Ruth and the Character of Compassion

Third in the series “Wonder Women of Advent”

Ruth 1-4

We have come to our next “Wonder Woman” from the genealogy of Jesus, who is the only one to have an entire book of the Bible dedicated to her story. The Book of Ruth is a beloved story for many, and it contains one of the most popular biblical passages used at weddings. Couples often want to read from 1:16 in preparation for their vows: “Where you go, I will go. Wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Often these couples miss the context, however, and don’t realize that this is something that Ruth actually says to her mother-in-law, which puts a different spin on the vows!

But in some sense that verse is appropriate for a wedding because it is ultimately a statement about the value of commitment, of family, and the character of compassion. That’s really what the story of Ruth is about when we look at it in total, and in many ways it is the most heroic of the stories we are looking at in this series. There’s a Hebrew word used in the story to describe Ruth and Boaz (who will become the grandparents of King David) that few people get labeled with in the Bible. It’s the word hayilwhich means something like “great” or “mighty,” a word generally used for select warriors or people who have power. Boaz we might expect to receive this moniker, but Ruth? She is, like Tamar and Rahab before her, a Gentile. In this case, she is also an illegal immigrant who works in the fields—a person whom all of Israel would have considered to be an outsider. And yet it is her extraordinary way of living that makes her a “woman of hayil” or “a woman of worth” (3:11). She is a wonder, and her story is one that has a lot to teach us about character in the face of a evil world.

In fact, that’s one of the main things we learn right out of the gate in Ruth 1:1—that this story occurs during the time of the Judges. We don’t often preach stories from Judges because if they were to be given an MPAA rating they would often get an R or worse. Stories like those of Gideon and Samson get cleaned up for Sunday School, but in the main the narrative here is of the new nation of Israel tearing itself apart with idolatry, corruption, violence, and sexual immorality. If you just look at the last two chapters of Judges, for example, there is a horrific story about the rape and murder of a woman whose body is dismembered and pieces sent to the 12 tribes, and a story about the tribe of Benjamin capturing unsuspecting young girls to repopulate their tribe after a civil war—which reminds me a lot of what Boko Haram has done in Africa. Girls were not safe on the streets of their own home towns—harassment and lawlessness were the norm. It’s little wonder that the Book of Judges ends with a simple but scathing indictment: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25 NRSV).

But even in this most corrupt era, there were still some who acted with character and integrity. The Book of Ruth thus stands as a counterpoint to Judges and gives us a different vision of an ideal society where the poor and the widow are cared for, women are treated as heroes, and redemption is available for all. It’s an example of what could and should happen in the community of faith—an example that leads us to the way of Jesus, Ruth and Boaz’s greater grandson.

The story begins with an Israelite named Naomi, who marries a man from Bethlehem named Elimelech and they have two sons: Mahlon and Chilion. In her world, Naomi was a blessed woman—a husband and two sons! But a look at the Hebrew reveals that her son’s names likely mean “sickly” and “weakling,” which tells us something bad is about to happen. What happens is that there is a famine in Israel, so Elimelech moves the family to Moab, a Gentile country just across the Jordan River. While in Moab, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow. Still, she has two sons to secure her future and those sons marry Moabite women. There is still the hope of grandchildren and the continuation of her family line. But after ten years, there are still no children. Worse yet, both of her sons die as well, leaving Naomi with no husband, no sons, no grandchildren, and no real future. In the eyes of her Israelite culture, Naomi has become an “un-family,” as Old Testament scholar Sandra Richter calls her. She is in trouble.

So, she chooses the only course of action available to her. She decides to return to Bethlehem and hope that one of her relatives might take her in. She thus instructs her Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to their families so that they might be released to start over, perhaps get married, and have families of their own. The girls weep, wanting to stay with Naomi, but she knows that she has nothing to offer them. Naomi says to them:

“Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? (1:12-13).

Here again we see the law of levirate marriage we referenced in the story of Tamar. Their husbands are dead and there will be no more brothers for them to marry and bear children in their husbands’ names and receive their inheritance. The family line has stopped cold by death. Even if by some miracle Naomi were to have more sons, would her daughters-in-law wait the 20 years it would take for them to grow up and then marry them? Of course not—that would be impossibly weird even for those days!

So Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to go and have a future, because for her there doesn’t seem to be one. Orpah tearfully turns back. There is no shame in that and Naomi knows it. But Ruth, as a testament to her character, her hayil, still refuses to leave. That’s the context of that famous verse we read earlier: “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you” (1:16-17).

This is not merely a sentimental statement of affection. Ruth announces that her new tribal affiliation is with Naomi, no matter how hopeless the situation appears to be. She has chosen Naomi as her kin and she’s not leaving.

Consider the fact that this means that Ruth is putting her own future at risk, all in the name of caring for her mother-in-law. It’s a heroic, selfless act—a demonstration of her real superpower, which is the character of compassion. Ruth is not doing what others, even other Israelites, are doing in the time of the Judges—she is not doing what is right “in her own eyes” but is demonstrating the way of faithfulness. The Moabite is acting more like an Israelite than the Israelites!

