One of the reasons I hope you read The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James is because after reading it myself I have seen where I have completely skipped over the nuances of Ruth and missed the big picture in a big way. That bothers me because I study Scripture because I want to understand the point! I’m not a novice. I have studied hermeneutics and understand how important it is to get the context straight and pay attention to those pesky details to understand the intent. It bothers me a lot that I was so off base on this book.
Before I read The Gospel of Ruth this is how I would have summed up Ruth:
The book begins with a dreadful time for Naomi. She leaves home due to a famine, loses her husband and two sons in a foreign land and becomes destitute She decides to return home and after releasing her daughters-in-law of any responsibilities, Ruth alone decides to return with Naomi out of devotion to her and her God. With no man to provide for them back in Bethlehem, Ruth goes out to a field to glean for food. While there, Boaz takes notice of her and decides to take kindness upon the stranger. When Naomi hears of the kindness and learns it was from a near family member, she concocts a scheme to secure a husband for Ruth. Her plan succeeds. Ruth is fulfilled thanks to her marriage to Boaz, Elimelech’s name is saved thanks to Boaz, and the line of Christ continues, thanks to Boaz and Ruth. The emphasis of the story is on Boaz as the role of a kinsmen redeemer, for as Boaz saved Ruth and Elimelech’s name, our Redeemer saves us. The story serves as an interesting foreshadowing in the lineage of Christ.
My rendition of the Book of Ruth leaves the reader with a romance novel of sorts. ‘Boaz becomes the kinsman-redeemer hero who follows his heart to rescue Ruth and make her life fulfilling and complete with marriage and a baby.’ All that is missing is a dragon and a castle or a smutty front cover.
It is important to remember in this story that Elimelech is the one in trouble, he is the one who needs a kinsman-redeemer. Naomi and Ruth are suffering, not needing to be rescued. Their problem is that God appears to have turned against them. There are two story lines in this book and both are resolved with the same remedy.
The answer to the question a woman’s suffering evokes and it’s more painful questions that hint at her worth, as well as the rescue of Elimelech’s name, are both achieved by the message of the book: the Law is not God’s heart.
After reading this book, this is how I would sum up the book of Ruth:
The book begins with a dreadful time for Naomi. She leaves home due to a famine, loses her husband and two sons in a foreign land and becomes utterly destitute. Immediately I diverge from my original understanding with the realization that the book of Ruth is not about Ruth or Boaz, but about Naomi. A careful reading shows that as things unfurl they all relate to Naomi. This is HER story and God makes that clear when the account wipes all men off of the scene in the first few verses.
Meet the female Job. Similar to Job, in a matter of a few sentences she loses everything. How we have gone through the ages and embraced Job’s suffering but brushed Naomi’s aside requires introspection in my opinion. Naomi’s story is Job’s story only unbelievably more intense. Job had hope if his health returned, he could rebuild. Naomi had no hope of rebuilding. Bereft of husband or sons and the possibility of attaining those once more, she has lost not only her family, and her wealth, but her security AND the purpose for her existence as well.
Naomi does not lament the loss of riches or wail for her children, she focuses on her estrangement to men (vs. 12) as her present, overriding trouble, and she concludes “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!” (vs. 13). Where Satan’s second blow to Job wiped out his health, he (?) targets Naomi differently and removes her understood purpose. Naomi and Job both look at their sufferings, which arise from similar but different circumstances, and come to the same conclusions. “I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7: 11), “The arrows of the Almighty are in me…God’s terrors are marshaled against me.” (Job 6: 4) “Why have you made me your target?” (Job 7:20)
Past childbearing years Naomi is banned forever to the edge of existence in widowhood; the most defenseless, poor, abused and overlooked segment of society. In the eyes of a patriarchal society she no longer was of any use, her purpose was gone. Her purpose in child-bearing had expired. Her purpose as a helper to man was forever gone too, for no man would consider marrying a woman past childbearing years. She knew her fate; she had no worth in the eyes of the culture; she would be discarded. Worse, it appeared to her that God too had discarded her and viewed her the same as the society she lived in.
She heads back home to Bethlehem, begging her daughters-in-law to be practical and not return with her. Their fate she reasoned would be no different from hers, for despite their youth, they were widows and barren and thus without hope. There is no future for them in Judah. This is indeed the loss all of these women are grappling with. Oprah does the sensible thing, not the cowardly or unspiritual thing, and returns to the protection of her family and the slim chance that her Moabite culture will be gentler to her than a sojourn as a foreigner.
