Discovering Ruth

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Does the story of your life ever feel more like a tragedy than a triumph? Like a nightmare instead of a happy-ever-after? The book of Ruth begins this way – with a series of sorry tragedies that end with bitter feelings towards God.

This all happened during the period of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). As if this wasn’t bad enough, the story also unfolded when there was a famine in the land. This famine would have occurred because God had withheld rain due to Israel’s unfaithfulness to him (Deut 28:15-24).

This story began when an Israelite man named Elimelech married an Israelite woman named Naomi. When the famine occurred, they migrated from Judah (on the west side of the Dead Sea) to Moab (on the east side of the Dead Sea). By doing this, they turned to a pagan nation for aid rather than returning to God.

While in Moab, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi alone in that ungodly place with her two adult sons, Mahlon and Chilion. These men then married Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. After about 10 years, both of Naomi’s sons died.

After losing her husband and her sons, Naomi decided to return home to Israel. Remarkably, her two daughters-in-law planned to follow her to Israel, leaving their homeland behind. Naomi encouraged them to go home and return to their birth families, though, and to marry Moabite husbands.

One of these women, Ruth, refused to do so. She insisted that she would follow Naomi for the duration of her life. Most importantly, she expressed a strong desire to follow the God of Israel rather than her Moabite gods (Ruth 1:16). By doing this, she would abandon the hope of a comfortable future, placing herself in the care of a foreign mother-in-law who had no reliable means to care for even herself, what’s more a daughter-in-law.

It is interesting to observe that Naomi did not respond to this loyalty with enthusiasm, though she did accept the offer. She was not elated over Ruth’s companionship and loyalty. Instead, she requested a name change from Naomi (which means “pleasant”) to Mara (which means “bitter”). What’s more, she believed that God had returned her to Israel empty (despite having Ruth with her!), thinking that God had responded to her life in a bad and negative way.

A Series of Fortunate Events

Once home in Israel, Ruth and Naomi had no reliable way to meet their needs. To alleviate this problem, Naomi sent Ruth to gather leftover grain from the fields of a wealthy man named Boaz. He was a close relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband.

This practice took advantage of a social welfare program in the law of Moses. This program required farmers to leave leftover grain and fruit in the fields and vineyards so that foreigners (who owned no land), orphans (who had no parents), and widows (who had no husband) could get some food for themselves (Lev. 19:9, 10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19).

This food was free in that those in need did not have to pay for it. Even so, they still had to work for it by going out into the fields to get it for themselves. Ruth showed her loyalty to her mother-in-law by doing this hard work to meet their mutual needs.

As she worked a long day, Boaz noticed her among the men he had hired to harvest his fields. He spoke with her and insisted that she keep on taking leftovers from his fields. He also allowed her to eat alongside the regular harvesting team, instructed the men to leave extra grain behind on purpose, and ordered them to ensure her safety so that no one would harm her (Ruth 2:14-16).

Within this encouraging turn of events, two important statements emerge.

  • The first is by Boaz. Ruth asked him why he was showing such kindness to her, even though she was a Moabite and not a Jew (Ruth 2:10). He explained that he had heard all about her faithfulness to her mother-in-law and how she had placed her trust in the Lord God of Israel (Ruth 2:11-13). He admired her faith and had taken it upon himself to be God’s channel of blessing to meet her needs on God’s behalf.
  • The other important statement is made by Naomi (Ruth 2:20). In this statement, she realized that the Lord was being faithful and kind to them through the kindness of Boaz.

Following these two conversations, Naomi gave some new instructions to Ruth. By these instructions, she hoped to do more than get some food. This time she hoped to provide Ruth with a greater measure of security (Ruth 3:1). She based this plan on the fact that Boaz was a close relative of Elimelech, her former husband. According to Jewish customs, this man could serve as the “family redeemer.”

The family redeemer (or “kinsman-redeemer”) was a cultural practice in Old Testament Israel. When a Jewish man died with no male heir, the family redeemer would step in to care for his wife (through marriage) and to care for his property in his name. He would even attempt to raise up a son through his deceased relative’s widow to carry on her (and her deceased husband’s) family line.

This in mind, Naomi recognized the noble qualities of Boaz. As a result, she hoped that he might take the role of family redeemer by marrying Ruth. If he would do so, he would be an older man marrying a younger one. He would also jeopardize his upstanding reputation by marrying a Moabite woman. This would be an inconvenient choice.

