God's Amazing Grace - The Book of Ruth.   

For Housegroup Leaders:  The following document contains notes for each housegroup session.  Given the integrity of the story as a whole it is important that you read through the whole of the book of Ruth several times in order to familiarise yourself with the contours of the story and the various 'scenes' within it.  It would also be worth reading through all of the notes below in advance of the first session.  

Introduction and Background:
As with any book of the bible having a clear understanding of the context in which the book was written and an overview of the author’s intended message is crucial.  So here’s an outline of the book of Ruth and some background to help set its message in context.
The story is set in the time of the Judges.  At this point in its history Israel was a lose collection of tribes rather than a highly organized nation and the job of the Judges was to ensure that the federation of tribes lived faithfully and righteously and with some semblance of a shared moral code to direct life.
However, it’s almost certain that the book was written after this, most likely during the reign of Solomon, Son of David. Part of it’s function is believed to be to legitimize the house of David by showing that God had been active in guiding Israel through David’s ancestors – remember that Boaz and Ruth have a son (Obed) who is King David’s Grandfather. 
The book of Ruth is a story about the conduct of a number of characters, all of whom are noble and courageous – it is a moral story and a political narrative. 
In one sense the story is short and simple. 
Naomi loses her husband and sons
                  Ruth leaves her home and goes with Naomi back to her land
                                    Whilst there Ruth meets and woos Boaz
                                                      Boaz takes up his familial duty and marries Ruth
                                                                        Ruth and Naomi are now looked after and safe.
The book’s style is relatively simple, but that is not to say it is simplistic – it is a gem in the sense that it is has an intensity and concentrated brightness and clarity. 
It is pastoral in that it deals with day to day concerns:  home, family life, religious devotion, the earth, harvest, love and national life. 
It is moral in its dealings with loyalty, kindness and love.
It is topical and ‘for such a time as this’ in so far as it talks about the role of the foreigner and what acceptance into a community looks like.
But, behind this simple structure lie some difficult issues which need to be worked through if we are going to read the book with understanding and be shaped by its message. 
So what is the over-arching message of the book?
The easy reading is simply that God overcomes evil for good / nice people – but this slightly inane reading does injustice to the story and is in the experience of most of us self-evidently un-true. 
Rather, at its heart the story deals with the hidden and continuous provision of God, often subtle, frequently behind the scenes and without fuss or noise.  In a story that appears full of ‘chance’ and ‘good luck’; Ruth coming across a field belonging to Boaz and her meeting with him, is infact the exact opposite. Although no deliberate human intention was involved, God’s deliberate intention certainly was.  What appears to be chance is quite the opposite. 
In the outworking of Gods hidden and continuous provision in the story of Ruth there are no big miracles or events, but for the reader whose eyes and ears are open the hand of God is clearly visible and at work in the lives of the characters and their normal daily situations and dilemmas. 
This then is the beauty of the book – normal people experience in normal life the normal outworking of Gods provision and grace.  In that sense we can see that Gods grace truly is amazing. 
Ruth and the New Testament:
In Matthew’s Gospel we read the genealogy of Jesus and in this we see Ruth mentioned along with a handful of other women.  The striking point is made that Jesus line includes foreigners! 
In Boaz we see a ‘type’ or fore-runner of Christ – the one who would, like Boaz voluntarily make sacrifice in order to redeem another / others. 
And through all of it, we see the hand of God at work behind the scenes, always providing, always at work, directing history towards its conclusion. 

