The Power of Favor 10 | Chapter 3.2 “Riffing on Ruth”

by Glenn on March 31, 2020

Following a dramatic shift from what God is going to do (Chapter 1) to what we as individuals need to do (Chapter 2 and more here in Chapter 3), Joel Osteen in The Power of Favor turns to the story of Naomi and Ruth to illustrate his new point of how we should pursue favored people to find favor in our lives. As Osteen tells the story,

“Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth were both widows. They were living in Bethlehem, very poor. Ruth would go out into the harvest fields each morning and pick up leftover wheat. It looked as if this was their destiny, to just barely survive together. But Naomi saw a man named Boaz. He was the owner of all the fields, one of the wealthiest men in that area. She not only recognized the favor on his life, but she respected it. She told Ruth, ‘I want you to dress up, put on perfume, and go meet this man.’ She was saying, in effect, ‘Boaz has favor. We need to connect with him.’ Ruth not only met with Boaz, but they fell in love and eventually married, and because she connected with someone with favor, she had more favor than she ever imagined.”

Up to now, I’ve read this book in a slightly bemused manner. I’ve become used to the author’s over-simplifications of Biblical narratives. When you’re preaching you often need to simplify things. Providing a sixty-second context is an essential skill. For example, when you are preaching a series of messages, each new installment you need to bring people up to speed, so you take less than a minute to summarize what you’ve been talking about. Like they used to do on television, “Previously on …” It’s like showing a map of The United States before you focus in on a street map of, say, Portland, Oregon. The same thing happens when you read scripture publicly. You invite people to turn to a certain passage that you are going to read, but you might not just start reading. It can be too jarring. We need to know where we are and why we are there. So before you read the scripture, you offer some context.

In general I support the idea of what Osteen is doing here. Teachers need to simplify things for the reason I’ve already given. How you do this is essential, though. As they say, perhaps used a little ironically here, “The devil is in the details.” Rather than giving us a macro view of the story of Ruth so we can get into a micro lesson from the story, Osteen offers a lesson from the macro view. That seems somewhere between ill-advised and dangerous to me. There are a number of problems with this approach.

First, you’ve lost, as you might expect, essential details from the story. Some details are easier to let go of than others as they don’t affect the basic nature of the story. Other details are so much a part of the story that you do an injustice to it when you leave them out. (And, of course, you lose the actual telling of the story, which is part of the experience. The joy of a story is often found in the way it is told.) For me, Ruth is one of the best stories in the Bible, both in terms of the way it is told and the meaning contained in it. The more I learn about it, the more I realize how great a story it is. One of the things that make it great is how densely packed it is. It’s simply told, but there are essential details waiting for mining. You lose a lot of the value of this story when you shorten it. All that to say, I have no problem with Ruth and Naomi proving some sort of point, but Ruth and Naomi have their own points to make. Who is serving whom here?

There’s another problem, though, related to how you are doing the simplification. In your simplification are you merely concentrating the story so that it remains true to itself or are you manipulating the story so that it can be a tool for what you are trying to say? I felt like the author was doing the latter here. Osteen’s re-telling of the story of Naomi and Ruth is somewhat disturbing as the whole business of “they fell in love” is such a 21st century way of saying things and not, at least to my understanding, the ways things went down in the Biblical narrative. I have no doubt that love was part of the story, but not the “love-at-first-sight” variety that this condensation seems to imply. There was risk and sacrifice that isn’t mentioned at all.

The abbreviating of a story should be like a watery soup left to simmer on the stove top. As the volume shrinks and the mixture thickens, the flavors should deepen. But the essential nature of the soup shouldn’t change. A reduced French onion soup can’t be transformed into a chicken curry soup. Not possible. But this is exactly what Osteen has tried to do. He has noticed that the story of Ruth uses the word favor, so it feels like he’s trying to get through the story as fast as he can so that he can say, “Hey look! Favor,” perhaps ignoring more important things in the story.

I probably wouldn’t care so much, but I remember being challenged more than a little when I read Carolyn Custis James’ The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules. This was a phenomenal book. Scholarship, story-telling, and truth-telling were all first rate. And while you can find yourself in heaps of trouble these days for suggesting such things, perhaps a female author approached and conveyed the story differently than a man could. In other words, how she related the story was affected by the way she related to the story.

