June 2017 Credo
The Book of Ruth begins: ‘In the days when the judges ruled…’. But the events it describes are very different from those described in Judges. Bethlehem, where most of the book is set, seems to have been an oasis of goodness within Israel during this period. People like Naomi and Boaz were good people, faithful Israelites. Ruth can be described as a narrative of ‘unspectacular faithfulness’.
What happens in the book? There are no battles in which God dramatically saves Israel from their enemies (again, contrast Judges). The focus of Ruth is not national but for the most part local (Bethlehem and its citizens). The events described are mainly ordinary, the kind of things that might have happened often in Israel’s history.
Consider the three main characters. In a time of famine Naomi travels with her family from Israel to Moab. Her husband dies there. Her two sons marry Moabite women. Some years later they also die. Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth. When she arrives in Bethlehem, she is filled with a sense of what she has lost, and accuses God publicly (1:20-21)
There’s nothing very unusual in any of this. Clearly Naomi passes through some kind of crisis: in c. 1 her faith seems to be near breaking point; by the end of the book she seems to believe again in the goodness of God (4:14-16). But most of us have experienced such times.
Ruth is a Moabite woman, but she returns to Bethlehem with Naomi. She has drawn close to Naomi during the years they have been together. More than that, Ruth commits herself not only to Naomi, but to Naomi’s God (1:17).
Ruth does much more for Naomi than might have been expected. And yet, people do form strong attachments, and even move to another land because of these attachments. What Ruth does is highly commendable, but not spectacular.
Boaz is presented as a godly man: his first words are ‘The LORD be with you’ (2:4). He is also a responsible landowner: he visits his fields at harvest-time to see how things are going. When he sees Ruth gleaning, he finds out who she is, and encourages her to continue gleaning. He follows Moses’ teaching (cf. Lev. 19:9-10), but goes beyond what Moses taught (2:15-16). He treats Ruth generously because of what he has heard about her (2:11) and because he knows that the God of Israel extends a welcome to all who seek him (2:12).
In all sorts of ways, then, Boaz is a good Israelite, one who knows and lives by Israel’s traditions. But surely he was not the only good man in Israel in those days.
As the story begins, so it continues: three people in different ways ‘go the extra mile’ and bring blessing into each other’s lives. It is a moving story, but there are no spectacular or miraculous happenings, merely fairly ordinary people experiencing a series of fairly ordinary events.
As is well known, the Book of Ruth traces God’s providence in the events related (see, e.g., 1:6; 2:3, 12, 20; 3:10, 13; 4:13). It ends by taking us beyond the lifetimes of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz (4:18-22): what God did in their days, though they could not have known it, led to the birth of David, Israel’s greatest king. (Matthew 1 will take the story further.)
How does the book portray God’s providence? Is it saying that God had to guide events along precisely these lines, that if Ruth had gleaned in a different field, or if Boaz had refused Ruth’s request (3:9), then David would not been born, and God’s purposes of salvation would have been derailed? Surely God is more resilient than that, more resourceful in his dealings with humanity.
We should read the book differently: Naomi, Ruth and Boaz all, in their different ways, believe in the God of Israel and express their faith in the everyday details of their lives; they engage in the normal events of life (sowing, reaping and gleaning; marriage and childbirth), but do so in a way that reflects their commitment to God. These, the Book of Ruth tells us, are the kind of people God can use, whose lives God can take up into his purposes. That seems to be the book’s ‘doctrine of divine providence’.
Christians perhaps do not emphasise enough the importance of faithfulness in the daily, weekly and yearly round. The raw material for faithful living is all around us, in the regular events of our lives. We should not imagine that the real movers and shakers in God’s kingdom are those with high-profile ministries. Nor should we imagine that the only worthwhile ministries are those which take place in church or on ‘the mission field’: God is not so limited.
We should reflect seriously: if we live out our faith in our families, that may bring blessings that will last for generations. If we get involved in our communities, that testimony may bring many into God’s kingdom. If we carry out our jobs or callings honestly and with commitment, that many make the character of our God more visible to our colleagues than a hundred tracts left around the office. If we put our professional skills and other talents at God’s disposal (for politicians, lawyers, city planners, architects, builders, teachers, home-makers and many others have roles as important as pastors, theologians and Bible scholars), then the impact could be immense.
That impact could be apparent in own lifetimes (as it was for Naomi, Ruth, Boaz and even the citizens of Bethlehem); it could also be apparent generations after our lives have come to an end (which is the point that the genealogy of 4:18-22 makes).
All that is required is that we be willing to exercise faith in the ordinary details of our lives, using the talents, circumstances and opportunities which God gives us – that we display the kind of unspectacular faithfulness which runs through the Book of Ruth and makes it such a warm, hopeful and above all practical book.
Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.