Ruth: Short Name, Interesting History
Ruth. Her simple name and her short story make our minds go in so many directions. We think mothers-in-law, widowhood's losses, sheaves of wheat, moving to strange countries, working in a hot field. The good girl gets the good guy. A song playing at our wedding: "Wherever You Go, I Will Go."
It's one of only two Bible books named after a woman, but unlike Esther, Ruth's story seems basic. It's browns and greens and grays and blacks and burlap. Esther's story is purples and pinks, jewels and glitter and maidens and crowns. Ruth and her mother-in-law didn't get a year's worth of beauty treatments. They didn't even know where they might find food for lunch. Esther was an orphan, but Ruth was an orphan and a widow. Other than the fact that both Bible heroines were transported to strange lands with strange customs, the comparisons between the women's lives are few.
Sometimes Ruth is hard to read. It's not a story we usually turn to when we want comfort or relief, especially if we don't read to the very end. It's a short book, sort of hard to even find in between larger books. To be honest, it took me years to like this story. I grew up outside the South, with parents and grandparents who were Southern and talked of picking cotton in hot fields with high humidity, either for spending money or for food for the family. Not fun in my book. Ruth reminded me too much of those stories. I didn't want to think about being a young widow, childless, following my mother-in-law into an unknown land and picking up leftover grain in someone's else's field.
But as I've grown older and learned that life is often about hardships and overcoming them, Ruth is a story I turn to often. Just like we love our sports movies about underdogs and second chances, Ruth's movie is just that. Hers is a Cinderella story unlike any other. Her descendants would not just sit on a throne in a fairy tale kingdom; they would make history on Israel's thrones and on the Throne of Thrones. Her meager beginnings would lead to a comfortable life with land and a business and a family who supported her. Her childlessness would give way to a baby's birth, a baby in the lineage of the Christ. Her burlap and homespun wardrobe would be exchanged, if not for silk and jewels, at least for high end cotton and linen. Her orphanhood would be left behind as she grew to love and be loved by a mother-in-law who became a mother, as well as distant rela-tives of Naomi's who did not remain distant.
I actually teach in my Bible classes at Madison Academy that Ruth is one of the best love stories ever written. It has it all; sadness, loneliness and poverty, changing almost overnight to love and laughter, marriage and a baby carriage. And the funny part? Ruth is "set up" by her former mother-in-law! The middle school girls in Bible class say, "Ugh" when they find out that according to the customs of the day, Boaz might have been twenty or more years older than Ruth. (Who was probably, even as a widow, still very young-about 20-25.) But then when I name current day Hollywood/Nashville heartthrobs who are about 20 years older than these students, they "ooh" and "ahh." Think a poor rural Alabama girl goes to Hollywood or Nashville and meets Keith Urban or Chris Hemsworth! Then we go into how the love story came about.
Boy sees girl. She's picking up the leftover wheat sheaves in the field, but she's lovely. And she seems so sad and alone. The savior complex kicks in, the knight in shining armor rides in to save the day. First, Boaz, asked about her. Who was this attractive young woman and why was she so alone? And poor? As he pursues her, Naomi is pushing Ruth to pursue him. Finally, it all comes together and the one woman who is basically a Gentile in Christ's lineage, gets the prize.
What can we learn from Ruth other than its fantastic love story? Compassion. One word that we often use in our English lexicon is ruthless. Pretty interesting that this word ruthless actually means the opposite of Ruth! She was full of compassion for Naomi and her plight, so much so that she would not leave her. She would not take the easy path, the literal fork in the road to a life she understood. She was ruth-full instead. We use ruthless to mean lack of care or compassion for others, as in ruthless businessmen who embezzle from their companies. Ruth-full is, instead, a person who puts others first, someone who is full of compassion.
Boaz teaches another lesson. He was careful to fulfill the law of the day, which stated that landowners/farmers should leave extra crops in the edges of the field for the poor. He did this. He was also alert to a young woman who seemed to be alone and suffering. How many times do we step outside ourselves to notice those quietly bearing heavy burdens? And this marriage might have been to a beautiful, younger woman, but she certainly brought no dowery to the table. He accepted her AND her mother-in-law and their poverty, adding them to his household with what seems to be happiness. He went to the trouble to work out all the legalities of the day to make this union happen.
In Matthew, we see that only five women are mentioned in the family tree of Jesus. Each woman has quite a story to tell, and Ruth's is among the most interesting. Her compassion led to her story but also to His story. And ours. Read on and learn to love this story.
Artwork provided by Peggy Hickerson