The Woman Who Rose From Obscurity to Riches
Scripture References—The Book of Ruth, Matthew 1:5
Name Meaning—Since the Ruth of ancient Bible times, her name has ever been a most popular one for girls. Elsdon C. Smith, in his compilation of the first hundred female names in America, places Ruth seventh in the list, with an estimated number of almost one and a half million bearing the name. The author’s only daughter bears this honored name. As to its significance, we cannot do better than the interpretation Wilkinson gives us in his Personal Names of the Bible, in the chapter on “Heathen Names” &--;
The most distinguished person of the Moabitish race is Ruth, who became the wife of Boaz, and ancestress of David. Her name is a contraction of reuth, which may either be the word for “the act of seeing,” “sight” and hence, as in English, objectively “a sight,” “something worth seeing”—or the word for “friendship” or “a female friend,” like reu in Reuel, “friend of God.” If the former etymology be adopted, we must ascribe the name to the early beauty of the child; if the latter, it may be due to the exhibition in infancy of that amiable and affectionate disposition which was so characteristic of the woman.
Both meanings of the name were true of Ruth, for as a beautiful girl from Moab she was certainly a sight worth seeing, and her character revealed her to be a woman capable of rare friendship.
It took the grace of God to befriend a bitter woman as Naomi became, but Ruth was bound to her mother-in-law by the cords of love, and literature has no exhibition of friendship comparable to that dramatic episode on the way to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:16, 17). Not wanting to go back to Moab, as Orpah did, Ruth, cleaving to Naomi said with passion in her voice—
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
What an appealing and stirring demonstration of undying friendship that was, and Ruth meant it, and through it changed Naomi’s sourness into sweetness! We have dear friends like Ruth who cling to us, and others like Orpah whose friendship is only veneer and who quickly leave us (see href="/id/38364538-3545-4530-2D33-3630412D3338">Naomi and Orpah). Scripture gives us a fivefold profile of this famous Moabitess—
A Young Widow
The first glimpse we have of Ruth is as a young wife robbed by death of her husband. In our previous cameos of Naomi and Orpah we have already seen how Elimelech and his wife, along with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, in order to escape prevailing famine in Bethlehem, emigrated to the neighboring country of Moab, the inhabitants of which were idolaters. After a while Elimelech died, and the two fatherless sons married women of Moab. Mahlon took Ruth to wife, and Chilion, Orpah. After some ten years' sojourn in Moab, Mahlon and Chilion died leaving their wives childless. In marrying women of Moab those two Hebrew men sinned against the Mosaic Law which prohibted any association with the idolatrous Moabites (Deuteronomy 7:3; 23:3).
Mahlon means “the sickly one,” or “invalid”; Chilion, “the pining one,” or “wasting away”—names probably associated with their natal frailty. They may have been twins, and from their birth Naomi had to surround them with great care and attention. This is evident that life in Moab, with all its food and comfort, hastened their end. Like their father, Elimelech, they found graves in foreign soil, and the desolation of widowhood came upon both Ruth and Orpah, who became sharers of Naomi’s desolation. Ten years of widowhood brought the two younger women to a mature age. How far they had been influenced Godward by their marriage into a Hebrew family, with its recognition of God, and not their idols, as the only true object of worship, we are not told. As Ruth’s husband, Mahlon, was the first-born of Elimelech and Naomi, we can imagine how he would strive through their years together to draw her from her heathen ways. With all we know of Ruth’s honest nature, it is quite possible that she warmly received all her husband told her of the mighty Jehovah.
Bereft of her husband, Ruth, as well as Orpah, would be left without material resources of support, and would face the hard and bitter lot of a biting poverty, as many widows do when the breadwinner is taken. But if Ruth shed any tears over her sorry plight as she faced a gloomy future without her husband, there is no record of them. She did not seek for self-pity neither did she manifest the bitterness that had gripped the heart of Naomi because of her sad lot. Amid the shadows, Ruth maintained a poise and a serenity which even her mother-in-law must have coveted. When happy homes are ravaged by death, it requires grace to say, “The Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Naomi’s self-confessed bitterness over the loss of husband and sons spoke of her lack of faith in God’s good providence. But Ruth, heathen though she may have been, seems to have calmly acquiesced in the divine will.
