In his book Teaching Ruth and Esther, Christopher Ash—writer-in-residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England—writes about the book of Ruth:
The is more to this story than meets the eye. As a diamond gathers and concentrates light from all directions into an intense and radiant beauty, so Ruth displays the wonder of Christ and shines with his beauty. . . . Here the good news of Jesus will be told in terms of emptiness and fullness, famine and plenty, sadness and joy, death and life, bitterness and hope.
In our conversation, Ash helps Bible teachers see the kindness at the center of the book of Ruth. He warns us against imposing things onto the story not emphasized by the author, and he demonstrates how best to present the fullness and kindness of Christ through this little book.
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Christopher Ash: [over music] The narration draws to our attention the love that Ruth has for Naomi. When Boaz says to Ruth later in the story, “This kindness is even greater than you have shown before,” I always used to assume he was saying, “You’re being kind to me by being willing to marry an older man.” But the kindness that Ruth has shown is the kindness to Naomi, and I think Boaz is saying, “This kindness that you are showing your mother and in being willing to the bear her son or her is an astonishing kindness.”
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach The Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach The Bible” is a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I am sitting in the Midlands of England. I’m at a beautiful conference center in the heart of England outside of London called Hothorpe Hall, and I’m here for a Proclamation Trust Conference for minister’s wives. And so I’ve gotten to give one message on Romans. I’ve got a couple more to give as well as a workshop.
But what’s really fun to me about this conference is that I’m not the only speaker here, and I’m getting to interact with people that, some of them I know, some of them I’m meeting for the first time. And special joy, in charge of this conference is a woman named Carolyn Ash. And longtime listeners of “Help Me Teach The Bible” may remember that a while ago, I did what has ended up being one of my favorite and one of my most recommended listen-to, must-to-listen-to episodes of “Help Me Teach The Bible.” I did it with Christopher Ash.
Christopher Ash is writer in residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. He studied theology at Oxford. He was a pastor, a church planter for many years in and around Cambridge. He spent 11 years as director of Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course. And once again, if you’ve listened to “Help Me Teach the Bible,” you’ve heard me talk about that course before, which is, honestly, I just wish I could go back to being about 25 and come, but maybe they would let a 56, 57-year-old woman into Cornhill, I don’t know. Cornhill, you take one year to work your way through the whole of the Bible, no written tests, you stand up. It’s training and learning how to teach the Bible. So for listeners of this podcast, you can tell that would be right up our alley. So I’m grateful that Christopher Ash is here along with his wife, Carolyn Ash, who’s head of this conference. So Christopher you for being willing to sit down with me a second time to help us teach the Bible.
Ash: It’s a joy and a privilege, Nancy.
Guthrie: So some of you will have listened to that episode. Some of you may have also read some of his many books. One of the most recent I read through that really helped me in the writing of a book I was doing recently, my “Even Better Than Eden” book was his book ”Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be.” I loved that book because it’s not solely a pragmatic book about relationship of marriage but really looks at why God ordained marriage, what he intends for marriage to be. So, thank you for that, Christopher.
You may remember when I talked to him last time, we talked about the Book of Job. Christopher has written the contribution on the Book of Job in the “Preaching the Word” commentary series that Crossway has put out, and his is called ”Job: The Wisdom of the Cross.” Another recent book he did, especially this might be of special interest to you if you are in ministry. He wrote a book called “Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of,” I love this word, “Sustainable Sacrifice.” I don’t know who came up with that subtitle. Those are brilliant words. Was that yours, Christopher?
Ash: It was probably the publisher. I can’t remember.
Guthrie: Oh, you’re just too humble to say. But all of us know we want to give our lives to the Gospel. We wanna be expended for the Gospel, but we also recognize that we’re human, and we’re limited, and we are not the savior. We are only speaking of the savior, preaching the savior, so zeal without burnout. Today, we’re going to ask Christopher to help us teach through the Book of Ruth. Oh, how I love this little book. And I already told Christopher I could talk for hours about this book, and we simply cannot allow ourselves to do that. But I was especially excited to talk to Christopher about this book because he has written a book called ”Teaching Ruth and Esther.”
So get that. It is a book specifically to help teachers for teaching through these two important books. So we’re gonna have one episode here where we’re going to ask his help in teaching Ruth, and we’ll have another episode later in which he will help us teach through the Book of Esther. But I especially really do appreciate Christopher as I’ve worked my way through this book. One of my favorite little ways you have written this book is you will stop at certain points in the text, and you will indicate how that text is often taught wrongly. You’ve kind of warn us away from doing the wrong thing with it, which is a really helpful feature of this book.
Ash: Yes, I probably make enemies by doing this, but I’ve sometimes put…
Guthrie: You’re brave.
Ash: …”Here’s a wrong turning.” But it’s probably something I’ve done myself.
Guthrie: Exactly. We’ve all done that, right? We look back on ways we’ve taught in certain parts of the Bible, and we think, “Oh, I missed the mark there a bit. Maybe not complete heresy, but not quite right. Not quite what that word was worthy of.”
Ash: I often find that, especially if I look back at something I preached a while ago.
Guthrie: Do you keep all your notes and pull them out when you’re preaching on a text?
Ash: Well, I pull them out and then I look at them, and I think they’re terrible, so I start again.
Guthrie: Yeah, I hear that. This is a beautiful piece of literature.
Ash: It’s a staggeringly beautiful piece of literature. The words are chosen with exquisite care, and it just is very beautiful. If you want an application of Philippians 4, whatsoever is good, whatsoever is beautiful, there it is. The Book of Ruth is lovely. Nobody behaves really badly. Some people don’t exercise faith, but nobody does really horrible things.
