The book of Ruth is a real life example of how the process of salvation was intended to work according to the Mosaic Law. The story begins with a Jewish family leaving the Promised Land because there wasn’t enough food for them to eat. Ruth 1:1-2 states:
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
The country of Moab was where the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew lived. The daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father (Genesis 19:36). “The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab” (Genesis 19:37). “The Moabites eventually became neighbors of the Amorites on the opposite side of the Arnon River (Numbers 21:13). They possessed many great cities (Numbers 21:28-30; Isaiah 15:1) and were prosperous, arrogant, and idolatrous (1 Kings 11:33; Isaiah 16:6). The Moabites refused to let the Israelites pass through their country and were so greatly impressed and alarmed by the multitude of the Israelite army that, along with Midian, they sent Balaam to curse it (Numbers 22-24). The Israelites were subsequently enticed into idolatry and even intermarried with Moab (Numbers 25:1-3). At the end of the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, they passed through Moab on their way to the Promised Land. Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 2:8-9, “And we turned and went in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. And the LORD said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’”
Not long after Joshua’s death, “the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baal’s. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Judges 2:11-12). “Recent archeological discoveries have clarified some facts about the religion of Canaan in the days of the judges. Baal and Ashteroth were the names of two individual gods in a much larger and complicated system of polytheism, but they were also community gods whose names differed from region to region. For instance, there was the Baal called Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:3), Baal-Berith (Judges 8:33), and Baal-Zebub (2 Kings 1:2). It is for this reason that Scripture describes the Israelites serving “Baal” in some instances and “Baals” in others. Overall, the religion of the Canaanites was extremely corrupt. It was characterized by the practices of human sacrifice, ritual prostitution and homosexuality, and self-mutilation. These religions taught that these practices were prevalent among their gods, so it is not surprising that the people became equally debased. Many false gods were particularly connected with agriculture (the seasons, weather, and grain) and some of God’s judgments against these people would ultimately discredit the supposed ability of these Canaanite ‘gods’ (1 Kings 18:18-40; Hosea 2:8-13; Amos 4:4-12)” (note on Judges 2:13).
It says in Judges 3:13 that Eglon the king of Moab defeated Israel in battle. “And they took possession of the city of palms. And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years” (Judges 3:13-14). During that time, the cultural barriers between Israel and Moab were weakened. “The story of Ruth probably took place during the time of Gideon (ca. 1130 BC). The famine mentioned in Ruth seems to correspond to the oppression by the Midianites and Israel’s subsequent deliverance (Ruth 1:1, 6, cf. Judges 6:3, 4)” (Introduction to Ruth). Judges 6:1-6 states:
The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.
Elimilech’s decision to move to Moab may have been motivated by a desire to beat the system so to speak in that he thought he could circumvent God’s judgment by leaving Bethlehem. Ruth 1:3-5 tells us:
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
The death of Naomi’s husband and two sons left her without any means of support in a foreign country. Ruth 1:6-7 indicates that Naomi “heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.”
Naomi’s return to the land of Judah illustrated an important step in the process of salvation, what is referred to as conversion. “The process called conversion or turning to God is in reality a re-turning or a turning back again to Him from whom sin has separated us, but whose we are by virtue of creation, preservation and redemption” (H7725). A synonym of the Hebrew word shuwb (shoob) is nacham (naw-khamˊ) which is often translated as repent. “To repent means to make a strong turning to a new course of action. The emphasis is on turning to a positive course of action, not turning from a less desirable course. Comfort is derived from ‘com’ (with) and ‘fort’ (strength). Hence, when one repents, he exerts strength to change, to re-grasp the situation, and exert effort for the situation to take a different course of purpose and action. The stress is not upon new information or new facts which cause the change as it is upon the visible action taken” (H5162). In Naomi’s case, it wouldn’t have mattered that she heard the LORD had visited his people unless she did something to take advantage of the situation.
Naomi’s return to Judah was an opportunity for her to change her circumstances for the better, but her two daughters-in-law didn’t have the same advantage. Orpah and Ruth were Moabites who would have likely been unwelcome guests in Judah. Deuteronomy 23:3-4 states, “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.” Because of the significant opposition they would face trying to integrate into the culture of Judah, Naomi encouraged her daughters-in-law to go back to their families and to resume their former ways of life. Ruth 1:8-18 tells us:
But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
Naomi’s encouragement of her daughters-in-law to return to their mother’s house made it seem as if that their marriages to her sons had been a mistake. In the same way the Naomi was repenting and returning (shuwb) to her country, she wanted Orpah and Ruth to “return (shuwb) each of you to her mother’s house” (Ruth 1:8). Initially both of these women wanted to return (shuwb) with Naomi (Ruth 1:10), but Naomi reasoned that it would be pointless for them to do so because they would have to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives (Ruth 1:11-13). Twice Naomi urged Orpah and Ruth to turn back (shuwb) because “the hand of the LORD has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). In other words, Naomi saw herself as being cursed by God and she thought her situation was hopeless.
