The book of Ruth is a favorite for many women, especially young single ones, for good reason. What could be more romantic than the story of a young woman who finds herself far from home, with neither money nor marriage prospects, yet who eventually marries a kind and prosperous nobleman, and then becomes the great grandmother of King David, one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament? Even in these days of postmodern, anti-Disney Princess cynicism and moral darkness, we can’t help but read the story of Ruth the Moabite and her gallant prince Boaz and sigh with happiness. Yet, the story of Ruth, and especially of her mother-in-law Naomi, is a story that is replete with sorrow, loss and struggle. It is only out of and even through such darkness that the true meaning of its happy ending is best understood.
The story begins as all good stories do – in a certain time, with a certain family, in a certain place. But the time is bleak, when everyone does what is right in their own eyes, and the family is in danger, not just because of the time in which they live, but because of the famine that is sweeping through their land. Elimelech, as head of his home, is faced with a difficult choice – stay in his homeland and risk starvation, or move into a foreign land that has food? He chooses to leave and to live, but leaving turns to staying, and eventually his family is embedded among foreigners who do not know or follow God. Then Elimelech dies unexpectedly, leaving his wife a widow and his sons to grow to manhood in a foreign land without the guidance of their father. The sons marry foreign wives, a tragedy in its own right because of God’s clear command against it, and then in a multiplication of loss, the sons die as well.
This is how the story begins. In four short verses, an Israelite woman’s life descends from stability to struggle to utter ruin. It was hard enough when Naomi had to submit to her husband as hard times drove him to lead them into a pagan city to survive. It was worse when her husband and provider died, and worse still when her sons succumbed to the surrounding culture and married foreign wives. But now those sons, the ones who were her only protectors and providers after her husband’s death, are also gone. Her only family now is her two daughters-in-law, who themselves are driven to the very lowest rung of Jewish society by the double deprivation of widowhood and foreign birth. There are no life insurance policies, no back to school and work programs to help widowed women provide for themselves. They are utterly destitute.
Together, the three women model the three different ways we orient our heart when God’s providence is hard. Orpah’s sorrow is the kind that turns her away from the God of Israel, back toward her own gods. Whatever she thought she would gain from being aligned to her husband’s God, it was lost with him when he died. She feels affection for her mother-in-law, but her greater love is for her old way of life. Naomi’s grief drives her heart inward, toward the whirlwind of calamity that has her at its center. Believing herself to be cursed, her attempts to send her daughters-in-law away seem to be as much about her belief in her own divinely-ordained toxicity as it is her concern for their well-being. In a beautiful irony that is the Bible’s trademark, it is Ruth the Moabite who demonstrates a heart oriented around the gospel. What matters to Ruth more than her current circumstances is her eternal relationship with the God she has come to know and His people she now sees as her own.
This orientation of Ruth’s heart, toward God and God’s people, empowers and emboldens her walk into hard and dangerous circumstances to provide for her mother-in-law (who is likely not beyond the age to work alongside her but perhaps too paralyzed by grief and depression to work herself). So fierce is Ruth’s work ethic and devotion to Naomi that soon she has attracted the notice of a good and powerful man. Soon after, in another act of boldness and faith, she is betrothed to him in marriage. It’s no wonder that so many read this story as a classic story of virtue rewarded, of good works leading to blessing, prosperity and even love.
And yet for so many women, that interpretation promotes only guilt or bitterness.
Some women have worked quietly and faithfully in the midst of difficult times, but their salvation, in the form of a loving husband, or economic stability, does not come. Others, like me, struggle under the weight of guilt at all the ways we’ve not been Ruth, either turning our backs on God and looking for hope in the things of the world, like Orpah, or turning inward into depression or bitterness like Naomi.
Perhaps this is why it has become more common recently to note that it is technically Naomi, rather than Ruth, who is the central character of this story. The book begins with Naomi’s loss and follows Naomi’s journey back to Bethlehem, and Ruth’s work on Naomi’s behalf. It is Naomi’s welfare that Boaz takes note of, and it is Naomi whom the women of Bethlehem celebrate when Ruth and Boaz have a son, to the extent that the son is seen as much Naomi’s as the one who actually gave birth to him. What kind of happily ever after is this, where Ruth has done all the work, but Naomi has been given its blessing?
This is the true happily ever after of the gospel.
The reason why this story can be both about Ruth’s work, and Naomi’s deliverance through it, is because this is the story of the whole Bible. Ruth’s story is an Old Testament foreshadowing of the greater story of Ruth’s greatest descendant, Jesus. Ruth leaves her home and lives as a foreigner, impoverished and rejected, yet binding herself in love and faithfulness to a people she chooses. Ruth works tirelessly for her family’s salvation, when her family cannot save themselves. It is Ruth who is seen by one who speaks as a Father of her worthiness, to whom she appeals as she lays down at his feet in the dark, and with whom she rises up in the morning with her family’s future secured. It is Ruth who gives Naomi a son, who becomes the symbol of Naomi’s hope, and salvation, just as her greater son, Jesus, is given to us as our certain salvation as well.
The book of Ruth is given to us, not primarily so that we will see Ruth’s example as the one we should emulate, but that through Ruth’s life and work we would see the One who lives and works on our behalf. Seeing the salvation that has come in him, like Ruth, we will fix our eyes on Him and, through His strength, love Him and His people, regardless of our circumstances, because we know there will come a day when He will again be given to us, and the real happily ever after will begin.
By Rachael Starke