Guthrie: Oftentimes when we’re preparing to teach a book, it can be helpful to have someone who’s gone before us give us some hints of some things to look for, some recurring themes, maybe words, shapes that we’re going to see in that text to just open our eyes to see them when they’re there. So why don’t we begin by you telling us maybe a few things we need to have our eyes open to as we begin to read through Ruth.
Ash: I’d love to do that. I think one of the most significant themes that I’ve come across is that of emptiness and fullness. It’s fascinating. In Chapter 1, Naomi laments that “I’ve come back. The Lord has brought me back empty.” She uses that word empty. And then in Chapter 2, when Ruth has been gleaning, Ruth goes back to Naomi and she brings out of her apron a large amount of her gleanings. And there’s a beginning of an end to the emptiness. And then in Chapter 3, the night scene with Boaz, Boaz says to Ruth in the morning, ”You mustn’t go back to your mother in law empty.” It’s the same word as in Chapter 1, and so she goes back with this huge gift. And then most movingly, I keep tearing up when I read Ruth, but most movingly in Chapter 4, she brings, not out of her apron but out of her womb, not wheat but a little lad in whom is bound up the hope for the world.
Guthrie: And Naomi’s arms are filled.
Ash: And Naomi’s arms are filled. She’s had two lads whom she’s lost at the beginning of the book and now she has this little lad who’s descended is King David. Just seeing how that fullness theme, which is so moving in Ruth, how it finds its fulfillment in Christ just as King David is significant because of his greatest son, the Lord Jesus. So the language the New Testament uses of all of fullness of the Deity in Colossian’s dwelling in Christ, and you’ve come to fullness in him. We’ve seen his fullness, full of grace and truth in John 1. And there’s a fullness altering to the emptiness of sinners under the curse. I think that’s one of the most significant themes in Ruth, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful theme. I love that picture of the bringing out of the fullness and then there’s the lad…
Guthrie: So if you’re teaching Ruth, and you’ve mentioned a few of these New Testament, there are so many beautiful, “Christ fills all things with himself.” So many ways we can get to Christ. Would you be seeking to articulate that?
Ash: I think the fulfillment in Christ, often it’s best done by sort of hint so that people are beginning to join the dots and thinking, “Oh, I can see where this is going,” rather than the preacher bringing Christ out like a rabbit out of a hat, and they’re thinking, “Oh, well, that was odd.” So things like the land in Chapter 1. In Chapter 1, there’s this tremendous tension between these two places, Moab, and the promised land and the verb turn or return and comes, I think, 12 times. And the land is the promised land. It’s the place where people have their inheritance. And then you read the New Testament, you find the inheritance language is used of what we have in Christ. So, in a sense, returning to the land finds its fulfillment in turning to Christ. And I think if these things are done carefully, we can do justice to the original context and faith.
Guthrie: Doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch, but it’s very natural.
Ash: Yes. Yes, I think so. And I think that’s one of the challenges of a preacher or teacher to make it so that people can think, “Oh, yes, I can see how that naturally works and how that comes.”
Guthrie: We can present it in a way that it feels like an Aah resolution.
Ash: Yes, yes.
Guthrie: Yes, rather than, “Well, that’s a strange turn.”
Ash: Yes, exactly that.
Guthrie: Yeah. So emptiness, fullness, that’s one theme we wanna be keeping our eyes out for after we read it. Is there another theme that we should be looking for?
Ash: I think the kindness theme. It’s a very kind book, and that great Hebrew word, hesed, so steadfast love or covenant loving-kindness, however it’s translated. I think the word, and it comes four times, but it’s very significant. And it’s used of the Lord not ceasing to show His kindness to name his late husband, and sons, and the family, and to Naomi, and it’s used of the kindness particularly Ruth shows to Naomi. So Ruth is an agent of kindness just as Boaz is an agent of redemption. Each of them in their different ways make concrete in real life the kindness, and the redemption, and the love of God.
I suppose, partly, it’s a picture of the fact that God shows His kindness to us through people, and we are often agents of His kindness or called to be agents of His kindness. Very interesting that the Hebrew word to love, and it comes once in the book, and it’s not used of the love of Boaz for Ruth or Ruth for Boaz. It’s used of the love of Ruth for Naomi, or daughter-in-law of say the women of Bethlehem in Chapter 4, who loves you. And it’s wonderful. It is a love story, but it’s a love story between a young woman and her mother-in-law.
Guthrie: Well, and it’s a challenge to us as teachers. We kind of wanna make this a love story. In fact, I’ve heard it taught that way from some Bible teachers I greatly respect, so we might be tempted to do that. How would you challenge us in that regard?
Ash: I think we just need to be very careful to pick up what the storyteller, the divinely-inspired storyteller signals is important. So in Chapter 2, when Boaz comes to the fields, and he asks, ”Who is that young woman, or who’s is that young woman?” We want to say Boaz, who was tall, dark, and handsome, saw this beautiful young woman, and said, “Who is that gorgeous girl over there?” But the narrator doesn’t say that. We have no idea about Ruth’s appearance.
Now when we come to talk about Esther later, you know, we know Esther was very beautiful. But we’ve no idea whether Ruth had a beautiful figure and face. We’re simply not told. We have little hints that Boaz was older in the way the language is used and little hints in the story that Boaz was an older man, but we’ve no idea whether there was chemistry as, we put it, between them. None at all.
