The Book of Ruth is a story about someone who is a woman and an immigrant. Those are both things that are quite obvious, but are too easy to overlook. When I read Ruth as a white man in a wealthy nation, I am reading a book about the life of someone whose life was very different from mine. When that story is also the written word of God, it’s critical that I realize that difference, and try to understand Ruth on her own terms. The result is that God can speak to us about the redemption He offers in Christ, and the redemption that we, as the body of Christ, are called to offer to the world.
Ruth is sometimes portrayed as a love story between Ruth and Boaz. Hollywood films generally cannot resist having a leading man and lady fall in love and end up together (with rare exceptions), but that’s not the case with Scripture. Ruth and Boaz do end up marrying, and there is certainly some real romance and seduction between them, but the love story is never primarily about Ruth & Boaz and their romantic attraction-it’s always presented in far larger terms than that. Their love is dominated by the concept of “hesed”; a Hebrew term for ‘love’ or ‘loving-kindness’. Sometimes it’s translated ‘mercy’ or ‘charity’. Always, it’s linked with the kind of love God has for His people. This is the love that Boaz has for Ruth, and, just as importantly, Ruth for Naomi. That’s really what this story is all about-Naomi finds her life falling apart, and God redeems her through the “hesed” of Ruth & Boaz.
Ruth’s love for Naomi leads her to leave her home, her country, and her family and go to a foreign country with Naomi. She’s led there by her love for Naomi and concern for her wellbeing. They are both widows, and together they will both be destitute. Their future looks bleak. But Ruth’s “hesed” for Naomi will not allow her to go alone. So, Ruth becomes an illegal immigrant (Deut. 23:3). This fact is driven home repeatedly in the book, where Ruth is referred to several times as “Ruth the Moabitess” and even refers to herself as a “foreign woman”-a no less flattering designation in those days than it would be today. Having immigrated to Israel, Ruth & Naomi need to support themselves. Though the town they live in was originally Naomi’s hometown, the two widows are without immediate male family to care for them, and employment opportunities for women in this deeply male-dominated society were extremely limited. So, Ruth steps forward to provide by relying on the ancient Israelite version of welfare (Deut. 24:19-22). Grain fields were not to be fully harvested, but portions left for the poor to come and collect.
Ruth, working as a young woman without a male protector, faced an always-present danger of sexual harassment or assault. We know this because the Bible says she did. When Boaz invites Ruth to remain in his field, he tells her he’s spoken to the men who work for him and warned them to leave her alone (2:9). In his commentary, K. Lawson Younger notes that the way this episode is phrased indicates Ruth may have already been the target of some comments (or worse?) from the young men in the field. Naomi shares this concern when she agrees Ruth should stay with Boaz “lest in some other field you be harmed” (v22). The word Naomi uses indicates much more than comments or touching, and seems to indicate a concern for Ruth’s safety.
As a young immigrant woman, whose very right to be in Israel was in question to begin with, Ruth is striving to provide for her family as best she can under Israelite law (even if it means taking food that might otherwise go to feed other Israelites), demonstrating her love and loyalty to Naomi. Perhaps Ruth’s life is in fact much like the lives of many immigrants in the United States today who face the same challenges I do-trying to work and provide for a family within the bounds provided-except they are trying to do so in a country that is foreign to them, and often hostile to their presence. In particular, sexual harassment and assault are ubiquitous towards women who work as migrant farm laborers and night cleaning staff at hotels, banks, and offices. Many of them are undocumented immigrants (much like Ruth), and as a result, lack any means of support or safe place to report, for fear of deportation (much like Ruth), and so they must simply take the risk of harassment or rape as an occupational hazard (again, much like Ruth).
Ruth, however, was not alone. The field she went to ‘by chance’ was the field belonging to Boaz. Boaz acts as a redeemer to Ruth. He protects her in his field (8-9), treats her with dignity and respect (14), and provides for her needs (16-17). His marriage to Ruth is a redeeming act that gives her standing and legitimacy in the community, and restores Naomi’s family as well. In doing so, Boaz prefigures Jesus Christ. Jesus redeemed us as Boaz redeemed Naomi and Ruth. We, as the church, are called to be Christ’s body on earth. Where people face dehumanization, danger, disrespect, and violence, it is our call to reach out with the redeeming grace and mercy of Christ. We may have to give up certain rights to do so, and we may be reaching people that we’ve usually viewed as ‘not like us’, but that’s the call and good news of the Gospel. Christ is our redeemer, and calls us as His Church to act purposefully in our world in calling for redeeming and restoring those whom the rest of society rejects.