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Three Models of Stewardship from the Book of Ruth: Introduction to the Book and to Ruth, the Moabite (Session 1 of 3)

Each of us is called to establish a pattern in our lives, enabling us to steward our living fruitfully and joyfully in ways that God would have us live. This calling is not a call to drudgery and sacrifice, but rather is a call to live a life that frees us to enjoy to the fullest the abundance of God's good gifts. Such a life not only tends to the needs of the other but rewards us abundantly as well. Our driving question in this Bible study is this: What does stewardship look like in the life of an individual? The biblical book that will aid us on this quest is the book of Ruth.

Introduction to the Book and to Ruth, the Moabite (Session 1 of 3)

Leader's Guide

The leader's guide includes the following:

  • A "gathering time" section, which includes opening questions to get the ball rolling
  • Sections of background material on the book of Ruth to share with the group
  • An introduction to the main character of the book of Ruth being studied
  • Interpretive comments on the particular passages to share with the group
  • Various questions, with hints on the direction the discussion might fruitfully take
  • A "closing time" section, which reflects on the lesson and suggests a larger question for the group to consider.

A PowerPoint presentation of pictures, texts and questions to go along with the study can be found at Ruth presentation

NOTE: It would be helpful if each participant could read the four chapters of the book of Ruth before participating in this study. Ask everyone to bring a Bible. The text quoted will be the NRSV, but folks may compare their various translations.

Gathering Time and Opening Questions

Gather folks together with a hymn (if desired) and a prayer. Then begin the session by asking a series of questions:

  • What does it mean to be a steward, to live a life of stewardship?

  • Do you think of yourself as a good steward?

  • Where do you get your ideas about what stewardship is?

Many folks might think being a good steward means giving money to the church, perhaps tithing. Others may think of Genesis 2 and taking care of God's wonderful creation. How many of the participants' answers have to do only with what we do for others and nothing to do with how being a steward affects our own sense of ourselves, how we view our own lives?

You might end this gathering time by asking: What if being a steward means living the abundant life?

Each of us is called to establish a pattern in our lives, enabling us to steward our living fruitfully and joyfully in ways that God would have us live. This calling is not a call to drudgery and sacrifice, but rather is a call to live a life that frees us to enjoy to the fullest the abundance of God's good gifts. Such a life not only tends to the needs of the other but rewards us abundantly as well. Our driving question in this Bible study is this: What does stewardship look like in the life of an individual? The biblical book that will aid us on this quest is the book of Ruth.

Background material: Setting of the book of Ruth

{Slide, The Book of Ruth}

Q:The book is so close to the earth. Do you notice the continual references to seasons and grains in this book? How do you hear such reference? Symbolically? Through past experiences of your own?

A:You will notice then that the book begins in a time of famine and ends with a harvest of plenty. (1:1, 6, 22; all of chapter 2; 3:2, 6-7, 15-17) Indeed, the book begins not only with famine of grain but also with a famine of spirit and it ends with an abundance of both grain and spirit.

Ruth is a transition book from Judges to Kings. Notice how the book begins: "In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land." (Ruth 1:1) It ends with a genealogy: "They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David." (Ruth 4:17)

Found between Judges and Kings, the book of Ruth signals a significant transition from famine to abundance.

Q: What do you remember about the book of Judges? Do you remember the final chapters of Judges?

A:These chapters are among the most frightening and pathetic chapters in all of scripture. They are filled with rape and neglect and mutilation and war, all manner of violence.

{Slide, The Book of Judges}

Surrounding the reports of violence is a twice repeated, twice alluded to refrain: "There was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25)

In the language of Judges, having no king meant having no order, no good law to remind folks of responsibilities outside of their own desire. This leads us to the main reason this book is so helpful for looking at stewardship. The book of Ruth might be seen as an intimate response to that refrain, as a response to anytime the world becomes crazed with both violence and self-service.

The Book of Ruth as an Antidote to the Book of Judges

{Slide, Boaz, Ruth and Naomi}

The book of Ruth shows us a picture of what happens when people act in a different way; that is, when they steward their lives not according to the desires of their hearts but in response to God's graciousness to them. In Ruth we have three such people, three types one might say. These three studies are designed to look at each of their lives of stewardship, to see how it affected them and their communities, beginning with the book's namesake, Ruth.

Exploring the Character of Ruth

{Slide, Chagall}

Have the group look at the opening five verses of the book.

Q: What do we know about Ruth, and what do we imagine her life would be like?

A: We know she is a Moabite. The truth is, almost half the time Ruth is mentioned in this book, she is called "Ruth, the Moabite," lest we forget even for an instance. What do we know about Moab? This is crucial to understanding Ruth's character.

