In the book of Ruth are four chapters of wisdom, love, and the mystery of God’s action.
The first chapter opens with the widow Naomi, weeping and saying goodbye to her beloved daughtersin- law who are also widows. Naomi is going home to Bethlehem after living more than a decade in Moab. She has been devastated by the death of her husband and two sons.
Her Moabite daughters-in-law insist on going with Naomi, but she firmly urges them to stay in Moab. One obeys her, but Ruth will not give up. As she clings to Naomi, Ruth’s speech is one of those passages of scripture that everyone knows but few remember its source. “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee,” begins the familiar King James Version.
The loss of Naomi’s loved ones is pain enough but, for a woman in those days and in that culture, there was added tragedy. Every woman in the ancient world had to be moored to her community through a male: father, husband, son, uncle, brother, or cousin. Having lost her men, Naomi has gone from being a person to a non-person. What more could happen?
The book of Ruth begins where most stories end. When Naomi declares her intention to leave Moab and return to her hometown of Bethlehem, we expect she is returning home to die. What else could there be?
Accompanied by Ruth, Naomi arrives in Bethlehem and the chapter closes with her bitter lament that she has been given a hard and sad life by the hand of the Lord.
Two thirds of the Psalms are laments, bitter complaints. It seems that God not only tolerates complaints, but practically demands them. For three thousand years and more, human being have tried to reconcile the goodness of God with the bitterness of life. We have decided that they can not be reconciled. Nor can either be denied.
Despite Naomi’s bitter lament, we do not close the book at the end of chapter one. There is chapter two, and more. We are reminded of the saying, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”
In chapter two, Ruth takes initiative to provide food for her mother-in-law. She goes out to glean grain. Gleaning (gathering fallen grain at harvest time) was a privilege granted to the very poor: those who had no other way of finding food.
Ruth gleans in the field of Boaz. When Boaz arrives he is curious about the new face among the gleaners. He asks, “To whom does this young woman belong?”
The answer to that question was complicated. In that ancient world, a person was not simply who they were. More important was how they were connected. One of the insights of modern spirituality is the way we have, in a profound way, recovered this ancient insight. We see God acting in the spaces between individuals, in our relationships. Even the Lord’s Prayer does not start with “My Father,” but with “Our Father.” To say “our” with integrity demands that we explore relationships more deeply.
In the case of Ruth, it was especially complicated because, like any woman in the ancient Israelite world, she needed to be related to some man for her to be whole. And failing father, husband, or son, the next set of male relatives would be expected to step in. Boaz himself was of that ilk but had failed to act in that way. Any related male heir should look out for relatives in need and give them support.
In the third chapter, Naomi conceives of a plan to practically force Boaz to act as any related male heir should. True, he had been generous, kind, and protective to Ruth while she worked gleaning in his fields. But now that harvest was over, it was time that he formalized his protective role.
This chapter is the most difficult to comment on. It is so delicate that words practically spoil the scene. Naomi asks Ruth to go where Boaz will be sleeping. She tells her to lie down near him, and then let Boaz take the initiative.
Ruth, however, does not give Boaz the initiative. As soon as he wakens and recognizes someone is there, Ruth asks— perhaps demands—that he act as protector of Naomi and her. “Spread your cloak over me, for you are next of kin.”
We are a bit shocked by Ruth’s boldness. As a poor immigrant widow, she may be overstepping her bounds. The gracious response of Boaz, however, makes us feel that something more is going on than responsibility and obligation. Boaz needs Ruth to make his life complete as much as Ruth needs Boaz for protection and support.
Boaz will not act hastily, however. Procedures must be followed. That’s what it means to belong to community.
In the last chapter, Boaz risks it all by acknowledging another person who has prior rights and responsibilities for Naomi and Ruth. Perhaps Boaz cannot have Ruth until he is willing to give her up in a “Thy will be done” moment.
The other party backs out and Boaz takes his role as husband of Ruth and protector of Naomi. The child of Boaz and Ruth becomes the great-grandfather of King David and, therefore, an ancestor of Jesus.
When reading the book of Ruth, we feel we can sit back and relax with a sweet, simple love story. But when finished, this little book has led us through meditations on loss, lament, belonging to each other, and God’s mysterious ways behind the events of life. We think of immigrants and social safety nets but, perhaps most of all, faith.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.