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Cover image: ‘Whither thou goest’ by Sandy Freckleton Gagan.
Lesson 20, “All the City . . . Doth Know That Thou Art a Virtuous Woman”
The Book of Ruth
Sometimes the Book of Ruth is looked upon as only a lovely story with little theological value. However, I see within the story two basic theological messages that are of great worth to Latter-day Saints. In order to discover these messages, the book must be viewed as a story that typifies two principal doctrinal concepts: first, the scattering and gathering of Israel; and second, the atonement of Jesus Christ. Whether these were intended messages or not, I cannot say.
The story of the Book of Ruth took place during the period of the judges, the period which followed the death of Joshua. Prior to his death, Joshua fulfilled the command given him (and all Israel) by Moses requiring that upon entrance into the land of Canaan, the Israelites were to participate in a very important covenant ceremony at the sacred site of Shechem. Shechem was situated between two mountains, Mt. Ebal on the north and Mt. Gerizim on the south. Moses charged Israel that once they arrived at Shechem, they were to set up the ark of the covenant between the two mountains (Joshua 8:33). Then six of the tribes of Israel were to place themselves on Mt. Gerizim while the other six were to ascend Mt. Ebal (Deut. 27:11-13). Upon large stones, the law of Moses was to be written in the presence of the children of Israel (Deut. 27:1-8; Joshua 8:32). The law was then to be read to all the Israelites (Joshua 8:33). This was to be followed by the Israelites covenanting that they would honor the law of Moses.
As part of the covenant ceremony, the six tribes on Mt. Gerizim would shout out all the blessings that Israel would receive if they were obedient to the law (see Deut. 28:1-14). These included blessings over their cities, fields, crops and the blessing of rain for water. They were also promised that the land would remain theirs and that the Lord would fight their enemies for them.
The other six tribes would then pronounce the curses (see Deut. 28:15-68) that would result if they were disobedient to the covenant including the loss of their cities, fields, crops and rain. When their enemies would attack, the Lord would not fight their battles. The ultimate curse Israel would experience would be the loss of the promised land. This would be accomplished by the Lord scattering Israel among the gentiles “from the one end of the earth even unto the other.” Israel would live among the gentiles and serve their gods. In this condition, Israel would continue to wander among these nations (Deut. 28:64-68). As the prophet Amos would later prophesy, after the Lord sifts “the house of Israel among all nations” (Amos 9:9) they would “wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it” (Amos 8:12).
After the death of Joshua, the Israelite tribes were left without a strong leader. The tribes of Israel were loosely allied but with no central government. For the most part each tribe became autonomous, fending for itself. Adding to this precarious condition was the fact that the Canaanites had not been entirely driven out of the land as the Lord had commanded (Judges 1). Therefore the Israelites and Canaanites cohabited. During this period, the Israelites struggled with honoring their covenant which included the ten commandments. Consequently, a pattern developed wherein Israel forsook the worship of Jehovah while adopting the Canaanite religion of Ba’al worship.
According to the terms of the covenant, the Lord allowed neighboring nations to overtake Israel bringing them into subjugation. This curse would humble Israel causing them to return to Jehovah. To free Israel from these “spoilers,” the Lord at various times called certain individuals to unite Israel and lead them in battle against these nations in order to lift the yoke of oppression. These leaders were called “judges.” However, their authority was not passed on to their posterity.
The Book of Judges records the events of this time period. The first half of the book (chapters 1-11) tells the stories of several judges (Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, and Jephthah) who, by placing their trust in God, led the Israelites in victorious battles against their enemies. The second half of Judges (12-21), highlighted by the story of Samson, shows the tribes of Israel rapidly declining, trusting less and less in God.
The books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, tell the story of Israel from the end of the period of the Judges to the scattering of the children of Israel among the nations of the world by the Assyrians and Babylonians. These books explain to the reader why the Lord allowed His people whom He was going to make an “holy nation” to be taken captive and scattered by foreign nations. The answer in a nutshell: Israel forsook the covenant made with God at Shechem and consequently experienced the full brunt of the curses. Leading the way in this apostasy were Israel’s kings.
The Book of Ruth: A Transition Book
In most English versions of the Bible, the Book of Ruth is wedged between Judges and 1 Samuel. The Hebrew Bible locates the book elsewhere. However, when the Bible was translated into Greek in the third century B.C. (known as the Septuagint – see LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 771), it was placed between the Book of the Judges and 1 Samuel. The major reason for this was because the story took place during the period of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). Most English bibles have continued with this tradition.
