The book of Ruth

A reflection by Dan Spragg

It seems, that a large feature of many stories in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, is that God speaks. “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you, “ said God to Abraham. “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water… “ were God’s words as the Israelites were fleeing Egypt and the pursuit of Pharoah’s army. The books of the Prophets, both the major and minor players contain vast amounts of “The Lord said…” and “These are the words of the Lord spoken to…” One of these minor prophets we looked at last week, Jonah. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it…’” It was nice to think about the story of Jonah because it is such a real story. I’m not talking about ending up in the belly of a whale – although it is true that many of our life’s journeys include spending time wallowing in darkness, seemingly beneath the surface for a time, perhaps especially during a time of chaos, or when we’re resisting doing what we know we need to be doing! Yes, the story of Jonah is a story of much reality. We can find Jonah residing in ourselves, highlighting our fears and prejudices and highlighting our lack of awareness of God’s activity. But Jonah heard, it seems, the audible voice of God, however, in talking with people and in hearing people’s stories of faith, it seems that a lot of the time God is not speaking at all, let alone us simply not being aware of it. Perhaps that is one reason why a lot of the time the Bible feels as though it is disconnected from us. The many stories of God ‘speaking’ don’t line up with much of our experience that has spent a large part of the spiritual life walking around wondering if God is even there at all. But then, along comes the story of Ruth.

The book of Ruth might be another one of these ones that we haven’t looked at or don’t look at enough. It is a short story that as with the book of Jonah has been masterfully crafted to contain all sorts of meaning and message. It tells the story of Ruth, the less than ideal situation she finds herself in and the unfolding of events which lead to a joyful conclusion. It was written after the time of King David but set in the time of the Judges some several hundred years earlier. This setting is as much a part of the meaning of the story as the story itself. The time of the Judges in Israel’s history was not a good time. It was violent and chaotic. A time of war and famine, tribal infighting and struggles for power. Running from a famine, Naomi and her family find themselves in Moab. Tragedy strikes as both Naomi’s husband and sons die, leaving her and her daughters in law to fend for themselves. Ruth sticks with Naomi for a journey back to Bethlehem where through some clever thinking, some bold action and some simple kindness and generosity the story ends with joy and new life. It is a masterful tale of a journey from suffering, death and grief, to joy, new life and hope for the future. As the writer of the book of Ruth, after the time of Ruth’s ancestor King David’s reign, sat down to write this story, they most certainly wanted us to be invited to share the characters’ experience of God’s providential activity, that God’s grace guided this family from tragedy to joy. We are invited to see that out of such a time of disaster that was the rule of the Judges over Isreal, the hope of King David’s successful reign and the legacy that led towards the promise of a coming Messiah was born.

The book of Ruth is unique, as I hinted because God appears not to speak at all. There is no proclamation from above, no divine voice in a bush, no command to go there or to do this, no supernatural intervention. This story feels like many of our own experiences of God’s silence. How on earth are we to listen to God when there is nothing to be heard? There is the presence of God to be seen however, in the story of Ruth. There is no ‘Thus says the Lord.’ But there is the unfolding of grace in the provision of food, in Naomi’s plan for Ruth to meet Boaz, in this ‘chance’ meeting that is a success. Food, shelter, companionship, family. Surely the presence of these is evidence of grace at work? And the presence of grace has to be seen most in the actions of those involved. The book of Ruth informs us that it is in the actions of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz that we see the work of God unfolding this story towards a hopeful future.

Naomi, and Ruth, and Boaz, could have sat around waiting for God to speak… or they could have done what they did. Embodied in the actions of Naomi, of Ruth and of Boaz we see the presence of God. We see in the day to day joys and hardships that these characters encounter, great loyalty shown by Ruth who won’t leave her Mother-in-laws side – she would rather endure the hardships of being a widow in a patriarchal society, whatever may come, side by side with Naomi rather than leaving Naomi to do this alone. We see great kindness, compassion and generosity shown by Boaz as he sees Ruth and their situation and is concerned and of good character to do what was good and right – always provisioned for in the laws of Israel was concern for the widow. If you read the whole story, which is worth a read, you will see how Boaz goes beyond duty however which shows his true feelings towards Ruth. We also see boldness in the plans of Naomi as she ‘sets-up’ Ruth. And as Ruth is always referred to as ‘the Moabite’ we see the genuine inclusion of an immigrant into this Hebrew family. Finally, at the conclusion of the story is a genealogy tracing the ancestral line of King David back through to this child of Ruth and Boaz. This hints at the promise of the Messaiah who was to come through the line of David. Just as Boaz acted as a kind of ‘kinsman-redeemer’ for Naomi and Ruth, the Messaiah was to come and be the redeemer of all Israel and as the story unfolds into the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ – one who would reveal redemption for all.

This story shows us God’s faithful presence.  And it shows us the messages of welcome and inclusion of the immigrant, the demonstration of sacrificial loyalty… ‘where you go I will go…’ Ruth says. And we see the promise of a hopeful future. In this story, as one book I was reading puts it, all readers are called “to emulate the costly commitment of Ruth, the perseverance and cleverness of Naomi, and the generosity and integrity of Boaz. In so doing, they too will experience God’s providential blessing.”[1]

The travelling and the situation Namoi, Ruth and Boaz find themselves in provide some parallels for us. In our world today there are many refugees. Some flee to another land due to violence, others due to famine or lack of work. As of mid-2020 there was a total of 20.3 million refugees, and over 80 million displaced people worldwide, with up to 43% of the refugees being children.[2] The work of welcoming refugees, of showing self-giving loyalty, of giving generosly, of acting with kindness and compassion; this is what will provide a story of hope, joy and life. There is another group of people in liminal space today as well. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic there has been over 100,000 people through New Zealand’s managed isolation facilities, the majority of these are people returning home to New Zealand. In the next 14 days there are an estimated additional 5400 returnees to come.[3] While many of these people have the means to support themselves, not all do. Many have left people behind. I heard a story of someone trying to buy a car recently who was told to ‘go home’ because they had come from overseas… yet, that is exactly what they had just done, they thought they had come home. What is it to welcome, to be kind and compassionate, to be generous to these people so as to give their stories a trajectory of hope?

I haven’t heard an audible directive from God saying, ‘You must go and do this for these people…’ I don’t often, or perhaps ever experience God in that way, do you? But I do believe we all sort of know what we are to do, don’t we? Listening is hard when there is nothing being said. Or is it? We know the voice of God. We know what the song of God sounds like. So, what is it for us to sing along, to hum the tune of God’s faithfulness and mercy as we go about our living? What is self-giving loyalty? What is generosity and kindness to those travelling and seeking refuge from tragedy? What is it to welcome and include the visitors or the newly returned among us? What is it to sing the song of God in such a way that hope is made real and known just as Naomi, Ruth and Boaz did?


[1] ‘Ruth’ in, Old Testament Survey, William Sanfod Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, Frderic William Bush, 1996, p525.

[2] Sourced from https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/#:~:text=An%20estimated%2030%20%E2%80%93%2034%20million,age%20(end%2D2019).&text=Developing%20countries%20host%2086%20per,per%20cent%20of%20the%20total.

[3] Sourced from https://www.mbie.govt.nz/business-and-employment/economic-development/covid-19-data-resources/managed-isolation-and-quarantine-data/