So I think we just need to be disciplined and to listen very carefully to the narrator and think, “What does the narrator draw to our attention?” The narrator draws to our attention the love that Ruth has for Naomi. When Boaz says to Ruth later in the story, “This kindness is even greater than you’ve shown before,” I always used to assume he was saying, “You’re being kind to me by being willing to marry an older man.” But the kindness that Ruth has shown is the kindness to Naomi. And I think Boaz is saying, “This kindness that you’re showing your mother-in-law and being willing to bear her son or her is an astonishing kindness.”
Guthrie: Yes. Well, why don’t we dive in? Although right here at the very beginning, we can’t run over too quickly, even it’s just very first phrase because that’s gonna be important for us, isn’t it? And understanding why this little book is here and what we should understand about its place in the story. To me, when we read, “In the days when the judges ruled,” that’s telling us a lot about the setting, and it also challenges us as Bible teachers, we need to teach it in that setting not just as a story that could have happened any time in history. This is particularly in this time.
Ash: Yes. Yes. And it’s interesting, I think, in two regards. One is the dark background. It’s a beautiful story in a land of chaos and darkness. And there’s just a little hint in Chapter 2 when Boaz says to Ruth, “Don’t go anywhere. You might be harmed if you go to somebody else’s field.”
Guthrie: If we’ve read Judges, we kind of have a feel for what he’s concerned about, right?
Ash: Oh, yes. Young women get harmed, and it’s a dark time. And the other thing, of course, is the great…the Book of Judges, no king, everybody did what was right in their own eyes. There was no king, no king, no king. And at the end of the Book of Ruth, David. So, it’s very significant.
Guthrie: Yeah. And we understand her danger because men are doing what is right in their own eyes, and we see this dramatic contrast of Boaz, that in a day when most men are doing what is right in their own, no concern for the God of Israel. And he shows up there at the fields blessing God with his lips and praising God. We go, “Okay, this is a very different man.”
Ash: Yes, that’s right. And in his fields, you can glean as the law says you can. I’ll bet there were lots of fields where you couldn’t.
Guthrie: Yeah, they ignored the law of honor.
Ash: And he’s an honorable man. He’s a man of standing. Yeah. A wonderful phrase.
Guthrie: It makes me wonder sometimes why this book is called Ruth. Sometimes I wonder, “Why isn’t it called Naomi?” and sometimes I wonder, “Why isn’t it called Boaz?” Any thoughts on that?
Ash: Well, in some ways, Naomi is the central character. She’s the one who’s empty, and she’s the one who’s filled.
Guthrie: She’s at the very beginning and the end.
Ash: Yes. Yes. You could call it Naomi. Boaz is the redeemer. There he is in the Promised Land. He’s the one who the kinsman redeemer who brings redemption. I think you could call it… If you were doing a poster with the stars, you probably would put all three, two actresses, one actor. They’d all be there.
Guthrie: If we were gonna make a case for Ruth, maybe we might make the case that there’s something at this book that’s showing us the heart of God at the very beginning. We’ve seen such concern for His people, but we see here he’s gonna bring a foreigner into the family. And it’s a preview of the flood of gentiles, people who have been enemies of God, enemies of God’s people as the Moabites have been, and they’re gonna be invited in. They are gonna be covered, married.
Ash: Yes. And it’s wonderful, especially with all the overtones of Moabites, and not just know Moabite but Moabitess or Moabite woman. Numbers 25, it was the Moabite women who seduced the Israelite men. All the echoes of Moabite to Moabitess are dark.
Guthrie: Yeah. So, as teachers, we might be…sometimes all of the “ites” in the Old Testament can kind of run together, and you can just think, “It’s just one of those people, Ruth.” So maybe as we’re teaching Ruth, we need to take care, to think about, “Okay, so in the mediate history here of the Judges, they had been slaves to the Moabites for 18 years. The king of Moab had been very cruel to the people of God, and so here are the people of God. They are in Bethlehem, in Judah.” I mean this is the land where God has promised to bless His people. And a famine arises, and where do they go? Amazingly, here’s this leader of his family, and he chooses to take them out of the land that God has promised to bless, to Moab.
Ash: And it’s a strange move, isn’t it? The narrator doesn’t explicitly condemn it, but it’s certainly strange. Here’s a people whose origins were in Genesis 19 with Lot’s incestuous relations with his daughters, and Numbers 22 to 25, all the trouble of Balaam and the Moabite women, and then, as you said, Eglon, the king of Moab in Judges 3. It’s not just a neutral place. It’s not just they lived in New York and decided to go to Washington. It’s nothing like that. It’s like I’ve gone to join the Islamic State. It has that sense of something really dark.
Guthrie: And in Verse 2, not only do they go there, there’s something to me about those words, “And remained there.” Like, it’s a real settling in, isn’t it? And it’s a marrying in.
Ash: It is. It’s a settling, it’s a marrying, and it’s a place of death. It’s really interesting. They all have names at the beginning. Naomi, Elimelech, Mahlon, Kilion, they all have names. And then before long, three of those names are just on gravestones. And, in fact, Naomi has lost her name. So Verse 5, Mahlon and Kilion also died, and it’s literally, “And the woman was left.”
Guthrie: Yeah, I never noticed that.
Ash: The NIV puts Naomi back in, but it’s literally, “The woman was left.” So, it’s almost as though she’s lost her name. It’s a place that promises life but gives death. It’s always been like that outside of the promises of God.
