Teaching Ruth: God’s Grace Strengthens the Unemployed

Article / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Grace strengthen unemployed

The book of Ruth is a great source of wisdom, especially on the important topics of work and economics. In just four short chapters, this text raises questions about immigration, cross-cultural communication, and sexual harassment. Not only does Ruth force us to grapple with these issues, its protagonists pose a solution to poverty that transcends modern welfare relationships. In this first part of a two-part article from the Oikonomia Network, TOW Directors Alistair Mackenzie and William Messenger explain how the book of Ruth should be use in Old Testament classes to help students engage with contemporary issues of work and business. (Note: This article explores a touchpoint for curricular integration from the ON’s annual curricular integration workshop.)

The Old Testament book of Ruth is familiar to many, if not most, Christians. But it doesn’t have a large place in theological curricula. This beloved book could be a helpful way to lead students to grasp God’s intentions for daily life and work – and it’s a great story they can use in sermons to make those lessons vivid for their future congregations!

Ruth appears in most collections of Bible stories for children because of the tragedies and uncertainties that unfold in this simple and engaging narrative. Theologically, the story of Ruth is remarkable because it leads, through her descendant David, to Ruth’s appearing in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus – a surprising place for the name of a Moabite woman to surface. And sermons about conversion and commitment are frequently preached from the words of that marvellous confession from Ruth to Naomi: “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God…”

But Ruth can also help Old Testament classes engage major contemporary issues, particularly issues of work and business. Where else in the Bible do you find – in just four short chapters! – stories of:

  • Border crossings to escape famine
  • Cross-cultural marriages and inter-religious relationships
  • Vulnerable widows struggling with life and faith in the face of death
  • An immigrant among God’s people
  • A solution to poverty that transcends welfare
  • Protection against workplace sexual harassment
  • Love, marriage and the astute management of complex family relationships and delicate business negotiations?

This potential source of wisdom is too seldom explored for issues like these. For the sake of brevity, this article only looks at issues raised in the first two chapters of Ruth.

Migrants Seeking Sanctuary

Elimelech and Naomi moved from Bethlehem to the country of Moab, with their two sons, when their crops failed (Ruth 1:1-2). No longer able to provide food through their own work, this family was forced to look for food and work in another country.

The long history of enmity between Israel and Moab reinforces the sense of desperation that lies behind this move. Desperation forced them to move to a potentially hostile country through no fault of their own, and this creates dilemmas for those who move and those who end up hosting them.

There is certainly a contemporary ring to these challenges in the light of current debates about how much hospitality we should offer refugees and migrants. But there is also a reminder that the Old Testament laws demanding hospitality towards widows, the poor and foreigners (to which Naomi will appeal later when they return to Israel) are accompanied by the reminder “for you were once foreigners seeking refuge in Egypt”(Deut 10:18-19, 16:11-12, 24:17-18).

So try throwing this question at your students: Most people got where they are from some other place, if you go back far enough. Does this story suggest that relatively free movement of people is, at least in most circumstances, something God favors?

Challenges, Death and Disappointment

Having moved to Moab, Elimelech and Naomi face the challenge of cross-cultural marriages and inter-religious relationships. While this theme is not explored in depth in this book, still we see their consequences in the hard choices Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are forced to make. They are pulled between home, commitment to one another and the opportunities and risks associated with moving (Ruth 1:4-18).

Forced migration – an all too common economic reality in less prosperous societies – inevitably involves a mixture of grief and relief about what has been left behind and also hope and anxiety about what might lie ahead. There are many conflicting emotions to be dealt with. Interestingly, in response to the events in this case, a more hopeful affirmation of faith comes from Ruth the Moabite, while we find Naomi the Israelite struggling to come to terms with the hand full of disappointments God has dealt her (Ruth 1:14-21). The vibrant faith of immigrants can stand in sharp contrast to the tepid faith of their hosts.

Providing Food and Providing Work

Old Testament Laws were formulated to protect the survival of families and ensure their ability to maintain a livelihood, even where previous generations had lost their land. This included levirate marriage and a process for redemption of land, although neither of these immediately succeeds for Ruth and Naomi. Instead, Ruth is forced to work as a farm laborer gathering grain behind the harvesters.

She finds herself working in a field that belongs to Boaz, a relative of her father-in-law Elimelech. Having gathered barley in Boaz’s fleld all day, Ruth spends the evening beating out the grain until it fills an entire basket. She carries it back into the town and shows it to her mother-in-law, giving Naomi the roasted grain that is left over from the evening meal that Boaz shared with Ruth.

What happens here is a combination of providing one-way assistance (food) and mutual assistance (work). This assistance is partly the result of obligations for landowners laid down in the Old Testament laws related to gleaning. It was prescribed that the corners of fields should be left for the poor to harvest.

Boaz goes further than the law prescribes by also encouraging his workers to leave out extra grain for Ruth and sharing his evening meal with her, even enough for Ruth to take some home to feed Naomi. Nonetheless, Ruth still has to work hard for what she is able to collect. Every day she is back, working from morning to dusk until all the barley and wheat is harvested.

It is a fascinating combination of biblically legislated means of mutual assistance, personal generosity on the part of Boaz and hard work by Ruth to collect and winnow the grain that has been made available to her. Here, surely, is a model for helping those in need that is worth discussing with students! It is also an opportunity to discuss how much of a duty Christians should feel to help foreign co-workers and other vulnerable people fit into a new workplace.

Highly relevant to our current context and the needs of theological education, Ruth engages the issues of migration, ethical economics and faithful forms of assistance for those in need. As seminary faculty and as members of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary editorial team, we find that the book of Ruth stands out as a very useful resource for theological discussion of work and economic issues. And of course we commend the free Theology of Work Bible Commentary on Ruth in hopes you will find it of further help in the classroom!