Ruth: The Gospel in Disguise
The book of Ruth may be only four chapters long, but it carries in its pages a distinct whisper of the Gospel of Jesus. In this book, there are four characters who foreshadow the Gospel in unique and profound ways, which gives us a beautiful framework to understand the Gospel from a new perspective.
Let’s start with Naomi. Naomi was an Israelite, a part of Yahweh’s covenant nation. Her story begins in Bethlehem with her husband and her two sons. If you’ll remember, Israelite culture revolved around the family and the family was built and sustained by its patriarch. So, while Naomi’s three male family members are living, Naomi has access to safety, survival, and identity.
But Naomi’s safety net disintegrates quickly. There’s a famine in Bethlehem and Naomi’s husband moves his family to the foreign land of Moab where both of Naomi’s son’s marry Moabite women. For reasons unnamed, Naomi’s Husband, her first son, and her second son all die, leaving Naomi alone with two new daughters-in-law and no heir apparent. In our society, this is tragic enough, but in ancient Israel this had severely harsh cultural implications. As mentioned above, the life of an Israelite family line was sustained by the patriarch. Well, Naomi’s husbands and sons are gone and her two daughters-in-law have no children. Naomi’s last chance to preserve her life would be to return and remarry into another family, but the famine in Bethlehem, as well as her old age, cast a dark shadow on that option. This is our first character: hopeless Naomi, the mourning, exiled Israelite.
Our second character is Ruth, a foreigner who was married to one of Naomi’s sons but is now widowed and uncertain about her own future. As a young woman and a Moabite, Ruth has every right to leave her grieving mother-in-law, return to her own family, and remarry. But there’s something in Ruth that protests the norm. In a defining moment, Ruth clings to Naomi and to the God of Israel, shedding her hometown privileges and linking arms with a new nation. Ruth could have kissed Naomi and said goodbye, instead she made a covenant and pledged to return with her to Bethlehem. This is Ruth, the believing, honorable Gentile.
Before we meet the last two characters, we need to follow the plot a little. Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem in search of food, hoping for a way back from the outskirts of society. Luckily, they’re in Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest. This harvest marked a time when land-owners would harvest their crop just once and leave behind whatever was left over. This practice was ordained by law; it acted as a safety net for the poor, the widowed, and the immigrant. Those who were down and out could go through the fields and take the left-overs for themselves, which would supply them with the food they needed to keep on living as they waited for redemption. Ruth, a poor, widowed immigrant, was the perfect candidate for this practice.
So Naomi sends Ruth to the fields to glean and this is where we meet our third character. Boaz was a wealthy, well-respected man of Bethlehem who owned the field that Ruth was scavenging in, and, as it so happens, he was a distant relative (a patriarch) of Naomi’s. It’s easy for the modern reader to miss the significance of this. Because Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s, he was also in a position to redeem, or “buy back” Naomi’s life. In effect, Boaz is the one character who could rescue Naomi and Ruth from despair.
Through a series of events (see Ruth 3), Boaz is asked to redeem both women by marrying Ruth. This was a common practice in Israel (you can read more on “redemption” here). If Boaz married Ruth, he would also be expected to purchase the land of her late husband and care after her remaining relative, Naomi. Financially, this would take an almost unbearable toll on one’s wealth. But Boaz is willing. Boaz is our classic kinsman redeemer.
When it seems we are almost to our happy ending, there’s a slight legal issue. As it turns out, there happens to be a kinsman nearer on the family tree to Naomi than Boaz is. Israelite law required the closest living relative to have the first opportunity to rescue a lost family member, so, out of respect, Boaz approaches our fourth character, the unnamed kinsman, to give him a chance to “redeem” Ruth and Naomi.
By law, the unnamed kinsman could have and should have taken responsibility for Ruth and Naomi. But, though he was the logical and lawful solution to Naomi’s and Ruth’s predicament, he was unwilling. Not wanting to jeopardize his wealth, he relinquishes his duty to Boaz, who is finally able to faithfully carry out the duties of a kinsman redeemer and restore Naomi and Ruth to life.
And that’s the story of Ruth.
But wait. Why is Ruth tucked away in the Old Testament? Why is this story, which rarely mentions Yahweh, so famous? Is it because of Ruth’s impeccable character and daring loyalty? Is Boaz’s dedication to Ruth enough to romance us into revisiting the story time and again? Is it because Ruth became the great-grandmother of David? At times, it can be all of those answers and none of them. But, I think the story of Ruth is much more. I think it is a direct foreshadowing of the Gospel of Jesus right before our eyes.
Let’s take another look.
There is Naomi, who represents the nation of Israel and, there is a Moabite, Ruth, who represents the foreigners, the Gentiles. These two become entangled in an unfortunate, hopeless, desperate circumstance, that is, the sin condition. But there remains a glimmer of hope. The logical solution, the unnamed kinsman, might be able to save them. This is the law of Moses. The Law was almost enough to save Israel, but in the end, it could not. Then, finally, there is Boaz, the figure of unlikely hope who risks his own livelihood to rescue both the Jew and the Gentile. This figure is Jesus.
The book of Ruth reminds us contemporary readers that the Gospel was a long time coming. While we were a long way off, the Father was weaving together a narrative of unrelenting redemption. The book of Ruth reminds us that the salvation of Jesus belongs not just to the family of Israel, but to the entire world. Anyone willing to link arms with Jesus, to choose Him, will be ushered in. Finally, the book of Ruth reminds us that Jesus is our ultimate kinsman redeemer. He has paid an unbearable price to redeem us: strangers, habitual sinners, ragamuffins.
What do we know now? We know that our identities have changed. We are no longer orphaned or widowed, no longer estranged or enslaved, we are redeemed. You and I can now call ourselves the family of God because the work of Jesus on the cross is the very cancelling of our debts. Jesus effectively bought us back from certain death and has given us the opportunity to join in on “the race”as Paul calls it. We’re freed, not into perfection, but into the process of becoming more like Jesus with every step we take towards Him. Like the prodigal, we are dressed in new clothes and welcomed into a family we barely deserve, but the deserving has nothing to do with it. Like Boaz risked his fortune and reputation to save the widowed gentile and the mourning Israelite, Jesus has ultimately changed the tides for us.
So, as you read through Ruth’s beautiful story, keep your eyes open for the Gospel in Disguise and the saving work of an unrelenting Kinsman Redeemer.