Exploring two of the most memorable stories in the Bible, this 12-week study highlights the love and faithfulness of God displayed in the books of Ruth and Esther.
About the Author
Kathleen Nielson (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is an author and speaker who loves working with women in studying the Scriptures. After directing the Gospel Coalition’s women’s initiatives from 2010–2017, she now serves as senior adviser and book editor for TGC. She and her husband, Niel, make their home partly in Wheaton, Illinois, and partly in Jakarta, Indonesia. They have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and five granddaughters.
J. I. Packer (DPhil, Oxford University) serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is the author of numerous books, including the classic best-seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.
Lane T. Dennisis president and publisher of Crossway Books and Good News Tracts. Dr. Dennis earned his BS in business from Northern Illinois University, an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary, and a PhD in religion from Northwestern University. Before joining Good News Publishers in 1974, he served as a pastor in campus ministry at the University of Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie) and as the Managing Director of Verlag Grosse Freude in Switzerland. He is the author and/or editor of three books, including the Gold Medallion-award-winning book Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, and he is the former Chairman of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Dr. Dennis serves as the Chairman of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible Translation Oversight Committee and as the Executive Editor of the ESV Study Bible. Lane and his wife, Ebeth, live in Wheaton, Illinois.
Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is the executive vice president of Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway. He serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Edwards on the Christian Life. He lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Wheaton, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
Overview of Ruth
Two books in the Bible are named after women: Ruth and Esther. These women lived approximately five centuries apart, one in the period leading up to the kingdom of Israel, and the other following the kingdom's decline and fall. One was a foreigner who came to the land of Judah; the other was a Jew who lived in a foreign land. God has always been at work in the whole world he made and over which he rules. Both women played crucial roles in the big story of God's redeeming a people for himself from all the nations through his Son.
We begin with Ruth, a foreigner who found a home in Bethlehem. She lived during the period of the judges, when there was yet no king in Israel and "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 21:25). This masterful narrative is about Ruth, but it is even more about God's covenant kindness to his people — even in the midst of their repeated rebellion against him. Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, doubts but then learns this kindness, as Ruth and Boaz live it out before her eyes. In four artfully shaped scenes, these three characters live the story of a God who provides for his people according to his promises.
The narrative draws us into the experience of these widowed women who move from empty desolation in Moab to full provision back in Bethlehem. But the story keeps lifting our eyes in the process, letting us glimpse the God in charge of famine and harvest and barrenness and birth and death and indeed every scene of human history. Reading the book of Ruth, we marvel at Ruth's story and we see more clearly the God who so kindly directs it. (For further background, see the ESV Study Bible, pages 475–477, or visit www.esvbible.org.)
Placing It in the Larger Story
God's covenant promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–7) are beautifully displayed in Ruth. Although the period in which she lived was one of disobedience and disarray, God had indeed made Abraham's seed into a great people and settled them in the Land of Promise. In Ruth's life, the blessing promised to those who bless God's people proves true. As she, the foreigner, is enfolded among them, we catch a glimpse of all the families of the earth being blessed by Abraham's seed.
The crowning evidence of God's covenant faithfulness emerges at the book's end, with the repeated mention of Ruth's descendant David (Ruth 4:17–22), the great king to whom God promised an eternal throne (2 Sam. 7:12–17). But this blessing peeks through from the moment we open Ruth and begin to read about Bethlehem in Judah — Judah being the land named after the tribe from which David came. The Scriptures ultimately show the fulfillment of all God's promises in the coming of Jesus Christ, the heavenly king born in Bethlehem, in the line of David. Matthew 1:1–6 gives us the genealogy that Ruth helps unfold in living color.
The book of Ruth is one episode in the story of Jesus. It's an episode that shows the utterly magnificent and intensely personal kindness of this God who is redeeming a people for himself from all the families of the earth. As God fulfills all Ruth's and Naomi's needs for food, home, and family, through their redeemer Boaz, we glimpse the heavenly Redeemer in whom all these needs are finally and fully met.
"Then the women said to Naomi, 'Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!'" (Ruth 4:14).
Date and Historical Background
Ruth's story takes place "in the days when the judges ruled" (Ruth 1:1). The book of Judges describes this period (c. 13th–11th centuries BC) as a downward-spiraling cycle of sinful rebellion by God's people, followed by cries for help to God who sends a deliverer/judge, followed again by sinful rebellion. Such a background for Ruth's story highlights both the need for and the wonder of God's merciful faithfulness to his people.
The book's concluding genealogy, with its mention of David, implies that it was composed later, after David's taking the throne in c. 1010 BC.
I. Introduction: Naomi Bereft of Family (1:1–5)
II. Scene 1: Naomi Returns to Bethlehem with Ruth (1:6–22)
III. Scene 2: Ruth Gleans in Boaz's Field (2:1–23)
IV. Scene 3: Ruth, at the Threshing Floor, Asks Boaz to Marry Her (3:1–18)
V. Scene 4: Boaz Arranges Redemption at the Gate (4:1–12)
VI. Conclusion: Naomi Blessed with a New Family (4:13–17)
VII. Genealogy: Extended Blessing (4:18–22)
As You Get Started ...
