Every good story has a good back-story. Ridley Scott made two prequels to his popular Alien franchise. This past year Amazon offered Rings of Power to the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a prequel. The Godfather had TheGodfather II provide both a back-story and a continuation to its saga. James Bond had Casino Royale serve as the prequel. Star Wars had . . . well, never mind.
The Christmas story – how the Lord showed love for His people through a child born to peasants in an obscure Judean village called Bethlehem – has a back-story. In an age when some tell us we can have a Christian faith – and thus Christmas – unhitched from its origins, we need to recover the prequel. If you want to know what child is this, born on the original Christmas, start with the backstory. It’s in Ruth.
What Love Looks Like
Naomi – our first peasant – followed her husband, Elimelech (My God is King), away from her home in Bethlehem – that obscure little town – as an economic refugee to Moab. Like many immigrants fleeing for survival, they find themselves being incorporated into the melting pot of whatever nation they’ve fled to, especially through their children. Naomi bore two sons who eventually married local, young women: Orpah and Ruth, presumably raised worshiping the “vile god Chemosh.” Then disaster strikes. We’re not given the details but her husband and two sons die. Left with only the two daughters-in-law, Naomi prepares to leave them in their Moabite home and return to that little town of Bethlehem. She blesses them with “may the Lord deal ‘kindly’ – lovingly, covenantally, loyally – with you” (1:8). (Pay attention. This is the key word and concept in Ruth, one that underlays Christmas.) Naomi is thinking that she’ll be leaving Orpah and Ruth behind to remarry as she slinks back to her hometown to muddle through her remaining days as a bereft widow. But they trail after her. Naomi stops and pleads with them to turn back to Moab.
You want to know what love looks like? Look in Ruth. Naomi, desperate, bereaved, probably all her possessions in a bag slung on her back, sad, needy, doesn’t manipulate her daughters-in-law – ‘how can you leave your poor, old mother-in-law to fend for herself?!’ She decides to put what’s best (as far as she can tell) for them ahead of herself. That’s what love looks like.
Naomi sends them away with a blessing of the Lord’s covenant-love. The word translated “kindly” is “hesed” (1:8.) It’s usually translated “steadfast love.” It’s notoriously difficult to define with merely one English word. I wonder if one reason Ruth was originally written was that someone asked “What is ‘hesed’?” So, some wise man answered, ‘Let me tell you the story of Naomi, of Ruth, of the Lord, of steadfast love.’
Naomi is saying, ‘May the Lord deal in covenant love with you just as you have with me.’ As far as they know, Naomi has nothing in Judah for them to go for, merely a life of picking up scraps after the harvest. But they went anyway. Their love for Naomi made them willing to abandon their families, friends, homeland, and their native religion. Naomi wishes that the Lord provide them with a new family, even if that means leaving Naomi alone.
Love looks like the loyalty Orpah and Ruth show to Naomi. They say, “No, we will return with you, to your people” (1:10). They are arguing with each other, trying to get the other to do what is best for them, not for themselves. Orpah and Ruth want to do what is best for Naomi, even at great sacrifice to themselves. Naomi wants what is best for her daughters-in-law: go back home. So, she tries to reason with them, “Turn back my daughters.” She’s tenderly pleading with them (1:11). “Why will you go back – to Judah – with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” In their culture, if a man died, his brother had a duty to marry the widow to take care of her and carry on the name of his brother. But Naomi says she’s not going to be producing any more sons. “I’m too old.” Even if she does have a husband immediately and bear sons, Orpah and Ruth are not going to wait until they grow up to marry them (1:12-13). “No,” ‘you have no future with me,’ she’s sure (1:13). So, they cried aloud and Orpah finally conceded (1:14). Orpah kissed Naomi good bye and went back home. If you want to see what natural, human love, at its best looks like, look at Orpah. If you want to see what supernatural steadfast love looks like, look at Ruth.