Guthrie: So she’s away from the Promised Land. When she left the land, God’s judgment seemed to be at the land. But then we get to Verse 6, and there’s hope. She gets worried. She had heard that the Lord had visited His people and given them food.
Ash: And there’s something fascinating about that. The food, the emptiness, fullness theme just begins to be sounded, but He’s given food for them. She’s not there. She’s an outsider, this blessing, but it’s not where she is yet.
Guthrie: But she determines to go. There’s the turning. I don’t know if you mentioned it yet. I saw it in your book, you talked about…that’s another thing that we see over and over in this book, isn’t it?
Ash: Chapter 1 has the returning word, the Hebrew verb, shuwb. It’s disguised in most of our English translations. But go back, return, brought me back, they’re all forms of that word. And the whole drama of Chapter 1, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, they leave Moab, and they’re in a kind of nowhere land. And the question is, are they going to go back to Moab, or are they going to go to the Promised Land?
Guthrie: I mean, we can kind of picture it, can’t we?
Ash: Yeah. Very vivid.
Guthrie: These three bereaved women in a huddle on the road.
Ash: And which way are they gonna go turn?
Guthrie: Which way are they gonna go?
Ash: Yes. It is very dramatic, and the tension rises in Chapter 1. And what fascinates me about that choice is that Orpah does the sensible thing.
Guthrie: I noticed you said that. It’s not an evil thing, you say.
Ash: It’s a sensible thing. It’s what you do if you trust the evidence of your senses. You go to your own people, your land, your culture. That’s where she’s likely to find another husband, and a home, and it’s sensible. It’s not wicked in the sense that it’s not murder or anything like that. It’s sensible, but it’s not faith. Whereas Ruth, who has only the promises of the Covenant to go on, she has nothing but words to go on. She’s heard something of the promises of the covenant. She must have done.
Guthrie: She didn’t have any rightful expectation that she will get married there or that she’ll be accepted in there, so it’s kind of faith against reality, against what might be sensible.
Ash: Yes. I mean, it’s like Abraham going to the land where God has promised there’ll be blessing, but she has only the promises to go on.
Guthrie: So let’s talk about her statement here in Verse 16. “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.” You talked earlier about how we wanna make this book a love story between a man and a woman, and it is, in many ways, between daughter and mother-in-law. Just talk to us about this verse because for most of us, if we’re not really familiar with the Book of Ruth, this may be the verse that we’ve heard the most.
Ash: Yes, yes. This is the verse that will appear on a calendar, one of the verses that will appear on a calendar.
Guthrie: What’s happening here?
Ash: I think Ruth, when Ruth pledges her loyalty to Naomi, she’s pledging covenant loyalty to Naomi’s God, “Your God will be my God.” And so her loyalty to Naomi’s not just a personal loyalty to her mother-in-law. It’s a loyalty to the Covenant God of Israel. And she’s pledging that. It’s as though at that moment, she ceases to be a Moabite in terms of her allegiance, and she pledges herself to be an Israelite. And in that turning, I see… It’s fascinating, at the end of Chapter 1, we read that Naomi returned from Moab, but the implication is that Ruth also returned. Now, Ruth has never been in the Promised Land, and yet somehow even the gentile being brought back, it’s a coming home. It’s like the prodigal son in Luke 50. She’s coming home.
Guthrie: When we hear her use these words, “Your God will be my God,” it makes us think a little bit about statements we’ve heard before in the Scriptures, especially in Genesis, like with Abraham, that’s the consonant covenant statement. And it’s in the beginning of the Bible in Genesis, and we read it in Revelation 21 in the consummation when finally God comes and He says, ”I will be your God, and you will be my people.” And so, if we’re familiar with this covenant that is at the heart of what the Bible story all about and we see it here, there’s something there for us to bring out, this taking hold of the covenant that’s happening here.
Ash: Yes, yes. I think exactly that.
Guthrie: Quite beautiful. All right. So they get back to Bethlehem and, of course, we kind of skipped over that Bethlehem, the very name of the place, is house of bread, and there’s been no bread in the house of bread. But they are now back to Bethlehem, and they’ve gone back, and they arrive just as this barley crop is beginning to be gleaned at the very…that’s the last phrase of Verse 1. ”They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” And so I don’t know where they lived. I don’t know if there’s still an old mud huts on Elimelech’s old abandoned property, but…
Ash: We have no idea where they lived.
Guthrie: …we just know they’re empty. They’d come back very empty.
Ash: Yes, yes. And in a way, Verse 21 of Chapter 1, the first half sums up the Chapter. ”I went away full, but the Lord brought me back empty.” And you’ve got a contrast. “I was the subject who went away, but the Lord was the subject to bring me back.” There’s a change of direction, “I went away, the Lord brought me back,” and there’s a change of state, “I went away full, and I’ve been brought back empty.” And you almost encapsulates the Chapter, “But the Lord brought me back.” And even in the emptiness, there’s hope because the Lord has brought her back home.
Guthrie: She says, “The Almighty has brought calamity upon me. The Lord has testified against me.” What do you do with that when you teach it? Do you say she’s speaking truth there? Is that a bad attitude? Is her hopelessness…there’s a sense of hopelessness and despair there.
Ash: Yes. There is a sense of hopelessness and despair. To some extent, she believes that God is sovereign and that if misfortune has come, it is because God has centered. And that’s true. The Bible supports that wholeheartedly. There is a sense in which her faith seems to waver, doesn’t it? It certainly ambiguous. She says, “The Lord has brought me back empty.” And actually, the young woman standing next to her is invisible at this point. But this young woman standing next to her daughter-in-law, who Naomi thinks is a nobody, is a Moabite. Actually, it’s gonna be the key to the whole thing.