Obviously, Osteen’s shortened version of the story can’t be compared to a book-length treatment of it. But a reduced story of Ruth and Naomi should taste like a concentrated version of Ruth and Naomi. You almost need to go line by line and see where things go awry. So here goes.

“Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth were both widows.”

True. Although there’s a lot there that you skip by making it so simple. For example, there was another daughter-in-law, Orpah, who doesn’t play into this story very much. Why are Naomi and Ruth mentioned together? Because Ruth, for reasons that the Scripture doesn’t fully explain, decides that she will stay with Naomi. The Bible uses the word kindness, but it would be an act of love. The Hebrew word is, Hesed, which is a tough concept to find an English equivalent for. It gets translated as “kindness,” “mercy,” “loyalty,” “loving-kindness,” “steadfast love,” or just plain “love.” The word hesed is in the last verse of Psalm 23:

“Surely your goodness and love (hesed) will follow me all the days of my life.” (Psalm 23:6, NIV)

The Greek translation of Hesed is in the opening of the Gospel of John.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace (hesed) and truth.” (John 1:14, NIV)

Biblical hesed or kindness or loving-kindness can be defined this way:

“Someone cares and has freely made it their business to look out for you.”

This is what Ruth does, here. You get the sense from the story that Naomi was headed back to Bethlehem to die and Ruth decided, “I’ve got nothing else going on. There’s trouble either way I go. Maybe I can help this woman who has seen so much misery. I’ve lost my husband, but she’s lost her husband and two sons. Maybe I can keep her alive.” That may be what she thinks. What she actually says to Naomi is this,

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16–17, NIV)

We normally hear these words in a wedding ceremony. The origin is intriguing. Ruth and Naomi certainly were both widows. But the statement sort of implies an equality about the two of them. Naomi was in serious trouble and needed help. Ruth, younger and stronger, decides to help. She makes a marriage-level commitment to her mother-in-law. The other daughter-in-law, Orpah, decided that she wouldn’t. This statement Osteen makes ignores the significant commitment Ruth made to Naomi. She didn’t merely stick with her, but she changed her religion. Imagine a Jewish daughter-in-law converting to Catholicism so she can care for her Catholic mother-in-law.

Further, there’s a lot in that word “widows.” Women had few rights in this culture and the added nuance that Naomi was too old to have children and Ruth at this point in the story didn’t (couldn’t) have kids, complicates things tremendously. When the book of Ruth was written, a woman only had value in relationship to a man. If a woman had a father or a husband or a son, then she was alright; without a father or a husband or a son, a woman had no prospects at all. She was isolated. Powerless. Defenseless. Of no interest or value. In the ancient Jewish culture, women couldn’t even testify in court. In fact, there is a traditional prayer that, if I understand correctly, Jewish men say at the beginning of the day:

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.”

So the statement that they are widows does not merely reflect a circumstance, but it describes a kind of hopeless state they are in because there were no male heirs in whose name property could be held. It was a man’s world and they were unattached females, leaving them completely vulnerable. There’s no way to convey how bad a situation this is for these women. The book of Ruth is radical in a sense. In this male-dominated system, here’s a story about women. But not powerful women. They are widows. Because they are widows, it means they are completely defenseless.

“They were living in Bethlehem, very poor.”

True. But the story doesn’t begin there. We lose the context of this story and the fundamental irony of the beginning of this story. Naomi and her husband and two sons lived in Bethlehem during a time of famine. Bethlehem means, literally, “house of bread.” Since there was no bread in the House of Bread, this family moves to Moab, where no God-honoring or self-respecting Jewish person would go. The fact that this family heads to Moab is telling, though commentators cannot agree why. The origins of the Moabite people began with an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. (That’s in Genesis 19.) The Moabites were also known as idol worshippers. For those and other reasons, there was great animosity between the Israelites and the Moabites. It’s something that an Israelite would head to Moab.

And, certainly, no God-honoring or self-respecting Jewish family would allow their sons to marry Moabite women as happened here. This gives you some sense of the desperation (and what some commentators call the “compromise”) of the times.

