The Book of Ruth (Published 1991)

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This is a gem of a book; a jewel in the crown of the Jews. It is a book of many facets and like a well-cut diamond it sparkles from whatever angle it is viewed.

Is one interested in history; the customs of the times; social welfare; racial tolerance; religious belief; the moral attitudes of the people; political matters? There is much to be discovered in this book. So it is no wonder the Jews preserved it, reading it openly at their most significant festival every year.

But it holds our interest as it did theirs perhaps more because it is a story that moves us. Whether such a story would be published today in our society is a matter for conjecture for it does not pander to the common tastes, for this is a very moral tale about people with high standards in human relationships.

No one wrote for money then or to gain notoriety. There is always the sense that what spurred these Jews to write was some circumstance which they wished to place on record for the good of their people. They valued certain things which they wished to pass on for the benefit of their children and their children’s children, as people do who take a pride in their culture and their standards as a nation. Such people believed in passing on the wisdom acquired from experience and reflection for the guidance of others; so we can pay tribute to the unknown author who wrote this story, as well as to those who made sure it was not lost.

Now if this book has a political motive it is very gently put; politics do not generally have this kind of charm about them. The racial issue is not forced either. Ruth, being a Moabitess was a foreigner and Naomi’s care of her comes across with a sense of warmheartedness. She is accepted amongst the people without there being any awareness of a racial problem.

Nor are the standards of business transactions, the way they are kept and honoured, deliberately pressed on us; the writer probably never thought he was making a particular case about this, any more than anyone of us who keeps within the law thinks of taking credit for keeping it. Boaz was doing no more than what would have been expected of him as a responsible member of the community.

As for history, this story clearly cannot be classified as fiction. History is always set within a verifiable framework of a yesterday past with the morrow in mind. Indeed, the very setting of Ruth, its place in the Bible has its importance. The short genealogy at the end carries its own indication that this is a part of the on-going saga of the Jewish people, leading us to conclude that the author must have some point to make, of which more will be mentioned.

The religious element of course is there. Without Noami’s faith, revealed under test, this story could never have been begun; there might, indeed have been no story to tell. Life without faith, faith in God, leaves life meaningless. Man needs to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The story begins in sadness and ends in joy; a grim beginning with a glad end, displaying a pattern we would always like to see life conform to.

There is romance there, but not of the sentimental kind indulged in today. The marriage between Boaz and Ruth however was not of the prearranged kind common amongst certain races even now. Boaz was led to Ruth as a woman he could respect, and this was the basis on which the marriage was contracted. It was his decision and his choice alone to make.

Here is a picture of Adam accepting and appreciating the helper (help meet, partner) God has provided for him, ready to protect and cherish her as one who will complement his needs, for God has said that, It is not good that man should be alone’. The Christian can also see in this the attitude of Christ to his people, the church, as His bride, with something for the bride to respond to.

So, simply as it stands the book is enjoyable to read, but of course it was not written just for the purpose of giving pleasure to the reader. Its principal characters are noted for their devotion, loyalty, honour, and integrity. In Naomi there is a loyalty to God despite the bitterness in her heart. There is a loyalty formed and fostered by love between a mother and her daughter-in-law, a love that bridged cultural and racial differences to produce a bond of faith.

Boaz is loyal to what he sees are his responsibilities as laid down by the customs of his people, and no one seeing his intention stands in his way. One might add he responded to a true conscience.

And then in the outcome of all this we see the love of Naomi taking on the role of a grandmother, caring for the baby born to Ruth and Boaz. It is from all this that a certain dignity emerges from these participants such as always gives distinction to the human race.

We see faith in God and faith between people. Here there is charity binding people together, with chastity and chivalry bringing that respect between the sexes for the good of all. The Christian is well-versed in charity as highlighting the purest and most selfless of loves. Chivalry is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as the ‘ideal knight’s characteristics, devotion to service of women, inclination to defend the weaker party’; a knight being a gallant and honourable protector. All these things appear to apply to Boaz. Chastity and chivalry, chivalry and chastity both hang together. Naomi caring for Ruth saw the need to protect her and Boaz as a relative as one who would do just that. Ruth’s subsequent conduct sponsored by Naomi, presents her as not only a chaste person but also a respecter of a man’s chastity too. This is the woman Boaz wants for his wife.

This appreciation corresponds to the tradition that comes through from earlier accounts in the history of the Jews, and not only amongst them but in other peoples around them. We have Joseph rejecting the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and before that the protests of Abimelech to Abraham and Isaac that he was not the man as they supposed who would have slain them for their wives. It is probable that Moses’ controversial marriage to the Egyptian woman in the wilderness was made for her protection and to avoid problems, Num. 12. 1. Later, great as king David came to be regarded, their annals did not attempt to gloss over or condone his conduct when he failed, Nathan directly accusing him of giving ‘great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme’, 2 Sam. 12. 14, for other people had their standards too. It is very easy for some to suppose that those thousands of years back people were more indulgent in their behaviour, and that morality somehow began rather questionably with the Victorians.

