Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Have we been misreading the Old Testament? A look at Ruth

Somebody give this scribe an A in penmanship. Mazel on ya, ya mensch!
(Photo credit: thejesusvirus.org)

Does the Old Testament really matter? 

Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim. These are the Hebrew words for "Teaching," "Prophets" and "Writings," and it is into these three categories that the Jewish people have historically grouped their 39 books of scripture. 

After the coming of the Messiah, Yeshua (perhaps better known as Jesus), 27 more books of scripture were added to the canon, and today the 66 total books are divided into the Old Testament (written before Jesus) and the New Testament (written after, and primarily about, Jesus). 

We could potentially get by with only 27 New Testament books and still have everything we needed to know regarding the human condition and salvation. That being said, the NT would not have come about if the events in the OT had not led up to it. 

So does the OT still matter?

Strictly speaking, there are two possible answers to that question: yes and no, and there are myriad explanations which could potentially follow each of those answers. A few examples: 

Yes, because it contains stories and moral principles which are relevant today. 

No, because it is an old book written by dead people with ulterior motives, and it is therefore irrelevant today.

Yes, because it shows us how life used to be, before Jesus came and changed everything. 

No, because Jesus changed everything, and the Old Testament way of doing things has been superseded. 

How about Ruth?

As one might expect, I hold the position that the Old Testament does matter. After all, I am a pastor, and it is my job to tell people that the Bible matters. However, I am convinced that none of the "yes" explanations above rightfully explain just why the Old Testament matters. Let us take a look at a sample story from the Old Testament book, Ruth, and see what we can conclude about why it matters. 

Chapter One seems like as good a place as any to start. Below are links to the chapter, followed by synopses of what happens. 

Ruth 1:1-5 - There was a famine in Israel, so an Israeli couple named Elimelech and Naomi travel to Moab with their sons. Their sons marry two Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi’s husband and sons die; leaving her daughters-in-law and her to fend for themselves in Moab.  

Ruth 1:6-14 - A heartbroken Naomi sends Orpah away, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi all alone.

Ruth 1:15-18 - In a heartwarming scene, Ruth tells Naomi she will follow her anywhere. She will consider Naomi's people to be her people and Naomi's God to be her God. This is a well-known passage in Ruth, and it is often held up as an example of faithfulness to emulate.

Ruth 1:22 - Naomi and Ruth travel back to Naomi's home country of Israel together. They settle in Naomi's hometown, Bethlehem-Ephratah. 

So what?

Why is this passage in the Bible? Surely there were other stories of famine, family, and faith from the era. What makes the story of Naomi and Ruth important enough to include in Scripture? 

One answer is this: Ruth demonstrated great faithfulness to Naomi, and the story is there to show us how we should treat another. 

While that answer sounds great, there is a problem: it makes the story all about Ruth. That would be fine, if Ruth were actually someone on whose story we should be basing our lives. However, Scripture elsewhere tells us that everybody is a sinner (in fact, the Psalm which that sentence links to was written by a descendant of Ruth, viz. King David). 

Since the category of "sinner" is a universal one, that would mean that Ruth--a Gentile who, one may presume, spent the entirety of her life up to her entrance in this story worshiping idols (the Moabites were known to be notorious idolaters who had corrupted Israeli people in the past)--was a sinner. And it is only advisable to model one's life after a sinner's if no better alternative exists. 

Of course, further reading of Scripture (not to mention the huge commercial success of the "WWJD" bracelet craze awhile back)  indicate that there is a better example for us, viz. Jesus Christ. But if we are supposed to emulate Jesus (and not Ruth), then what is the point of Ruth's story? 

A look at the following passages will answer the question. As it turns out, we can actually trace the story of God's plan for all of humanity from start to finish by looking at a handful of key passages. And Ruth's story is smack-dab in the middle of the whole narrative. Below are some passages written over hundreds of years by various authors, all tracing the same story through history, as it happens. Watch this: 

Genesis 3:14-15 

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,...
15 ... I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring[a] and hers; he will crush[b] your head,and you will strike his heel.”

(God promises Adam and Eve that a human savior who will crush Satan will come in the future).

Ruth 4:17 

"The women living there said, 'Naomi has a son!' And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse...." 

(Ruth and her second husband Boaz have a son, and his son is named Jesse.)

