This post on the book of Ruth is the second of two on God’s sovereignty in times of chaos. Click here to see the first instalment, focussing on the book of Judges.

In the days when the Judges ruled …

The days of the Judges were characterised by idolatry, lawlessness and violence—including violence against women. Israel had failed to remove all the peoples and their gods from the land and, although each tribe had their own inheritance (Ju 21:24), Israel was by no means a united nation. No new prophet like Moses; or warrior leader like Joshua had arisen within Israel.

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. (Judges 21:25)

In this story, God’s plans unfold in the everyday life of a family living on the margins.

But God was at work in the chaos, as we see in the book of Ruth—another narrative from ‘the days when the judges ruled’ (Ruth 1:1). In this story, God’s plans unfold, not in bloody battles and miraculous interventions, but through hidden kindness experienced in the everyday life of a family living on the margins.[1]

Ruth 1:1-22, Emptiness and Hope

A family under threat

At the start of Ruth, famine in Israel has caused Elimelek, a man from Bethlehem, to emigrate to Moab along with his wife Naomi and two sons (1:1-5). They are away from their inheritance in Judah and living in a nation with its own gods and way of life. First Elimelek dies. Then their sons die, leaving Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law by themselves without support or protection.

God is great, but is he also good?

Yet amidst the trials and tragedies of this little family, hints of divine providence appear. First, Naomi hears news of the end of Israel’s famine—and recognises it as a sign of mercy:

The Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them (1:6).

Nevertheless, as she plans to return to Bethlehem, Naomi feels as if God’s hand has turned against her (1:13). As Barry Webb puts it, ‘she expects very little from God herself and even less for her daughters-in-law.’[2] She asks the LORD to bless her daughters; to provide husbands for them in Moab (1:9), and says her goodbyes. After some initial resistance Orpah (quite reasonably) decides to remain with ‘her people and her gods’ (1:15). But Ruth holds fast to Naomi; a decision which means renouncing her loyalty to, and confidence in, her family, land and gods. Not only is Ruth now bound to Naomi, but to the LORD God and his people.

Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. (1:16b-17)

Empty and Bitter

Despite Ruth’s loyalty, Naomi is only aware of the emptiness and affliction in her life. To the women of Bethlehem who welcome her, she says:

Call me Mara (bitter), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi (pleasant)? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me. (1:20-21)

Yet chapter one ends with another hint of divine providence. Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, ‘as the barley harvest is beginning,’ (1:22) and, as we soon discover, it’s not only empty stomachs that are filled by the Almighty.

Ruth 2:1-23, The Kindness of God

One way that the LORD made provision for the poor in the land and promoted kindness amongst his people, was in the laws which governed gleaning. Landowners were commanded not to harvest to the very edge of their fields so that the poor could follow after and glean what was left over (Lev 19:9-10; Deut 24:19). This is the only means of support open to Ruth who goes to work to provide for Naomi and herself (2:2). Once again, we catch a glimpse of God’s hidden hand of providence, both in the time (the beginning of harvest) and in the place (Ruth ‘happens’ (2:3) to arrive at the field of Boaz, a relative of Elimelek, and a God-fearing Israelite!) Can this just be chance?

Extravagant kindness

Given their track record in Judges it would not be surprising to see the men of Israel ‘behaving badly’—particularly towards a lone and penniless foreign woman, with no male relative to protect her (c.f. 2:9, 22). Our fears are put to rest, however, as we meet Boaz whose first words in the book are a blessing on his workers; ‘the Lord be with you’ (2:4). Clearly this is not mere lip service. Boaz is a man of God who acts honourably and in the interests of others. On learning that Ruth is Naomi’s daughter in law, he takes a particular responsibility for her welfare, and by extension, Naomi (2:5-8).

Boaz is a man of God who acts honourably and in the interests of others.

Boaz does not merely fulfil his ‘legal obligation’. He guarantees Ruth ongoing work (2:21, 23), and safety amongst the other women—ordering the men to leave her alone (2:9). Despite her lowly status, he honours Ruth by inviting her to eat at his table (2:13-14) and even orders his men to pull out extra sheaves to leave for her to gather (2:14-16). Ruth is overwhelmed by his kindness (2:10), but Boaz has recognised the incredible love and loyalty she has shown to Naomi; leaving family and homeland for an uncertain future in a strange land (2:11). He understands that in doing this, Ruth has entrusted herself to God:

‘May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’ (2:12b)

Love is the fulfilment of the law

The living God of Israel; the LORD of mercy and loving kindness (chesed cf. Exodus 34:6-7) has become Ruth’s God (cf.1:16). As Naomi will later acknowledge, God’s kindness (chesed) is now expressed in the actions of Boaz (2:20). This, despite the fact that she is a Moabitess forbidden by Law from joining the assembly of Israel (Gen 19:30-37; Deut 23:3-6). Boaz’s actions demonstrate that mercy and love are the fulfilment of the law (e.g. Matt 23:23-24). As Webb puts it,

