The following in the second in a series of sermons preached at Knox Church on the book of Ruth. Unfortunately there is no audio recording, so I have taken my sermon notes and turned them into this post.
Last week we introduced 4 themes/motifs in the book of Ruth.
1. Lament. Naomi experiences terrible loss and grief. She says she is afflicted by God, and even tells the women of Bethlehem don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara, because the Lord has brought bitterness on me (Naomi means sweet or pleasant). In chapter 2 however, we see lament begin to transform into praise. At the close of chapter 1, Naomi was convinced she was afflicted by God, who had made her life bitter. By the end of chapter 2 she is praising God for his faithfulness to Naomi and Ruth.
2. The Outsider. Ruth is a Moabite. Naomi is a widow with no children. These two marginalized women will become pivotal in the unfolding of God’s work among his people.
3. Hesed. Ruth clings to her mother-in-law. She shows abundant loyalty and faithfulness to Naomi. She, as a foreigner becomes an example of the faithfulness God has shown to his people, and called them to each other.
4.The subtle hand of God. God doesn’t speak at all. And we see him spoken of, but his actions seem to be background stuff.
Today we introduce the 5th motif: the peaceful and just community. The first verse of chapter 1 refers to the time when the Judges ruled Israel. When we read about that time in the books of Joshua and Judges, we see war, chaos, we see cyclical rejection of God followed by calamity, followed by God sending a leader to save the day. And in Judges we see that each cycle becomes darker and more desperate than the last, so that by the end, the enemies are no longer foreign oppressors, but instead we see civil war, and one tribe (Benjamin) almost completely wiped out. We see an event in Gibeah which bears remarkable resemblance to the incident in Sodom and Gomorrah, but this time, Israelites are the perpetrators. But in Ruth we get the other side of things. We move away from the politics and military, to see the life of a small town/village. We see how this one clan of Judah, the Ephrathites, operate and try to live out life in obedience to YHWH. We see how they try to be just and obedient. We see how they resolve potential disputes. We see how they step up to care for each other. It is in this context that Ruth and Naomi have come, in dire need of justice.
Let’s begin at verse 2: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.””
Ruth decides to become provider by gleaning. In the Law, three times (Deut. 24:19-21, Lev. 19:9-10 & 23:22) the Israelites were told to not harvest the corners of the fields, and to not go back over the fields to pick up any dropped grain. Foreigners, orphans, widows, the poor were to be allowed to gather this grain to feed themselves. But the prophets speak out against Israel and Judah for failing to do this (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and Malachi all speak about failure to provide justice for the poor). Many landowners did not obey the commands to provide care for the poor, fatherless, and widows (e.g. Isaiah 1:17). Ruth is in need of someone who is obedient and faithful to the commands. She needs to find the peaceful and just community. She needs a place where the system works.
Also note that she is Ruth the Moabite. The narrator and the discourse between characters emphasize her foreigner status several times in this chapter. Boaz’s servant calls her “the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi” (v. 6) and Ruth calls herself “a foreigner” (v. 10).
So she goes to glean. And we are told “As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.” That phrase “as it turned out” suggests it was by chance. But in Hebrew this sentence is a little weird. It doesn’t translate well. It appears to be “a rhetorical device, hyperbolic irony. By excessively attributing Ruth’s good fortune to chance, the phrase points ironically to the opposite, namely, to the sovereignty of God” (Younger, 441). The author seems to be implying that the subtle hand of God has led Ruth to this specific field, which “just happens” to belong to Boaz, and man described in verse 1 as “a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek”. A relative of Ruth’s father-in-law, who is an honourable and just man. As Ruth is gleaning, “Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem”. Perhaps another hyperbolic irony? The phrase translated as “a man of standing” is a Hebrew phrase (gibor hayim) which more literally means “mighty man of valour”. It’s frequently used to describe men in a military context. Boaz may not be just a wealthy land owner, but a clan leader, who would perhaps have military leadership and may participate in the leadership of the community of Bethlehem (BTW in chapt. 3, Ruth is described as eshet hayil or woman of valour). So we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s not in the fields himself.
Boaz notices Ruth, perhaps because she’s foreign (although it isn’t clear if that would be noticable in appearance). But, “Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?”” Not who is she, but whose is she. Seems like a sexist patriarchal question on the surface of it. Yes women were second class. Yes men often treated women like livestock. But here, I don’t think that’s what’s going on. The fact that Ruth is gleaning means she is a widow, an orphan, a foreigner, or in poverty. Boaz’s questioning may be more like who is taking responsibility for her is the question here? Who is her provider and caretaker? In a society where widows and impoverished women are highly vulnerable, this is more a question of care and concern. Yes, Boaz is not “smashing the patriarchy”, but given how Boaz treats Ruth in the rest of the story, we see he is genuinely concerned for her well being. He is a just and compassionate man, who wants this woman protected.
