The Women of Advent: Ruth

Gail Wallace

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In this 5-part Advent series we look at the women in Christ’s lineage: TamarRahabRuthBathsheba, and Mary of Nazareth. Read Ruth’s story in the Book of Ruth.

RUTH: A DRAMA IN FOUR ACTS

Ruth is the third woman named in the lineage of Jesus recorded in Matthew 1. Like Tamar and Rahab before her, Ruth “the Moabite” is not of Jewish descent, yet she plays a significant part in the history of Israel as told in the Old Testament Book of Ruth.  In Jewish tradition the Scroll of Ruth is read every year at the festival of Shavuot, and Ruth’s famous pledge to her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) is hailed as a model for faith conversion.  Ruth is essentially a drama in four acts, written by an unknown author. Here is a brief summary of the story.

Ruth 1

An Israelite family (Elimalech, Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion) moves from Bethlehem to nearby Moab to escape a famine.  The sons marry Moabite women, but tragedy strikes and all three women are widowed.  With no hope for a future in Moab, Naomi gathers her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, and they head back to Bethlehem.  This was no simple journey, but one that would have taken about a week, depending on the starting point. [1]

Along the way Naomi has a change of heart, and urges the younger women to return to Moab, releasing them from their marital obligations and giving them a second chance for a family in their own land.  Orpah takes her up on the offer and turns back but Ruth stays, pledging to Naomi “Wherever you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (1:16).

Ruth 2

Although relatives of Naomi’s late husband still live in Bethlehem, no one comes forward to help the two women.  Ruth takes the initiative to save them from starvation by following the reapers in the fields to glean what was left behind and using the earnings to buy food. [2]  She ends up gleaning in a field owned by Boaz, a wealthy relative.  Boaz is impressed by Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and takes an interest in her welfare, offering privileges and protection in the fields (apparently this was not the safest place for a woman to work).  Ruth gleans until the end of the harvest season, which means she worked the fields for about two months.

Ruth 3

When the harvest season ends so does their source of income, and still no one in the family comes to their aid.  Concerned, Naomi instructs Ruth to go to Boaz privately at night to try and get him to agree to a marriage proposal.  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. [3]  Impressed by Ruth’s character and loyalty to Naomi, Boaz agrees to do both.

Ruth 4

The arrangements are made with no small degree of diplomacy, 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 celebrated king.  The story ends with a host of blessings all around.

I’ve heard more than a few sermons on Ruth. Much can be said about her devotion to her mother-in-law, the role of Boaz as a kinsman redeemer, and the unusual interaction between Ruth and Boaz.  But in thinking about the story in light of Advent, I am intrigued by two other themes: the purpose of the genealogy at the end of the book and the prominence of the geography in the story.

THE GENEALOGY OF RUTH

While the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy, the Book of Ruth ends with one:

“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.

I don’t usually find genealogies all that interesting, but this one gets my attention.  For one thing, we learn that only does Naomi’s family survive, it thrives once Ruth and Boaz are married, with just a few generations separating their story from that of the shepherd boy and king, David.

The genealogy also establishes 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 are milestones that justify and validate her inclusion in the family history.  It is interesting that the Hebrew phrase translated as “a woman of valor” (eschet hayil) in Ruth 3:11, is the same phrase used in Proverbs 3:10 to describe the model woman.

Because Moab and Israel had a long history of conflict and intermarriage was frowned upon, some scholars believe that the genealogy is included to defend David’s right to the throne at a time when his legitimacy was being challenged. [4]

As Eskenazi & Frymer-Kenski note in their excellent commentary,

“…Ruth the Moabite is ultimately integrated into the Israelite community and is accepted by that community (the exclusion of Moabites in Deut. 23:4 notwithstanding) …By ending with David, the book celebrates the rewards granted to Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz because of their virtuous actions”. [5]

In a sense, the birth of Ruth’s son Obed symbolizes the reuniting of the families of Lot and Abraham.  The nation of Moab was descended from Lot’s son, and 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”. [6]

THE GEOGRAPHY OF RUTH

When I visited Israel, I began to understand how the Book of Ruth relates to the greater narrative of the Bible.  Since Bethlehem is in the West Bank, 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 are the same fields that Ruth gleaned.” All of a sudden the story came alive.  I could see Ruth in the fields, hands raw from the gleaning, back aching from the manual labor.  I was also struck by the realization that the choice to announce the Jesus’ birth in these fields was a demonstration of God’s compassion for the marginalized.  After all, many of the shepherds and the gleaners of Ruth’s time would have been at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.

Typically, we only focus on Bethlehem at Christmas time.  But this “little town” has big significance in the history of Israel.

  • It was in Bethlehem that Judah’s tribe settled (remember Tamar?)
  • It was to Bethlehem that Naomi returned with 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, including a descendant who would become king (and 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.

“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


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NOTES

[1] The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament|Ruth, p. 277.

[2] Ibid, p. 278. “Israel’s law mandated provision for the poor and destitute by allowing them to follow the reapers in the fields to gather what was dropped or left behind. This solution to a social problem required that the recipients work hard for their provision, and it therefore preserved the dignity that is sometimes forfeited by those who are entirely dependent on the generosity of others.”

[3] According to Leviticus 25:25, when a person became so poor that they had to sell or forfeit their property, a prosperous relative was to redeem or buy back the property for that family member. This person was called a “kinsman-redeemer”.  Apparently Naomi’s late husband still owned property in Bethlehem, and so Ruth went beyond seeking just a marriage proposal to remind Boaz of his responsibilities as a kinsman-redeemer to Naomi.

