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by John Dummelow
The book of Ruth is one of the most delightful stories ever penned. It carries us without an effort into an old-world realm altogether unlike our work-a-day life. Whilst we read it the customs of that other realm seem quite familiar to us. And how admirably are the actors in the story depicted! We are made intimately acquainted with Orpah and Ruth; with the girl who accompanies her mother-in-law on the homeward journey as far as the border of the two countries, professes her intention to go the whole way, only waits to be dissuaded, weeps, kisses, turns back; and with the girl who forsakes fatherland, kindred, and ancestral worship, because of her deep love for the bereaved and the dead. The character of Naomi, too, is ’instinct with life.’ In the difficult position of mother-in-law she knows how to win the tender love of the two younger women, and the open secret of her influence is the unselfishness which declines Orpah’s offer and devotes itself to Ruth’s interests. And Boaz is provided with an excellent foil in the person of the anonymous kinsman. The latter is a keen and calculating individual, eager to hear of anything to his advantage, but quick to drop it the moment he is told of a fly in the ointment. The former is quietly ready to respond to any call of duty, yet willing to give up the satisfaction of doing it to one who may have a stronger claim. Modest and humble, he is at the same time beloved and respected. Consider, too, how different an impression is made on us by the critical point in the book, the hinge on which the whole turns, Ruth 3, from that which would be made by a modern writer treating such a theme! The course pursued on that occasion is so entirely alien to our ideas and customs. Yet it is described with so skilful a hand, or, rather, with so pure a heart, that no thought of evil can obtrude itself. And the type of piety which it recommends so strongly by merely describing it is singularly engaging. It is so thoroughly unaffected, human and real. Contrast the profound feeling and perfect simplicity of Ruth 1:16-17 with the stilted and unnatural paraphrase in the Talmud. There the older woman says, ’We are forbidden to go beyond the limits of a sabbath day’s journey’: Ruth replies, ’Where (i.e. as far as) thou goest I will go’: ’It is not allowed amongst us for two persons of different sexes to be alone together’: ’Where thou lodgest I will lodge’: ’Six hundred and thirteen commandments have been given us’: ’Thy people is my people’: ’The worship of other gods is prohibited to us’: ’Thy God is my God’: ’The courts are allowed to put men to death in four ways’: ’Where thou diest I will die’: and so forth. The ancient Jewish commentator saw more clearly the spirit of the book when, after feeling a little puzzled at finding in this Scripture no legal or ceremonial prescriptions, he concluded that it was composed to teach us ’how great is the reward of human kindness.’ It is generally agreed that the book, though embodying old traditions, is of later date than the scenes it describes. The period of the Judges lay far behind (Ruth 1:1): the customs of an earlier time required explanation (Ruth 4:7). The purity of its thought and style lead some scholars to favour a pre-exilic date; but the majority are disposed to place it either during or after the exile. From the stress which the author lays on the Moabitish origin of Ruth, it has been inferred that he was an opponent of the rigorous measures adopted by Ezra and Nehemiah against intermarriage with foreigners (Ezra 9:1; Nehemiah 13:23). If he did live in the time of that great struggle, and was in some measure influenced by it, he scarcely allows this to appear. Other objects ascribed to him are, to illustrate the life of David, and to enforce the duty of the next-of-kin marrying a childless widow; but if either of these were in his mind at the start, they were almost forgotten in the interest of the scenes and actions with which he deals. He could never have produced so beautiful a work if he had been writing a pamphlet with a special didactic aim. He simply tells the story of a woman’s fidelity and its reward, to show us his ideal of the ’Excellent Woman’ and to make us feel that God did not forget her.
’How sweet an ended strife!,
How sweet a dawning life!’
As a scholar of the last generation has said: ’The book of Ruth presents us with a simple story of domestic life—such as has happened, and is happening over and over again in this world—the familiar story of a daughter’s affection and a young wife’s happiness... In Ruth we see a daughter clinging to a parent in her age, with all the unselfishness of true-hearted affection; volunteering to share her lowliness and her distress; finding favour for her piety with the Lord and also with men; chosen by Boaz to be his wife; from obscure poverty taken to an honourable bed; the young lonely widow of the first chapter, changed in the last into a joyful mother of children.’ It is interesting to remember that when St. Matthew traces the genealogy of Joseph he is careful to say (Ruth 1:5) that Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; and St. Luke has evidently the same line of descent in view when he mentions Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David, Nathan among the ancestors of the mother of our Lord (Luke 3:31-32).
Ruth occupies the second place amongst the ’Megilloth’ or ’Rolls,’ the five short writings kept separate from the rest, each on its own roll, and read in the synagogue on five great days of the Jewish Calendar. It is used on the second of these occasions, at the Feast of Pentecost, the great Harvest Festival. For such an occasion it would be difficult to find a more appropriate, lesson than these chapters, which put in so pleasing a light the labours and the charities of the harvest season.
the First Week of Advent