RUTH: A DRAMA IN FOUR ACTS
Ruth is the third woman named in the lineage of Jesus recorded in Matthew 1. Her story, told in the Old Testament Book of Ruth, is familiar to many of us.
A family of four moves from Bethlehem to Moab to escape a famine. The two sons marry Moabite women, but soon after tragedy strikes and all three women are widowed. With no hope for a future in Moab, Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, head back to Bethlehem. Along the way Naomi has a change of heart, and urges Orpah and Ruth to return to their families (releasing them from their marital obligations). Orpah turns around but Ruth stays, pledging “Wherever you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (1:16).
Although Naomi’s late husband has family in Bethlehem, no one comes forward to help the two women, so Ruth takes the initiative to save them from starvation. She finds food by gleaning in the fields, ending up in a field owned by Boaz, a wealthy relative of Naomi’s late husband. Boaz is impressed by Ruth and takes an interest in her welfare, offering privileges and protection in the fields. Ruth gleans until the end of the barley and wheat harvests, about two months.
The harvest ends, and still no one comes to their aid. Concerned, Naomi instructs Ruth to go to Boaz privately in the dead of night. Her intent is to secure a marriage proposal for Ruth. But Ruth takes it a step further and petitions Boaz to take on the role of kinsman-redeemer; a tradition of taking responsibility for destitute relatives. Impressed by Ruth’s character and loyalty to Naomi, Boaz agrees.
The arrangements are made with no small degree of finesse, since there is a closer relative who must be dealt with first and money is involved. Ruth and Boaz marry, and have a son, making Ruth an ancestor of David, Israel’s most illustrious king. The book concludes with a genealogy.
I’ve heard a few sermons on Ruth, for there is plenty to glean here (pun intended). Much can be said about her devotion to her mother-in-law, the role of Boaz as a kinsman redeemer, the interactions between Ruth and Boaz. But as I read the story in light of Advent, I found myself reflecting on other themes.
PURPOSE OF THE GENEALOGY
“These are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 2Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.” Ruth 4:18-22.
While genealogies are not usually all that interesting to me, this one caught my attention.
For one thing, it seemed like a strange ending to the book. With a little bit of research I learned that around the time the Book of Ruth was written some challenges had been made to the legitimacy of King David’s rule, one being his Moabite heritage. The nation of Moab had a long history of conflict with Israel and intermarriage between the two countries was frowned upon.
Many biblical scholars believe that the story of Ruth was recorded to establish David’s right to the throne.
“The Book of Ruth [conveys that] Ruth the Moabite is ultimately integrated into the Israelite community and is accepted by that community (the exclusion of Moabites in Deut. 23:4 not withstanding)…By ending with David, the book celebrates the rewards granted to Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz because of their virtuous actions” (JPS, p. 96).
The genealogy clarifies that Ruth, Boaz, and their son Obed were from the tribe of Judah.
The preceding chapters describe Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, her reputation for being a woman of valor, and her marriage to Boaz. These facts serve to document and justify her inclusion in the family history. An interesting aside is that the phrase translated “woman of valor” here – “eschet hayil” – is the same phrase used to describe the Proverbs 31 woman.
The genealogy is also interesting because Obed (Ruth’s son) represents the reuniting of Lot and Abraham’s families.
The nation of Moab was descended from Lot’s son of the same name. These families had been separated for many generations. That is a story for another time, but it is not surprising that God choose “Ruth the Moabite” to be a participant in reconciliation.
In an important way, her story “functions as a counterpoint to the negative attitude toward Moabite and other foreign women in the biblical accounts of Ezra-Nehemiah” ( JPS Bible Commentary, p. xlv).
PROMINENCE OF THE GEOGRAPHY
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2
It wasn’t until I visited Israel that I connected the dots in understanding how the Book of Ruth relates to the greater narratives of the Bible.
Since Bethlehem is in the West Bank and governed by the Palestinian National Authority, our bus had to pass through “Rachel’s Crossing”, a guarded Israeli checkpoint. Between the checkpoint and our destination we passed through the suburb of Beit Sahur, which tradition holds to be the site of the angels’ visitation to the shepherds the night Jesus was born.
As we drove by a sign that said aptly “Shepherds Fields”, one of the professors leading our tour casually commented, “They say these would have been the same fields that Ruth gleaned.”
All of a sudden the story came alive and I could see Ruth in the fields, hands raw from the gleaning, back aching from the manual labor. It was striking to realize that God chose to announce the birth of Jesus in this very spot; showing compassion for the marginalized yet again. After all, the shepherds and the gleaners of that time would have been in the same strata of society, at the bottom of the social ladder.
- It was in Bethlehem that Judah’s tribe settled (remember Judah and Tamar?)
- It was to Bethlehem that Naomi returned with her daughter-in-law, Ruth
- It was in Bethlehem that Ruth and Boaz (a descendant of Rahab) married and had a son, Obed
- It was in Bethlehem that Obed raised a family, even a grandson who would be king (and who would marry Bathsheba)
- It was to Bethlehem that Joseph traveled with his expectant wife, Mary
- It was in Bethlehem that Jesus, the true King, was born
- It was in the fields of Bethlehem that angels appeared to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds
Something about this consistency of the geography in the biblical narrative brings me comfort.
I think it’s the idea that God doesn’t give up on us, but keeps coming back to meet us in those places of need, giving us the opportunity to take our own place in the genealogy of the family of God.
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Eskenazi, T. C. and T. Frymer-Kenski. (2011). The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth. Jewish Publication Society. Philadelphia.
Nielsen, K. (1997). Ruth: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY.
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