[4] Nielsen, K. (1997). Ruth: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY.

[5] Eskenazi & Frymer-Kenski. The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth, pg. 96

[6] Ibid, pg. xlv

There are several significant themes in Ruth that are not addressed in this advent devotional.  For further study we highly recommend “The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules” by Carolyn Custis James.

Updated 12/6/2021

Gail Wallace

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28 Comments

  • Deu 23:3 “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever,
    Deu 23:4 because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.

    My understanding is that the book of Ruth came about as a mitigating contrast to the edicts of Ezra 10 to divorce foreign women.

    The background is as follows: Rehoboam was known to have an Ammonite mother named Naamah, see 1 Kings 14:21 and other verses. So could Rehoboam enter the assembly of the LORD? Or was he perhaps an illegitimate king? Details about Naamah are lacking in Scripture. The subtext of Ruth is whether David is a legitimate king, this would have even more staggering implications than Rehoboam if David was not legitimate.

    Based on previous history, the Moabites were seen as having seductive and idolatrous women, so intermarriage with an Israelite man was prohibited as it would be expected to lead to idolatry. So the key question on whether David was legitimate becomes “What makes someone of Israel?” Is it ancestry or faith (or both) or something else?

    Hence the story of Ruth. In that story we see Naomi become Mara (“bitter”) and she is the counter/foil to Ruth, no one teaches that one should go to the Naomi/Mara school of evangelism (Ruth 1:15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”) or the Naomi/Mara school of dating (“Lie down….”). But Ruth shows herself to be a faithful woman of valor, as Boaz recognizes and as the reader is supposed to recognize. So how does the reader answer the implied question about whether Ruth (and therefore David) is legitimately of Israel?

    And if David and Rehoboam, how about others, including us?

    • I think you are right that welcoming the outsider is a key theme in the book of Ruth. Thanks for elaborating on it here, Don!

      Several commentators I read agreed with you that Naomi was not as kind to Ruth as we sometimes think – but perhaps that came out of her grief? I’d like to think they had a longstanding relationship that helped Ruth overlook the “Mara” side of Naomi during this difficult season! One source said Naomi had probably been in Moab for about ten years, so that is not an unreasonable scenario.

      It was also noted that in Rabbinic tradition Ruth is considered a “model convert”, for her confession of faith in Chapter 1 and her subsequent assimilation in to her new culture. I didn’t realize that the Scroll of Ruth is one of the five read each year in the Jewish calendar. Ruth is highly esteemed in the Judaic tradition.

      And yes, how about us? Hard to find a better advent message than that 🙂

  • Love the story of Ruth. Love, especially, the thought of the lines of Abraham in Isaac and Ishmael being reunited. And, even more, I love that Boaz was willing for Obed to be known to carry on the name of another and not his own. The first son born to the kinsman-redeemer was to carry the name of the deceased male relative. Subsequent children would be his descendants. In this way, Boaz showed the same humble character that Joseph did later with Mary — content for Mary to bear the child of another before his own.

    Wonderful post!

    • Peggy, thanks for sharing more about the “kinsman-redeemer” tradition in Hebrew culture. I didn’t have much time to go into that in the post, but yes, a whole family was redeemed by Boaz’s actions, not just Ruth and Naomi.

      Just to clarify, the commentaries I used suggested that it was the lines of Abraham and Lot that were being reunited, rather than those of Isaac and Ishmael. I am not an expert, so please share if you have related information on those lines as well.

      In “Half the Church” Carolyn Custis James also writes about how Boaz and Joseph essentially “submitted” their legal rights so that their spouses could be obedient to God’s call on their lives – this also happens with Elkanah and Hannah. Interesting in light of our ongoing discussions about mutuality in marriage on this site!

    • Thanks, Chris. One thing I love about the Bible is that there is always something new we can take to heart!

  • How awesome that God brings us back, and back, and back… so that all of us get back to Plan A as soon as we choose to serve the living God again. I love Ruth’s tenacity and faith-filledness… she’s often portrayed as a loyal faithful daughter, but actually she was a faithful empowered woman who, as you have pointed out, was the instrument of reconciliation in God’s hand.

    • Bev, there is so much more to be said about Ruth – it was hard to keep it to these two things. Love the complexity of these women in Christ’s lineage 🙂

      • I have no idea why that came up as ‘fearful’. Ruth was so unfearful in that she did not allow any fears she had to deflect her from her course! She was a FAITHFUL empowered woman!

  • Such a beautiful connection to Ruth’s story. And what a wonderful picture of God’s grace.
    Thanks, Gail!

    • You’re very welcome, Anne. So fun to realize the depth of God’s plan 🙂

  • Ruth’s trust in God, her care for Naomi, and her relationship with Boaz are beautiful examples of what happens when God draws people to him. He even drew Ruth all the way from hated Moab to carry on the line of Judah to eventually give us the Lion of Judah.

    Thanks for helping me think through this today, Gail.

    Tim

  • I’ve translated he book of Ruth and even taught Hebrew students how to translate Ruth but I learned some things about Ruth and Naomi’s story I did not know. Thank you for the insight into the geographic connection in Jesus’ family history. So many spiritual metaphors here!

    • Harriet, we should have had you write the post 🙂 The interesting thing about this advent series has been how difficult it is to tell the stories of these women in one blog post. Their stories are so complex and nuanced. For example, I knew Bethelem was the city of David, but didn’t know the significance of it before his time. So interesting!

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