Reading Ruth

by Glenn on May 4, 2021

I’ve been thinking about the biblical story of Ruth for some time. I have more projects than time and self-discipline to pursue them all, but I hope to spend some time with this story.

I thought I would begin by simply re-telling the story in my own words.

Ruth 1

The story of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges. There was a famine. A family, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Killion, moved from Bethlehem in Judah to Moab, ostensibly to find food.

In the midst of the large-scale tragedy of famine, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi widowed with her two sons. The boys married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. Ten years later, the two boys also died. Naomi was now alone with her two daughters-in-law. All three women were childless widows.

Naomi learned that there was food again back in Bethlehem so the three women prepared to move to Bethlehem. Along the way, Naomi decided to send the two girls back home to their families. She prayed that the Lord would provide them with husbands. The two girls said that they would stay with Naomi, but Naomi insisted they go back. She considered herself a kind of dead-end for these two girls. She wouldn’t have children again and even if she did have more sons, would the girls wait until the boys were old enough to marry? Naomi believed the Lord’s hand was against her and their best interest was back home.

The two girls wept with their mother-in-law. Orpah returned home. But Ruth told Naomi that she wouldn’t leave her. Everywhere Naomi went, Ruth would go. Naomi’s people and God would be Ruth’s people and God. Further, Ruth prayed that the Lord would deal severely with her if she broke this promise before death. Naomi realized that Ruth was dead serious and so she didn’t argue.

Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem which caused a commotion in town. The people asked if this was Naomi after all these years and Naomi said she wanted to go by the name, Mara, which means “bitter.” This was a rough time. It was also the beginning of the barley harvest.

Ruth 2

Naomi’s dead husband had a relative named Boaz.

Ruth announced, with Naomi’s consent, that she would go to the fields and pick up whatever leftover grain she could find. It turns out that she found herself in the field of Boaz. Boaz asked about Ruth and his foreman explained that she was with Naomi and wanted to glean after the harvesters. She had worked all day with only a short break.

Boaz went to Ruth and told her not to go to any other fields. He told her to stay with his servant girls and that he had given instructions to his men not to touch her. Further, she should help herself to water whenever she wanted.

Ruth’s response was to fall on her face and ask why she was receiving this kind of care and consideration.

It turns out Ruth’s reputation had preceded her. Boaz had heard about Ruth’s care for Naomi and how she had left her own country to live with people foreign to her. Boaz prayed a blessing over Ruth that the Lord would reward her. Ruth responded with gratitude for all his kindness.

When it was time to eat, Boaz asked Ruth to join the workers for a meal. Ruth ate all that she wanted and had leftovers. Boaz gave instructions to his men to leave behind plenty of stalks so that there was plenty for her to glean in the field. At nightfall, Ruth carried the leftover lunch and all the barley she had gleaned back to Naomi who was struck by the quantity of food Ruth had brought back. She asked where she had been gleaning and Ruth explained it was the field of Boaz. Naomi was filled with gratitude for the love and kindness he showed and pointed out that Boaz was a close relative of Elimelech.

Ruth added that Boaz said she was welcome to glean through the end of the harvest. Naomi pointed out this was good because in another field and among other workers, Ruth might be in danger.

Ruth 3

Naomi thought it was time for Ruth to have a home where she would be provided for. She told Ruth to get cleaned up and put on her finest clothes. Her instructions are that when Boaz has fallen asleep on the threshing floor, Ruth was to uncover his feet and lie down there. She did.

In the middle of the night Boaz was startled to find a woman at his feet. He asks who she was. Ruth announced herself and asked that Boaz would spread his garment over her as a kinsman-redeemer.

Boaz considers this an act of kindness toward him, since Ruth has not gone after younger men. Boaz promises that the entire town will know what kind of character she has. There is one problem—there is a man who is a closer relative. Boaz says if this closer relative wants to be Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer, that will be fine, otherwise Boaz will do it. Ruth stays with Boaz until the early morning and leaves before anyone will know she had been there. Boaz sends her on her way with six measures of barley.

Boaz headed to town.

Ruth went back to Naomi who wanted to know what happened. Ruth told the story and Naomi told Ruth to wait and see what happened. Naomi thought Boaz would settle the matter that day.

Ruth 4

Boaz went to the town gate and found the closer relative and gathered ten town elders. He explained that Naomi was back in town and was selling Elimelech’s land. Boaz thought the other relative should redeem it. But if not, Boaz would redeem it.

Boaz adds an important detail to the deal. Whoever buys the land takes Ruth, the Moabite girl, as a wife, so that the property can stay in the family name of Elimelech.

At this the other relative opted out. This would mess up his own estate. We are told of an important ritual of handing over a sandal when property was being transferred. The other relative handed his sandal to Boaz who announced that he would be buying the property of Elimelech and Kilion and Mahlon. Further, he was taking Ruth as his wife.

