Themes of Ruth, Part 2: Love Begets Love

In the first part of Ruth, we meet Naomi. She has faced great hardship. She has followed the lead of her...

Themes of Ruth, Part 2: Love Begets Love

Originally published in Issue #15 on July 9, 2021

In a recent group Bible study, we have been working through the book of Ruth. As we go, I’ve been using [Judges, Ruth: Revised Edition (The NIV Application Commentary) | K. Lawson Younger 📚] for extra personal study. I’d like to share some thoughts and reflections with you as I’ve been traveling through Ruth. If you have not read the book recently, these reflections will make more sense if you spend 10 minutes and read the book first.

Naomi’s Bitterness

In the first part of Ruth, we meet Naomi. She has faced great hardship. She has followed the lead of her husband from Bethlehem in Israel to Moab (v1). We learn that in Moab, she has lost her husband and her two sons to death (v3-5). All that is left is her two daughters-in-law. These two women are devoted and follow her on the road back to Bethlehem.

Naomi urges these two women to return to Bethlehem, but there is a distinct sense that her urging isn’t precisely borne of her love for Orpah and Ruth. There are clues in the text that Naomi is turned inward and focussed on her own bitterness.

Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me?…If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons…No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.
— Ruth 1:11-13 (ESV)

Do you see the reasons why Naomi urges them to return? It is partially for their own sakes, so that they can find new husbands and have families. But the distinct sense I get is that Naomi pities herself and is angry with YHWH for the turn her life has taken. She’s lost hope (v12),  she is bitter, and sees God working against her (v13). When she reaches Bethlehem, she tells the women there to call her “bitter,” instead of her own name because that is what has welled inside her.

In Chapter 2, Ruth, who has followed Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem, offers to go and try to find someone who will let her glean their field for food. Without husbands or households, Naomi and Ruth are in a very precarious position. They have no “bread-winner” in the family, and it doesn’t seem that any of their kinsmen have sought to provide for them.

Ruth takes the responsibility for finding food upon herself. When she does, she asks Naomi for permission to go and glean. Naomi’s response is a mere two words: “Go, daughter.” I don’t want to dig for meaning where there is none, but it seems significant to me that Naomi offers neither to help nor any words of encouragement. She is turned inward, self-pitying, and bitter.

Freedom from Bitterness

In Ruth 2, by God’s providential care, Ruth meets Boaz. Boaz not only protects a vulnerable young woman and allows her to do what the law requires—to glean his field—but he gives her yet more food and orders his men to allow her to glean beyond what the law requires.

She gleaned so much that Naomi is shocked from her bitterness.

And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”
— Ruth 2:20 (ESV)

No longer does she give a two-word sentence, but pronounces a blessing over another. From this point in the story onward, Naomi is changed. No longer is she self-pitying and bitter. No longer does she fear death from starvation and abandonment by her community. Boaz’s kind act has drawn her to look outward again.

Whereas she was content to allow Ruth to provide for them, now she begins working for their family’s restoration. She coaches Ruth and provides her with direction on how to gain Boaz’s attention as a redeemer of their family and land.

Jesus’ Example

On the cross, Jesus provided us the ultimate example of self-sacrificial love. He died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:7). We didn’t deserve to have God become man and die for us, just as Naomi and Ruth didn’t deserve the over-and-above kindness that Boaz showed them.

Yet when we survey that wondrous cross, we see the great gift we have been given, and we are moved to leave behind bitterness, self-pity, and give of ourselves to others. We seek to help others see the greatness of the gift we have been given, so that gift can work in and transform their lives too. So that they too, can be free to love God and love neighbor.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
— 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (ESV)