Ruth From Marriage To Widowhood
The setting for the book of Ruth is “in the days when the judges governed.” Based on Judges 6:3-4, it is possible that the current judge is Gideon because a famine is also mentioned as occurring during his tenure. In any case, the times appear to be trying for the Israelites. As a result of this trouble, a man named Elimelech decides to take his wife, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion to Moab. By no revealed cause, Elimelech dies in Moab and leaves his wife and two children alone in the alien land. In the span of ten years, Mahlon marries a woman named Ruth and Chilion marries Orpah, both of whom are Moabite women – not necessarily forbidden in the Law (Deuteronomy 7:3), but cautioned against. For ten years they lived in Moab (Ruth 1:4). “Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband” (1:5). In what simply appears to be coincidence, Naomi’s two sons also die in the land of Moab. There is no indication in the text that the Lord caused their deaths, and it is too presumptuous to assume that all of this was part of His providence. We must always bear in mind that “time and chance” happen to everybody (Ecclesiastes 9:11), and sometimes people just die. The question that must be asked, then, is what will each of us do in response to time and chance! Naomi makes the decision to cut her losses and return to Bethlehem, in Judah (1:6-7). The rumor is that the situation has improved there. But even if there is still a famine, Naomi is probably seeking the company and care of her kinsmen.
She pleads several times with Orpah and Ruth to leave her and go back to Moab, saying, “May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband” (1:9). She continues by asserting that there is no practical reason why the two young ladies ought to stay with her in her misery. Even if she were to marry that very day and produce offspring in her old age, those sons would not be ready for marriage for many years (1:11-13). Notice what Naomi says of her situation in 1:13, “For the hand of the Lord has gone froth against me.” It seems that Naomi is so troubled by her lot in life that she blames God – in her mind, it is all His fault and His doing, which is not true. This life is full of trouble for all people, sinners and righteous alike. Sometimes good people suffer and bad people live merrily, and we must not automatically slap the blame squarely onto God.
Ruth is an interesting character for so many reasons. While her sister-in-law Orpah only seems to argue momentarily about leaving, Ruth clings to her mother-in-law. It is not that Orpah did not love Naomi, for she was willing to begin the journey to Judah (1:7), she was just not opposed to turning around when given the chance. Ruth refuses to leave her mother, and speaks some of the sweetest words of all time; “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me” (1:16-17). During the time that she had been married to Mahlon, she had learned about the true God, and found herself uninterested in turning away from Him to serve the idols of Moab once again. This shows that when she was converted, she did it not because of her husband but because of her true faith.
Compare Ruth’s decision to Abraham’s in Genesis 12, in which the man is promised by God that the land of Canaan will be given to his descendents, and that a great nation shall come from his bloodline. Abraham had to make the difficult decision to leave behind his homeland, its idols, and almost all of his relatives. Ruth also faced the same choice, but hers was made even more difficult by the fact that she did not have divine revelation from God to guide her, any promise of future success whatsoever, or even encouragement from a single person in the world. In that sense, Ruth’s faith may be even greater than Abraham’s! She was willing to give up everything for God and family loyalty (Matthew 16:25).
Ruth In Bethlehem
“And it came about when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, ‘Is that Naomi?’” (Ruth 1:19) Perhaps the years of trouble and the stress of family death had taken its toll on Naomi physically. She may have become older, weaker, and veiled by a great weight of sadness. The woman whose name means “pleasant” in Hebrew had returned in a very unpleasant state. Naomi responds to the whispers, saying, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara (Bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (1:20-21) Is it not strange that so many people try to interpret every little thing that happens in life as being a sign from God. When people suffer from some ailment, they proclaim that it is the Lord’s wrath. When a person loses a family member, they also lose their faith in God. When one circumstance or another prevents a person from reaching a destination, they declare that it was the Lord’s doing. In fact, most people just look pretty ridiculous in hindsight when they speak about signs from God. Naomi never would have said this stuff if she had known at the time how beautifully the story would turn out. Through all of this, God is, in fact, working for Naomi!
Compare Naomi’s attitude to Ruth’s, who begins her life among the Israelites by seeking good, honest work. “Please let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after one in whose sight I may find favor” (2:2). She understands that life will never get better until she picks up the pieces and gets back to work – after all, Naomi was not the only one who had just lost a husband! Ruth could have joined her mother-in-law in self-pity. She could have played the “Oh! Woe is me!” game and fallen into the depression that is often associated with grief. While Naomi seems to have essentially given up on life, Ruth is desirous and eager to move on, pull her feet out of the mud, and pay the bills – Naomi certainly is not going to! 2 Corinthians 7:6 tells us that “God comforts the depressed.” But He will only comfort those who want to be comforted. When grief strikes us, we must cope with it, do a lot of praying and meditating, and then determine to move on. Even in the New Testament, widows are exhorted to find new husbands if they are younger (1 Timothy 5:14). Ruth’s example shows us that there is life after widowhood. She is not only interested in working, but also in finding a husband. Look closely at what she says to Naomi in 2:2, “…after one in whose sight I may find favor.”
