A POOR, WIDOWED, IMMIGRANT FINDS LOVE AND REDEMPTION | Advent Devotional Series: Ruth 1-4, December 15, 2020
Read and pray through the book of Ruth, chapters 1 – 4.
Introduction | The Christmas story begins with Jesus’ family tree. And over these next few weeks of Advent, we are looking more closely at the four women highlighted in Jesus’ lineage as recorded by Matthew in his gospel: “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (Matthew 1:1). If you’re new to this devotional, we encourage you to read the Introduction to this series that explains both the structure and purpose of Matthew’s genealogy. The overall focus of this devotional is addressed as well. You can find the Introduction to this devotional series by clicking here.
Reflection | Ruth is the third woman named in the lineage of Christ as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. However, unlike the first two women we looked at Jesus’ family tree, Ruth has more than just a chapter dedicated to her story. An entire book of the Bible bears her name and records a pivotal moment in her journey of faith.
For many, the book of Ruth is considered one of the best love stories in the Bible. While it certainly is that; Ruth’s story is so much more than a great romance. This seemingly little episode tucked between the death of Joshua and the crowning of Israel’s first king, Saul, unveils some big themes that reverberate throughout the rest of the Bible.
Ruth’s story takes place during what is known as the period of the Judges. The book of the same name, which comes right before Ruth, records what happened to the people of Israel after they entered the Promised Land. With the passing of their leader, Joshua, a once unified people revert back into individual factions or tribes leaving them continually vulnerable to foreign attack and oppression.
This disunity is worsened by a shared and tragic distancing in Israel’s relationship with the Lord. Continually embracing the religious practices of the Canaanites, a repeated, vicious cycle emerges in the story of the Judges: sin, oppression, repentance, divine deliverance, peace, and then, right back into sin. This downward trajectory into moral degeneracy is best encapsulated by one of the last lines in the book: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
It is against this dismal backdrop that Ruth’s story is set. Through its narrative, we move from a macro lens of the spiraling decline of the people of Israel to a more immediate and intimate view of the misery and emptiness a singular family is experiencing during these dark days. Ruth’s journey unfolds in four acts. It begins rather bleakly.
To escape a famine, a family of four, Elimelek, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons move from Bethlehem to Moab. Though clearly this was a time of peace between Israel and Moab, nonetheless, the Moabites had been long-time enemies and oppressors of Israel (see Numbers, chapter 25), and seemingly forsaken by God. This pagan nation descended from the incestuous relationship of Lot and his oldest daughter (see Genesis, chapter 19). The Moabites worshipped the deity, Chemosh, and regularly practiced child sacrifice. Not exactly the kind of place you want to raise your family.
Not long after this move, tragedy strikes. Elimelek dies. Naomi is left a widow and has to raise their two sons alone. Eventually, these two sons marry outside of their ethnicity and wed two Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. Within the span of a decade, catastrophe yet again befalls this family as both of Naomi’s sons join their father in death. First having lost her husband, Naomi now loses both of her children. And now she is joined in widowhood by her daughters-in-law.
Naomi, Orpah and Ruth – all widows, all childless. Besides the pain of their grief, these three women now face an uncertain and grim future. To be widowed and childless in their day and age meant unmitigated vulnerability and all but certain poverty. Vulnerable and without any immediate prospects, Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, head back to Bethlehem. Word has gotten to them that the famine there was over.
On their way back, however, Naomi has a change of heart. Even though she grieves, she remembers her daughters-in-law have a better chance at social and economic security apart from her. Releasing them from their marital obligations, Naomi insists Orpah and Ruth return to their families of origin. This will afford them the protection of their kin and culture as well as provide an opportunity to remarry.
Orpah recognizes the common sense of this wisdom and turns back towards her homeland. Ruth, on the other hand, remains immovable in her commitment to her mother-in-law. She refuses to leave Naomi alone. Ruth doubles down, forsaking the familiarity and safety of her roots in a remarkable commitment of faith as she pledges: “Wherever you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (1:16-17).
And so, Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem, just as the barley harvest starts. Although Naomi’s late husband has family in Bethlehem, the closest male relative does not step forward to help the two women. This is in direct contradiction to the family-marriage law God prescribed through Moses in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. Undeterred, Ruth takes the initiative to save Naomi and herself from starvation. She acquires food for them to live on by gleaning the remnants of grain left in the fields after they have been harvested. This, again, was a provision for the poor in the community that the Lord established among His people (see Leviticus 19:9-10).
