was no king in the land and everyone did whatever they wanted – including acts of brutal violence, sexual assault, inter-tribal warfare, public idolatry and human sacrifice. There was a downward spiral into apostasy and depravity: the people would sin, God would hand them over to a foreign enemy, they would cry out, he would deliver them, and the awful cycle would repeat.
From a canonical standpoint, Ruth interrupts this chaotic history, quiets it, and in effect, grinds it to a halt. The cycle of sin, brutality and warfare is stopped in its tracks by the story of a young foreign widow clinging to Israel’s God, caring for her bereaved mother-in-law, and marrying a well-to-do, kindly landowner who secures the two women’s prospects amongst the people of God.
Ruth is one of the most appealing narratives – and characters – in all of Scripture, offering a bright respite of peace and calm between the grim history that went before and the sketchy one to follow. The repeated statement in Judges, that there was no king in Israel, cries out for a monarch who would rule with justice and righteousness, and Ruth, an ancestor of David, points to that fulfillment. The rise of the monarchy had its own dark twists and turns, but the story of Ruth remains a beacon of the shalom God intends for his creation.
Pastoral romance amidst tales of war
The book of Judges is in essence a cycle of war stories that reads a bit like a modern graphic novel or a grim and gritty series on Netflix. Except for Deborah, its heroes are morally ambiguous leaders who engage in violent acts with questionable motives, but are nonetheless used by God to deliver his people. They’re more anti-heroes of the faith than anything else. As one commentator noted, Judges is the type of book that appeals to adolescent boys but is disturbing to most other people.
Ruth, on the other hand, can be described as a pastoral romance, and in terms of genre, it’s hard to imagine a sharper contrast with the two-fisted tales in the book of Judges. Ruth is a love story that broadly follows ancient literary conventions of the genre. The setting is bucolic, taking place in the countryside during harvest time. If it were a painting or a movie, it’s easy to imagine everything suffused with the golden light of a late afternoon. Ruth is written with masterful narrative art, all the more beautiful because it’s a true story.
Together with Judges, Ruth demonstrates the breadth of literary variety in God’s Word. The darkest accounts sit right next to the brightest, and each must be approached on its own terms. While both are historical books, they record history in diverse ways. Each is meant to appeal not only to the mind, but also to the heart and the imagination, as multicoloured threads in the tapestry of Scripture.
A study in kindness, human and divine
Kindness is one of the core themes in the book of Ruth. The Hebrew word for kindness, hesed, appears three times in the text, but the concept runs through the entire narrative and suffuses it, much like the warm light of its harvest setting. As a whole, the story of Ruth is conspicuously free of any focus on sin or judgment, offering instead a study in kindness, both human and divine.
Of all the ways Ruth interrupts the canonical flow of the Old Testament, this sunburst of kindness is surely the most pronounced and the most welcome. The last chapters of Judges that immediately precede Ruth contain some of the most disturbing accounts found anywhere in Scripture. Their stories of brutality, rape, dismemberment, and the abduction and forced marriage of women illustrate in graphic terms how low Israel had sunk. To call them acts of unkindness would be a gross understatement.
Against the backdrop of these darkest of days comes the kindness of Ruth, the young Moabite widow who pursues the well-being of her mother-in-law Naomi with unflagging energy and joy. In turn, Boaz shows gentle expressions of kindness toward Ruth throughout the story, in the end marrying her and becoming the kinsman redeemer to her and Naomi. Above all else, there’s the kindness of God to all three of them, orchestrating the events that would bring his blessing upon their lives and futures.
Welcome for widows and foreigners
Throughout the Old Testament, God often expresses his concern for the poor and disenfranchised, for widows and foreigners, and he commands his people to share that same concern. More than that, God intended for the Israelites to be his representatives to the nations around them. Right from the start, God promised that through one of Abraham’s descendants – the coming messianic ruler – people from all nations would be redeemed and brought into his kingdom.
By the time of the Judges, these principles had mostly been forgotten, if not outright ignored, by the people of Israel, but the story of Ruth brings them to the fore in a palpable way. Ruth and Naomi are destitute widows who come to Israel with little future prospects. Moreover, Ruth is a member of a foreign enemy nation who has come to faith in Israel’s God, marries into the covenant community, and becomes an ancestor of King David.