“And she happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech” (2:3). Once again, the providence of God is a mysterious thing! It seems clear that Ruth “just happened” by coincidence to come across the field of Boaz. But this coincidence never would have happened had she not sought work in the fields. Nobody knows who they will meet throughout the day, and there is no reason to believe that every person we encounter was brought to us by God somehow. In finding a mate, a job, or a potential convert to Christianity, we cannot just let life happen to us, as passive recipients of action. Rather, we must be like Ruth and take initiative.
Ruth and Boaz
As Ruth is working in the field, her mother-in-law’s kinsman Boaz comes to see his laborers. He instantly notices Ruth some distance away and inquires about her (Ruth 2:5). It is a sign of how honorable Boaz is that he does not rush into speaking to her. “She is a young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi from the land of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ Thus she came and has remained from the morning until now; she has been sitting in the house for a little while” (2:6-7). Already Ruth has made herself a very desirable person by arriving at the field early and working hard throughout the day. She has taken only minimal break time and has earned the admiration of the other servants. And Ruth has done all of this because it is right, not because she knows others are watching her! This is a lesson that all potential husbands and wives should learn; even when we are not married, or are unaware of anybody who is even interested in marrying us, we ought to always act in a manner that makes us appealing.
When Boaz approaches Ruth, he commends her for her hard work and asks her not to work in any field but his (2:8). To this, Ruth replies, “Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (2:10) Although she may have had reason to boast, she remains humble and further impresses Boaz with her meek and gentle spirit. This is something that all young people ought to learn: arrogance does not attract the right kind of potential spouse!
What is it that attracts Boaz to Ruth? Let us notice their interaction in Ruth 2:11-16. First, be impressed that Boaz has done his homework. He knows all about the good deeds that Ruth has done. Not only has she taken care of Naomi in her times of vulnerability, but she has also made the difficult decision of leaving everything that she had come to know – her people, the Moabite idols, the customs and environment of her home – all to come to a land in which she was an alien. “May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge” (2:12). Two things stand out in this verse, the first of which being the fact that Boaz is a very godly individual. He gives credit where it is due: squarely on the shoulders of the Almighty, from whom all good things flow so freely (James 1:17). Boaz has his mind focused first and foremost on the Lord, which is where all of our minds ought to. He uses the Lord in every aspect of his life, from his job (2:4), to his interest in a potential wife. Another valuable lesson that we learn from the story of Ruth, and especially in the phrase “under whose wings you have come to seek refuge,” is that God has always had a means of salvation for Gentiles. Some people become quite discouraged when they read about the judgments brought on the Canaanites, or the Assyrians, or the Philistines, but God wants all people to be saved, regardless of their background (1 Timothy 2:4, Galatians 3:28). In the days of Jonah, for example, the Lord sent one of His own prophets to bring the Assyrians to repentance. In Ruth’s case, she has chosen to come under God’s wings by rejecting the idolatrous heritage of her people, and by associating with only the righteous. In this sense she has become a proselyte to the Jewish faith. In fact, it is easily observed that this Moabite woman showed more righteousness and spiritual integrity than many of the Israelites during the days of the judges!
There are some very sweet moments between Ruth and Boaz. He asks her to join him for lunch with the rest of his reapers (2:14). He serves her food, and continues to show kindness to her by ordering his reapers to make her job easier (2:15-16). “There is certainly a corresponding progression in Boaz’s treatment of Ruth… He is immediately protective towards her. He calls her ‘my daughter.’ He not only permits her to work in his field but suggests she need not look elsewhere at all” (Daily Study Bible Series, Auld, 269). He has made it very clear that he is interested in her, which leaves the response up to her.
Upon returning to Naomi, Ruth is immediately greeted with the inquisitive words of Naomi (2:19). It is no surprise that she would be curious about where she gleaned because it was not common for a peasant-girl to glean an entire ephah of barley! Ruth divulges to Naomi everything that transpired that day, to which Naomi responds, “The man is our relative, he is one of our closest relatives” (2:20). With this information, a plan begins to form in Naomi’s head to get Ruth and Boaz together in a godly manner. For the time being, however, Naomi tells her daughter-in-law to be patient and to continue to live the kind of life that she ought to live (2:22-23).