Session 1:  Hard Times.  Ruth Chapter 1.
We all have defining moments in life.  Cross roads which we have to navigate, and points where decisions need to be taken.  Sometimes we are blessed with choice in these situations and other times not.  At times we choose, at other times the decisions are made for us and forced upon us. 
In the opening chapter of the book of Ruth were reminded that decisions taken and those forced upon us shape our future and set us on a path.  That the consequences of decisions and actions can have long lasting effects, for good or for ill. 
A man called Elimelech has moved his family away from his homeland.  A huge decision and a huge gamble, but the choice if forced upon him because of a famine at home which threatened his entire families existence. 
Elimelech’s choice is not a happy one.  He can remain in the land to which his people have been called, despite severe famine, or he can leave for a land which at the time was not seen as being an overly good place to be…
He chooses the latter, and let’s be honest what parent would not?  We’re given a clue in the story that his choice was not a good one and that it was based on a lack of trust in the provision of God – it’s in his name ‘Elimelech’ which can be translated as ‘My God is King’ – in this case he appears to have little faith in the statement that his name makes.
The move goes well, they settle and there is plenty of food, but then disaster strikes – the unthinkable happens and Elimelech dies along with their two sons.  Naomi’s world comes crashing down and she’s left alone and vulnerable a long was from home. 
This time the decisions are Naomi’s to make.  Will she stay in Moab or will she return to her people? 
Naomi chooses to return to her own people.  It’s a bit more likely that she’ll be looked after at home and be less vulnerable.  Quite naturally her priority is survival and safety.  As she returns to her own people we see overtones of the prodigal – the one who has wandered away comes back, and in coming back finds a welcome and safety.  What was true of the community is even more true of God. 
With the decision made we meet Ruth, the central character in the story.  Famous for following Naomi back to her people and leaving the place of her birth.  Naomi seems keen that her daughters-in-law should stay in Moab, maybe she doesn’t want to tear them away from their families or perhaps she’s concerned that coming back with foreigners in tow will make it harder for her to re-integrate into her own people. 