Guthrie: In fact, we see Ruth’s full of faith, right? When we begin Chapter 2:2, Ruth is the one full of faith in God’s Covenant and God’s Covenant People because she says, ”Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after Him in whose sight I shall find favor.” It makes me think that somewhere along the way, they have read to her the law of God in Deuteronomy and Leviticus in terms of the outsider. The sojourner is to be allowed to glean on the edges of your field, pick up the little edges, and she heads out believing that that’s what she’s going to experience.
Ash: And she believes that. And we, knowing that this is in the days of the judges, wonder what she’s going to find, but she believes that the land of promise is the land where promises are kept. She’s hoping that it’ll be a place of grace or favor. When you go to the land of promise, who do you find? And the answer is you find a redeemer. Wonderfully.
Guthrie: She certainly does, doesn’t she?
Ash: She certainly does.
Guthrie: And so she goes to the fields, and it tells us, in the end of Verse 3, it’s the clan of Elimelech. So we have to remember this is the family group clan of her late father-in-law, and he….
Ash: And we’ve been told that twice.
Guthrie: Yeah. So we’ve gotta pay attention to it.
Ash: We’re told it in Verse 1, and then we’re told you it again in Verse 3, just in case we’ve forgotten.
Guthrie: It’s easy to teach this whole lesson and kind of forget that whole part of the story, isn’t it? But we’ll come back to why that’s going to be important. And so here in the days of the judges, here, Boaz shows up, and well, here’s his first words. “The Lord be with you. The Lord bless you.” And so we do discover he’s very different from many men who were doing what is right in their own eyes. He’s very different.
Ash: And it’s just a fluke, isn’t it? In Verse 3. Lo and behold, she just happens to go to this particular field.
Guthrie: Well, how about that? She just happened. I don’t think it just happens.
Ash: Well, now, there we are.
Guthrie: That’s kind of the thing about the Bible. Sometimes I think the Bible writer kind of wants us to laugh a little bit in the way he’s writing it, and we take it so very seriously and are afraid to laugh.
Ash: Lo and behold, she just happened to turn up there…
Guthrie: She just happened.
Ash: …and she just happened to turn up there just the time when he’s about to appear.
Guthrie: Boaz asks, “Whose young woman is?” It’s interesting to me to note what the man in charge of the reapers, how he describes her. “She is the Moabite, and she’s come to glean.” But then look at Verse 8, Boaz says to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter.” How very different he approaches her.
Ash: And there’s something about his language, which suggests that he’s an older generation, “My daughter.” Metaphorically, he’s of an older generation, but there’s also something very protective about him. It’s interesting in a world where sexual exploitation is very much the order of the day. Here is a man who has power, presumably. He owns the fields. He has wealth. He’s a man of standing. And at no point does he exploit it.
Guthrie: And, in fact, beyond that, he protects her from anyone who might harm her. He goes the extra length to do that.
Ash: You know, right from the beginning, you’re thinking, “I hope this might be the redeemer.”
Guthrie: That makes me think about all of the women and men who have been sexually exploited, perhaps even in the church and that has cast a dark shadow on how they think about God. What a beautiful book to present for them. Now, here is Boaz, and we’re going to see that he is showing us a picture of our Redeemer. And we wanna fix our eyes on Him because He is a redeemer who is kind, who does not exploit, who protects, does not oppress, does not take advantage of but provides for His people.
Ash: And there’s something, I think, very powerful in terms of persuasion because as you read the story, you ask yourself if you were given a choice between gleaning in somebody else’s fields and gleaning in Boaz’s fields, of course, you’d want to be there. And it’s a sort of picture, isn’t it? “Would I rather be out of Christ, away from Christ in the world, or would I rather be in Christ under His protection?”
Guthrie: Where I’ll find favor.
Ash: I’m thinking, “I much rather be where I’ll find favor.” Yes.
Guthrie: I’m looking at Verse 12 where Boaz speaks to her. He’s heard about what she’s done, and she’s left her own family and come here. And then Verse 12, “The Lord repay you for what you have done and a full reward be given to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” There’s an image that’s going to come back again.
Ash: Yes, yes, yes. And it’s a vivid image, isn’t it? The wings or the corner of a garment. And it’s an image in Deuteronomy 22. It’s used…you come under the wings under the corner of a garment of a man. It’s an image of marriage, of coming under the protection of her husband. So it’s that sort of imagery that’s being used. And, of course, that’s going to grow as the story goes on.
Guthrie: Yes. And he can see that she hasn’t just come home with her mother-in-law. He sees that element of her, “Your God will be my God.” And that’s the way in which she has come under this, taking refuge in him.
Ash: Yes. Boaz doesn’t, at this point, realize that he is going to be the concrete instrument of the wings of the Lord.
Guthrie: It’s like he’s praying, “Hope this works out for you.” He doesn’t know yet he’s gonna be the answer his own prayer.
Ash: When you get to Chapter 3, that’s what happens.
Guthrie: We see just more grace as we continue. It’s meal time, and the outsiders, the sojourners, they’re just supposed to be at the edges. But he’s so abundant in grace and loving kindness. “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine. So she sat beside the reapers…” When I read this, I always think about those reapers, those women who came to work day by day, and they’re like, “Okay, now, wait a minute. Who’s this Moabite woman squeezing in on our advantages?”
Ash: Yes, yes, yes. We like to think it’s because Boaz was sweet on Ruth, but there’s no hint of that, no hint of that. Just kindness, I think.