Naomi looks at Ruth. See this picture in your mind: they’re standing beside a road from Moab to Israel, probably not much more than a hiking trail. Three desperately poor women, one older looking like she’s had a hard life, bitten by grief; they’re talking to each other, animated, pleading, crying. Passersby don’t think they’re worth looking at. They’re the three most unimportant people in the world. Then one turns back to Moab and now there are only two of the most unimportant people in the world. Naomi says, “See” Ruth, “Your sister-in-law has gone back to her people” — her friends, her relatives, her connections that can give her a future. “And [she’s gone back] to her gods” — the same gods you were raised with. “Return after your sister-in-law” (1:15.) Follow her example.
See Ruth, a young widow, standing beside some dirt path, leaving everything she’s ever seen, for nothing she can see but her loyalty to her dead husband’s mother. What a completely pathetic picture. Ruth says her first words in this book, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go, I will go and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (1:16.)
You want to know what love looks like? There it is.
Consumerism and Chestlessness
These words are now frequently used in weddings to describe the commitment two people are making in marriage. I’m tempted to be smart-alecky and say that at a wedding you should make this pledge to your mother-in-law but I think it’s fair that this is the kind of love marriage is meant to be. Ruth’s “where you die, I will die” is “Till death do us part.” In our nearly friendless, consumer culture where relationships and churches are customer service providers, like your TV service, to be canceled when it’s not meeting our immediate needs or too expensive, marriage is the only form of hesed we can imagine. The old ideal of marriage as a covenant is the last vestige of hesed in our consumer culture.
But consumerism, after having devoured Thanksgiving with Black Friday, and Christmas with Santa, is now devouring our marriages. Joe Rogan commented to Matt Walsh (November 7, 2022) that he can’t imagine remaining in a marriage if it’s not immediately happiness-inducing, like a good pizza. When consumerism has eviscerated hesed, it creates what C. S. Lewis vividly described as “men without chests,” people incapable of trekking down the Moabite Road back to Bethlehem, pledging to your empty-handed mother-in-law “where you go, I will go.” The chest, Lewis explained, is the mediating point between appetite and reason, the part of us which helps us to discipline and aim our appetites so that we desire what is truly good. ‘Why promise to Naomi,’ a hypothetically baffled Rogan would ask Ruth, ‘nothing but death will part me from you’? Such consumers can’t understand Christmas: the giving of God to people who have nothing to offer Him but He gives anyway because of His covenant love. Lacking a heart in their chestlessness, they turn Christmas into the orgy of materialism we’re now familiar with. If they’re religious, they turn it into a display of how much we’re worth, a demonstration of sinners’ intrinsic value, a token of narcissistic piety. They can’t imagine self-less, covenant-love, so they assume that God must have been making a good investment by sending the Son on that first Christmas.
Christmas and consumerism are both friends and enemies. It’s consumerism that pushes relentlessly the importance of the holiday, so we’ll go buy something. It’s unclear whether the modern holiday is really a piece of the Christian liturgical calendar that made it into popular culture or consumerism’s ploy to use the skin of a Christian holiday to disguise its empty materialism. Either way, the theological meaning of consumerism’s preeminent event, with its prequel in Ruth’s self-less hesed, subverts consumerism. The beloved 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street lamented how “commercialism” — “one of the worst” ‘isms’ — has gutted Christmas. Miracle on 34th Street’s hope is that consumerism is tamed so that it no longer destroys Christmas or the budding romance. By 2000, another Christmas movie, The Family Man, more overtly challenged consumerism’s life-devouring demands. It exalted the ideal of marriage and family. The fast-lane investment banker, the kind scorned by Tom Wolfe as one of the “masters of the universe,” finds that the faithful wife, mini-van, and kids are superior to cheap sex, a Ferrari, and a penthouse. In both films, it’s romance – eros – mixed with what C. S. Lewis called philia (friendship) that’s the last bastion against consumerism while Christmas is the setting. In Ruth, it’s called hesed.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The prequel to Christmas shows what the steadfast love (hesed) of God looks like. Ruth’s hesed gets the attention of a notable man of the little town of Bethlehem, Boaz. When Ruth coincidentally happens on Boaz’s field to scrounge for scraps, Boaz tells Ruth, “The Lord repay you for what you have done” — your steadfast love (2:12). “A full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” Boaz also just happens to be, in another coincidence, a relative of Naomi’s late husband (Elimelech), so in-line to be a “kinsman redeemer.” As Yogi Berra said, “That’s too coincidental to be a coincidence.”