Despite her protestations however Ruth decides to go with Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Orpah makes the sensible choice which is to stay in Moab. 
Ruth’s courage at this point is striking.  As a foreigner she will be as welcomed as a bacon butty at a Bar-mitzvah – but her life is bound to Naomi’s and so she quite literally clings to her.  She will from this moment on be inseparable from Naomi.
Naomi, having heard Ruth’s impassioned speech binding herself to her in an unbreakable covenant says…nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Not sausage (which is good because that wouldn’t be kosher).  The text literally says that when Naomi realized that Ruth was going with her she stopped talking to her.  Miserable so and so. 
Eventually the two silent wanderers get back to Bethlehem and the women of the town come out to meet them.  Naomi (whose name means ‘Pleasant – ironic huh?) refuses to be known by this and changes her name to Mara (which means Bitter – more apt) signifying her experience of having suffered great loss.  Ruth at this point is completely ignored.  She is not mentioned.  One socially awkward moment after another. 
At this point in the story things are not looking too good for Naomi and Ruth.
Questions for reflection and discussion:  
- How do you respond / react to today’s part of the story?  What strikes you and why?
- In what ways do we retrospectively see the hand of God at work in this story?  How might the people in the story have perceived this, if indeed they could?  What does this say to us?
- When the pressure is on and when we’re at the cross roads what will be our guiding principle in making decisions? 
- Can you think of times when the lure of the ‘greener grass’ has led you away from the call of God?  What has been your experience of returning? 
- How do we show faithfulness to others when they find themselves in times of need or difficulty?  To what degree are we willing to ‘bind’ our lives to those whom we love and what does this ask of us? 
- Have you experienced the ‘Naomi’ reaction when offering sacrificial love and commitment to another?  I.e has your love been met with silence and rejection?  If so what did this feel like and how has it shaped you? 
Session 2:  Neighbourly Love.  Ruth Ch 2.
At the bottom of a barrel, accompanied by a young lady who she doesn’t much care for, Naomi has returned in shame to the people she deserted to start her new life in Moab.  With only a foreigner for company her prospects are limited, survival will be the order of the day.  With Ruth in tow survival became a bit more of a challenge, after-all she was another mouth to feed. 
But all is not as bleak as it seems. Providentially Naomi and Ruth had arrived back in Bethlehem at the perfect time – at the start of the barley harvest.  It’s a tiny detail at the very end of chapter 1 – but for the careful reader it provides a clue to the fact that Gods hidden and continuous provision is still at work. 
So why does the barley harvest matter?  Yahweh (God) has from the start of creation it seems, had a concern for provision for the most vulnerable and needy.  And so the social laws and customs of his covenant people reflect the need to look after those who can’t look after themselves.  In the Law of Moses we see a law that was designed to be a bit like a ‘welfare at work’ programme.  Rather than simply be given food, the poor were permitted to work the fields at harvest time picking up anything that the harvesting teams had dropped.  The act of dropping the barley was seen as an outworking of Gods distributive provision.  Anything dropped was for the poor.  Even more than this, the edge of any field had to be left un-harvested so that the poor might go and pick enough to live on. 
So the ever ungrateful Naomi sends vulnerable Ruth out into the fields to find food for them.  It is quite a risk for Ruth to take, a foreign woman surrounded by men who knows what danger she may face. 
Thankfully Ruth finds Boaz’s field.  The story describes it as chance, however it is anything but.  Although Ruth did not intentionally seek out Boaz, once again the Lord’s hand is at work in providing for her and Naomi.  As though this were not enough another ‘chance happening’ occurs as Boaz comes out to his field to see how things are going on. 
Boaz is presented as a God fearing man and he immediately notices the young woman in his field.  He asked who she belongs to! (things have moved on a bit haven’t they) And his chief of staff told him that she’s a foreigner who has come back with Naomi.  With this information Boaz then addressed Ruth as a person rather than an object and he makes her a generous offer, inviting her to shelter in the security of his women and to stay with his harvesting team who he will instruct to take care of her. 
Why did he do this?  Simply because he had heard about all that Ruth has done for Naomi.    
Boaz ignored Ruth’s nationality and the fact that she is an outsider and recognized that what she had done was honourable and good.  And in an act of symbolic acceptance he expressed the hope and belief that God had seen her goodness and that he himself would reward her for it.  At this stage in the story it is not clear that Boaz will be the answer to his own prayer.
In the meantime Ruth gets home with a pile of food.  For the first time Naomi begins to soften and she finds herself able to acknowledge Gods faithfulness – not an easy thing to do when she’s been through so much. 
As well as praising God, Naomi acknowledges Boaz as their ‘redeemer’ a term loaded with significance and meaning and legal obligation!  It’s a bit of a stretch to call Boaz a kinsman redeemer (i.e someone who was legally obliged to marry Ruth and provide for her and Naomi as he has only a vague familial link to them) but already Naomi thinks she’s spotted their way out of poverty and hardship. 
7 Weeks have passed since the start of the barley harvest and the festival of weeks (Pentecost) is fast approaching.  God has provided so far but there is more to come.  At Pentecost God would pour out his spirit on Jews and Gentiles alike drawing both together into his new covenant people, and in the run up to the feast of weeks God is about to abundantly provide for the Gentile Ruth and find her a place within his covenant people.
Questions to reflect on and discuss:
- How do you respond / react to today’s part of the story?  What strikes you and why?
- In what ways do we retrospectively see the hand of God at work in this story?  How might the people in the story have perceived this, if indeed they could?  What does this say to us?
- When we’re at rock bottom it is easy to miss the signs of hope that surround us.  When we’re at our lowest we don’t notice that it is ‘the start of the barley harvest’ and consequently we so often miss the small signs of Gods provision.  What has been your experience of this?
- Sometimes love and compassion can be costly and risky.  What has been your experience of this? 
- Naomi offers Ruth nothing in return for her compassion.  Showing love and compassion and commitment to someone from who can offer us something in return is easier than showing the same to someone who has nothing to offer us in return.  Is there a situation or relationship in your life that falls into the latter category?  How will you respond?
- Boaz sees Ruth where many would have ignored her.  Within our own community, maybe even within our own families, there are those whose needs are easily ignored – are our eyes open to see them? 
- Sometimes the expectations of others can be unfair (Naomi’s expectations of Boaz) and can put us in difficult positions.  How do you respond in such situations and what conditions your attitude when you face this? 

