Recently I reread the Book of Judges, and remembered how starkly it portrays the violence, apostasy, idolatry, and sexual depravity rampant in Israel at that time. The author doesn’t pull any punches.
Sadly, much of it felt quite familiar, as it in many ways resembles what we are experiencing in our current generations of Western cultural and spiritual decline.
Then I reread the book of Ruth—one of my favorites, for many reasons–a side story portraying events in one family that took place during the same time period. Jewish tradition attributes authorship of both Judges and Ruth to the prophet Samuel. Samuel bridged the era of the judges, when Israel had no king, and the era of the kings, initiated when Samuel anointed Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David.
In this pass through both books, the way Scripture came to life was in the contrast between the tone of the two books.
Both books dispassionately record historical events without journalistic judgment. Judges starts and ends with individuals across the societal spectrum doing “what was evil in the Lord’s sight” or at least, “whatever seemed right” to them, without regard to the Law of God. The pattern of horrible conduct was pervasive and persistent, despite God’s repeated acts of rescue. Even the Judges he sent to rescue to save them were reprobates at times.
On the other hand, the tragedies and disruptions narrated in the Book of Ruth are sprinkled throughout with expressions of nobility, honor and blessing. The characters in the story are worthy of our deep admiration.
You may be familiar with the story. During the time of the Judges, Naomi and her husband Elimelech traveled to Moab to escape famine in their homeland of Bethlehem. Tragedy struck when Elimelech and their two sons died. The sons had already married Moabite women, so Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah all became widows.
There was nothing left for Naomi in Moab but grief, so she determined to head back to Bethlehem. She encouraged both daughters-in-law to return to their own families. This is where the first blessing is found, spoken by Naomi:
May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (1:8-9)
In spite of her overwhelming grief and bitterness, feeling forsaken by her God, Naomi remembers enough of her God and her identity in God to bestow these blessings on her daughters-in-law.
Orpah returns to her mother’s house, but Ruth famously pleads with and promises Naomi,
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17, emphasis added).
Parenthetically it seems, Ruth calls down a curse upon herself after receiving Naomi’s blessing. It makes me wonder if Naomi’s words of blessing further cemented Ruth’s resolve to stay loyal to her, even calling the wrath of God upon her own head if she were to change her mind.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi and Ruth are in dire poverty, facing an uncertain future. Naomi hoped to find safety and provision from family members who had remained in Bethlehem.
This is where we meet Naomi’s kinsman Boaz, a wealthy farmer. In his first appearance, we hear Boaz speak to his harvesters, “The Lord be with you.” They promptly and politely reciprocate with a blessing.
This was a business owner in the habit of blessing his workers and cultivating positive relationships with them. We get a glimpse of his character and personality.
Naomi instructs Ruth to glean behind Boaz’s harvesters, to gather grain for them to eat. Boaz had heard the story of their great travail in Moab and their journey back home. He notices the beautiful Ruth in his field, and he speaks to her,
“May the LORD reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” (2:12)
After the horrific victimization of women depicted in the book of Judges, this is such a relief, such a breath of sweet fresh air. So kind, and affirming, and honoring are his words!
Boaz makes sure that no harm comes to Ruth while she is gleaning. In fact, he instructs the harvesters to let some full stalks of grain “accidentally” get left behind in the furrows where Ruth is gleaning. Ruth returns home to Naomi with an abundance. Naomi’s response when she sees this:
“May the Lord bless the man who noticed you…may the Lord bless him because he has not abandoned his kindness to the living or the dead.” (2:19-20).
Naomi sees that she and her devoted daughter-in-law have been taken into the care of Boaz, at least temporarily, and she appropriately asks God to bless him. She then concocts a plan to put the relationship to the test. She instructs Ruth to enter the barn where Boaz slept during the harvest time, and to lay down at his feet. This would communicate to him that Ruth was interested in him as a man, and not only as a provider and benefactor.
When Boaz awakes and sees Ruth there at his feet, he speaks yet another blessing to her:
“May the LORD bless you, my daughter. You have shown more kindness than before, because you have not pursued younger men, whether rich or poor.” (3:10).
He appears astonished that Ruth doesn’t want to go after one of the younger, hotter, even richer guys around. He further validates and honors her, stating, “All the people in my town know that you are a woman of noble character.”
Don’t you love this man? After seeking the necessary release from the elders at the gate to make Ruth his wife, Boaz receives this blessing from his peers:
“May the LORD make the woman who is entering your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built the house of Israel.” (4:11).
It doesn’t get much better than that for a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It seems appropriate that the final blessings wrapping up the story are bestowed upon Naomi. With the birth of her first grandchild, a son born to Boaz and Ruth, the women of the town recognize that Naomi’s tragedy has been replaced with joy. She has been redeemed. Her ashes have been turned to beauty. Naomi now can participate in raising the generations that will lead directly to King David, and ultimately to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Her women friends declare,
“Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you without a family redeemer today. May his name become well known in Israel. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age.”
This story shows the flip side of Israel’s dark, disobedient ways. I believe this story is included in the canon because God wants us to see that we can be the exception, even in the darkest of times.
We can be like Ruth, showing unconditional love and loyalty to her devastated mother-in-law in her time of need. We can be like Naomi, who finds the courage and energy to return home to her people and her God without assurance she’d find rest there.
We can be like Boaz, who daily speaks blessing to others regardless of their social status. We can call out the gold in people and help them to progress and find satisfaction in the house of the Lord. We can be like Naomi’s friends, who celebrate God’s goodness with her and give all glory to him.
We can be the people that remember who God is, and how he is, whatever the religious, political, or spiritual atmospheres that surround us. We can be the people who walk honorably, and those exceptional people who bless God and others in even the darkest of times.