Unlocking the Power of the Book of Ruth
Framing the book of Ruth as a Job story brings this ancient narrative into the twenty-first century. Suddenly this is a story about the real world where we live, where trouble often strikes unexpectedly and the God who has the power to prevent our sorrows doesn’t stop them. Naomi voices questions that come to us all. Suddenly we have a stake in how the book of Ruth plays out. What follows—the bold initiatives of Ruth and the astonishing responses of Boaz—take us into uncharted territory, where this harmless-looking little story, like the red pill in the Matrix, awakens us to a whole new world and a whole new way of being human that will reconfigure our lives and leave us longing for more. It will raise the bar for what it means to live in a fallen world as God’s child—as his image bearers. It presents a startling vision of the kingdom potency of male/female relationships and will inject rich hope, purpose, and significance into the veins of the most Godforsaken, hollowed-out human soul.
Recognizing Naomi as a female Job is the first step in digging deeper into the story. But there is more. As we proceed through the book, four indispensible keys will aid us in getting to the heart of the story.
First, God is always the hero of the story. The primary purpose of the Bible is always to teach us more about him, about his character, his ways, his heart for the world and for us, so that we will trust and love him more and reflect his heart in how we live and interact with others. Ultimately, the book of Ruth is all about God. In Naomi’s suffering, God’s character is on the line. Rich theology emerges—truth about God that we need to move forward in our own stories. Here we see God through the eyes of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz and how their awareness of his love impacts and empowers them.
Second, this smaller story is framed within God’s greater story. The book of Ruth holds a strategic place in the global rescue effort God launched in the Garden of Eden when his first two image bearers were making excuses for rebelling and defecting to the Enemy. Devastating as that moment was, God never abandoned his vision for the world he loves. He created a world where human beings—both male and female—would thrive on their relationship with him and would flourish as they joined forces for his purposes. He bestowed jointly on his sons and daughters the exalted privilege of reflecting his character and looking after things in his world. Image bearing is the highest calling. It comes with the enormous responsibility to speak and act on his behalf. God calls his sons and daughter to do this together as a Blessed Alliance (Gen 1:27–28).
Third, the Bible is not an American or Western book. Every time we open the Bible we need to remind ourselves of this. As Westerners we study the Bible at a huge disadvantage, for our culture is as far removed from the world of the Bible as we can get in today’s world. The story of Ruth takes place within a full-fledged patriarchal culture—a social system that privileges men over women, where the actions of men command the focus, and women (with few exceptions) recede into the background. Under patriarchy, a woman derives her value from men—her father, husband, and especially her sons. Sons are patriarchy’s gold standard for determining the value of a woman. That standard of measurement has a devastating impact on both Naomi and Ruth, but we will not recognize the magnitude of that impact if we view their story through an American lens and ignore the patriarchal backdrop that intensifies the severity of the crisis they face and the terrible odds stacked against them.
The mistake we so often make is to assume patriarchy—at least some softer version of it—is the Bible’s message for us. But patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the cultural backdrop against which the gospel message of Jesus stands out in the sharpest relief. Making this distinction will enable us to see how the book of Ruth puts on display the in-breaking of the gospel into a fallen culture and how it upends the choices and sacrifices that Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi will make—sacrifices driven by putting the interests of others ahead of themselves instead of capitulating to their culture’s way of doing things. Their actions actually subvert patriarchy and point to a gospel way of living as God’s image bearers. The book of Ruth is in many ways a critique of patriarchy. According to patriarchal values, both Naomi and Ruth have lost all value and ability to make any meaningful contribution to society. In opposition to that value system, YHWH is raising up both women for significant kingdom purposes. Boaz, in response to Ruth’s initiatives, will subvert the very patriarchal mores that most benefit him as a man. Instead, he sacrificially employs those benefits and privileges to empower Ruth and benefit Naomi. In the process, he displays Jesus’ kingdom brand of manhood so desperately needed in today’s world.
Fourth, the Bible is a literary work of art. Writers of the Bible were literary artists and gifted storytellers. They beautifully crafted their stories so that not a single word is wasted. Our English Bibles break the biblical text into chapters and verses in ways that sometimes disrupts the flow of scenes seamlessly presented in the Hebrew story. So we must self-consciously bring all that happens in the first scene into the second, and from the first and second into the third, and so on, if we hope to grasp the power of what’s happening.
Even if you already know the story of Naomi and Ruth, you may be sensing that the drama in this little story will be more intense than previously thought.
Praise for Finding God in the Margins
“‘Those with keen eyes to see into the Bible’s many richnesses are able to discover the depths of our humanity surrounded by the deep wells of God’s grace. Finding God in the Margins is not for the faint of heart: this book will sideswipe you with admonishment when you least expect it and then turn a word of grace into redemption.”
—Scot McKnight, Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary
“In Finding God in the Margins, James offers both women and men timely guidance for understanding and then living out the world-changing love of God. I’m grateful for the scholarship and the passion woven together in this book—and for the woman who has dedicated her life and work to speaking the truths that God-loving women and men need to hear.”
—Lynne Hybels, advocate for global engagement, Willow Creek Community Church
“This engaging, insightful book gives the beloved book of Ruth a fresh voice, a voice about three people inhabiting the margins in the past who experienced God’s wonderful, decisive work there. This is just the book to get people talking about Naomi (“the female Job”), Ruth, and Boaz as pointers toward God’s gracious, hope-inspiring, kingdom-advancing work in our conflicted context.”
—Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., professor emeritus of Old Testament, North Park Theological Seminary; general editor of the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series
About the Author
Carolyn Custis James is an award-winning author and international speaker. She blogs at carolyncustisjames.com, as a Leading Voice at MissioAlliance, and at Huffington Post, is an adjunct faculty member at Biblical Theological Seminary, and a consulting editor for for Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament. Her books include Malestrom―Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, Half the Church―Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, and The Gospel of Ruth―Loving God Enough to Break the Rules. She speaks regularly at church conferences, colleges and other Christian organizations and is a visiting lecturer at theological seminaries. In 2013, Christianity Today named her one of the 50 evangelical women to watch.