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. “Ruth im Feld des Boaz” (1828)

The women return to Bethlehem where they survive by taking advantage of the local gleaning laws. In ancient Israel, the poor were allowed to glean whatever produce was left or dropped after the harvesters went through the fields. It was backbreaking work and somewhat dangerous, especially for an immigrant worker who had just crossed the border illegally. Ruth has no rights and no privileges, and yet her diligent work ethic and deep care and compassion for her mother-in-law catches the eye of the owner of the fields in which she is working.

That man is Boaz, who is described as “a man of worth (hayil)” who just happens to be from the family of Elimelech (2:1). He treats Ruth with kindness, again demonstrating his own character. And when Ruth tells Naomi about it, Naomi gets excited, telling Ruth, “This man is one of our close relatives; he’s one of our redeemers” (2:20).

That’s an important term. In the world of ancient families, “redemption” meant bringing someone back into the family, the “father’s house.” We tend to think of it as a theological term, but it’s a theological term that is wrapped in familial connotations. To be “redeemed” is to be given a place in the family—literally in the case of ancient Israel, and spiritually in the case of Christian theology. Boaz is a “redeemer” for Naomi and Ruth because he has the potential to bring them back into the family again where they can be cared for and where the family line can continue.

So Naomi turns from mother-in-law to matchmaker, and tells Ruth to dress in her best clothes, put on some perfume, and head down to the threshing floor to visit Boaz. Under the cover of darkness, after Boaz has enjoyed his fill of wine celebrating the harvest, the perfumed and coiffed Ruth places herself at the sleeping man’s feet. The original readers of this text would have known that this was the ideal sort of setting for seduction and sexual sin, and the question would be whether Ruth and Boaz are really the good people, the hayil we think they are, or if this will become just another sordid scene of the kind of which we’ve become so accustomed.

But, surprise—this is not an R-rated story. Instead of seducing Boaz, Ruth asks him to “redeem” her by spreading his robe over her—a symbol of betrothal (3:9). To “redeem” in this context means that Boaz will marry Ruth, buy back the inheritance and land of her deceased husband, take both Ruth and Naomi into his household, and father a child in Mahlon’s name, thus giving Elimelech an heir  to whom the whole family inheritance will pass. In other words, Boaz will do the right thing by this family and, as a bonus, it seems he really has fallen for Ruth!

What Boaz is doing is costly. It’s so costly, in fact, that there is actually a closer, unnamed relative who refuses to do this because it would jeopardize his own inheritance (4:6). Boaz is next in line, but he will put all of his resources on the line and take on the responsibility of being Ruth’s “kinsman redeemer.” Ruth and Boaz will have a son, Obed, who will in turn have a son, Jesse, who will be the father of a king—the ancestor of another king who will redeem the whole world.

The imagery of this story is so rich and is especially powerful to read during the season of Advent. Remember that it takes place in the little town of Bethlehem, the town of David’s birth and the town of Jesus’ birth. It’s a microcosm of what Jesus himself has come to do—to redeem people into his family, including those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. He does so at great cost to himself—indeed, this redemption will cost him his life. Jesus’ whole life is made possible by this story and reflects it—a story of family, of redemption, and of hope.

But it’s a story that also gives us a model for faithful living in the way of Jesus. In a world that seems to look increasingly more like the time of the Judges, where people do what is right in their own eyes and people are treated as commodities to be used, the story of Ruth invites us to imagine a different sort of world—a world where compassion is the norm. Where heroism isn’t reserved for a few, but all people are called to be hayil—people who are of great worth. It’s a world where the elderly, the widow, and the immigrant are cared for; where children are valued; where family extends beyond the borders of blood and includes people unlike us. It’s a world where despair and hopelessness can be turned to hope and joy.

It’s a world in which “redemption” means more than just a ticket to heaven, but inclusion in a new family. The story of Ruth is an example of theology in action or what John Wesley would have called “practical divinity.” It’s a theology demonstrated in the reality of human life. Like Ruth and Boaz, how have our daily labors, our attitudes, and our perceptions contributed to creating the kind of society envisioned by the writer of Ruth and the way of Jesus? Are we, like Ruth, willing to stand beside those who are hopeless and work for their redemption? Are we, like Boaz, willing to risk and invest in providing a place for those in need? Are we willing to put aside our own interests for the interests of the broader human family?

In his commentary on Ruth, John Wesley invites us to use this story as a gauge of our own actions. “It is a good question to ask ourselves in the evening,” he says, “Where have I gleaned today? What improvements have I made in grace or knowledge? What have I learned or done, which will turn to account?”

In other words, how have I contributed today to making this world more like the world envisioned by God and demonstrated by Ruth and Boaz?

After all, that’s the kind of world envisioned by the angels who proclaimed in Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). It’s the world envisioned by the one who came in a manger to redeem us all.

Sources: 

Richter, Sandra L. The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008. 40-42. Print.

Wesley, John. Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament. Vol. 2. Bristol: William Pine, 1765. Print.

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One Comment on "Ruth and the Character of Compassion"

  1. Lisa H says:

    This story today, framed in context as you are so helpful at doing, really puts the whole message in a nutshell in a whole new way. Thank you.

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