Ruth ends up gleaning in a field owned by a wealthy, older businessman named Boaz. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear this was not a coincidence but a matter of divine providence. This is because Boaz is a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Impressed by Ruth’s solidarity and advocacy towards her mother-in-law, Boaz takes an interest in their welfare. He generously offers Ruth both protection and privileges as she gleans throughout the barley and wheat harvests – a period of about two months.
As the harvest season nears its end, Naomi urges Ruth to pursue a marriage proposal from Boaz. She directs Ruth to present herself privately to Boaz in the middle of the night in a manner, despite its unfamiliarity to us, that was culturally honorable and not scandalous. At the beginning of their working relationship, Naomi informed Ruth that Boaz was more than a distant relative of her late husband. He was eligible to be one of their kinsman or guardian-redeemers. According to the Torah (see Leviticus 25:25-55), the kinsman/guardian-redeemer was a close, male relative who was responsible for rescuing and restoring a childless widow through marriage.
Following the appropriate ritual, Ruth, in essence, proposes to Boaz as she petitions him to assume the role of kinsman/guardian redeemer. In asking Boaz to “Spread the corner of your garment over me,” Ruth was asking him to provide a sign that would indicate his acceptance of her proposal – his promise to take her under his wing of protection. Without any hesitation, Boaz heartily agrees to do so.
However, Boaz seeks to act with integrity as he moves forward. He does not presume to take on this role ahead of another closer male relative in town who also is eligible to do so. Protecting Ruth’s dignity, Boaz initiates a conversation with this potential kinsman redeemer. At first, it appears as though this other male relative will fulfill this role. But as he is pressed further by Boaz, his true motives are revealed. This closer kinsman only wishes to benefit from the financial gain of redeeming the land that belonged to Naomi’s husband without bearing the responsibility for marrying Ruth. When he is unable to do so, he rescinds his offer of redemption. In that moment, Boaz, who is qualified and willing to redeem, publicly pays the price of redemption for Ruth and by extension, Naomi.
Ruth and Boaz marry. Naomi gains a son and eventually, a grandchild. For Ruth and Boaz soon conceived a child, a son named Obed. The book of Ruth concludes with a genealogy linking Obed as a legitimate ancestor of King David. The word, legitimate, is intentionally used here as many scholars believe part of the reason the story of Ruth was recorded was to establish David’s right to the throne.
Part of what might call the legitimacy of his rule into question would be his Moabite heritage. As stated earlier, Moab had a prolonged history of conflict with Israel. Specifically, intermarriage between the two nations was frowned upon. The genealogy clarifies Ruth, by marriage, and Boaz, their son, Obed, and later on, David, by blood, were all from the tribe of Judah. One could argue the birth of Obed also represents the reuniting of Abraham and Lot’s families that had been separated for many generations.
Matthew, however, with his inclusion of Ruth in his genealogy of Jesus at the start of his gospel, wants us to understand the even larger canvas upon which God is working. For the union of Ruth and Boaz ultimately was a part of God’s greatest work of reconciliation – of reconciling the world to Himself in Jesus Christ. And in Ruth’s story we glean some reassuring insights as to the scope and inclusive nature of the divine plan for humanity’s reclamation.
First, let’s acknowledge the most obvious revelation as reflected through the role of Boaz in this story. Boaz, a descendant of the tribe of Judah, willingly assumes the role of the kinsman or guardian redeemer. He does this by first honoring the demands of the law of God and dealing with Ruth (and by extension, Naomi) compassionately, generously, and with integrity. Once he has acted appropriately, Boaz then pays the price to secure Ruth and Naomi’s lost inheritance. In taking on this role of the kinsman or guardian redeemer, Boaz rescues or delivers both a Jew (Naomi) and a Gentile (Ruth).
