The following article is adapted from Israel’s Mission: Becoming a kingdom of priests in a prodigal world, a guidebook for the associated That the World May Know video series.
The story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 1–4) is one of the most moving accounts in the Bible. The events occurred during the period of the judges, about a century before David became king of Israel. Set in the midst of great hardship and tragic loss, the story focuses on loyalty and faithfulness that starkly contrasts the pagan Moabite culture from which Ruth originated. The story is also a clear example of God’s faithfulness in bringing about His plan of redemption using unexpected partners, in amazing ways and during a time of frequent unfaithfulness of God’s people.
The book of Ruth begins with an Israelite family — Elimelech, Naomi (his wife) and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion — living in Moab. Originally from Bethlehem of Judah, the family left the land of its inheritance because of a famine. But tragedy soon struck. Elimelek died. Both of Naomi’s sons married Moabite women, and within 10 years, the sons died also, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law outside the kin group of her husband.
It is hard for us as modern readers to comprehend the hopeless situation in which the three women found themselves. They lacked the intimacy of a family, which is a tragic situation in any time and place, but were outside the patriarchal clan — cut off from its protection and provision. Their losses were devastating in every way. They were a non-family with no means of providing for themselves. Options for such marginalized women were few and unpleasant. Completely dependent on the generosity of others, they faced starvation or worse.
Naomi and Ruth returned to Israel after God again provided food for His people there. Naomi was a survivor, but she was returning with nothing. Ruth left the gods of Moab behind and chose to put her fate in the hands of Naomi’s God and His people without any idea of how things would work out. For her, there was no turning back.
Naomi was deeply discouraged. She was certain that “the hand of the Lord” (Ruth 1:13) had turned against her. She believed that God himself had made her life bitter (Ruth 1:20). How could they have known that just the opposite was actually true? In the midst of their loss, God was orchestrating an amazing plan that generations later would affect all of humanity through the coming of God’s chosen Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
A true love story
People often describe the book of Ruth as a love story, and certainly it contains elements of two people growing in love in the unique way of their ancient Near Eastern culture. But as this love story unfolds, we realize that it is about more than the love shared between two people. Ultimately it is about God’s amazing love for all humankind, specifically His desire for His people to not only experience His love for themselves, but to reach out and display it in such a way that God is made known to His lost, hungry and hurting children.
Ruth’s request to “spread the corner of your garment over me” (Ruth 3:9, NIV) had several meanings, each of which highlighted her desire to be a faithful part of the community of God’s people. The word for “corner” in Hebrew also means “wings,” so Ruth was asking Boaz: “Protect me like a bird protects her young; be my redeemer as God commanded in the Torah so that in your actions, your provision and your family, I will find God’s protection. And take me as your wife, for in your protection I will find God’s provision and protection.”
This story portrays the love and faithfulness Boaz demonstrated for God who, out of His love for all humankind, commands His people to care for the poor and thereby make His name known. We also see Boaz display what is in Hebrew called hesed (a merciful, compassionate, grace-filled loving-kindness) toward a foreign Moabite widow. We see Ruth’s growing love and commitment to Naomi and to the God of Israel, whose amazing love was drawing Ruth into His beth ab, “the father’s house.”
A plan of redemption for everyone
Boaz and Ruth are a beautiful example of the way that redemption worked in a patriarchal culture. God included the practice of redemption, common in ancient Near Eastern culture, in His instructions to the Israelites. In so doing, He explained His role as “Father” (or patriarch) of all and His desire to redeem family members and the entire creation, restoring them fully in relationship to Him and to each other. Thus the righteous and faithful character of Boaz is a picture of God himself in His work of redemption.
After God used Israel to bring Ruth fully into His community, she joined in the mission to redeem others. She became the great-grandmother of Israel’s heroic king David, demonstrating that a foreigner could be completely assimilated into God’s people and become His instrument for redemptive purpose. Jesus’ descent from David’s family in both blood through His mother, Mary, and legal kinship through His father, Joseph, gave Him legitimacy as Messiah to Israel among His first Jewish followers. Jesus’ descent from Ruth made it clear that the Messiah would redeem all humanity, not only the Jews.
For Christians, the book of Ruth represents an early sign that the Messiah would liberate all of humankind, not solely Jews, and that Gentiles would join God’s community of redeemed people in the mission of restoring God’s lost children back into full relationship with Him