THE STORY OF RUTH

Four Lessons From The Moabite Woman

By Alex Tung, Contributed by Damansara Utama Methodist Church

The Book of Ruth is nestled between the turbulent but also more eventful books of Judges and 1 Samuel. Because it is a somewhat more domestic story, to many it may seem to act mainly as a lull in the storm and so becomes, to some extent, neglected. There is much beauty to be found in Ruth’s story however and many principles for us to learn. In this contribution from Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC), Alex Tung lays out the context of the book and expounds on its lessons.

Note: This is a shorter version of the original article (abridged for the general reader), which was first published in issue 103 of Floodgates, DUMC’s in-house magazine. For a more detailed article, you may visit https://issuu.com/dumcmalaysia/docs/191211_fg_mag_103   

The Book of Ruth is one of the Five Scrolls (along with the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) which form the third section of the Hebrew Bible. This compilation of five scrolls is referred to as Ketuvim (Hebrew for “the Writings”) and is traditionally read publicly in the synagogues by Jewish communities.

Summary of the Ruth Storyline

The Book of Ruth is written like a play and can roughly be structured into 4 acts with each scene therein narrating a milestone in the life of Ruth and those around her. It is a short book comprising merely four chapters, with its lengthiest chapter being only 23 verses long (in comparison, the Book of Psalms has 150 chapters and its chapter 119 having 176 verses).

The story of Ruth may seem to have but a simple plot with no unexpected twists or turns, but the lessons that can be extracted from this slim book can fill a whole month’s worth of devotion material. Here are four lessons from the study of this book which the author finds worth highlighting:

Lesson 1: From Bethlehem To Moab, Not Greener Pastures

The Book of Ruth opens with Elimelek making what must have been a very difficult decision to move his family from Judah to Moab because of the famine that had struck Judah. While it is notable that this story was set during the days when the judges ruled Bethlehem, i.e. a time of instability, immorality and idolatry, to move out of Judah (which was God’s Promised Land to His people) to Moab remains cringe-worthy and unthinkable

For context, Bethlehem (or rather Judah) was a divine sanctuary and God’s Promised Land for all His people – and the likely reason God had allowed a famine to strike Bethlehem was because of its people’s own unfaithfulness, and God had chosen to discipline them by sending this famine (refer Deuteronomy 11:16-17, Leviticus 26:18-20 and Amos 4:6-9). Moab, contrastingly, is regarded as a place of filth and wickedness – Psalms 108:9 refers to Moab as God’s washbasin, i.e. where the residue of dirt, grim and waste settles down and collects.

For Elimelek to move his household out of Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread” in Hebrew) to Moab (i.e. a garbage dump) on the sole basis of economic pursuit is then thoroughly unwholesome. Major life decisions, such as Elimelek’s decision to emigrate to Moab, cannot be based entirely on such materialistic considerations. Even if food, wealth, and worldly success were to be readily available in Moab, Moab was a place of filth and wickedness and would certainly be a hindrance to raising a wholesome family. Moab’s notoriety should itself have been a deterrent to Elimelek’s decision but Elimelek, motivated by the lure of materialism, gave in to what he thought would be greener pastures.

Lesson 2: From Moab to Bethlehem, Return to the Promised Land

Ruth 1:16-18 forms the crux of the central theme of the whole book, i.e. the theme of loyalty. In these verses, we see Ruth’s response to Naomi’s plea urging Orpah and Ruth to stay on in Moab while she returned to Judah. Out of familiarity, Ruth should, like Orpah, have found more confidence in the gods of the Moabites. Ruth was, after all, raised in Moab and had practiced idolatry until she married into Kilion’s household. At the end of verse 15, we see Naomi trying to reason with Ruth, pointing out that like Orpah, she should go back to “her people and her gods” (author’s emphasis). But instead, Ruth surprisingly chose to put her trust in Naomi’s God – see verse 17 where Ruth wilfully subjects herself to Naomi’s God saying, “May the Lord deal with me” (author’s emphasis).

It may seem odd that a woman born and raised in Moab would place more faith and confidence in the Lord (the God of Naomi, of Judah) rather than her own more familiar idols. Perhaps we can speculate that over the approximate 10 years of being in Elimelek’s household, Ruth had been somewhat positively influenced by the household’s faith (albeit a faith of questionable depth). From the little that Ruth had come to know of the Lord, she must have felt more confident in worshiping this God rather than her own, which led to her exemplary display of loyalty and love to return to Bethlehem with Naomi.

Lesson 3: Integrity and Honour over Schemes and Seduction 

Studying this portion of Scripture, it can be acknowledged there is some debate over the seemingly inappropriate schemes and plans Naomi had for Ruth. As this point of the story, Boaz has already been identified as a guardian-redeemer of the Elimelek family (though not the first-in-line) and the story has also established a semblance of romance brewing between Boaz and Ruth.

