Ruth – a story of redemption
The story of Ruth is one that I have read since childhood, with real interest in finding out more about the one after whom my parents named me. It’s a story that I thought I knew well, but it’s really only after having had the opportunity to teach through this story that I’ve realised there is so much more to it than I ever imagined. It’s a story of the providence of God in the lives of ordinary people, and how he acts in and through those who will be his covenant people with extraordinary consequences. So over the next few months in these Sophia articles, we’ll be exploring this incredible and beautiful story.
What’s in a name?
Well through the book of Ruth, quite a lot really! The author uses the names of the characters involved to portray more than what is seen at first glance. They prove to be key to the progression of the story. So in order of appearance we have:
Bethlehem House of bread
Elimelek My God is king
Naomi Pleasant, lovely or good
Orpah Back of the neck
Ruth Compassionate one, friend
Boaz Strong man
The places involved are really significant too. Judah and Israel were the places that the people of God lived, the people that God loved. Moab, Judah’s closest neighbour, was populated by the descendants of Lot – outsiders, not the people of God, not those that God loved and in fact, Israel’s enemy.
Very quickly the author identifies that one of the main themes of the story of Ruth is the theme of insiders and outsiders – those inside and outside of covenant relationship with Yahweh. Elimilek and his family were the insiders, part of the people of God by birth whilst Ruth and Orpah were outsiders. The thing that would have been so shocking to the original hearers would have been the fact that the main character of the story was an outsider – yet she demonstrates over and over again behaviour that is more in line with the covenant people of God, behaviour that the people of God don’t seem to be able to manage themselves. She’s behaving more like a child of God than they are.
But we’re rushing on …
The first five verses paint a very bleak picture. We’re told that Elimilek and his family leave Bethlehem because of a famine – the house of bread has no bread. So this man, whose name is a statement of faith in God, takes matters into his own hands and moves his family to neighbouring Moab, where apparently there is bread. The whole reason they went was to escape death, yet what happens – they die. Did Elimilek make a bad decision (no doubt with the best of intentions for his family)? That question would have been hanging in the air.
In the male centred culture of the day it would have been assumed that the story was over at verse five. With all the male characters now removed from the stage, and only three childless widows left there would have been no story left to tell. But the story does continue, in fact this is where it truly begins with these women centre stage and told from their perspective.
No Longer ‘lovely’
So, in verse 6 we find Naomi bereft and isolated and left in a far worse state than if they’d remained in Judah. But word has come to her that the Lord has acted and once more there is bread in Bethlehem, so with little choice really, Naomi decides to return home.
It’s fascinating that although this book is titled ‘Ruth’, it’s really Naomi’s story as well, and she shows us that she too is an incredible character. She is not afraid to make her feelings known to God, and to let him know just who she holds responsible for her situation. There’s no covering up for Naomi and painting on a happy smile. At the end of chapter 1 as she arrives back in Bethlehem we find that she has renamed herself Mara, which means bitter. Naomi feels that her name no longer describes who she is or the state of her heart, and being unafraid to be honest with God and his people she takes on a name that she deems to be more fitting.
As Carolyn Custis James says: “Naomi’s story is a gift to the church for it gives us an opportunity to talk honestly about own misgivings about God and to witness how a woman’s life is transformed by the discovery that God’s love for her is rock solid, even though her circumstances indicate otherwise.”
The question that Naomi is asking herself is “Has Yahweh finished with me? Has his love run out?” As the story progresses we find that the answer is a resounding no, as God moves heaven and earth to demonstrate his love to her.
A Parting of Ways
Picking up the story again in verse 8, we have the record of the conversation between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, as she urges them to go back to their mother’s homes where they at least stand some chance of finding another husband and security for their future. As it currently was they had nothing, and no hope for the future as they had no male relative to access anything for them.
Despite having little faith for herself Naomi prays this amazing prayer of blessing on them, that the Lord would show them kindness. This word is the Hebrew word Hesed, and means unfailing loving indness, steadfast love, the very nature of God, and is the key theme that runs through the whole story. This is an incredible prayer because what Naomi is actually asking is that God would deal with them as his covenant people.
Hesed is also what God expects from his covenant people yet what they seem completely unable to give. This links to the statement that Ruth makes in verse 16 – what she is expressing to Naomi is hesed, covenant relationship to Naomi and to Naomi’s God. This would have been so shocking – firstly that God would extend his covenant love to outsiders, and not only that but that an outsider could demonstrate covenant love in a way that his own people throughout history seemed unable to do.
After a bit of discussion, Orpah concedes and does as Naomi asks and returns to her family – and as she goes what is seen of her but the back of her neck! She turns around and walks away. This too is a key word in this story. The root of the word means to stand back to back rather than face to face. Orpah walks away but Ruth stays, face to face in covenant relationship with Naomi. Ahead of her lies poverty and a daily struggle simply to survive, but instead of turning back, Ruth commits her life to caring for her mother-in-law.
In many tellings of this story, Ruth can sometimes be portrayed as a bit sappy, a woman waiting to be rescued by her knight in shining armour. But Ruth is no sappy woman! She is gutsy and feisty and an incredible risk-taker as we will go on to see. Her new found faith in Yahweh strengthens her with phenomenal courage and determination. Ruth is a strong woman, and as we read on we discover that her strength doesn’t weaken Boaz when he appears on the scene – it actually strengthens him. This stands out as another theme of the book of Ruth – a return to God’s original plan of women and men working together as his image bearers, calling out the best in each other to be those who demonstrate his unfailing loving kindness to the world around.
The story isn’t over
So, for now, we leave Ruth and Naomi, widowed and childless, with no sign of hope on the horizon. Naomi is feeling bitter and empty and wrestling with the tragedy of her life … but what the author wants us to know is that the story isn’t over.
As one author wrote:
“I need to learn from Naomi’s experience not to be wise in my own eyes or think that God is against me. The truth is that God is for me, God is love and God is wise. I must not write off a situation or decide what the future will look like. God is in control, holding my tears and the days to come in his powerful hands. His grace is enough for my deepest anguish, for the prayers I feel he’s never heard and for the sadness that for a while I must live with. Don’t be afraid of your sorrow. Grieve if your heart is broken. But remember, God is not finished with your story yet.”
Throughout the story, the author never seeks to negate, diminish or trivialise Ruth and Naomi’s initial loss. But what the author does seek to do is to demonstrate that on meeting God in their pain, they gained a deeper trust in him that stubbornly refused to let go of the fact that God is good and that he is working on their behalf and will provide strength and courage to weather the storm.