When the time becomes more appropriate, Naomi approaches Ruth, saying, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you?” (3:1) Naomi considers it a good thing to find a husband and wants to make sure that her closest relation is taken care of. In her mind, it makes perfect sense that Boaz is the right man to marry. He is similar to them in spirituality, a close kinsman, a successful businessman, an influential figure in the community, and he seems to have been putting God first in his life for quite some time. Sometimes it is very good to listen to the counsel and advice of those who are very close to us. “Wash yourself therefore, and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor…” (3:3) It is also impressive that Naomi understands the importance of looking and smelling pretty. How shameful it is that more men and women do not try to look their best for each other today. It seems like the standard keeps getting lower and lower for socially acceptable “date attire.” There is something to be said for dressing up for someone who we really care about.
To all of her mother-in-law’s instructions, Ruth simply replies, “All that you say I will do” (3:5). Naomi’s plan is simple, and only some modern commentators believe that there is any inappropriate activity being undertaken in Ruth 3:6-13. Traditionally, the act of uncovering feet and requesting a portion of a blanket was a sign of marriage. By doing this, Ruth is answering Boaz’s previous (and obvious) suggestions. She is reciprocating his interest in a very godly, clever manner. “May you be blessed of the Lord, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich…” (3:10-11) Some have contested that Boaz is drunk at this point in the story based on Ruth 3:7. But does one have to be drunk to be merry? It is unfortunate that so many people choose to look at the Bible and misinterpret things as sin or innuendo. It is not congruent with the rest of the story to say that Boaz was drunk and Ruth took advantage of him. Neither of these two godly individuals would participate in such activities. We ought to try to see this story for what it is; an example of two people who love each other and want to approach each other in the most honest, humble, and godly way possible.
It seems that Boaz is slightly surprised when Ruth accepts his advances. She must have been very pretty, and the text indicates that he was some amount of years older than her. She does not pursue immature men, but seeks true and fulfilling love in the arms of a stable, successful, and highly compassionate man of God! If only all men and women would seek spouses with such qualities.
Boaz Takes Action
Only one thing stands in the way of marriage between Boaz and Ruth. “And now it is true that I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. Remain this night, and when morning comes, if he will redeem you, good; let him redeem you. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then I will redeem you, as the Lord lives…” (3:12-13). This is an example of a man who truly wants what is best for the woman he loves. He is unwilling to stain her reputation by marrying her presumptuously, and he also arranges for each of them to leave the threshing floor separately so that nobody suspects indiscretion (3:14). According to Jewish custom, when a man died and left a widow, it was the responsibility of the closest male relative to take that woman as his own wife, and to help her bear children. However, the children born from that marriage would not become a part of the second husband’s household, but of the wife’s first husband, thus continuing that man’s lineage. These children would inherit all of the deceased man’s property, as well. “Boaz was of that strictly honorable cast of mind that he could not for a moment entertain any project that might amount to a disregard of the rights of others, even though these rights should fly violently in the teeth of his own personal desires” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. IV, 50).
Boaz knows what he wants, and he does the necessary work to make it happen. Look at the way Naomi describes her relative, “Wait, my daughter, until you know how the matter turns out; for this man will not rest until he has settled it today” (Ruth 3:18). As soon as Boaz is able, he assembles the necessary compliment of witnesses and proceeds to meet his unnamed relative at the open square in the city. The square, or gate, was a significant meeting place for influential Jewish men, as can be seen from the honorable example given in Proverbs 31:23. At this important crossroads, men would do business, exchange goods and services, and decide important matters of the city such as arranged marriages or the transfer of land from one man to another. In this instance, the business is with regard to the property of their deceased relative Elimelech, whose land holdings had been left unattended since his untimely death. With no more male heirs to manage the property, the other relatives now had to decide the best way to deal with the situation.
In the most proper way possible, Boaz describes the situation and the costs to his relative in Ruth 4:3-10. Some have criticized Boaz for treating his kinsman deceitfully, but if we look at the situation, he is being quite forthcoming in everything he says. The property needs to be taken care of, for farmable land is a hot commodity in the land of Israel even today, and Ruth is part of the package. Not wanting to jeopardize his own holdings, the unnamed relative hands over the responsibility of the land and Ruth to Boaz, who may now honorably and legally marry his love. Truly, marriage is something that ought to never be defiled (Hebrews 13:4), and Boaz serves as an example of one who waited until it was appropriate before marrying Ruth. We must all do the same when contemplating marriage – we should weight the costs and the great possibility of difficult times. Marriage is not a thing to be treated flippantly. On the other hand, when the time is right, the time is right. Boaz saw absolutely no reason to put off making arrangements for his marriage (4:11-13).
The story of Ruth is one of the most enjoyable in the Bible. In the end, everybody ends up happy; the unnamed kinsman is not fettered by the responsibility of marrying Ruth, Boaz has married a lovely woman who captivated him from the moment he first learned of her godly reputation, Ruth has found comfort in the arms of a loving, faithful husband, and even Naomi no longer feels the need to be called Bitter anymore. “Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse” (Ruth 4:14-16). We too have a Redeemer who sustains us and restores our lives to us in our moments of trouble. He is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).