Ruth shows family to be at the center of God’s plan
The Book of Ruth in the Old Testament is very short, only about three times the length of this little essay. It is a charming account of how Ruth, a Moabite who had married one of Naomi’s sons, accompanied her mother-in-law back to her ancestral home in Bethlehem after both her husband and her sons had died on their homestead in Moab. More than anything else, the story of Ruth emphasizes devotion to the God of Israel and the importance of strong family ties.
It may seem superfluous to call special attention to God’s side of the faith-and-family equation in this book, for it is obvious. The characters repeatedly seek to do what is right in God’s sight, and constantly call upon Him to bless their efforts. It will be sufficient here to recall how Ruth convinced her mother-in-law not to make her go back to her parents when Naomi, bereaved of not only her husband but both sons, decided to return to Judah. Her two widowed daughters-in-law loved Naomi and wished to accompany her, but Ruth alone overcame Naomi’s reluctance to take them away from all that they knew.
“See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law,” Naomi said. But Ruth replied in one of the most famous speeches in all of Scripture:
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 1:15-17]
Clearly Ruth has a rare devotion to God, and a rare devotion to the woman who had taught her how to worship Him.
From this point on, Ruth’s story revolves around the recovery of strong family relationships which have otherwise been lost. It is thoroughly rooted in the rights and duties of family members under the Covenant in Israel. Throughout Scripture, Jewish women (and their husbands) felt it was a reproach to them to fail to have children—a great sorrow which often had social repercussions. Repeatedly, beginning with Abraham’s wife Sarah, we also witness near-miraculous births to aging women who have poured out their grief to God. In fact, immediately after the Book of Ruth closes, at the very start of the First Book of Samuel, we find a childless woman, Hannah, in the Temple, overwhelmed with sadness, silently lamenting her barrenness:
As she continued praying before the LORD…Eli [the priest] took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman sorely troubled…. Do not regard your maidservant as a base woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her countenance was no longer sad. [1 Sam 12-18]
Hannah became the mother of Samuel, a great prophet, who crowned David King of Israel. In Sacred Scripture, the glory of Israel always runs through women, who alone can give birth to the future.
Intensity of devotion
It is this intensity of devotion to faith and family that animates the entire Book of Ruth. As women with no means of support, both Ruth and Naomi live on the knife-edge of poverty. It is only Naomi’s secure knowledge of the LORD’s will regarding widows in Israel, and her trust that a good man will do God’s will, that enables her to guide Ruth to a solution, for Ruth did not yet know the full importance of family responsibility among the Jews.
A prosperous farmer named Boaz took pity on Ruth when she was gleaning grain in his fields (another custom for the sustenance of the poor). Boaz was generous; he also offered her protection in the fields, along with the other maidens of his household. But it turns out that Boaz was very near kin to Naomi, and so Naomi counseled Ruth concerning the customary way for her to indicate that she desired Boaz’s support in far deeper and more enduring ways.
Astonished and pleased, Boaz replied:
And now it is true that I am a near kinsman, yet there is a kinsman nearer than I…. [I]f he will do the part of the next of kin for you, well; let him do it; but if he is not willing to do the part of the next of kin for you, then, as the LORD lives, I will do the part of the next of kin for you. [Ruth 3:12-13]
Immediately Boaz went to the city gates, intercepted the next of kin as he entered the town, and assembled elders as witnesses to their discussion. He first explained that the next of kin had the right to redeem the land belonging to Naomi’s deceased husband (Elimelech), indicating that if the next of kin did not want to do this, Boaz himself was next in line and would do it. But the next of kin was willing to redeem the land.
Next, Boaz explained:
“The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also buying Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance.” Then the next of kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” [Ruth 4:5-6]
It only enhances the impact of this book that the last chapter informs us of one more thing: Through Ruth, Boaz became the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse...and Jesse the father of David.
Most readers will probably remember the LORD’s command that when a man died, his widow should not be cut off, but the man’s brother or other near kin should take her to wife and raise up an heir for the one who had died (e.g., Deut 25). It is just this combination of love for God and family piety—indicating a deep and well-ordered concern for the common good—which is at work in the Book of Ruth. These actions and attitudes were particularly important in a culture in which women had few ways to make their own way, but they were even more deeply rooted in respect for God’s gifts, especially the gift of children, and respect for the families within which these gifts are nurtured to bear fruit in the sight of the LORD.
How strange these realities of life under the Old Covenant must seem in a culture which knows little beyond the untrammeled liberty of the individual! No wonder our modern culture produces so many disoriented, insecure, and despairing individuals—men and women who are well-acquainted with the emptiness of mere pleasure but have only rarely, if ever, experienced the security of real love. One of the great and enduring purposes of the Book of Ruth is to place before us the proper and essential grounding of our personal and social existence—to make us know beyond doubt our rootedness in both Divine and familial love.
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