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House of Bread

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Many people who read Ruth think of it as a simple love story, but in reality, it is far from simple. And it is not really a “love story” in the modern sense of romantic love either. Nevertheless, this short Old Testament book is a richly meaningful biblical story that can repay a great deal for a little background study.

The first thing we should realize is that the central character is not really Ruth but her mother-in-law, Naomi. In reality, the book tells us far more about Naomi than it does about Ruth. The book begins and ends with Naomi, and when we look carefully, we find that the narrative revolves around this woman throughout most of the story. Every event leads back to her. We can see how central Naomi is to the story when we realize that, of the words spoken by all the characters in the book, 120 are spoken by Ruth, while 225 — almost twice as many — are spoken by Naomi. It might be hard to find another story in which the supposed heroine speaks half as much as one of the supporting characters!

Foreshadow and fulfillment

For some, the story holds allegorical meanings, with Ruth representing humanity, Boaz representing Christ, and Naomi the Christian church that brings the two together. While this kind of symbolic interpretation may seem attractive, almost endless variations exist regarding the symbolism that is supposedly involved. For some, Naomi represents the old covenant and Ruth the new covenant. Others see yet different meanings. When we consider all the possibilities, we realize it would be difficult to discern which, if any, allegory might properly explain the book.

On the other hand, when we look closely at it, the book does contain an underlying theme — within the story itself — that undeniably foreshadows the gospel. At the beginning of the story, Naomi first loses physical sustenance in the time of famine and then loses her husband and sons. But when she hears that the Lord has restored food (literally, “bread”) to Israel (1:6), she leaves the region of Moab to travel back to Bethlehem (meaning “house of bread” or “house of food”) in the region of Judah, called Ephrathah (meaning “fruitfulness”).

Naomi’s words to her daughters-in-law at that time reflect her emptiness. She tells them, “Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?” (v. 11). Having lost her original home, her husband, and her sons, Naomi is figuratively empty. When she arrives in Bethlehem, she summarizes this: “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (v. 21).

In Bethlehem the narrative turns to describing the change from emptiness to fullness, both physically and figuratively. Verse 22 says that the barley harvest was beginning and that Ruth goes to the fields to pick up the leftover grain with Naomi’s blessing (2:2). As the story progresses, we see Ruth moving from simply gleaning in the poorest parts of the field to receiving more and more in the better areas from the hand of Boaz (vv. 14-18).

This “filling” of Naomi with physical bread precedes the figurative filling that occurs with the redemption of her property and the birth of “her” new son, who comes as a result of the marriage of Ruth and Boaz. The filling of the empty, through God’s grace, underlies the whole book, which begins with stressing emptiness and concludes with stressing the fulfillment of good things.

When we see the centrality of this message in the story of Ruth, we realize the importance of the list of names that concludes the book. Humanly, it is easy to see it as just an appendix that functions like the credits at the end of a film. Some even suggest this closing genealogy may have been added later. But if the book was composed by Samuel, as many scholars believe, there is no reason the genealogy could not date to that time. In any case, the genealogy forms the ending of the book as it was accepted into the canon of Scripture. It leads, of course, to David, the king who became the ancestor of Jesus Christ.

Bread of Life

In that sense, the book of Ruth prefigures a double fulfillment, found first in David and then in his descendant, Jesus. This is because David was a messianic (“anointed”) king in ancient Israel (2 Samuel 23:1), but he also foreshadowed a much greater Messiah (Isaiah 9:1-7).

The parallels between the messianic David, mentioned at the end of Ruth, and the later messianic figure of Jesus Christ are many and obvious. Both David and Jesus were born in Bethlehem, the city of bread that is the setting of most of Ruth. Just as David was prophesied to become king from Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1), so was the greater King who descended from him (Micah 5:2). David, who provided bread for his people (2 Samuel 6:19; 1 Chronicles 16:3), foreshadowed the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and who would provide that spiritual bread for the salvation of His people (Mark 14:22).

Perhaps we can see a reference to this ultimate fulfillment, described in Ruth, in the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the annunciation of His conception. She exclaims that God fills “the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53). This is, in fact, a perfect summary of Ruth’s message and what it foreshadows — a message about the God who provides not only physical bread for those who walk with Him but also, through Ruth’s eventual descendant born in the “house of bread,” the sustenance of salvation. In fact, we meet the God who provides for both Naomi and all His people, physically and spiritually, as clearly in the book of Ruth as in any place in Scripture.

Next time you’re feeling empty, read Ruth and remember whom it points to: Jesus, who satisfies our deepest hunger.

R. Herbert
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R. Herbert holds a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern languages, biblical studies, and archaeology. He served as an ordained minister and church pastor for a number of years. He writes for several Christian venues and for his websites at http://www.LivingWithFaith.org and http://www.TacticalChristianity.org, where you can also find his free e-books. R. Herbert is a pen name.