She came from a foreign country. She had married the son of a couple who left Israel during famine, hoping for a better life elsewhere. They traveled to Moab where, after a time, the father died. Ruth married one of their sons, Mahlon.
They lived in Moab, this Israelite mother, her sons and their wives, where mother and sons were refugees from Israel’s famine. Ten years after Ruth’s marriage, her husband died, as did her brother-in-law.
By this time Israel was producing food again. The famine was over. Naomi determined to return to her people and encouraged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, where they could meet and marry new husbands who would care for them. Orpah wept, said her goodbyes, and left Naomi and Ruth.
Ruth, however, made the astonishing choice to return to Israel with her mother-in-law. What fears must have flooded her heart? Would she be welcome in this new country? Would she be shunned? Scripture doesn’t tell us about her relationship with her own mother, or whether her mother was still alive. But Ruth must have grown to love Naomi dearly during their years together.
Her words, now famous, are still echoed in many marriage vows today:
Ruth must have known Moabites were enemies of Israel. Naomi had been the refugee in Moab. Now Ruth would be the refugee. She was unlikely to be welcomed. How like many refugees today who leave their homelands for safety, security or provision, but are treated as outcasts, unwelcome in their new countries.
But Ruth made the choice anyway, her commitment to Naomi driving her choice.
Ruth and her mother-in-law were penniless. Naomi told her Israelite neighbors not to call her Naomi (which meant “pleasing”) but Mara (“bitter”), saying God had given her a bitter life. The two would likely have starved had Ruth not gone into the barley fields to gather up left-over stalks of grain, a provision for the poor, to bring home.
Coincidentally (or, God-incidentally), she began to glean in the field of an older, established man named Boaz. He noticed her and asked who she was. Stories of her kindness to Naomi had circulated around town, and he told his workers to drop extra grain for her to pick up. He also warned them to keep their hands off her.
When Ruth went home, arms filled with barley, Naomi was astonished.
“Where did you glean today?”
“I gleaned in the field of a man named Boaz.”
Naomi knew he was a relative and could be asked to provide marriage and protection to Ruth. According to Old Testament Levirite law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), the brother or close relative of a man who died without children was not only permitted, but encouraged to marry the relative’s widow. Their children would carry on the name of the deceased father, and could claim the deceased brother’s share of the inheritance.
This law was a provision of God, not only for the ongoing name of the deceased, but for women’s protection. At the time the Torah was written, a childless widow had no one to provide for her. She would be disgraced, and likely to die of starvation. This law protected such widows from living on the streets and at the mercy of those around her.
Naomi told Ruth to go to the threshing floor and watch ’til Boaz was asleep, then uncover his feet and lie down, probably crosswise at his feet rather than at his side, and wait for him to tell her what to do. Strange custom, that, for our day and age. This was not a seduction. Rather, she was symbolically proposing marriage to him in an honorable way, within the customs of that culture.
When Boaz asked what she wanted, she symbolically asked him to “spread his garment” over her, or to assume the responsibility for her, as her husband.
Boaz, an honorable man, said he was willing; however, there was one relative nearer to Naomi than himself. If that man wouldn’t marry Ruth, he would.
I like this Boaz. He had integrity, was kind, didn’t procrastinate. Early in the morning, before it was light, he sent Ruth home with an armful of barley, telling her he would resolve the issue that day. He went to the city gates and asked the other relative to stop and sit awhile. In front of witnesses, he said Naomi had returned and was ready to sell her husband’s land.
The man said “I’ll buy.”
“By the way,” Boaz added, “the day you take over the land, you also take Ruth as your wife.”
The man reversed his decision. Taking a Moabite woman as his wife would endanger his own children’s inheritance. So, in the custom of the day, he removed his sandal and handed it to Boaz as a statement that he relinquished his right of redemption, allowing Boaz to marry Ruth.
I’ve always loved this story. Ruth is both my mother’s and my middle name.
Ruth sacrificed what appeared to be her opportunity to find a new husband and home in Moab to care for her mother-in-law in a foreign land. She had no expectation of another marriage to an Israelite man. Her faithfulness to Naomi won over her Hebrew neighbors. And God provided a Kinsman-Redeemer, Boaz, to marry her. And from their descendants came the births of King David and, later, of Jesus Christ, who shared his human ancestry with Boaz’ ancestress, Rahab, a prostitute who turned to God; and from Ruth, a Moabitess. The sinless God-man, Jesus Christ, came from a line of prostitutes and foreigners–a picture of God’s grace to each of us.
Jesus Christ is our Kinsman-Redeemer. He comes to us, foreigners to His kingdom, and offers us redemption and salvation through His blood sacrifice on the cross. He gives us a new name, a new family, a new spirit, and a new hope.
Even Naomi got in on the new hope! When Ruth gave birth to her firstborn, Naomi cared for him and her neighbor women said Naomi now had a son. As Boaz’ mother-in-law, she was now also under his protection, and and her bitterness was gone.
What does this story tell us about Jesus?
He created us, and He breaks the stereotype–that Messiah can only be a purebred Israelite, or is available only to certain people. He welcomes all into His kingdom, from every nation, tribe, language, and people. He redeems us. He cares for us, protects, provides, comforts, and walks with us.
Sometimes the most radical choice brings the most joy, the choice to follow Christ, our Kinsman-Redeemer. Ruth had no idea what was in store for her in Israel. But she took a step of faith, loved and faithfully cared for her mother-in-law, and from that God brought great blessing.
What choice are you making that requires you to take a step of faith?