Moabites had been placed under a ban of eternal exclusion for cursing and seducing them into worshipping their gods (Num22:1-6; 25:1-3). But what of a Moabite who abandons those gods and embraces the LORD? And what if she is poor, an alien, and a widow-one of the very people the Law commanded Israelites to protect? What does it mean to truly keep the Law in these circumstances? …The rest of the book confirms that his actions were right.[3]

3:1-18, The Promise of Redemption

The LORD God was Israel’s Redeemer. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt so that they could have rest in the land and worship and serve him there (e.g. Deut 6:1-12); and the concept of Redemption was enshrined in the Law of Moses. If an Israelite family became poor and had to sell their land (or themselves into slavery), the nearest male relative; the kinsman-redeemer (goel); could buy it back. If a widow was left without children, the kinsman-redeemer could marry her so as to provide descendants; maintaining their family inheritance in the land (cf. Lev 25:23-34, 47-55; Num 35:6-28; Deut 19:4-13). Boaz is such a relative. No wonder Naomi’s bitterness turns to joy when she discovers the identity of the man who has shown Ruth such kindness (2:20b)!

Naomi the match-maker

Naomi can now see God’s kindness—not only to her, but to the line of Elimelek that is in danger of going extinct. Perhaps being aware that the attentions of Boaz are not entirely devoid of romance, she instructs Ruth to approach him at night, when the men have settled down to sleep after their feasting (3:2-4). Ruth displays her characteristic courage and loyalty by obeying—potentially putting herself in a dangerous situation (3:5). But Boaz is honourable. When he finds Ruth at his feet in the middle of the night he does not take advantage of her (3:7-8). The key verse of this chapter comes as Ruth reveals her identity to Boaz:

I am your servant Ruth … spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are the kinsman-redeemer of our family. (3:9)

Ruth uses the same words that Boaz used when he spoke of Ruth taking ‘shelter under the wings of the LORD’ (2:12).[4] She is exhorting Boaz to be the agent of God’s kindness; to provide rest and security in the form of marriage. And he, in return, is honoured by the kindness of Ruth who could have pursued a younger man (3:10).

The righteous Boaz ensures everything is done rightly (3:14 cf. 3:18-4:5), to the point of disclosing that there is another relative more closely related who takes priority over him (3:11-13). And Boaz continues to provide for Ruth and Naomi by filling up her shawl with more barley to take home to Naomi (3:17).

4:1-22, Fullness and Life

By this point, we are relieved, but not surprised, to discover that Boaz’s potential rival is not interested in taking on Ruth the Moabite (4:4-8). We have seen hints that God is at work here, and now we begin to see the scope of his plans. This is not just a love story with a happy ending but a key part of God’s much bigger love story for his people and for the nations; to give them life and rest.

Boaz marries Ruth who now has a permanent place and inheritance amongst Israel. She becomes part of God’s purposes not just for one family but, like Leah and Rachel of old, to ‘build up the family of Israel’ (4:11-12 cf. Genesis 35:22-26). The elders who pray that for Ruth receive their answer when she appears in the family tree of King David—and his greater son, Jesus (Ruth 4:17-22 cf. Matthew 1:1-6, 17).

God in Chaos – The best of times and the worst of times

The Bible tells the true story of what is happening in the real world—a world that often overwhelms us; a world where justice is sometimes served and sometimes denied; a world in which there are wonderful acts of kindness, but also terrible abuses; a world of incredible plenty and beauty, but plague and famine as well.

The Bible tells  of a world that often overwhelms us … This is the world that God has created and cares for; that has a future.

This is the world that God has created and cares for; that he has not given up on; that has a future. Even though the book of Ruth has no miracles, we see God’s loving-kindness everywhere. In:

  • His providence and protection—in times of famine and rich harvest;
  • The Law of Israel—providing a way of love for all who find shelter in God’s grace;
  • His salvation plan—growing the family of Israel and bringing blessing for the nations;
  • The Kingdom of God—his loving reign anticipated in the family line of king David[5]

No one was closer to Naomi, Ruth, Boaz and Israel than their great God and Saviour. God is not limited by a harsh environment, families in crisis and confusion—or even by the moral and spiritual chaos that surrounds us in the world. He works out his purposes and becomes our nearest relative; our kinsman redeemer and older brother in the person of his Son Jesus (Heb 2:10-18). God enfolds us in the blanket of his forgiving and life-giving love. He gives us rest and a future with him; now in the messy chaos of our own life and times; and finally in the new creation, that the happy ending of the book of Ruth anticipates (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28-38).

[1] Barry G. Webb. Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. (NSBT 10; Leicester England: Apollos; 2000), 53. ‘God’s loving kindness (Heb: chesed), by which Israel is built up, is to be found not only in great national deliverances, but in the way his covenant people treat one another on a daily basis.

It is micro, as opposed to macro, salvation history.’

[2] Barry G. Webb. Judges and Ruth: God in Chaos. (Preaching the Word; Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway; 2015), 250.

[3] Webb (2015), 260.

[4] 3:9, garment/covering, is lit. wing (kanaph), cf. 2:12, under his (the LORD) wings.

[5] Webb (2015), 278. ‘Judges ended with the muted hope of a king (21:25); Ruth ends with king David (Ruth 4:22). Who can help but see here the works of a sovereign God who never gives up on his people in spite of their sin?’