by Rev. Julian Duckworth
The Biblical Book of Ruth
Like me, most readers of The New Age – especially those who have been brought up in the New Church – will be aware that there is a book in the Bible called “Ruth” but may not be very familiar with it, in terms of the story and the characters. (You might like to stop for a moment and just ask yourself [before reading on] what if anything you do know about the book of Ruth.)
“Ruth” is not one of the books of the Word with what Swedenborg calls an internal sense. This term simply means that in certain books of the Bible – like Genesis, Isaiah, Psalms and many others – every verse is connected in an unbroken spiritual series dealing (internally within the text) with the Lord’s glorification and our own spiritual regeneration. But certain other books – like Ezra, Chronicles, Proverbs, and others, including Ruth – are not written in this way. This doesn’t mean they are not worth reading; simply that they do not have the same level of Divine inspiration. One of these books, Esther, never mentions the name of God once, but its overall theme is courage and deliverance while the Jews were in Exile, so it became part of the Jewish scriptures and is there in the Old Testament. Others of these books, including Ruth, mention God very many times (actually it is always The Lord in Ruth) but they are not written to contain this internal sense. So what are they? What is the level of the inspiration of a book like Ruth? Read it yourself and see.
It is a very personal and uplifting story, with characters such as Ruth, Boaz and Naomi who show a love for God and a deep moral sense in the way they live and deal with others. So perhaps a book like Ruth is a beautiful but simple outward lesson for us: Be faithful and be good, both to the Lord your God and to your family and friends. And that kind of more obvious lesson is important for us, balancing the deeper levels of spiritual meanings in other books of the Bible, or the Word.
One feature of Ruth which is of great importance is that she herself was a foreign woman, a Moabitess, a girl from Moab, a tribe related to the Israelites. But she eventually marries Boaz, a Jew, and they are ancestors of David, the greatest king of Israel. This foreignness within Jewish marriage is usually strongly forbidden in the scriptures, which command against marrying a foreign wife who will lead her husband and family away from the Lord towards other gods. So perhaps Ruth is deliberately included to remind us that love is a greater thing than the law. The situation of Ruth as an ancestor of King David is mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 1 verse 5, in the genealogy of Jesus: “Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king.” (Compare this to the last few similar verses at the very end of the book of Ruth). This makes Ruth King David’s great-grandmother, and puts Ruth in the Word itself.
Let me next give you a brief outline of the unfolding love-story of this book, but invite you to read it through for yourself – it is only four chapters long.
During a major famine in Israel, a man took his wife and two sons to settle in Moab. The man died and the two sons each married Moabite women and then they died. So there was Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi decided to return to Israel (the famine was over) and told her daughters-in-law to go back to their own homes again. Orpah sadly agreed to this, but Ruth refused to leave Naomi. “Wherever you go I will go. Your God shall be my God.” They returned to Bethlehem as the barley harvest began.
Naomi’s late husband had a close relative who was very rich. His name was Boaz. Ruth asked Naomi to let her go out and glean the ungathered barley heads from the field. As she did this, Boaz saw her and he asked his reapers who she was. They told him she was Ruth from Moab. Boaz told Ruth to glean only in his fields, and to eat with the reapers, and he told his reapers to deliberately drop ears of barley for her to pick up. In the evening she went home and Naomi saw just how much she had gathered, and Ruth told her about Boaz’s kindness.
Then Naomi told Ruth that she would arrange security for her. She told her to go to the threshing-floor and lie down at the feet of Boaz when he came to lie down after eating and drinking at the end of the day. At midnight, Boaz woke up and was startled to find a woman at his feet. Ruth told him who she was and Boaz praised her for her virtue. He told her that while he was her relative, there was an even closer relative who should be asked to do his duty of providing security. In the morning he filled Ruth’s shawl with six large measures of barley which she took home to Naomi.
Boaz went to talk with the near relative of Naomi. He told him that Naomi was selling the land that had belonged to her husband. It needed to be bought back. He asked the relative to redeem it and the relative agreed. But Boaz said, “On the day you buy it back from Naomi you must also buy it back from Ruth, to raise up the name of the dead on his inheritance.” The relative excused himself and told Boaz to buy it for himself. And he took off his sandal to mark the agreement. Then Boaz told people that he had bought everything that had belonged to Naomi’s husband and that Ruth would be his wife. Eventually Ruth bore a son whom they called Obed. Naomi breastfed him and the servants called him Naomi’s son. And this Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Some Suggestions of Meanings
It is a lovely story of course because it is a classic love-story. Yet it comes like a bright spot in the otherwise darkening story of Israel, immediately after the book of Judges which ends with the dire words, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And immediately after the book of Ruth there comes the book of Samuel in which the first king of Israel (Saul) was chosen. The positioning of Ruth maintains the overall historical sequence and at the end it foreshadows the eventual kingship of David.
When I read Ruth though, I don’t get much of a feel of a book with a deeper spiritual meaning. It’s written as a simple folk story with touches of traditions and customs coming here and there. But it highlights the theme of redemption in the last two chapters as Boaz redeems this young woman and gives her security in making her his wife by buying her. This could well be the most significant theme of the book, foreshadowing the Lord’s redemption of the human race through His life and work in the world. The two most common words that occur in Ruth are “kinsman” (relative) and “redeem”, and in the original Hebrew they are, with just one exception, the very same word. This could very well be telling us something about our own relationship with the Lord and His work with us to ensure that close relationship. I’d go even further and say that this is a book that tells us how we can be in the right relationship with the Lord and belong to Him and He to us. Notice that Boaz immediately liked the look of Ruth, but Ruth had to engineer the process to allow Boaz to be able to have her for his own. She offered herself but with virtue. We could miss the simple fact of a relationship in the intricacies of doctrines and spiritual truths, but how much we need to know it is just as it truly is; that we can have and need to have a personal relationship with the Lord Himself.
I wouldn’t want to add anything to this suggestion of a magnificent yet simple meaning to this delightful book of Ruth. You, though, may glean other things!
“Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.
The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.”