What’s more, he would be taking on extra responsibility. He would assume the responsibility of caring not only for Ruth, but also for Naomi and for the land which had belonged to Elimelech. Taking this responsibility would not make Boaz richer. It would incur additional expense and oversight on his part – all in the name of Elimelech's (his relative) son's name (Mahlon, Ruth's deceased husband), not in his own. Would you have done this?

When Ruth requested Boaz to perform this act of kindness, he dutifully obliged. First, however, he spoke to the one other man who was an even closer relative to Elimelech than he was and was therefore first in the order of obligation. This man was willing to take on the land, but he was not willing to care for Ruth and Naomi – so he declined. Upon hearing this, Boaz swiftly assumed this role by marrying Ruth.

A Surprising Conclusion

This book ends with a conclusion that should surprise you in at least two ways. First, it should surprise you by the blessing that the leaders of the city gave to Boaz and Ruth. They prayed that God will bless their union with offspring just as he did for Tamar and Judah. Judah, of course, was the tribe of these people – of Elimelech and Naomi, Boaz and the men of this city. He was their forefather.

This allusion is surprising, though, because Tamar had been Judah’s daughter-in-law (Gen 38:24-26). Judah’s oldest son had died before they could have any children, but his brothers had refused to take the responsibility of family redeemer for her. Then in the end, Judah refused to allow his youngest son to do so, leaving her uncared for and without a future. As a result, she tricked him as a prostitute and gave birth to a son. In this way, she continued the family line – though this is hardly a compelling story.

This book’s ending should surprise you for a second reason, too. It tells us how God would bless this union with a son named Obed (Ruth 4:16-22). Obed would turn out to be the grandfather of King David, who would deliver the nation of Israel from the chaotic period of the Judges. More importantly, he would continue the family line that would eventually provide the world with the Messiah, who would deliver us all from our sins.

Personal Application

Have you been redeemed?

This book vividly portrays in a limited way what Jesus Christ would eventually do for us all. As helpless sinners unable, we are unable to meet our own spiritual needs. But Christ has redeemed us and assumed responsibility for meeting those needs by himself at his own expense – the expense of his own life (1 Pet 1:18-20). He has done more than this by also taking us to himself as his bride (Eph 5:27).

Can you recognize how God may be at work in your life, working out his deliberate, redemptive plan in and through your difficult circumstances (Rom 8:28)?

Do you portray the bitter, pessimistic perspective of Naomi earlier in this story? Or do you display the confidence in God and the joy that she expressed later in the story?

Like Boaz, have you embraced your role as God’s agent for providing for the needs of others and of facilitating his redemption in the lives of the people he has placed around you?

Notice how in one place Boaz portrays God as a mother bird who tenderly, loyally, and lovingly protects her baby birds underneath her wings (Ruth 2:12). Then in another place, Ruth appeals to Boaz to be the one who protects her under his wings (Ruth 3:9). God exhibits his care of people through those people who decide to be God’s caregivers. As believers, we should do more than offer positive words and promises of prayer (Jam 2:16). If we can meet a need, we should do so.

Are you inclusive in your outreach?

Or do you only extend God’s love and care to those of your kind and of those who are convenient to serve? That Ruth was a Moabite woman caused a dilemma for Boaz. Moabites were descendants of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters (Gen 19:30-38). Moabite women had also lured the Israelites in the wilderness into idol worship and immorality (Num 25:1-5).

What’s more, Moses had prohibited Israelites from marrying Moabite wives or from allowing them to worship in the tabernacle or temple (Deut 23:3). Knowing this, Mahlon and Chilion probably should not have married Moabite women in the first place. Nevertheless, they had done so and now this Moabite woman, Ruth, exhibited genuine faith in God.

Boaz was a perceptive and gracious man who recognized that despite these laws, Ruth was a genuine follower of God. Consequently, he accepted her as his wife despite the bad track record of Moabite women.


The book of Ruth provides a stunning contrast to the book of Judges, though it occurred within the same time period. Whereas the Israelites repeatedly failed to follow and obey God with love, loyalty, and faithfulness, this Moabite woman demonstrated to them all what love, loyalty, and faithfulness to God (and others) entails.

In the end, this book teaches us that those who are faithful to God will experience the faithfulness of God. Are you more like Elimelech who went to Moab to get some food rather than turning the God with all your heart? Are you more like Mahlon and Chilion who married ungodly women? Or are you like Naomi who became pessimistic because she believed that God was out to get her?

When you catch yourself being like these bad examples, remember Ruth. She was a most unlikely hero – born to unbelieving parents and worshiping false gods. Yet through a series of unfortunate events, she ended up placing her trust in the one, true God to deliver her – and he did. Is God at work in your broken life today, despite your ow tragic backstory?

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