Reading the Books of Judges and Ruth
The book of Joshua tells an exciting and encouraging story of the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s centuries-earlier promise that his descendants would become a “great nation” (genesis 12:2). Abraham’s descendants are now numerous. For the first time they possess the land, though many Canaanites yet remained. Near the end of his life, Joshua led the people in a reaffirmation of their covenant commitment to God (joshua 24).
So how did they do after Joshua? According to the book of Judges, which tells us about God’s people “after the death of Joshua” (1:1), not well at all. Indeed, in the book of Judges, we hear story after story illustrating the moral depravity, the spiritual confusion, and the political division of the people of God. In the first part of the book, we hear repeated stories of God turning Israel over to oppressors because of their sin. The people then cry out to God for help. He sends them a judge who rescues them and establishes a period of peace. After a while the people sink into sin again and the cycle starts over.
One gets the impression of going around in circles: sin followed by oppression followed by crying to God followed by the appearance of a judge followed by deliverance and a period of peace. However, as we look more closely, we see it swirling into a death spiral. This is especially true as we look at the judges themselves, who begin as relatively decent people (Othniel [judges 3:7–11]; Ehud [3:12–30]; Deborah [chaps. 4–5]) but prove themselves to be morally suspect (Gideon and his golden ephod [chaps. 6–8]; Jephthah and his rash vow [10:6–12:7], Samson and his self-indulgent lusts [chaps. 13–16]). Then, to cap it off, the book concludes with two stories that underline just how bad things are—stories that begin with a dysfunctional family and move to describe a dysfunctional nation. A man named Micah builds an illegitimate shrine with his personal priest only to have the items stolen and set up in Dan as a regional shrine (chaps. 17–18). Then, a Levite’s horrific actions toward his concubine leads to a civil war among God’s people (chaps. 19–21).
Why tell this bleak story? To point us to something better. We can see this in the constant refrain of the book: “In those days Israel had no king,” occasionally adding “everyone did as they saw fit” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The story of the judges drives us to kingship, which is held up as a solution to the problem of moral depravity, spiritual confusion, and political division. The historical books will now turn to the story of the rise of kingship in 1 Samuel.
But before we go to that part of the story, we need to take a quick look at the book of Ruth. After all, the book of Ruth is set during the period of the judges (ruth 1:1). But rather than a dark story of sin and judgment, we read an uplifting account of loving loyalty.
The book begins as three women journey from Moab to Bethlehem. The older woman, Naomi, had left Bethlehem with her husband and sons to escape the ravages of a famine. There the sons had married Moabite girls, but then both the sons and their father had died. Naomi, whose name means “pleasant,” asked to be called Marah (“bitter”) because of her horrible life circumstances. She feels life is meaningless for her now and urges her daughters-in-law to return home. One tearfully does, but Ruth expresses her loyal love for her mother-in-law with words that proclaim, “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (1:16).
The two women arrive in Bethlehem, their situation bleak. The Torah mandates that growers leave some of the crops so that the poor can come and glean enough to sustain themselves (leviticus 19:9–10; 23:22). Her choice of a field turns out to be owned by Boaz, later identified as her guardian-redeemer (ruth 2:20). Again, appealing to the Torah, the closest relative was responsible to take care of the needs of a widowed woman who had no sons (leviticus 25:25–30, 47–55) even marrying her to produce such an heir. When Ruth approached Boaz on the threshing floor, she was offering herself to him in marriage. He proclaimed her a “woman of noble character” (3:11; see proverbs 31:29–30), but also revealed there was a closer relative than he. That person, happily for Boaz, was unwilling to fulfill his responsibility, so Boaz and Ruth got married and had children.
What a heartwarming story particularly after reading the book of Judges! Ruth shows her loyal love toward Naomi, and Boaz his loyal love toward Ruth. But we miss the point if we don’t see an even deeper loyal love, namely that of God. Though God does not take direct action, no one can miss seeing God’s guiding hand in the action, particularly in the “coincidence” of Ruth choosing to glean in the field of Boaz. The book of Ruth reminds us that God is with us, showing us his loyal love, even in the everyday events of life.
While Judges and Ruth are different in so many ways, they share one similarity. The book ends with a genealogy that shows that Ruth and Boaz are ancestors to none other than King David (ruth 4:18–22). Just as the book of Judges leads us to think about the kingship, so does Ruth—in this case King David specifically. And Christian readers today understand that kingship in general and David in particular will eventually take us to Jesus, David’s greater son. We will return to this point later.