RUTH’S ROLE AND PLACE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT METANARRATIVE

 

The book of Ruth, similar to the Song of Songs, is frequently read divorced from the metanarrative of the Old Testament. Ruth is read as a love story or as a ray of light in the midst of a dark period within the history of Israel.[1] Although both of these interpretations are true and helpful, the writer of Ruth had something greater that he intended to accomplish. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the author of Ruth intended the book of Ruth not to be read as a summation of all that came before it, rather than being read independently. The book of Ruth was intended to be read as an early biblical theology. The writer of Ruth purposed to remind God’s covenant people that YHWH had not forgotten His promises and that He is faithful to fulfill them. In order to grasp the author’s purpose one cannot begin with Naomi and Elimelek leaving Israel, rather one must begin with the book of Genesis.

The book of Genesis begins with the story of God creating the heavens and the earth. Shortly after creating the heavens and the earth, God created man. God then gave man and woman two commands: “be fruitful and multiply” and “work and keep” the garden. Greg Beale in his book Temple and the Mission of the Church is helpful in demonstrating how these two commands were tied to the mission of filling the whole earth with the knowledge of the “glory of the Lord.” Once Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord, curses were placed upon, them which would make their mission more difficult. The curses then paralleled their commands, and as a result it impacted their mission. Adam and Eve were called to “be fruitful and multiply”, and now the woman will only experience this “fruitfulness” through the pain of childbearing. Man was called to “work and keep” the garden. Now the ground is cursed and only by the sweat of his face will he be able to eat bread. The curses on the “ground” and on “fruitfulness” play a vital role in the rest of the narrative of scripture. Barrenness and famine in the land give evidence to the reality that the curse is still present, and its fruits are still causing destruction. Man was cursed and kicked out of God’s presence and out of God’s land. However, God did not leave man in that hopeless state. Shortly after placing the curses on Adam and Eve, God promised that one day He would send a seed that would crush the head of the serpent and deliver mankind from these curses.

This promise from Genesis 3:15 would come to be known as the protoevangelium (i.e. first gospel). God promised that one day the seed of Eve would crush the head of the seed of the serpent. This promise entailed the conquering of the serpent, which then would usher in rest and restored fellowship with the Lord. This “conquering that resulted in rest” had already taken place once before in scripture. At creation God overcame the darkness with light.[2] Beale describes this scene by saying, “After God overcame chaos and created the world…, he ‘rested’ as a true sovereign on his throne in contrast to the pretending, false deities whom pagan worshippers believed had done the same.”[3] Peter Leithart, when discussing creation, reiterates this idea of creation as a conquest when he says, “…light conquers darkness. God is light because He overcomes: He is victor.”[4] The end result of this conquering was God, the sovereign king, entering into “rest.” God’s promise to man was the restoration of this rest or restoration of the shalom of God.  From this point on, the biblical authors trace the seed of promise with the seed of the serpent. Likewise, the motif of head-crushing and conquering, which ushers in the shalom of God, continues throughout scripture[5].

One of the clearest pictures of this motif takes place during the Exodus. At the Exodus God’s people were set free from their slavery to Egypt. After God conquered the Egyptians, He brought the people of Israel through the desert to the Promised Land. Before the Israelites could experience “rest” in the land, they had to first overcome the people living in the land. The Psalmist would later describe the Exodus event as the crushing of the head of Leviathan (cf. Psalm 74:14). Isaiah picks up this same idea when speaking of the hope of a future Exodus. In addition, Isaiah describes this Exodus event also involving Leviathan, and he depicts him as a serpent (cf. Isaiah 27:1). The writers of scripture interpreted the Exodus events and the entering the land through the lens of the protoevangelium. God would conquer Israel’s enemies at the Exodus through the crushing of the serpent and usher in the rest of God. It is not insignificant that Israel’s greatest king comes into focus when he crushes the head of Goliath and sets the Israelites free from the Philistines. The protoevangelium not only promised God would conquer and the end result would be rest for His people, but it also promised that the conquering would come through Eve’s chosen seed.

