Those familiar with the book of Ruth likely recognize the lyrical vow of unwavering, loyal love Ruth makes to her mother-in-law after she urges Ruth to go back to her own people: “Do not press me to leave you or to return from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there I will be buried.”
The story opens with a famine causing a young family seeking food security to emigrate from Bethlehem to the neighbouring country of Moab. The father dies a short time later, and the two sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Both sons then die, leaving their mother, Naomi, bereft. After hearing the famine in Israel has ended, Naomi returns to her hometown. Her two daughters-in-law begin the trek with her, but she insists they go back to their own families. Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi and utters the well-known vow quoted above.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi asks to be called by a different name because, as she says, “The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.”
Naomi’s outlook reflects a common understanding of an earlier era that, sadly, some still ascribe to today: that God is the source of trouble as well as blessing. Further, she is so overcome with grief that she does not yet see the blessing Ruth is to her.
Naomi means ‘pleasant’, but after the heartbreaks she endures in Moab, the name she wants to be known as is Mara, or ‘bitterness.’ The meaning of the rest of the cast of names in this story is also significant, as names often are in the Hebrew Bible. Ruth, for instance, means ‘friend’ or ‘companion’, and she certainly proves to be that and more to Naomi. Similarly, Boaz, the man Ruth ends up marrying, means ‘in him is strength’, and Boaz proves to be strong and trustworthy in character.
There are many references to God in this story, though God remains in the background and is understood as blessing the actions of the principal characters who treat each other in a respectful, loving manner, mirroring the quality of ḥesed love—the gracious and loyal love God has for humankind.
Three times this Hebrew word ḥesed is used in this short story. First, at its outset when Naomi urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their homes, she asks God to look upon them with the same ḥesed love they have shown her. Next, about halfway in, Naomi blesses Boaz for exhibiting ḥesed love for Ruth by ensuring these two women receive food. Then, shortly thereafter, when Ruth startles Boaz late in the night, he expresses his admiration for her as an exemplar of ḥesed love.
The story ends on a happy note with the newly married couple soon conceiving a child who brings the once-bitter Naomi joy and satisfaction.
A brief genealogy completes the book of Ruth, identifying this child as the grandfather of King David. Although it traces David’s ancestry through the males, as is typical in a patriarchal society, Ruth the Moabite is clearly understood to be David’s great-grandmother.
Throughout Israel’s history those attempting to preserve its religious heritage frowned on intermarriage partly out of concern that foreign spouses would taint Israel’s covenant relationship with God by introducing the worship of false gods. For any that might question the ‘purity’ of David’s bloodline, the story of Ruth presents his great-grandmother as a loyal heroine devoted to Israel’s God.
Moreover, it offers an opposing viewpoint to the extreme policy introduced during the era of Ezra and Nehemiah when, following the Babylonian exile, an attempt was made by those who had returned to Israel to preserve Jewish bloodlines by banning marriage with non-Jews and dissolving any such pre-existing marriages.
Overall, the book of Ruth presents the timely, inclusive message that ‘foreigners’ or ‘outsiders’ should be embraced as valued members of society who enrich the lives of others as Ruth did for Naomi and Boaz and those around her.