There are no powerful, influential people in the book of Ruth, no judges, military leaders, prophets, priests or kings, only a rural landowner and a pair of widows, one of them an immigrant. Except for this scriptural account, they’d be unknown to history. Their story shows how God works through the smallest events and the least prominent individuals. Most of all, it demonstrates God’s redeeming, inclusive love for widows, foreigners and outsiders who live on the fringe of society.
A story about women, told by women
In much of the literature of the ancient world, particularly in historical writing, the voices and stories of women are largely absent. Even when present, they tend to be generalized and stereotyped, written from the perspective of the predominantly male authors. The Scriptures, however, present a radical departure from this practice. They preserve the stories of women not as generic characters but as real people with distinct personalities and their own perspectives – as one would expect, given that women as well as men are made in the image of their Creator.
The book of Ruth is a prime example of this. Not only is it the story of two women, Ruth and Naomi, but it’s told from their perspective. In modern terms, they are the point-of-view characters in the narrative. The bulk of the account focuses on their private lives, their relationship, their bond of love and respect, their struggles and hopes as they strive to establish a life for themselves in Israel.
Richard Bauckham, an Anglican scholar, describes Ruth and other passages focusing on women as “gynocentric interruptions” in the mostly “androcentric” (male-centred) text of Scripture. Notably two other such interruptions occur in Judges and 1 Samuel, adjacent to Ruth, in the stories of Deborah and Hannah, two of the most exemplary figures in Israel’s history. In contrast to other ancient writings, these interruptions complement the more common male voices in Scripture. The accounts may have been collected and written by men after the fact, guided by the Holy Spirit. But Bauckham argues that a personal story like Ruth’s was probably handed down by the women who knew her and Naomi, and others afterward, who thus preserved their voices and participated in the formation of the canon.
The shining thread of messianic hope
There’s one more interruption that occurs within the story of Ruth itself, in the form of the brief genealogy at the very end of the book. It’s a jarring shift in style that has led skeptical critics to assume it was tacked on haphazardly by a later editor. But once again, Bauckham makes the case that the genealogy is integral to the account, marking the end of the gynocentric interruption and signalling a return to the main storyline of Israel’s history.
The genealogy signifies much more than that, however. It reiterates the final paragraph of the narrative proper: Ruth and Boaz got married and had a son named Obed, who would become the father of Jesse, who would become the father of David. Much like the book as a whole, nestled between two major chapters in Israel’s history, the genealogy backtracks to Perez, the son of Judah, and then traces the royal lineage forward to David, the man after God’s own heart who would bring peace, stability and justice to the land. Read in canonical context, it’s a most hopeful and optimistic way to end such an uplifting story.
From a New Testament perspective, the story of Ruth, complete with its genealogy, takes on even deeper significance. The immigrant Moabite widow is not merely an ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, but of the promised messianic ruler who would come from his line. The theme of the kinsman redeemer foreshadows the work of the Messiah, and Ruth’s inclusion in his lineage shows that his redemptive love extends to every kind of person – rich and poor, male and female, Jew and gentile.
Jesus said that all of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings – spoke of him. Sometimes that messianic voice is distinct, at other times indirect and muted. In the book of Judges, it’s barely a whisper. But rarely in the Old Testament does the thread of messianic hope – and of the kindness, joy and peace that will mark the messianic kingdom – shine as brightly as it does in the story of Ruth.
Sources and further reading
Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, Eerdmans, 2002.
Adele Berlin, “The story of Ruth: Reading the book of Ruth,” Biblical Archaeology Society, January 26, 2021.
Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (The New American Commentary), Holman Reference, 1999.
Aimee Byrd, “The female voices in Scripture,” Reformation 21, November 10, 2016.
Sarah Bowler, “3 characteristics of ‘hesed love’ in the book of Ruth,” author’s blog, November 20, 2014.
Leila L. Bronner, “Ruth and lovingkindness,” My Jewish Learning, accessed February 22, 2021.
Mary Beth McGreevy, “The Gospel in Ruth,” Crossway, March 18, 2019.
Barry G. Webb, Judges and Ruth: God in Chaos, (Preaching the Word), Crossway, 2015.
“Ruth: Big message in a short story,” Bible Project, accessed February 22, 2021.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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