Guthrie: So then she comes to the end of the day, and Verse 17, “So she gleaned in the field until evening. She beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah…” How would you say that? Ephah of barley?
Ash: Yes, ephah on an ephah, yes.
Guthrie: Yeah. And how would you measure that if we’re trying to make this a very vivid picture for those we’re teaching?
Ash: Yes. It’s difficult to know exactly what these things were, but I think the narrator indicates it was a lot. I think that’s probably all we need to know.
Guthrie: So we think about her scarf, maybe she’s worn out there, and she’s dumped all of the grain that she’s gathered into it, and it’s a big heavy pouch.
Ash: It’s more than you would expect.
Guthrie:: It’s certainly more than Naomi expect.
Ash: Yes, yes, yes. And there’s this hilarious bit earlier in the chapter where Boaz instructs is harvesters. He says to them, “Pull out some extra bits and leave them for Ruth.” This is hilarious. You can see them sort of picking out these extra bits and saying to Ruth….
Guthrie: “Come glean over here.”
Ash: It’s just that. “There’s a nice pile there.”
Guthrie: And so it’s kind of funny actually when she walks in the door, and, I mean, Verse 18, “She took it up, went into the city. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned, and she brings it out and she gave her the food she had leftover being satisfied.” Verse 19, “And her mother-in-law said to her…” and I just have to say with this tone of voice because I think this must be what? Like, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work?”
Ash: Yes, yes, yes. There’s a real sense of surprise and wonder, isn’t there?
Guthrie: “Blessed be the man who took notice of you?” And then she says, “Oh, well, it happens that this guy’s name is Boaz.”
Ash: And it’s wonderful because we’ve been told in Verse 1 that Naomi has this relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz. But for the first time in the actual story of Chapter 2, “Oh, his name was Boaz,” doesn’t mean anything to Ruth. But it means…
Guthrie: It means a lot to Naomi.
Ash: It does.
Guthrie: Yeah. So maybe it’s at this point when we’re teaching this that we have to help those we’re teaching understand why this would be such significant news to Naomi. This whole…maybe we have a sense of Leverite marriage, but I think maybe we don’t always have the full sense, especially in terms of what this means regarding land, inheritance, name. Those are just kind of some key categories for what this is going to mean. So, how would you explain that if you were teaching this?
Ash: I think that’s exactly right. I think in teaching this, we’ve got to say, “In order to understand this, you need to understand that your share of land, your inheritance in the promised land is your share in the promises of God, and your land means a huge amount.” You see that with Naboth’s vineyard later on. It matters enormously. And, therefore, for land to stay in the family has to do with the family continuing to have a share in the promises of God. And for that reason, if a man died before his wife has had a son to carry on the land, the man’s probably next unmarried brother, I suspect, is how it worked, I think there’s good reason to think that, has to father, God willing, a son by the widow in order for the land stay in the family. And we think, “Oh, that feels weird to us,” because we don’t grasp how important the patch of land was in terms of its significance. But if we grasp how important the land is, then we’ll begin to get it and follow the story.
Guthrie: So when he has a child by that widow, he’s really creating a line of inheritance for his dead brother not for himself. So there’s a sense in which there was a cost to him. You know, all of the inheritance isn’t going to go to his children by his wife and that family. No. Now, this inheritance is gonna go as an inheritance for his brother. It’s costly.
Ash: That’s right. And we’re gonna see that in the first half of Chapter 4 where one possible redeemer says, “It’s too expensive, I can’t do it.”
Guthrie: Naomi’s drive for there to be a child, one to inherit, it would have something to do with land for her to live on, but also a deeper sense of inheritance amongst God’s people. But isn’t it also a bit of love for her dead husband that his name doesn’t perish from the land?
Ash: Yes, I think so. And, again, this is alien to us and find it difficult to get into that mindset. We need to try to understand how it works and the significance of a name. Names are very significant in the Book of Ruth. The book begins with a flurry of names, Elimelech, and Naomi, and the two boys, Mahlon and Kilion, and the book ends with a flurry of names with the genealogy from Obed to going down to King David. And so there’s a sense in which you begin with a sort of fullness of names, and identity, and belonging, and you end with even more significant names, and identity, and belonging.
Guthrie: Royal names.
Guthrie: Ruth continues working throughout the season of barley and wheat harvest. And then we enter into Chapter 3, and Naomi hatches a plan. Now, this is very challenging for us as Bible teachers because we want to say what’s right and wrong and or, you know, if we’re trying to use this to somehow set some standards for interactions between men and women, all of this is a challenge. So, please help us know how to handle this.
Ash: Yes, yes. I mean, Chapter 3, it’s very similar to Chapter 2 in structure. Both Chapters begin with Naomi and Ruth together, then Ruth goes out. And then there’s an interaction between Ruth and Boaz. And then at the end of the Chapter Ruth goes back to Naomi. But whereas Chapter 2 is public and the main focus is on the character of the Redeemer, Chapter 3 is private, and the focus is on the initiative of Naomi and Ruth. It’s really about faith, I think. But the whole sex thing is difficult to navigate because, on the one hand, it seems, I think, clear to me that there is no sexual immorality takes place. But the verb for lie down, which even now we sometimes use in slightly old-fashioned English, “He lay with her,” is precisely what you would tell your teenage child not to do with their girlfriend or boyfriend. “Don’t lie down,” for obvious reasons.