Picking up on this promise, the writers of scripture begin to tie the promise of the seed with the mission and also the curse placed upon Adam and Eve. Lamech names his son Noah, which means “rest”. After naming Noah, Lamech gives a commentary about his hope for this child by stating, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands (cf. Gen 5:29).” Lamech hoped that Noah would be the one who would bring relief from the curse on the ground and restore the promised rest. After God judges the earth because of its sin, He recreates the world through Noah and gives the same command as to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply fill the earth”. Noah was meant to be a sign of hope and a reminder of God’s promise to one day deliver man from his curses. T.D. Alexander explains this idea when he states, “Interestingly, when the earth is recreated after the flood Noah is described as ‘a man of the soil (ground)’, implying that he enjoyed greater harmony with the ground than his immediate forefathers.”[6] This greater harmony was meant to provide hope of a future redemption, but it also served as a reminder that the curse was still present. Just as Noah was given the same command as Adam and Eve, so were Isaac, Jacob, and even the nation of Israel given this same command.[7] The book of Genesis makes a transition and provides greater hope when the command from God transitions to a promise with Abraham.

Whereas Adam, Eve, and Noah were all commanded “to be fruitful and multiply,” God promised Abraham that He would “multiply” him, and He would make Abraham “fruitful.”  This promise is heightened when God promises Abraham that the “nations will be blessed by him” and that “kings would come from him.” James Hamilton explains how the promises given to Abraham are tied to the curses placed upon man and also the hope of the fulfillment of protoevangelium when he says,

The conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman will also be resolved by the seed of Abraham, in whom all t he nations will be blessed. And the curse on the land is answered by the promise of the land, where the collective seed of Abraham will become a great nation.  Yahweh judges in Genesis 3, and in Genesis 12 he promises to save. The curses of Genesis 3 are matched point for point in the blessing of Abraham.[8]

 

It is as if God is saying to Abraham that “you and your seed will reverse the curse placed on the land and fruitfulness”. Abraham is promised nations, a seed, and a land. Significantly, Abraham is also told that kings will come from his lineage. This promise of a lineage of kings is also given later to Judah as well (cf. Gen. 49:10). When the reader comes to the book of Ruth, it is vital that he reads the book through the lens of these curses and these promises.

Land, Blessing, and Seed

Just as the land played a central role in the Garden, with Abraham, and with the history of Israel, so too did it to play a central role in the book of Ruth. Ruth begins with the writer pointing out that there was a famine in the land (cf. Ruth 1:1). This famine was a reminder that the curse on the land and its fruit still exists. During this time Naomi and Elimelech were living in the land God promised to Abraham and Israel. Similar to Adam and Eve, Naomi and Elimelech were tempted, but their temptation was whether or not to trust the Lord and stay in the land. Naomi and Elimelech leave God’s land and flee to Moab. Stephen Dempster explains the implications of their departure saying, “This (i.e. the curse on the ground) drives a family from Bethlehem into exile.”[9] Just as Adam and Israel were driven from the land because of their lack of trust, so were Naomi and Elimelech driven from the land because of their distrust in the Lord. Naomi and Elimelech’s distrust can be seen in several places. First, they leave to go to Moab. Moab was a pagan nation that came into being because of incest between Lot and his daughters. Deuteronomy 23 says that “no Moabite shall enter the assembly even to the tenth generation.” Naomi and Elimelech leave the land that God promised to Abraham and go into this pagan land.  Next, Naomi’s children Mahlon and Chilion took pagan wives, which was prohibited in the Law. After that, Elimelech and his children die. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah were left without a seed, land, or God’s protective hand. Naomi hears of food in Bethlehem (i.e. the house of bread), and she returns to God’s land. The writer depicted Naomi and Ruth’s return to the land as the shalom of God being restored. God orchestrated it so that Naomi and Ruth would arrive back during the barley harvest season. Upon arriving back in God’s land, Naomi and Ruth were provided an abundance of food on several occasions. It is as if their return to God’s land had provided them relief from the curse on the ground. The departure from the land resulted in the loss of the ‘hesed’ or covenant faithfulness and presence of God. The return then restored this ‘hesed’. The land plays a significant role in the story of Ruth. Tied to the land is the blessing of God that Ruth and Naomi encounter while living in the land.