Time to meet another female heavyweight of the faith: the female Abraham. Once again, the female version can be argued as more intense. Ruth chooses God, (not Naomi), and in Abrahamic faith, leaves her homeland like Abraham did but without the benefit of any angelic visits promising a future. Indeed, she left with no promise beyond the lowest class of poverty. In addition to this remarkable faith, she chose this AFTER seeing what the God of Israel did to Naomi. Naomi trudges to Bethlehem bitter, as she sees as Job did, that God’s hand is against her and has left her without hope in despair. Like Job, she finds no comfort in ‘her friend’. She doesn’t even speak to her. I believe Naomi sees Ruth as her burden, not as a companion to lighten the load of misery. Ruth is a soul Naomi will feel some how responsible for and be unable to aid.
In Bethlehem, the need to eat sends Ruth to the fields to glean. Here, Ruth breaks the rules (the Law) and we as readers begin to see God’s response to Naomi’s suffering through Ruth.
Ruth saw the purpose of the law and did not construe it to reflect on the heart of what God wanted. She saw the heart of God towards woman (and man as we will see in a moment), as extending beyond the law. She entreats Boaz, a righteous man already, to go beyond what the law requires and show love through compassion. What will you do with your power over me? How will you treat the orphan and widow? Let me go beyond the edge of the field, let me glean behind the harvesters. James’ does a wonderful job in her book at this point to show why what Ruth was asking was going well beyond what the Law required.
Boaz follows her initiative and moves beyond what was required of him by the Law and embraces its heart. When Ruth returns home she returns not just with wheat but with hope for Naomi. God’s law for Israel is not God’s heart towards women. The Law said she was worthy of the edge of the field, God’s heart says she is worthy of abundance. The law is not God’s decree of what the bereft woman is worthy of, it is the shallow boundary of the pool; no man is to make the boundary more shallow.
Naomi, upon hearing that Boaz is a near relative, smells the salvation of marriage for Ruth and concocts a plan to attain it. Ruth follows Naomi’s plan but then diverges for something better and it is here that we see that this story isn’t about a woman becoming fulfilled via marriage and a baby. It is here that the second story line, Elimelech’s name, is also redeemed by going beyond the Law.
In Abrahamic-like faith, Ruth takes on the responsibility and initiative of saving the family line, by redeeming it apart from the Law, that is, her plan is not to follow the Law but the heart of it.
James attention to the details of how Ruth diverges and what is involved is invaluable to understanding what is really going on behind this marriage. The law says Naomi must marry a non-existent brother for the purpose of having a son that she is no longer capable of. Mission impossible. Ruth asks Boaz for a big sacrifice (which is best explained by James) to act as the non-existent brother and join together with her in an alliance to redeem not her life, but Naomi’s life and Elimelech’s line. Ruth offers herself in the place of Naomi to produce a son which is astonishing because she is barren. (She was previously married for a decade and had no children.) Boaz marries Ruth not because he is overcome with love but because Ruth has inspired him to go beyond the law. He understands that this marriage isn’t about the two of them. They are married and Ruth has a son, and she gives him to Naomi.
God answered Naomi’s “why am I despised by You?” without defending why He let her suffer but rather, by pointing to the truth. Yes, she has suffered but He has never despised her because He is not the culture, He is not the Law. He is beyond the Law. He is God and He is love. She is then restored just as Job was.
But she received a son, you’ll say…wasn’t she saved in the end by the very thing that minimized her and caused her suffering? I think remembering that Job had his wealth and paternity restored to him as well helps us to see that the point of the story was never about the wealth or the children or the place in society, it was about how God viewed him: was he for or against him? Had God turned away from Job? Had God turned away from Naomi?
Had God turned away from Naomi….beyond her circumstances, the law itself seemed to oppose her, or at least think lesser of her. Naomi, like all of us, needed to see plainly that the Law, like the culture, does not express God’s idea of her worth.
This story is rich, rich, rich in details that I have overlooked to my loss. James goes into much greater detail, drawing out what I only laid down in broad strokes, adding only a few connections she didn’t mention. I need to note that James may or may not agree with where I have taken her work. Also, there are many more nuances that I can’t mention here without reproducing her book so reading my lengthy post is not a substitute for reading her book. The Gospel of Ruth is worth your time to read.