Do a quick read-through of Ruth, as if you were reading a short story. What aspects of the book stand out after such a reading? Jot down some of your initial observations.
This book called "Ruth" doesn't start and end with Ruth! Look at the prominent role of Naomi in the beginning (ch. 1) and the end (4:13–17). What do you notice? What are your thoughts at this point on why Naomi provides the "bookends" to this story?
On first reading, what specific words (perhaps repeated ones) or phrases stand out to you? Write them down. How might those words help clarify the big picture of what this book is about?
As You Finish This Unit ...
Take a moment now to ask God to bless you with increased understanding and a transformed heart and life as you study the book of Ruth. Look back through this introductory chapter and underline words or thoughts you would like to pray about or consider further. May the Spirit who inspired Scripture's living and active words use them to challenge and encourage our hearts.
1 Israel – Originally, another name given to Jacob (Gen. 32:28). Later applied to the nation formed by his descendants, then to the 10 northern tribes of that nation, who rejected the anointed king and formed their own nation. In the NT, the name is applied to the church as the spiritual descendants of Abraham (Gal. 6:16).
2 Redemption – In the context of the Bible, the act of buying back someone who had become enslaved or something that had been lost to someone else. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus purchased redemption for all believers (Col. 1:13–14).
3 Covenant – A binding agreement between two parties, typically involving a formal statement of their relationship, a list of stipulations and obligations for both parties, a list of witnesses to the agreement, and a list of curses for unfaithfulness and blessings for faithfulness to the agreement. God throughout Old Testament times established covenants with his people, all of which he faithfully keeps, and all of whose benefits come to God's people finally through Christ, who inaugurated the new covenant (1 Cor. 11:25).
4 Bless – To worship or praise another, especially God; to bestow goodness on another.
5 Sin – Any violation of or failure to adhere to the commands of God.
6 Mercy – Compassion and kindness toward someone experiencing hardship, sometimes even when such suffering results from the person's own sin or foolishness. God displays mercy toward his people and they, in turn, are called to display mercy toward others (Luke 6:36).CHAPTER 2
Returning To Bethlehem
The Place of the Passage
Ruth begins with a brief introduction and a dramatic first scene that set the stage for the whole narrative. In the midst of a desolate context both historically and personally, Naomi decides to return from Moab to Bethlehem. That return precipitates the action of the rest of the story, beginning immediately with Ruth's response. This chapter shows Naomi's emptiness in Moab which, by book's end, will turn into the fullness of God's provision in Bethlehem.
The Big Picture
Ruth 1 shows the context of Naomi's desolation (the time of the judges, famine, alienation from home, death, bitterness) and yet the seeds of hope in a return to a food-filled Bethlehem along with a faith-filled daughter-in-law, Ruth.
Reflection and Discussion
Read Ruth 1 slowly and carefully. Then consider and write your reflections on the following questions, which move through the chapter section by section. (For further background, see the ESV Study Bible, pages 478–479, or visitwww.esvbible.org.)
1. Introduction: The Desolate Context (1:1–5)
For a glimpse into the period of the judges (1:1), read Judges 2:6–23 and 21:25. Why might this background be important for understanding the book of Ruth?
Elimelech evidently didn't intend to leave permanently the Land of Promise or his own particular clan, city, and tribe within it (1:2). He meant only to "sojourn" (1:1), or to stay a while in Moab, to escape the famine in Israel. Look on a map to find the land of Moab across the Dead Sea from Bethlehem. Moab's inhabitants were the descendants of an incestuous union between Lot and one of his daughters (Gen. 19:30–38). The Moabites worshiped other gods and were not friends of God's people (see Numbers 22–25). The story does not directly judge Elimelech, but in what ways might we see his move to Moab as problematic?
2. Naomi's Plan and Ruth's Determination (1:6–18)
The book's introduction leaves Naomi in crisis, with sons and husband dead (1:5). In that place and time, a woman without a man was without means of support, helpless and vulnerable. And a wife without children to continue the family line was regarded as a failure. Jewish law provided for "levirate marriage" (after the Latin levir, meaning "brother-in-law"), in which a brother was obliged to marry a childless widow of his deceased brother and to raise children in the brother's name (see Deut. 25:5–10). Naomi refers to this law as she addresses her two daughters-in-law. Observe and listen carefully to Naomi in Ruth 1:6–15, and make a list of everything you can discern about her.
Orpah took the sensible route and went home, but Ruth "clung" to her mother-in-law (v. 14). The same Hebrew word dabaq in Genesis 2:24 describes a man leaving his father and mother and "holding fast" to his wife. It's a strong word. Ruth's own words are strong and beautiful, full of poetic parallelism. Make an outline of her statements (vv. 16–17). How do these statements grow, reaching a climax at the end? What do we learn here about Ruth?