Yet it would seem that we humans possess inherently some understanding of the responsibilities we owe to each other in the freedom given us, above that of the instincts by which the animal kingdom lives. If this were not so, how can we explain the idealism of youth which sets a standard on its conduct expressing a hope for a better world which they see their elders have not achieved? If this were given its full scope would this be called the Age of Chivalry?

If there were ever such an age we seem to have come a long way from it? Few comparisons have been made so far about how far our people as a nation conform to the standards that are set out in this little book Ruth. This is not a book prized solely for its literary merit. Today much of the literature that has been praised - or applauded - for its artistry is devoid of moral purity; indeed, some works, books and films, have received the approval of those we would have had reason to expect in our schools and churches to have accorded the opposite. Our views unguided are not always reliable. The great merit of this book lies in what it upholds as right for both men and women. Therein lies true fulfilment for both.

The twentieth century has seen a great change in the role of women. Whilst they have fought for their franchise and freedom from being man’s subordinate, education has served them badly. That is, in this sense, it may have equipped them to compete with men, but it has ill-trained them how to cope with the personal freedom they have won. Many are finding that to be independent is not the road to the happiness they had expected. Being equal has a price; men no longer see women as creatures needing their protection which may account for the rise in rape. At least they receive less courtesy, which makes them in turn more self-assertive, and so there is far less dignity and respect amongst us. Despite all that is said today about our being a caring society at this elementary level we are more indifferent, even more callous. Let a woman today speak out against the exploitation of sex and she can be attacked by her own kind!

On a secular level, a woman’s role in society should be assessed on how far that role satisfies her own psychological nature. It would not be surprising if in the fulfilment of that nature, in the distinctive qualities it can express, she may find it corresponding to that ancient wisdom which accorded to God His original intentions for her. That does not make her any less valuable.

This small book then can be thought of as a tract for our times. It contains the ingredients for happiness and balanced partnerships. Our nation needs to know them - even in our national churches. Faith in God is paramount. Faith that surmounts the tragedies and the common hardships of life; that transforms bitterness of heart as it did for Naomi. We need honesty in our commercial undertakings, virtue endorsed in our literature and in films, and we need to return to the permanency of marriage, to its vows, to the sanctity of the marriage bond which brings with it the sense of continuity and security; that takes us beyond the immediate pleasures to the more enduring and greater satisfactions of trust and dependability.

Men and women need to return again to those values by which each respects the other. This was the cement that guaranteed the quality of the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. Where there is no marriage or when marriage fails, for the children to know only one parent is tragic enough, but there can be also a greater loss: that of the child never knowing the love and care of grandparents. Their larger breadth of life gives them some wisdom to transmit, something of their maturity to pass on. The nation becomes the poorer when there is no such family continuity.

It is Paul who reminds Timothy of what he had learned from his grandmother, 2 Tim. 1. 5.

The book of Ruth sandwiched between the Books of Judges and Samuel seems to mark a turning point. ‘Judges’, says one writer, ‘is one of the saddest books in the Bible’; coming to Ruth, ‘is like a lovely lily in a stagnant pool’. For Judges ends with its own commentary on the nation’s decline, its lack of national government ‘every man doing what was right in his own eyes’. A ship without a captain and without a rudder. But Ruth points to just a few who had kept their standards; as so often the way, it is the few.

Perhaps the real moral lesson underlying the story of Ruth - the purpose behind it - lies in the hint it seems to give, that Naomi was the link in the chain, comprising Boaz, Obed, Jesse and David, who passed on her faith in a loyal family atmosphere to the child in her charge. The nation that ignores the possibilities in this ignores its own future.

‘All that will live godly … shall suffer/ 2 Tim. 3. 12

The children of God do not love and please the world, and are often greatly afflicted on account of abounding wickedness, and particularly the profanation of the Lord’s name. When you, therefore, can like the world, and the world can like you, there must be much worldliness in you; for, the world loves its own.

Many pretend to be Christians, but they will not endure persecution. Instead of this, they blame others for too much rashness, and not acting prudently enough, to avoid the mockings and hatred of the world. Therefore they propose to take wiser measures; and, in order to do more good, take great care not to be despised and rejected. But under this pretence of wisdom and prudence very often lie concealed a dangerous love of the world, and fear of man. Be thou nobler-minded, live as a Christian indeed, and be not ashamed to bear the cross of Christ. “The disciple is not above his Master.” Was it the lot of Him who is eternal Love, Wisdom, and Power, to endure the contradiction and reproach of sinners? Thou wouldst be wiser than He, indeed, if thou couldst escape the scorn and hatred of the world.

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