Yes, kids, for the first time we get an entire book of the Bible in one post! How exciting! Of course the entire “book” is only three pages, but there you are.
I will say at the outset that this book surprised me. There’s no god, there’s no angels, there’s no genocide, there’s no smiting. There’s just a lonely, middle-aged woman and her daughter-in-law trying to make a life for themselves, and that’s far more interesting, inspiring and heartwarming than anything I’ve read so far (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much).
We begin with Naomi, a woman who lives in Moab. She’s married and has two adult sons (Mahlon and Chillion), who have married women named Ruth and Oprah. So, apparently the divine Ms. O is older than we’d all suspected. Anyhow, Naomi’s husband dies (Ruth 1:3), and then this:
“Then both Mahlon and Chillion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband” – Ruth 1:5
How unpleasant, and though that’s not something most of us have experienced, I think we can all empathize. What a horrible thing that must be to go through, especially since, as there’s no mention of grandchildren, the sons probably died fairly young. From what I can piece together from my somewhat fragmentary knowledge of ancient Jewish marriages, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the sons were in their mid-teens at the time of their deaths, which would be really horrible for their mother.
So Naomi, having lost her two children and her husband, now decides it’s time to leave Moab and return home. She still has her dead sons’ widows hanging around, and doesn’t want them to feel obligated, so she tells Ruth and Oprah that they are welcome to get on with their lives. Oprah agrees, but Ruth doesn’t.
“But Ruth said:
‘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 be buried.
The Lord do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.'” – Ruth 1:16 – 17
Well, it’s a bit emo and a bit co-dependent, but frankly it’s also kind of lovely. It seems like it’s Ruth saying that she’s with Naomi through thick or thin, even if it means living in a strange land, with new people and worshiping a new god. But is there something else? I don’t know about you, but my third thought upon reading this was, “Lesbians!” Turns out I’m not the only one. I doubt this is meant to be the case. I think it’s just the sort of weird, flowery language of ancient Hebrew by way of Greek and early modern English, but I won’t say it’s outside the realm of possibility. Of course for this to be an accurate view, you have to overlook Ruth spending much of the rest of the book falling in love with a man.
Anyhow, Naomi and Ruth arrive back at Naomi’s hometown where people are pleased to see her, but she seems understandably bitter.
“But she said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.
“‘I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?'” – Ruth 1:20 – 21
Couple of things here. First off, according to my Bible, the name “Mara” means “bitter”, which was a surprise since I thought it meant “unconvincing snake thing“. Second, yeah, I bet she’s bitter! Her husband and sons are both dead, and she’s too old to have any more (Ruth 1:11). I can well understand her bitterness.
Anyhow, it seems that they arrived at her hometown, Bethlehem, just in time for the local barely harvest. Ruth heads out to glean some of the heads of grain from the fields owned by a man named Boaz. He sees her working, and seems quite taken by her, though he starts by referring to her as “my daughter” (Ruth 2:8), which is kind of creepy given what happens later. I assume it’s just a reasonably subtle way of showing that he’s quite a bit older than she is.
He then starts being nice to her, and she’s confused about this, and asks him why.
“And Boaz answered and said to her, ‘It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before.
“‘The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given to you by the lord god of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.'” – Ruth 2:11 – 12
Now that’s something that I like. He recognizes that he’s standing before a good and decent woman who made real sacrifices to care for someone who wasn’t a part of her blood family. I like that. I like that a lot.
Ruth likes it, too, and seems to be developing an interesting Boaz, who then does this:
“And when she rose up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, ‘Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her.
“‘Also let grain from the bunches fall purposely for her; leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her.'” – Ruth 2:15 – 16
So everyone seems happy at this state of affairs, including Naomi, who is very aware that Boaz, who is a relative of hers (Ruth 2:20), might be helpful to them in restoring some stability. She actively encourages Ruth to pursue him, saying:
“‘Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor: but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.
“‘Then it shall be, when he lies down, taht you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down; and he will tell you what you should do.'” – Ruth 3:3 – 4
Ruth does this, and Boaz seems quite taken by her behavior. He even makes it clear to all and sundry that in fact nothing happened between them. I kind of like that idea. I find the notion of preserving a woman’s virtue to be very quaint and not out of place here.
Things kind of go from there. Boaz wants to marry her, but knows there’s someone else ahead of him (according to the law), who gets first dibs. He sorts this out by making the other man an offer he won’t accept and then the other man makes Boaz an offer he can’t refuse. The two marry and, unusually for a Bible story, everyone lives happily ever after.
I found that this Bible story was quite decent and enjoyable, once I got past the dense language. At it’s heart it’s about family and love and that’s something that hasn’t generally existed in the Bible in a positive way. It’s also interesting to see that Ruth was able to be accepted as a convert to Judaism, because it’s my understand that that sort of thing was fairly rare back in the day and can cause problems even now.
We end the book on the birth of child to Ruth and Boaz; a child that Naomi helps mother like he was her own.
“Also the neighbor woman gave him a name, saying, ‘There is a son born to Naomi.’ And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.” – Ruth 4:17
Hmmm…Is that perhaps the David, of whom even I, an atheist, have heard? Perhaps. Tune in next time for the first part of the First Book of Samuel, the first Biblical book to have an official sequel!