1 Chron. 2:13-15

13 Jesse was the father of
Eliab his firstborn; the second son was Abinadab, the third Shimea, 14 the fourth Nethanel, the fifth Raddai,15 the sixth Ozem and the seventh David.

(Jesse's youngest son is named David)

1 Sam. 16:10-11

Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”
“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

(Samuel the Prophet anoints David as King over Israel)

1 Sam. 17:12

"12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse,who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was very old."

(David and his family are from Bethlehem Ephratah)

Isaiah 9:6-7

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

(Isaiah the Prophet predicts that the savior of the world will be from the royal line of David, and will actually be called "Mighty God"--blasphemy if it is not true)

Micah 5:2

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans[a] of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

(Micah the Prophet predicts that Bethlehem Ephratah--Ruth and David's hometown--would be the birthplace of the coming savior-king, about whom Isaiah prophesied)

Matthew 1:1-16 (Emphasis mine)

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
and Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asa,
Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,
Jehoram the father of Uzziah,
Uzziah the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amon,
Amon the father of Josiah,
11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah[c] and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
12 After the exile to Babylon:
Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,
Abihud the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
14 Azor the father of Zadok,
Zadok the father of Akim,
Akim the father of Elihud,
15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,
Eleazar the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary,and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

(This passage really spells it out: Ruth's descendant is Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus came to save the world from sin and the devil, and to bring eternal life to humanity--to whomever repents and believes in his authority)

God's hidden agenda

Now, why is this passage really significant? 

We are getting to watch God’s plan for salvation taking shape right before our very eyes. Ruth and Naomi had no idea what they were doing. For Naomi, it was a bitter thing for her husband and sons to die.* But if they had not, she would have never moved back from Moab to Bethlehem. And she would not have brought Ruth back with her. Her family line would have continued in Moab! But Ruth was an ancestor of Jesus. The Messiah couldn’t come from Moab. He was to come from Bethlehem. So Naomi and Ruth’s family had to make it back to Bethlehem. What was bitter for her meant salvation for the world!

Why does this matter to us?

Where are we in this story? 

We are on the other side of God’s plan of redemption! We are the recipients of God’s incredible grace. God had been working for thousands of years to get Jesus to earth. And then the disciples of Jesus spread the Gospel until it replicated and came over the Atlantic, to the New World. And eventually someone discipled the person who told you about the Gospel (if you are not a believer today, then I suppose I am "the person who told you," and you can become a part of this story right now). And now here we are.

We are part of this story! What an incredible perspective!

Reading the story in this way, we can see that it goes much, much deeper than just seeing Ruth as an example of faith. The fact is, whether Ruth had faith or not, she was going to Bethlehem. Whether Naomi was happy or sad about it*, that family line was going to continue—right down to David, through Joseph, and eventually to Jesus. It was God's plan, and God is faithful. 

The hero of this story is not Ruth, not Naomi, and (for those of you who know the story), certainly not Boaz. The hero is God—the God who bends and shapes the very history of mankind in order to save the world.

So yes, it is safe to say that the Old Testament does matter. And why it matters dramatically changes the way we do evangelism. We have the astounding opportunity to show people their place in God's grand story of human redemption. 

For further reading on why the Church should focus more on the Gospel and less on, well, everything else, I recommend Byron Forrest Yawn's Suburbianity. It will change how you think about the American church.

Discussion Questions

  1. What happened in this story to fulfill God’s plan?
  2. Who in the story was doing God’s will? Everyone! How do you know?  
  3. How might Naomi have responded if you could get in a time machine and go back and tell her that her sons and husband dying were part of God’s messianic plan?
  4. How important is it to read an Old Testament passage like this in light of the Gospel?
  5. What is the most important thing about this story?
  6. How does this story impact the way you view your own life? How does it impact the way you will tell others about Jesus?

*Quick note: before we say that it is cruel of God to "kill off" Naomi's sons and husband in order to carry out his plan, remember that (1) everyone is going to die anyway, and (2) it would be better to die as part of a grand plan with infinite meaning than for no reason at all, and  (3) we do not know how these men died, nor that their deaths occurred all at once (so we should not presume it was necessarily the most tragic of circumstances for Naomi). Regardless, we can be sure that, if they had faith in the Lord, they were saved by the same Messiah as we all, and they are celebrating this fact in heaven right now!

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