A Faithful Daughter-in-Law
Bound together by a bond of common grief, the three widows found consolation in each other’s company. “Fellow-feeling, makes us wondrous kind.” The widowed Naomi, now bereft of her two sons who died childless, had no links with Moab. As famine had passed in Bethlehem, the decision was made to pull up stakes and return to her own country and people, perhaps with a faint hope that God would prove Himself to be the Guardian of widows. “Let thy widows trust in me.” What about Ruth and Orpah? Deeply attached to their mother-in-law, who had become a second mother to them, and to whom they clung as their friend and counselor, they decided to accompany the pilgrim on her way. Naomi used no persuasion, but left the two young widows to make their own choice. Therefore all three left Moab together, but on the way they stopped and Naomi urged them to return to their own country, marry again and settle down. She did not want them to face uncertainty in a strange land. With poor Orpah, ties of kindred and her own idolatrous practices won out. Her heart failed, and kissing her mother-in-law she went back to her people and to her gods. It is possible that when among her heathen friends again, her conscience often whispered to her of the wrong course taken.
As for Ruth, the choice was different. She loved Naomi and was willing to leave her own land and share the unknown future with the aging woman in whom her life was bound up. In her happier days with Mahlon, and then in her desolation and bereavement, Ruth found in Naomi a home for her heart. Orpah manifested a show of passionate affection as she kissed her mother-in-law good-by! But Ruth, as always, revealed a quiet fidelity so characteristic of her association with the embittered woman now returning to Bethlehem. We agree with the sentiment of Alexander Whyte that there is not a love story comparable to the love of the Moabite daughter-in-law for her Hebrew mother-in-law.
Ruth’s love for her dead husband’s aged mother is as pure as gold and as strong as death. Many waters cannot quench Ruth’s love. And her confession of her love, when she is constrained to confess it, is the most beautiful confession of love in all the world.
Ruth’s declaration of love and loyalty for Naomi marks it out as being the purest and most unselfish form of devotion, especially when we remember that Naomi was more than twice the age of Ruth, and that, proverbially, it is not easy to live with a mother-in-law. Here we have a strong contradiction to modern flippancy—the passionate affection of a young widow for her widowed mother-in-law. History and literature cannot provide a more exquisite expression of love and loyalty as that to be found in the lovely idyll bearing the name of the lover herself. The matchless beauty of the character of Ruth appeared when she cried, “Intreat me not to leave thee.” As A. S. Geden puts it, “The piety and fidelity of Ruth are early exhibited in the course of the narrative, in that she refused to abandon her mother-in-law, although thrice exhorted to do so by Naomi herself, on account of her own great age, and the better prospects for Ruth in her own country.” In an age like ours with its ever growing number of strained relationships, broken homes and loveless lives it is most refreshing to go back to the charming picture of loyalty found in a short yet sublime book in which every prospect pleases.
A Determined Convert
In spite of her heathen background and association with the degenerated tribe of Moab, Ruth became a devout worshiper of the true God. Just when she cast off her idolatry with its folly of bowing down to gods of wood and stone, and turned to the beauty and blessedness of true religion we are not told. Perhaps in her somewhat short married life, her heart was stirred by what her husband told her of the greatness of Jehovah. Then she must have seen that Naomi’s God was totally different from the lifeless deity she worshiped. This much is evident, that her outburst of song of life devotion on the road from Moab to Bethlehem was the birth-strain of a new life. From henceforth the Hebrews would be her people, and Naomi’s God her God. Her new-found faith constrained her to say, “The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
Had Ruth accompanied Orpah to Moab and to obscurity, she would have returned to the altars of Baal. But now with God in her heart, she longed to live with those people “whose God is the Lord.” Faith burst forth into the light of day, took the form of quiet, humble service, and remained untainted by any trace of pride or of spiritual haughtiness, as Kuyper expresses it. To which we can add the sentiment of Fausset that, “Ruth is an instance of natural affection made instrumental in leading to true religion. A blossom of heathendom stretching its flower cup desiringly towards the light of revelation in Israel.”
The firm decision of Ruth to follow Jehovah, and to completely identify herself with His people, brought her a rich reward when she became the ancestress of the Saviour who came into the world to save idolaters and sinners of every race. With her surrender to the claims of God, Ruth’s “beauty of heart, generosity of soul, firm sense of duty and meekness” were sanctified, and were used to place her winsome portrait among the immortals. There are thousands of Christian parents whose heavy load would be lifted if only their unsaved children would come home one day confessing. “Thy God shall be my God, thy people my people.” The miracle happened in the heathen heart of Ruth, and God is still the same today as when He won the young widow of Moab for Himself.
A Humble Gleaner
Back in Bethlehem, Naomi was reminded of how her afflictions had changed her. Friends found it hard to believe that this was the beautiful woman who had left them ten years before. At that time she was clothed so well, but now she is clad in a poor and sorrowful dress. Her brow was wrinkled and her back bent, but by her side was the “foreigner,” to share her sorrow, and to taste any joys that might come to her. At first it seemed as if they were to remain desolate and uncared for, but fortunately it was harvest time, and the golden sheaves were being gathered in. Naomi and Ruth must live, and Ruth, with her characteristic thoughtfulness, knew that her aged mother-in-law was not able to work. Thus she went out and was directed to join the poor gleaners in the fields of the rich, godly landowner, Boaz.