And the verb comes, I think, eight times in Chapter 3. There’s a lot of lying down. And so though nothing immoral happens, there’s a tremendously…I think you’d have to say this in an erotic atmosphere that is suggesting that there’s going to be an intimacy to come as indeed there is. So you have to sort of work with that tension. It’s one of the remarkable things about Boaz that in a context where he could so easily have had Ruth. Nobody would have criticized him. He would have got away with it. You know, there would have been no #metoo or anything in those days. Not in the days of the judges. And yet he’s absolutely pure. It’s a wonderful thing really.
So, well, I think we need to navigate it carefully. On the one hand, we must not let people think there’s lots of double entendre and this immorality happening. But on the other hand, there is something very intimate. You know, here’s this nighttime meeting between this young woman and this redeemer who nobody else knows about it. It’s very private.
Guthrie: So does that mean even with Naomi kind of scheming, you know, like fix herself up and smell good and go there in night, as a teacher, does that mean we don’t try to moralize on that at all, or what do we make that visit? Is there a lack of wisdom there, or is this just like a really smart thing to do, or do we not even go there?
Ash: Hard to tell. I mean, I may be wrong, but I read this as an exercise of faith. There may be more to it than that, but I think… So when Ruth says to Boaz, “Spread the corner of your garment to for me,” she’s saying, “Marry me. Be the redeemer, and through me, raise up a son for my mother-in-law and her dead husband.” And it’s not so much chemistry.
Guthrie: It’s not saying “Love me,” necessarily, is it?
Ash: No, she’s saying, “Will you be the redeemer for the family?” It’s almost as though she’s offering to be a surrogate. Just extraordinary really. But I think we need to try and keep our focus on that aspect. I think it’s primarily an exercise of faith calling on the redeemer to be the redeemer whom the redeemer is promised to be. I think there’s a natural fulfillment in calling on our Redeemer to be the redeemer whom he has promised to be. I think that’s right.
Guthrie: And we see Boaz’s response, and I love Verse 11, ”And now my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. And now it’s true that I am a redeemer, yet there is a redeemer nearer than I.” And so he has this plan. ”You stay here, remain tonight. In the morning, if he will redeem you, good, let him do it. But if he’s not willing to redeem you, then as the Lord lives, I will redeem you.” And I just love that because if we’re reading this all the way, understanding that Boaz is showing us so many things about our greater kinsmen redeemer, Jesus Christ. I hear him say those words, and I hear him say them to me. And he says to me, “My daughter, do not fear. I’m gonna do all that you ask as the Lord lives. I will redeem you.” It’s a beautiful thing.
Ash: I think your response here is exactly right. Ruth hears the redeemer saying, “Yes, I will be the redeemer. I will redeem, I will do it.” And we hear our redeemer. Every time we come to our Redeemer in faith, he says, “I will do it. If you will, you can make me clean. I will be clean.” It’s always that, “I will. I will. I will.” And it’s wonderful. That is the response of our Redeemer to the exercise of faith. But, of course, there’s the tension rising in the story, and one of the challenges for a preacher is to go with the ups and downs, and the drama, and the tension.
Guthrie: Yes. Because there is a quandary, there’s a question.
Ash: That’s another one, and you’re thinking, “Oh, I wonder how this is gonna work out.”
Guthrie: Yes. It says there’s a closer relative. But, in a sense, this is a picture of the redeemer in that Boaz is going to do what’s according to the law. He’s going to uphold the law of God in his redemption. So he says, you know, “We have to do according to the law, so we’ve gotta offer it to this guy first.” And then we see him do that. He goes to the place where these kinds of matters are handled. In Chapter 4, “Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer of whom Boaz had spoken came by.” Isn’t this a little bit that kind of…you talked about earlier, like, she just happened to end up at the fields of Boaz.
Ash: And now this other guy just happens to have shown up.
Guthrie: Yeah. He just happens to comes by. Yeah. Boaz approaches this in a very determined way, a smart way in the way he orders the information he provides to this unnamed possible redeemer. Does he not?
Ash: Yes. And this unnamed possible redeemer rather like in Chapter 1, Orpah is not condemned for her decision. It’s not a decision of faith, but it’s not sort of positively wicked. So, this man is sensible. He consults his accountant. His accountant says, “If you take on this widow, if you take on this young woman of child-bearing age, you may well have a son. It’s all financial loss. You can’t afford it.” And by the time he’s consulted his accountant, he says, “I can’t afford it.” And it helps us to realize that the decision that Boaz takes is a costly redemption. I think that’s the significance. So I think this unnamed man is a kind of foil so that we realize that what Boaz does is not cheap. It’s a redemption that costs. There’s a lot of sitting at the beginning of Chapter 4.
Guthrie: What do you make of that?
Ash: Sitting is the position of authority. So, normally, you’d be standing around, but the elders come and sit. And it’s in the position of sitting that legal stuff happens in the gate. So, as a preacher, you need to explain that the gate is not just somewhere you go through. It’s a rectangular area, may be quite significant, and it’s where dealings are done, and the people sitting are the people with authority. Just like we have a judge who will sit in judgment. And Jesus sat to teach. It was the position of authority to teach.
Guthrie: Yes. Now, when I’ve taught Ruth, I suppose I’ve just skipped over this whole part about the sandal because I didn’t necessarily know of anything to make of it. As a teacher, would you do something with that?
Ash: I think nobody knows quite who gave whose saddled to whom or why. So I think it’s wise to say there’s something going on that’s legal, but we don’t know exactly what the custom was. There are various things in Ruth where it’s hard to tell precisely what the customs were. And I think as Bible teaches, there are times when we just need to be honest and say, “We’re not sure about this.”
