Israel was only a remnant by the time Jesus walked the earth within the political boundaries of a tiny, insignificant, troublesome province of the Roman Empire. Not all Jews had returned following Babylonian captivity, and the Maccabean period and Hellenization were yet to be endured, which waylaid many more into abandoning the God of their Fathers. The Priesthood was finally subject to meddling by Roman authorities, and Jewish leaders had to be careful not to offend their patrons to retain their power. Nearly all of those who still dwelt in their ancestral land were from the lineage of Judah, not from the other tribes. Some of Israel still inhabited Samaria, although a large amount of cross cultural marrying had occurred, and most Jews thought of Samaritans with disgust as half-breeds and compromised pagans.
Israel was, for all intents and purposes, cut off from ever having dominion over its inheritance again, save for the prophecies of a military-minded Messiah who they believed would defeat the Romans and return their land to them. Most of the tribes had been scattered into the wind. The trial set before the Jew of Jesus’ era was to believe that God was not finished with his people; that as Ezekiel had prophesied, God would truly raise up the dead body of Israel: its bones, sinews, and flesh; and breathe life into their nation as he had to Adam.
Israel around the year 0 by our calendar was therefore a people with no power to do anything but hold on and wait. There was legitimacy in the Pharisees – as Jesus had said, they sat in Moses’ seat, and therefore the disciples were to do as they said, but not as they did. Total rejection of any source of religious authority is a medal of honor to moderns but in reality is a tell for very immature faith. Honoring religious authority does not mean total subservience, but it means much more than to simply retain personal veto authority on all questions.
God vested authority in David’s throne, such that David was able to boldly (and in ignorance, initially, causing Uzza’s death) move the Ark of God from the Tabernacle in Gibeah to the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite and finally to Zion, once David recalled from the law that those priests who bore the Ark did so on their shoulders, and that the Ark does not travel on an ox cart as it had when the Philistines returned it to Israel. The presence of God is not made available to humanity by the efforts of a beast of burden or a powerful machine; it is on the shoulders of those God has consecrated for him.
Ruth’s nation, the people of Moab, were inherently adversarial about the land and the people to which Naomi was returning. Moab had harbored a deep distrust for the people of Israel from the time they came into the land a few generations prior. The feeling was very mutual. However, through a strange series of events and a famine in the land of Judah, some Israelites became refugees for a time in the land of Moab. Ruth was apparently convinced of the uniqueness of the stories she probably heard from her husband and Naomi about how God rescued Israel with a powerful arm, had split a sea wide open, and had delivered an entire nation from captivity.
Stories were the cultural lifeblood of the ancient world (as they are in ours, although via different means), and the varying mythologies of the fertile crescent were widely shared. Sure, Moab had its own ideas, its own gods – but the Israelite stories would have been inverted versions of the stories of Moab or of the surrounding peoples – that there was only one true God – that God allowed his people to be oppressed for hundreds of years to make his glory known – and that God had taken a whole nation out of another nation, led them through the wilderness for 40 years, and brought them into the land of their ancestors. No story like that existed in the ancient world.
Ruth unflinchingly left behind forever her familial connections in the land of Moab. She rebuffed Naomi’s insistence that she stay in Moab and find another husband. Ruth made an Abrahamic choice to go to Bethlehem with Naomi – who was now past childbearing years and had endured famine and the death of her two sons and husband – and ensure that she safely returned to her nation.
Mary thought of the shame and ridicule she and her family would endure if she assented. There would be no way to hide the pregnancy from her betrothed husband and family after a certain point. Would her parents even believe her? How ridiculous would it sound to men that a woman had conceived a child without the act that always accompanies conception?
The enormity of being such a vessel for God and such a part of his plan had already captured Mary’s heart, however. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.” Those words would echo through the rest of her life; as she watched Jesus grow, and knowing beyond the normal maternal feeling that this child was incredibly special; as she watched him in his public ministry, dealing with religious questions and performing miracles; and as her own soul was pierced, seeing him suffering on the cross.
She would have known she was a descendant of David and that her lineage was traced through Nathan son of David, who was never on the throne – but wasn’t the messiah supposed to be a son of David, and wouldn’t he then come through the normal kingly lineage through Solomon? Perhaps Mary didn’t even realize that her betrothed husband, Joseph, was a descendant of Solomon. His lineage came through Coniah, who the prophet Jeremiah had said was cursed from ever sitting on the throne of David. In a strange way, Mary’s obedience would redeem the lineage of David, since the lineage through Solomon had been cursed because of disobedience.
Mary could only have understood partially the gravity of her responsibility or how pivotal and far-reaching her act would affect redemption history. Her willingness to endure the shame, slander, and misunderstanding of those who would not believe (and to some degree, rightly so) in the virginal conception was a beautiful act of submission to God’s will that foretells Jesus’ own acts roughly 33 years later.
Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Ruth gleaned in the fields of Boaz obediently and diligently so that her and Naomi would have food provisions, such that Boaz, a man of wealth in whose fields she gleaned, was impressed at how long and hard she gleaned. Boaz learned who she was and her act of great kindness to Naomi, and offered her in turn an act of kindness – access to drinking water after his young men had drawn the water and guaranteed security if she gleaned only in his fields.
Ruth’s act of selflessness in service to Naomi eventually led the two to realizing what a great opportunity they had in Boaz. He was near enough in lineage to “redeem” Ruth, because Ruth had never had children prior to the death of her husband. To redeem means to marry her and raise up children for the departed, a tolerated practice in the era given the need to procreate to simply survive.
Naomi could now forget that her family had left the land of God’s promise to seek salvation in Moab, and this incurred the death of her family. Ruth’s willingness provided a way for Naomi to not only return to her land, but to see the good things of her lineage continue on – that which had been cut off in a foreign land.
Naomi’s bitterness would be replaced by a grandmother’s joy of holding and helping raise the child born to Ruth – Obed – the grandfather of the greatest king of Israel and the one who would be the namesake of the eternal throne that the Messiah would one day sit on. Her choices culminated from leaving the land of Moab to playing a part in the fulfillment of Abraham’s promises to the entire world.