So I guess my introduction to the story would focus on Naomi: In a time of famine, a woman named Naomi was living with her family far from her home when she was visited by the tragic death of her husband and two sons. She decided to return home. One daughter-in-law went back to her family; one daughter-in-law, Ruth, decided to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Obviously this is a more complicated telling of the beginning of this story, but I think there is a rule: Simplify, but not too much. Only as far as necessary and possible.

“Ruth would go out into the harvest fields each morning and pick up leftover wheat.”

True, but this makes it sound way more glamorous than it was. The practice was called gleaning. By Mosaic law, field owners were prevented from making a second pass over their fields. They had to be as careful as possible on the first pass, because what was left had to be left in place for the poor. (They were also not allowed to cut the corners of the field. We think of “cutting corners” as a bad thing in our culture. It was a bad thing in that day, but with a very different idea in mind. There “cutting corners” would actually earn you more income. The debate was how much of the corner did you have to leave uncut for poor people.) “Leftover” is too generous, I think. It’s more like, “Ruth picked up whatever scraps were left behind.” A modern equivalent is something like the homeless guy going through the trash behind the restaurant to see if there is anything edible that had been discarded. While the ancient example may sound more appealing/palatable, the desperation is about the same. You’re staying alive but you don’t have a life. You’re pretty far down on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

“It looked as if this was their destiny, to just barely survive together.”

This is the most accurate line in Osteen’s summary. Naomi and Ruth were going to live a life of subsistence only. Barely enough to survive until they died. It’s a hopeless situation.

“But Naomi saw a man named Boaz.”

Actually, that’s not what happened. Ruth was the one who saw Boaz. She accidentally [1] found herself in Boaz’ field. When Boaz learned that Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law, he had compassion for her and took pity on her. Boaz was actually related to Naomi. More coincidence? When Boaz saw this person—Ruth, a foreigner from a despised land—caring for a distant relative of his he was moved. Ruth’s kindness (hesed) as a stranger and foreigner toward his relative, Naomi, prompted him to extend kindness (hesed). Boaz decided to be a kind of giver and protector for Ruth and Naomi. He told his hired hands that under no circumstances were they to touch Ruth. As we’ve noted, she was a woman without rights in a foreign country and could easily be taken advantage of. The fact that Boaz says this tells you something about the desperation of the moment. And then Boaz instructs his workers to purposefully be sloppy in their work so that as Ruth gleaned, she would not pick up scraps, but would pick up an abundance.

“He was the owner of all the fields, one of the wealthiest men in that area.”

I’m not sure what “all the fields” means, but am not going to get too worked up about this. It is clear from the text that Boaz was wealthy. The point is not that he owned all the fields. He owned fields and Ruth happened to find herself in one of them.

“She not only recognized the favor on his life, but she respected it.”

I don’t think that’s it at all. This suggests that Naomi was impressed by how God had blessed Boaz. That may have been in her thinking, but to me it feels more like gratitude. There wasn’t so much admiration of Boaz as recognition that he was literally saving their lives.

“She told Ruth, ‘I want you to dress up, put on perfume, and go meet this man.’ She was saying, in effect, ‘Boaz has favor. We need to connect with him.’”

Naomi did tell Ruth to do this. But I struggle with the “we.” As I recall, this was one of the most significant parts of James’ study. Ruth complied, but Naomi and Ruth were working at cross purposes. Naomi’s idea was, “Here’s this rich guy that is being really generous, Ruth go and see if you can be his mistress. Maybe there will be some sort of life for you if he finds you appealing.” (Like many stories in the Bible, this one has a PG-13 rating.) In essence, Naomi was saying, “Leave me to die. Go save yourself.”

And the beauty of the story is that Ruth has other plans. It’s complicated because it gets into the idea of the kinsman-redeemer from Scripture. Ruth does this culturally mysterious act of uncovering the feet of Boaz. He wakes up. But rather than propositioning Boaz, she goes off script. She asks Boaz, “Spread the corner of your garment over me.” (Ruth 3:9, NIV) In other words, “Marry me.” Ruth was a foreigner, but she has been paying attention to some things in her new land. She remembered how Naomi referred to Boaz as a kinsman—Ruth refers to him by this formal title: kinsman-redeemer. Earlier in the story, Boaz prayed that she would be richly rewarded by God, “under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” She asks Boaz to take her under his protection.