Whilst some commentators are careful not to infer any indecency from this passage, most find it acceptable to deduce that Naomi’s instructions to Ruth hinted towards some form of sexual immorality. Consider the use of terms like “uncover”, “feet” and “lie down” (all of which in the original Hebrew contain overtly sexual connotations) and the circumstances surrounding their encounter – (i) Naomi had played to Ruth’s physical attractiveness, putting on perfume and her best clothes; (ii) Ruth had approached Boaz under the cover of the night and after Boaz has had sufficient to drink and was in “good spirits”; (iii) Ruth decided to meet Boaz on the threshing floor which was infamous for prostitution; and (iv) Ruth left before daybreak under the cover of darkness to avoid anyone recognising her. Based on Naomi’s instructions, the location, circumstances and timing of this plan, it would be reasonable to conclude that Naomi was planning for Ruth to seduce Boaz into marrying her.

Nonetheless, Boaz remained a faithful man of God and Ruth (surprisingly too, given Moabites are considered immoral people) chose to approach the subject of marriage with great honour and respect. Instead of carrying out Naomi’s plans to seduce Boaz (assuming the speculation above is correct), Ruth was quick to refer to him as her family’s guardian redeemer and asks for him to spread the corner of his garment over her. To spread one’s corner of the garment is a respectful idiomatic way of Ruth making a marriage proposal to Boaz, much in the same way God had spread the corner of His garment over the Son of man by means of entering a covenant with him (see Ezekiel 16:8). Notwithstanding, all the conditions seemed right for Naomi’s seduction plan to be a success. Nonetheless, both Boaz and Ruth (more credit to Ruth as she initiated this turn of events) opted to conduct themselves honourably – an act which certainly found favour in God’s eyes.

Lesson 4: The Blessing of An Heir to the Judean Line 

At the close of Ruth’s story, Ruth is blessed with her first offspring. We should note that over 10 years of marriage before Ruth was widowed, she did not bear any children and (omitting Orpah) if Ruth had not produced an heir, Elimelek’s family line would come to an abrupt end. It is also interesting to note that verse 13 provides that “the Lord enabled her to conceive” (author’s emphasis) which suggests that the conception of this child was as a result of God’s intervention.

As such, Ruth now joins the ranks of many other women of the Bible, all of whom became pregnant through the Lord’s enablement – think, for example, of Sarah who gave birth to Isaac, Rebekah who gave birth to Jacob and Esau, and Rachel who gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin. Like Ruth, all these women were barren until the Lord intervened.

In addition to considering this blessing from Ruth’s perspective, we should also consider it from Naomi’s. Not too long ago, at the start of this book, a tragic scene had been set with Naomi coming back into Judah after having lost her husband and both her sons. Her emptiness had caused her to become bitter at her misfortune (see Ruth 1:20-21).

At the closing scene, however, a euphoric scene is set with the same women who caused a stir during Naomi’s return from Moab now rejoicing with Naomi at her newfound blessings. Having lost her husband and both sons, Naomi finds herself now blessed with a guardian redeemer and a grandson.

Final Thoughts on The Character of Boaz

Reading the Book of Ruth as a whole, we see the common theme of loyalty playing in symmetry throughout the book. At the beginning of the book we see how Naomi’s loss of Elimelek, Mahlon. and Kilion was followed by a great act of loyalty on the part of Ruth in deciding to remain with Naomi, and now at the end, Ruth’s loyalty is reciprocated by the family’s guardian redeemer Boaz in his willingness to continue the legacy of Elimelek’s lineage and to care for Naomi and Ruth.

Whilst the Book of Ruth hardly makes any reference to “God”, God’s hand is nonetheless at work throughout Ruth’s story. This is most apparent from the persona of Boaz in his capacity of a guardian redeemer who chose to use his position, wealth, and authority to raise the widows Naomi and Ruth from their anguish. This story of Ruth then is one of redemption, of how one woman’s loyalty and steadfast integrity was rewarded with redemption through the character of Boaz. In the same way, God has a guardian redeemer for each and every one of us in the person of Jesus who is loyal and ever willing to offer us salvation having paid the price for our sins – and we need only to accept.

About Damansara Utama Methodist Church

Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) is widely respected as a church for all generations—an exciting community of families, senior citizens, young adults, teenagers, and young children, doing life together. Its primary purpose is to build passionate disciples of Jesus Christ, summed up in their tagline ‘Love God, Serve People, Make Disciples’. To find out more about them, visit their website at http://dumc.my/

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