There are only two books of the Bible named after women: Esther and Ruth. Ruth is also one of the few women who are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus found in the book of Matthew. And this was in a time when women weren’t ordinarily included in genealogies.
The book of Ruth is a beautiful piece of sacred literature, applauded by many for its literary excellence. And the story – it’s an important one. A simple Moabite widow becomes an essential character in the powerful story of salvation woven through the Bible.
As a widow myself, I’m drawn to the story of Ruth again and again. A famine in Canaan forces Elimelech and Naomi, along with their sons, to migrate from Bethlehem to Moab. Their sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Elimelech passes away, and about 10 years later, both of Naomi’s sons die, as well. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are all widows.
The world is not kind to widows today, and being a widow was even more difficult back then. In fact, Naomi encourages both girls to go back to their parents and find husbands who can take care of them. Ruth refuses with a passionate speech to Naomi:
Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” (Ruth 1: 16,17 KJV)
So, Ruth and Naomi both return to Bethlehem. They have nothing, so Ruth goes to work in the grain fields so they have enough food to eat. It’s there that she meets Boaz, who also turns out to be her “redeemer.” After Boaz secures his place as her redeemer, the two are married and are later blessed with a son named Obed – the grandfather of King David.
Ruth’s story is ordinary. Perhaps that’s what makes it so compelling. She doesn’t come from a famous family. She doesn’t have great riches or great position. Ruth is just a widow – one from an enemy nation, at that. Nothing is going in her favor, but she’s brave, and her faith never wavers. And yet the life of a foreign widow who has nothing becomes so important that it’s included in the Bible and her name recognized in the lineage of Jesus.
As you read through the book of Ruth, you won’t find any places where God’s voice thunders down to her as you might in other Bible stories. No earth-shattering miracles, like the Red Sea parting, happen in her life. But what you do see is an ordinary – and challenging – life shaped by faith and guided by the God she believes in, and today we can look back and see the mighty way her life was used.
While there are many things to learn from the story of Ruth, here are seven powerful lessons from this tiny book that stood out to me.
Lesson #1 – There is Hope Even in the Most Devastating Times of Our Life
The book of Ruth begins by looking at the life of Naomi. After moving to Moab with her husband and sons, she loses her husband and becomes a widow. Just 10 years later her sons die, too. It seems that Naomi’s entire life crumbles in those years. In fact, when she returns to Bethlehem, she tells everyone:
…Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty.” (Ruth 1:20,21a KJV)
It’s crushing to lose a spouse. It’s heart-wrenching to lose a child. And Ruth, she also lost her husband. She left behind her family to go with Naomi back to Bethlehem. When these two women arrive back in Naomi’s home town, they are destitute, devastated, and broken. Neither of them knew how they’d survive. But both of them had faith that somehow things would work out. They had hope for their future.
Naomi already felt that God had “dealt very bitterly” with her, yet she continued to hope. Ruth laid aside her pain, left her home and family, and turned her face to the future with hope as she journeyed to a new place with her mother-in-law. Both of these women showed faith and clung to the belief that better days were ahead.
When life brings devastation, it’s not easy to hope. It’s hard to have faith. But when things are the most difficult, that’s when we need faith and hope the most. In the moments where life feels like it’s crushing you, start with a little faith. Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And looking at the book of Ruth, we can see that even when we can’t see beyond our pain to his plan, we can have hope that our story isn’t over – better days are coming.
Lesson #2 – The Past is Not Our Final Destination When We Trust God
At the very beginning of the book of Ruth, she’s living in Moab, her home nation. Moab was a place that most Israelites didn’t like. It was an enemy nation, and Israelites tended to look down on the Moabites. On top of that, she was a widow, she was childless, and she lived with her mother-in-law.
That journey to Israel must have been frightening. She made a choice to stay with Naomi and help her, all the while knowing that she was going to a country that wouldn’t like her very much. Her country of origin already made her an outcast, and being a childless widow gave her plenty of reason to shrink back into a shell and simply live her life in obscurity.
But that’s not what she did. She declared that she was going with Naomi to Bethlehem, left her country and her family behind, and refused to let her past hold her back. She chose to serve the God of Naomi, and she believed there was still life left for her to live.
No matter your past, you still have a purpose. Your past is not your final destination when you make a choice in faith. While your confidence may be wavering, God’s promises are not.
Lesson #3 – Doing the Right Thing Often Takes Great Sacrifice
Doing the right thing isn’t always easy. In fact, it often takes great sacrifice. Naomi reminded Ruth that she was free to leave and go back to her family. She was free to go back to her gods and free to search for a new husband to take care of her. But even when her sister-in-law chose to go back, Ruth made a different decision.
