Messages In The Book Of Ruth
By Jonathan Mitchell
The book of Ruth presents us with a beautiful story of family loyalty, love, hope, concern for the welfare and future of others, faithful friendship, integrity and cultural/communal responsibility. It has been compared to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis for its beauty, the witness of the providence of God, its positive theme and its uplifting conclusion.
It has been traditionally considered as pure history, and due to its setting in the time of Israel's history "when the judges judged," it found it place in the Christian canon just after the Book of Judges. The Hebrew canon does not place it with the histories, but rather in the Writings. More recent scholars estimate the date of its writing as being later, in the Persian era, and view it as a historical novel, perhaps based upon historical characters, or as a polemical tract that was written to counter the reforms being enacted by Ezra and Nehemiah. But even if written more recently, it could represent an ancient tradition.
Marvin R. Wilson and John H. Stek (NIV Study Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, 1995; p 361) give the literary features:
"Marvelously symmetrical throughout... from a briefly sketched account of distress (1:1-5; 71 words in Hebrew) through four episodes to a concluding account of relief and hope... with equal brevity (4:13-17; 71 words in Hebrew). The crucial turning point occurs exactly midway.... Contrasts is also used to good effect: pleasant (the meaning of 'Naomi') and bitter (1:20), full and empty (1:21), and the living and the dead (2:20). Most striking is the contrast between two of the main characters, Ruth and Boaz: The one is young, alien, destitute widow, while the other is a middle-aged, well-to-do Israelite securely established in his home community..."
Although the story is about Ruth, Wilson and Stek observe that,
"Redemption is a key concept... the Hebrew word in its various forms occurs 23 times. The book is primarily a story of Naomi's transformation from despair to happiness through the selfless, God-blessed acts of Ruth and Boaz" (ibid p 360).
This observation leads us beyond the consideration of the story as possibly being a point-in-time polemic that argues for marriage of Israelites to Gentiles, and beyond establishing a piece of the genealogy of David (Ruth is his grandmother) as well as of Jesus, the Messiah (Mt. 1:5), to the consideration of this book as being a story of "return" (this word is used 12 times in ch. 1) via Naomi's journey "from loss to fullness."
The theme of return is the overarching plot in God's plan of the ages: from the "pleasant" garden of Eden, through the "bitter" exile into death, then back again into the resplendent New Jerusalem that is characterized as a paradise (Lu. 23:43; Rev. 21:9-22:5; the term for the Gen. 2:8 Garden is "paradise" in the LXX). The resurrected Jesus is the Second Human, the last (eschatos) Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-47) that brings humanity back to the Tree of Life. Or, as Paul put it,
"from out of the midst of Him, through the midst of Him, and into the midst of Him" (Rom. 11:36).
A famine being the cause for Naomi's family to leave Bethlehem and head into a Gentile country (a 50-mile journey to the eastern side of the Dead Sea valley, in Moab) was the same cause for Abraham to go into Egypt (Gen. 12:10), and then for his grandson Jacob to do the same (Gen. 47:4). Jacob's sojourn in Egypt became the place where his immediate family died and later his descendants lived there in slavery and oppression (echoed in this story by Naomi's loss of husband and sons and thus becoming destitute in a foreign land). The redemption of Israel (Ex. 6:6; 15:13) via their Exodus and the return to Palestine is answered by Naomi (and Ruth, the next generation) returning into her inheritance through the intervention of a redeemer (Boaz). Naomi's story charts a similar course as the Exodus; hers begins with lack and loss and ends in restoration through her redemption.
Boaz is a type of Christ, the Redeemer of humanity, and Ruth becomes the type of the Lamb's bride - or, to use Paul's metaphor, the "body of Christ." We can see a figure of the inclusion of the Gentiles in Ruth's union with an Israelite (Boaz) which was fulfilled (using Paul's orchard metaphor in Rom. 11:17ff) in the union of the wild olive branches (the Gentiles) with Israel's olive tree.
"When Ruth asked [Boaz] to spread his cloak over her [3:9] she was speaking symbolically of marriage. The same figure of speech is found in Ezk. 16:8b" (J.G. Baldwin, The New Bible Commentary: Revised, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970, p 281; brackets mine). At the same time, in asking for marriage, she informs Boaz that he is a kinsman-redeemer, so she is thus seeking her redemption, Naomi's redemption and the redemption of Naomi's land (the inheritance). Boaz's response (2:12) characterizes her actions as having come "to take refuge" under Yahweh's "wings."
