Boaz said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first, for you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I.
Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do so. If he is not willing, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.’
So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, ‘It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing-floor.’ Then he said, ‘Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.’ So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. She came to her mother-in-law, who said, ‘How did things go with you, my daughter?’ Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, ‘He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, “Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.” ’ She replied, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.’
No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, ‘Come over, friend; sit down here.’ And he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, ‘Sit down here’; so they sat down. He then said to the next-of-kin, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.’ So he said, ‘I will redeem it.’ Then Boaz said, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’ At this, the next-of-kin said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’
Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, one party took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, ‘Acquire it for yourself’, he took off his sandal.
Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’
Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’
Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
Besides having a remarkably beautiful name, Alphonetta Wines wrote a short summary of the book of Ruth that I think is very helpful.* I’m both quoting and adding in my own bits to these first paragraphs.
In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman – Mara. In chapter two, Ruth gleans a living for Naomi and herself. Both are abundantly blessed in the process. In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, goes to Boaz on the threshing floor. In chapter four, the birth of Ruth’s child, Obed, brings Naomi joy that she thought would never be hers again. What began in misfortune has turned to joy.
The genius of the book of Ruth is that it is much more than a simple story since there is such complexity in the layers, hints, and innuendo that lie within the pages. First, since its characters are exemplary, since they enact the lovingkindness of God, the book can be thought of as a morality narrative demonstrating the way of godly living.
Second, knowing that in the world of the bible, women’s voices are rarely heard, this story is extraordinary since the voices of Naomi and Ruth are not only heard, but their voices move the story forward. They live in a world where women without husbands or other male relatives to care for them are endangered. Their story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.
Third, it is impossible to overlook the sexual overtones in the book. Just as with the Song of Songs (another biblical book in which a woman speaks and God does not), the church has long been embarrassed by the possibilities concerning Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. While the details are left to one’s imagination, it is clear that Ruth intends to entice Boaz with her charms, going at night, hoping to avoid being seen, waiting until Boaz is content. wink, wink.
Fourth, although God is silent and acts indirectly through people and situations, God’s care is attested to. As a poor woman from another country, Ruth’s situation is dire, but she is not forgotten. While God is silent, there is a red thread running through scripture – God is on the side of the outcast, orphan, and widow. It’s true that God is also concerned about people who live in the center, but divine oversight/involvement with Naomi and Ruth are indications that God cares even when the world is indifferent. God’s got the whole world in his hands, and isn’t about to fumble.
The last point Alphonetta makes is that the book of Ruth is a reminder for us to honor the humanity of every person. There is no need for anyone to think too highly – or too lowly – of others or of themselves. These two women are about as different from each other as two people can be. There are differences in age, nationality, religion, expectations, hopes, capabilities. Theirs is a story about what happens when two people decide that relationship is more important than cultural definitions of what relationships should be, more important than any experiences that might have kept them apart.
Through her friendship with Naomi, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Through her friendship with Ruth, Naomi again experiences joy and laughter, the weight of a newborn against her chest, the smell of a toddler’s hot little head sleeping in her lap.
In a world, ancient or modern, where people are unwilling to extend themselves on behalf of others and be changed for the better by the encounter, this story stands as an indictment of closed hearts, minds, and spirits of any age.
Our Saturday discussion group took this story many directions – each week, actually, but especially yesterday. We thought about Robert and his independence and isolation, about if it’s possible to help someone in situations like that. We talked about the relatively new social structures – President Johnson’s war on poverty – that brought the poor into a safety net of social security. We talked about poor houses and soup kitchens and how you parent your parents or grandparents with dignity, how we have so many gaps to fall into now that families live so far apart. We talked about people we know who have welcomed strangers into their homes for unknown periods of time, not knowing what kind of trouble they’re bringing in with them. We talked about how much life has changed and how current Ruth seems to be.