In my estimation, the placement of Ruth between Judges and 1 Samuel is appropriate for another reason. As already noted, Israel’s scattering is portrayed in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, the bulk of the middle portion of the bible. The last portion of the bible consists of the prophetic writings (Isaiah through Malachi) which not only prophesy of Israel’s scattering but of their gathering in the last days. as we shall see, the Book of Ruth sets the stage for the rest of the Bible. As I will now show, the Book of Ruth serves as a transition book between the period of the judges and Israel’s scattering by forecasting the scattering and gathering of Israel.
The Story of Ruth
The story found in Ruth is well known. An Israelite family consisting of a father, Elimelech, a mother, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilon, are forced to leave their hometown of Bethlehem because of famine (1:1-2). They fled to Moab, a gentile country east of the Dead Sea. While there, the sons married two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Eventually, both the sons and their father died leaving Naomi and the daughters-in-law widowed and without means of support and inheritance (1:4-5).
Eventually, the famine was abated and Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem (1:6-7). She entreated her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. Orpah agreed. But Ruth said: ” Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (1:16).
Upon her return to Bethlehem, Naomi was greeted by her friends saying, “Is this Naomi?” (Naomi is the Hebrew word pleasant). But Naomi did not feel very pleasant seeing she lost her husband and sons and had no means of support. “And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara [Heb. word meaning bitter]: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me” (1:19-20).
Naomi arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest (about the end of April or beginning of May). According to biblical legislation, farmers were not to glean all their fields but they were to leave a portion for the “poor and stranger” to harvest (Lev. 19:9-10). In this way, the poor could have food to eat. Ruth said to Naomi, ” Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after [him] in whose sight I shall find grace. And she said unto her, Go, my daughter” (2:2). Being new to the area, she picked a field and began to glean. The field she chose was a wealthy relative of Naomi’s husband (they belonged to the same clan), and thus her own husband, named Boaz. Ruth was unaware of this relationship.
When Boaz came to check on his workers in the field, he noticed Ruth. When he found out who she was, he told her to glean only in his fields for he would ensure that his servants would treat her kindly making sure she would be able to glean as much as she wanted. Further he told her she would be safe and well taken care of (2:8-9; also 14). Shocked at his graciousness, Ruth “fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger [Heb. word means foreigner]?” Boaz answered, “It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore.” He then said, “The LORD recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” (2:10-12). After she left, he told his workers his workers to let her glean wherever she wanted. In fact, they were to let part of what they had gleaned fall to the ground on purpose for her (2:15-16).
By the time evening had come, she had gleaned and threshed about an ephah (4 gallons) of barley (2:17). This was a large amount for one person to have done in a day. Upon her return to Naomi, she showed her how much she was able to glean. Naomi was surprised! Naomi asked Ruth who’s fields she had gleaned in. She answered, “Boaz” (2:19). “And Naomi said unto her daughter in law, Blessed be he of the LORD, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead. And Naomi said unto her, The man is near of kin unto us, one of our next kinsmen ” (2:20).
The Hebrew term translated “next kinsmen” is go’el, the participle form of ga’al which means to deliver or redeem. A go’el is a redeemer, best translated kinsman-redeemer. It is a term applied to “a man’s nearest relative at a particular time. In Lev. 25:48f., it refers to a man’s brother, uncle, cousin, or some other kinsman who is responsible for standing up for him and maintaining his rights. Behind this usage stands the strong feeling of tribal solidarity: not only the members of a clan, but also their possessions, form an organic unity, and every disruption of this unity is regarded as intolerable and as something which must be restored or repaired” (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 11 vols. currently. Eds. G. Johannes Botterweck & Helmer Ringgren [Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1975], 2:351). “Go’el was a term from the realm of Israelite family law. It describes not a precise kinship relationship but the near relatives to whom both law and custom gave certain duties toward the clan (cf. Lev. 25:48-49). (1) The go’el was responsible for the ge’ulla, the repurchase of property once owned by clan members but sold from economic necessity (Lev. 25:25-30; cr. Jer. 32: 1-15). By restoring the land to its original owner, the go’el maintained the clan’s inheritance intact. (2) If financially able, he also redeemed relatives whose poverty had forced them to sell themselves into slavery (Lev. 25:47-55)” (Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., The Book of Ruth [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], pp. 188-189). Further, the go’el was responsible for blood revenge (Num.35:12; Deut. 19:6; Josh. 20:2-9) and to help a clan member in a lawsuit, ensuring justice was achieved (Job 19:25; PS. 119:154; Prov. 23:11; Jer. 50:34; Lam. 3:58). Two assumptions underlay the custom of the go’el. “First, a strong feeling of tribal solidarity (both people and their possessions) made every disruption of tribal unity an intolerable breach that had to be repaired. Second, ‘redemption’ – whether of people or property or both – constituted the restoration of that primal tribal wholeness” (Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, p. 189). A biblical example of the kinsman-redeemer can be found in Jeremiah 32:6-15. In this story, Jeremiah redeems his cousins land who must sell it for unspecified reasons.
