By Brandt L. Montgomery
On today, the Feast of the Epiphany, we are again invited on a Good Book Club journey through Scripture, starting with the Book of Ruth. Faust author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is said to have described this Old Testament short story as “the loveliest complete work on a small scale ever written.” It serves as a literary witness to all that is attested of God, that he is good and prevails over evil and suffering.
Ruth is filled with inversions of worldly circumstances. Whereas Israel has traveled from success to disaster, Ruth tells of going from disaster to success. Whereas Israel has displayed faithlessness, Ruth depicts faithfulness. That is because in its narrative are characters who have chosen love characterized by chesed, a sacrificial relationship growing from God’s lovingkindness shown and offered to us. This is the love that thrives above evil and suffering. Ruth is an Old Testament picture of St. Paul’s New Testament proclamation: “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). This makes Ruth just as relevant to us today as it was when it was originally written. It shows how God provides for those who love him when it appears that all is lost.
Nothing Coincidental or Accidental with God
Ruth starts off by speaking of “the days when the judges ruled” (1:1). These days were not good for Israel. “There was no king … all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jdg. 17:6). But there was a King: God. The problem was that Israel did not fully submit to his heavenly authority. And though the Israelites’ actions may have been good in their eyes, they weren’t from God’s point of view. The Book of Judges describes these days as Israel forgetting the mighty acts God had done for them, causing them to reject his kingship and ditch his law for worldly ways. Yet, despite his people’s disobedience, God proved himself ever faithful to them.
When we are introduced to Naomi and Ruth in the first chapter, they are suffering personal distress. Naomi has left her native Bethlehem and moved to Moab with her husband, Elimelech, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to escape the famine. Their sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Ten years after they moved to Moab, Naomi’s husband and two sons have died, leaving her and her daughters-in-law as widows. Receiving word “that the Lord had considered his people and given them food” (1:6), Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth all begin journeying toward Bethlehem.
Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab and find husbands from among their own people. They both insist on remaining with her. Naomi again implores them to remain. Her pleas come from a place of genuine love, as she believes Orpah and Ruth’s respective futures will be better by remaining with their native people. Orpah reluctantly stays in Moab while Ruth clings to Naomi. A third time Naomi begs Ruth to stay. “No!” she replies. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). With that settled, both Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem “at the beginning of the barley festival” (1:22).
Considering Ruth’s words at 1:16-17, Naomi has been faithful to God the whole time. Her faithfulness to the God of Israel has moved Ruth to forsake her people’s gods and declare faithfulness to almighty God. God revealed himself to Ruth as the one true God worth submitting her whole being. And through Naomi’s kindness to Ruth arising from her religion and Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and pledged commitment to the God of Israel, God is starting to engineer their future prosperity. Ruth’s actions exemplify the greater love and commitment God has for all his people.
Naomi’s relationship with Ruth is a refreshing image of how one takes seriously God’s command to love others as he loves us. Naomi could have been the kind of mother who gave her sons a hard time for marrying Moabite women, and a mother-in-law who mistreated her daughters-in-law for being so. But she does not do that. It would make her a hypocrite, as Naomi, an Israelite, for a decade resided in a foreign land. Naomi has chosen compassion in line with God’s law. She fully embraces Ruth the Moabite into her family, which makes Ruth not want to leave her. Ruth’s loyal love for Naomi grafts her into God’s chosen people. Like them, we are called to live out God’s command to love, both in word and deed. Love truly does win.
The second chapter begins with Ruth gleaning in the grain field. The field on which Ruth gleans belongs to Boaz, an affluent man who happens to be a relative of Naomi’s late husband. For a foreign single woman like Ruth, gleaning was dangerous as well as embarrassing work, as Boaz implies in 2:9. Despite these factors, Ruth asks Naomi to let her “go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor” (2:2). Ruth suffers through the embarrassment and puts herself in potential danger, all for the sake of providing for her mother-in-law and herself.