We find ourselves in disagreement with those who try to portray Ruth as a lonely girl overcome with homesickness for her old Moabite friends as she bent her back to glean in an unfamiliar field. In his Ode to a Nightingale, Keats sought to immortalize such a feeling in the arrestive lines—
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Thro' the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn.
There is no trace whatever of such a doleful note in the record of Ruth. Having deliberately severed all association with Moab, she found joy among the strange people whom she had made her people, and when she went forth that bright morning to follow the reapers, it was with joy and confidence that the God under whose wings she had come to trust would undertake for her. Thus we much prefer the beautiful tribute Thomas Hood gives us in his poem on Ruth.
She stood breast-high amid the corn,
Clasped by the golden light of morn,
Like the sweetheart of the sun,
Who many a glowing kiss had won.
On her cheek an autumn flush,
Deeply ripened—such a blush
In the midst of Brown was born,
Like red poppies grown with corn.
Round her eyes her tresses fell,
Which were blackest none could tell,
But long lashes veiled a light,
That had else been all too bright.
And her hat, with shady brim,
Made her tressy forehead dim—
Thus she stood amid the stooks,
Praising God with sweetest looks.
“Sure,” I said, “Heav'n did not mean,
Where I reap thou should’st but glean;
Lay thy sheaf adown and come,
Share my harvest and my home.”
Ruth was not ashamed of the low order of her work as she took her place as a gleaner with the poor and outcast. The sacred historian tells us that as Ruth went out to secure food for Naomi and herself that it was “her hap to light on a part of the field belonging unto Boaz, who was of the kindred of Elimelech.” But her entrance into the field of Boaz, and not into another man’s field, did not just happen. Under Jewish law Ruth had the right to glean in any harvest field. It was no mere chance, then, that brought Boaz and Ruth together, for even the steps of God’s children are directed by Him. In His plan for His own there is no such a thing as luck. Determined not to eat the bread of idleness, industrious Ruth walked right into the arms of divine providence. Little did she dream that she would become the much-loved wife of the master of the field in which the reapers had given her a friendly welcome (Ruth 2:12; Psalms 17:8; 36:7).
Being one who feared God, and one who cared for the poor, Boaz went among his reapers, spoke kindly to them, and earned their benediction. Coming upon Ruth he was arrested by her staid and modest look. Although poorly clad there was a dignity in her mien, a refinement giving her distinction, and Boaz is arrested by her beauty and personality. Making inquiries about her, Boaz learns of her sacrifice for Naomi, and of her conversion to the worship of Jehovah (Ruth 2:6, 7), and commands the reapers to purposely drop extra sheaves for Ruth’s benefit. Boaz also bade Ruth to glean only in his field, and to stand fast by his female workers. He wanted to preserve her from coarse contact with men who might take advantage of such a poor woman, who was in his admiring eyes a superior one. She was not to eat with others but present herself at his feasts.
As for Ruth, her heart was full because kindness had been shown her by a stranger in the solitude of a strange land. How excited she must have been when she reached home and told Naomi all about her good fortune, and showed her all the parched corn she had gathered. Was there a lyric note in Ruth’s story of that first day? Had she sensed that somehow Boaz had been strangely attracted to her, hence his generosity in spite of the alien blood in her veins? As for Naomi, when Ruth came to mention the name of her benefactor, Boaz, she recalls the name as that of a kinsman of her deceased husband, Elimelech. It may be that in the mind of Naomi there entered a feeling that perhaps a brighter future may be hers and Ruth’s.
An Honored Mother
We all know how matters between Boaz and Ruth developed which caused Goethe to say of the Book of Ruth that “we have nothing so lovely in the whole range of epic and idyllic poetry.” The name of Boaz became immortalized because of his loving-kindness toward Ruth, the poor Moabitess, while the kinsman who would not mar his own inheritance is unknown. It turned out that Boaz was one of Naomi’s nearest relatives and one of the few remaining kinsmen of her husband’s family. Therefore he was able to befriend the widow of Mahlon, Elimelech’s son, according to the deep principle pervading the law of Israel regarding the preservation of families. This Levirate Law stated that where a husband died without issue, the nearest brother-in-law (levir) might be called upon by the widow to perform for her all the duties of a husband, and raise up seed for the deceased.
