The Bible’s most well-known love story heralds the greatest of all: that between God and His creation.
If you ask any Christian today who grew up in Sunday school, it’s likely that they have heard the story of Ruth and Naomi one way or another. It’s often framed as one of the Bible’s great love stories, with the relationship between Ruth and Boaz taking center stage. For some, this apparently innocuous story can seem out of place or minor in the Old Testament, which can appear to only offer prodigious instances of divine intervention like the Parting of the Red Sea, long and sordid histories of kings and judges, or lines and lines of psalms and prophecies. However, as with every line of the Old Testament, Ruth contains within its brief four chapters a compelling foreshadowing of Christ the Messiah and a layered analogy for life as part of God’s adopted family. Many of the familiar story beats we remember take on deeper meaning when we apply historical context and when we zoom out to observe the story as one element in God’s cohesive plan for redemption. Please join me in peering past the “Just a Ruth looking for my Boaz” memes in this short study of one of my favorite episodes of the Old Testament.
As to be expected when reading literature written during ages past, some context may be necessary. The Book of Ruth’s namesake is a woman from Moab, which may initially lack significance if you’re like me, as the various foreign names and locations of the Old Testament can sometimes blend. Discerning readers, however, will recall Deuteronomy 23, in which Moses lays out that “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord”, establishing - by law - some degree of enmity against those two people groups (v. 3). The reason for this animosity is explained in verse 4, being that they opposed the Israelite return to Canaan, the Promised Land. Thus, our main character Ruth begins this story as a disadvantaged individual on many fronts: not only a widow, but a widow from a foreign land. Not only a widow from a foreign land, but a widow from an ancient enemy of Israel. This station that Ruth occupies at the beginning will more fully illustrate the redemption that is to come in the later chapters.
The profound faithfulness that Ruth shows to her mother-in-law Naomi is more compelling when you recall that Ruth shares neither a blood relation nor even an ethnic identity with the other woman, at a time when family and tribe were the strongest bonds. Instead, Ruth defers to an even more meaningful type of connection, one of love and devotion, and it is this type of connection that binds us to God as adopted sons and daughters. We might find that ethnic identity and family relations as the ties that bind us together can often be warped into chains that oppress and traumatize others. The Old Testament itself is ripe with examples of broken families: Cain and Abel, Judah and Tamar, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The challenge of putting identity as God’s children above racial identity was one that even the apostles wrestled with in the early Church in the New Testament. These issues of race and familial strife persist to today as products of our perpetual fallibility, but they point us towards a more perfect link that exists between brothers and sisters in Christ. This union is one crafted out of love, which we will see foreshadowed in Ruth’s own story of redemption.
Boaz can sometimes be reduced to something more akin to a love interest in how the Book of Ruth gets referenced in everyday conversation, but his role in this story bears significance on various levels. Boaz is introduced as a “worthy man,” which some translations may read as “wealthy,” but the original Hebrew refers to as “wealthy in virtue or honor.” His generosity towards Ruth makes this apparent, as he takes seriously the law’s commands to show kindness to the disenfranchised. Ruth’s story occurs during the time of the judges, which was described as a lawless time when the people regularly turned away from the commandments (this reality is evidenced in Naomi’s advice to Ruth in verse 22). Boaz’s dedication to the law and generosity are greater testaments to his worthiness precisely because he exists in a time defined by selfishness and transgression. As a worthy man, he appears to have the ability to discern worthiness in others, as he finds greater merit in Ruth’s devotion to Naomi than in her ethnic identity. By clearly ranking the kindness of her heart above her status as a foreigner, the writer, traditionally thought to be the prophet Samuel, would be directly challenging the expectations of the audience at the time. Indeed, it is in the following book 1 Samuel that the Lord tells the prophet this when he is seeking the next king:
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Samuel rejects all but the youngest sons of Jesse, because the Lord has and always will be concerned with the quality of the heart. Indeed, out of Boaz’s recognition of Ruth’s own heart would ultimately come a marriage from which King David would descend.
Chapter 3 presents a very questionable ploy by Naomi to essentially induce Boaz to follow through on his legal obligation to marry Ruth as the family’s kinsman redeemer. Regardless of your interpretation regarding the morality of her approach, it is crucial to remember God’s constant ability to use all things for his good. The examples abound: as Joseph said to his brothers in the conclusion of Genesis, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (v. 20). The Egyptian midwives Puah and Shiphrah disobeyed Pharoah when he ordered them to kill every Hebrew boy they delivered, and then they lied to him when he sought to punish them. For their disobedience, the Pharoah’s genocide was foiled, and God blessed them with families (Exodus 1: 20–21). In fact, Boaz himself is a descendant of Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho who hid spies of Israel and lied to their pursuers. Though God abhors sin, I believe it would be diminutive to consider him powerless in using it for his own purposes.