The metaphor is an echo of Deut. 32:11 and is also found in Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7 and 91:4. Jesus also used it in Mt. 23:37. Geoffrey F. Wood makes an interesting correlation:
"... the author... may have used the 'wings' to depict Ruth's conversion in terms of a spiritual entrance into the Holy of Holies where Yahweh dwelt above the Ark, flanked by the great, winged cherubim (Ex. 25:20; 1Kgs 6:27). Rabbis of later times described proselytes as people who took refuge under the wings of the Shekinah" (The Jerome biblical Commentary, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, p 607).
At Naomi's direction, Ruth entered the field that belonged to Boaz (a type of Jesus, our Redeemer, and the field of His reign into which He sent His apprentices), and this was at the time of the barley harvest (recall Jesus' references to "the harvest") which was also the time of the Feast of Pentecost (and later, in the 1st century AD, the time of the giving of the Holy Spirit).
In 4:11-12 we find the elders speaking this blessing:
"May Yahweh make the woman [Ruth]... like Rachel and Leah who together built up the house of Israel..."
This can be seen figuratively as a prophecy of a new Israel (the Jerusalem that is above - Gal.4:26) that arises out of the death of a husband (cf Rom. 7:1-6). Then the blessing ties Ruth to Tamar and her son Perez (through Judah), who was in the genealogy that led to David, and ultimately to Jesus the Messiah.
Jon L. Berquist has noted other messages in this story:
"The story deals with issues of gender roles and family structure. It starts with a typical family, but then death transforms the family to a situation of only a mother and a daughter-in-law. This relationship plays the highest significance in most of the story - a relationship relatively undefined within the culture and would not have been considered a family situation that implied protection.
"In the process of filling the lacks and providing the needs, the story transforms the normal Israelite family to something almost thoroughly unrecognizable as a family. The characters add roles that transcend the boundaries of gender distinctions. A Moabitess daughter-in-law becomes the provider of food; she takes on a male role of field labor; she takes the role of sexual aggressor in her pursuit of Boaz. Naomi functions later as the matchmaker, a typically male role. The women of the community name the child, taking over the male role of naming.
"The story argues against standard definitions of gender and the limitations that the society places upon roles as part of its social construction of gender. The women bring themselves into self-sufficiency and solve their own problems without even mentioning the name of God.
"The book focuses on ethnicity issues; the experiences of the family become fatal, at least for the men, in the foreign land of Moab. To this point, the foreign land operates within the traditions of Israelite literature; it is an evil place from which no good comes. Interactions with the foreign lead to ruin.
"Ruth becomes the story's salvation. She solves the problems; she bears the child that solves Naomi's last problem and even becomes an ancestress of David. Israel's laws forbade the inclusion of Moabites in the assembly of worship. King David was one-eighth Moabite; Solomon one sixteenth Moabite. Thus, the story legitimates the inclusion of foreigners, arguing even that they are the only way to solve life's problems.
"The story defines the initial problem as the lack of food and the lack of proper relationships within the community, through men. Boaz's role as mediator rather than as solution becomes clear as he disappears from the story before the end. The practical strategies for solving the problems are twofold. First there is a sense of inclusion. Where the tradition demands that the community reject foreigners, the book insists on their inclusion. The ethnic inclusion becomes an essential part of the story's drive. The characters who accept Ruth more fully are those who work toward solving the problems. The characters practice the addition of social roles in patterns that deviate from the social norm and form a new family structure. The story deconstructs the old style of family and builds a new one; social roles have shifted.
"The Book of Ruth senses God's activity within the world as people go beyond the limits placed upon them by society. The social definitions of ethnicity and gender are not only unhelpful but they block the successful solution of life's problems. Inclusion and the violation of role limits become the proper ways of living out one's faith in the midst of a pluralistic world" (Judaism in Persia's Shadow, A Social and Historical Approach, Fortress Press, 1995, pp 223-225). Berquist views The Book of Ruth as originating within the era of the Persian Empire.
Bullinger (The Companion Bible, p 361) gives the following note on the first line of the book,
"Now it came to pass in the days" (the CVOT reads: "It was in the days..."): "Occurs five times. Always denotes impending trouble, followed by happy deliverance. Cf Gen. 14:1; Est. 1:1; Isa. 7:1; Jer. 1:3."
Baldwin notes that this opening formula
"is the accepted introduction to historical narrative (cf AV Jos. 1:1; Jdg. 1:1)..." and states, "No further evidence is needed to prove that the writer intended his book to be taken as historical, though it deals with an ordinary family and not with the exploits of the great" (ibid p 277).