One thing leads to another, through the conniving of Naomi, setting Ruth and Boaz up for a rendezvous on a threshing floor after a hard day’s work, and Boaz marries Ruth. The birth of the son is the climax to the prequel. Like any good Christmas cantata, there’s a chorus. In Ruth 4 a chorus of the ladies of Bethlehem raises their voices.
The Lord “has not left you — Naomi — this day” — the birthday of a new son — “without a redeemer” (4:14.) The Lord did it, not Naomi’s proactive plan of having Ruth lie down at Boaz’s feet. Sure, the plan worked but it was the Lord’s doing. Just because you connive and work and boldly risk everything and it pays off, doesn’t mean that it’s not fully in the hands of the sovereign God. So, their anthem, “Blessed be the Lord.”
Naomi had cried that she was empty but now the Bethlehem ladies chorus responds that the Lord has not left you without a “Redeemer.” Who is the redeemer? Boaz was but the child changes everything. ‘Naomi, the Lord has given you a redeemer.’ Now the redeemer is the one who gives the family new life; who inherits, perpetuates the name, who brings the prequel near to the main story (4:14-15). He’s the child born in Bethlehem through the Lord’s steadfast love.
What child is this? The Bethlehem ladies chorus tells us. “He — the baby boy — shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age” (4:15.) He’s the redeemer of Naomi and Ruth and many more. Maybe you. He is that because, Naomi “your daughter-in-law who loves you” — whose love we could see in that covenant pledge of hesed made on the Moabite Road — “is more to you than seven sons.” Lofty praise in that culture. But, after all, Ruth “has given birth to” him, who is now, the redeemer. By the end of Ruth, the office and title of “redeemer” has passed down from Boaz to the baby. It will continue being passed down until it reaches the One who will redeem all the Lord’s people, all God’s family. Until Christmas.
What child is this? He’s the redeemer.
Naomi takes the child, lays him on her lap, so proud of him. The ladies of Bethlehem, happy for her, gave the boy his name: Obed, meaning “servant.” A humble name but right for a boy who served to redeem his family and carry on a family that would serve the world.
What Child Is This?
What child is this who laid to rest on Naomi’s lap is sleeping? Whom ladies greet with anthems sweet while Boaz watch is keeping? This is the redeemer. He’s not just the triumph of eros, a happy ending for a sweet, romantic story that answers Rogan’s hypothetical skepticism of the value of hesed. Sure, there’s a touch of romance – eros – in Ruth but much more. The child that looked up and saw Grandma Naomi would one day look down and see grandson David. Through covenant-love (hesed), God brought about the dynasty from David that would be fulfilled by the Son of David. Through Ruth, a woman from the nations, God brought His king. That king, by the way, would later write in Psalm 36, “How precious is Your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”
Ruth took refuge in the shadow of the Lord’s wings. The result was the grandfather of the king. The prequel transpires in the era of Judges, when there was no king in Israel; when God was supposed to be their king. Elimelech’s name means “My God is king.” This child, sleeping on Naomi’s lap, would be the grandfather of the king God would promise would have a Son who would be the divine king. The birth of that King comes through this family, from Ruth, the foreigner, from the world.
Ruth is more than a sweet love story. It’s a prequel of how God brought Himself on earth to be our King and Redeemer. It’s the backstory to the king God anointed to show steadfast love to His kinsmen whom He chose to redeem, including a mother from the world, to give a redeemer for the world; to redeem people out of the world. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”