The days of the Judges were not pleasant ones for Israel, full of idolatry, murder, violence, sexual immorality, in which everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 1:1-21:25). At some point during this time, perhaps ca. 1125-1100 BCE, a famine afflicted parts of Judah (perceived as a demonstration of God’s displeasure; cf. Leviticus 26:18-20), leaving a man of Bethlehem, Elimelech, with little choice but to depart from the land YHWH had given Israel and sojourn in Moab, a land of foreigners, until the famine was over (Ruth 1:1). His wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilion went with him (Ruth 1:2).
At first all seemed to be well. Naomi had gone out full, having given birth to two sons in order to perpetuate Elimelech’s family and to maintain his property. But then, the first disaster: Elimelech dies (Ruth 1:3). Mahlon and Chilion marry local Moabite girls, Ruth and Orpah (Ruth 1:4), and they live in Moab ten years, yet without any children. Then the second disaster struck: Mahlon and Chilion die (Ruth 1:5). Naomi, who went out full, is now empty (cf. Ruth 1:21); she is now a widow, without any social standing, reduced to dependence on the benevolence of others.
Naomi has heard that YHWH had visited His people in Judah and they again had food, and she resolved to return (Ruth 1:6-7). While her Moabite daughters-in-law sought to go with her, she attempted to dissuade them: Naomi had no other sons to offer, and to follow after her was only to pursue continued widowhood and poverty (Ruth 1:8-13). Orpah listened and returned to her family’s house, but Ruth would not (Ruth 1:14-15), as it is written:
And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee, for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: YHWH do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).
Thus Ruth renounces her heritage, her family, her nation, her previous religion, everything she has ever known, and commits herself to YHWH, Israel, and Naomi despite the prospect of continued deprivation and poverty. Thus Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, and Naomi declares her sad state: she should not be called Naomi, meaning “pleasant,” but Mara, meaning “bitter,” since YHWH had dealt so bitterly with her (Ruth 1:19-21). At this point things do seem quite difficult for Naomi, and not a few would likely attribute her misfortune to her sojourn and association with foreigners.
They returned to Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest, so Ruth goes out to glean for barley in the fields, and ends up gleaning in the field of Boaz, a worthy man, a relative of Elimelech (Ruth 1:21-2:3; cf. Leviticus 23:22). He has heard of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi and faith toward YHWH, and shows great favor to Ruth, encouraging her to glean in his fields and in them alone, and giving her license to work with his servants and to draw water whenever she is thirsty, important protections and concern in a world where many such poor women were assaulted and could barely find enough food to survive (Ruth 2:4-13). Boaz went even further, welcoming her to his dinner table and giving her access not only to the gleanings but the harvested barley, providing sufficient food for Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 2:14-17). Naomi was quite pleased and exhorted Ruth to stay near Boaz; Boaz continued to provide for them throughout the barley and wheat harvests (Ruth 2:18-23).
When the time came to winnow the barley at the threshing-floor, Naomi exhorted Ruth to take the position of a suppliant, uncovering the feet of Boaz, and to appeal to him to redeem her, and she did so (Ruth 3:1-9). The redeemer here is not a person who saves or atones for sin, but is a relative who is in a position to claim, or purchase, the property of the dead, including the wife of the dead man, in order to perpetuate the family and property rights of the dead (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Boaz commended Ruth for her willingness to consider him despite his advanced age; he was aware of the existence of a nearer relation who has the first right of redemption, but assures Ruth that if the nearer relative would not redeem her, he would (Ruth 3:10-13). The next morning he provided sufficient food for Naomi and Ruth for a day, went to the city gate, summoned the nearer relative and ten elders of the city, and asked the nearer relative in the presence of the elders if he would redeem the land and Ruth the widow of Mahlon (Ruth 3:14-4:3). The nearer relative would redeem the property but not Ruth; he granted Boaz the right to redeem the property and Ruth, and he did so in the presence of the elders of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:4-12).
Ruth then became the wife of Boaz, and she became pregnant and bore a son, laid on Naomi’s lap, to whom Naomi became a nurse, and who was associated with Naomi as the inheritor of the property of Elimelech her husband (Ruth 4:13-16). The child was named Obed; he would father Jesse, who fathered David, king of Israel (Ruth 4:17-20). The very end of the story makes it clear why the story is recorded in the first place: it tells the story of David’s great-grandmother Ruth, and how she came into a family of Judah in Bethlehem despite being of Moab.
In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth is placed immediately after Proverbs in the third section of the Bible, called the Ketuvim or “Writings.” That the story of Ruth comes immediately after the description of the virtuous wife in Proverbs 31:10-31 is hardly coincidental: Ruth is a wonderful example of faith, entrusting herself to YHWH God of Israel, renouncing her heritage, while many Israelites were renouncing their own heritage in YHWH by trusting in other gods, and she is explicitly mentioned as an ancestor of Jesus for good reason (Matthew 1:5). Naomi’s story is also compelling: she suffered a Job-like experience, losing her husband and sons while sojourning in another land, experiencing the bitter hand of YHWH, yet ultimately gaining a greater benefit through Obed, son of Boaz and Ruth. If Elimelech and Naomi never left Bethlehem in Judah, Mahlon would never have met Ruth, her story of faith would not exist for us, and perhaps David would never have been born!
The Apostle Paul said, “and we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). He likely has Joseph the son of Jacob in the back of his mind when saying this, but it is equally true of Naomi and Ruth. They experienced great trial, yet were richly rewarded for their faith, obtaining greater glory at the end despite the trials. Let us be encouraged by Naomi and Ruth as examples of faith, confident that no matter what difficulties we may encounter, if we love God, all will work for good, to His praise and glory (Romans 8:17-18, 28)!