Ruth is the star of this show. Her name is even up on the marquee in big letters. So, what's up with our main heroine? How did a housewife from Moab become one of the most revered and inspiring women in the Bible?
What do we know about Ruth from the story? Well, for starters, she's a Moabite. That just means she was born in the ancient Kingdom of Moab (the same place she met her husband, Mahlon, and threw her lot in with Naomi). Moab was east of Judah, so it was just a quick journey away from home for many Jews. But the Israelites and Moabites didn't really make such good neighbors.
Our first hint of tension is way back in Genesis. The book describes the Moabite people as the incestuous offspring of Lot and his daughter (Genesis 19:37). Yuck. They also worshipped a different (and, clearly, in the eyes of the Bible, false) god. So, that was awkward. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is sprinkled with tensions between the folks in Moab. Murder, war, and general not getting along. There was some serious bad blood.
But the period that Ruth takes place seems to be a relatively peaceful time. After all, an Israelite family is free to walk into town, score some food and Moabite wives and no one bats an eye. So, does that mean being a girl from Moab was no big deal in this story?
Not quite. When Ruth returns with Naomi to Bethlehem, she still sees herself as a foreigner. Even the narrator keeps referring to her as "the Moabite" (1:22, 2:2, 2:6, 2:21, 4:5, 4:10). Remember, this is after Ruth has renounced her homeland and religion in order to follow Naomi and live as one of her clan. Even after all those promises, Ruth can't quite shake the foreigner label.
Why does all this matter? The Book of Ruth is dealing with all kinds of issues, but one of them is tolerance and acceptance. Here you have a woman descended from enemies of the Jewish people. But, she's vowed to accept Judah as her new home and worship Yahweh. Ruth is a convert and, even though she's from Moab, the story is clearly saying that even those we regard as enemies can be loyal and courageous people and faithful Jews. Take that, racism.
We know Ruth is from Moab, but what else does this biblical lady have going on for her? For starters, Ruth is loyal to a fault. Her big coup is refusing to leave her mother-in-law's side, even in dire circumstances. Her pledge of loyalty to Naomi is pure poetry:
Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" (1:16-17)
Afterwards, Naomi is speechless. We don't blame her. Ruth definitely has a way with words.
When the women arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth is willing to go to any lengths to support her mother-in-law. Gleaning in the barley fields? Yup. Humbling herself before the owner of said fields? Sure. Sneaking to the threshing floor at night to lie at his feet? You betcha. Is there anything this devoted girl won't do for her mother-in-law? We're gonna go with no on this one.
Ruth's loyalty to Naomi is really the main thing that impresses Boaz. When he hears her story he tells her:
"All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!" (2:11-12)
Sure, it's not "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," but a compliment from a good man is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Unless of course you happen to be allergic to barley. In that case, you might not be able to help it.
But don't let Ruth's loyalty and obedience fool you. The girl is no doormat. She's also pretty clever in her own right. Take the whole "Go back […] to your mother's house" (1:8) speech by Naomi at the beginning of the book. If Ruth were really an obedient little lemming, she would have listened and turned back to Moab like Orpah. Instead the girl digs in her heels and manages to get her way through sheer pluck and tenacity.
Ruth is also clever in her talks with Boaz. She is humble, gracious, and grateful throughout their encounters, which further cements her status as an awesome person in his eyes. Of course, we're not saying that this is all an act, but we are pointing out that Ruth certainly knows how to pull out all the stops when it comes to thanking people (and securing all kinds of gleaning goodies for herself in the process). Hey, she even falls on the floor in gratitude for Pete's sake (2:10). Her thank-yous really have style.
Ruth's really big moment comes when she's lying on the threshing floor with Boaz. Though Naomi instructed her to follow Boaz's lead—"he will tell you what to do" (3:4)—Ruth takes matters into her own hands that night. When Boaz sees her lying there in the dark, Ruth basically proposes marriage to him (3:9). Now that's a lady who doesn't mess around.
Later, Ruth even butters up Naomi a little when she returns unmarried from Boaz's place. Ruth tells her that Boaz gave her six measures of barley because he didn't want her to go "back to [her] mother-in-law empty-handed" (3:17). The weird thing is, Boaz never says that. Ruth is putting words in his mouth. Words that Naomi likes. In her next breath, Naomi declares that they should just wait and let Boaz work out everything. Crafty, Ruth. Very crafty.
Ruth's use of language to describe herself throughout the story is also particularly clever. When she first meets Boaz, she humbly asks him, "Why have I found favor in your sight […] when I am a foreigner?" (2:10). The next time they speak she tells him, "You have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants" (2:13). On the threshing floor though, she does a reversal—"spread your cloak over your servant" (3:9). So, now she a servant—someone with a relationship to Boaz for whom he is responsible. Check and mate.
In the end, Boaz himself declares Ruth "a worthy woman" (3:11), meaning she is on par with him as "a prominent rich man" (2:1). Ruth's status has gradually increased over time until she has become Boaz's equal. It's a pretty cool trick (source, p. 241-243).
At the end of her story, Ruth is named in conjunction with other famous biblical women. The elders in Bethlehem tell Boaz, "May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel […] may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah" (4:11-12). That's some high praise for a girl from Moab.
In fact, even though Ruth seems like a simple little domestic story (boy meets girl, boy dies, girl gets one of his relatives to marry her), it sets Ruth up to take her place among the most revered biblical women out there. Actually, because so much of her story is told from her point of view, she is one of the more fully formed and well-drawn female characters in the entire Bible. Boo-yah.
In the Book of Ruth, Ruth has her moment to shine, but she also gets another important mention later in the New Testament. She's mentioned in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. The gospel writer name checks "Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth" (Matthew 1:5). That makes Ruth the great-great-a-lot-of-greats grandmother of Jesus. Nice work, girl.