Moab is a country just west of Judah. The Israelites marched through Moab on the way to the Promised Land, though the King refused them access. They are among the most despised of the foreign nations. Most of how Israel officially felt about Moab is summarized in this text:

"No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. ...You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live." (Deuteronomy 23:3-4, 6)

A: We also know Ruth becomes the wife of Mahlon, eldest son of Naomi and Elimelech, foreigners who had settled in her homeland. How old would she have been when she married? We don't know for certain. She was probably between 12 and 14, though perhaps a bit older.

A: After 10 years of a childless marriage, Mahlon dies. Ruth is now a widow. We hear nary a word of her grief because all the grief belongs to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth would be 22 or 24 by then, still fairly young.

What should she do? What would be the cultural expectations? Perhaps she would be expected to go back to her parental home when Naomi leaves. In any case, she is tainted wherever she goes, having married outside of cultural norms and having failed to produce a child, possibly perceived as punishment for her cultural transgression.

Does anyone have other questions to ask about Ruth?

Now let's look at Ruth's actions in the remainder of chapter one to see what we can learn about stewarding one's life from this foreign widow.

{Slide, Blake}

Notice first her willingness -- indeed, her determination -- to leave her home and to follow her mother-in-law. This came even after Naomi had released her from all obligations and told her to go home to her own mother's house. Yet she persists, unlike her sister-in-law, Orpah. We are told, "Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her." (Ruth 1:14)

Ruth "clings" to Naomi -- the very same action as in Genesis 3 where it is said that a man leaves his mother and father and "clings" to his wife.

{Slide, Calderon}

More than this, Ruth not only persists in following Naomi but she also makes one of the best-known loyalty oaths in all of scripture:

"Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die -- there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" (Ruth 1:16-17)

Background material: Loyalty oaths

Ruth's loyalty oath is longer than any other in the Old Testament. The other two use similar language. In 2 Samuel 15:21, Ittai the Gittite swears loyalty to David:

"But Ittai answered the king, 'As the LORD lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be.'"

In the other, Elisha pledges himself to Elijah: "Elijah said to Elisha, 'Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.' But Elisha said, 'As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.'" (2 Kings 2:2, 4)

Clearly this is a strong speech. It's always such a shock to remember that these words aren't said by a bride to her husband but rather by a foreign daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law.

Q: What are relations like between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law? Is this an important relationship? Does this relationship differ in different cultures?

A: In reality, this relationship seems insignificant in most macro visions of society, but in the micro vision of the family, this relationship is crucial. In many cultures a daughter-in-law moves into the house of the mother-in-law, who runs the household. Mother-in-law tensions in Near Eastern culture put our mild mother-in-law anecdotes to shame.

Think of what Ruth takes on -- lodging, family, burial place and God. Her commitment to the God of Israel is a commitment to a new family and a new community much as when a refugee family brought by Lutheran Social Services to Minnesota joins the local church. The personal decision grows out of the obligation and the departure from the past. The risks involved are enormous.

Q: What do we know about Ruth's life of stewardship now?

A:We learn from Ruth that leading a life of stewardship can mean breaking society's norms and following God in new and untrodden paths. It can mean committing to a relationship few would expect to be central; in this case the relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law.

Ruth, like the poor widow at the temple before Jesus, "has put in all she had to live on." Looked at from this perspective, her stewardship of giving is enormous. She gives her life and her future to her relationship with Naomi.

{Slide, Holbein}

Read Ruth 2:2-7. In Chapter 2, we notice Ruth's willingness to glean -- the stewarding act that matches Boaz' willingness to allow her to glean (which we will examine in the next session).

Background material: Gleaning

Gleaning is prescribed by Israelite law as a sort of ancient welfare system. Gleaning ensures that the poor are fed, if they are willing to work for it. Gleaning is prescribed in both levitical and deuteronomic law:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 23:22) (See also Lev. 19:9-10.)

"When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this." (Deuteronomy 24:21-22)

We so often see the noble generosity of the rich in their willingness to permit the poor to take the leavings of wealth. But how often do we admire the poor for their willingness to do the hard work required to put food on the table? We are told of Ruth's persistence here as well.

So the overseer, whose voice I hear as sarcastic, reports to Boaz when he asks about the identity of Ruth, "'She is that Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.' She said, 'Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.' So she came, and she has been [bugging me] on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment." (Ruth 2:6-7)

Ruth is persistent even in the face of disdain. And remember, she is choosing to do the hard work of gleaning. As we shall examine in a minute, she did have another option.

{Slide, Chagall}

And after her hard day of labor, Ruth brings home food to share with her mother-in-law. The biblical report here is striking.

"So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied." (Ruth 2:17-18)

Notice that Ruth not only shares her gleanings, but she also shares with Naomi the remains of the meal she had shared with Boaz. She had eaten only until she was satisfied.

Her action illustrates another important stewardship principle: sufficiency. If we take and use only as much as we need, there will be plenty for all. We see this lesson again and again in scripture. But no where is the principle of sufficiency more poignantly portrayed. Ruth gleaned and received food not just for herself, but also for her mother-in-law, to whom she was bound by her oath. She had taken on the responsibility of Naomi as family.