I liked all of that, but it isn’t what I want to get to about Ruth, the book. I want to know why Ruth the person disappears after the birth. That’s why I chose the bulletin cover image. She’s looking kind of wistfully at her own child, trying to see Obed’s little face. The story begins with Naomi and the tragic emptying of the men in her life. She falls into a bitter, often silent depression (I’m guessing). She doesn’t appreciate Ruth, doesn’t have value for her even when Ruth brings home the grain – until she finds out it’s Boaz, her kinsman through Elimelech in whose field Ruth is gleaning. Then she finds glimmers of hope. But she isn’t hesitant to use Ruth, to put her in a very risky, problematic situation in sending her to Boaz’ bed, for Naomi’s advantage at least as much as for Ruth’s. It would be no small coup to end up in Boaz’ household, coming to Bethlehem with nothing but some land your dead husband left you and ending up under the wings of a wealthy, honorable man.
At the end of the story it’s all about Naomi again. She takes little Obed in her arms, holds him to her bosom, becomes his nurse. The women say, “Naomi has a son!” They even name the little guy. No, stop! he’s not her son. Where is Ruth? Where is Boaz? How does Ruth feel about this? We don’t get to know much of her feelings, she’s busy being strong and resourceful, working all day in the sun.
To their credit, the townswomen also say, ‘your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ But Naomi doesn’t acknowledge that. I wonder if she spends any time getting to know Ruth the Moabite. This is the only time Ruth isn’t called that – the women say – your daughter-in-law – who loves you, as if they need to teach Naomi that relationship. (It’s also the only time love in mentioned in the story). It makes the use of ‘daughter by Naomi and Boaz sound like a convention, not a claim. Ruth’s faithfulness and compassion to Naomi are clearly seen throughout the story, her strength is noted by the foreman at the harvest, her intelligence for finding a way around the patriarchal contractions of her situation, her worthiness as a woman and a mate – it’s all there, but at the end, has she fulfilled the role she is allowed and ushered out of the Israelites consciousness? She has given birth to a boy – and she is disappeared. Does this book affirm Ruth, or in the end erase her because she is a Moabite, a foreigner, nothing more that a tool, a servant for God to use to move the plot along, to create a family out of nothing and connect it to the royal family – the marvelous golden king David and then on, to another baby boy born in Bethlehem.
Naomi gets Obed because she is a pure Israelite and for most of their history there were laws against marrying foreign wives. It’s why David’s son Solomon was not satisfactory – he had a collection of foreign wives and was pulled away from the one true faith. Boaz is compromised because of Ruth in the cultural way of things.
I said in one of the other weeks that God uses people – ordinary, unsuspecting people. I hope Ruth was happy. I hope the blessing of the townspeople was true – that she and Boaz would repopulate the tribes of Israel and be blessed. Another thing the discussion group said was that we can only see God moving in our lives in hindsight. It’s only when we stop and look back that we can see or feel God’s presence, God’s moves in the paths of our lives. I think that’s about right, biblically, too. We might want a more present, visible, workable God who minds our timeframe for prayers and happy endings. Ruth doesn’t really give us one, though. It ends with things in the air.
These are the kinds of sermons Liz doesn’t like – there aren’t any answers and only more questions – I believe God works for good and does not lead us into temptation or use us for evil or harmful purposes. That’s as close to an answer as I can come. Does God move in your life? Are you aware of it in real time? Was this story really about Naomi and the way she wrangled a blessing from God using Ruth’s willing loyalty and love for her? Can we learn about God in stories like this that keep God silent and hidden? Which character do you identify with and why? The three principle players are strong and good, but have different qualities to admire or reject. Kind of like us, right?
The hymn that follows is an Advent hymn, but I reminds me of the lucent nature of Ruth – one who brings light into the darkness. And it has a wistful, lullaby like character and it ends with quiet assurance. That’s all you get today, Liz. And the rest of us, too.
Hymn: As the dark awaits the dawn
*workingpreacher.org. November 08, 2015. Commentary on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 by Alphonetta Wines