When one thinks about critical events in biblical history, the story of Ruth is an easy one to forget. It is surprising that the story even endured, given the fact that it shows a Moabitess – a woman from the tribe of Moab, whom the tribes of Israel were not even to intermarry with – not only being the source of redemption for a Jewish woman, but being included in the lineage of David. David is the primary monarch in Jewish history and the fact that three generations hence there was a Moabite in his bloodline should be scandalous. However, many of these narratives were written or codified in a time when Israel had already been cast out of its land or was suffering because of their failures, so recording these black marks faithfully might have been easier than some imagine.
Four generations before David, Rahab the prostitute who dwelled in Jericho married into David’s line with Salman. Further back in David’s lineage, Judah bore sons through Tamar, whose ancestry is unclear but the conditions of Judah’s arrangement with her were even more scandalous. So apparently even what we know is filled with black marks. Some faults were certainly covered up in the biblical record, but the raw humanity of the narratives is striking.
The story begins with Naomi, her husband, and two sons leaving Bethlehem to go to Moab due to a famine in Israel. Israel is suffering because it is in one of its moral valleys during the judges, when Israel falls into sin with the surrounding nations. Naomi’s two sons marry women of Moab, one was Ruth, and the other Orpah. Naomi’s husband and both sons die, Orpah goes back to her people, but Ruth sticks with her and refuses to leave, despite Naomi’s insistence. This would prove to be a godsend for Naomi.
Naomi was the end of her family tree; she had no husband, no sons, and was in a foreign land where she knew she and her husband had compromised their ancestry by marrying into Moab. She had nothing to offer any potential husband given her age at the time, and “redeemer” norms required her to be childless to be married to the brother of her husband. Naomi’s situation was thus quite similar to that of the remnant of Israel in the Levant in the 1st century.
Israel was only a remnant by the time Jesus walked the earth. Those still in their ancestral homeland were now simply a tiny, insignificant, troublesome province of the Roman Empire. Not all Jews had returned following Babylonian captivity, and Jews endured the Maccabean period and creeping Hellenization, which waylaid many more into abandoning the God of their Fathers. The Priesthood was 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, with a few Levites and Benjamites scattered in. 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 had lost their birthright through compromise. Israel was given an inheritance by God and lost it and was now under the thumb of the Romans. Israel was reduced to its history and the future promises of God.
Naomi and Israel had been given a promise in her day: that of dominion in the land. They had failed, many times, and now Israel was under the thumb of the Moabites. Naomi and her husband thought they could dwell among the Moabites and be materially provided for, but this option had also failed.
Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem. When they arrive, Ruth gleans in the fields of Boaz obediently and diligently so that her and Naomi would have food provisions. Her effort is noticed by Boaz, a man of wealth in whose fields she gleaned, who is 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 returning with Naomi and helping the two survive eventually led them to see an 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 survive. Ruth was the key to preserving Naomi’s lineage. Ruth was like the “wild olive tree” (Romans 11) that had been grafted into the “natural olive tree” and thus preserved it after the natural olive tree had its branches cut off.
The Gentiles became the way that Israel would be redeemed in the first century. Since so many had rejected Christ as Messiah, they were removed from their place as Jesus had said in so many parables and replaced by “wild olive shoots” who would bring forth the fruit of the kingdom. This act brought forth the Church, who would create and nurture Western Civilization as a whole. The apostles took care not to put Gentile Christians in bondage to Jewish traits, and thus the huge influx of Gentiles in the coming centuries would bind itself with the Greco-Roman culture and form the backdrop for Europe for the next 1900 years.