At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel there is a long genealogy of Jesus. There is also a genealogy in Luke’s Gospel, but the special thing about Matthew’s (compared to Luke’s, and every other genealogy of the time, and the rest of scripture) is his inclusion of five women.
Women didn’t usually get a mention in those kind of lists, because they weren’t considered important enough to warrant it, so it’s pretty significant that they’re featured there. But, as well as that, these women are not the kind of ladies that a good First Century Jewish chap would necessarily want to be associated with, never mind a good Jewish chap who’s claiming to be the Chosen One.
They’re unexpected ladies to feature in such an esteemed list, but then, Jesus is a pretty unexpected Saviour too.
The third of the five is Ruth.
“…and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth…“
Ruth is my favourite. Maybe. At any rate, she is the one I feel I know the best, and I’ve spent the last year or so immersing myself in her story, so I’m excited to bring you some thoughts on her today.
Ruth’s story is found in the book of Ruth, four chapters in the history section of the Old Testament (sandwiched in between Judges and 1 Samuel). Chronologically though, the events take place during the time of the Judges, and understanding that fact gives us a little insight into what life for Ruth was like. The book of Judges paints a picture of a time of chaos and corruption – gang rape, child sacrifice, war, dismemberment, the list of atrocities is long, but the whole book can be neatly summarised by it’s final verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
It’s into this time that Ruth’s story fits, and when we read the opening verses of her first chapter, ‘In the days when the judges ruled…’ combined with the sad events that take place in the introduction we might be forgiven for thinking that we’re just in for more tragedy and horror. But no. Ruth’s story serves as a shard of sunlight into a very dark place – let me show you how…
The book begins with a man named Elimelech, from the tribe of Judah. He is married to a woman called Naomi, and they live in Bethlehem, where, we’re told, there is famine. So Elimelech and Naomi leave and seek refuge in nearby Moab (modern-day Jordan), along with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Sadly, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi as a widow and single mother, but she manages to secure wives for both of her sons, two local girls called Ruth and Orpah. Unfortunately the sadness is not over: ten years go by, and neither woman falls pregnant.
Often we just skip past that little fact, but it’s worth a pause, surely? 10 years and no babies for either of them. That’s 120 months of disappointment each, in a world where there is no IVF, and where a woman’s value is found solely in her ability to produce sons. And, then, tragedy strikes for the last time, as both Mahlon and Chilion die, and Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are left alone.
Ruth and Orpah do at least have families to go back to, but the situation for Naomi is utterly hopeless. She is a widow, both of her children have died, and she is alone, with no protection, and no support, in a strange and unpleasant land. Again I don’t think we spend enough time on this fact. The narrators of the history of Israel are not known for labouring a point, and this moment in the story is certainly not an exception to that rule. But maybe we can linger here for a while: what would it have been like for her? Grief, certainly, but she had no time to dwell there; no time to sit and cry and mourn her children. She needed to find a way to keep living, and, as the text tells us, she hears the news that the famine in Bethlehem is over and decides to head back there. Initially, Naomi seems happy to take Ruth and Orpah with her, and yet, on the road out of town she seems to change her mind, and tries to send both women back home. She knows that her life is not going to get easier from this point forward, and her hope is that they might be able to find new husbands, and have children of their own. Naomi’s joy is over but at least Ruth and Orpah might find happiness, or, as she puts it, rest.
Eventually, Orpah is persuaded to go, but Ruth won’t have any of it. The narrator tells us that Ruth clung to Naomi, and she declares her intention to stay with a determined and beautiful promise:
“Do not urge me 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 anything but death parts me from you.”
With those words Ruth is giving up her home, her family, her religion, and any hope of the ‘rest’ that Naomi wanted for her, and instead, is resigning herself to a lifetime of poverty and hard work amongst a strange and unfriendly people. These are the first words that we hear from Ruth, and they set us up well for gaining a little insight into her character. She’s kind, of course, in a way that is utterly self-sacrificing, but also, determined. Ruth is not a weak, meek, gentle little girl; she’s a fighter.
