God is at work in your life. It might not be evident to you, though. Does looking through the Bible to discern God’s activity in us seem frustrating? After all, most of the Bible seems to be about dramatic stories of heroes of the faith. Who can really relate to God speaking to Abraham on Mount Moriah or Moses from the burning bush? So let’s look at the book of Ruth instead for more down-to-earth examples.
The book of Ruth centers around three major characters: two women and a wealthy landowner in Bethlehem. It takes place “when the judges ruled,” in other words, at a time when godly men would rise up in an ungodly society from time to time to rescue people from foreign oppression. But no cloud of oppression appears in it.
We have a story of ordinary people mostly going about ordinary business. Its only point of contact with great events and heroes of the faith is that it culminates in the birth of King David’s grandfather. Only near the end does it ascribe any event to the work of God, but discerning readers can clearly see God’s presence in the background. And that gives a picture of how his presence works in our lives today.
Lest anyone be tempted to read too much of our own society into the story, let’s examine the ages of the principal characters. People married at a much younger age back then. Ruth was very likely not yet 20. Naomi might have been in her middle to late 30s. Boaz may have been the same age as Naomi or maybe older. How much older he could have been would be hard to guess. At least we know he was enough older than Ruth to call her “my daughter.”
The beginning of the story of Ruth
Because of famine in the land, a man named Elimelech took his wife Naomi and two sons to the land of Moab. In Moses’ time, Moabite woman had seduced Israelite men, which led directly to the moral degradation of the time of the judges.
According to Deuteronomy 23:3-6, no Moabite could enter God’s assembly. It was not a spiritually healthy place to be, but the narrative has no hint that Elimelech and his family worshiped the local gods or participated in the local immorality, except that his sons married local women. God was at work. We cannot account for anyone’s faithfulness apart from God’s activity.
About ten years after the family arrived, Elimelech and both sons died, leaving three widows. Women in that time and society depended on marriage and family for survival.
Naomi heard that the famine in Bethlehem had ended. She decided to go back where she had relatives. Although the first two chapters of Ruth portray Naomi as an embittered and complaining woman, she clearly had a loving relationship with both daughters-in-law. They both wanted to go to Bethlehem with her. Just think of the influence she had that made two young women prefer to leave their own birth families to stay with her.
With difficulty, she persuaded one to return to her family and rejoin Moabite society. Ruth, however, refused. She declared that she would go wherever Naomi went and would not leave when Naomi died. Specifically, she declared that Naomi’s God would be her God. She completely repudiated her own Moabite heritage.
Naomi probably did not see God at work in keeping her faithful to him, in giving her daughters-in-law who loved her so much, in the news that she could find food back in Bethlehem, or in Ruth’s embracing Israel’s God. But we can.
Ruth meets Boaz
The “coincidences” of God’s activity continue. Naomi and Ruth “just happen” to arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Israel had a law that harvesters had to leave behind grain for poor people to glean. I don’t suppose any of the surrounding nations had care for the poor built into their social fabric.
So Ruth offers to go to a field to glean, and of all the fields around Bethlehem, she just happens to start working in one owned by Boaz, and Boaz just happens to be both a close relative of Elimelech and a godly man.
After Ruth had worked for a while, Boaz arrived and told his workers, “Yahweh be with you,” and they responded, “Yahweh bless you.” The exchange shows at least that Boaz had good relationships with his workers. It also indicates that the author wants readers to see a good, God-fearing land owner.
He immediately noticed a stranger and asked about her. His supervisor told him that she was the Moabite who had returned with Naomi and that she had asked permission to glean that field. Boaz quickly approached her and warned her not to glean in another field. He had ordered his servants not to molest her and gave her permission to drink their water.
The narrative doesn’t say how long Ruth and Naomi had been back in the area, but it was long enough for Boaz to have heard of Ruth’s devotion. Scripture also doesn’t describe her looks, but as a widow without means of support after a long journey, she couldn’t have looked her best. Yet we wouldn’t be amiss to discern that Boaz found her attractive, not just admirable, for her behavior and character.
It was only after Ruth received his attention that Naomi recognized a near relative. We can see God at work even if Naomi failed to notice.
Naomi takes initiative
As long as Ruth lived with Naomi, neither had good prospects, but another part of the law of Moses came to their aid. In the case of a childless widow, according to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, , her husband’s brother had to father a child for her to keep the dead man’s inheritance in the family. Now, Ruth’s brother-in-law had also died, so it was up to another close relative to perform that duty.
But notice the change that has come over Naomi since the first chapter. The bitter and despairing woman we met there has somehow, that is, by God’s activity, resumed the character that made her attractive to Ruth in first place. No longer passive in the face of loss, she takes decisive action as a mentor to Ruth.
