“Often Ruth is viewed as a simple love story, a shining moment at a dark time in Israelite history. While Ruth teaches us a lot about love, the book is also packed with deep insights about God and his relationship with his people. This can be said about any portion of the Bible. So, whenever we study God’s Word, our main quest is always to discover what he is telling us about himself. If we marginalize God or make someone else the focal point, we will always miss the main message of the book. Always.”
In The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules, Carolyn Custis James studies the theology of the book of Ruth, drawing from the work of numerous Old Testament scholars, and finds more than a fairy tale love story. She finds instead a version of the ultimate love story of God for His people – even, or perhaps especially, for those who are outcasts, strangers, poor, and downtrodden. As in all of Scripture, the book of Ruth is about the good news of God’s plan for redemption – we can find the Gospel in the book of Ruth.
I think James did a really good job of making the biblical scholarship on Ruth and the time period accessible, without resorting to a lot of speculation or falling into the trap of viewing the story through 21st century eyes. I learned a tremendous amount from this book about the culture in Israel at the time, and how traditions had sprung up from the letter of the Law, and sometimes had veered from the spirit of the Law. James’ discussion of the impact of barrenness and widowhood in that culture added greatly to my understanding of the book.
“When widowhood or anything else alters a woman’s life, the center of her identity doesn’t disintegrate, for she is not defined or redefined by circumstances, relationships, her resume, or public opinion. God defines her.”
As she skillfully writes about what the Scripture says and provides cultural context and word meanings, James also shows how what this book teaches about God has applications for us. I found her study of Naomi particularly compelling. People tend to think of Naomi as being sort of sour, or sinfully mired in bitterness and woe, but James describes how Naomi’s faith, like Job’s, is honest enough to tell God when she’s deeply in pain, and also open enough to accept His lovingkindness as shown through Ruth. I loved how James used Naomi’s example to underscore that all of us, in every culture and situation, draw our identities from God, not from our circumstances.
“The letter of the law says, “Let them glean.” The spirit of the law says, “Feed them.”
Another strength of the book is James’ description of the biblical concept of hesed (sacrificial lovingkindness that characterizes how God deals with us and how we should relate to one another in biblical community) and how God uses Ruth and Boaz to challenge the cultural expectations that seemed to follow the Law but actually missed the point. James outlines how Ruth’s commitment to God, first expressed on the road with Naomi, makes her committed to God’s ways even when they seem countercultural. This is where the subtitle about breaking the rules comes in – I think the subtitle is a bit unfortunate since it seems to suggest that this is a book of ends justifying means. The book does not go that way at all. Instead, James shows how Ruth’s position as an outsider does not disqualify her from speaking out for God’s justice, and what a real sacrifice (and deeply godly response) it was for Boaz to listen to her and be humble enough to accept that God could work through this woman – a foreigner, a recent convert, a widow, and a barren one at that.
“Do our definitions of submission actually trivialize what it really means?…When dealing with fellow believers, submission aims much higher than simply keeping the peace or resolving stalemates. A bone-of-my-bone oneness is in view, like the oneness Jesus enjoyed with his Father. Not a reluctant, resentful compliance, but a full embrace of a common vision and a mutual delight.”
James notes that the book of Ruth can be uncomfortable both for people who emphasize submissiveness in women and people who dismiss submission. On the one hand, Ruth is completely unconventional – she breaks cultural taboos, essentially and somewhat dangerously asks Boaz to marry her, and confronts powerful and righteous men and demands action from them. This is not really the “women should be seen and not heard” brand of submission some groups advocate. However, we also see Ruth in surprisingly abandoned submission to Naomi, total submission to God, and humble submission to Boaz’s decision once she has spoken her piece. James points out that both extremes of the submission question fall short of what God has in mind. The book of Ruth suggests that submission is not about women sitting back and letting men do God’s work, nor is it about women not needing men and doing whatever they want. Instead, the book offers a more nuanced view, and comes back again to the fact that true submission begins with being submitted to God, out of which flows our ability to submit to one another.
“When women are strong, do men become stronger, or are they weakened?”
Along those lines, James also examines the idea some people advocate that when women are strong, they force men to step back and prevent men from taking leadership. The book of Ruth would seem to belie that idea. Rather, Boaz is described initially as a righteous man, a “man of valor” before he ever meets Ruth, but his position is not in any way diminished when he listens to Ruth’s challenge, considers how it fits with God’s commands, and accepts it. In fact, he is praised in the gates for so doing, and Ruth is called a “woman of valor” for having courageously done God’s work even when it was countercultural.
While the majority of The Gospel of Ruth is strong and well written, containing an abundance of scholarship and willingness to really examine what we learn about God from this book of the Bible, at the end James seems to sort of break down and not quite know what to do with how Ruth winds up with a husband and a baby and a happily ever after ending. I think this is in part due to the fact that James was wrestling personally with how often our lives do not have happy endings (she writes openly of her own struggle with infertility and the loss while she was writing the book of her husband’s brother and how that rocked their family). She seems to want to find a way to make Ruth more than a tidy “all a woman’s problems are solved with a man and a baby” story, and she does make some good points about how Naomi’s loss will never really be ameliorated by baby Onan’s birth, but that it’s a redemptive ending showing how God’s grace can bring joy out of ashes. James just seems to have trouble really wrapping up the book.
That said, I think the book is still very strong, thoughtful, and useful for an in-depth study of the book of Ruth and I would highly recommend it.
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