An Introduction to the Book of Ruth

By Whitney W. 

 When was the last time you heard the audible voice of God? Like Abram in Genesis 12 and Moses in Exodus 3.

Or saw a vision? Like Peter in Acts 10.

Or witnessed a miracle? Like the one Jesus performed in Mark 5.

These are not our regular, day-to-day experiences, are they? I am NOT saying these things cannot and do not happen. To the contrary, I believe they DO and one should not reject them when God chooses to act and intervene in a manner like this

But I recognize that this is not the normal means by which we experience the hand of God on a day to day basis. Rather, most of our lives are filled with what seems like ordinary and somewhat mundane day to day tasks. We go through “real life.”

I think this is why we’re drawn to the book of Ruth. In Ruth you find ordinary people—people just like you and me—who experience “real life” (hunger, a hard move to a foreign land, loss of a spouse, marriage, weddings, loss of children, bitterness, hard work, the day to day grind, running a business, finding a spouse, and having children). In Ruth you won’t find audible voices or miraculous events or visions and dreams, just the ordinary ways of life. A way of life that is familiar to you. One you can easily identify with.

Ruth is a profoundly human book about ordinary people—people like YOU and ME, who portray an extraordinary alternative to the way of life, the way of hesed. A life of steadfast love, kindness, sincerity, sacrifice, devotion, loyalty, and compassion in the midst of ordinary life.

The beauty of the book of Ruth is that it shows us that our ordinary lives can have extraordinary purpose. As we are faithful in the midst of loss, in the midst of the daily grind, and in the midst of work and raising children, God’s unseen hand is working out his great and glorious purposes in his world for his glory and your good. This is encouraging because it means that our work and play and family and relationship and pain and suffering all have meaning and purpose. Life is not just a set of random events or chaotic happenings.

Life is purposeful and meaningful. YOUR life is purposeful and meaningful because even your ordinary days, days filled with changing diapers or writing papers, can advance the redemptive purposes of God.

Allow me to lay a foundation for our study of the book of Ruth.

WHO?

Who is the author? The author of Ruth remains unknown. According to rabbinic tradition (in the Babylonian Talmud), its author was Samuel. However, I disagree on the basis that David’s kingship seems to be an established and well-known fact at the time of writing and Samuel died before David ascended to the throne in 1010 B.C. Some believe that the author could be a female. After all, the book is written from a female perspective and it is female assertiveness that drives the story forward. However, it’s all speculation based upon possible inferences. We simply cannot be sure. It does not affect the story or the meaning it communicates in any way.

Who is the audience? This was written for an Israelite audience. Though, it’s message would have provided great hope for Gentile readers as it highlights the astounding conversion and character of a Moabite woman.

WHAT?

What kind of book is this? In the broadest sense, Ruth is Old Testament Narrative. More specifically, it is categorized as a “short story.” It is a true, historical short love story recounting the ancestry of King David and how his great grandparents fell in love.

Knowing how to read narrative material well is key to grasping all that God has for you in the book of Ruth. Consider the following:

  • Old Testament narratives are stories with a specific purpose. Narrative material is interpreted history. It’s history with a divine purpose. The book of Ruth isn’t simply a recounting of historical facts, though it’s certainly not less than that. It’s history recounted with a purpose. The narrator has an inspired agenda in the way he tells this story.
  • Old Testament narratives are accounts of what happened, not what always should have happened or ought to have happened. I don’t know about you but if you’re a mom, I don’t think you’re going to encourage your young daughters to lay beside a man after he’s eaten and drank a fair amount in the middle of the night (threshing floor). I’d be careful about thinking that everything in OT narrative is what you *should* do.
  • Old Testament narratives are selective in what is revealed. There is SO MUCH in the book of Ruth we don’t know and we’ll never know. How did her husband and sons die? Why in the world did Elimelech go to Moab? Why didn’t Boaz propose to Ruth sooner? We have what we NEED to know but not always everything we WANT to know.
  • Old Testament narratives are set within their own historical, cultural, and religious context. This can make them a bit difficult because their context is SO different from 21st century Portland, OR. We will have to do a little more contextual work in OT narrative than in a letter like Titus because that contextual gap is wider.
  • Old Testament narratives are REAL STORIES ABOUT REAL PEOPLE. Read them as such!
  • Old Testament narratives are about God and his work in his world. Read the narratives with God-centered lenses. Don’t over-personalize or moralize all the OT narratives. These stories are not first and foremost about you, though they have meaning for you. They are about GOD. They are about his character, his nature, his story, his work in his world, and his plan of redemption through his Messiah. God is always the main character in OT narratives.
  • Old Testament narratives ultimately point towards Jesus. These biblical narratives all tell the ultimate story—God’s story, the story of rescue and redemption of fallen mankind through the coming of his Messiah to the praise of his glory. Therefore, it’s important that we understand how to read and interpret the individual narratives in light of the one grand narrative or the one “big story” of the Bible.

 

Here are some interpretative “helps” or guidelines for OT material…

– Always look for the following things:

  • Main Characters—Ruth, Naomi, Boaz. Ironically, Naomi is the main human character. Though God is clearly the unseen Hero of the story.
  • Setting/background—Read Ruth 1:-2 together. What’s the setting?
  • Plot (plot will always have a setting, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution or falling action, and the new stasis or setting). Reference figure 1 on the handout. You will plot out the mini-narrative within the larger narrative to begin every week.

***Please do not get compulsive. This is not a rigid “right” or “wrong” and it is not a standard for failure. It is just a TOOL to help you get a sense of the flow of the plot.***

– Consider major themes.

