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Ruth, Theology of

Ruth, Theology of

The Book of Ruth furnishes a panorama of God's sovereignty in everyday life, especially in the three most important needs of ancient Near Eastern people: food, marriage, and children. Famine drove Elimelech's family from the land of Judah; the likelihood of starvation appears to have compelled Naomi to return to her native land after the death of her husband and sons. The need for the protection of marriage induced Ruth to implement the bold plan of requesting Boaz to act as her kinsman redeemer. Barrenness in ancient times was a cause of embarrassment and concern; without an heir, the family name and lineage could not be carried on, and estates were forfeited. God blessed Ruth with both a child and an important lineage, the lineage of David.

Another major theme in the Book of Ruth is that of "loving-kindness" (Heb. hesed [d,s,j]), first mentioned by Naomi in her claim that both Ruth and Orpah had displayed hesed [d,s,j] to the "living and the dead" ( 1:8 ) and deserved to be shown hesed [d,s,j] by Yahweh. Naomi later praised Boaz for showing Ruth hesed [d,s,j] in exceeding what was required by the gleaning laws and making special provisions for her ( 2:20 ). Boaz said that Ruth had outdone her former hesed [d,s,j] by desiring to marry him and rear a family for Naomi ( 3:10 ). In each case, the human agents manifested considerable self-giving love, which was ultimately rewarded even more graciously by Yahweh; they were not able to outgive their God.

Hardships in Moab. The events of this story are said to have occurred during the period of the judges ( 1:1 ), which was a difficult time for Israel, as underscored by the repeated phrase, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" ( Judges 17:6 ; 18:1 ; 19:1 ; 21:25 ). Much of what befell Elimelech and his family was to happen to the people of Israel if they disobeyed Yahweh after entering the promised land: drought ( Deut 28:23-24 ); crop failure ( Deut 28:18 ); cursing the fruit of their womb ( Deut 28:18 ); and removal from the land ( Deut 28:36 ). However, in the midst of these punishments, God displays grace to Naomi and Ruth.

Naomi, upon learning that God had once again provided food for the people of Judah, desires to return to her homeland, presumably in hopes of finding family members willing to care for her. However, she is keenly aware of her inability to provide for her daughters-in-law and therefore attempts to send them away. Orpah returns to her family, but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, sealing her decision with an oath. Ruth's decision was far-reaching: she would have to leave her people and journey to a foreign land; there was little chance that Naomi would be able to remarry and thereby provide for Ruth; and, perhaps of even more consequence, she would have to renounce her god and embrace Yahweh. The latter would require great faith since, thus far, she had only seen his judgment; even Naomi attributed her distressing circumstances to Yahweh ( 1:20 ). It appears that Ruth's great love for Naomi causes her to determine to serve this God.

Gleaning in Boaz's Field. Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest (late April/early May; the eighth month according to the Gezer Calendar), shortly after which would follow the wheat harvest ( 2:23 ). This was perfect timing for two widows in need of food, as gleaning laws required landowners to leave corners of fields and all fallen shafts of grain for the poor. We learn of God's sovereignty over life's details when the text says that Ruth happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz (v. 3); it is this seemingly incidental circumstance that effectually opens the door for the blessing Yahweh had in store for Ruth and Naomi. When Ruth asks Boaz why he has shown such kindness (apparently unexpected) to her, a foreigner, he responds that her reputation of kindness had preceded her (v. 11). Boaz then invokes a blessing that he ultimately would help to fulfill: "May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge" (v. 12). Because Boaz treated Ruth kindly and with great generosity, Ruth learns about the gracious provision of Yahweh. Ruth returned home with a bountiful measure of barley (about two-thirds of a bushel). Later that evening, Naomi explains that Boaz is one of her nearest relatives, one who might be prevailed upon as a go'el [l;a"G] ("kinsman-redeemer" see Lev 25:25-55 ). Marriage is not mentioned as a responsibility of a go'el [l;a"G], but this seems to be her purpose in revealing this kinship. Verse 23 indicates that Naomi did not act at that point, waiting instead several weeks until the barley and wheat harvests were finished (between late April and early June).