She devised a bold and risky plan to bring Ruth and Boaz together. She told Ruth to put on her best clothes, anoint herself, and wait outside Boaz’ threshing floor after dark. He would finish the day’s winnowing, have his supper, and then stay at the threshing floor overnight to guard his grain. Naomi told Ruth to wait until he was asleep, then uncover his feet and lie down. Boaz would tell her what to do next.
Ruth proposes to Boaz
If the local gossips ever found out a woman had visited a Boaz overnight, they could have ruined a couple of good reputations, so Ruth obeyed very carefully. Boaz soon enough woke up, startled not to be alone. He demanded to know who was there. “I am Ruth,” she told him, “And you are a close relative of my husband, so take care of me.” Or, in other words, “Marry me for the sake of continuing my dead husband’s lineage.”
Here she was, asking for marriage to a man at least old enough to be her father. Boaz commented on her kindness. Kindness, to be sure, to Naomi, but even more kindness to him and the memory of her dead husband and father-in-law. She could have followed fleshly attraction and sought a younger man, which would have ended Elimelech’s line. Then he told her to lie down. She lay at his feet again.
The book of Ruth says nothing explicitly about sexual morality, but we can be sure no intimacy took place on the threshing floor that night. The Bible is not squeamish about calling out sexual sins. The author of Ruth carefully describes how faithful Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz were to obey Yahweh. Fornication violates God’s law. We can again discern God’s presence and God’s activity.
An unexpected complication
The reader might wonder why Naomi did not tell Ruth simply ti approach Boaz during the day. She must have known that he was an honorable man and that he viewed her with favor, but a public request might have embarrassed him and carried risk of rejection.
As it turns out, though, there was someone more closely related to Elimelech. He would have a better right to Elimelech’s property and might have objected if Boaz had stepped in front of him to obtain it. Naomi’s plan may seem risky and unnecessarily complicated, but again, it shows God at work.
Boaz sent Ruth home with as much grain as she could carry and promised to approach the other man. The author withholds the existence of this person until fairly late in the story. Naomi surely knew her husband’s close relatives. She must not have been favorably impressed with this man and preferred Boaz.
As it turns out, God, too, preferred Boaz. The man was quite happy to buy the property Naomi wanted to sell, but the news that he would also have to marry Ruth was a deal breaker. It would complicate his own inheritance. He might have even discerned that Boaz really wanted to marry her himself. Whether that occurred to him or not, he invited Boaz to redeem the property and marry Ruth. The whole exchange took place in the city gate. Everyone who witnessed it prayed that Yahweh would bless the union.
Remember. The law forbade Moabites from entering God’s assembly. Was this man perhaps more law abiding than Boaz? Commentators who incorrectly see a conflict between the books of Ruth and Ezra/Nehemiah think so. In fact, Ruth had repudiated her Moabite heritage. Careful reading of all the relevant scriptures shows that there is no conflict. Boaz himself was the son of Rahab, a Canaanite harlot who likewise repudiated her heritage.
The marriage and lineage of Boaz and Ruth
So Boaz and Ruth immediately consummated their marriage, and for the first time in the entire book, it explicitly describes an act to God. He granted conception to Ruth, and she bore a son, Obed. Obed continued Elimelech’s family line—and became part of the family line of Jesus. But as we have seen, the first act attributed to God was hardly his first activity.
Naomi at first declared that God’s hand was against her. In hindsight, he was guiding her to a great blessing. We, too, often mistake bad circumstances for God’s absence and indifference. But as with Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, God works in ways we don’t see at the time. Here are some signs of God’s activity we can see in hindsight in the book of Ruth if we didn’t notice them on first reading:
- Naomi obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit throughout her life to be a loving and godly mother-in-law and mentor to Ruth.
- Ruth obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit to repudiate her Moabite heritage.
- Israelite law was more favorable than Moabite customs to poor widows.
- The two arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Any earlier than that, or after the end of the wheat harvest, there would have been nothing to glean.
- Of all the fields around Bethlehem, Ruth started to work in Boaz’. Boaz was a close relative and found Ruth attractive.
- Naomi came out of her funk and obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit to devise a way to bring Ruth’s need to Boaz’ attention without putting public pressure on him.
- The closer relative but less suitable match declined to act as kinsman-redeemer.
Why this ancient history of God’s activity matters today
So let’s be careful to look at all the little “coincidences” that happen around us, good ideas that come when we’re thinking about something else, or another believer pointing out a scripture at just the right time. When we do, we’re looking at God’s activity. We need to pay careful attention so we actually notice and don’t miss God at work.
But while we’re at it, let’s not neglect to follow the examples of the three major characters in the book of Ruth. They consistently honored God and obeyed his word even when it did not seem desirable or advantageous. Their goodness and faithfulness put them in position to receive their blessings.