Recognizing Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer, the Book of Ruth now moves to its climax. Naomi concocted a scheme to ensure her and Ruth’s future well-being. To Ruth, she said, “My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee? And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor.
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do. And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do” (3:1-5; emphasis added).
It is interesting that unlike the previous events of the book which took place in the open with no secrecy, this next event was to take place in the secrecy of night where the two main figures of the story are alone “as if illumined by a solitary spotlight” (Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, p. 195).
Ruth followed her mother-in-laws directions exactly. “And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down.” The chill of the night air on Boaz’s feet woke him up. Leaning over to cover his feet, he was frightened at the shape of a person lying at his feet. “Who art thou?” he exclaimed. “And she answered, I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman [Heb. go’el]” (3:9). The phrase, “spead therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid” reflects an Hebrew idiom meaning “to marry” as evidenced in Ezek. 16:8; Deut. 22:30; 27:20; Mal 2:16, as well as Boaz’s response (v. 10). The gesture of spreading a skirt (Heb. kanaf, meaning wing or edge of a garment) meant to bring one under the protection of another.
Boaz responded to her request with kindness and concern. “Blessed be thou of the LORD, my daughter: for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.” But, understanding the custom of the go’el, Boaz knew that there was a clan member nearer in relationship than he who would have the right to perform the duties of the go’el. “And now it is true that I am thy near kinsman (go’el): howbeit there is a kinsman (go’el) nearer than I.” But to ensure that she would be taken care of, he said: “Tarry this night, and it shall be in the morning, that if he will perform unto thee the part of a kinsman, well; let him do the kinsman’s part: but if he will not do the part of a kinsman to thee, then will I do the part of a kinsman to thee, as the LORD liveth: lie down until the morning” (3:10-13).
The next day, “went Boaz up to the gate, and sat him down there: and, behold, the kinsman of whom Boaz spake came by; unto whom he said, Ho, such a one! turn aside, sit down here. And he turned aside, and sat down” (4:1). Gates of ancient Israelite cities were places of public assembly where business and legal transactions often occurred (e.g., Deut. 21:19; Josh. 20:4;2 Sam. 19:8; 2 Kings. 7:1; 2 Chron. 32:6; Ps. 69:12; Prov. 22:22; Amos 5:15). Archaeology has shown that places to sit and converse were part of the make-up of these gates. For example, the gate of Gezer was lined with benches. Also, Dan, a bench constructed with dressed stones was located to the right of the entrance.
Boaz revealed the situation to the unknown relative: “Naomi, that is come again out of the country of Moab, selleth a parcel of land, which was our brother Elimelech’s.” There is no Hebrew term for cousin which probably was Elimelech’s relationship to these men. The proper Hebrew term to refer to your cousin was brother. Boaz tells his relative that Naomi is about to sell her husband’s land in order to live off the proceeds. Clan land would be lost! He continued, “And I thought to advertise thee, saying, Buy it before the inhabitants, and before the elders of my people. If thou wilt redeem it, redeem it: but if thou wilt not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know: for there is none to redeem it beside thee; and I am after thee. And he said, I will redeem it.” But there is a catch. To redeem the land, the go’el must also marry Ruth “the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance”(4:3-5). It appears that the duty of the goel was also to enter into levirate marriage in order to raise up an heir for a deceased relative (see Levirate Marriage in the LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 724).
The relative responded to Boaz, ” I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance: redeem thou my right to thyself; for I cannot redeem it” (4:6). He does not say, “I will not” but that “I cannot redeem it for myself.” What is meant is not sure. It seems that the man is not very wealthy. Therefore to have redeemed the land for his cousin would diminish his own reserves placing himself in financial straits that might jeopardize his own land. But no problem, Boaz would act the role of the redeemer. With the elders of the people as witnesses, Boaz purchased all the land of Elimelech and his sons, and took Ruth to be his wife.
In the closing scene, it is Naomi who is featured not Ruth! “So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son. And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the LORD, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman (go’el), that his name may be famous in Israel.” They then prophesy that the child would be “a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age: for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it” (4:13-16). When Naomi returned from Moab, she expected to live out the rest of in loneliness, without a husband and children. But thanks to Ruth, the rest of Naomi’s days would truly be pleasant. She belonged to a family once again.
“And the women her neighbours gave [the child] 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.” (4:17). The last phrase connects the story to the concluding genealogy in which the reader is given the lineage of King David.