Throughout the Bible, God declares Himself to be our Redeemer. We witness this long before the story of Ruth in the book of Exodus and continuing long after the life of Ruth in the announcements of prophets like Isaiah: “For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5, for other examples see Psalm 82:4; Daniel 6:27; Jeremiah 20:13). All of these visions culminate some four hundred years later, again from Bethlehem, as a baby born to the family of David grows into the Lion of the tribe of Judah who comes to redeem both Jews and Gentiles. Like Boaz, Jesus does this by first perfectly fulfilling the Law of God and then, willingly paying the price for our redemption through His death on the cross all in order to make us His beloved Bride (See Revelation 5:9).
Our appreciation for God’s work of redemption through Christ only deepens as we consider Naomi’s journey of faith. Interestingly, while this book is called Ruth, the story itself begins and ends with Naomi. Early on, she loses her entire family – becoming first a widow and then, childless. Naomi, by her own admission, is left not just destitute but also confused and bitter. And yet, taking the trajectory of her journey as a whole, we perceive both the Lord’s ability and promise to steer Naomi’s losses back into restoration. Her story that begins with the loss of her two sons, ends with her gain of two sons – her son-in-law, Moab, and later, her grandson, Obed. From Naomi’s journey we are given hope that our mourning will one day turn to dancing. Like Naomi, our dark night of the soul can, by the grace of God, become our resurrection from the dead as well.
And then, there’s the witness of Ruth. Like Boaz’ mother, Rahab, Ruth belonged to a people seemingly excluded from the Kingdom of God, the Moabites. Given this, Ruth ought to have taken the opportunity to rebuild her life after her husband, an Israelite, died. But even when Ruth was given the permission to do so, this outsider, this immigrant, broke social conventions in order to do right by her mother-in-law. In redefining the conventional definitions of family, she demonstrated a fierce loyalty born of faith that would put most natural-born Israelites to shame. Or as the women of Bethlehem later remarked, “For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons…” (4:15).
There is something compelling and noteworthy that Ruth’s (and Naomi’s) struggles and sufferings were not dismissed as being too small or insignificant to be included in the Bible. For me, it shows how God weaves grace and salvation through not just the affairs and spectacles of nations but also in the midst of the small, seemingly inconsequential stories of everyday people. What starts with a famine ends with an abundant harvest – both of grain and of the seed from which would come the all creation’s Messiah.
It’s also worth going back and highlighting all the instances of prayer offered throughout the Book of Ruth. There is much we can learn there in terms of how we might reach out and trust daily in a generous God. For Ruth’s story confirms the Lord not only sees but also loves and calls all people — outsiders, women, foreigners – even those from nations long-held to be enemies – to be a part of His family. Ruth’s actions in the midst of divine providence spur us to be courageous in influencing our own surroundings and impacting the communities to which we belong. As we do so, let us believe that as with Ruth, the Lord will use our Spirit-driven initiative and choices in the midst of our own challenging life circumstances not only to bless us but to benefit others.
Consider & Discuss | Have you ever felt empty and afflicted by God as Naomi did? How did you respond? What did God do in your situation? Are there ways that God has shown his faithfulness to you and changed your sorrow to joy?
We are in an unprecedented time. How is God showing loyalty, compassion, and love towards you during this time of pandemic? How are you, like Ruth or Boaz, being called to show God’s loyalty, compassion, and love to others around you? How convinced are you that God wants to be involved in your life to accomplish His purposes and plans? What evidence (or lack thereof) can you point to in supporting your conclusions?
Prayer Focus | Receive this prayer of blessing.
Pray it over yourself and over those whom you love and serve in Christ’s name.
May you be like our spiritual ancestors in the faith.
May you be part of something bigger than your life.
May you be like Ruth, the courageous one, who loves abundantly, clinging to God, unwilling to let God and willing to wait for the Lord’s plans for you to unfold.
May you be like Boaz, a person of integrity, doing what is right and doing it in the right way, and through it all glorifying and reflecting the redemptive love of God.
May you be like Naomi, loved despite your failings and hurts; so overwhelmed by God’s unexpected grace, that your deep bitterness is turned into even greater joy.
May you know God the Father, the Provider, who feeds his people.
May you know Jesus, the ultimate Kinsman Redeemer who loves you and rescues you
and takes you to be his own, even when you were an outsider, helpless, and dependent.
May you know the whisper of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit directs your life in unforeseen directions and unexpected turns that are more than you could have ever imagined or hoped for. May the fingerprints of the living God be all over your life as you follow the footsteps of Jesus to become all that you were created to be. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!