“…your people shall be my people…”

We began the book of Ruth last week. Here is a brief recap for those who weren’t here — or weren’t paying attention: 

There was a famine in Bethlehem. Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their two sons went to Moab to find food. While there, Elimelech died; the two sons took Moabite wives – Ruth and Orpah. After living there about ten years, the sons also died leaving Naomi, Ruth and Orpah widowed and vulnerable. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem to look for help among her kinsmen. Orpah agrees to return to her parent’s home, but Ruth refuses: “Do not press me to leave you… where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die – there will I be buried.” The two went on and came – empty and bereft – to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Chapter 2

Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 [Unaware of this] Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.’ She said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ 3So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 

4Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ 5Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ 6The servant answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’

8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.’ 

10Then she fell prostrate, her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ 11But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’    Then she said, ‘May I continue to find favour in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me, and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.’

14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, ‘Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.’17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about ⅔ of a bushel of barley. 18She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. And Ruth took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. 

19Her mother-in-law said to her, ‘Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.’ So she told her mother-in-law, ‘The name of the man is Boaz.’ 20Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!’   Naomi said to her, ‘The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.’ 21Then Ruth the Moabite said, ‘He even said to me, “Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.” ’ 22Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, ‘It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.’ 23So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests.

Hymn:   Thy blessings fill our earthly need

Chapter 3

Naomi her mother-in-law said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. 3Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’ 5Ruth said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’

6 So she went down to the threshing-floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 7Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood; he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. 8At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! 9He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’* 10He 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. 11And now, my daughter, 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. 12But, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I.                 {Bum,bum,bum,bummmm}

 

Oh no! Just when it seems like Ruth will have a happy ending we learn of another entanglement – a spoiler for this agreeable – though surprising and somewhat sneaky – plan for safety and a secure future. Someone with a prior claim of acquiring Ruth by marriage. We will hear what happens with that next week (that’s a bit sneaky on my part!) But there is plenty to consider here.

This is an earthly, earthy, story – earthy in about every way it can be. But it is also theological in that God’s love and faithfulness show up through the simplest of everyday, earthen vessels. Ruth is a case study in loving your neighbor as you love yourself. She knows nothing of the law – not being an Israelite, but she consistently behaves toward Naomi with risky love and loyalty –  God’s hesed – the ‘steadfast lovingkindness in action’ that is attributed to God. Although we don’t ‘hear’ from God in the story, there are rumors of God. Naomi attributes good and ill to the actions of God working in the background. She attributes to God what the author says is happenstance, she sees God working through earthy vessels. 

The earthiness part of the story is quite obvious. It’s first seen in the famine that led Naomi and her family to Moab as the story opens; it is seen in the grounding theme of famine, food, and harvest; it’s seen in the conversations and very human problems and situations in which our characters find themselves – it’s also seen in celebration. Harvest is done. Grain is lying heaped on the threshing floor. Deuteronomy relates God’s command for the people to hold a festival at the end of harvest – for the people to consume “whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, beer, or whatever you desire” (Deut 14:26). 

Psalm 104 might be their response: “[You] bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.” (Ps 104: 14–15). Boaz had a gladdened heart! He was in a contented mood (wink, wink). He went to sleep on his threshing floor (not uncommon to prevent thievery) and fell fast asleep.  

This sort of spoiled Naomi’s conniving plan. He was supposed to notice when Ruth, freshly bathed, perfumed, dressed in her best gown (or perhaps not at this point), slid under his blanket at his feet (or perhaps not at this point). Instead he sleeps through it all until he happens to roll over – and whoa! – there’s a woman here! In asking Boaz to spread his cloak over her, Ruth is not saying she is chilly, she is offering a proposal of marriage – probably one of the least romantic and riskiest proposals ever: ‘take me to redeem my dead husband’s name. You are next of kin to him’. 

Shaken out of his grogginess, Boaz does not stop to consider what’s going on or ask more questions or send her away. In fact, he seems honored by her request. Spreading his cloak symbolically brings her both into his bed and under the protection of his wings. And Boaz says, “Yes”. There, on the threshing floor, under the cover of darkness and of his cloak, they exchanged the equivalent of marriage promises.

Like Naomi, he has called Ruth “my daughter” in the past, either hinting at his own age or granting her polite, honored status. Now we hear what he’s been thinking: if she had not been so loyal to Naomi, she would be interested in attracting a younger man.  This is why he had seen her daily for the two months of harvesting yet not made any advances other than acts of kindness: it was his wish not to obligate Ruth into a marriage she might not want for herself. His restraint is in sacrificing his own attraction and advantage of status for the sake of her wishes. And so he feels this proposal, coming as it did into his sleep and not a business deal with Naomi as kin – which might be more expected and proper – he feels it akin to love.      But before anything more can be said or expressed, he tells Ruth there is another who has closer ties, and therefore first rights, and who must first take up or pass on the role as go’el – one with the right to redeem property when there is no head of household. So, it still all might go down the drain. She might become the wife of this other, unknown man. 

Perhaps too much of God is left in the background. We are encouraged to see the movement of the story as being nudged along by an invisible, silent God. As a reader/hearer of the story, we might want God to show up in some more obvious way at this point. As it is we are presented with questions: How much of the plot is contrived  – a novella thousands of years old?   How much of the plot is art reflecting life? Does the plot, do the characters reflect any truth in your life? Is earthly, earthy compassion and kindness and steadfast, loyal love transformative enough, redeeming enough?

In your life? Does God remain behind an invisibility cloak? Do you attribute – well, what do you attribute to God in your daily life?

God intersects with the characters of this book the way many of us experience God: not as a divine physical presence, not as a visible mover of events, but as the one to whom we might attribute some amount of agency, some behind the scenes action in our own circumstances or in the world at large. 

We see football players giving thanks after making a touchdown. We might give thanks when we get a job or get a raise, or escape harm, or get favorable lab results – understanding God’s hand to be at work in our good fortune. But – like Naomi – do we attribute our calamities to God’s agency, too? What if we have escaped harm but others have not, or if we have food to eat and others do not?  The question of God’s activity in the world is a classic and supremely difficult theological dilemma: how do we understand the relationship between human will and happenstance and divine agency?  (see commentary by Cameron Howard, Working Preacher)

  The story of Ruth leads us into these questions about God because it is so similar to our lives even though we are separated by thousands of years. We might not understand the customs, but we get the emotions. We know grief when we hear Naomi’s story; we can imagine Ruth’s heart pounding risk as she lifts the edge of Boaz’ blanket and slides in shivering. We’ve risked everything, risked our hearts… perhaps have been that vulnerable. We might be, or know someone, like Boaz – honorable, wise, patient, longing for something he doesn’t pursue. Do we also see / believe / think possible God’s nudging for good? God’s steadfast lovingkindness in action on the ground among us? 

Can we / do we – like Naomi – point it out for others who can’t see it themselves?

That is where we leave the story for today—with promises exchanged, but questions looming that may change the course of their lives yet again – and, possibly, yours.