The Book of Ruth and Hope in Hard Times -- By: Timothy Paul Erdel

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 25:1 (Winter 2011)
Article: The Book of Ruth and Hope in Hard Times
Author: Timothy Paul Erdel

The Book of Ruth and Hope in Hard Times

Timothy Paul Erdel

Timothy Paul Erdel teaches religion and philosophy at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana. He spent his boyhood in Ecuador and served with Sally, his wife, and Sarah Beth, Rachel, and Matthew, their children, under World Partners at the Jamaica Theological Seminary and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology in Kingston, Jamaica (1987-1993).


The book of Ruth is one of my favorites. A literary masterpiece, it offers a rich exploration of God’s providence, a theology of mission, and a case study in a plethora of Christian virtues, including courage, trust, generosity, hospitality, sacrifice, humility, kindness, compassion, friendship, stewardship, purity, perseverance, faith, hope, and love. There is a harvest and thanksgiving theme as well as an eschatological one. It is no accident that observant Jews make the book of Ruth the liturgical centerpiece for the twin feasts of Pentecost and First Fruits (Shavuot).

These themes bear extended examination. For example, as a theology of mission, the story beautifully illustrates the universality of God’s love—a love that readily welcomes all who turn to him. It is a powerful affirmation of adoption and ingrafting as an alien widow joins God’s chosen people and unexpectedly becomes a central character in the their grand story, the great-grandmother of the fabled King David and, more significantly, a channel for the Messiah. Or, again, this little book explores love in all four of its rich dimensions: affection, friendship, romance (Greek eros), and the divinely motivated, sacrificial love we know as charity or agapē.

There are structural felicities as well. For example, the first seventy-one words in Hebrew underscore a setting of extreme distress, while the last seventy-one words of the story underscore relief and hope. One fairly interesting way to read the story is to see it as a call to hope in hard times, with at least six rather surprising reasons for keeping hope alive. I would like to follow this particular thread in some detail as we look at the book of Ruth.

Seven signs of hard times

The context of the book of Ruth would seem to elicit despair rather than hope. Within the opening verses, there are at least seven signs that point to a setting of such difficulty, suffering, and sorrow that a bitter and tragic end to the story seems all but inevitable.

1. We are told that the account occurs during the days when the judges ruled. Those were bad times. Israel was struggling to find a national identity. It was a period of political anarchy, of idolatry and moral degeneration, of repeated conquest and enslavement, of social unrest and c...

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