Session 3:  Romantic Love.  Ruth Ch 3. 
Ruth has food.  She has shelter.  But she still has one important thing missing.  A husband.  OK so the cultural importance of this is lost on us, but Ruth needs to find a man and in a pre-dating app age this was a challenge. 
At this point in the story we come to a slightly bizarre sequence of events.  It’s interesting to note that finally the up-to-now pretty unpleasant Naomi has finally started to think a bit about her daughter in law and her life. 
And as she thinks, Naomi comes up with a plan.  Ruth needs a husband.  Boaz needs a wife.  Perfect.  For Baoz there is a danger of social estrangement – he’s not young and he’s not married and that’s a problem.  For Ruth there is a danger of a life of poverty and hardship. 

So if only they could get together thinks Naomi.  Now that may seem like a fairly transactional approach to marriage but lets remember that marrying for love is a relatively recent social trend.  For Ruth and Boaz, love might blossom, but It’s certainly not needed at the start. 
So Naomi hatches a plan.  It’s a time honoured ‘get yourself dressed up, slap on some lippy, and flutter your eye-lids’ type plan that wouldn’t be out of place in a dodgy nightclub in Southend. 
Ruth does it and as Boaz sleeps next to his pile of grain she lays down at his feet taking care to uncover them so that he’ll wake and see her there.  It’s impossible to say what Naomi or Ruth were intending.  It’s a bit taboo to think that any biblical characters are racy sexual beings but this is more a reflection on our lack of realism and over idealizing when reading scripture than on the characters themselves.  Ruth is out to win a husband and she will use whatever charms and methods are necessary in order to do so. 
Boaz is a good man.  That much we know.  He was also most likely pretty tipsy after a hard day of work and a lot of wine.  But on waking and discovering Ruth he behaves well.  Ruth makes an appeal for a commitment of marriage asking for the ancient equivalent of an engagement ring – that Boaz would ‘spread the corner of his robe over her’. 
And Boaz honours her request.  He is touched that she, a young woman would now seek to bind her life to his – a much older man – when she could have founda much younger man instead.  It suits Boaz well to have a wife and will add to his social standing and credibility and might stop people whispering about him. 

Again the hand of God is at work.
But there is a problem.  Boaz is only very distantly related to Naomi.  There is another man who is more closely related and as such he must have first refusal on marrying Ruth and taking in Naomi.  Boaz it seems would like to say yes but due process must be followed.  Once again Boaz’s credentials as an honourable man are visible – he’ll not dishonor someone else in order to obtain what he wants.
The ‘kinsman-redeemer’ is a key figure in this story and a type, i.e foreshadow, of Christ.  Boaz and the un-named other man have an obligation to step in and redeem / rescue Naomi (one of their own) and by extension Ruth (a foreigner).  To rescue them from poverty and being sold into slavery.  This pre-figures the role of Christ as the ultimate kinsman-redeemer, the one who redeems his own family (all of mankind) from the bondage of slavery to sin and death and buys them their freedom and offers them provision. 
It’s not just in the background of the story of Naomi and Ruth that the hand of God has been quietly at work.  In our story too, and indeed in the wider story of humankind, the hand of God has been and is still at work.  Redeeming, providing and directing. 
The full extent of this will become clear as we get to the final chapter. 
Questions for reflection and discussion:
- How do you respond / react to today’s part of the story?  What strikes you and why?
- In what ways do we retrospectively see the hand of God at work in this story?  How might the people in the story have perceived this, if indeed they could?  What does this say to us?
- Sometimes, in the middle of real struggle and hardship we can become a bit like Naomi – i.e so concerned with our own needs and problems that we forget to care about others.  Easy to do, but to be resisted at all costs.  How do we respond to the challenge of this?  Does anything in our own lives need to change at present to ensure that our care and concern is not focussed only on ourselves? 
- What price the honourable and Godly thing?  Discuss…
- Gods provision is often hidden and always continuous – what is your experience of this?

