Neglected Books of the Old Testament: Ruth
Ruth is one of the smallest books of the bible but with many treasures to be unearthed. Ruth is a Moabite who married one of the two sons of Elimelech, who himself was from Bethlehem in Judah. Elimelech and his two sons both died, leaving Elimelech’s wife Naomi and her daughters in law Ruth and Orpah to fend for themselves. Naomi dispairs and tells her daughters-in-law to leave her for ‘the hand of the Lord has turned against me’, Orpah leaves but Ruth ‘clung to her’.
When told by Naomi to return to her former life, her former god’s, Ruth clings to Naomi and professes her devotion to both Naomi and the God of Israel. ‘Entreat me not to leave you or to return 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 will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you’.
Ruth and Naomi leave Moab and return to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest and seeks to ‘glean corn’ from the fields of Boaz who as it happens is a kinsman of Elimelech. Boaz invokes the Lord to be with Ruth and Ruth in turn invokes the Lord’s blessing on Boaz. Boaz shows kindness to Ruth which leaves her surprised (2:10), she throws herself to the floor exclaiming ‘Why have I found favour in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ Boaz knows of the kindnesses that Ruth has shown Naomi, and again invokes the Lord’s lovingkindness upon Ruth.
As the tale goes on Naomi persuades Ruth to marry Boaz who redeems the land belonging to Elimelech, taking Ruth as his wife ‘to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his native place’. The Elders then invoke the Lord’s blessing on Ruth that she become like Rachel and Leah, that she prosper and the Lord gives Ruth a child. This child is Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David the shepherd who was to become King and the ancestor of Jesus the Christ.
So what are we to make of this?
Divine action can occur through human agents. God, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’ permeates all things. He is acting constantly. The Lord is mentioned repeatedly but rarely is he described as acting in a direct way such as in 1:6 when the Lord gives food to the Moabites leading Elimelech and his family to Moab, leading to his son marrying Ruth, which eventually leads to Ruth marrying Boaz and in 4:13 ‘the Lord gave her conception’ and she gives birth to the grandfather of King David and the ancestor of Jesus. Instead of the Lord punctuating the story with action in an explicit way we see this in an implicit way. The Lord is invoked, the prayer answered but in a way that seems so subtle and over what would be an extended period of time that one might miss the action of God if one is not attuned to it. The message of Ruth is that God is permanently acting. An example of this;
- Boaz prays Ruth may receive full reward from God (2:11-12)
- Boaz recognises Ruth has placed herself under the protection of the Lord – under his ‘wings’ (2:12)
- Boaz answers his own prayer for Ruth, taking her under his own protection and God’s faithfulness is shown in this act. God’s protection is given through Boaz (2:11-13)
- Ruth recognises what God has done for her by giving him thanks (2:20)
God works not in the earthquake, wind and fire but in the still small voice of calm. We see this in Naomi’s despair at what she feels is the Lord turning against her (1:13, 1:21). She was uprooted by famine, her husband died, her two sons die, she is feeling as though the Lord has taken everything from her. But the Lord raises the lowly – lets not forget this is the time of the Judges and Moab had been subdued by Israel for 80 years (Judges 3:30) – through Ruth the Moabite and Boaz, Elimelech’s line is rescued. Naomi’s emptiness turns to joy.
God acts through his Israel but also blesses Israel through the gentiles, in this case through Ruth the Moabite. Through Ruth’s participation in the grace of God she in turn is blessed by him, and through her comes David and subsequently the saviour and redeemer of the world, Jesus Christ.
In short Ruth teaches us God is acting in our favour perpetually, even in the time of Ruth he was cultivating the family tree within which Jesus would be born. It also teaches us God is present in every situation we find ourselves in and he communicates with us at every moment through his constant action. St. Thomas Aquinas would say the fact that we have being is a sign of his love for us but he desires not only that we exist but that we have friendship with him. He wants us to share in his inner life and he acts throughout all time to bring that about.