Author: Dr. Mok Chiu Yau (CEDAR China Programme Advisor)
In the OT, Ruth was the very definition of an underprivileged sojourner as she had to leave her home in Moab to Israel, an anti-Moabites community, to take care of her mother-in-law.
Ruth was probably born around 1,100 B.C. or earlier. Being a Moabite in eastern Palestine, her tribe was shunned upon by the God-chosen Israelites, as centuries ago the Moabite king hired prophet Balaam to curse and expel the Israelites, who at that time was a massive body of refugees themselves, seeking to pass through Moab (Numbers 24:1-6). And then there was the account where Israelites were being seduced by Moabite women into the acts of adultery, and ultimately, crossing the final line in their idolatry towards the gods of Moab, resulting in Yahweh’s rage and His downpour of plagues that killed over 20 thousand Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9). Subsequently, the Israelite law stated that
“No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation… Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live (i.e. Do not form any political partnerships)” (Deuteronomy 23:3, 6).
People have been focusing on how a sojourner like Ruth could luckily be accepted by the historically nationalistic Israelites, for example, her grandmother Naomi brought her to the Jewish faith and under the wings of Israelites, God’s wonderful work that brought her to work in Boaz’s fields, Boaz’s grace upon Ruth, Naomi’s clever plan that engaged them, Boaz’s tremendous sacrifice in marrying Ruth, etc., that these must have happened because Ruth dismissed her old idols and chose the true God Yahweh.
However, the focus of this story might have completely escaped us, where the opposite—Ruth’s blessings to Naomi, Boaz, and Israel—might instead be the true virtue of the story. There is an important and repeated use of the word, “show kindness”, or “Chesed” (the phonetic translation from Hebrew), that was used to describe both Ruth and Yahweh. We have to take a closer look at the passage to recognize its importance.
Chesed is an important word in OT, its basic meaning being “Loyal love”, where two parties verbally promise or even make covenants about each other’s responsibilities in establishing and sustaining a special relationship, loyally and perpetually. God revealed His loyal love through the bible, where first He chose the people of Israel and established a special bonding with them—“ I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7), then He promised to sustain this relationship and forever be loyal in His part, as said in Deuteronomy 7:9, “… The Lord your God… is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love (Chesed) to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” The same word was repeatedly recited in Psalms 136, “His love (Chesed) endures forever.” It is only reasonable for the other side of the relationship, the Israelites, to respond with their loyal love and worship God as the one and only.
Moreover, the people of God must also treat each other with the same loyal love under the law, bearing each of his own civil responsibilities that allow a just society. In 800 B.C., prophet Micah gave the best advice to the society where both relationships and justice were lost in the dust, “To act justly and to love mercy (Chesed) and to walk humbly with your God.”
The word “Chesed” appeared three times in Ruth 1:8, 2:20, and 3:10 respectively. It is not much, but the spirit of Chesed virtually ties the whole story together.
“Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law,
‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home.
May the Lord show you kindness, (to treat with Chesed)
as you have shown kindness (neutral in Hebrew, but the virtue of kindness was implied) to your dead husbands and to me.’”
If we read the passage in its whole, we could make out a few things: First, When the bible described the death of Naomi’s husband and two sons, as in 1:3, “she was left with her two sons,” and 1:5, “Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband,” the author focused more on the grim situation of Naomi than her daughters-in-law, hence the ensuing conversation about how her daughters-in-law still had a chance to remarry and start a new family, while she could not.
Second, from 1:6-7, we know that Naomi “heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them…” That was why “she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.” Here we could see that God was honoring His side of the covenant by providing food for His people. Naomi left home because of famine, and now wants to go back to her home society that is under the covenant and blessings of God, since the situation has improved. What she hoped for was the same kindness she spoke of in verse 8.
Third, as Naomi wanted to go back and enjoy God’s kindness, she also wanted her daughters-in-law to enjoy the same kindness because of how they had cared for her and her two sons. However, she dared not expect them to be accepted in the nationalistic Israelite society, hence in all her good conscience, she advised them the best logical way to enjoy God’s kindness—to remarry to someone in their home town.
Forth, Naomi felt strongly responsible for her daughters-in-law, that if she could, she would remarry and give birth to more children to maintain their relationships, and she was genuinely disappointed in her inability to achieve that, thinking that was God turning His hand against her (1:11-14). Even after she returned to Judah, she was still consciously taking up this responsibility (3:1), where she “introduced” Ruth to Boaz. The way the author told this story made it obvious that we should focus on the importance of the loyal love between God and man, and between men themselves, that to what length one could go on to materialize this love was the question at hand.
