Ruth found herself in a tight spot in Moab when her husband Mahlon died after ten years of marriage. To say she was hard up barely covers the situation. Women in ancient times did not have employment but were entirely dependent on the men in their lives for financial support. As a childless widow, Ruth had no one to support her but had to rely on the generosity of strangers if there were no family members to do so. She was among the lowest, most disadvantaged classes in the ancient world.
Ruth allied herself to someone who was even worse off—her mother-in-law Naomi. Since the death of her husband and two sons, Naomi was also a childless widow. She had no family to rely on in Moab and was past marital age. Naomi was in a desperate, pitiful situation and determined to return to her home country of Israel. Ruth showed her fierce loyalty and love by refusing to leave her mother-in-law in such awful straits alone.
Ruth could have stayed in her own country of Moab, with her wider family for support. She was young enough to marry again and might have gained some financial stability in that way, but she was determined to help Naomi, even at the cost of losing her own country, friends, family, culture and gods.
Ruth gave one of the greatest speeches about loyalty and love when she said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
Ruth and Naomi made their way to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown in Israel. They arrived at the start of the barley harvest. As widows in extreme poverty, they relied on the generosity of others for food. Ruth took it upon herself to glean fields.
Leviticus 19:9-10 records that the farmers in Israel were instructed to leave a portion of their crop unharvested. If a sheaf of grain was dropped, they were to leave it on the ground for the poor to collect or glean. Ruth went gleaning in the field of Boaz, who happened to be a relative of Naomi. Harvesting, especially gleaning, was hot, dusty and tiring, but Ruth worked so thoroughly from sunrise until sundown that the overseer noticed her.
One day as Boaz was checking his field, he also noticed Ruth. His overseer commended her to him. Boaz showed extraordinary kindness to Ruth. He promised her safety, let her drink water from his workers’ jars, provided her lunch, let her gather among the sheaves and even left instructions that extra grain be deliberately left on the ground for her to glean. This was all because Boaz had heard of Ruth’s devotion and loyalty to Naomi. Through Ruth’s hard work and Boaz’s generosity, she was able to bring home a full basket of grain, which would provide more than enough food for several days.
Boaz was Naomi’s guardian-redeemer, a legal term for one who was obliged to care for a relative in serious difficulty. The custom required a guardian-redeemer to take on the responsibility of ensuring that the family name would continue by marrying a childless widow.
Naomi knew Ruth would be better taken care of if she was married, so she suggested Ruth offer herself to Boaz. Because Boaz was the recognized guardian-redeemer of Elimelech’s family (Naomi’s late husband and Ruth’s father-in-law), Ruth could rightfully appeal to him to marry her in order to safeguard Elimelech’s posterity.
Naomi told Ruth how to present her marriage petition to Boaz. At the end of the harvest Boaz would go and thresh his crops. It wasn’t unusual for thieves to try and steal the harvest, and Naomi knew that Boaz would sleep on the threshing floor to guard his grain. She told Ruth to go to the threshing floor, but not show herself to Boaz until he had finished eating and drinking.
Naomi told Ruth to make a note of where Boaz slept and to quietly uncover and lay at his feet. In the culture of the day, this act was understood as one of total submission.
At midnight Boaz awoke, startled to discover a woman lying at his feet. Ruth presented her request humbly enough by saying she was his servant, but was also bold (but not inappropriate!) in that she asked Boaz to take her in marriage: “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” The phrase "spread the corner of your garment over me" was a culturally relevant way to say, "I am a widow, take me as your wife."
Attracted to her virtuous character, Boaz readily agreed, but there was still one more obstacle to get past.
Boaz was a guardian-redeemer for Naomi and Ruth, but there was a family member who was an even closer kinsman. Boaz could not exercise his right to marry Ruth unless this relative agreed to relinquish his rights towards Ruth.
That same day Boaz went to the city gate, called together ten witnesses and met the man in question. Initially, the relative agreed to buy back a parcel of land that had belonged to Naomi’s husband. All looked lost until Boaz reminded him that, as well as buying back the land, he must also marry Ruth and have children so Elimelech’s family name wouldn't be lost. The man soon changed his mind because he had no wish to endanger his own inheritance and lands. He took off his sandal and gave it to Boaz, a custom that confirmed issues of redemption and exchange. The witnesses then blessed the marriage of Ruth and Boaz.
Naomi was blessed through their marriage when Ruth and Boaz had their first child and Naomi’s first grandchild, Obed. The Bible makes a special point of tracing heroic Ruth's descendants. Ruth, a total foreigner, would become the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king. Obed was the father of Jesse, who in turn was the father of the great King David. It was through the lineage of David that the Messiah came.
Through her fierce loyalty, incredible determination and selfless service, Ruth had not just heroically provided for her family but had become a critical link in the genealogy of the greatest hero of all in the Bible: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.