Q: What do we learn about Ruth's life of stewardship in chapter two?

A: Ruth both participates in hard work, accepting with grace the gifts of one who has much, and is willing to share. She, in turn, shares all she has with her mother-in-law, whom she has chosen to follow and to make a life with.

This brings us to Ruth's next series of actions, more difficult to discuss as actions of stewardship, but crucial to understanding the depth of Ruth's character. Read Ruth 3:1-5.

Q: What is Naomi asking Ruth to do? Why?

A: On the surface, Naomi is asking Ruth to seduce Boaz, or at least to make herself available to Boaz so that he might sleep with her. Naomi says that she is seeking security for Ruth. If Ruth has a child, that child could be security. Do you think that Naomi wants more than this from Boaz?

Q: What are the risks involved?

A: Think about how Boaz might react to Ruth coming to the threshing floor, where men gather to winnow and protect their crops. By day, the men work hard, but at night, they lay back and have a few drinks (so v. 7 suggests). Only certain sorts of women tend to come to the threshing floor at night.

Background material: Life as a foreign widow

Ruth, who had been married 10 years, is not a virgin. And she is a foreign woman besides. She does not owe allegiance to any man, whether father or husband. Many folks in ancient Israel would have expected her to earn her keep through prostitution (as Rahab did at the beginning of Joshua). In fact, one of the common words for "prostitute" in Hebrew is a word meaning "foreign woman."

{Slide, Wenzil Bible}

So here comes Ruth, dressed in her finest clothes, looking for all the world like a prostitute. And she brazenly lies down beside Boaz' proverbial feet -- feet being the biblical euphemism for "private parts". Now, Ruth's mother-in-law had told her that Boaz would tell her what to do. But Ruth goes one step further. On finding a woman lying at his proverbial feet, a startled Boaz asks, "Who are you?" Ruth responds. "I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin (go'el)." (Ruth 3:9)

Now, what is remarkable about this speech, this request, is the enormous risk Ruth is taking in making it. Here she is, a Moabite widow, looking and acting just like the prostitute.

Q: What is Ruth asking Boaz to do?

A:Ruth is asking Boaz to see her not as a foreigner, a prostitute, but rather as a member of his extended family to whom he has an obligation.

The brother of a deceased man was required by law to make possible the birth of a new son in order to continue the man's family name. But Boaz wasn't that man's brother. (See the discussion of the Levirate system in Session 3.) Boaz was just some distant cousin. Yet, Ruth is asking Boaz to act the part of the go'el, the next-of-kin, the family redeemer. (We will discuss the meaning of this word in more detail in the next section.) In so doing, she is asking that "family" be redefined; that it be defined not by blood but rather by loyalty, by love, by commitment to some greater notion of community and family. Boaz has to see himself first as having an obligation to Naomi and then has to see that obligation extending to this Moabite woman at his feet.

{Slide, Chagall}

But Chapter 3 does not end on the threshing floor. In vv.14-18, Ruth returns to her mother-in-law, once again with food as a gift from Boaz. She says: "He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, 'Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.'" (Ruth 3:17) The encounter between Ruth and Boaz once again involves an outpouring of grain to Naomi.

Q: What do you see in this gift of grain?

A: The grain might be symbolic of many things -- a seal of the relationship, a concrete sign of overflowing generosity, an inclusion of Naomi in Ruth's and Boaz's joy. Some have suggested that these six measures of barley can be seen as sealing the marriage contract, if a bit prematurely.

Closing time

Use this time to consider how Ruth, the poor foreign widow, becomes for us a model of a life of stewardship.

Ruth chooses to follow and to commit her life to her foreign mother-in-law, chooses hard work, shares her meager gleanings and then risks everything on the possibility that she can convince the patriarch of a foreign clan that family and tribe extend far beyond the boundaries typically thought to define reality.

Ruth's stewardship is hidden beneath her risky behavior. Hers is a hidden righteousness. She risks all so that she might steward her new family. Having joined herself to Naomi through a pledge of loyalty, she asks all those around her to consider her a legitimate member of Naomi's family. Her pledge brings with it a transforming cry to the community as a whole. Can we recognize the foreigner, the alien resident, as central and formative to our community?

Take some time to consider how foreigners in our midst can teach us lessons of stewardship.

The "Living in Abundance" series is written by Luther Seminary faculty and provided to readers through a joint project of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, 2481 Como Ave., St. Paul, Minn.

Other studies in the series include:

Boaz, the Farmer of Worth (Session 2 of 3)

Naomi to Mara and Back Again (Session 3 of 3)


Dr. Diane Jacobson is Professor of Old Testament and Associate Dean of the MA/MSM programs at Luther Seminary.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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