The Truth About Ruth

Dr. Wann Fanwar

One of the most evocative stories in the Bible is the story of Ruth. While scholars may debate the literary genre and authorship of the book, the story touches everyone who reads it. This is the story of a young woman caught up in a set of rather trying circumstances, whose family loyalty is tested to the limit, but who succeeds against all the odds. It is a story with a happy ending, almost like a fairy tale. It is also a story of someone who discovers God and whose life is turned in the right direction because of this God. But we should begin at the beginning.

Ruth: The Plot

The book has the feel of a short novel and as such we learn more by following the plot of the story.

Scene 1: Ruth’s Plight

The story begins with a man called Elimelech. The name Elimelech means, “God is king.” Yet when we meet Elimelech, he is taking his wife, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to Moab, a foreign country where Yahweh was not king (1:1, 2). The move was precipitated by a rather severe famine in Israel (1:1). We also learn that Elimelech comes from the little town of Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” Yet here is an Israelite family exiting the land of promise because there was no bread.

In Moab, things turn for the worse quickly. First, Elimelech dies and then the two sons die (1:4-5). The two boys had married Moabite women and now all three women are left widows. Unable to cope with these tragedies, Naomi decides to return to her homeland. Perhaps she had learned that the famine there was waning. One daughter-in-law, Ruth, decides to accompany her mother-in-law back to Israel. Her stated intention, recorded in 1:16-17, is the stuff of legends.

The reality however was much more stark. Ruth finds herself a foreigner in Israel, and to complicate matters, she is a foreign widow (2:10). Both of these conditions would have placed her in a very precarious position. She is finally reduced to the level of a servant, a gleaner in the fields, for the sake of survival (2:3, 13). Such was Ruth’s plight.

Scene 2: Ruth’s Redeemer-Relative

Enter Boaz! He is introduced as a go’el, a Hebrew term for someone who is a blood relative with special responsibilities for redeeming the situation of relatives in dire straits (2:1). We notice that Boaz is a man of substance; he is wealthy (2:1). He is a kind man; he makes sure that Ruth is properly taken care of (2:8-9) and even invites her to share his lunch with him (2:13-16). His kindness goes beyond mere actions. Boaz praises Ruth for her devotion to Naomi (2:11-12). He tells Ruth: “Yahweh will reward you; Yahweh under whose wings you seek refuge.” What high praise for a disenfranchised widow.

Scene 3: Ruth’s Redemption Request

When Naomi learns of Ruth’s “good fortune,” she quickly puts in motion a plan to ensure the survival of the family. At harvest time, she instructs Ruth to follow an ancient custom that would allow her to claim her redemption. Ruth finds herself in Boaz’s tent, sleeping at his feet; much to his chagrin. She acknowledges her situation. “I am your servant” (3:9a) she says to Boaz. Ruth expresses her need. “Spread out your wing over me” (3:9b) she utters. And she claims his grace and her redemption. “You are go’el” (3:9c).” You are my redeemer! You are my redeemer-relative!

Scene 4: Ruth’s Redemption

As a man of honour, Boaz instantly assumes responsibility for Ruth’s redemption. He finds a way past any prior claim to her (4:1-8). He convinces the redeemer-relative with stronger claim to forego his rights. Having done this, Boaz sets out to reverse Ruth’s prior conditions (4:13-15). Boaz and Ruth are married and a son is born. Ruth is no more a widow; she is no more childless; she is no more a foreigner; she is no more a servant!

Ruth: The Gospel
If we stop here, then Ruth’s rags-to-riches story would be no more than an interesting fairy tale. The presence of this little book in the Bible clues us to the idea that there is much we can learn from it. What does it teach us about salvation? What sense are we to make of this redeemer-relative idea?

First, for someone to be go’el, he/she must be blood relative. There has to be a strong genetic link between redeemer and redeemed. The family ties must be uncontestable. Boaz was Ruth’s (and Naomi’s) go’el. He was related to them by blood and marriage. The Bible presents Jesus as our redeemer and insists upon the idea that his redemptive act was predicated upon his humanity. John 1:14 says, “the Word (Christ) was made flesh and dwelled among us.” Jesus was born of a human mother and lived a human life. In Christian terminology we call this the incarnation. Hebrews 2:11, 17-18 emphatically claims that Jesus had to be “made like his brothers in every way.” Before Jesus could be the redeemer of the world, he had to establish the family bond with humanity, with you and me.

Second, go’el must be someone who is able. The ability of the go’el to provide this redemption is very much at stake in the story of Ruth. This is why we are told that Boaz was a man of substance. In this story, he had to have the capability of providing Ruth with her redemption. His wealth, his status, his position made him a truly able go’el. Hebrews 7:25 states that Jesus is “able to save completely.” Our redemption is made possible because the redeemer is the creator God with all that that entails. Christ is able to marshal all the resources of heaven on our behalf. He can call upon his myriads of angels to extricate us from distress. He can access limitless sources of power and energy to effect our redemption. He is El Shaddai (God Almighty); he is Yahweh Tsebaoth (Lord of Hosts); He is Yahweh! He is Lord, King, Creator, and Redeemer. This knowledge compelled the apostle Paul to claim: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). This contention, that Christ is a truly able go’el, underpins the biblical idea of salvation.

Third, and most important of all, go’el must have the willingness to redeem. Boaz was willing to redeem Ruth. Similarly, Jesus is willing to redeem us. Hebrews 10:9-10 testifies to the intentionality of the redemption that Jesus procured. If we read Revelation 13:8 correctly, we realise that the plan of redemption was not an afterthought for God. It is part and parcel of his dealings with us. The significance of this willingness of go’el is best understood against this fact: go’el takes great risks in fulfilling this act of redemption. According to Levirate laws, Boaz risked his inheritance and name to Ruth’s dead husband. When Jesus left heaven, he risked his own existence for our sake. Jesus risked the contamination of sin; he risked being overcome by human frailty; he risked eternal damnation.

Despite all that, Jesus came to earth so that anyone who wishes for eternal life may have it. This is the heart of go’el.

A redeemer must be a blood relative. A redeemer should be able to effect redemption. A redeemer should be willing to risk whatever it takes to make redemption possible. Jesus did all of these so that you and I can have eternal life in his kingdom. In the words of a little song:

“I don’t know what a sinner you are; but I know what a Saviour He is.”
About the author: Dr. Wann Fanwar, is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Religious Studies, Mission College. He is also the Director of the Interdisciplinary Institute for Adventist and Asian Studies.