  • Emptiness to Fullness (in Ruth 1:1-5; 4:13-17). Follows the U-shape of literary “comedy” or tragedy.
  • Hesed (covenantal kindness, both human and divine in Ruth 1, 2, 3). Hesed is a Hebrew term so rich with meaning that it proves difficult to translate into it one English term—translators are trying to find the best word to convey it. This is loyal love or kindness. It’s commitment mingled with sacrifice. It’s “one-way” love.
  • Divine providence (1:22-2:4, 4:1). “Providence” speaks to God’s present activity in his world. Christians believe that God not only created the world in such a way that we are dependent on him for existence; but also that he sustains, rules, directs, and governs his world in such a way that we are dependent on him for “life and breath and everything” (Act 17:25). Providence says that the Creator God intimately rules over his world to accomplish his perfect purposes for his glory and our good. If God’s sovereignty is his eternal decree before the beginning of time, then his providence is that plan being worked out in history. Providence is a hidden, mysterious work of God. A work we don’t have to figure out before trusting.

    It empowers you to live faithfully for Jesus every single day in the ordinary events of life, trusting that even as you do seemingly mundane or “insignificant” work God is working out a glorious outcome.

  • Redemption (in Ruth 3-4) with an emphasis on outsiders brought into the covenantal community (Ruth 1:16-17). God’s whole story is about redeeming helpless people! We see this in Ruth and we experience this in our own lives. We need an outside party, someone who is capable to do it and willing to do it, in spite of ourselves.

WHEN?

When do the events take place? Read Ruth 1:1. When do the events take place? “In the days when the judges ruled.”

When was this written? There is no scholarly consensus on dating. Here is what we do know—the references to King David in 4:17 and 4:22 mean that the earliest it could have been written was 1010 B.C. when David ascended the throne. The acceptance of Ruth into the OT canon was, at the very latest, 164 B.C so it had to be before that. There is a lot of speculation between those two dates. People advocate for a writing during David’s lifetime, Solomon’s lifetime, the pre-exilic period, and the post-exilic period. That’s a broad range. After studying, I think a dating during Solomon’s lifetime could be accurate, but that’s only my educated guess. We really don’t know.

WHERE?

Where did the events take place? Read Ruth 1:1. Where do the events take place? In Bethlehem in Judah and in Moab.

Where was the story written down? Again, there is no certainty. Likely somewhere in the land of Judah.

WHY?

Why is the author writing this? There are “spheres” of purpose in Ruth.

  • Immediate sphere: It recounts how God providentially provided a child for childless Naomi. Consider the prologue and the epilogue. What’s the problem? Naomi is without an heir, the greatest tragedy for an Israelite woman. Elimelech’s line is on the brink of extinction. Yet, this shows us that God cares deeply for one, ordinary, bitter widow. There’s a message right there. God’s providence reminds us that he sees, he’s there, and he cares…even for one lonely widow.
  • Next sphere: It recounts how God providentially provided a king for kingless, chaotic Israel. The great dilemma in Israel during the time of the Judges wasn’t merely Naomi’s childlessness, but Israel’s “kingless-ness.” The book of Judges paints a picture of sheer anarchy. Everyone is doing what is right in his own eyes. Few fear the Lord. They need a ruler, a king, who will do what is right in God’s eyes and lead his people. Notice how the book bookends the need for a king in Ruth 1:1 and the coming of David in 4:17.

Also, notice the placement of Ruth in your Bibles. Christian tradition organized         this placement to show that story of Ruth, namely the coming of David through her offspring, bridges the gap between Israel without a king and Israel with a king, the greatest human King that ever ruled Israel. Ruth is the link between pre-monarchic Israel and monarchic Israel.

  • Final sphere: It recounts how God providentially provided a child who would be both King and Redeemer for broken, chaotic humanity. The question most ask when they first read Ruth is why after this incredible love story does it end with a genealogy list? How anti-climatic?! It only appears that way until you understand the whole story of the Bible.

The whole story of the Bible is about God saving fallen, sinful people from Satan, sin and death. Sin has made our lives and hearts chaotic. In many ways we resonate with the Israelites in the book of Judges more than Ruth or Boaz in the book of Ruth. We fall into idolatry and trust other things or people for our identity/approval/worth. Then we try to fix ourselves in hope of getting control of our lives but that only serves to mess things up even more. We spiral into chaos, doing what is right in our own eyes rather than what is right in God’s eyes.

Humanity, finds itself in a great plight. Who will come and do what is right in God’s eyes and rule over us in such a way that we can begin to live in peace and harmony with God and man??

Well, the ending genealogy list in Ruth 4:18-22 paves the way for the opening genealogy list in Matthew 1:1. It’s providing a vital connection from King David to King Jesus. Ruth ends with a list that is essentially picked up again in the NT in Matthew 1:1 to show that the Son of David, Jesus Christ, is the long-awaited Davidic King who will come to save humanity and rule on an eternal throne.

This means that Ruth is all about JESUS!!! It preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ—that One has come from the line of David to redeem and rule over humanity.

We’re going to learn so many things through Ruth – how to sacrificially love one another, how to love on a one-way street, how to work hard to honor God, how to enter into the covenant community if you never have, how to become the kind of worthy woman that a worthy man deserves – but ultimately these are all secondary matters. Hearing and learning the gospel through the book of Ruth is of greatest importance in our study. So this whole semester we’re going to hear, learn, and savor the gospel from the book of Ruth.

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