3. The Return (1:19–22)
"Naomi" means "pleasant," but "Mara" means "bitter" — a name with which Naomi identifies at this point. In what ways does Naomi specifically attribute her bitterness to God in Ruth 1:13, 19–22? How might you evaluate her theology at this point?
What elements of hope does bitter Naomi seem to be ignoring throughout chapter 1?
Dialogue is the main "meat" of each scene in this narrative. Ruth has the most powerful lines in chapter 1, but Naomi has the most! Imagine, though, what other possible words might have come from Naomi's mouth at various points in the chapter, had she been more alert to God's gracious hand at work.
Note the "return from the country of Moab" in both verse 6 and verse 22 — providing bookends for this dramatic scene. The final verse repeatedly emphasizes return, for both Naomi and "Ruth the Moabite." This clearly represents a turning point in the story and in the experience of these women. Why is this return so important? How would you express what it is Naomi and Ruth are returning to? (For further context, read Josh. 1:1–6.)
We have described this book as the story of a God who provides for his people according to his promises. In what ways does chapter 1 lead us to begin considering the various parts of this description?
Read through the following three sections on Gospel Glimpses, Whole-Bible Connections, and Theological Soundings. Then take time to consider the Personal Implications these sections may have for you.
A HEART CHANGED BY GRACE. We meet Ruth in this opening chapter only through words and actions, not through any narrative interpretation. But what we see strongly suggests a regenerative work of God in Ruth, so that she gives her heart and her life not only to her mother-in-law but also to her mother-in-law's God. She has been drawn into a family that is part of God's people, where she clearly has heard enough about God to call him "LORD" (see "Whole-Bible Connections" below) and to begin to grasp the connection between God and his called-out people. Her words might even echo God's covenantal language to Abraham and his descendants, promising that he will be their God and they will be his people (see, for example, Gen. 17:7–8; Ex. 6:7). Such a story, like Rahab's before her (Joshua 2), makes us ask how and why God plucked this one person out of an ungodly nation. Why not Orpah? The text does not answer those questions but leaves us increasingly in awe of God's inexplicable grace that calls out sinners from every nation.
A RETURN. This chapter keeps reminding us that we are reading about a return. The gospel is all about God's providing a way for lost people to return to God — ever since Adam and Eve were separated from God by their sin but received his promise to provide a way for that sin to be defeated, through the seed (or "offspring") of the woman (Gen. 3:15). The shape of a return story resonates with the shape of redemption. The prophets called out again and again, "Return!" (see, for example, Hos. 14:1; Mal. 3:7). But they didn't simply call for a return. They pointed ahead to the means for that return: the promised Seed, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — the one born in Bethlehem, the very city to which Naomi is returning, in the land of God's promise. Scripture resounds with the call to return, ultimately to God himself. Both Naomi and Ruth follow this call and duly find the provision of God's grace.
A COVENANT PEOPLE. God's promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–7) stand out as context for this story. The details of Elimelech's background (Ruth 1:2) establish that we're dealing with the sons of Jacob descended from Abraham who were divided into tribes — now numerous, as God promised, and settled in the land God promised. Accordingly, we feel the jarring of one of these descendants leaving the land; this jarring adds to the import of the return. We also feel the huge significance of a foreigner like Ruth so boldly purposing to become part of the people God has covenanted to bless. Only as the story develops do we with fuller understanding celebrate the way Ruth's enfolding into Israel is actually a beautiful part of the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that, in him, "all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3).(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Series Preface J. I. Packer Lane T. Dennis 6
Week 1 Overview of Ruth 7
Week 2 Returning to Bethlehem (Ruth 1) 11
Week 3 A Meeting in the Barley Field (Ruth 2) 19
Week 4 A Proposal on the Threshing Floor (Ruth 3) 27
Week 5 Redemption at the Gate (Ruth 4) 35
Week 6 Overview of Esther 43
Week 7 The Pieces in Place (Esther 1-2) 49
Week 8 The Crisis and the Response (Esther 3-4) 57
Week 9 The Story Takes a Turn (Esther 5-6) 65
Week 10 Falling and Rising: Switched and Speeding to the End (Esther 7-8) 73
Week 11 Reversal: Consummated, Celebrated, and Concluded (Esther 9-10) 83
Week 12 Summary and Conclusion 91
What People are Saying About This
“This Knowing the Bible series is a tremendous resource for those wanting to study and teach the Bible with an understanding of how the gospel is woven throughout Scripture. Here are Gospel-minded pastors and scholars doing Gospel business from all the scriptures—this is a biblical and theological feast preparing God’s people to apply the entire Bible to all of life with heart and mind wholly committed to Christ’s priorities.”
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—Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College; author, Loving the Way Jesus Loves
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