If all we glean from the book of Ruth is a sweet song to be sung at weddings, we have overlooked desperate and daring themes that upset our modern sensibilities about courtship and marriage. Such themes may also unhinge some of our accepted Christian dating practices.
While our current Christian culture is not likely to surrender its idea of—and desire for—romantic love before marriage, The story of Ruth illustrates a better way of approaching the question: Is he or she the right one?
Tale of Two Widows
Embedded in this saga of two widows and their search for a livelihood is the concept of marriage itself, seen in the plight of unprotected women and their aggressive pursuit of legal rights. It also gives us a picture of noble manhood and womanhood, a key to finding God’s will in a marriage partner.
Naomi, bereft of her husband and two sons in the land of Moab, is now left with her Moabite daughters-in-law. As she prepares to return to Israel, she urges them to go back to their families and find husbands among their own people. She invokes blessing from Israel’s God: “May the LORD deal kindly with you . . . . The LORD grant that you may find rest.” Read: find a husband and end your struggles as widows. By following Naomi, Ruth embraces the God of Israel and turns from the Moabite god.
Their arrival coincides with the beginning of the barley harvest. This is not merely a lucky happenstance. The law of the Lord and the Lord of the law are husbanding these widows. The Lord is not wasteful. His plan has been unfolding ever since Naomi’s two sons died. Naomi’s hearing about “the Lord visiting his people” with grain caused her departure from Moab and arrival in Bethlehem at just the right time.
Seeking What Marriage Brings
The book of Ruth is not a manual on how to get a husband. Nevertheless, it has something to say about our modern concept of courtship.
Levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5–16) states that the deceased husband’s brother should take the widow as his wife. This law, unimaginable to us, was a law of mercy to protect and provide for the widow and, if she is fruitful, the continuation of the family line.
Ruth had never experienced such a plan for her welfare but said to her mother-in-law, “Your God will be my God.” Ruth demonstrated integrity and submission by following her mother-in-law’s instructions in a scenario both strange and beautiful.
During the grain harvest, Ruth goes to the fields to gather gleanings for them. With deft irony, the text reports that Ruth “happens” to come into the field belonging to Boaz, a wealthy landowner related to Naomi by marriage. Meanwhile, Boaz comes from town to examine his harvest fields. Ruth catches his eye. “Whose young woman is this?” he asks. He learns she is the young widow who has returned with Naomi from Moab. This is enough information for Boaz. She is unattached, and her reputation has already spread throughout Bethlehem and reached his ears. This woman was not merely a foreigner, but a follower of the Israelite God.
During the weeks of harvest, Boaz protects and provides for Ruth and Naomi. He even instructs his servants to purposely pull out some grain for her (3:17). Boaz is attentive, respectful, a gentleman of gentlemen. Meanwhile, Naomi initiates a plan: she appeals to the levirate law.
The barley harvest is safely brought in. Boaz has celebrated with feasting and is now guarding his precious stores by sleeping nearby. A picture much like a marriage feast and a protective husband rises before us—only, the bride is missing.
Naomi has instructed Ruth to wash and anoint herself and put on her best clothes. She is not yet chosen, not yet betrothed, perhaps not even daring to dream. But if she will be chosen, she is ready as a spotless bride. Naomi’s instructions become strange, and stranger, to our ears: “Uncover his feet and lie down . . . he will tell you what to do.”
Thus, she goes secretly to the threshing floor, uncovers the sleeping Boaz’s feet, and lies down. He wakes up in the middle of the night and is startled to find a woman at his feet. She is at his feet, not at his side. This is not a come-on. “Spread your covering over your maid” is Ruth’s signal that she is willing to place herself under this man’s protection through the security Naomi is seeking for her (3:1) in the form of marriage.
Winning without Wooing
Another closer relative, however, may decide to redeem Ruth. Boaz, not knowing how things will turn out, is not in a position of wooing her. He would look foolish if he “courted” Ruth, then let her slip through his fingers like so much grain. But Boaz is winning Ruth without wooing her. He has already shown himself a protector and a provider.
Ruth speaks her commentary on Boaz: “I have found favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and indeed have spoken kindly to your maidservant.” Ruth has been won without being wooed. Where is love in this scenario? Boaz is thinking of Ruth’s welfare, which is love indeed: “There is another relative closer than I . . . if he will redeem you, good, let him redeem you” (3:12–13).
Is Boaz indifferent to his own prospects of happiness? His Israelite culture valued women and built a protective fence around them. He knew that to respect and value Ruth, he was to figuratively and literally keep his hands off. She was not yet his, and may never be his. But Boaz was an upright man who, confronted with his duty, fulfilled it to the letter.
Boaz is effusive about Ruth. He was amazed that she’d “choose” him (which she did, in effect, by submitting to her mother-in-law’s command). He knows her sterling qualities and her reputation. He “does not rest” (3:18) until he takes the matter in hand.
The closer relative says no when he finds out that Naomi’s property—which would have been his—comes with a wife attached.
Before any time is lost, Boaz summons 10 witnesses to the legal transaction and announces he has acquired Ruth “to be my wife” (4:10).
The story of Ruth is not a Disney film. It doesn’t showcase a modern, Western, romanticized view of marriage, rather something far more important: people obeying God, and seeing his good character revealed through his provision for them in his law.
Application for Today
The marriage of Ruth and Boaz is described in spare but weighty words: “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her”—in that order (4:13). The text notes there were witnesses to this union who put their blessing on it. This was not a case of choosing to cohabit, independent of family, community, or the blessing of God.
Ruth’s story has wise application for Christians today, a day of later marriages and online dating, a day of choosing or rejecting a mate on the basis of “chemistry.”
We don’t know if Boaz was handsome or whether Ruth was gorgeous, whether they were serious or “fun,” or what they liked to do in their free time. We know their character and their God. Maybe that’s enough.
As with Ruth, the contemporary woman’s “contingency plan” is submission to God, following what she understands to be his will for her today, tomorrow, and the next day, regardless of “prospects.” If a man begins pursuing you, get firsthand knowledge of his reputation. Look for honor and integrity and the desire to provide and protect. Wait on the Lord.
How do godly men pursue women? With the utmost honor, integrity, and purity. With firsthand knowledge of her reputation. With time and patience. She is not yours until there is a ceremony of marriage, with the blessing of God and his people.
Then, together, live it up.