The elders agreed and prayed that Ruth would be like earlier matriarchs and establish a family. Boaz and Ruth got married. Ruth had a son. Naomi was blessed by the women of Bethlehem who praised the Lord for providing a kinsman-redeemer and a loving daughter-in-law who had provided a son.

The name of the child was Obed. He would have a son, Jesse. Jesse would be the father of David. That David. And the Messiah, Jesus, will be a descendant of Ruth.

 

First Impressions

I’ve preached on this story, but I am going to try and approach it with as much of a beginner’s mind as possible. Here are some things I notice:

You can’t get past the large- and small-scale tragedy of the opening. There’s no food. And then this family decides to relocate to a foreign country to try and find food. But then the husband dies. After the boys are married off to Moabite girls, there is further tragedy in that they have no children and both boys die. Three widowed women are alone in the world.

Moab has become a dead end for Naomi. When she hears there is food back home she decides to head back and her daughters-in-law are going to go with her.

It appears to be an act of generosity that causes Naomi to reconsider this decision to take the girls back to Bethlehem. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, takes Naomi up on this and receives what I take as an act of kindness. The other daughter-in-law, Ruth, will not leave Naomi. In fact, she makes a commitment to, in essence, become a Jewish girl. She won’t leave Naomi’s side and converts.

Naomi acts in a loving manner toward her daughters-in-law, but Ruth decides to engage in an even more loving act. It’s not going to be easy back in Bethlehem for Naomi, so I imagine Ruth somehow has decided that she is going to support her.

Naomi is in a dark place. She says to the the Bethlehemites not to call her by her regular name, but to call her “Mara,” which means bitter.

We are given the name of Boaz and then we have this extraordinary moment of “coincidence” where Ruth finds herself in the field of Boaz.

Boaz treats Ruth kindly. Apparently Boaz has heard about Ruth’s act of love on behalf of Naomi and so Boaz decides to help out. He provides protection and shares generously with Ruth. Boaz tells Ruth not to go anywhere else.

A key word in this story is vulnerability. It becomes especially clear as Ruth is gleaning. Boaz apparently has to instruct his men to leave her alone. Naomi says that in another field she might be at risk.

There is a moment in the story that is so difficult to understand. It’s this plan that Naomi hatches. Ruth is supposed to lay herself at the feet of the sleeping Boaz. She does. But then when Boaz wakes up, she makes this request of Boaz—to be a kinsman-redeemer. Later we will learn there is some expense involved in this, but Boaz seems to be delighted by this. You get the feeling that Boaz is an older guy. You also get the feeling that he is an honorable guy. It feels like this was a kind of proposition going on, but that nothing went down quite like anyone thought it would. Naomi gave Ruth a script that she didn’t follow. As she improvises, Boaz goes right along with it.

The idea of a kinsman-redeemer needs some explaining.

Also, we need to think about property laws. One thing that is clear in the text is that women have no power. This is a patriarchal system. This adds another layer to the tragedy at the beginning of the story. It’s not just that Naomi and her daughters-in-law are widows. That would be bad enough. But it is the implication that women without husbands/sons are effectively have no resources.

I don’t know if it is a funny moment or not, but it reads somewhat humorously—Boaz presents this land deal to the closer relative. He sounds like he’s ready to pounce on it, but then Boaz adds this little clause that says whoever buys the property gets a foreign girl as a wife. It seems like a son from that marriage would then become the heir of that property. The closer kinsman-redeemer wants nothing to do with that. But Boaz does, or at least is willing to.

Ruth is given a son, but it is Naomi who seems to treat the child as her own. Naomi has gone from no hope to having a future. And not just any future. The savior of the world will come from this family.

There is a sense that everyone in this story acts in a selfless manner. Naomi is struggling as she leaves Moab, but she wants to do what is best for her daughters-in-law. Ruth decides to help Naomi. Boaz decides to help Ruth. And by “help” I mean they go above and beyond. They both rearrange their lives to show love and care.

An important question is what kind of story is this? Is it a romance? Is this something we would see on the Hallmark Channel? Or does this not fit easily into typical categories.

What’s in this for Ruth? Is she going after security? The story is named after Ruth. She is, obviously, not the only character in the story. Is she the hero? Interesting that in the Hebrew Bible, one of the books is named after a non-Jewish person.

What’s in this for Boaz? Is he going after the proverbial younger woman? It’s not so straight forward. There is, for example, considerable expense for Boaz. His estate will be effectively divided if (when!) Ruth has a boy.

We don’t get a lot of information about the inner lives of these characters. We will have to read between the lines for some of these things. All we know is that tragedy strikes a woman named Naomi. But bitterness is replaced by peace and a kind of contentment at the end.

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