However, an author with an agenda could have used the accepted form to lend credibility to his text. Its place in the Jewish canon (in the Writings, not the histories) gives pause to accepting Baldwin's conclusion out of hand. Nonetheless, it could have simply been an enhancement (as noted in it literary form) of historical oral tradition which was first written down at a later period.
Herbert G. May observes that,
"The story moves on a personal rather than a theological plane..." (The Interpreter's One-volume Commentary on the Bible, Abingdon Press, 1971, p 151). He also suggests that the author writes, "to answer the question whether it is right and good that a Gentile woman be welcomed through marriage into the community of Israel" (ibid p 150). The story ends with the elders and the women of Bethlehem voicing their approval.
Naomi's view of God as being sovereign over the affairs of humans comports with Job's views (Job 1:21b; 2:10b) and what is stated in Dan. 4:34b-35, and 37. Here, she states, in 1:20-21,
"He Who-Suffices [Shaddai] has brought intense bitterness on me. I was full when I went out, yet empty has Yahweh caused me to return... He has humbled me, and He Who-Suffices, He has done evil to me" (CVOT).
But in 2:3b, we find the words concerning Ruth,
"And her chance happened..." (CVOT), or as the NIV renders it, "As it turned out..."
Here the author is indicating that the hand of Providence is guiding Ruth's (and thus, also, Naomi's) path. Naomi's perception of God's hand in her life changes when in 2:19b she learns that Ruth had worked in the field belonging to Boaz, and so in 2:20 she proclaims,
"Blessed be he [i.e., Boaz] by Yahweh, Who has not forsaken His benignity (or: kindness) toward the living and the dead" (CVOT).
So we see God working what had been "evil" into a greater good (Rom. 8:28) for Naomi, for Ruth, for Boaz, and for their descendants. This is God's "plan of the ages" (Eph. 3:11). It is the central message of The Book of Ruth. The message of this book is that God turns the bad into good, or as Joseph told his brothers, "God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance" (Gen. 45:7).
The redemption in this story is based upon the Levirate law (Deut. 25:5-6), the intent of which was to carry on the name of a man who dies without a son "so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel," and so also to preserve the family inheritance. To do this, a relative of the dead man would assume the widow as a wife in order to produce a son for the man who died. We see this worked out in Ruth's case. It not only gave her a future, but one for Naomi as well. Israel's Messiah died without leaving a son. How does this Mosaic law come into play in this situation?
One scenario can put Christ's body (His many brothers - Rom. 8:29) as those who corporately took Israel and the Gentiles (ethnic multitudes; nations) as a wife (i.e., the Jerusalem which is above: Gal. 4:26) to produce sons unto Him, to bear His name and enjoy His inheritance. We see Paul saying in Gal. 4:19,
"O my little children (born ones), with whom I am progressing, again, in childbirth labor (travail; labor pains) until Christ may be suddenly formed (= until the Anointing would be at some point birthed) within you folks!"
And in 1 Cor. 4:15 he says,
"... in one moment I myself fathered (gave birth to; generated) you people within and in union with Christ Jesus - through means of the message of abundant wellness (the news of fortunate, ideal ease and goodness)."
Another scenario could be that of viewing Yahweh as the Husband that died via the death of Christ, so that,
"... you folks also were made dead to the Law (or: were put to death by the Law [=Torah] and with the Law), through the body of the Christ, [proceeding] into the situation to become [the wife] for (or: to; in; with) a different One - in (to; for) the One being roused and raised forth from out of the midst of dead folks - to the end that we may bear fruit by God (or: produce a harvest in, for, to and with God)." (Rom. 7:4)
But another metaphor is that of our being "baptized into [Christ's] death" (Rom. 6:3) and now being,
"... folks engrafted and produced together (or: planted and made to grow together; brought forth together; congenital) in, by, to and with the result of the likeness of (or: the effect of the similar manner from) His death, then certainly we shall also continue existing [in and with the effects of the likeness] of The Resurrection (or: which is the resurrection; or: from, and with qualities of, the resurrection)." (Rom. 6:5)
This follows Ruth's comparison to Rachel and Leah, a produce of a new Israel, or as Paul termed it, "a new creation" composed of both the Jews and the Gentiles. Here resurrection is the counterpart to "raising up seed" unto the dead.
As with the multiple parables of Jesus that were likened to God's reign, sovereign activity and influences, so is what Paul describes as the new life "in Christ," or, "being joined to the Lord" (1 Cor. 6:17), or "Christ in us" - all describing the same reality of which the redemption of Naomi and Ruth (through the Levirate law) were the type and shadow.
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