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Occasional Letters: A Résumé of Ruth

D Newell, Glasgow

The other day a young friend asked what the book of Ruth was all about. Although I suspect that the best expositors are men marvellously mellowed by matrimony, my attempted answer follows. Long hailed as a remarkable work of literature in its own right (a pastoral romance at harvest time where the most enduring love is – unexpectedly – that between an older woman and her daughter-in-law) the book of Ruth is rich in spiritual lessons. Here's a simple ABC.

Probably its prime function in the Bible is to trace the ancestry of King David. It is only as we reach the end that this point is driven home, for the book terminates with a segment of genealogy (4.17-22). It acts as a bridge between Judges, when "there was no king in Israel" (Judg 21.25), and the books of Samuel, where the Lord raised up His chosen king, one who anticipates the great messianic Ruler who is yet to reign over the house of Israel (Lk 1.32-33). The closing genealogy makes sense once we reach Matthew chapter 1, where the key names recur: "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brethren; And Judah begat Phares and Zara of Tamar;…And Salmon begat Boaz of Rahab; and Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the king" (Mt 1.1-6). Jacob had predicted that the nation's future kings would come from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49.10), and the book of Ruth traces Judah's descendants through his own illicit behaviour (4.12) down to the son of Jesse. To read the genealogy in Matthew is to discover four women named in the pedigree of the Messiah: Tamar, likely a Canaanite (Gen 38.6,11-30); Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute (Josh 6.25); Ruth, a Moabitess; and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11.3). God's grace overrules human wickedness for the accomplishment of His programme. Ruth thus paves the way for the arrival of God's Messiah.

It also pictures blessing going out to Gentiles. Ruth came from Moab, long term relations and enemies of Israel, yet she chose to abandon her family's pagan religion in order to identify herself with Naomi's people and the God of Israel. Her personal determination is exemplary: "Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me" (1.16-17). But just as a Moabitess, excluded by law from the assembly of Israel (Deut 23.3-5), was brought in by grace, so too Gentile sinners today are introduced into unlooked-for privilege, for those "who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ" (Eph 2.13). It was always God's purpose to bless Gentiles through Israel (and this will become evident in the millennium), but even greater is the present marvel of mercy that in Christ believing Jews and non-Jews are on an equality.

The book also testifies to the inbuilt compassion of the Mosaic Law, which offered provision for the needy without robbing them of their dignity. Israelite farmers were told that, "when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the Lord your God" (Lev 19.9-10). The farmer was not instructed to establish a food bank for the poor, but simply to leave the edges of his field unreaped so that they could use their own industry to gather corn. This was Ruth's intention on behalf of her mother-on-law and herself (2.2). Boaz, we may notice, went far beyond the legal obligation by offering her refreshment and shelter, and deliberately dropping extra sheaves for her to gather (2.9,14,16).

Ruth shows the doctrine of redemption at work. The nation was brought up to recognise the significance of the family deliverer, the goel, one who avenged unlawful killing and bought back family property which had been sold because of poverty (Lev 25.25-34, 47-54). Naomi's field could only be redeemed or bought back by one who had the necessary qualifications. He had to be related (a kinsman of the family), rich (he needed wealth to complete the transaction), and ready (he must be willing to undertake the responsibility). Mere money was of no avail if there was no desire. But Boaz had all three requirements. In this he pictures the Lord Jesus Christ who, as our kinsman redeemer, entered by incarnation into a genuine relationship with those He would redeem (Heb 2.14-16), while in His eternal deity possessing all the resources to render in full the payment for His people (Gal 4.4-5). And, of course, He was willing (Gal 2.20).

The story also demonstrates the equality of male and female in divine blessing. The book of Ruth focuses upon two women who find an honourable place in the history of Israel. Although having distinct functions in the home and in the local assembly, men and women are in equal enjoyment of salvation benefits in Christ, for "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3.28).

Naomi's frankness in disclosing difficulties (1.11-15) teaches the wisdom of not minimizing the cost of following Jehovah. Her honesty fostered Ruth's outstanding spiritual earnestness. Gospel preaching must not attempt to smooth talk people into a profession of salvation (Lk 14.25-33).

Pervading the entire history is the presence and providence of God. Though the book is free from any overt miracles, it is clear that God works out His purpose for the blessing and preservation of His people. Thus, while the narrator tells us that it was mere chance which brought Ruth to Boaz's section of the common field (2.3), Naomi, quick to see God's hand in her life for good or ill (1.13,20-21), recognises the workings of His providence and bursts into praise: "Blessed be he of Jehovah, who has not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead! And Naomi said to her, The man is near of kin to us, one of those who have the right of our redemption" (2.20, JND).

The Boaz/Ruth relationship is presented as a beautiful pattern of holy matrimony. The book sets up a contrast: it begins with dearth and death, but ends with new life and blessing in the birth of Obed. For him to become the rightful heir of Elimelech, Boaz had to fulfil the requirements of the levirate code: the nearest available relative must marry the widow and, God willing, raise up seed to the dead man's name (Deut 25.5-10). Naomi surrendered her right to Ruth, and Boaz had none of the inhibitions of Judah's sons who shamefully failed in their duties. Boaz/Ruth's courtship (3.3-11) and marriage (4.10-13) are decorous, seemly, and validated by God (Heb 13.4). The couple demonstrate mutual respect and piety, allowing Naomi a special nursing role in regard to the child (4.16-17). The positive mother/daughter-in-law relationship continues to the end.

Finally, Ruth is herself a living illustration of the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. The word "wealth" (2.1), also rendered "virtuous" (3.11), carries the ideas of strength and efficiency. Ruth's practical concern for her mother-in-law, her genuine and costly commitment to the God of Israel, her uncomplaining labour in the field, her respect for Naomi's advice, her humility, and her final memorial as "thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons" (4.15), all combine to make her a woman to be praised and imitated (Prov 31.29-31). Yes, even a little book can hold lots of lessons for believers, male and female!

To be continued.

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