Michael Chan: An Answer to His Own Prayer: Reflections on the Work of God in the Book of Ruth

The book of Ruth is one of the most charming pieces of literature every penned by ancient Israel’s storytellers. That same charm, in conjunction with its brevity, might lead one to conclude that Ruth is nothing more than a simple story about the foreign-born origins of David’s Moabite ancestor. 

Indeed, that would be a good and fascinating story in its own right. 

But Ruth also has a great deal to say about the God of Israel, and it does so in ways that are profound and penetrating, but also easy to overlook. One part of the book’s greatness is its ability to say so much about God in so few words. Brevity speaks volumes—especially in the book of Ruth. 

I would like to explore this feature of Ruth by looking carefully at the two major dialogues between Ruth and Boaz—one in 2:8-13 and another in 3:9-13. Given how short the book is, I would encourage readers to set this article aside for the next few minutes in order to read (or listen to!) the story in its entirety.  

Despite Naomi’s best efforts to dissuade her daughter-in-law, Ruth clings to her, following Naomi back to the city of Bethlehem (1:8-14). The return could not have been easy. It was the city of Naomi’s late husband, Elimelech, and the place they left together as a family while seeking relief from the famine (1:1). Despite its fertile name (Bethlehem, “house of bread”), the town probably felt like a place of desolation and loss.  

The story suggests as much when, upon arriving in Bethlehem, Naomi gives herself a new name to mark the bitterness of her circumstances: 

So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, 

“Call me no longer Naomi;    call me Mara (“bitter”),
    for the Almighty has dealt bitterly [hemar] with me.
I went away full,
    but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi

    when the Lord has dealt harshly with me    and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (1:19-21, NRSV) 

It is interesting to hear Naomi claim that she “went away full,” given that the family left Bethlehem in response to a famine “in the land” (1:1). The context of material scarcity did not fully define Ruth’s sense of abundance. This observation also points to the author’s literary tendency to entangle the wellbeing of the natural environment with the wellbeing of the humans living in it.

None of these observations are surprising. In the book of Ruth, words are often brimming with multivalent significance. These literary features should encourage the reader to engage the book in a particular way—with attention to literary echoes and resonances within the book. 

Ruth and Boaz meet in the very next chapter. After inquiring about her identity and receiving a good report about her diligent work, Boaz approaches Ruth, marking the start of their first dialogue: 

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings [knaphaw] you have come for refuge!” Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants” (2:8-13, NRSV). 

As a foreigner and a widow, Ruth is exceptionally vulnerable in the eyes of the Hebrew Bible, where orphans, widows, and “aliens” are among those most in need of special care (e.g., Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17). Her existence is precarious to the say the least. Ruth shows a keen awareness of her situation when she says, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” The nod to her outlander identity reminds the reader both of her vulnerability and of the fact that just such a woman--a foreigner—is in the lineage of King David. 

The words of the blessing are of significant. Boaz asks Yhwh to reward her good deeds, and then describes Yhwh as the one “under whose wings [knaphaw] you have come for refuge!” The image of divine “wings” providing refuge is present elsewhere in the Bible, especially in the psalms (see Pss 17:8; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4). But it also exists within the art historical record of the broader ancient Near East—from Egypt to Mesopotamia. It is especially prevalent in royal imagery, where it can denote protection, authority, legitimacy, power, etc. There are insufficient textual clues to tell us which of these images are being evoked. What is clear, however, is that for an ancient Near Eastern audience, these associations would have been readily available.

The author’s choice of this particular image is interesting in its own right. But it becomes even more so when we turn to the next chapter, where Ruth makes her move. 

Chapter 3 begins with Naomi sharing her plans to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for Ruth (3:1). All of this is happening against the background of the harvest (see 2:23; 3:2), underscoring again the author’s desire to link the state of the natural environment with lives of the characters. 

Naomi tells Ruth to wait until Boaz has finished his work, eaten, drunk, and laid down for the evening. In the process of executing these directives, Boaz awakens, surprised to find a woman in his presence. At the climax of this subtly erotic nocturnal scene, Ruth gives this directive to Boaz: 

And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak [knaphecha] over your servant, for you are next-of-kin” (3:9, NRSV).

This is clearly a marriage proposal (cf. Ezek 16:8). But it also echoes a key word from Ruth and Boaz’s first dialogue. The Hebrew noun used here for “cloak” is the same noun used in Boaz’s blessing: “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings [knaphaw] you have come for refuge!” (2:12). 

With these words, Ruth invites Boaz to become the answer to his own prayer. 

These two dialogues between Ruth and Boaz are charming, artistic, and profound on so many levels. As such, they bear witness to the literary skill of the book’s author. But they also bear witness to God’s work in the world through human actions. 

In the book of Ruth, God’s activity and blessing are elusively intertwined with chance meetings, acts of self-preservation, and even wine-laced nocturnal encounters. God is at work in all things, but often in ways that are easy to overlook and easy to confuse with day-to-day human exchange. This is not only true of the book of Ruth, but also seems true to everyday life. 

Ruth and Boaz meet in what is effectively a welfare line. Her presence in Boaz’s field makes it impossible for Ruth to mask the precarity of her situation. Ruth is in desperate need of sustenance. And while the text doesn’t say so, Boaz may have some needs of his own. As far as we can tell, he is unmarried and without children. He may have property, but as an ancient Near Eastern man without a family, he is socially incomplete. Genesis 2:18 says that it was not good for the first human being to be alone (2:18). The same was true for Ruth and Boaz. They needed one another. The human need for companionship is no less true today than it was in the time of Ruth and Boaz. 

Finally, this story encourages attentiveness to our prayers. It’s so easy to miss—especially reading in English—the deep connection between Boaz’s blessing and his eventual decision to marry Ruth. There is an opaque cosmic string that connects the prayers of the person with their eventual action. But in the whirlwind of life it is so easy to step over—or even run right through—these threads without ever perceiving them.