The return to the land provided rest for Ruth and Naomi. Ruth and Naomi enter the land with no food or protection.[10] Ruth meets her kinsman redeemer, and he provided physical protection and protection of her character as well.[11] The kinsmen redeemer was to be a reminder or a living out of how YHWH redeemed Israel from slavery and provided for her. Boaz acted as a vice-regent taking redemption and providing protection. Boaz reflected the character and image of God by redeeming Ruth and caring for her. Ruth found protection under the wings of Boaz, just as Israel found protection under the wings of God.[12] Edmund Clowney reiterates the idea of Boaz mirroring God’s redemption of Israel by saying,

Further, in the figure of Boaz, the redeeming grace of God is portrayed. God, who redeemed Israel from Egypt (Ex. 6:6), is the Kinsman-Redeemer. He procures the inheritance of His people as one bound to them with ties, as it were, of blood. The Lord, the Goel of His people, will deliver them from their captivity (Jer.50:34). Isaiah uses the terms for kinsman-redeemer to describe the coming salvation of the Lord (Is. 43:1, 14; 44:22-23; 48:20; 52:3; 63:9,16).[13]

 

The reader of this would have been challenged to live out the character of God. One of the difficult things that a Hebrew from the original audience would have had difficulty with is the fact that a Moabite is being redeemed. This very well could be the reason for the hesitancy of Ruth’s closest kinsmen refusing to redeem Ruth. The mention of Ruth being a Moabite was intended to be a reminder to Israel that God is faithful to fulfill his promise Abraham.  Through Boaz, one from the line of Judah, the promise that the nations will be blessed through the seed of Abraham is being fulfilled. This draws a connection between Ruth’s confession to Naomi that, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God” and God’s promise to Abraham and later also to Israel “to be their God and they His people”.[14] The writer of Ruth reminds Israel that their God has not forgotten His promises and that He can be trusted to fulfill them even in the midst of a difficult time in the life of Israel.[15] Naomi and Ruth were back in God’s land and they had His covenant presence near to them, but what about the issue of the seed? Where are the kings that were promised to Judah?

Boaz, the leading exemplar of the story, is from the line of Judah and is without child. Naomi and Ruth are both without an heir to their name. The curse on the seed is brought to the forefront by the key figures of the book being without an heir. By the time the reader ends chapter two, Ruth is living with her mother-in-law, and there seems to be a building anticipation that God is at work to resolve this issue. God not only orchestrates Boaz and Ruth’s marriage, but he also will orchestrate the birth of a child. God is the one who will provide ‘fruitfulness’ for Ruth and Boaz.  Just as God provided a child to Eve (i.e. Seth), Sarah, Leah, and even later to Mary so will God provide relief from the curse to Ruth. The writer employs the language that it was God, who gave Ruth relief from this curse when he says, “and the Lord gave her conception.” Salvation belongs to the Lord in the story of the Ruth. The writer of Ruth connects this seed with the promised seed of Gen. 3:15 and the promised kings God gave to Abraham and Judah. How can the reader have assurance that this was the writer’s intended connection?