Ruth’s statement, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you” (Ruth 1:16) indicated that she was committed to her mother-in-law’s way of life and that she wasn’t willing to break off her relationship with Naomi. Ruth was more than just emotionally attached to her mother-in-law. It says in Ruth 1:14 that Ruth clung to Naomi. The Hebrew word dabaq (daw-bakˊ) “yields the noun form for ‘glue’ and also the more abstract ideas of ‘loyalty, devotion.’” Dabak appears in Genesis 2:24 where is says that a man “shall cleave unto his wife” (emphasis mine). “The figurative use of dabaq in the sense of ‘loyalty’ and ‘affection’ is based on the physical closeness of the persons involved…’Cleaving’ to God is the equivalent to ‘loving’ God (Deuteronomy 30:20)” (H1692). Ruth’s vow of loyalty indicated that she was not only committed to Naomi, but also to the LORD. Ruth said, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
When Jesus called his disciples Andrew and Peter, he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). It says of Andrew and Peter in Matthew 4:20, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Andrew and Peter’s experience illustrates the point that conversion is really a two-step process in that there must be a leaving behind as well as a following after something new. When we repent and turn to God, we leave behind a less desirable way of life and pursue a new course of action (H5162). The Greek words that are translated follow in Matthew 4:19, deute (dyooˊ-teh) opiso (op-isˊ-o) literally mean come to the back (G1205/G3694). These words have a very similar meaning to the Hebrew word that is translated following in Ruth 1:16. Achar (akh-arˊ) is properly translated as “the hind part” and is generally used as an adverb or conjugation, “after” (H310). In that sense, following Jesus meant going after him or you might say, following in his footsteps. Another word that Jesus used when he used the phrase follow me, was akoloutheo (ak-ol-oo-thehˊ-o) which is properly translated as “to be in the same way with, i.e. to accompany” (G190; Matthew 19:21). Jesus equated following him with entering the kingdom of heaven and compared it to a camel going through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). When his disciples asked “Who then can be saved,” Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:25-26).
Ruth’s decision to follow in Naomi’s footsteps was intended to be a lifelong commitment. Ruth told Naomi, “For where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you. And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more” (Ruth 1:16-18). The Hebrew word that is translated determined, ʾamats (aw-matsˊ) has to do with being courageous. ʾAmats is used three times in Deuteronomy 31 and four times in Joshua 1 in reference to Joshua being strong and courageous when he led the people of Israel into the Promised Land (H553). ʾAmats is sometimes associated with the condition of one’s heart and suggests that Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi was so strong that there was nothing that Naomi could say that would have persuaded Ruth to leave her mother-in-law and go back to her former way of life. Although it’s not specifically stated, Ruth loved Naomi and she demonstrated her commitment to her mother-in-law and to God by leaving behind her father and mother and her native land.
After Jesus connected salvation with following him, his disciple Peter wanted to know what kind of reward his disciples would receive for their service to him. Jesus used the parable of the laborers in the vineyard to explain that when someone receives salvation, their reward is equal to everyone else’s, but their place or standing in God’s kingdom is based on how much grace God decides to extend to each person. Matthew 19:27-20:16:
Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
The Greek words that are translated first and last have to do with being before or after someone else in time, place, order or importance. When Jesus said, “The last will be first,” (Matthew 19:16), he meant that the order was going to be switched. The least important person will be considered the most important person in God’s kingdom.
Ruth’s importance to God was evident in the way that she was treated by Boaz, a close relative of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimelech. Ruth had been gleaning among the sheaves in Boaz’s field since early morning with only a short break when Boaz returned from Bethlehem and was told about her activities. Boaz and Ruth’s first encounter is recorded in Ruth 2:8-13:
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.” Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” Then she said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.”
Boaz described Ruth’s conversion as coming to take refuge under the wings of the LORD (Ruth 2:12) and identified her as my daughter (Ruth 2:8), indicating that he didn’t view her as a foreigner, but was showing her the same courtesy he would Naomi. Ruth’s statement to Boaz, “you have comforted me,” (Ruth 2:13) suggests that Ruth’s conversion may have been confirmed or actually taken place at this point in time. Another way of stating what Ruth said to Boaz would be you have repented me. “Comfort is derived from ‘com’ (with) and ‘fort’ (strength)” (H5162). Hence, when Boaz comforted Ruth, he was giving her the strength she needed to turn to God and to put her trust completely in the Lord.