Guthrie: Unfortunately, it’s not essential to understanding this story.
Ash: It really isn’t.
Guthrie:: All right. And then we come, in Verse 11, “All the people who are at the gate and the elders said, ‘We are witnesses,'” and then they pray, in a sense. They say, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, and may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.” If we’re teaching this, wow, we’ve got a lot of Old Testament lessons to dip back into to try to really get at the heart of what they’re praying for her. How would you communicate what they’re asking the Lord to do in her life?
Ash: I think it depends who you’re teaching and in what context. But it’s big, you know, just saying to one little marriage in one little place at one little time, “May you be like Rachel and Leah.” You know, the mothers have a number of the children of Israel. You’re praying a big prayer, aren’t you? You’re saying, “May there be someone very significant to come from your family.” And, of course, the reference to “Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah,” is a reminder of a very strange kind of relationship, and an example of God bringing blessing out of a very strange set of circumstances. So all that’s in your mind, you’re thinking about the goodness of God. You’re thinking about God building up the people of God in a messy old world.
Guthrie: Do you think the Tamar part might be because she’s another outsider from the family of God who’s been brought in? Of course, we’re gonna know later that both of these women are actually gonna be in the line of the Messiah.
Ash: Indeed they are.
Guthrie: So it’s almost like they pray more than they know.
Ash: Yes, yes, yes. And Tamar, in the strangeness of the story, she sought of exercises faith, maybe. I may be wrong, but she’s certainly described as being more righteous.
Guthrie: Than Judah was. “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went into her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. And then the women said to ‘Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without a redeemer.” I can see that happening. I love this. ”And may his name be renowned in Israel. He shall be to your restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” What’s happening and what they are saying there?
Ash: Verse 13 is so compressed, isn’t it? You’ve just got five verbs. “Boaz took Ruth, she became his wife. He went into her or made love to her. The Lord gave her conception. She gave birth to a son.” It’s very crisp. It’s one of the…I think only two times in the book where we’re explicitly told the Lord did something. The Lord gave her conception, which since she had 10 years of marriage in Moab and presumably no children, because we’re not told of any, is not obvious that she could bear children, and it’s not obvious that Boaz isn’t too old to father children. So it certainly surprises us, and we think, “This is wonderful.” And then there’s that language of a Guardian Redeemer, so this little boy is going to be a redeemer figure. He’s going to care for Naomi in her old age.
And then Ruth is described as better to you than seven sons. That’s extraordinary since the whole point of the book is the birth of their son. That’s what it all looking for. When the son’s born, the music changes, and we all relax. We think, “Now there’s a son. This is great.” Now here’s somebody who’s love from her mother-in-law is better than seven, you know, better than a quiver full of sons. It’s hard to think of higher praise you could give to Ruth than that. There’s something, maybe that is why the book is named after her. She’s the one who shows this extraordinary covenant love, and steadfast love, and kindness to her mother in law. But indeed, the Guardian Redeemer will become famous through Israel. He will be the grandfather of King David.
Guthrie: Yes, because, as we read, they name this baby Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David, and then we get a short little genealogy. In a sense, this is like a connector in between Judges, the book that precedes it, and 1 Samuel, the book that comes next, because it’s in 1 Samuel where we meet this one, David. Tell me this, Christopher, when you come to the end of teaching the Book of Ruth, are there two or three things that you think, “Oh, I want this to…some of what people have learned, but more than that, how it has impacted them, changed them.” What’s your hope of the impact of teaching the Book of Ruth to those who teach?
Ash: I’m hoping people will have picked up particularly this emptiness outside of the Promised Land and fullness and have felt the wonder of that, felt the pain of the emptiness, the sadness of the hunger, the sadness of the bereavement, the sadness of the poverty, the wonder of fulfilling as it comes through, and have felt the wonder of that. And we’ll then connect that wonder with what it is that our heavenly father gives us in Christ. And if we feel that wonder, there’s a gladness of being in Christ.
Guthrie: That’s very interesting to me the way you were saying that. That part of our job, as a teacher, is not just that they know something, but to teach God’s Word in such a way that they feel it. Do I hear you correctly?
Ash: Yes, yes. Absolutely. I mean, I was re-reading what I’d written about this actually on the plane just the other day in preparation for this interview. And you’d have seen me on the plane with tears streaming down my eyes again because I find the Book of Ruth so moving, the pathos, the sadness, but also the loving kindness. It’s a very, very moving book. And if we preach it in such a way that we just preach doctrinal points, we kill it dead. If we ourselves, as Bible teaches, have been moved by it, there’s just a chance we might manage to draw out the emotions of the book as we teach it.
Guthrie: Oh, that that would come through in our teaching that we have been moved by it.
Ash: Yes, yes.
Guthrie: And that the picture it paints of our great kinsmen redeemer who, when we go to him and say, “Cover me.” He says, “Surely as the Lord lives, my daughter, I will redeem.”
Ash: I mean, I’d still find there are points in the book where I just find myself tearing up because they are so moving. And that picture of Ruth bringing out the grain and then more, “You mustn’t go back empty,” and then bringing out this little lad, putting him on the lap of Naomi. You know, if that doesn’t make us glad to be in Christ, there’s something wrong.
Guthrie: Well, Christopher thank you so much for talking through this beautiful book with us, for helping us teach the Book of Ruth.
Ash: Thank you, Nancy.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach The Bible,” a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks. Learn more about Crossway’s Gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.
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