Ruth is one of only two women to have a book in the Bible named after her. Both of them appear in the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures. Ruth is one of only four women (other than his mother Mary) mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus. Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David. Yet, Ruth was not an Israelite, she was a foreigner, she was from the plains of Moab, the land that Israel crossed to get to the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The story of Ruth begins with the story of Elimelech, an Israelite man, whose name means ‘my God is king.’ Elimelech lived with his wife Naomi, whose name means ‘pleasant,’ in the town of Bethlehem, which means ‘the house of bread.’ With such names you might expect life to be wonderful for this Israelite family. However, there was a famine in the house of bread so the man whose God was king and his pleasant wife emigrated to the land of Moab with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.
I wonder how Ruth and her family felt about their old enemies moving into their land when there was a famine in God’s land, which was supposed to flow with milk and honey?
Elimelech, the man whose God was king, died in the foreign land of Moab, where Moses had earlier died. Elimelech’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, then took Moabite wives. One took Orpah, the other took Ruth. We’re not told who took whom at this point in the story.
I wonder how the two Moabite women felt about being taken by the two foreign Israelite men? Were they marriages of convenience? Were they in love? How did their families feel? Were the two women treated as outcasts for marrying out of their tribe and out of their faith? Or were the Israelite immigrants welcomed by the Moabites? Was intermarriage viewed with suspicion, or embraced as integration? We don’t know.
After about ten years, Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving their widowed mother, Naomi, in a foreign land with two widowed and childless daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, and without any men to support or protect them. In those days, a woman belonged first to her father and then to her husband. An elderly widow would be cared for by her son. We don’t know how the two men died. We don’t know why after ten years of marriage there were no sons.
Naomi heard on the grapevine that God had visited Bethlehem and there was bread in that house again so she decided to return home. When her daughters-in-law set out to go with her, Naomi tried to persuade them to stay among their own people in their own land. Orpah turned back but Ruth was determined to cling to Naomi and she made a profound declaration for which she is remembered to this day:
‘Where you go I shall go. Where you spend the night, I shall spend the night. Your people is my people, your God is my God. Where you die I shall die, and there shall I be buried.’
Ruth was her own person. She chose to leave her homeland, her family, her tribe, and her faith. She determined to travel to a foreign land, to live among former enemies, as a young widow without any male protection, and to worship a foreign God. She committed herself to her foreign mother-in-law, through good and ill, whatever life would hold, until death did them part.
Naomi and Ruth travelled together to Bethlehem. When they arrived, Naomi told her people to stop calling her ‘pleasant’ but to call her ‘bitter,’ Mari, because of all the things God had done to make her angry.
In theory, in Israelite law, a man had to redeem, to take on responsibility for, the women of his male relative when that relative died. Naomi knew of a man related to Elimelech whose name was Boaz, which means ‘in him is strength.’ He is described as a man of both physical strength and strong personality.
Naomi and Ruth had returned to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest and Ruth decided to glean in the fields behind the workers. The poor were allowed to gather whatever was left over, although being a young foreign widow without male protection meant putting herself at some risk. As it happens, she gleaned in a field belonging to the strong man, Boaz.
Ruth worked hard throughout the day and this was noticed. Her reputation as the young Moabite widow, who was devoted to Naomi, had preceded her. No doubt she was the source of some gossip. When Boaz visited his field, he saw the young foreign woman. Like a father, he took her under his wing, offering her his protection, telling her to work with his young women and telling his young men to leave her alone. He also invited her to the shared meal and let her take home the leftovers.
When Ruth returned home to Naomi that night, she had gathered a lot of grain, and she produced the remnants of the meal. She had much to tell her mother-in-law. Naomi was excited that Ruth had been working in the strong man’s fields. She told Ruth that Boaz was a relative of theirs who could redeem them.
Ruth gleaned throughout the barley harvest and the wheat harvest with Boaz’ young women, while she continued to live with Naomi. The two women had enough grain to live on for quite a while but what would happen to them when that ran out?
Naomi had an idea. She encouraged Ruth to bathe, anoint herself, put on her best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor. Once Boaz had eaten and drunk his fill, he would fall asleep in the barn. Then Ruth was to take off her clothes and lie down at his feet.
She was taking a risk. Who knew how the strong man would react to finding her there? She was a young foreign widow without any male protection. Boaz had already offered her fatherly protection in his fields but he was under no obligation towards her. Boaz was known to be a fair boss and a man of God. He already respected Ruth for her hard work and her faithfulness to Naomi, so maybe it wasn’t quite as risky as it might at first seem.
Ruth followed her mother-in-law’s advice to the letter, and it worked. When Boaz turned over in the middle of the night and found the young woman lying there beside him on the threshing floor, Ruth ceased the initiative. She asked Boaz to take her under his wing, to be a redeemer. Boaz praised her for not running after the younger men and he agreed to her request, with one slight hitch in the proceedings: there was someone with a prior claim, someone who was a closer relative than he to Elimelech.
Ruth returned home to Naomi before daybreak so that she would not be seen. She was carrying more barley, a present from Boaz, and a promise that he would speak with the nearer relative.
In the morning, Boaz met the un-named man at the city gate, where business was conducted. Boaz told the nearer relative that Elimelech’s land was for sale and the man was keen to acquire it. But then Boaz reminded him that he would also have to redeem Elimelech’s widow Naomi, and Ruth the Moabite widow. That was too all much for the nearer relative and he declined, so Boaz became the redeemer for Naomi and Ruth.
Boaz, the strong man, took Ruth, the strong woman, as his wife and they had a son called Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David, who was the ancestor of Jesus.
Thanks be to God for Ruth.
The Venerable Dr Sue Groom, Archdeacon of Wilts