A Request for Redemption. Naomi determines to gain the security of marriage for Ruth by appealing to the right of go'el [l;a"G], but apparently Boaz was not required to accept this responsibility. This may be why Naomi waited until after the harvests, allowing greater time for him to observe Ruth. Naomi's plan of a secret meeting involved great risks of both physical danger and social ostracism should Ruth be discovered, yet Ruth bravely followed through in every detail. Ruth's entreaty for Boaz to spread his covering over her must be understood as a marriage request, which Boaz appears happy to fulfill, for several reasons: (1) Ruth has chosen to fulfill the familial obligations of her new country; (2) she chose Boaz over younger men; (3) she was generally recognized in the city as a "woman of excellence." Boaz was favorably impressed by Ruth's dedication and willingness to set aside her own passions and desires. In effect, Boaz would be the means of answering his prayer of 2:12, except that the protective wing of Yahweh is seen tangibly in Boaz's garment corner. However, Boaz knew of a nearer kinsman who would have the right of first choice of redemption. In the morning, Ruth is sent back to her mother-in-law with a generous gift (probably six seahs [about fifty-eight to ninety-five pounds] of barley) and a promise to see to her request. God had dealt favorably with Ruth, and Naomi was certain that Boaz would do his best to fulfill the request.

Boaz went to the city gate and shrewdly began the process of acquiring Elimelech's inheritance and Ruth. The other near relative was happy to acquire more land, but not at the costs associated with Ruth. Apparently the inheritance rights also required the kinsman to raise up a child for the deceased if there were any possibility of doing so. Naomi was probably too old to bear a child for Elimelech, but not so Ruth. The near relative would need to spend assets from his own inheritance to gain Elimelech's land, but the child, when of age, could claim back the purchased land. Thus he determines it is not profitable for him to acquire the land; Boaz, whose circumstances are substantially different, willingly offers to redeem the land and raise up a child to Elimelech. Boaz and his near relative, in the presence of witnesses at the gate, sealed their transaction by the accepted custom of trading sandals. Once again, the sovereignty of God is seen to extend over all the practical details of everyday life, including strategic legal transactions.

The witnesses at the gate then bless the transaction, requesting Yahweh to make Ruth like Rachel and Leah, who built the house of Israel, and to provide Boaz with a house like Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah ( Gen 38 ). Even though Perez was born under scandalous circumstances, his offspring became one of the most important clans in Judah. Ruth later bore a son, named Obed, who carried on the family lines of both Boaz and Naomi. The name "Obed, " meaning "the one who works or serves, " suggests in this context that Obed served Naomi by ensuring her family's survival.

The Genealogy of Obed. This genealogy furnishes the important link between Obed (Ruth's offspring) and David (the future royal line). God not only gave Naomi and Ruth offspring and a family, but incorporated them into one of the most important lines of Judah. This genealogy is crucial for the Book of Ruth since it indicates that Yahweh providentially preserved righteous families through these times of great apostacy, among them, the line of David.

Paul D. Wegner

Bibliography. A. A. Anderson, JSS23 (1979): 171-83; D. Atkinson, The Wings of Refuge: The Message of Ruth; E. F. Campbell, Ruth; H. Fisch, VT 32 (1982): 425-37; M. Gow, BT35 (1984): 309-20; R. Grant, Biblica Sacra 148 (1991): 424-41; R. M. Hals, The Theology of the Book of Ruth; R. L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth; O. Loretz, CBQ22 (1960): 391-99; E. Merrill, Biblica Sacra142 (1985): 130-41; W. S. Prinsloo, VT 30 (1980): 330-41; E. Robertson, BJRL32 (1950): 207-28; B. Vellas, Theologia 25 (1954): 201-10.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ruth, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.