Ruth chose to go with her mother-in-law, showing not only how dedicated she was to Naomi, but also her dedication to the God of Israel. In that instant, she decided, “…Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
It was a sacrifice for Ruth to refuse to return to her family. Her commitment to journey on with Naomi was a beautiful, selfless act, and a stunning example of the love of Christ – the same Christ who would be of her bloodline years later.
Lesson #4 – Sharing Openly About Our Relationship with God Brings Intimacy to Relationships
The story of Naomi and Ruth are woven together closely that their stories are nearly inseparable. In fact, we know more about the relationship between these two women than we know about them individually. Their relationship offers a beautiful model of a good relationship – a stunning look at a blending of lives.
The two women shared great sorrow, but they also shared great affection for one another. We also see the freedom in their relationship. Naomi loved Ruth, but she was willing to let her go back to her family. But it was Ruth’s love for Naomi that made her willing to leave her country to return to Israel. Even though Naomi knew that a new marriage for Ruth would change their relationship, she still played an important part in arranging the marriage of Boaz and Ruth.
It was their faith that was at the center of their relationship and intimate communication. Through Naomi, Ruth learned about the God of Israel and chose to put her trust in him. Naomi’s ability to be open and honest with Ruth about her relationship with God is inspiring.
We often feel like we need to keep our questions and thoughts about God to ourselves within a relationship. We don’t usually share our unedited feelings and thoughts about God with friends or family members. Sometimes we’re afraid that sharing our questions and doubts and disappointments will turn other people away from God, when actually, sharing about our relationship with God openly can bring more intimacy to our relationships and help draw other people to their own faith.
Naomi was open with Ruth about the joy, the fear, the pain, and the anguish that came with her faith in God. She admitted that she felt that God had dealt with her bitterly. And yet it was that sharing and intimacy that was the foundation of the deep relationship these two women shared.
Lesson #5 – We See a Preview of Christ’s Redeeming Power
Throughout the Bible, we see previews of Christ. In the book of Ruth, we see Boaz as a “type” of Christ – he’s the “redeemer” of Ruth. These previews of Christ are a bit of a “foreshadowing” that falls across Old Testament pages, fully coming to reality in the New Testament with the birth of Jesus.
Both Ruth and Naomi mention Boaz as a “kinsman.” In Hebrew, the word used is “goel,” which refers to a kinsman who has the “right to redeem” or a “redeemer.”
Throughout the Bible, we see that same Hebrew word used several times. In the book of Job, Job declares, “I know that my Redeemer [goel] lives.” While Boaz was a “kinsman redeemer,” when Jesus comes to earth as a man, he becomes our “kinsman redeemer” in the flesh, and Hebrews 2:11 it says that he is “not ashamed to call them brethren.”
Boaz redeemed Ruth, but years later Jesus would become the “redeemer” for mankind. When John the Baptist was born, Zacharias was speaking in the future about the work of Christ, announcing:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” (Luke 1:68)
Lesson #6 – We Must Be People of Character Even When We Think No One is Watching
Character – it’s who you really are when no one else is watching. Ruth had no idea that millions of people would read her story. She lived a simple live in obscurity. Yet she showed incredible character. Even Boaz makes mention of her character:
…It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore…Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter; for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.” (Ruth 2:11, Ruth 3:10,11 KJV)
Ruth went above and beyond in the way she honored and respected her mother-in-law, and in doing so became known in the entire city as a “virtuous woman.” She worked hard to provide food for her and her mother-in-law. Everything that she did showed her character, and because of that character, she was honored by God. Like Ruth, we also need to work to be women and men of integrity.
Lesson #7 – God Uses Unlikely People for His Purpose
Ruth was a poor, hurting, outcast, widow. She grew up in an evil country – an enemy of Israel. She was childless. She moved to a foreign land where she knew no one but her mother-in-law. They struggled with poverty. She had to go gather behind the harvesters in the fields to get a bit of barley so they could survive. Anyone who looked at this foreign widow would have never guessed that God would choose her bloodline for the line of the promised redeemer – Jesus.
Through Ruth’s story, we learn that God uses the most unlikely people for his purpose. Just look at the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Tamar resorted to trickery to bear a son. Rahab was a prostitute whose faith saved her from the crashing walls of Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite and a widow. Bathsheba (referred to as Uriah’s wife in the genealogy of Jesus) only became David’s wife after David took her for himself and killed her husband. Mary was a young virgin who was already engaged to Joseph when she became pregnant with Jesus, and she showed great courage in her willingness to bear the scorn and shame that came with a pregnancy that occurred before marriage.
Ruth reminds us that no matter what lies in our past, and no matter how difficult our circumstances may be, a little bit of faith makes a huge difference. And even in our obscurity, and in the mess of what may be our lives, God finds a way to use the most unlikely people in ways that we could never imagine.