A Type of the Scattering and Gathering
The Story of Ruth is a wonderful type of the scattering and gathering of Israel. The following is a list of several similarities with the scattering and the gathering.
(1) Going to Moab. The book begins with Elimelch and his family leaving Bethlehem (Heb. meaning ‘house of bread’) because of famine. Immediately, the biblical reader would be reminded of the curses that would come upon Israel for breaking the covenant. Famine was one of the main curses used by the Lord to humble Israel. Going to the land of Moab typifies the future scattering of Israel among the nations of the world (see Lev. 26:33; Deut. 4:27; 28:63-68; 32:26; Jer. 9:16; Ezek. 22:15; 36:19; Amos 9:9; 1 Ne. 22:3-5) as a result of the broken covenant. Israel would become mixed with the gentiles among whom they lived, even through marriage! The offspring of these marriages would become the seed of Abraham.
The scattering of Israel among the nations of the world, though a punishment, would be the very means by which the Lord would fulfill part of the covenant God made with Abraham. Joseph Fielding Smith explained: “the Lord always turns punishments to the accomplishment of his purposes. The scattering of the Israelites among all nations was a punishment inflicted upon them, but a great blessing extended to the nations among whom they were scattered. . . .the scattering of Israel, especially the descendants of the ten tribes who mingled with the Gentile nations, the blood of Abraham had been mixed with the blood of the Gentiles, and in this way the Gentiles have been brought into the seed of Abraham, and are therefore entitled to receive, on conditions of their repentance, all the blessings promised to the seed of Abraham. The children of Israel, even in their greatest number, never fulfilled the promise of the Lord concerning their magnitude when dwelling in the land of Palestine. The prediction was that their number should be as countless as the stars or the sand upon the seashore. In Palestine they never reached proportions too great to be numbered nor have they reached this number in their scattered condition although they had become absorbed into the body of the Gentile nations. Moreover, they, through this scattering, planted in the hearts of the Gentiles to some degree a desire to worship the God of Abraham and to accept of his teachings and the teachings of the prophets who came through his seed. Because the Jews rejected Jesus Christ they were scattered as the Savior predicted; but the Lord has kept them, for his own purpose, as a distinct people. They have not mixed to any great extent with the Gentiles by marriage, but have maintained their racial identity. And when Christ comes, he will appear to the gathered Jews as predicted by Zechariah” (The Restoration of All Things [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973], p.129-137).
(2) Famine abated. This is a representation of the gospel being restored in the latter days.
(3) The return to Bethlehem. The return of Naomi with Ruth to Bethlehem typifies the gathering of Israel in the last days in which many gentiles will return as well. Regarding both Israel and gentiles coming into the gospel, President James E. Faust stated: “The Church is expanding at a tremendous rate. We now have stakes of Zion in a great many countries of the world, and most stakes have at least one patriarch. This growth permits many people across the earth the privilege of receiving patriarchal blessings. As President Joseph Fielding Smith stated, “The great majority of those who become members of the Church are literal descendants of Abraham through Ephraim, son of Joseph”(Doctrines of Salvation, 3:246). However, Manasseh, the other son of Joseph, as well as the other sons of Jacob, has many descendants in the Church. There may be some come into the Church in our day who are not of Jacob’s blood lineage. No one need assume that he or she will be denied any blessing by reason of not being of the blood lineage of Israel. The Lord told Abraham, “And I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father.” (Abraham 2:10)
“Nephi tells us that “as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord.”(2 Nephi 30:2) Therefore it makes no difference if the blessings of the house of Israel come by lineage or by adoption.
“Some might be disturbed because members of the same family have blessings declaring them to be of a different lineage. A few families are of a mixed lineage. We believe that the house of Israel today constitutes a large measure of the human family. Because the tribes have intermixed one with another, one child may be declared to be from the tribe of Ephraim and another of the same family from Manasseh or one of the other tribes. The blessing of one tribe, therefore, may be dominant in one child, and the blessing of another tribe dominant in yet another child. So children from the same parents could receive the blessings of different tribes” (Conference Report, Oct. 1995, 83; or Ensign, Nov. 1995, 64)
(4) Marriage of Ruth and Boaz. This typifies the process by which Israel and gentiles receive the promised blessings of the gospel. Boaz is a go’el or redeemer. Only through the power of his redemption can both Naomi and Ruth receive the blessings of inheritance for themselves and posterity. The similarity of Boaz with Christ are obvious.
By placing the story of Ruth before the books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings, the reader is given a foreshadow of Israel’s scattering and gathering. Further, a testimony of the redemptive role of Jesus Christ is given in a remarkable way. When understood this way, the Book of Ruth becomes more than lovely story. Indeed, it capsulizes the message of the scriptures!