Session 4:  Redeeming Love.  Ruth Ch4:
The story draws to a close.  It’s been short but fascinating I hope you’ll agree.  As with most good stories there is a twist. 
Boaz and Ruth seem to be a good match, Naomi can see a brighter future and through a whole load of ‘chances’ the hand of God has been mysteriously at work. 
But before the story can end we’re introduced to a man whose name we’re not told.  He’s the nearest relative to Naomi and as such has the obligation of redeeming her and Ruth. 
The interaction once again demonstrates Boaz’s sense of honour, this time in contrast to the un-named gentleman at the city gate.
Boaz:  "One of your kin has a field she needs to sell. Do you want it?  If you buy it, it can stay in the family.  You’ll need to look after an old widow too." 
Un-named man: "Oh yes please" (thinks it’s a good deal)
Boaz:  "Great.  Oh, one thing, a foreign girl called Ruth comes with the deal.  It belonged to her husband, so you’ll get her, and an obligation to have a child with her and then the field will go to the child."
U-n-m:  "Ah, actually, I’ve just remembered, I’m a bit hard up at the moment.  Tell you what, if you want it, it’s yours, along with the old dear and the foreigner." 
So the way is clear for Boaz to take Ruth as his wife, Naomi as his step-mother-in-law (I think) and a field on which to build a multi-story car park.  All of which is not without risk for Boaz.  Infact in this transaction Naomi and Ruth carry no risk, Boaz takes it all. 
The contrast is clear.  Boaz will take on risk in order to redeem his kinsmen.  The un-named-man will not. 
And so, we come to the end.  Boaz and Ruth marry.  Ruth has a child and Naomi becomes the child’s nurse.  Where once Naomi had no hope of seeing her line continued, knew only loss and grief, she is now restored with a son-in-law and a grandchild. 
Ruth’s promise has been kept, she went with Naomi and stayed with Naomi and through her willingness to sacrifice and her loyalty the hand of God has been shown to be at work. 
She is received back into her people as a prodigal and her honour is restored in her community. 
But of course there is more to it than this.  The ripples that begin within this one small family will continue to spread out into the wider history of Gods covenant people.  The ways in which God has been at work for them are normative for the wider people too, and the redemption that takes place in their story finds its fulfilment in our story. 
The Davidic and ultimately Messianic line is continued:  Boaz – Obed – Jesse – David and so on – Jesus.  Boaz the redeemer of Naomi and Ruth becomes Jesus the redeemer of the world. 
The foreigner is welcomed in:  Ruth the foreigner plays a key part in the outworking of Gods plans of redemption, she is the foreigner through which he chooses to work – re-affirming a precedent begun long before of using in his purposes those who his people think are beyond the pail.  Ultimately, just as Ruth is welcomed in, so too the whole of the ‘foreign’ world, i.e the world beyond Israel will be welcomed in to the family of God. 
Questions for discussion and reflection: 

- How do you respond / react to today’s part of the story and indeed the story as a whole?  What strikes you and why?
- How do you see the hand of God at work through the lives of others, and in particular the others who you’re not that fond of!? 
- In what ways do we retrospectively see the hand of God at work in this story?  How might the people in the story have perceived this, if indeed they could?  What does this say to us?
- What does this story have to tell us about how God deals with people in the normal day-to-day life which we lead? 

And so we come to the end of this short but fascinating book.  Through the story we drop into the normal life of a normal family and see from a privileged position how the hand of God has been at work quietly and continually providing for them, and indeed his wider people.  We're supposed to see in this story a picture of Gods dealings with people and see ourselves in the characters we've got to know.  

What will you take from this series?