So Boaz decides to care for Ruth. He tells her not to go to other fields (where she may not receive proper treatment), he instructs his harvesters not to harass her, to leave her alone. He even invites her to eat lunch with him. In the culture, eating a meal together isn’t just eating a meal. It implies friendship. He also allows her to drink from the water the men have drawn. Usually, women were the ones drawing water- drawing water was “woman’s work” (see Rebecca, Rachel, the Samaritan woman in John 4). And here Ruth is allowed to drink water drawn by men. A small reversal of roles has taken place. So here we see Boaz, like Ruth in her response to Naomi, going over and above. He doesn’t just let her glean, but he ensures she is safe, he treats her above her station in life. He demonstrates hesed. He, as the person of higher status, shows unmerited kindness to Ruth. Ruth hasn’t “earned” his kindness (although he does state he has heard of Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi and Elimelek’s family). He is kind to her because kindness and justice is part of his character. He, as a family member of Elimelek may have some responsibility for Naomi, but not for Ruth. Ruth is amazed by all this, she says “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
Then Boaz pronounces a blessing on Ruth “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” But the irony in this is that Boaz himself becomes her provider and protector. Boaz actually becomes the means by which God answers Boaz’s prayer. God is not a vending machine- we pop in a prayer, hit the button, and out pops blessings. We are participants in the answering of our own and others’ prayers. God invites us to participate with him, as his church, Christ’s body, his hands and feet, which extend God’s faithfulness through our love. God’s answers aren’t always what we expect of him. His hand is subtle. But through Boaz, Ruth receives what Boaz has prayed for. She goes home with the lunch leftovers, and an ephah of grain. This would be enough to last these two women at best a couple of weeks. And the grain harvest lasts about 7 weeks, so Ruth will have enough food to last quite a while, but not enough to survive until the next harvest. Ruth and Naomi’s immediate needs are met. There is still a problem. The systemic problem of their vulnerability as widows still remains.
Naomi asks in whose field Ruth was working. And Ruth tells her all that has happened, but the mention of Boaz comes at the very end, in a funny way of answering the question. And Naomi then says “May the Lord bless him. He has not stopped showing his kindness (hesed) to the living and the dead.” Here’s the problem- who is the one showing kindness, Boaz or YHWH? The grammar is ambiguous, perhaps intentionally. God’s hesed and Boaz’s hesed are inextricably linked. Boaz is kind, because God is kind. Boaz is loyal and faithful because God is loyal and faithful. Our demonstrations of hesed to our neighbour is enacting God’s hesed to us.
Naomi then adds “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers” (NIV) or “kinsman-redeemers”. What is this kinsman-redeemer? It is part of this peaceful or just community. It is a means to enact God’s justice. When an Israelite falls into a destitute situation, for instance a woman becoming a childless widow, or an Israelite going into debt and unable to pay it off, a family member (usually the closest male) was able to act as redeemer, paying off a debt, or taking responsibility as provider for someone. In the case of Naomi and Ruth, as a male relative of Elimelek, Boaz could choose to become provider and caretaker for Naomi. He could redeem Naomi. Of course, in this case, there would be a benefit to Boaz, since he would, in redeeming Naomi take possession of Elimelek’s land. But as we see in chapters 3 & 4, it has much more to do with genuine concern for Ruth’s well being that Boaz determines to act as redeemer of these two women.
And this is the point I want close on, which is a bit beyond the scope of this text. We call Christ our redeemer. But what does that mean? We usually use that word to say Jesus died for my sins. Yes, that’s true (1 Cor. 15:3), but let’s dig deeper than that. What does it mean that Christ died for our sins? We usually say something like we are under God’s wrath because of sin, and Christ dies in my place so that I don’t have to die. But wouldn’t that mean God is saving us from God? Christ, who is in very nature God, paying our debt to God? I prefer the view that Christ did not save us from God, but for and to God. He has redeemed us from Sin which held us enslaved. Paul tells us that from Adam, Sin and death reigned over creation. Christ came to deliver us from the reign of sin, and “transfer” us to the Kingdom of God (see Col. 1:13). He paid the debt we owe, by dying in our place, not to save us from God’s wrath, but to save us from Sin which reigned over and in us. He bought us back from death. That’s what the redemption of Jesus Christ means. Ruth and Naomi in chapter 4 are redeemed by Boaz- they are claimed, and taken in by Boaz from poverty and destitute, hopeless, despairing hardship, in which they were vulnerable to exploitation, and likely to become slaves. He frees them to become members of his household. This is what Christ does for us. He free us to become members of his household, he snatches us from death and sin and offers us refuge under the wings of God the Father. Christ has purchased us from death, and then he rose in victory over death. He satisfied death, and the defeated it, and will destroy it. Our slavemaster death no longer has any authority over us.
J. R. Daniel Kirk. Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
Michael P. Knowles. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.
Kirsten Nielsen. Ruth (Old Testament Library). Louisville: WJK, 1997.
Katherine Doob Sakenfeld. Ruth (Interpretation). Louisville: WJK, 1999.
K. Lawson Younger Jr. Judges/Ruth (NIVAC). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.