The path to spiritual growth (so we are told) is to have our daily “quiet time”—a private time of Bible reading and prayer that gets us focused for the day. Some believe this daily practice will guarantee a prime parking spot when we arrive at work or are out running errands.
This serene portrayal of Bible reading left me totally unprepared for what happened when I started digging deeper into the Old Testament book of Ruth. No one warned me I might need a crash helmet. I’d always heard (even taught) that this brief biblical narrative was a beautiful love story where the wealthy, handsome Boaz rescues the lovely but impoverished Ruth from her dismal life of singleness.
A more accurate depiction of the book of Ruth is of a harmless looking backpack loaded with explosives. The Bible is a dangerous book—in explosive but life-giving ways. It’s not supposed to give us a reassuring pat on the back. It’s designed to disrupt and challenge our thinking, to raise hard, important questions, and to move us forward as truer followers of Jesus.
That won’t be a smooth or a painless process for anyone.
To unleash the Bible’s explosive powers, we must remind ourselves that we are not reading an American book. The Bible takes place within an ancient patriarchal culture. It is important to understand that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message; it is the cultural backdrop that sets off in the starkest relief the radical gospel nature of that message.
Patriarchy is a fallen social system that empowers men over women and a few men over most other men. It deprives females of legal rights, agency, and voice. A woman derives her value and security from men—father, husband, and sons. In a patriarchal culture a woman’s duty in life is to produce sons for her husband to secure the family’s survival for another generation. Indeed, the gold standard for determining a woman’s value is to count her sons.
By that standard, the deaths of all the men in the Naomi’s family (her husband and her sons) send a bereft Naomi and her barren daughter-in-law Ruth plummeting to the bottom of the social ladder. Count their sons. Culturally speaking, they are zeroes.
The deaths of the men shove Naomi and Ruth to the margins where their suffering and vulnerability intensify. Naomi is a famine refugee in Moab (today’s Jordan) with all of the trauma and social deprivation that entails. Today’s refugees shed fresh light on Naomi’s ordeal. Her lament against God defines the issues that the story will address. Convinced she’s lost God’s love, she mutters, “Don’t call me Naomi (pleasant). Call me Mara (bitter) . . . because the LORD has afflicted me.”
Today’s hostility against undocumented immigrants makes Ruth’s stubborn embrace of Naomi and her God breathtaking. Instead of returning to the safety and security of home and family, and well aware of the long road of poverty, vulnerability, abuse, and exploitation that awaits in Bethlehem, Ruth defiantly embraces Naomi and her God.
Culturally speaking she is sabotaging her life.
But this is where the whole story changes—for Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz. Ruth is YHWH’s child now, and she will live as one, no matter what it costs.
Her border crossing into Israel comes off without a hitch. No barbed wire, drones, border guards, or extreme vetting. On Israelite soil, Ruth drops below zero. She is female, barren, poor, and now a gentile foreigner. Once in Bethlehem, she does is what locals always fear undocumented immigrants will do. She goes on welfare, becomes a common field worker—scavenging for scraps of grain to keep Naomi and herself alive.
This is where the explosions begin.
Ruth defies the silencing patriarchy imposes on women. She will not settle for bringing scraps to Naomi. She will fight to rescue Naomi’s family from dying out. From the margins and against overwhelming odds, Ruth becomes a gutsy risk taker.
Her encounters with Boaz are the stuff of gospel. The cultural disparity between them is pronounced and chilling. She is powerless, defenseless, on his turf, and challenging his interpretations of Mosaic Law. He’s a native born Israelite in perfect compliance with the law. Ruth lives on the hungry side of the law. The letter of the law says, “Let them glean.” The spirit of the law says, “Feed them.”
The book of Ruth gives us one of the most explosive displays of the kingdom of God touching down in human relationships. Ruth’s bold initiatives trigger an epidemic of true kingdom living. Lives are transformed. Sacrifices abound. The culture’s value system is overthrown. Boaz uses his advantages to empower Ruth and insure her initiatives on Naomi’s behalf succeed. Together they bring healing, hope, and blessing to Naomi. And God redeploys Naomi to raise Obed as her own son on the theology she learned in the school of suffering.
In the end, a hungry widow is fed, a dying family is preserved for another generation, and God advances his purposes for the world on the shoulders of two women the world counted out.
Their story sends shockwaves through my story. Makes me think twice before counting anyone out when it comes to kingdom work. Has me asking myself, “If God called Ruth to take risks to benefit and bless others, why not me?”
Want to read more? Buckle up and read Finding God in the Margins.
Catch our interview with Carolyn Custis James on Steve Brown, Etc.