Old Testament women who appear in the New Testament - Ruth
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
‘Ruth the Moabitess’, as she is frequently designated in the book that bears her name, is deservedly one of the most celebrated women of the Bible. Through faith, loyalty, and labour, in the providence of God she becomes an ancestor of David the king, and therefore, of Jesus Christ. 1 She is one of five women named in Matthew’s genealogy of the Lord Jesus.
Redemption is the great theme of the book that bears her name. Naomi’s fortunes are slowly but surely transformed from desolation to the fullness of blessing. 2 On a human level, the key to the restoration of Naomi, the Israelite, is Ruth the Gentile. 3 The book also emphasizes the sovereignty and covenantal loyalty of God, notwithstanding troubled times, and the absence of prophetic messages.
Those who love the literary structures of the Bible delight in the instructive symmetries of the book. Orpah’s mere amiability and return to Moab highlights the thoroughgoing loyalty and devotion of Ruth to God and to Naomi. Similarly, in chapter 4 the selfish concerns of the ‘nearer kinsman’ serve to accentuate the selfless generosity of Boaz in redeeming the inheritance and marrying Ruth. We marvel at the narrator’s artistic skill, as the action moves from the tragedy and desolation of Moab to the joyful birth of the child, Obed.
Ruth is first mentioned amidst the sorrows of a family under the discipline of God in Moab. The loss of father-in-law Elimelech and a childless marriage are then followed by the tragic death of her husband Mahlon, 1. 5. Yet, amidst all the heartache and death, the living God is at work. Ruth comes to exercise faith in the God of Israel. Sometimes we must lose temporal and earthly things in order to gain the better and eternal possessions.
On the road to Bethlehem, and faced with the realistic promptings of Naomi to return to Moab with prospects of remarriage and physical security, Ruth makes her famous declaration, vv. 16, 17, ‘And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me’.
By faith she is forsaking Moab, the land of her birth, and committing herself to Israel’s God, renouncing all prospect of marriage to devote herself to the maintenance of her mother-in-law, Naomi. Crucially, commitment to God also commits her to His people. Her step of faith compares favourably with that of the illustrious Abraham, because she has no comparable promise. 4
God honours such robust faith. Naomi can only see despair, and the heavy hand of God in her life; little does she appreciate what a treasure she has in Ruth as they make their way to Bethlehem.
Having responded to the report that the Lord had visited His people in giving them bread, what a happy providence that they should arrive at Bethlehem right at the start of barley harvest!
Unprompted by Naomi, Ruth sees an opportunity to support her mother-in-law by the demanding work of gleaning. 5 Respectfully, however, she first puts the plan to Naomi for her approval. She shows further respect in not presuming on the right to glean. ‘And she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz who was of the clan of Elimelech’, 2. 3 ESV, showing that our sovereign God is in control of our lives – even the place where we work. Chapter 2 introduces the key figure of Boaz, who graciously offers Ruth the right to glean, protection, and water. Amazingly, not only can she quench her thirst, but she is invited to his table!
Chapter 3 brings us to the dramatic centre of the book. Ruth’s earlier basic plan to obtain food is now matched by Naomi’s plan to secure rest for Ruth by marriage to Boaz. With acute intuition Naomi has noted the admiration that Boaz had expressed for Ruth. She also recognized the way he had been the channel for the display of the loving kindness of God in protecting Ruth and providing for them both. Naomi’s thinking is dominated by ‘the man’ – Boaz, 6 the potential kinsman-redeemer. Accordingly, in the confidence of faith she instructs Ruth to present herself at the threshing floor of Boaz and to request him to marry her. This bold strategy is not without significant risk, for if Ruth is seen with Boaz at the floor, some Bethlehemites would put the worst construction on their meeting, 3. 14.
Believers are not to sit back passively expecting good outcomes to happen automatically. Rather, Naomi’s plan illustrates how they must learn to sense the providential leading of God and embrace presented opportunities in faith.
Ruth displays many admirable qualities. She pledges complete obedience, both to the letter and the spirit of Naomi’s instruction, 3. 5, 9. Washed, anointed, and dressed for Boaz, she courageously but discreetly goes to the threshing floor. There are certain matters in spiritual life where the utmost discretion is required! By going to Boaz privately Ruth again shows respect; should he be unable or unwilling to fulfil the role of redeemer, then there will be no damage to the reputation of either party. She requests Boaz to act in accordance with an ancient custom. By spreading his garment over Ruth, he is pledging that he will offer her the protection of marriage. God Himself said to Israel, ‘I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine’, Ezek. 16. 8.
