Ruth is a strange and beautiful book--beautiful because of its characters’ virtues and faithfulness, but strange because of some of its literary features.
THE NUMBER TEN
The number 10 is prominent in Ruth:
Naomi sojourns in Moab for 10 years.
Ruth delivers a total of 10 speeches (1.10, 16, 2.2, 10, 13, 19, 21, 3.5, 9, 17).
Boaz gathers 10 elders to serve as witnesses for him.
Chapter 4 ends with a ten-fold genealogy, strung together with 10 occurrences of the vb. הוליד = ‘beget’.
The prominence of the number 10 is significant.
The law of Moses--which, of course, is based around the 10 words/commandments--is central to what transpires in the book of Ruth.
Ruth’s is a story about the demands of Israel’s law and the community defined by it.
Meanwhile, the name ‘Boaz’ occurs 20 times (2 x 10) because Boaz is a man who *magnifies* the law.
The law simply requires landowners not to ‘over-harvest’ their fields (to allow ‘the poor’ and ‘the sojourner’ to glean in them: Lev. 19.9, 23.22).
But Boaz goes beyond what the law requires, and leaves entire sheaves of wheat in Ruth’s path.
The law simply requires Boaz to buy back Naomi’s (recently sold) land (Lev. 25.25-30), but Boaz requires not only the land, but Naomi and Ruth to be provided for (4.5), per the spirit of the law (cp. Deut. 25.5-6 w. Lev. 25.25-30).
THE NUMBER 12
Equally prominent in Ruth is the number 12:
The name ‘Ruth’ occurs 12 times.
The vb. ‘glean’ (לקט) occurs 12 times (always with Ruth as its subject).
The most common conjugation of לקט is לקטה = ‘she gleans’, which has a gematrial value of 144 (12 x 12).
The God of Israel is referred to 24 times (יהוה x 18, אלהים x 4, שדי x 2).
And the root גאל = ‘redeem’ occurs 24 times (גאל x 22, גְּאֻלָּה x 2).
Like that of the number 10, the prominence of the number 12 is significant.
Ruth is the story of a woman who comes to glean in Israel and is ultimately incorporated into Israel’s 12 tribes.
And, appropriately, the person who facilitates her incorporation is Boaz, Eli-Melech’s מוֹדָע--a word with a gematrial value of 10 x 12 = 120.
The text of Ruth is also full of wordplay and pleasant literary touches.
For instance: at the book’s outset, Naomi’s sons are said to ‘take’ (נשא) themselves wives (1.4), which is an unusual choice of verb. (לקח would be more common.)
But our author employs the verb נשא because he wants to tell a story with it:.
Ruth is ‘taken’ (נשא) in marriage by one of Naomi’s sons (1.4).
When Naomi decides to head back to Judah, Ruth ‘lifts’ (נשא) up her voice and weeps (1.9, 14) and pledges to stay by Naomi’s side.
Ruth eventually becomes a provider for Naomi as she ‘carries’ (נשא) an ephah (אֵיפָה) of barley back to her.
Note: When Ruth gets home, Naomi wants to know ‘where’ (אֵיפֹה) she got an אֵיפָה of barley from.
The verb עזב is employed to tell a similar story, and is a significant root since עזב is an anagram of בֹּעַז = ‘Boaz’.
Ruth chooses to ‘leave’ (עזב) her family rather than ‘leave’ (עזב) Naomi (1.6, 2.11).
In response, Boaz tells his men to ‘leave’ (עזב) sheaves of barley in Ruth’s path (2.15).
And the God of Israel does not ‘overlook’ (עזב) Ruth’s kindness to his people (2.20).
A CRAZY FAMILY TREE
The Book of Ruth ends in chapter 4 with a long family tree that, at first glance, doesn’t make sense to the reader. Let’s dive deeper into what’s happening in the text.
Boaz is a man who not only has a history, but has a rather complicated and unsavory history (Genesis 38).
