The book of Ruth is sometimes regarded as merely a feel-good, romantic short story that shows a snippet of life in ancient Israel. However, when you look beyond the surface, the theology and beauty of Ruth is much deeper than a foreign widow staying faithful to her destitute Israelite mother-in-law. It is about God’s hesed (a Hebrew term conveying undeserved covenant love, faithfulness, mercy, loyalty, and compassion) as he reveals it through the unlikely actions of unlikely characters.
The Text: The Book of Ruth
So, how does God show hesed in the lives of Ruth and those around her?
Bringing hope to a hopeless situation. Naomi is an elderly, childless widow in a foreign land. In the ancient world, there wasn’t a much bleaker set of circumstances than this. The only good things left in her life are her two faithful daughters-in-law, but they are widowed and childless themselves. The only option she has for survival is to leave Moab and return home to Israel. Ruth insists on accompanying her. When the two arrive in Israel, Naomi says to the women in her village, ”’Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty’” (Ruth 1:20-21, ESV)
Though they were home, extreme poverty and annihilation of the family line still looked inescapable. Children were everything in that time— they provided for you in your old age and carried on the family lineage. Naomi was past child-bearing age and Ruth was a foreign widow. Their prospects weren’t good.
Enter Boaz. Naomi and Ruth finally catch a break when Ruth begins gathering grain in his field (I sense a Christian pick-up line coming on: “Hey, baby, you can gather grain in my field any day.”) Having heard of Ruth’s faithfulness to her mother-in-law, Boaz wants to extend favor to her by letting her gather even more. When Naomi hears whose field Ruth was in, she’s elated: Boaz is part of her husband Elimelech’s clan and he can perform the role of the go’el (or kinsman-redeemer).
The tradition and job of the go’el were kind of complex, but basically, it meant that a relative had the responsibility to promote the health and wholeness of the clan by providing for its destitute members— those who couldn’t take care of themselves in whatever way. Boaz could provide for Ruth and Naomi and help preserve the clan by carrying on Elimelech’s line.
As we find out in the book of Ruth, there was some kind of succession when it came to who qualified as a go’el. In this case, there was someone in front of Boaz in line to be Naomi and Ruth’s go’el. When Ruth approached Boaz with the proposition that he marry her and redeem Naomi’s land, Boaz was certainly willing, but took it up with the rightful go’el first. The other guy declined, and Boaz became the go’el, married Ruth, and had a son that would carry on both his and Elimelech’s lines.
The women who Naomi had expressed her suffering to at first now said to her: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!” (Ruth 4:14)
This story starts out hopeless, and ends with fulfilled blessing and hope for the future. The people at the end of the story did not ascribe the glory for this to Boaz, but to God. They, along with the key characters, knew who was really behind this happily ever after.
Inspiring a response of hesed in his people. God’s hesed in the story of Ruth is most often expressed in the hesed of the characters to one another. Ruth stayed with Naomi and decided to remain true to her God, even when she could have left and returned to her own people. Boaz allowed Ruth to gather prosperously in his fields and made sure she was protected from harm. Naomi sought out a way for Ruth to be cared and provided for, focusing more on Ruth’s well-being than her own. Ruth obeyed Naomi’s risky plan. Boaz responded to Ruth’s proposal not with disdain, but with humility and willingness, and ultimately redeemed both of them.
Humans showing hesed to one another is the right response to God showing hesed to his people. These people got it right, and their actions toward one another, which live on centuries and centuries later through Scripture, point others to God and his true character.
Revealing his plan in the seemingly unplanned. Many of the circumstances surrounding the story of Ruth seem like coincidence. Frankly, the sheer amount of coincidences points to the fact that they aren’t exactly by chance, but by God’s providence.
Daniel Block* writes that God was clearly at work in “apparently natural events” (the famine that drove Elimelech’s famine into Moab in the first place, the deaths of Naomi’s husband and sons, the birth of Ruth and Boaz’s son, Obed), in “seemingly chance events” (Ruth gathering grain in Boaz’s field), in the “delicate and daring schemes of humans” (Naomi’s plot for Ruth to propose to Boaz), and “in the legal process” (the other relative giving up his rights to Boaz).
God’s purposes were fulfilled by his own work, often acting through the efforts of these unlikely humans. This chain of events allowed for his will to be carried out: Naomi and Ruth were saved and a line to royalty was established.
Raising underdogs to royalty. Who would have thought that a Moabite widow would be the great-grandmother of King David, the greatest king in Israel’s history? Or that Naomi, an Israelite who left the promised land and lost all she had, would get to be considered part of that lineage? And that David’s line would ultimately lead to the Messiah?
It is beautiful how God works: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Samuel 2:8).
God used Boaz to redeem two destitute widows, one of whom bore a son whose descendant would redeem all people from their spiritual destitution.
I would be remiss not to note that the main setting of this story is the little town of Bethlehem. How true is the carol we sing this time of year: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee, tonight.”
*from pages 607-610 of The New American Commentary: Judges, Ruth