I can’t tell you how lovely it’s been to review this book over the spring holidays. You can picture me sitting on an old cotton quilt on the beach, my kids happily playing in the distance with their Dad and Granny. And I’m not feeling guilty about staying put here on the sand with a book in my hands. Rather unusually, my reading’s been imbued with an importance and a purpose it wouldn’t ordinarily have. Of course, reading a book like this is always important and purposeful and I hope this little sketch of me on the beach might inspire you to carve out a time for yourself to sit and read a few chapters of this golden book.
If big stories overwhelm you, chapter 3 is a great place to begin. Alistair Begg has been charged with the task of illuminating the story of Ruth for us, and I love his simple recommendation that, “Tiny stories are hugely appealing in our time.” (p.58) Our ever-present bombardment from facebook, blogs, the accumulation of so much stuff in our lives, makes it all too easy to feel information indigestion. There is a quiet pleasure in a short story.
Before Begg gets started on Ruth he helpfully lists the assumptions he’s making about the Old Testament before unpacking the story. These are neatly encapsulated by borrowing B.B. Warfield’s analogy (from Warfield’s Biblical Doctrines) that likens the Old Testament to “a richly furnished but dimly lit room; the contents become clear only when the light is turned on in the person and work of Jesus.” (p.58) If we stay with Warfield’s picture and walk around that room, Begg presents his own sketches of Ruth, with the work of Jesus the torch in his hand.
Begg has a background in drawing and this chapter is rich with visual allusions. Begg uses drawing both as a metaphor and as a helpful way of structuring his account of what happens in the book of Ruth. With bold clear strokes, he dashes off “three charcoal sketches” (p.59) with the intention that the reader fill out the rest of the picture on their own. It’s a lovely way to structure a reading of a book like Ruth. A brief story, that is also action-packed. A tale about gleaning. A tale that crumb-drops its way, down through a historical genealogy, all the way to a man called Jesus.
In picture one, Begg shows three women on the road to somewhere, crying and desperate and shows how Ruth couldn’t be persuaded to return home (like Orpah does). Begg sites this as her conversion (p.61): Ruth turns her back on her old life and embraces Naomi and Naomi’s God. And Begg pulls back the golden curtain in that richly furnished room and reveals:
“God was reaching into Ruth’s life across the barriers of race, and her picture was painted in the great scene in Revelation: persons “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:9) Those people are worshipping King Jesus, who descended from this woman, Ruth.” (p.62)
In the second picture Begg draws Boaz. Ruth comes home after a day in the fields gleaning for food and says to Naomi, “The name of the man I worked for today is Boaz.” (Ruth 2:19) Ruth finds favour with a kinsman redeemer – a relative of Naomi’s, someone who “has the right to intervene in the circumstances of Naomi and Ruth.” (p.64) And he saves them, quite wonderfully, by marrying Ruth. There are many echoes to our own kinsman redeemer in Christ.
In the third picture a son is born, (Ruth 4:16) and, in light of all the tragedy and hardship Naomi has survived, Begg imagines “quite a baby shower at the birth of this son!” (p.64) The tale ends with a family tree. And little do the women know how prophetic their prayer for Naomi’s grandson, that his name be renowned in all Israel, is going to be. (Ruth: 4:14)
Filling it in
Through these three brief sketches Begg gives this Old Testament story a shape that is easy to cling to. He sprinkles a little colour and grit on the characters to show they are ordinary and real, like us. But best of all, he presents it the way it was always intended: as a jewel on a dark velvet cloth (p.55), a personal story of rescue and redemption, of real love that echoes our own Christ to come and links all the way to him in the Ruth and Boaz family tree.
This is a truly shining story in the Old Testament: understandable, digestible, with a great storyline that is captivating and satisfying. And, as tiny stories go, deep indeed. In his concluding remarks Begg quotes philosophy professors, Dreyfus and Kelly, from their book In All Things Shining, a book about classic western texts, where the authors observe, “That when you search for shining moments, you must be aware that they do not cohere or combine to make any sense at all.” That existential statement is refuted by Begg in his reading of Ruth. “In Jesus all things hold together.” (p.65) It makes me think of the first four verses of the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…All things were made through him…In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” He’s the golden thread running through the Old Testament. Standing at the Father’s side as the world was made through him. He sustains it. He pulls it all together in the New Testament, and he will return to reconcile all things to himself. Those shining moments in Ruth mean something.
I’m not a visual artist but I can still think in pictures: I can see the tragedy of the three women on the road, all alone, the dust and the pain and the hunger and the weariness. A decision has to be made, one parts ways. But there’s a glimmer of hope! One is sticking with the other! But they will struggle to survive. Then the excitement of meeting a man named Boaz, a man with kind eyes and a kind heart. Who turns out to be Naomi’s relative. A kinsman redeemer. And there’s hope in Ruth’s eyes and sparks with this new man and the romance blossoms and he steps in and saves them, and marries Ruth. There’s a wedding and a new son is born and Naomi’s face is beaming and her friends are all praying for her. Lives have completely changed. Hearts are overflowing with happiness and thanksgiving to God. History is in the making too. This baby is part of a special family tree.
By getting our brains to work at filling in more of the detail by going back and reading Ruth, Begg reminds us that these are ordinary people and that God is doing extraordinary things through their lives.
Begg takes inspiration for his charcoal sketches from an old art teacher who, when he would ask for help, would take a pencil out and put a few lines here and there to get him started. But he wouldn’t do it for him, and Begg had to fill in the rest (p59.). What a good metaphor this is. Not just for the book of Ruth. But for how we as Christians, how any thinking person, ought to go about reading and understanding the life-changing story of the Bible. It is a life’s work seeing and preaching Jesus in the Old Testament. Books like this get us started. But it is up to us, by God’s grace, to fill in the rest.