When I was a Sunday school teacher, the biblical books of Joshua and Judges provided me with a rich resource of exciting stories.
Who could resist the story of Jericho’s walls miraculously crashing down? A particular favourite of mine was the story of Gideon. Children were fascinated with the story of how Gideon’s army was reduced to just 300 men. Such stories were not told just because they were exciting but because they illustrate the timeless truth that if we entrust our lives to God, he will be with us even in the most difficult circumstances. However, several stories in the books of Joshua and Judges are very difficult to explain to pre-school children. As well as stories of great miracles and accounts of angelic appearances, the book of Judges describes the lawless conditions that prevailed in Israel before the monarchy. Very sordid tales are told - to show the level of depravity that human beings can reach when they get away from God and when they ignore his word. The final chapters of the book of Judges, in particular, portray scenes of idolatry, abuse, and carnage (Judges 17-21).
The unique message of the book of Ruth
The book of Ruth follows Judges in the Christian canon and the characters described in the book, lived during the Judges period. However, the story of Ruth stands in sharp contrast to that of Judges and the atmosphere of the book is entirely different. The story of Ruth is not about war and it does not contain any accounts of conflict or bloodshed. Another way that Ruth is different from Judges is that it does not relate stories of great miracles or angelic appearances. These characteristics and features of the book of Ruth clearly indicate that it has been inspired by the Holy Spirit to fulfil a specific role - one that contrasts with the message of the book that precedes it. Although it is different, the story of Ruth is a very important work and it has a timeless message that is just as relevant for us today as it was for people living in the time of the Judges, over 3,000 years ago. It is refreshing to turn from the story of abuse and rape in Judges and read the story of Ruth which, although set in the context of the ‘days when the judges ruled’, is a story about human love and divine providence. This shows that, even in those lawless days, there were people who loved the Lord and sought to honour him.
Set in the context of a disastrous famine in Israel, the story relates how a man decided to leave his hometown of Bethlehem to travel to the land of Moab with his wife Naomi and their two boys Mahlon and Chilion. The book makes no comment about whether or not this was a wise decision. In Moab the two sons of Elimelech and Naomi, married Moabite girls called Ruth and Orpah. Tragedy struck the family with the death of the three men leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone and vulnerable.
Many scholars have made negative judgements against this family and it has been suggested that these deaths were judgement from God. Jewish tradition follows this line and suggests that Elimelech should not have left Bethlehem and that Mahlon and Chilion should not have married foreigners. However, the reader is not informed about the details surrounding the deaths of Elimelech and his two sons and there is no indication in the book of Ruth that these deaths should be regarded as judgement from God.
Although the book of Ruth does not blame anyone for the tragedies that befell this small family from Bethlehem, Naomi was sure that she knew who was to blame. From Naomi’s perspective, it was not Elimelech who was to blame, nor did she blame herself or her sons. Naomi’s reaction was a very natural one: she blamed God. This can be seen in her speech to Orpah and Ruth in which she complained that, ‘the hand of the LORD has gone out against me’ (1:13, ESV). Furthermore, when she entered Bethlehem, Naomi told the women of the town not to call her Naomi, which means ‘pleasant’ but ‘Marah’ which means ‘bitter’ because, she said, ‘the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me’ (1:20, ESV). Naomi expressed her disappointment openly. She may have regretted leaving Bethlehem in the first place but in a patriarchal society, her husband would have made that decision. She could not see anything good happening in the future and she felt hopeless and helpless.
From bitterness to blessing
However, although the first introduction to Naomi describes her bitterness, the book shows how this initial bitterness turned to praise as she realised that even during her darkest days, God had not forsaken her. This transformation happened gradually. She was greatly encouraged and not a little surprised when Ruth met Boaz and received an abundant supply of food. ‘May he (Boaz) be blessed by the LORD’, she exclaimed, ‘whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead’ (2:20, ESV).
However, Naomi’s anxiety for the future was still very real and as the harvest drew to a close, she realised that things were beginning to look bleak again. She took the initiative and planned a very risky night-time encounter between Ruth and Boaz (3:1-5). It could all have gone horribly wrong. Was she right to take such a risk that could have put her daughter-in-law in danger? We are only told that everything worked out well but from a human point of view, it could all have ended in disaster had God not been in control.
The story has not only one happy ending, but two! The first of these is the one that Naomi and Ruth would have experienced personally. The marriage of Ruth and Boaz was a tremendous relief for Naomi because her foreign daughter-in-law was now married to an Israelite gentleman who would provide for her and Naomi, herself, would undoubtedly share in this security. Following the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, a baby was born and the last we hear about Naomi describes her nursing her grandson (4:16). For Naomi, this meant that her personal journey had come from bitterness to blessing and from despair to security. That is the end of the story as far as Naomi and Ruth were concerned but the book of Ruth has one final surprise: the book concludes with genealogical information that shows that Ruth the Moabite was the ancestress of Israel’s greatest King, David. Furthermore, in Matthew’s Gospel, Ruth is mentioned by name in the Family Tree of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5). The characters in the book of Ruth were involved in God’s great plan of salvation for the world but this was something that they could never have realised.
The book of Ruth is an encouragement to us when we feel uncertain about the future and unclear about the best decisions to take. In this book, the characters, especially Naomi and Ruth faced hardship and poverty. However, God had a plan for Ruth, Naomi and Boaz. They were not aware of God’s plan and they did not know that their lives and their decisions were being carefully guided and blessed. For people today who are experiencing really difficult times, this book has a clear message. God may seem far away when we are going through adverse and depressing circumstances. God may be hidden from us but he is never absent. Sometimes life does not make sense but if we believe that God is in control it strengthens faith and provides an anchor when the storms of life try to sweep us away.
Bio: James was Vice-Principal of Belfast Bible College for over 20 years. His special interests include the Hebrew language and its significance for the study of the Old Testament. This interest has involved many trips to Israel, including study visits to the University College, Jerusalem and the University of Haifa. He has written a commentary on Genesis in The Two Horizons Old Testament Series published by Eerdmans. James left BBC in 2009 to spend more time preaching, teaching and writing.
Part one of a three-part series: