Friend to Beloved: Ruth 1:1-5

In 2017, I’ll be going in-depth on the book of Ruth here on my blog. Will you join me? Ruth, grandmother to David, ancestor to the Christ, has been traditionally neglected in the history of Christian interpretation. Relegated to Women’s Bible studies, Ruth has been ignored in the contemporary church and treated as merely an exemplary woman for woman to follow. How does Ruth speak to the modern church, and how does her story prefigure the message of the Gospel?

Without any formal reading plans, Christians tend to read only their favorite parts of Scripture (if they are reading at all, sadly). This trend seems to help a lot of readers find their way back to Paul, the Gospels, or perhaps the Psalms, but we tend to shy away from more foreign books. Those who try to read through the Bible cover to cover get stuck in Leviticus (much to their shame and detriment). Ruth may only be read by those who wish to speed read through a book of the Bible (considering that it only has four chapters), and they may miss the significance of the book in the canon.

This is a shame. The book of Ruth is more than a story of a great woman (a true Proverbs 31 woman, as we will discover) who should be emulated by modern women. Instead, Ruth, a Moabitess is a microcosmic story of the redemption of the house of Israel through the ingrafting of Gentiles in the marriage between the Groom and his Bride. This is the story of the Scriptures, as we see in Romans 9-11: Israel can only be redeemed when Jesus’ name is made known in the nations. Or, to paraphrase Romans in Ruth’s terms: only when the Gentiles are brought in can the Seed be brought out. Judah, the kingly tribe, can only be restored on the path to the throne by marriage with Gentiles (cf. Matthew 1). (If this all seems like too much to take in now, just wait: I will cover all of this more in-depth as the series progresses.)

Throughout 2017, I hope to post at least snippets of information on the book of Ruth every Monday. These may be exegetical posts, ruminations on certain passages, homilies, sermons, just ask questions of the text, or maybe the beginning of something…more. But before I begin the series proper, an introduction to the book must be made.

What is the key to understanding Ruth? (Read Ruth 1:1-5 before continuing)

The key to understanding any book lies in its opening chapters: more precisely, the key to understanding a book lies in its opening paragraph. The hermeneutical key to understanding Ruth is less obvious to English readers, perhaps, as it is hidden underneath translations. As we see in Genesis, names have special meaning. Adam, man; Eve, mother of all living; Israel, wrestles with God; Melchizedek, king of righteousness; etc. Ruth is no different. Ruth’s name may mean friend, prefiguring her role in the book as a friend to Naomi. Naomi’s name means pleasantness, but she renames herself Mara, bitterness. Elimelech, my God is king, is an ironic name: though his God is King, Elimelech leaves the King’s land in the face of seeming trouble. Mahlon and Chilion’s names refer to sickness and wasting: Israel’s husbandry is found wanting, and they die.

Elimelech’s name is not the only ironic name in the opening chapter. Famine has struck Bethlehem, or bet-lehmu, the House of Bread. They were Ephrathites, a name mentioned only elsewhere in Genesis, connected with the death of Rachel, Joseph’s mother. (Mother? Joseph, the bearer of bread to Egypt? important biblical imagery should send up flags in your mind.) Famine struck the House of Bread; what a bitter irony, no?

If significance is found in the Hebrew names of the characters and their towns, what does it mean when we meet Boaz, or “friend” in 4:1? What is the significance of meeting a “David” or an “Obed”?

Understanding these names is only the beginning of opening up the book of Ruth. Re-read the introductory verses of Ruth with the translations I have provided. Now, when you read the rest of the book, look up the Hebrew definitions of the names of the characters and towns and see how much more you understand of the book. Still confused? I will elucidate more meanings as I progress through the book.

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