Chapter one of Ruth sets up the story of a man who moves his family out of Israel to another country because of famine. The story ought to ring a bell. A famine moves Abraham and Jacob to Egypt, and Isaac to Philistia. In each case, God does something important.
Deuteronomy 25 specifies that if a man died without male heirs, his brother was to take the widow as his wife and have a child by her so that the deceased’s name would not die in Israel. Also, it was to preserve the inheritance of the dead brother and provide for the widow.
The law only occurs once in the Old Testament and by the time of Ruth, it had been modified somewhat to include not just a brother, but the nearest male relative.
Naomi is determined to get Ruth a husband, and she feels that Boaz would be a good candidate. So . . . she encourages Ruth to ‘pretty herself up,’ wait for the right time (after he’s put in a hard day, had a good meal, and settled in for the night, and present herself to him.
Ruth’s forwardness (and she is forward) is not what any of us would advise our daughter, but remember, these are desperate times. Boaz is much older. He would not have imagined Ruth to be available to him and so, he never made a move. Sometimes, guys need a push.
It is to Boaz’ credit that though he could have been more forward himself, he has Ruth’s honor and safety at heart. He keeps her there for the night for her own protection, but sends her home early enough to protect her reputation.
Chapter three of Ruth – in fact, chapters three and four – involve an Old Testament institution called “levirate marriage.” Though the notion is in the Bible, that particular designation does not come from the Bible. It is of Latin origin and comes from “levir,” meaning “husband’s brother.”
The whole idea will seem foreign to us, but it is important to understand the idea. Women and children were, and remain (no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise), the most vulnerable members of society. When a husband died in the ancient world, and left no heir, who would take care of his widow? Levirate law said that the husband’s brother (or nearest of kin) should take her into his house and have a child with her. The dead brother’s property would legally pass to the child and not back to the family. The living brother would manage the dead brother’s property and the income would go to support the widow and her family. Presumably, other children that might be born to the widow would be considered heirs of the living brother (note Deuteronomy 25:5-10 refers only to the first child born to the levirate union).
In our modern age where property freely passes from husband to widow on his death, where widows are capable of working and making their own way, this kind of law seems more than archaic. But it is important to remember why it was given: for the protection and care of the widow. That why remains to this day and while the particulars of that practice do not remain, the obligation to make sure the widow is taken care of, protected, and secured is a vital principle and present in the New Testament (see 1 Timothy 5:3-16).
In the case of Ruth, we would like to read this as a romantic story of love between her and Boaz. But notice. Boaz knows that there is a nearer kinsman than himself, and he knows he has no right to marry Ruth if that redeemer elects to take her. He is willing to give her up to him, though he is honored by Ruth’s proposal. Ruth on the other hand is not pledging her love. She is simply asking that Boaz take care of her, and in the process, she makes herself presentable and someone he might want to take care of. The whole story is a bit odd with twists and turns, but that’s what makes it so significant. Out of this very unlikely series of events will come the greatest king of Israel. God is at work.
During the dark days of the Judges, it seemed to many that life in Israel was hopeless. Many of God’s people fled their difficulties and found jobs and lives outside the land of promise. It was a tacit statement that God had failed.
Among the immigrants were Elimelech and his wife Naomi. With their two sons, they moved to the land of Moab to begin a new life. The boys grew up, married Moabite girls, and life was good.
Until it wasn’t.
Elimelech and the boys died.
The women found themselves in horrible straits. Naomi was a foreigner. The girls had the helpless status of barren widows. Naomi’s advice was simple: ‘We’re all on our own. I’m going back to Judah’ (where hopefully, she could find help from family). ‘You return to your families and find new husbands.’
But one of the girls, Ruth, refused. She said to Naomi: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).
It is one of the greatest vows of commitment you will read in scripture, spoken from a daughter-in-law to a mother-in-law. But notice this: Though it surely looked like the Lord had abandoned Naomi and her family, something from their lives informed Ruth that the God of Israel was still supreme, and her real hope (if there was hope at all) lay in sticking with the people of God – specifically, Naomi.
I wonder: On your darkest day, are you living so that others might find hope in God through you?
As the book of Judges draws to a close, the scenes of Israel’s collapse are gruesome and shocking. An Israelite creates his own religion. Priests are bought as good luch charms by individuals and tribes. Innocent and helpless people are murdered. A woman is gang raped and killed, and then dismembered by her husband and her body parts sent throughout Israel as a protest against those crimes. This is the destiny of every society that refuses to yield to God and chooses instead to allow every person to do what is right in his own eyes.
Everything looks hopeless.
But the book of Ruth picks up the story and shows how God can turn things around.
An Israelite man and his family move in time of famine from Israel to Moab. His two sons married Moabite women (against the law of God – 1 Kings 11:2 – by the way). In time, the man and his sons died. His widow, Naomi, and one of her daughters-in-law (Ruth) return to the land of Israel (all in chapter 1). There Ruth meets an Israelite, Boaz, the descendant of a well known prostitute. Chapters 2-4 detail their courtship and marriage, but most important of all, they conclude with the note that these are the ancestors of Israel’s greatest King, David.
The point is, when things look the bleakest for God’s people, He is still working among them to bring about His purpose and blessing. As one more modern writer puts it: “God loves forever.”
In all probability, Judges and Ruth were written during the rule of David to show the need for righteous leadership and to point out that David was the answer to their prayers.