This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
Ruth and Esther make quite a distinguished pair: they’re the only two books in the Bible named after women. Of course, that’s not the only reason to study them—although God clearly means for us (both men and women) to pay attention to the crucial role of women in the big story of redemption.
Imagine for a Moment
Take a minute and call up pictures of these two women in your imagination. What do you see?
Our pictures might be partially shaped by children’s Sunday school classes long ago, or by art or film representations we’ve taken in. Neither woman is described in physical detail in the text, although we know Esther was smashingly gorgeous.
But I’m guessing you included the settings in your pictures—Ruth perhaps out in the barley fields of Bethlehem, and Esther in the ornate Persian palace. Of course, that’s how stories work: they put characters in certain settings to work out carefully shaped plots. Think of these settings in relation to the characters: Ruth is a foreign Moabitess who finds a home among God’s people; Esther is one of God’s people called to live in a foreign land. What we’re seeing is God’s sovereign hand throughout all his earth, drawing people from other nations, and using his people among the nations.
Flesh and Blood
What’s wonderful is that these stories show God’s redemptive work, not in the abstract, but in real live flesh and blood. The characters are real people—women and men who struggle and long and wonder and rejoice, just like us.
What’s wonderful is that these stories show God’s redemptive work, not in the abstract, but in real live flesh and blood.
We’re drawn in immediately to Naomi’s bitter suffering in Ruth 1, and we wonder at the experiences of a beautiful young woman thrown into such ungodly hands as those in King Ahasuerus’ court.
Imagine again. If you had one minute to describe each of these stories to someone who’d never read them, what would you say?
I’m guessing you’d focus on the plots—because the events and details of these stories unfold in amazing ways. Just as narratives, these books are remarkably put together. We have to relish the four simple scenes of Ruth that move from emptiness in Moab to fullness in Bethlehem. We must marvel at the complex pattern of the Jews’ rising and their enemies’ falling, with Esther and Mordecai right at the pivot point.
Part of a Larger Story
Both these plots are episodes in a larger plot: the story of God redeeming a people through Abraham’s seed, just as he promised. Ruth comes in advance of the kingdom that grew out of that seed, as she joins the line leading right to King David. Esther comes after the kingdom has come and gone, making us long for the promised eternal king in David’s line. Both women play their parts in God’s great plan of redemption through his Son, King Jesus.
Stories like these help us understand how the plot of each individual life—my life, your life—is an episode in a much larger plot written and directed by God: the story of his redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ, his Son.
But it’s no good just talking and reading about Ruth and Esther; we have to dig in ourselves! It’s the words of the biblical text that are living and active, and that pierce our hearts with the truth and beauty of our Lord. The rewards are rich, as we dig into this remarkable pair of Old Testament books.
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