Fifth, Ruth has exhibited great loyal love to Noami. When Naomi urged her to return, Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” The author repeatedly described Ruth’s loyalty to her in-law, instead of to Yahweh.
The second time “Chesed” appeared was in 2:20, where Naomi’s reacted to Boaz’s grace upon Ruth, saying, “The Lord bless him… He has not stopped showing his kindness (Chesed) to the living and the dead… That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers.” Here Naomi was referring to the same kindness of God as she did in 1:8. At that time, to her, God’s kindness was temporary, as she said, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty… The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (1:21). After knowing what Boaz did to Ruth, Naomi rekindled her hope and thought that this close relative might be kind enough to take on the responsibility to take care of the two widows, and now she started longing for Yahweh’s loyal love once again. The readers are probably as eager to know how the story goes, and how Yahweh could show His never-failing kindness.
The last time we see “Chesed” is in 3:10 during Ruth’s nighttime approach to Boaz, where the latter responded, “The Lord bless you, my daughter… This kindness (Chesed) is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.” We could see 3 things in his reply, first, it has a similar pattern to Naomi’s words in 2:20 above, “[The Lord] has not stopped showing his kindness (Chesed) to the living and the dead”, and it was apparent that both God and Ruth showed the spirit of a loyal love that was not only unfaltering, but also (as Boaz put it) greater than what was shown earlier—such is the most important characteristic of Ruth expressed by the author, and what the readers (Israelites and generations to come) should learn with all of their hearts, instead of simply praising anyone’s change of his or her religious views to a more Christian one. Secondly, if Ruth was thinking for herself, she could have chosen any young men out there to be her new husband, but instead she obeyed her mother-in-law and approached Boaz (3:5). Lastly, the fact that Ruth did not “run after” younger men paralleled the descriptions of her characters as shown in the former conversations between her and Naomi, where Naomi said, “Why would you come with me?” (1:11), “Go back with [your sister-in-law]” (1:15), and Ruth answered, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you” (1:16). These conversations highlighted Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law.
The latter half of the story was about Boaz’s arrangements concerning Ruth. He was clearly glad to fulfill the responsibilities of a close relative, and had nothing but praise for Ruth, but there actually weren’t any descriptions of affection from him towards Ruth, where we could have understood his romantic excitement. In fact, Boaz did it by the books, and consulted another relative closer to Ruth about this matter (4:1-6), which could potentially solve everything in the most effective way. Both Boaz and Ruth exhibited loyal love to their families, but Boaz did it out of the requirements of the Jewish law, while Ruth’s loyalty far exceeded the boundaries of law and race. We shall all be able to get a glimpse of “how wide and long and high and deep” is Yahweh’s love through Ruth’s example, while being reminded of our responsibilities to love one another with all our hearts and mind.
The story didn’t just end there. As we revisit the historical context of the book of Ruth, we recognize that the story happened during the times of the Judges (1:1), when “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25). Israel not only lacked a healthy political system, but its people also fell behind in keeping the moral standard, resulting in an age of commotion that desperately needed God’s fulfillment of His promise about keeping a loyal love towards His people. It was the only way to achieve safety, stability, and peace. God surprised everyone by fulfilling that promise and turning the fate of Israel around through Ruth, a widowed sojourner from a different nation who was foreign and helpless among the Israelites. It was through her exceptional love that God chose to reveal the true ending of the story to Israel—the birth of their greatest king, David (4:17-22), who brought endless hope to the people.
Moreover, all the future generations could enjoy God’s and Ruth’s loyal love due to the birth of Jesus Christ—the Son of God, as well as David’s descendent (hence also the descendent of the sojourner Ruth, as listed in Matthew 1:5-6)—who once left His home in the heavens, sojourned in Palestine and Egypt, and sacrificed everything so that “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
To conclude, we must remember that to treat the sojourned with love is a basic requirement for Bible-abiding, Christ-following disciples; if “by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2), who is to reject the strangers and subsequently the great potential blessings to oneself and the society? Who among us is not a foreigner and exile on earth (1 Peter 2:11)? We shall never hoard the resources and possessions given to us by God as if they have eternal values. On the contrary, sharing what you have with those in need is easily the quickest way to achieve a loving and just society.