Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 14. Ruth
Ruth 1:16,17 But Ruth replied, “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 anything but death separates you and me.”
These words spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, are perhaps some of the greatest declarations of loyalty and faithfulness spoken in the Bible. In the Gospels, at one point, the apostle Peter said to Jesus when all others were abandoning him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:68,69) He had heard Jesus and recognized something special in Jesus and that was in no one else, so he was not going to leave it. But what was it that made Ruth reply as she had. Let’s note their circumstances.
Naomi and her husband had fled Israel when a famine struck. They went looking for food elsewhere and found it in Moab, a people who lived to the east of the Dead Sea. The record has it that they were descendants of one of Lot’s daughters (Gen 19:37).It had been the Moabites who hired Balaam to curse Israel, and for that reason Moses banned them for ten generations from entering ‘the assembly of the Lord’ (Deut 23:3,4).
Now there hangs the question mark. It doesn’t appear to prohibit marriage to a Moabite but if one did, then you would be excluded from participating in the rites and ceremonies of Israel, at least for ten generations after Moses. It would appear they are still in that period of prohibition which adds more to the significance of some of the things that happened. While living in Moab, where they appear to have settled, first Naomi’s husband dies, then Naomi’s two sons marry two Moabite women. Tragedy strikes the family and the two sons die. Is this judgment on the unfaithfulness of these three Israelite men for having abandoned Israel? We aren’t told, but Naomi is left with two daughters-in-law. When she hears that the famine is over in Israel she prepares to return to her homeland and tries to get the two daughters-in-law to remain in their own land. Perhaps she has in mind the probation we have already referred two. The first daughter agrees and remains, but the other, Ruth, makes this amazing declaration of loyalty.
Again we ask, what was it that made Ruth make such a declaration? A similar declaration was later made by Ittai the Gittite to king David when Absalom revolted and David had to flee. When David encouraged him to remain behind Ittai replied, “As surely as the LORD lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there will your servant be.” (2 Sam 15:21) It is the same loyalty. Indeed David’s words, that provoked this response, show an even greater similarity to this present situation: “Why should you come along with us? Go back and stay with King Absalom. You are a foreigner, an exile from your homeland. You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us, when I do not know where I am going? Go back, and take your countrymen. May kindness and faithfulness be with you.” (2 Sam 15:19,20) The previous verses shows that the Gittites were a contingent from the Philistines who had collaborated with David (v.18). The Philistines had long had dealings with David and I believe it is fair to suggest that Ittai recognized greatness in David, hence his declaration.
So back to Ruth, what was it that made her make this declaration? Now there is something strange about the book of Ruth and, although it explains how Ruth came to be part of the Messianic line (see Matt 1:5) and become the great grandmother of King David, there is no mention of God’s activity in Ruth and yet the multiple activities that bring this about, we have to say, are a demonstration of what theologians call the Providence of God (the behind-the-scenes working of God). What we don’t know because it is not said, and perhaps because Ruth the Moabitess probably would not recognize it anyway, is if the Lord spoke directly to Ruth to prompt her to feel as she did. It is a possibility, but we just don’t know.
Another possibility comes to the fore when we note her actual words: “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 anything but death separates you and me.” Your God, my God? Using the covenant name, LORD, Yahweh, the I AM? All this suggests that Naomi had talked about her home life, or at the very least the reputation of Israel was well known in Moab. Either way, Israel appeared to be doing what they were designed to do and attract the world. Clearly, in our above examples, Jesus attracted Peter and David attracted the foreigner, Ittai. It is just possible that that something about Naomi attracted Ruth’s heart, for it is very much a heart declaration.
Yet a further possibility is that Ruth felt concern for Naomi, who had lost her husband and then her two sons in an alien environment. If that is so it suggests she is a young woman of compassion. Again, whatever it was, the Lord used it to draw her together with Boaz (later in the book) and become part of the Messianic blood line. Everything about this story says that Ruth is a woman of immense grace who finds a husband in Israel who is equally full of grace. From our vantage point in history, what is so incredible about this is that the Lord happily takes Ruth into the life of Israel and highlights her presence by a record in Matthew’s genealogy.
Perhaps this should not be so surprising when, in that same genealogy, we read immediately before, “Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.” Rahab of course was, at the best an innkeeper and, at the worst, a prostitute, and whichever, a Canaanite! She is another illustration of someone outside the chosen people who was drawn into them and is given a special place in the Messianic family tree. Perhaps that made it easier for Boaz to act as he did in wooing Ruth. Over both ‘transactions’ hangs the grace of God who has a chosen people but also a heart for the whole world. He will receive whoever will come to Him.
If the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had been around at both those times they would no doubt have rejected both Rahab and Ruth, and as for the thought that both these being foreign women, women from nations that practiced idol worship and did not know Yahweh…. well! But God’s grace is bigger. If we look down on people who are obviously outside the kingdom (at the moment), “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:12,13). I like the way the Message version puts it: “It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God’s ways had no idea of any of this, didn’t know the first thing about the way God works, hadn’t the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God’s covenants and promises in Israel, hadn’t a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything. Excellent! So be careful how you think of others!
In your own life, don’t be surprised if God uses the irreligious around you, people who do not seem to conform to your expectations. It may be they have a stronger heart for the Lord than you and me. The ‘Wise Men’ or Magi (Mt 2:1) fit into that category. Definitely not ‘proper’ people to be involved in the nativity story and as for being led by astrology and a star…well! But God is bigger than us. Rejoice in the wonder of that grace and pray that your may be enlarged to see His hand at work in those around you and the general affairs of the world.