Few stories speak to us about the virtue of fidelity the way that the narrative in the Book of Ruth does. This rather short story, only four chapters, begins with Elimelech and his family travelling to Moab from Bethlehem because of a famine. He and his wife, Naomi, had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. While in Moab, Elimelech died so Naomi was left with her two sons who had each taken Moabite wives. One wife was named Orpah and the other was named Ruth.
After living in Moab for ten years, Mahlon and Chilion also died, so Naomi was left without her husband or both of her sons. She decided to return to Bethlehem from Moab and her two daughters-in-law went with her. Naomi said to her daughters-in-law. “Go back to your mother’s house. May the Lord bless deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you might find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” They said that they would return to Bethlehem with Naomi, but Naomi protested saying that she is an old woman and even if she could find a husband and bear two more sons, it would be unfair for Orpah and Ruth to wait for them to come of age to marry them.
Orpah kissed Naomi and returned to Moab, but Ruth clung to Naomi. Naomi said, “See your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods, return after your sister-in-law.” However, 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 I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.
This was the last time Naomi ever mentioned to Ruth that she should turn back. When they arrived in Bethlehem the whole town was stirred because of their arrival. The women asked, “Is this Naomi?” She said, “Call me Naomi no longer, call me Mara,1 for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”
Naomi had a kinsman in town, a relative of Elimelech, a prominent rich man, named Boaz. Ruth said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean some ears of grain behind someone in whose sight I might find favor.” Ruth went and gleaned in a part of the field which belonged to Boaz. Boaz asked, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servants said, “She is the Moabite who returned from Moab with Naomi.” Ruth approached Boaz and asked for permission to glean in his field.
Boaz said, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from them what the young men have drawn.” Ruth fell to the ground and asked Boaz why she has found such favor with him. He said, “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!”
At mealtime Boaz invited her to eat with him. She gleaned until evening and then beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about a ephah of barley. She took was she needed for herself and gave the rest to Naomi. Ruth then told Naomi that she had spent the day gleaning in the field owned by Boaz. Naomi said to her, “Daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it might be well with you. Wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor where Boaz is. When he lies down, observe where he lies; then, go, uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”
Ruth went to the threshing floor and did exactly what Naomi had said. At midnight Boaz was startled, and turned over, and there, at his feet, was a woman! He asked, “Who are you?” She said, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next of kin.” 2 He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter, this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first, you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. Now, my daughter, do not be afraid. I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.”
Ruth lay at his feet until morning, but she got up before anyone else could recognize her. She came to her mother-in-law who said, “How did things go with you, my daughter?” Ruth told her all that Boaz had done for her. Now Boaz was not the immediate next of kin. There was one other man in town who could claim his right to Ruth.
No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down than the next of kin came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend, sit down here.” Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city and had them sit with them. He then said to the next of kin, “Naomi, who came back from the country of Moab is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman, Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” He said, “I will redeem it.” Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth, the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” At this, the next of kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”
The custom, at that time, in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging was that the one took off his sandal and gave it to the other as a confirmation of the transaction. The next of kin took off his sandal and gave it to Boaz. Boaz said to the elders, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilron and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth, the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name
of the dead might not be cut off from his kindred and gate of his native place.”
All the people who were at the gate said, “We are witnesses. 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 you produce children in Ephrata and bestow a name in Bethlehem, and through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”
After marrying Boaz, Ruth conceived and bore a son, whom they named Obed. Obed became the father of Jesse who became the father of King David. As a result of her fidelity to her mother-in-law, this Moabite woman, who was not Jewish, became the great grandmother of King David and is honored by both Jews and Christians alike. She is one of only three women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 1:1-17).
Her act of fidelity left a profound mark on the history of the Jewish people. God calls us to fidelity on a daily basis. We may never know what impact our own fidelity might have on the lives of future generations.
1) Naomi means “pleasant” in Hebrew and the name Mara means “bitter”.2) This was an Ancient Near East custom indicating that these two people were engaged.