So they both went until they came to Bethlehem. When they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was excited about them, and they asked, “Is this Naomi?”
She said to them, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara; for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and Yahweh has brought me home again empty.
Naomi means “pleasant;” Mara means “bitter,” and names throughout the Bible reflect character. Naomi again affirms her barrenness, believing it a judgment from God: I went out full, and Yahweh has brought me home again empty.
So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned out of the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest.
Note the interesting wording: Ruth…returned out of the country of Moab. A well-known popular song describes someone, “going home, to a place he’d never been before.” That’s very much what is happening here. Ruth was born in Moab, has never been to Israel before, but is said to have returned. That will be a continuing theme in the book.
Ruth is said to have “returned” to Bethlehem, an alien place to her, when it is only her mother-in-law who has really returned. But we get a progressive sense that she is actually coming back to the unknown homeland of her new destiny.[i]
This whole “stranger in a strange land” (which will be his home) theme is part of The Sojourner story framework. The ultimate Sojourner is Jesus Himself. He comes from another place, heaven, sent by God on a specific mission. In addition to Jesus, Abraham, Joseph, Daniel, and a number of others are examples of sojourners. So we have here the beginnings of an idea that Ruth might be such an one. Despite being born in Moab, she may have been sent by God—though that is not yet clear—to Israel for some important purpose.
Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Let me now go to the field, and glean among the ears of grain…. She went, and came and gleaned in the field after the reapers; and she happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.
This was Israel’s poverty program, instituted by God. Farmers, orchard and vineyard owners were to leave specific portions of the crop ungathered. This would be available to the truly poor, but it would not be gathered and then delivered to them. The poor went to the fields, orchards, and vineyards and gathered what had been left for them. Naomi and Ruth are poor, so Ruth offers to go and gather what she can for their sustenance. Family also figured prominently in helping the poor. So it would be natural for Ruth to glean in a field belonging to family of her deceased father-in-law, Elimelech. She quickly comes to the attention of Boaz.
Then Boaz said to his servant who was set over the reapers, “Whose young lady is this?”
I mentioned that The Betrothal Narrative serves as the framework for the whole story of Ruth. The components were: 1) The protagonist, usually the prospective groom, goes to a foreign land. 2) The prospective groom then goes to a well. 3) At this well, the prospective groom meets a girl or girls (keep that in mind). 4) Next, someone offers to draw water, and then does so. 5) The girl or girls then rush back home, telling their father about it. 6) The stranger is then invited to share a meal, after which 7) a betrothal takes place.
As mentioned, biblical authors may vary and alter specific parts of such a framework, and we have major alterations already. First, instead of a prospective groom, we have a widow; instead of male, she’s female; instead of a Hebrew, she’s a Moabite; the “far country”–and to her it is a far country—is the Land of Promise. But maybe that’s just too many variations. Maybe this isn’t a Betrothal Narrative. After all, the prospective couple—he an older, confirmed bachelor, she a Moabite widow—meet in a field; no well, no water in sight.
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Don’t go to glean in another field, and don’t go from here, but stay here close to my maidens. Let your eyes be on the field that they reap, and go after them. Haven’t I commanded the young men not to touch you? When you are thirsty, go to the vessels, and drink from that which the young men have drawn.”
And there’s the water, in this case drawn by young men rather than young women. But that’s one of the delights of this fascinating tale. The author cleverly weaves the Betrothal Narrative with contrasting threads, both to highlight the importance of Ruth, and the startling ways in which the conventional story is reversed. But that should not surprise us. Because from beginning to end, the Bible is a book of reversals.
We live in an upside-down world, the Bible tells us. We live in a world where sin abounds, hardship and corruption surround us, and death is the fate of all. But we were meant for a beautiful garden, where everything pleases, and death has no place. The Firstborn’s Reversal, The Rejected Cornerstone, and The Barren Woman are all story frameworks that turn expectations upside down. In the Old Testament, the firstborn in the patriarchal line never receives preference, and throughout Scripture the barren women rejoice with childbearing, and the rejected stones become foundation stones. And then we hear: It is better to give than to receive; the last shall be first, the first shall be last; he who loses his life will save it, and he who seeks to save his life shall lose it.
Whenever an inspired author employs several of these frameworks and weaves them together in an intricate tapestry of grace, he wants us to see the details of God’s handiwork, thereby emphasizing the significance of the story being told. By that measure, Ruth is an immensely significant story. For there remains much to tell.
[i] Alter, Robert (2011-04-26). The Art of Biblical Narrative (p. 70). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.