So, they make their way back to Bethlehem, and just so happen to arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest. They’re desperate, and fall back on the one safety net that stands as Israel’s version of a welfare system: gleaning. Basically, the Law included a provision for the orphans and the widows, where they were allowed to follow after the harvesters, picking up what was dropped, harvesting tiny scraps left behind, in order that they might scrape together enough to feed themselves. The good news is that God had so ordered the law to allow for that provision, the bad news is that this is the time of the judges, and ‘everyone did what was right in their own eyes’. Ruth left Naomi at home (wherever ‘home’ was for these two women) and went out into the fields, hoping that she might find a field where the owner was obeying God’s law, and allowing widows to glean, and she just so happens to find herself in the field of a guy called Boaz, who just so happens to be a relative of her late father-in-law, Elimelech.
Old Boaz (recently referred to by my Relay worker, Sam, as ‘a bit of a babe’) spots Ruth and singles her out, offering her protection from harm, food from his table, and a special blessing: ‘
“The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
And when Ruth returns home that evening, and fills Naomi in on all that’s happened, her mother-in-law has some exciting news to share. This guy Boaz is a relative of theirs, and as such, is in place to fulfill a couple more laws, laws to rescue Naomi and Ruth from their poverty, and to give Ruth that rest that she had given up.
Law no. 1: Levirate marriage, as seen in the story of Tamar, where a relative of a dead man sleeps with the widow to provide a son to carry on the family line. Law no. 2: ‘Go’el’ or ‘Kinsman Redeemer’, where a relative bails out a poorer relative, by ‘buying’ their land, in order that the poor relative can have money, and the land stay within the family.
Naomi and Ruth need someone to fulfill these laws, and Boaz seems like the man for the job.
And this is where the crazy bit comes in. Chapter 3, Naomi gets Ruth dressed and perfumed and sends her off to the threshing floor, where Boaz and the other men have spent the day working (followed by an evening of eating and drinking). Ruth is told to find Boaz in the dark, lie down at his feet, and wait for him to ‘tell her what to do’.
As plans go, this is not the best one going. Let’s not forget that this is the time of the judges, a time when rape was not exactly unheard of, and here is Ruth, dolled up, alone, at night, and wandering into a room full of men who are, as they say, ‘in their cups’.
But Ruth goes for it anyway, and managing to locate Boaz in the dark, she lies down at his feet, and waits. And here is one of the funniest moments of the book:
“At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet!”
Surprise! Only, here’s where Naomi’s plan might have unraveled, since, rather than telling Ruth what to do, Boaz just wants to know who she is. Thankfully, Ruth’s fighting side comes out, and rather than waiting for him to do the directing, she takes the initiative, and comes out with this gem:
“I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
Does the phrasing sound familiar? Have you heard those words before? Of course you have. Last time someone talked about spreading wings, it was Boaz and the wings were those of Yahweh, and now, Ruth is asking him to spread his wings over her, to redeem her, to rescue her.
She is asking him to be like God to her.
And of course, he does what she asks. Read the book for the full picture, but rest assured, it’s a happy, happy ending, and one with a bit more genealogy as part of it.
In chapter four, as the townspeople pronounce a blessing over the future of Boaz and Ruth, they reference our old friend, Tamar, with the hope that Ruth might be a blessing to Boaz, as Tamar was to his ancestor. Imagine the disgraced Tamar, now a blessing! And at the very end, we see the way the line continues, from Ruth and Boaz, to Obed, and Jesse, and… David. More on him next week.
So, that’s the lovely story of lovely Ruth, but why her? Why is she one of the five?
Here’s a clue:
A penniless, barren foreigner, brought into the family of God, by marrying a kind, obedient redeemer. Does that story remind you of another?
I hope so.
It’s all about Jesus. He is the real kind, obedient redeemer. Much, much kinder than Boaz, and much, much more obedient, and a much, much greater redeemer. We’re all Ruth – penniless, and barren, and foreigners, but the lovely Lord Jesus comes and woos us and makes us His bride.
What good news.
In summary: foreigners made family.