Ruth was a Moabite who’d spent her whole life embedded in that pagan culture. But her surprising marriage to an Israelite alien brought her into contact with the Jewish religion of YHWH worship. Though her husband died soon after, Ruth’s remarkable allegiance to the God of Israel remained.
When Naomi—Ruth’s Jewish mother-in-law, who had also been widowed—decided to return to Israel, she tried to dissuade Ruth from going any farther with her: “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law” (Ruth 1:15). Naomi no doubt felt it was not in Ruth’s best interests to be shackled to an aged and destitute widow. On the other hand, she must have known that it would be spiritually detrimental for Ruth to go back to her people “and to her gods.” In all likelihood, Naomi was testing Ruth, hoping to coax from her an explicit verbal profession of faith in YHWH. It would be wrong to take Ruth to Israel and place a widow without financial support in that society if she had no genuine commitment to Israel’s God.
Ruth’s reply is a beautiful piece of poetry in Hebrew style:
Do not urge me to leave you Or turn back from following you; For where you go, I will go, And where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, And there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, If anything but death parts you and me. (Ruth 1:16–17)
Thus Ruth expressed her firm resolve to stay with Naomi. Her affection for her mother-in-law was sincere. She still desired to remain part of that family. Above all, her devotion to the God of Israel was real. This was an amazingly mature and meaningful testimony of personal faith, especially in light of the fact that it came from the lips of a young woman raised in a pagan culture. The witness of Naomi and her family must have made a powerful impression on Ruth.
When Naomi saw the firm resolve of Ruth, Scripture says, “she said no more to her” (Ruth 1:18)—meaning, of course, that she gave up trying to dissuade Ruth from coming with her to Bethlehem. Their souls and their destinies were bound together by their friendship and their common faith.
After ten years or more in Moab, Naomi returned to people who remembered her and knew her name. Her homecoming caused no small stir. Scripture says, “All the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’” (Ruth 1:19). Naomi means “pleasant,” and in an earlier time it must have been a perfect description of Naomi. The fact that so many women remembered her and were so glad to see her suggests that she had once been a gregarious soul, beloved by all who knew her. But now her life was so colored with sadness that she told the other women:
Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara [meaning “bitter”], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me? (Ruth 1:20–21)
This was not a complaint as much as a heartfelt lament. She knew, as Job did, that it is the Lord who gives and takes away. She understood the principle of God’s sovereignty. In calling herself “Mara,” she was not suggesting that she had become a bitter person; but (as her words reveal) that providence had handed her a bitter cup to drink. She saw the hand of God in her sufferings, but far from complaining, she was simply acknowledging her faith in the sovereignty of God, even in the midst of a life of bitter grief. Everything Scripture tells us about Naomi indicates that she remained steadfast in the faith throughout her trials. She was not unlike Job—she was a woman of great faith who withstood almost unimaginable testing without ever once wavering in her love for YHWH and her commitment to His will. Her sorrow-filled words weren’t resentful toward God but were actually an impressive expression of faith.
Naomi’s deceased husband, Elimelech, had a wealthy relative named Boaz who had prospered in Israel despite the years of famine. He was a landowner of vast holdings and considerable influence. Scripture says he was “a relative of Naomi’s husband” (Ruth 2:1 NKJV), but does not spell out the relationship. He might have been Elimelech’s brother, but that seems unlikely, since he wasn’t, technically, Naomi’s next of kin (Ruth 3:12). He was more likely a cousin or a nephew of Elimelech.
Boaz was also a direct descendant of Rahab (Ruth 4:21; Matthew 1:5). He undoubtedly knew her story well and gloried in his heritage. His connection with Rahab would certainly have inclined his heart to be sympathetic to the plight of a foreign woman like Ruth who had embraced YHWH with a faith reminiscent of Rahab’s.
In agreeing to return to Bethlehem with Naomi, Ruth was agreeing to help support the aging woman. The biblical data suggests that Ruth was still quite young and physically strong. So she went to work in the fields, gleaning what the harvesters left behind in order to provide enough grain to eke out an existence.
Biblical law established this as a means by which even the most destitute in Israel could always earn a living. Leviticus 19:9–10; 23:22, and Deuteronomy 24:19–21 all required that when a field was harvested, whatever fell from the sheaves should be deliberately left behind. When fruit was picked from trees and vines, some of it was to be left unplucked. The remains of the harvest were then free to be gleaned by anyone willing to do the work.
Ruth’s options were limited to that, and that alone. She had no relatives other than her mother-in-law. Naomi’s own next of kin weren’t even close enough to be legally obliged to support her. With no visible means of support, Ruth saw the necessity of working the barley fields, so she sought and obtained Naomi’s permission (Ruth 2:2).
As it happened, she gleaned in one of Boaz’s fields, and he saw her. The language of the text suggests that this was purely by happenstance—“she happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz” (Ruth 2:3)—but we know from the clear teaching of Scripture that God Himself providentially orchestrated these events (Proverbs 16:33). Nothing happens by “chance,” but God is always behind the scenes, working all things together for the good of His people (Romans 8:28). There is no such thing as “luck” or “fate” for believers.
Boaz visited his fields that very day, to see the progress of the harvest. When he noticed Ruth, he took an immediate interest. She was obviously young, able, and diligent. Boaz sought out the foreman of his crew and inquired about Ruth. The chief servant replied:
She is the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi from the land of Moab. And she said, “Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.” Thus she came and has remained from the morning until now. (Ruth 2:6–7)
Boaz immediately realized, of course, that this woman was his relative by marriage, so he began to show her special favor. He encouraged her to glean only in his fields and to stay close by his harvesters. He gave her permission to drink from the water he supplied his servants, and he instructed his young men not to touch her.
Ruth, moved by his gentle kindness and generosity, knew very well that such extreme liberality was highly unusual, especially toward an impoverished woman from a foreign land. “She fell on her face, bowing to the ground and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?’” (Ruth 2:10).
Boaz explained that he had heard of her extraordinary faithfulness to Naomi and the great sacrifices she had made to come to a foreign land. Then he gave her an unusual blessing that reveals what a godly man he was: “May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge” (Ruth 2:12).
Ruth’s reply was equally gracious, and beautiful for its humility: “I have found favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and indeed have spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not like one of your maidservants” (Ruth 2:13).
Ruth’s resolve to abandon the idols of Moab for the living God of Israel was providentially rewarded. And as we’ll see, God had far greater rewards and honor in store for this Moabite widow.