In order to see the author’s intended purpose, the reader needs to know a little about the structure of Genesis and also about the history of the location of Ruth within the canon of scripture. The book of Genesis is structured by genealogies. Moses gives a genealogy, and then he expounds upon a key figure from that genealogy. Matthew Thomas in his book These are the Generations explains and names this concept saying, “In studying Genesis, it has long been recognized that a repeated formula: ‘these are the toledot of Name …’ (the toledot formula) plays a primary role in the organization of the book. The formula occurs eleven times in Genesis and once each in Numbers and Ruth.”[16]  Genesis begins with the genealogy of the Heavens and Earth, then moves to Adam, then Noah, and etc. The purpose of these genealogies is to trace the promised seed that was given in the protoevangelium. The writer of Ruth picks up this concept and ends the book with the genealogy of Israel’s greatest king. The book begins with Ruth losing her husband and Naomi losing her husband and children. These losses are there to remind the reader of the curse. The book ends with a declaration that God is going to crush the head of the serpent and provide a seed, who is a king. The writer of Ruth uses the ‘toledot formula’ to make a theological argument that the promised seed is also the promised king.[17] The writer of Ruth is picking up on the structure of Genesis and concluding Ruth with a theological argument. This child will play a role in the lineage of the promised seed that will crush the head of the serpent. Bruce Waltke picks up this seed crushing the serpent motif and describes the significance of the birth of this child saying, “By public proclamation in baptism of her identity with him, she comes to have blood links with Abraham (Gal. 3:16, 29). Through her, ‘Boaz’ begets seed that will destroy the Serpent (Gen. 3:15; Ruth 4:18; 1 Chron. 2:5-15; Matt 1:3-6; Luke 3:31-33; 1 Tim. 2:9-15).”[18] Hamilton  likewise connects the building anticipation of the child to be born with the head-crushing motif when he says “These themes are prominent in Ruth, and as the triumphant seed the woman crushing the head of the serpent points to salvation through judgment in Genesis 3:15, so the birth of a male child at the end of Ruth portends deliverance.”[19] The writer’s usage of the ‘toledot formula’ portends his purpose of the book being read through the lens of all that came before it. Not only does the writer’s usage of motifs and themes play an important role in interpretation of the book, but also the canonical placement of the book demonstrate how it was interpreted this way throughout church history.

Ordering of the book

The book of Ruth’s placement within the canon varies throughout church history. The reason for its variation is due to its interpretation. Some place the book of Ruth after the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 31 ends by discussing the virtuous woman, and then Ruth 1 begins by telling the story of a virtuous woman. Yet the Latin Vulgate places Ruth after the book of Judges. This is likely due to the fact that Ruth begins by saying that the events took place during the time of the Judges.  Josephus in his “Against Apion”, likely alluded to his belief that Ruth was an appendix of Judges, when he totaled the number of books in the canon.[20] John Sailhamer in his The Meaning of the Penteteuch helpfully demonstrates how one should interpret Ruth’s various locations throughout church history when he says,

The placement of a book within the OT canon was not arbitrary. Its position likely is related to how the book was understood within the context of the whole Bible… The order given to the books of the OT played a significant role in what context each book was read. One need not argue that this order was inspired or that it was the only order in which these books could be arranged. It is enough to say that the canonical order of the books of the OT varied in part because the understanding of the meaning of the books of the OT varied from community to community.[21]

 

The canonical placement of Ruth, although not authoritative, it is helpful in understanding how the church throughout history has interpreted the book. The book of Judges paints a grim scene in the history of Israel, where each person is “doing what was right in his or her own eyes.” Israel was without a ruler to govern and regulate morality. Ruth 1 then introduces Ruth, the virtuous woman, and Boaz, one from the line of Judah. The book culminates in Ruth and Boaz’s marriage and the birth of their child Obed, whom the author informs the reader is the grandfather of David. Judges ends with no king, but Ruth ends with the revealing of David, one of Israel’s greatest kings. The writer of Ruth is telling the story of the birth of the seed, one who will conquer Israel’s enemies and usher in rest for the nation. The interpretative lens, through which Israel and the church read the book of Ruth, played an important role in determining the canonical placement of the book of Ruth.