Ruth’s history is little better (and possibly worse). Ruth is a Moabite. As such, she is a descendant of Lot, and hence (like Boaz) the product of an incestuous relationship (Gen. 19).
Unsavory though they may be, our text deliberately highlights both of these details: 4.18-22 explicitly traces Boaz’s ancestry back to Perez, and 4.12 explicitly describes Perez as the son ‘whom Tamar bore to Judah’.
Meanwhile, Ruth is repeatedly referred to as ‘the Moabite’ (1.22, 2.2, 21, 4.5), which is quite unnecessary.
The encounter of Boaz and Ruth is not an encounter of two isolated individuals; it is the convergence of two long and complicated histories and lineages--the re-association of a rejected family tree within the line of promise.
It is also an incident which shares remarkable similarities with the incidents at the top of Boaz and Ruth’s respective family trees, namely the encounters between Judah and Tamar and between Lot and his older daughter.
Consider some of the parallels between Boaz and Ruth, Judah and Tamar, and Lot and his firstborn daughter:
In all three cases, people leave the land to which God has appointed them.
Judah leaves Egypt to return to Canaan (Gen. 38 is chronologically out of place)
Lot departs from Abraham to reside in Sodom and Gomorah
Naomi leaves Israel to sojourn in Moab.
In all three cases, two men on whom the family’s future is dependent die at a young age (without children).
Judah’s two sons (Er and Onan) are smitten by YHWH
Lot’s sons-in-law are swept away along with Sodom and Gomorrah
Naomi’s two sons die in Moab.
In all three cases, a crisis looms. A family line seems unable to continue, and an ancestral name is endangered.
Judah is reluctant to give his third son to Tamar in marriage since he sees Tamar as a ‘black-widow-like’ character and is fearful for his son’s life (Gen. 38.11)
Lot is scared to intermingle with the inhabitants of his new locale in Zoar (Gen. 19.29-30)
Naomi and Ruth have little to offer a potential husband in light of Naomi’s age and Ruth’s status as a Moabite, which clearly has a stigma attached to it (cp. 4.6).
In all three cases, a woman decides to take matters into her own hands in order to preserve her family line; put more specifically, a woman seeks to conceal her identity and approach the nearest ‘eligible’ male.
Tamar covers herself with a veil and waits for Judah to pass by
Lot’s daughters approach him under cover of darkness
Ruth follows the lead of Lot’s daughters.
In all three cases, the situation is referred to as the preservation of a ‘seed’ (זרע cp. Gen. 19.34, 38.8-9, Ruth 4.12), and is helped along by the consumption of wine.
Judah has been at a sheep-shearers’ festival, where an abundance of wine is likely to have been drunk
Lot has been plied with wine by his daughters
Boaz is merry with wine at the time when Ruth approached him.
As a result, none of the male procreators-to-be are aware of who has approached them.
In all three cases, the male involved is a member of an older generation.
Judah is Tamar’s father
Lot is (obviously) the father of his daughters
Boaz is considerably older than Ruth (2.5-6, 3.10-11).
FINAL THOUGHTS ON RUTH
Ruth is a story about major sins, but it is also a story about the significance of what may seem (in the grand scheme of things) to be minor details.
The failures of two great patriarchs--Judah and Lot--are not put right by means of some epic mission or military triumph, but by means of the faithfulness and sense of covenantal duty of three apparently insignificant individuals--Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz--, and, as a result, their names will be forever remembered in history, and for all the right reasons.
These three individuals could never have dreamt of the eternal consequences of their actions, but Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz allowed the line of Perez to take root in Bethlehem (1 Chr. 2) which would ultimately turn out to be the line from which both David and the Davidic Messiah would be born (Matt. 1).
In the dark days of the Judges, faithful men and women could still be found in Bethlehem (despite Judg. 17-21!), and such people allowed God’s line of promise to survive.
May we, therefore, take Ruth’s lessons to heart.
Plain old-fashioned faithfulness to our families, to our duties, and to the foreigners in our midst may not gain us too many applause here and now, but is of great value in the eyes of our Lord.