There was tremendous risk for Ruth as a despised foreigner. First, that’s not how it’s done. She might be someone to sleep with, but Ruth was not someone to marry. But it goes farther than this. By asking Boaz to be a kinsman-redeemer (the 2011 New Internation Version says “guardian-redeemer,” which I think inappropriately removes the patriarchal term and nature of that culture), she was asking a lot. She was asking Boaz to pay off Naomi’s debts. There were two requirements for a kinsman-redeemer: 1. They had to be able to pay; and 2. they had to be willing to pay. If accepted, this “proposal” would be a net loss for Boaz.

“Ruth not only met with Boaz, but they fell in love and eventually married, and because she connected with someone with favor, she had more favor than she ever imagined.”

They may have fallen in love. Who knows? It’s not stated in the story. What we know is that Boaz refuses to sleep with Ruth and, instead, takes on the expensive and complicated task of paying off Naomi’s debts and fulfilling his role as kinsman-redeemer. He didn’t have to do it. What Boaz says in response to Ruth in the Scriptures is pretty interesting:

“This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: [looking after Naomi] You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.” (Ruth 3:10, NIV)

You get the sense that Boaz is an older guy. And you get the sense that there are other guys in town that might have been more attractive? Hard to know. Boaz goes on to commend Ruth for her noble character. Osteen suggests that Naomi admired Boaz. But the Scripture actually makes more of a point that Boaz admired Ruth.

*    *    *

I guess the point I am making is this: There’s more to these stories if you will dig in a little bit. Let the story teach what it wants to teach rather than abusing the story to make whatever point you want to make.

One thing that gets left out of Osteen’s retelling is the mystery of unexplained suffering. I know some commentators and Bible teachers want to blame the suffering of Naomi on on her husband, Elimelech. By heading to Moab, he brought all the trouble on his family.

There is another lesson in this story in that difficult days don’t mean God isn’t working. The story of Ruth is about people who are walking through a time of suffering and God doesn’t appear to be doing anything about it. The book of Ruth has no miracles, no dreams, no visions, no word from God—just people working through the challenges of their life. And yet God is at work while they are just trying to survive. They’re being used for a purpose well beyond their lives.

Boaz and Ruth marry. They have a son, Obed. The last scene of Ruth is beautiful. Naomi takes care of the baby. Bethlehem was no longer a dead end for her. It was a new beginning. You probably know the rest of the story. Obed will have a son, Jesse. Jesse’s son will be King David. And, of course, Ruth is one of four women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.

Why could David write a psalm that says,

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley … you prepare a table before me … Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,” (Psalm 23:4, 5, 6, NIV)

because his very life was due to God’s loving-kindness and the people who were willing to extend it to others. The story of Ruth is about three people, Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz who each act for the benefit of others. That’s what the story is about,

 

 

 

ruth Perhaps this is why it has become more common recently to note that it is technically Naomi, rather than Ruth, who is the central character of this story. The book begins with Naomi’s loss and follows Naomi’s journey back to Bethlehem, and Ruth’s work on Naomi’s behalf. It is Naomi’s welfare that Boaz takes note of, and it is Naomi whom the women of Bethlehem celebrate when Ruth and Boaz have a son, to the extent that the son is seen as much Naomi’s as the one who actually gave birth to him. What kind of happily ever after is this, where Ruth has done all the work, but Naomi has been given its blessing?  This is the true happily ever after of the gospel.

 

Ruth’s story is an Old Testament foreshadowing of the greater story of Ruth’s greatest descendant, Jesus. Ruth leaves her home and lives as a foreigner, impoverished and rejected, yet binding herself in love and faithfulness to a people she chooses. Ruth works tirelessly for her family’s salvation, when her family cannot save themselves.

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[1] Ruth strikes me a lot like the story of Esther. Where in Esther I don’t think God is even mentioned, here in Ruth, God is mentioned, but he isn’t really part of the story. What makes the story so compelling is that while Yahweh isn’t acting directly, people in the story are acting for Yahweh. There is a truth that God works through people. It’s certainly seems true here. But how do we explain the fact that Ruth finds herself in Boaz’ field? Was that an accident? Perhaps God was at work, here.

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