If anything, the carefully crafted advice that Naomi offers her daughter-in-law implies a fear that, no matter how worthy he may be, Boaz would reflect his present society and refuse to obey the commandment. To obey it would reduce his own inheritance, a fact that is mentioned in the next chapter. He could also face damages to his reputation for marrying a Moabite woman or associating with Naomi, who was identified in the whole town as an icon of misfortune. However, we as readers are already aware of Boaz’s significant moral character and are unlikely surprised at his reaction to Ruth’s approach. Despite obviously holding all the leverage in the situation, he considers himself the recipient of Ruth’s kindness since he’s an older man. It’s evident at this point that he genuinely cares for Ruth beyond the point of legal obligation, which makes it more admirable that he holds off on marrying her out of respect for the law. He has discovered a redeemer more closely related, and he is willing to deny his own feelings to obey the correct protocol. For me, this moment is when the story of Ruth most resembles a classic love story, as the chapter ends on a cliffhanger, leaving us to wonder if they will really end up together. The last chapter not only concludes the story of Ruth and Boaz, but it firmly establishes their story’s place in the greater scale of God’s plan for the redemption of all mankind.
This story’s nature as a micro-example of God’s redemptive plan achieves its due resolution in this final chapter. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a kinsman redeemer, it was essentially an obligation for, when a man died, the closest related male to step in and marry the widow. In a society where women had so few options of their own, this legally obligated marriage could save one from a life of destitution. Indeed, it was destitution that Ruth and Naomi faced back in chapter 1, with Naomi going so far as to rename herself Mara, meaning “the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (v. 20). One must imagine the joy that Naomi felt in chapter 2 upon learning that Ruth had met Boaz, not only a worthy man but a close relative. The next logical application then is to see this story as a reflection of our own relationship with God.
“Destitution” can describe humanity before Christ. For many of us, destitution is echoed in our lives before we came to know Him. For us, our kinsman redeemer is not merely a close relative of the same clan, but the Son of God Himself. As much celebration as there is among the people for Ruth and Boaz’s union, there is an infinitely greater joy in knowing that God has redeemed us through his Son. The inheritance that Boaz preserves is incomparable to that which we have received through Christ. The life of poverty and social disgrace from which Boaz rescued Ruth and Naomi is insignificant compared to the artless wretchedness of a life trapped in sin. To get a mere impression of the glory of God’s plan, we must put ourselves in Ruth’s place in chapter 4 as she looks back at her station in chapter 1. For me, that is most fulfilling way of reading the book of Ruth.
By design, Samuel ends this chapter with a look towards the future, at the greatness that is to come from Ruth and Boaz’s marriage. Out of this non-traditional union between Boaz and a widow from a foreign land comes not only King David, but ultimately Christ himself. A key aspect of Jesus’ mission to redeem a sinful people is epitomized right within his lineage. In fact, Ruth is one of four women mentioned in his genealogy, along with Rahab, Tamar, and “the wife of Uriah” — also known as Bathsheba. Of all the women in his lineage, these four were mentioned not despite but precisely because they were associated with sin, the lower class, desperation, and shame. When we read the especially scandalous stories of Tamar and Bathsheba, we ought to remember Jesus’ genealogy and how much more scandalous is the story of Jesus’ death on behalf of an undeserving people. We must consider all the dirty laundry of man’s complete history, and we must acknowledge the great love and humility that was necessary for Jesus to willing replace the purest robes of divinity with the brokenness of humanity. When we are confronted with the abhorrence of sin throughout past, present, and future, we are called to remember how Christ bore all of that willingly for us on the cross. As Paul writes in Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5–8)
Understanding the gravity of Jesus’ sacrifice is one of many steps in comprehending our motivation for Christian living. Revisiting stories like that of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz bring us closer to realizing the magnitude of God’s plan, which centers on Christ’s death and resurrection. Here, we are reminded that His love surpasses all bonds of family or ethnicity. In Ruth’s redemption through the kindness of Boaz, we are faced with our own salvation by our Heavenly Father. And in Christ’s own genealogy, we’re confronted with the despicable nature of sin, into which He willingly entered in order to rescue us from it.