You never appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone, as the sentiment goes. In thinking through what the value is of the little book of Ruth, imagine the Bible without it. What would such a Bible look like? Some older versions of the Torah put it in a different place, for example after the book of Proverbs, possibly as an example of a ‘capable woman’, in response to the questions asked by King Lemuel’s mother (the word translated as capable can also mean ‘strong’, ‘valiant’, ‘virtuous’ or ‘worthy’).
Sat where it is, we are drawn back into the timeline of the book of Judges. Ruth doesn’t follow on chronologically; that job is left to 1 Samuel. Instead, having seen the grand scale of the Israelite’s repentance and disobedience under a variety of judges, we suddenly zoom in. We’ve gone from the 1:50,000 OS Map to Google Streetview, peering in through the window of one household.
In so doing, we learn that God looks after the little people too. In most of Judges, the narrative revolves around the leaders, the “important people” while most of the population become somewhat amorphous and possibly dehumanised, amalgamated and labelled by tribe. There may be similarities if we look at a modern newspaper, where the big events of the day give mention to a few world leaders, but, for example, “the Egyptian people” are lumped together as one. Only occasionally do we get to hear from the ordinary people, living their lives in the face of the circumstances they face, as Ruth and Naomi do.
The book of Ruth provides a link between the books of Judges and 1 Samuel. Oddly, the genealogy is given at the end of the book, which is not the normal way early Jewish writers wrote. This gives a hint as to one of the possible reasons for why the book was written. Ruth was a Moabite. Yet in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 we are told that Moabites should be excluded from the assembly of the Lord. Given then that Ruth is an ancestor of David, her ethnic background may have caused a problem for some readers, for whom David is a hero of Jewish history. This does raise the question as to whether God can change Its mind, but I’ll let you think that one through. It also raises the question of the source for the book, since to include a genealogy the author must have written at the earliest at the time of the last entry in that genealogy, unless it was a late addition to the book of Ruth, which seems less likely.
By making a point of Ruth’s Moabite background and highlighting that she was related to David, the author of the book shows us that Gentiles could be part of the grand story of the Jewish people. Yet this point seemed somewhat put to the back of some minds, as Peter had to be reminded of it in Acts 10.
So if we cut Ruth out of our Bibles, what might we lose? We might lose sight of the fact that God cares for the ordinary people who aren’t born into a royal household, who get on with living life as best as they can. We might also forget that in the Jewish history, there are some Gentiles who have a profound influence and who are welcomed as part of God’s family. If the latter were not the case, then perhaps the scope of the gospel might not have reached us and would have remained the preserve of an ethnic minority. Perhaps.