   The book of Ruth is not a story to be read divorced from the overall plotline of the scriptures. Ruth needs to be read by its readers through the lens of God restoring the land and His blessing through the promised seed. This story is the story of the promised seed of Eve crushing the head of the serpent and ushering in the promised rest of God. Just as the early church read Ruth, the modern reader should read Ruth as a Biblical theology testifying to the faithfulness of YHWH to all His promises. When the modern reader looks at the book through this lens, he will be able to see Ruth’s connection to the overall metanarrative of scripture. Ruth is more than a virtuous woman after whom women should model their lives. Ruth is a virtuous woman, who played an important role in the lineage of King David. Ruth finds her greatest significance in her being mentioned in the genealogy of Israel’s greatest King Jesus.

     

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Alexander, T.D.,  From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Academic, 2002.

 

Beale, G.K.  The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT Downers Grove, Il: IVP Press, 2004.

 

Clowney, Edmund P. The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament Phillipsburg: New Jersey, 1988.

 

Dempster, Stephen G. Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003.

 

Hamilton, James M. God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment. Wheaton, Il: Crossway 2010.

 

Hubbard Jr., Robert L The book of Ruth New International Commentary on the Old Testament [NICOT]. Grand Rapids: MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

 

Josephus, Against Apion 1:8.

 

Leithart, Peter J.  “God is Light” published in First Tings Magazine. http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/01/god-is-light

 

Sailhamer, John H. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009.

 

Thomas, Matthew A. These are the Generations: Identity, Covenant, and the ‘Toledot’ Formula New York, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.

 

Waltke, Bruce K. The Old Testament Theology Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 2007.

 

 

 

[1] "Ultimately, however, this is a book about the ways of God in human life. That subject, too, deeply concerns readers. At first glance, they learn from the story how God provided ancient Israel with new leadership, the Davidic monarchy. At the same time, the tale touches them healingly in a tender spot. Mystified by the hiddenness of God- the absence of audible voices, visions, miracles in their own experience0 they want to know God's presence in their daily life.” Robert L Hubbard Jr. {NICOT], 1-2.

[2] Cf. Gen. 1:1-5, 1 John 1:5, John 1:5.

 

[3] G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Press,2004), 66.

 

[4] Peter J. Leithart, “God is Light” published in First Tings Magazine. http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/01/god-is-light

 

[5]  Cf. Gen. 3:15, Judges 4:21, 1 Sam. 17:49, Is 28:31, Jer. 23:19, Ps 74:14, Romans 16:20, and etc.

[6] T.D. Alexander From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Academic, 2002), 118.

 

[7] Cf. Gen. 26:4; 28:14; 35:11; 47:27 Ex. 1:7.

 

[8] James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment (Wheaton, Il:Crossway 2010), 82.

 

[9] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003) 191.

 

 [10]  Cf. Ruth 2:8-10; 3:17

 

[11]  Cf. Ruth 2:8-9; 3:18

 

[12] Cf. Ruth 2:12, Is. 31:5; Is. 48, Psalm 36:7; 91:1-4, etc.

 

[13] Edmond P. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament (Phillipsburg:New Jersey, 1988), 155-156.

 

[14] Cf. Gen. 17:7-8; Ex. 6:7; Lev. 26:12.

 

[15] Judges 21:25 and really the whole book of Judges describes this period as a grim time within the life of Israel.

[16] Matthew A. Thomas, These are the Generations: Identity, Covenant, and the ‘Tolodot’ Formula (New York, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), 2.

 

[17] This concept carries even more significance when one uses the Tanakh ordering of the Old Testament. The Old Testament begins and ends with genealogies. 2 Chronicles contains the genealogies of the kings of Israel and Matthew 1 begins with the genealogy of Jesus.

 

[18] Bruce K. Waltke, The Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 2007), 868.

 

[19] Hamilton, 308.

 

[20] Josephus, Against Apion 1:8

 

[21] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009), 216.

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