Significantly, the Hebrew word for ‘skirt’ is translated ‘wings’, 2. 12, suggesting that Boaz becomes for Ruth the mediator of the love, care, and protection that God Himself affords. Boaz becomes the answer to his own prayer! 7 Godly people do not need complex lists of rules in order to know how to respond in new situations. For Boaz, God’s redeeming love and covenant loyalty to Israel are sufficient to guide his behaviour. Similarly, for us the gospel of grace should suffice to set our values and direct our behaviour.
Purity and virtue characterize this delicate night scene – nothing less than we would expect, knowing both characters. They are two of a kind, for the single adjective translated ‘worthy’ ESV, serves to describe them both, 2. 1; 3. 11b. Following the celebrations marking the completion of harvest, Boaz is sleeping at the threshing floor to guard his precious grain. The removal of the covering of his feet makes him awake. Ruth identifies herself and then makes her momentous request, 3. 9.
What selflessness she demonstrates by accepting marriage to an older man so that the family inheritance might be restored! This devotion immediately appeals to Boaz; this kindness 8 exceeds her earlier display of kindness to the mother-in-law, 2. 11. Her obedient pledge of verse 5 is rewarded by Boaz’ commitment to her. Whilst her entry into the rest afforded by marriage still awaits, chapter 4, she can then enter into rest, based on the faithful word of her beloved. 9
Is there not a massive need for young people like Ruth today? Those prepared to devote themselves to the support of older believers, in order that the evangelical heritage be treasured, and the worthy name of Christ be restored upon His inheritance.
Mention in genealogies
We have noted how Ruth committed herself to God, and also to the maintenance of her Israelite mother-in-law. She readily accepted marriage to the elder Boaz in order that an heir might be born. The godly choices and commitments we make have amazing consequences for generations to come. God is no man’s debtor; she is named in the genealogy of David, and then also of the Messiah. Amidst the frequent anarchy of the period of the Judges, God is surely at work towards the establishment of a monarchy through David and his dynasty.
Ruth is frequently described as ‘the Moabitess’ – marking her alien character. Excluded by Israel’s law, 10 conversion brings her into blessing on the ground of sovereign grace. Mrs. E. F. Bevan penned the words:
?Trembling, I had hoped for mercy –?
Some lone place within the door;?
But the crown, the throne, the mansion?
All were purposed long before.
Matthew wrote to convince Jews that Jesus is their long-promised Messiah. But it is also the Gospel of Gentile inclusion in divine purpose, signalled by Ruth’s name alongside other women in chapter 1. Significantly, when she was proclaimed wife of Boaz, she is never again designated the Moabitess! Similarly, Paul could encourage Gentile believers, ‘Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God’, Eph. 2. 19.
Further, the marriage of Boaz and Ruth leads directly to the restoration of the fortunes of Naomi. A comparison of chapter 1 verses 1 to 5 with chapter 4 verses 13 to 17 bears this out. Naomi personifies the failure and restoration of Israel. In the Old Testament, Israel nationally is pictured as a widow woman, bereft of her children. 11 Yet our God specializes in restoration! Like Naomi, Israel is not discarded forever. God will restore her. 12 Whilst Israel is in unbelief, God deals with Gentiles – brings them by grace to believe on the God of Israel. All of which proves: Elimelech! . . . God (really) is King!
1 Matt. 1. 5.
2 Compare Ruth 1. 1-5 with 4. 13-17.
3 This is a beautiful prophetic prototype of the restoration of Israel. Gentile inclusion in divine purpose will lead to the eventual salvation of ‘all Israel’, Rom. 9-11.
4 Cp. Gen. 12. 1-3.
5 God in His compassion commanded farmers in Israel not to harvest the corners of their fields so that the poor and needy, such as aliens, widows, and orphans, could glean enough food to live, Lev. 19. 9-10; 23. 22.
6 Note the expression ‘the man’ 3. 3, 8, 16, 18.
7 Ruth 2. 12.
8 Kindness, covenant loyalty, mercy (Heb. hesed) is a keyword of the book, 1. 8, 2. 20. It is characteristic of God Himself, 2. 20; 2 Chr. 7. 6; Ps. 17. 7, Lam. 3. 22, but also demonstrated by Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.
9 Similarly, the believer has already entered into the rest through faith, Heb. 4. 3; on the other hand, the eternal sabbatic rest awaits the future consummation, 4. 9.
10 Deut. 23. 3; Ruth 2. 10.
11 Isa. 49. 21.
12 Rom. 11. 26.