|Bible Story: The Story of Ruth
Based on Ruth 1–4
Retold by Paul Katula
An ordinary farming woman, Naomi, was married to Elimelech. He moved his family, including his two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to the region of Moab, because there was a famine in Judah, which has no rivers and depends entirely on rainfall for water.
Moab was not well respected by the Israelites in Judah. In fact, Deuteronomy 23:3 says Moabites were not allowed to enter into the assembly of the Lord. Moabites hated the Judeans about as much: they erected a monument to King Mesha in about 850 BC, a Moabite ruler who laid waste to several Israeli cities.
Elimelech, however, had little choice if he wanted to be able to grow enough crops to feed his family. At the time they left, neither of his two sons had wives. However, in Moab, they met Ruth and Orpah (not Oprah, but forgive me if I occasionally make a typo). While they were in Moab, Elimelech died, as did his two then-married sons, Mahlon and Kilion. After losing a husband and two sons, Naomi decided to move back to Judah and finish out her days as a widow. Under Israeli law, widows were eligible to receive charitable gifts from farmers so they could feed themselves.
The Best Kind of Daughters-in-Law
Ruth and Orpah went along with Naomi for a while, both of them already doing much more than would be expected of daughters-in-law in caring for their mother-in-law. Neither of them had any children. After a while, Naomi thanked them and said, "Go back and return to your families. I'll be fine."
Orpah obeyed her mother-in-law and eventually returned to Moab to take care of her family, but Ruth argued with Naomi. "I want to go back to Judah with you," she said. "I will live wherever you live and die and be buried wherever you die and are buried."
So, Naomi, who was still feeling very sorry over the deaths of her husband and two sons, let Ruth return to Judah with her. "I will call myself Mara from now on, which is a name that means how bitter the Almighty has made my life now," Naomi confessed. She was bitter for her two daughters-in-law, because she had no more sons to give them to replace the dead ones.
Widows Get Free Food Under Law
They returned to the town of Bethlehem during the barley harvest, an important agricultural event in this town, which depended on a good harvest each year to build up enough food stores.
Now, there was in this town a man named Boaz, who was a kind man of good standing in the community. He owned some farmland, and it was always the case that some of the barley fell to the ground behind the men who were picking it for the harvest. In other words, they didn't get every single scrap of barley.
Ruth, who had no field of her own from which to pick barley, went to the field owned by Boaz to walk behind his field workers and pick up the scraps they dropped. This process is called "gleaning." By law, widows could glean anywhere they wanted, but Ruth still asked Boaz for permission, which he granted.
Boaz also happened to be related to Elimelech, and therefore to Ruth's dead husband. (Now I have to explain a custom that was present at the time of this story. If a woman's husband died before they had any kids, it was the custom for the nearest male relative to have intercourse with the widow until she gave birth to a son. Without a son, a man's death ended his continued ties with life, so having a son was very important, not only for a man to pass on his property, but also for a man to pass on his immortal soul. The firstborn son carried on the dead man's name, inherited his property, and took care of his widow. This "levirate marriage" as it was called, was considered a kindness, a way of honoring the dead man. The couple was, of course, legally married. I know this seems strange to you, but it was the way it was.)
"Stay here and glean in my field all you want," Boaz told Ruth when he first met her. He had heard about how kind she was in taking care of Naomi, and he didn't really care that she was from Moab. What was important to Boaz was that she went way above and beyond the call of duty in taking care of her mother-in-law. She had every right to return to Moab to look for another husband, but Ruth, being the kind person she was, returned to take care of Naomi.
Then Boaz told Ruth that if she ever became thirsty, she could drink from the water jars that were set out for his own field workers. This made the field workers a little resentful, but no matter: there was plenty of water for them and Ruth too.
Because of Ruth's kindness to Naomi, Boaz asked the Lord to grant her a rich reward. And when dinner time came to Boaz's farm, he invited her to dip her bread into the special wine vinegar. When Naomi heard about Boaz's kindness to Ruth, she asked the Lord for a special blessing on Boaz. Then, she reminded Ruth that Boaz was one of her kinsmen: she called him a "kinsman-redeemer," which means she knows he is eligible to marry Ruth so that she might bear a son.
Ruth Goes to Boaz's Place
"You're very pretty," Naomi told Ruth. "Why don't we see if we can get Boaz to notice you?"
She cleaned Ruth up so that she smelled very nice. Then she told Ruth, "Go down to the threshing floor in his barn and uncover his feet, and then lie down next to him when he is sleeping."
(Note: uncovering a man's "feet" was often a euphemism for uncovering his genitals. It is not likely that sexual intercourse occurred between Ruth and Boaz at this time, because he was a righteous man, given his actions below, but the text of Holy Scripture contains several innuendos here: the threshing floor is where prostitutes often had sex; uncovering of the man's feet is mentioned; etc.)
