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The good wife

Wisdom from the book of Ruth

-Greg Goswell-

Where do you find the book of Ruth in the Bible? Though the modern reader is accustomed to find it following Judges, because the story is set in the days of the judges, in the Hebrew Bible the book of Ruth is found immediately after Proverbs. This is because there is an important link in their subject matter. The book of Proverbs closes with an alphabetical acrostic poem of 22 lines, with each verse starting with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It celebrates the ‘worthy woman’ (Prov 31:10–31), with this expression occurring in the opening line (31:10 RSV: ‘A good wife who can find?’). The juxtaposed book of Ruth can be understood as going on to describe just such a woman.

The thematic linkage between the books of Proverbs and Ruth is supported by the fact that in Ruth 3:11, Boaz calls Ruth a “worthy woman”. The description in Proverbs 31:31 fits the woman Ruth (“her deeds will praise her in the gates”), for in Ruth 3:11 Boaz in praising Ruth, says: “All my fellow townsmen (lit. “all the gate of my people”) know that you are a woman of worth.” So also, Proverbs 31:23 applies to Boaz: “Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.” This sounds like an allusion to the scene at the city gate depicted in Ruth 4. The Bible characters Ruth and Boaz appear to step out of the last page of the book of Proverbs.

In other words, the placing of Ruth next to Proverbs suggests that Ruth the Moabitess is to be viewed as a real life example of the piety taught in Proverbs and embodied in the exemplary woman of Proverbs 31. The book of Ruth is not usually considered to be a wisdom work, but the fact is that it provides in the person of Ruth a paradigm, namely a pattern of behaviour worthy of emulation by readers (e.g. an ethic of hard work, Ruth 2:7, 17; Prov 6:6–11). As well, the book of Ruth contains themes that find a place in acknowledged wisdom books like Proverbs and Job, for example, marriage to a suitable wife, moral strength (or worth), hard work, theodicy, providence, the practice of kindness, the use of intelligence and reward.

“Naomi cries out for answers, but no clear explanation is provided. Life is like that, and the believer is often called to trust God in the dark.”

The heroine Ruth and the “good wife” of Proverbs 31 are both women of energy and action; both work to supply the needs of their family and provide food for their household; both show “kindness” (hesed) (Prov 31:26; Ruth 3:10); both are praised as superior by her husband and by others (Prov 31:28–29; Ruth 3:10–11; 4:15); both work hard (Prov 31:13, 27; Ruth 2:2, 17, 23); and both women are Godfearing (Prov 31:30; Ruth 1:16; 2:12). The readers of the book of Ruth should, therefore, expect to learn about the ways of God and about the ways that God would have them live. The theme of providence is prevalent in wisdom literature and is also found in the book of Ruth. Neither overtly miraculous occurrences nor dramatic divine interventions are to be expected in Ruth when read within a wisdom framework. God’s direct involvement in events is stated by the narrator of Ruth only once (4:13), though characters within the story repeatedly speak about God, so that one of its pervasive themes is the (largely) hidden nature of God’s providence (e.g. 1:6, 9, 16–17, 20–21). There is a mystery to God’s ways, for it is never explained why Naomi’s husband and sons met their deaths in Moab. Naomi cries out for answers, but no clear explanation is provided. Life is like that, and the believer is often called to trust God in the dark.

The “good wife” of Proverbs 31 speaks wisely and inculcates kindness (31:26: “the teaching of kindness is on her tongue”). This may refer to what she instructs her children and household servants, namely to treat the poor with kindness, and her teaching is consistent with her own humane actions (cf. 31:20: “She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy”). This also anticipates the ‘kindness’ (hesed) theme in the narrative of Ruth. Ruth and Boaz practise “kindness”, for their actions for the sake of the welfare of the family go beyond the formal obligations of a daughter-in-law or of the male relative who was not the nearest of kin (2:20; 3:12). Kindness is action above and beyond the call of duty. Ruth leaves her homeland and returns with Naomi to Israel; she is willing to marry Boaz, for this is the best outcome for the family; Boaz is willing to marry a foreigner, for this is the only way to preserve the endangered family line.

Both Proverbs and Ruth contain the theme of diligence and commend the use of intelligence and resourcefulness to overcome difficulties. Like Ruth the gleaner (ch.2), the woman of Proverbs 31 labours with her hands (31:13) and is hard-working (31:15, 18, 19, 27). In the night scene at the threshing floor, Ruth departs from the script given to her by Naomi (3:4b: “he will tell you what to do”), for instead of waiting for instructions from Boaz, she takes the initiative and instructs him what to do, proposing marriage as the best solution for the family’s problems (3:9), and Boaz sees the good sense and propriety of what she calls on him to do and agrees to marriage.

“Both Proverbs and Ruth contain the theme of diligence and commend the use of intelligence and resourcefulness to overcome difficulties.”

Lastly, the theme of recompense or reward plays an important role in both books. Actions have consequences, and the receiving of reward or punishment is integrally related to how people behave. While it is not always explicit in Proverbs that God upholds the actconsequence nexus, in a number of passages God is said to be active in retribution (e.g. 5:21-23; 23:10-11; 24:11-12; 29:26). Turning to the book of Ruth, we find that Naomi and Boaz both express the wish that God would reward Ruth for her actions on behalf of the family (1:8–9; 2:11–12). Naomi makes mention of a correspondence between Ruth’s loyal action and the response hoped-for from God (“May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt [kindly] with the dead and with me”). For his part, Boaz specifically expresses the hope that God will recompense Ruth for what she has done (“May the LORD repay your deed”). In Naomi’s mind the reward needs to take the form of Ruth finding “a home” and for Boaz, the hope is that Ruth will find shelter under God’s ‘wings’ (kanap).

They place upon God the obligation of rewarding Ruth but, as it happens, each has an essential part to play in the process of reward, as indicated by the reuse of significant terms when Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor (3:1: “Should I not seek a home for you?”), and when Ruth calls on Boaz to marry her (3:9: “Spread your skirt [kanap] over your maidservant”). The implication is that Naomi and Boaz are instruments through which God ensures that Ruth receives her just desserts, but the subtle handling of this theme in the book of Ruth is consistent with the way in which the book of Proverbs depicts God’s involvement in retributive justice. Those who act wisely model God and become instruments of God.

Greg Goswell is the Academic Dean and a lecturer in Old Testament at Christ College, Sydney.

Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell,
Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth
(London: Apollos, 2016)

 

 

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