In the case of Ruth, however, no brother-in-law was available seeing the only sons Elimelech had were dead. Consequently, the nearest of kin could be called upon to act as “redeemer” (goel) for the unfortunate, relieving them thereby of their distress. The nearest relative to Ruth by marriage was unable to function as her goel, and being the next relative, Boaz did not shirk his responsibility toward the lovely woman who had won his heart. Before the council of ten men at the city gate he announced before witnesses his decision to buy Ruth’s inheritance and marry her. Although bachelor Boaz was advanced in years, he was determined to play his part and as Naomi said, “The man will not rest, until he has finished the thing this day”—and finish it he did! So the idyllic conclusion was reached, with Ruth being lifted out of obscurity into a happy union with Boaz, the mighty man of wealth. This story provides us with one of the first records in world history of a rise from rags to riches, from poverty to plenty.
God smiled upon the marriage of honorable Boaz and virtuous Ruth, and blessed them with a son whom they named Obed which means “a servant who worships.” As Ruth was the servant who came to worship Jehovah, we can imagine her son’s name as being expressive of her own conversion from idolatry. Through the birth of Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who, in turn was the father of King David, Ruth found herself numbered among the elect, and God wove the thread of her life most intricately into the web of the history of His people, both before and after Christ. A Gentile by birth, Ruth yet became the chosen line through which later the Saviour of the world appeared. As He came to redeem both Jew and Gentile alike, it was fitting that the blood of both should mingle in His veins. “A good name,” says Solomon, “is rather to be chosen than riches, and loving favour than silver and gold.” Ruth found it so, and thus her good name found a place in the royal genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). As George Matheson so beautifully puts it, “In the soul of Jesus the wedding bells of Ruth and Boaz are rung once more. Here again Moab and Israel meet together. In the heart of the Son of Man the Gentile stands side by side with the Jew as the recipient of a common divine fatherhood.”
Those of us who are Christians praise God for Ruth’s inclusion in His portraitgallery, for she was the ancestress of Him who, by His death, brought us nigh to God. It was from Boaz, an Israelite without guile, and from Ruth, who became an “Israelite not in race, but in mind; not in blood but faith; not by tribe but by virtue and goodness,” that Jesus came as the most perfect expression of all graces.
One could say much of the merits and message of the book to which Ruth gave her name, as well as of the many lessons to be gathered from it. Benjamin Franklin, who was ridiculed at one time in Paris for his defense of the Bible, was determined to find out how much of it his scoffers had read. He informed one of the learned societies that he had come across a story of pastoral life in ancient times that seemed to him very beautiful but he would like the opinion of the society. A night was arranged for Franklin to read to the assembly of scholars a lyric which impressed him. The Bible lover read the Book of Ruth, and when he had finished the scholars were in ecstasies and begged Franklin to print it. “It is already in print,” said Franklin. “It is a part of the Bible you ridicule.”
There is nothing in the entire range of biography sacred or profane, comparable to the idyllic simplicity, tenderness and beauty of the story of Ruth, the young widow of Moab. There are only two books out of the sixty-six forming the Bible that are named after women. Ruth is one, and the other is Esther—and both books have enchanted succeeding ages. The Jews have a peculiar regard for both books. At their Feast of Purim they read Esther, and at the Feast of Pentecost, the scroll of Ruth. Among the many typical features in the latter, the most outstanding is that of the composition of the true church of Jesus Christ. Ruth was a Gentile, Boaz a Hebrew. Boaz redeemed Ruth’s possession and then became her husband. All have sinned, both Jews and Gentiles, but Jesus died for all, and His church is composed of regenerated Jews and Gentiles whom He calls His Bride. Thus “the marriage-bells of Ruth at Bethlehem were the same bells which sounded at the marriage-supper of the Lamb.”
From Ruth’s outstanding qualities of unselfishness and loyalty we learn that such virtues are the only foundation upon which true happiness can be built. Without them, abiding friendship is impossible, home ties are loose, and the social structure weak. Ruth also teaches us that attractive graciousness is worth cultivating; and that racial hatred and religious bigotry can be solved by a right relationship to Him who made of one blood all nations. Further, the rare literary gem of the Book of Ruth, which takes one some fifteen minutes to read, shows us how our industrial and labor problems can be solved. Boaz was a wealthy farmer, yet he maintained a delightful relation to those who worked for him in a dark, chaotic period of Israelitish history. As he walked through his fields, meeting his servants he would say, “The Lord be with thee,” and such was the harmony that prevailed that they would reply, “The Lord bless thee.” In our time, the strained relationship between masters and employees would be quickly solved by the application of the good will manifested in those ancient days. Combining as it does all the traits of human life and character, Ruth is a book all can read with both pleasure and profit.