So, Ruth went down to Boaz's farm and waited until he fell asleep. Then, as the story goes, she uncovered his feet and lay down next to him on the threshing floor. Boaz woke up, startled, saying, "Who are you?"
"I'm Ruth, your dead kinsman's wife," she answered. "I want to marry you and bear a son, if you will have me."
"Yes, I know who you are," Boaz continued. "You are a woman of noble character, and therefore, I have something I have to tell you: There is another man who is a closer relative of your husband than I am. But tomorrow, I will go down to the city and ask him what his intentions are with you. I promise I'll try to do everything you want, but I can't do it without first getting his permission."
Then Boaz took an article of his clothing and covered Ruth up. He did this so that his field workers would not see how beautiful she was and attack her.
Boaz Makes Everyone's Dream Come True
When Boaz met the actual kinsman-redeemer at the city gate, he told him, in front of witnesses, that Naomi was selling the piece of land that belonged to Elimelech. The kinsman-redeemer initially expressed interest in the transaction — until he found out that he would have to marry Ruth as part of the deal.
"If I were to take a wife, under those terms, that would jeopardize my own inheritance in my family," he told Boaz.
With that right of first refusal exercised, Boaz then declared, also in front of witnesses, that he was buying all of the estate that belonged to Elimelech, Kilion, and Mahlon, and, of course, that he was taking Ruth as his wife.
When the elders heard about Boaz's declaration, they gave a blessing on Boaz and Ruth, saying they hoped Ruth would become like Rachel and Leah, giving Boaz many children. They hoped that the family would prosper, and that their house would be like that of Perez.
Ruth had a son, which she and Boaz named Obed. That name should sound familiar, which makes Ruth, a Moabitess, the great-grandmother of David, Israel's greatest king. It is ironic that Moabites, who were excluded from the assembly of God, should give rise to Israel's greatest king. (See Matthew 1:5 for the lineage of Jesus, which includes Ruth.)
The first question raised by the story of Ruth is how Orpah and Ruth protest a little when Naomi tells them, "Thanks for sticking with me this long; you are so kind to me, when you don't really have to show me this much kindness." The Bible says they argue, especially Ruth, who actually won the argument with her mother-in-law and returned to Bethlehem with Naomi. Do you ever find that your relationship or friendship with someone is stronger after you have a disagreement? That would be Ruth and Naomi, whose relationship became rock-solid after Naomi lost an argument with Ruth.
In a similar way, our relationship with God can certainly take periods of questioning, research, asking questions that to someone who thinks they know everything might be out-of-place. But really, no questions are out of place, because your relationship with Christ is strong enough to take any kind of scrutiny and questioning. That's the beauty of this story.
Next, we have what many Bible scholars think is an outright seduction scene. Reading about sex in the Bible is often troubling, to young and old people alike, because the customs in Israel at this time were really so different from ours today. In fact, intercourse itself could constitute marriage (see Exodus 22:16, Deuteronomy 22:28-29). That's definitely different. But in this particular story, we know Ruth's motives in attempting the seduction of a much older man were pure: she wanted a son to show her loyalty to her dead husband. Personal sexual pleasure wasn't even close to her mind.
Boaz protected Ruth from molestation by the farm hands, and then did what was right in checking with the person who actually had first dibs on Ruth. That's about as well as we could possibly understand the custom. He signaled his affection for her and then took the necessary steps to marry her legally. Today, this kind of thing happens all the time. Many people seduce others: they might kiss them, go on dates, etc., but when it comes to getting married, we have to get licenses from the civil authorities before we can consider marrying someone in front of witnesses and in front of God. So the events are changed drastically, but the idea that marriages have to be legal hasn't changed much in 3,000 years.
And finally, how often have negative situations led to positive results in your life? Do we sometimes become better people because we work through our problems rather than turning our backs on them and running away? We know God doesn't want us to suffer (see Revelation 21:4, for example). But compare this to our knowledge that God often makes himself known to us, as well as biblical characters like Naomi who had just lost her husband and two sons, when we are at our lowest point. Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz, so on the surface, it looks like Naomi saved Ruth from a life of loneliness, but their son, Obed, under Levirate law, belonged to Ruth's first husband, and he was therefore of the lineage of Naomi's husband. That seems to say that when Ruth found a husband in Boaz, she lifted Naomi out of a life of loneliness and despair, not the other way around.
Ultimately, we Christians know that the Cross of Christ shows us that complete fulfillment can only come after we have emptied ourselves (John 10:10), sometimes even to our lowest point. So, from the darkness comes a great light, and that light is our Lord, Jesus Christ.