Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Theme of the Book of Ruth

What is the theme of the Book of Ruth? I’ve heard that it is several different things. Some say that the theme of the Book of Ruth is that of the kinsman-redeemer. They base this on the doctrine of Jesus being our kinsman-redeemer. The concept of the kinsman-redeemer is one that comes from the old traditions and the basis on which Jesus could be our propitiation. Had Jesus not be a man, his sacrifice could not have been applied to our debt. Certainly, that is a very powerful and important doctrine that is discussed in the Book of Ruth, but is that the theme?

Some people refer to the faithfulness of Ruth to Naomi and say that faithfulness is the theme of the Book of Ruth. Some say that the theme of the Book of Ruth is the Lord’s provident protection of the faithful. Here, with Boaz a stand-in for the Lord, we do see the Lord providing protection, but is that the central theme of the Book of Ruth?

I would like to suggest that the primary theme of the Book of Ruth is something else. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with saying those others are the theme of the Book of Ruth, but I think that if we look at the Book of Ruth without preconceived notions of making it conform to the story of Jesus that the theme of the Book of Ruth looks very different.

First, even though it bears Ruth’s name, this is Naomi’s story. The Book of Ruth begins with Naomi and the Book of Ruth ends with Naomi. It is Naomi who suffers the greatest loss in the Book of Ruth and it is Naomi who has the greatest influence over the action in the Book of Ruth. It is Naomi’s husband and sons that die. It is Naomi who decides to go back home. It is Naomi who tells her daughter -in-laws to go back to their families and when Ruth refuses, it is Naomi who sends her out to glean from the field of Boaz.

Since Naomi is the primary character in the story, it is important for us to consider the change that she goes through and what she had to learn in order for that change to take place. At the beginning of the story, she is has nothing, her family is dead, and her line has ended. But at the end of the Book of Ruth, we see Naomi holding the child who will give rise to the line of kings.

Often, we have what we call the B-story. The B-story is usually the love story and it is in the B-story that the theme is discussed. Usually, it isn’t only discussed, but someone will come right out and tell us what the theme is. There’s actually two love stories in the Book of Ruth. The first is between Naomi and Ruth, but since that one is the one we start and end with, I’m going to say that the B-story of the Book of Ruth is that of Ruth and Boaz. The question then is what that story discusses and what the story tells us the theme is.

I see Ruth 2:8, 9 as being the theme statement of the Book of Ruth. To paraphrase Boaz’s statement, “Go not to glean in another field and I’ll provide for you.” It is very similar to the statement made in Proverbs 3:5, 6. Or that of Matthew 6:33. It all goes back to doctrine that there is only one way to God. So I would like to say that the theme of the Book of Ruth is “seek not another to provide.”

If I’m correct, then we should be able to see all of the events of the Book of Ruth either reinforcing or arguing against that statement. With Naomi off in Moab, she loses her family. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that this is symbolic of her being away from God and the things she is trusting in for her provision failed. She makes a step back toward God, by choosing to return home. When Ruth refuses leave her side, we see an example of what the theme is saying Naomi should be doing. Ruth will stick firm. They reach their homeland and Naomi sends Ruth to glean in the fields. The law of Moses provided for those in need by reserving the corners of the fields.

This is where the B-story kicks up and we see the benefits someone doing what the theme claims should be done. When Boaz learns that Ruth is someone he is supposed to be providing for, he instructs his workers to leave even more for Ruth. From this, Naomi seems to have learned her lesson. She instructs Ruth to continue to glean from his fields and then sends Ruth to request that Boaz marry her (through a tradition that seems strange to us in the western world). It is at this point that we see an argument against the theme. Boaz is willing to provide for Ruth and Naomi in this way, but there is a problem, another kinsman is nearer to her than Boaz. So Boaz goes to the kinsman and tells him that there is land that he can redeem. The man is willing to redeem the land, but when he learns he’ll have to marry Ruth to get it, he backs away. He is unable to provide, but . This demonstrates the concept that only the Lord is able to provide.

And the Lord provided for Naomi, giving her a son by way of her daughter-in-law. The person telling this story, who was probably writing during the time of King David, gave us the generations from Pharez to this child, Obed, to King David. Pharez, you may remember is one of the children born to Tamar after she disguised herself as a prostitute and had a child by her father-in-law, Judah, after he failed in his promise arrange for one of his sons to provide her with an heir after the death of her husband.

To me, this connection with Tamar just adds to the idea that he theme of the Book of Ruth is “seek not another to provide” because the story of Tamar is such a sad story in which Tamar is trying to do what is right but the men around her are doing the wrong thing. She ends up taking matters into her own hands to get it done, but she is an example of not gleaning from another’s field. In the Book of Ruth, we see not only the provision of God for Naomi when she had no children, but we see God’s provision for Tamar and it was because they continued to seek provision from one source.