When Graeme Goldsworthy was asked to preach on Ruth 1 he quickly recognized that he would need to consider the book as a whole in order to grasp the “real significance” of the first chapter. The purpose of the book of Ruth is seen more clearly when the structure is understood. Therefore, it is important to begin our study of chapter one with an overview of the whole book paying careful attention to the way in which the author organized the material. This should give the reader an appreciation for the context and lead to further insight into the meaning of the first chapter.
Overview and Purpose of the Book of Ruth:
Through the motif of emptiness and fullness, the author of Ruth tells an incredible story of love and redemption. The stated quest is to find Ruth a home (1:9 and 3:1). The story focuses upon that quest by stating the problem, then following through to the solution. Actually, there are two love stories in the book of Ruth. The first one is the story of Ruth and Boaz. But their story points to the greater one of God’s love for Israel. On the other hand, Ruth may not be the central figure in the story. The narrator writes the story from Naomi’s perspective. Carolyn James points out how “The narrator writes of Naomi’s husband, her sons, her daughters-in-law, her losses, her God, her return to Bethlehem, her people, her relative, and the land she is selling.” Naomi’s character becomes the focus at the end of each chapter. She is the central figure in the introduction and the conclusion. She is the focus of the narrator’s theme of emptiness and fullness. Barry G. Webb recognizes the centrality of Naomi to the book of Ruth stating, “The story is about the reversal of Naomi’s destitution.” Beyond that this book displays God’s redemptive plan in the midst of the wickedness. The rampant wickedness is not present in the text, but it is implied by the opening verse. This story takes place “in the days when the judges ruled” (1:1). Ordered chronologically, this verse follows the last verse of Judges which provides the context for Ruth, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 21:25). We do not know who the author was, but the closing genealogy suggests it was written during David’s kingship, sometime after 1010 B.C. when David ascended the throne (4:17-22).
The location of Ruth within the Hebrew canon may be telling of its purpose, at least according to the Masoretic composers of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. In following Proverbs 31, Ruth was probably considered to be an example of the אֵֽשֶׁת־חַ֭יִל (virtuous wife). However, Ruth also teaches its readers much about God’s sovereignty and character. The author does this without making too many explicit references to the actions of God. In fact, there are only two occasions in the book of Ruth where God is found to be the subject of a verb. One occurs near the beginning of the story where Yahweh puts an end to the famine by visiting his people and giving them food (1:6). The other occurrence is near the end of the story where Yahweh gives Ruth conception (4:13). These are the only two occurrences where the Lord unmistakably intervenes in the story. The author’s point may be to show that God often reveals much about himself through the words and actions of his people. “By framing the story with these two references,” argues Block, “the narrator highlights his conviction that in the end the book is more about the providence of God than the deeds of human beings.” In this story, God’s covenant kindness is shown in many ways. We see it through the actions of Boaz, who goes to great lengths in order to be the kinsman redeemer for Ruth and Naomi (4:1-12). We also see it through the actions of Ruth, who clings to Naomi and commits to her and her God in the midst of a harsh trial (1:14-18). These two actions, and many others, reveal as much about God as they do about the characters that performed them. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. concludes, “Indeed, despite his seeming absence, Yahweh is in fact the central figure in the story.”
Throughout the book Ruth is referred to as a “Moabitess.” Even after she seems to have fully assimilated herself into the Israelite religion and culture the author continues to call her a Moabite. When the original reader recognized that this Moabite woman was the great grandmother of King David it raised the issue to another level. Beyond that, the New Testament reader is immediately struck by the same fact in the genealogy of Christ. The bloodline of the Messiah is mixed between Jewish and Gentile ancestors. Why is this so important? Over a millennium before Christ’s appearing God was showing his heart for reaching the nations. The reader should not miss how God’s missionary heart is displayed in this story.
I. Introduction: Naomi Bereft of Family (1:1-6)
II. Scene 1: Naomi Returns to Bethlehem with Ruth (1:7-22)
III. Scene 2: Ruth Gleans in Boaz’s Field (2:1-23)
IV. Scene 3: Ruth, at the Threshing Floor, Asks Boaz to Marry Her (3:1-18)
V. Scene 4: Boaz Arranges Redemption at the Gate (4:1-12)
VI. Conclusion: Naomi Blessed with a New Family (4:13-17)
VII. Genealogy: Extended Blessing (4:18-22)
The opening section of Ruth depicts the death and emptiness Naomi experiences when her family leaves Bethlehem for Moab. After the death of her husband and two sons, Naomi is left to grieve with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. When the famine has ended in Bethlehem Naomi decides to return home. Ruth follows her and proclaims her unwavering commitment to Naomi, her God, and her people. Naomi’s statement at the end of the chapter reveals the theme of the story up to this point, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” In the following scene Ruth and Boaz meet during the barley harvest. Boaz shows Ruth mercy by allowing her to glean in his field. When Ruth returns to her mother-in-law with an abundant amount of wheat she tells Naomi about Boaz. Naomi informs Ruth that Boaz is a redeemer to them. Naomi wastes no time in hatching a plan for Ruth to meet Boaz at his threshing floor. Ruth lets Boaz know, in no uncertain terms, that she would like Boaz to marry her. Boaz is delighted by this proposition but he must first take care to inform a nearer kin before proceeding with Ruth’s request. The following day Boaz proves himself to be clever in winning Ruth for himself (4:1-12). The legal discussion that takes place in this episode can be confusing. Trying to explain how the kinsman-redeemer laws coincide with levirate marriage can become a distraction from the sheer determination Boaz shows in marrying Ruth. The death and emptiness that characterized Naomi’s experience in the first chapter is turned into life and fullness in the conclusion (4:13-17). It is through the love of Ruth and the generosity of Boaz that Naomi is restored. A son is born who will become a redeemer for Naomi, taking care of her in her old age. The genealogy that closes the book reveals that Boaz and Ruth’s line would be the greatest in Israel leading to King David, and eventually to David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ.
1. Kindness: We see this in Ruth’s kindness to Naomi when she decides to leave Moab and follow her mother-in-law home to Jerusalem. Then Boaz shows kindness to both Ruth and Naomi culminating in his marriage to Ruth which leads to the second theme.
2. Redemption: Boaz is said to be a kinsman redeemer of Naomi and Ruth. He is a near relative who can buy Elimelech’s field and care for the two women. Boaz acts redemptively by combining two laws (1) property redemption, and (2) levirate marriage. He was not required to act in this way, but he acted out of grace.
3. Emptiness vs. Fullness: The story begins with a famine that causes the family of Elimelech to move from Bethlehem to Moab. In Moab, Elimelech and his two sons die leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law. Only Ruth returns to Bethlehem alongside Naomi after the famine has ended. The emptiness of the first chapter is progressively filled as the story moves toward the climactic ending when Boaz and Ruth have a son named Obed, Naomi’s redeemer and grandfather of King David. Death and emptiness are replaced with life and fullness.
4. Providence: God is continually orchestrating the events that transpire in the book of Ruth in order to bring about the blessings He desires to shower upon His people. These blessings are often seen through the words and actions of the other characters.
Each of these themes can be seen in the first chapter and they span the entire story of Ruth. The overall purpose of Ruth is to reveal God’s sovereign care for his people. That is the ultimate purpose of the book. Yet, the beginning does not look so hopeful.