Reflections on Ruth: A Gentile in a Jewish Story

The book of Ruth is traditionally read at Shavuot celebrations. This is because Shavuot celebrates the first fruits of the harvest and so much of the drama of her story takes place during harvest time. To this day, Ruth is held up in the Jewish community as an example of a righteous Gentile in her attitude towards the Jewish people. What I find fascinating about Ruth is how unique she is. Gentiles rarely appear in a good light in the Bible, they very rarely appear at the centre of the story and almost never get their own book. Ruth does all of those things. What is God trying to tell the Jewish people and us through her life and story?

As with all Scripture, there are many layers to God’s revelation of His plans and purposes through the story of Ruth. We shall look at Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi and how this is a template for Gentiles. Also how Lord provided for Ruth including her redemption by Boaz. Leviticus 23 lists the yearly cycle of feasts and festivals to the Lord. The chapter breaks down into two halves; the first half covers feasts speaking of the first coming of Jesus and the second half of feasts which speak of His second coming. In the middle of the chapter there are these verses:

Lev 23:22 ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.’

In between Shavuot and the Autumn, feasts is the long summer harvest. The day of Pentecost in Acts is the start of the harvest of souls which have been reaped through the cross ever since. As we see from our vantage point 2000 years later, this harvest has included a vast sea of non-Jewish “strangers” and “foreigners”.

Ruth is a foreigner from the land of Moab who through circumstances outside her control finds herself at a crossroads in her life. She has to choose whether she follows her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel or her fellow Moabitess sister-in-law Orpah back to her homeland and people. She chooses to follow Naomi and the words of her commitment resonate down through the ages.

Ruth 1:16-17 “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.”

Ruth finds herself in the harvest fields of Israel as a poor stranger gleaning what the reapers have left behind. God’s provision for the poor and stranger in the natural world speaks of God’s provision for the poor and stranger in the spiritual world. In both cases, it is through the intervention of a kinsman redeemer. Boaz takes Ruth under his wing (Ruth 3:9) a reference to his Tallit or prayer shawl and redeems her through their marriage thereby giving her an inheritance in God’s people. The “wings” of messiah were prophesied about in Malachi 4:2,

“The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings”. In the story of the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34) healing comes from touching the hem of Jesus’ prayer shawl. Jesus as the Son of God and a son of Israel claimed the right to redeem His brethren at the cross and through them the whole of humanity (John 4:22). Ruth’s graft into Israel is complete and her descendants play no small part in the future of Israel. From Israel’s greatest king, her great great grandson David, to the King of Kings, Jesus (Matthew 1). The story of a simple girl from Moab is transformed under the hand of God into a glorious symbol for His plan of salvation for all nations through the Messiah as prophesied in Isaiah 49:6:

Indeed He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

The story of Ruth is full of rich details, from the meanings of the names of the characters to the plotting of Naomi to make Ruth irresistible to Boaz. Naomi certainly comes across as a strong character and seems very much the glass half empty type. She tells those who meet her on her return home to call her Mara meaning “bitter” rather than Naomi meaning “my delight” because the Lord has dealt so harshly with her. Ruth 1:21 I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. As the story tells us, the only reason Naomi travels with her family to Moab is because God has brought famine, a sign of His judgment (Deut 28:23-24), on the land of Israel.

From Ruth’s perspective, these Israelites do not seem to have a lot going for them. Their God is angry with them and sends a famine on their land. Even when they escape Israel the men die off and leave the women destitute. I cannot help but think that the Jewish people of today offer a similarly unpalatable prospect in the natural. As Israelis’ call themselves they are “Sabra”, which is a fruit which grows all over Israel, it is hard and prickly on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside. The land itself though beautiful and flourishing is tense and surrounded by enemies.

However, Ruth is certainly not one to be easily overawed and shows great loyalty and acts honourably towards Naomi throughout the story. Her words of commitment to Naomi speak very clearly to us Gentiles today. We are very quick to say to Israel your God is my God but we can be painfully slow to say to Israel your people are my people. We make excuses and point to their rough edges but I believe if we are to come into the fullness of God’s plans for us as Gentiles we need to embrace both the God of Israel and the people of Israel. The graft can only really take if the branch does not reject the root that supports it (Rom 11:18).