She is a woman and originally a Gentile, and yet she is mentioned by name in Jesus’ family tree. If Ruth had not broken with convention, everything would have been different.
“For wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.” These words taken from the biblical book named after me became a popular Bible verse for married couples three thousand years later. I was not making this promise to my husband, by the way—although I was married twice—but to my mother-in-law.
Women in the time of the judges
My first husband’s name was Mahlon and he was an Israelite. We met when he came to my country, Moab, as an economic migrant with his mother Naomi, his father Elimelech, and his brother Chilion. A famine had broken out in Bethlehem, where they came from. They were looking for a better life in Moab. It did not take long and Orpah—who had married Chilion—and I were widowed.
Naomi wanted to go back to her home country. A woman in my country without a husband and without sons did not have many rights and was entirely unprotected. This was even the case in Israel, but there at least Naomi had acquaintances. Naomi tried to convince us to stay in Moab with our own mothers and remarry there, so she jokingly talked about how she was too old to have new sons and if she did, it would take too long for them to grow up and be old enough to support Orpah and me. That is when I learned about the marriage duty of the surviving brother, a Jewish law.
It goes back to Deuteronomy 25: 5–10 and states that the surviving brother is required to marry the widow of his brother if he dies without having fathered sons. The firstborn son from this marriage will be considered the son of the dead man, so that his lineage will continue in Israel.
Bitter poverty for the women
Orpah gave in, but I promised my mother-in-law that I would go with her and live where she lived and made the oath that has become so famous. I told her that her God would be my God, although I hardly knew Him, but I already had great trust in Him. When we arrived in Bethlehem after a long walk, we experienced bitter poverty. Naomi no longer wanted to be called “the lovely one”, but Mara, “the bitter one”. I watched the Israelites and learned quickly. For example, I learned about the law requiring generosity to the poor from various passages in the Torah (Exodus 22: 20–26; Leviticus 19: 9; Deuteronomy 24: 19–25). It says that the poor, strangers, widows, and orphans are granted special protection from God and are allowed to gather grain in the fields. I told Naomi about this and went out into the fields and walked behind the workers, picking up the heads of grain which they left for the poor.
It so happened that I was in a field that belonged to Boaz. I immediately caught his eye. He was impressed by my diligence and he liked my good reputation. He told me where I can pick grain and that I should stay in his field and not go anywhere else. He gave me food and water and left sheaves for me. He gave me more than the law required.
Better times ahead
When I told Naomi about this, she explained the right of redemption to me from Leviticus 25: 25–28, according to which the nearest male relative can buy back the property of an impoverished Israelite so that, for example, the field remains in the extended family.
Naomi came up with a plan that I also liked. I continued to gather grain in Boaz’s field until I had gathered enough for the winter. After the harvest was finished, everything was stored in the threshing floor and Boaz and his workers stayed there overnight. I put on my best dress and lay down at his feet that night. When he woke up, I told him that he was a close relative and had the right to redeem the estate of Naomi’s dead husband. He had already thought about that too. And he had compliments for me again. I left at dawn before one could recognise the other, because he was concerned about my reputation. He had given me more barley and with that I went back to Naomi and waited how things would develop.
A happy ending
Later, when he was my husband, Boaz told me that he had met the other close relative who had the right to redeem the estate. He had seen him at the city gate, where it was customary in my time to settle legal issues with the elders as witnesses. Although the other man was interested in redeeming the property, he was fortunately not interested in marrying me.
So Boaz and I were able to get married and he gave me and Naomi a son, Obed, who became David’s grandfather and thus an ancestor of Jesus.
Forty-three men are mentioned in this family tree, but only three other women apart from me: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, who bore David a son (Solomon); and Tamar, who eventually tricked Judah into impregnating her in order to secure her place in the family. Later, a German theologian said about us progenitors of Jesus: “The Jewish history of promise would collapse without these unconventional women.”
A story for more philanthropy
My story tells a life-friendly Torah interpretation. My story can be read as a political statement against the laws concerning hostility towards foreigners in Deuteronomy 23: 3–7. After all, David, the king, to whom this whole story is headed, is also a descendant of mine and thus a king with foreign roots. The Torah justifies the prohibition against accepting Moabites into the congregation of Israel. The reason given is that my mother’s ancestors did not provide the Israelites with water on their way through the desert. Naomi and her family came to us as refugees and were well cared for and integrated. With the marriage to Boaz and the birth of Obed, I too came to be fully integrated into the Israelite society.
I am Ruth, my name also means “friend”.
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