“For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” Ruth 1:16-17
These inspiring words come from the mouth of a Moabite woman who lived at the time when the Judges ruled Israel. Perhaps you have heard this passage read at weddings like I have. Ruth’s story has all the right elements; tragedy, loyalty, redemption, and in the end – marriage to a wealthy man. It is easy to see why this brief book has attracted the attention of many authors and pastors over the years. There are no shortage of commentaries, sermons, and blog posts focusing on Ruth. Hers is a deeply human story that is easy to connect with. But it may also be a story we don’t really understand.
I fear that in a rush to be relevant we have overlooked some important facts and over-romanticized this compelling account. If we are serious about Bible study we must let the book speak for itself instead of imposing our own themes onto the narrative. Only then can we see what God intends to teach through this story.
We should start by noting that Ruth’s words that begin this article were not spoken to her lover, but to her elderly mother-in-law. Naomi had decided to return to her native land of Israel after the death of her husband and two sons (one of whom was Ruth’s husband). When her two widowed daughters in law attempted to follow her, Naomi repeatedly urges them to go back to their own homes and leave her alone. While Naomi’s arguments were good enough to dissuade one of the women, Ruth proves impossible to shake.
But not only does Ruth offer this commitment to Naomi, she does so in the face of Naomi’s persistent resistance. And we must not miss the fact that Naomi seeks to dissuade Ruth from following her by repeatedly talking about Ruth’s future marriage prospects. In 1:9 Naomi prays that God would bless Ruth with another husband after Ruth returns to her parent’s home. In 1:11-13 Naomi reminds Ruth of the obvious fact that she will not bear any more sons for Ruth to marry. Naomi’s concern for Ruth’s future marriage is an understandable one. In their society, unmarried women had few avenues of self-support. Marriage was important for a woman’s survival. This cultural reality makes Ruth’s decision to stick with Naomi even more astounding.
Following Naomi could very well have shut the door on Ruth’s love life. She assertively chose a path that severely limited her romantic options. The narrator of this story repeatedly reminds us that Ruth was a Moabite woman, and those who know Israelite history will remember that the Israelites and Moabites didn’t get along with each other. It is quite likely that Ruth could have experienced discrimination in Israel because of her ethnicity. Going to a place where the residents don’t like your kind isn’t exactly the best way to find a husband. But Ruth cared more about her elderly, bitter mother in law than she did about her own romantic prospects.
Let’s also look for a moment at the infamous threshing floor incident in chapter three. Once Naomi finds out that Ruth has been gleaning in a field belonging to Boaz, a distant relative, it is she who takes the romantic initiative, coaching her daughter-in-law to wash, anoint (think makeup), and present herself to Boaz at the opportune moment. Naomi seems obsessed with Ruth’s romantic life “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” (3:1b). Naomi clearly wanted a husband for Ruth, and was even willing to manipulate the situation in order to achieve this goal. N-Harmony was working overtime to find Ruth her perfect match.
In contrast to her mother in law’s romantic obsession, at no point in this story does Ruth ever express a desire for remarriage. She may have wanted marriage. She didn’t refuse to marry Boaz, and she was certainly capable of refusing to follow Naomi’s instructions, as we saw in chapter one. But Boaz was likely much older than her, and he may already have been married to someone else. We simply don’t know how Ruth felt about him. But what we do know is that when push came to shove, for Ruth marriage wasn’t the highest priority.
There is much for us to learn from Ruth. She is strong, loyal, and shows a godly stubbornness. But if we persist in seeing Ruth’s story through the lens of romance we may miss some of the most important aspects of who she was.
The message of Ruth isn’t that women should be more proactive in the dating scene or that in the end God will give everyone the perfect human romance.
This book is about love. But the kind of love on display here is not romantic or sexual love. It is the love of a daughter who would not let her elderly mother in law return home alone; and ultimately it is the love of a God who did not abandon Naomi when she had given up all hope.
I do not write this because I believe there is something wrong with wanting marriage or pursuing marriage. Marriage is a good thing. Scripture is clear about that. The fact that Ruth may not have wanted marriage does not mean it is wrong to desire marriage.
I write this because I am concerned that romantic fixation can distort our view of Scripture and warp our understanding of life. Ruth chose right without knowing what the romantic fallout would be. May the same courage be evident today in the lives of those who worship her God.”