The author uses the words “as it happened” (2:3) regarding Ruth’s gleaning in Boaz’s field, implying it was merely coincidence. Naomi rightly sees God at work in Ruth and Boaz’s meeting (2:20). Boaz has heard of Ruth’s courage in leaving her native land to dwell in an unknown land to offer support to her widowed mother-in-law. Ruth’s fortitude and loyal love for Naomi wins Boaz’s admiration and protection. By granting a widowed foreign woman permission to glean in his field, Boaz shows kindness to this foreigner. God uses Boaz’s kindness to further incorporate Ruth into his heavenly kingdom.
Boaz particularly points us to the greater love of almighty God. He not only blesses Ruth for her strong character, but he is benevolent toward her, showing his godly character. Even better than how Boaz is with Ruth in the second chapter, and will be with Naomi in the ensuing narrative, God is full of compassion for the poor and needy. And similar to, yet grander than, Boaz’s first meeting with Ruth, God has come into our time in the person of Jesus, knowing our troubles and offering us divine protection. Boaz points us to God as the Redeemer who rescues all who yearn to be found. Ruth’s three main characters each show how God uses all people of goodwill in both heart and mind to carry out his divine plan. Nothing is coincidental or accidental with God.
After a full day’s gleaning, Ruth tells Naomi that she met Boaz and how kind he was to her while out on the field. “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead! The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin” (2:20). From here, Ruth and Boaz’s relationship will continue to develop.
Godly Character, Not Race, Matters
Some commentaries put forward the view that God isn’t directly involved in the story’s events, though they proceed under his direction. I believe, though, that God is directly involved by way of the lovingkindness shown through Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz’s actions toward each other. Their actions of loyal love and strong character reflect who God is, and how his qualities affect those faithful to him. They chose God, who uses their actions to bring about a good end, not only for them then but for those coming after them. As we read this book now, during the Epiphany season, Ruth shows how God is directly involved and reveals himself as the eternal light the world needs.
We have seen in these two chapters how genuine love and relationship rooted in God’s unconditional love are essential to defeating the evil and suffering that plague our world. The Barna Group notes that 90 percent of Americans aged 16 to 29 perceive Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, and being too involved in politics. The January 6, 2021, insurrection, Christian nationalism, and Great Replacement Theory are three examples of events and issues many young people cite as Christians using their faith to personally, derogatorily, and unfairly judge and exclude others. The sad fact is that there are segments within Christianity for which this is very much the case. Fear of displacement by racial minorities has led some within the Christian faith to advocate for anti-immigration policies. Their advocacy has in turn led to violence and an epidemic of mass murder aimed at those labeled as “other.” This is not of God, nor should it be representative of Christianity.
The Book of Ruth helps remind us of an important truth: race — the categorization of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into distinct groups — is a foreign concept in God’s divine economy. Ruth the Moabite, an “other,” will be Jesse’s grandmother and David’s great-grandmother and, as a result, an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. That very fact should be enough to highlight the lunacy of racism. Thomas Aquinas argues in his Summa Theologica that God is the perfection of good and that no evil or prejudice dwells in or comes from him. Thus, racism and all other toxic isms and suffering are not supreme. Only God, the creator and sustainer of all things, the perfect structure of goodness and love, reigns supreme. God’s good comes out of the faithfulness of all who seek after and put their whole trust in him who made all things and declared them good.
God’s direct and continued involvement in the world is important for us to recall in our day. Despite any sort of conflict, there are still those who freely choose him and commit themselves to doing justice and living righteously. It is through our faithfulness to God that another reality, more powerful than the world’s troubles, is revealed. We see this fact throughout history. As Saul was a king who was unforgiving and cruel, David was a king who was forgiving and benevolent. As Herod sought to sustain his earthly power through violence, the Virgin Mary gave birth to the one whose eternal power “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). In the 1950s and 1960s, as the segregationist Bull Connor said that “you’ve got to keep the whites and the blacks separate,” the integrationist Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “we [all] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” No matter the time, place, or circumstance, and however large or small the individual, God’s light combats and shines in the darkness and wins.
As Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz have already shown us, choosing God and being faithful to him really does work. Having good character matters. God’s justice and benevolence will come through our observing what he commands and doing right in all our ways.
 The Student Bible, New Revised Standard Version (Zondervan, 1996), p. 283.
 Richard T. Schaefer, ed., Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society (SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008), pp. 1091-93; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Part 1, Questions 48 and 49).