God needs people like Boaz who can see beyond the requirements of the law and grasps the importance of grace. Some people need human redeemers, who see their worth and importance in God’s great scheme of things. And we too can go to the threshing floor as a forbidden outsider, regardless of our heritage or baggage. We too can, with Ruth say “Spread your covering over me for you are my redeemer.” The enmity we must push beyond isn’t from God, it’s what we bring to the threshing floor with us, our own sense of unworthiness, our failures, our brokenness, maybe just our humanity.
The Conclusion of Ruth
There is a great deal about the Book of Ruth that is more about Naomi. And maybe it’s a helpful reminder to us that Naomi is only human and not all that unlike us when things don’t go well. She has gone from being the wife of a man of extreme wealth to a powerless childless widow living in a foreign land in abject poverty. We said last week that she was a female Job. Job says “I tell you, God himself has put me in the wrong, he has drawn the net around me.” He says “Pity me, pity me, you that are my friends; for the hand of God has touched me.” Naomi’s words are “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” Who else can she blame for her misfortune?
She has good reason to blame her husband Elimelech, but he’s dead. Some say he died because he abandoned Israel in a time of great need. Tradition has it that he fled Judea to avoid having to share his substantial wealth with the working poor during a disastrous famine. They would also argue that the sons died because they married foreign wives. Regardless of blame, sojourning in Moab was to live as a resident alien and forfeit all legal rights. And thus, when he and then his sons died his wife was left destitute. Her only recourse was to return to a place where she could claim some rights related to the land which evidently her husband had relinquished.
Wrapping our minds around that is difficult because we aren’t well acquainted with the Jewish laws of redemption, Jubilee, family inheritance and Levirate marriage. We aren’t really up on the issues of Jewish relations with the Canaanite nations and the descendents of Lot. To add to that we have to get some understanding of the agricultural prohibitions and requirements that provided food for indigent families. All of those things come together in this rather short book. It is all about the law.
Gleaning after the reapers was a right permitted to all indigent persons. Ruth asks Naomi’s permission to glean after the harvest workers and she finds herself on the land of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. Boaz comes out to the fields to check on the harvest and seeing her asks “Who is the Moabite girl?” She is identified as a hard worker who asked permission to glean and that she is the woman who returned with Naomi, a person Boaz evidently knows a great deal about. She gets special treatment. She is given protection and access to water. So she asks “Why have I found favor 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!”
This is a beautiful blessing Boaz gives to Ruth. But Boaz doesn’t just bless her with words, he actually does something. He implements God’s blessing. The scriptures are filled with stories of the redeeming activities of God in responding with mercy to the needs of people but God needs the hearts, hands and feet of men and women to carry out God’s purposes.
Ruth came home with more grain than one would expect from gleaning and Naomi asked her on whose fields she had been working. When she reported that the owner was Boaz Naomi she was elated. 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 also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” Ruth continued gleaning the fields until the end of the time of bringing in the grain.
The time came for the separating the grain from the chafe. Naomi knew that the winnowing took place when the wind blew in the evening and into the night and she knew that Boaz would be working to the point of exhaustion to get as much done as possible. He would then eat his meal and spend the night on the threshing floor. Naomi had a plan. She justified it on the basis of the next of kin’s obligation to preserve the name of the dead and Boaz, as near of kin, could perform that duty.
Naomi has Ruth take a bath, put on perfume, dress in the best she had and go to the threshing. It says she came softly, and uncovered his feet and laid down next to him. He slept ‘til midnight awaking to find her laying at his feet. He asks who she was – it was dark – and she tells him that she is Ruth and she asks for his protection as next of kin – actually a proposal of marriage. In reading an older commentary I found this warning: “The actual method employed in carrying out Naomi’s plan is so foreign to our sex mores that it will be wisely rejected for homiletic purposes.” As I read the story Boaz demonstrated great restraint and instead of acting on his right of redemption he decides it better to wait and make sure everything is done properly and in good order.
It’s evident from the next exchange that this relationship hadn’t been far from Boaz’s mind either. He tells Ruth that there was another ‘next of kin’ who has first right. “If he won’t, then I will” he tells her. She stayed at his feet until just before sunrise. She held out her long scarf and he filled it with six measures of barley to carry home. You’ve got to imagine that picture. When she did get home Naomi didn’t recognize her. Naomi tells her that it is out of her hands, there is nothing more that can be done but wait. Imagine that. One’s whole future is in the balance and all that you can do is wait – and trust that the Lord is at work.
Boaz doesn’t let the matter lie. He goes to the gate, where business is conducted and where witnesses are present, and he raises the matter of the property that, he says Naomi is wanting to sell that belonged to her husband Elimilech. Will you buy it? he asked the next of kin. The answer was ‘yes’. But Boaz raised a complicating matter. Buying the land from Naomi will also require his buying it from Ruth, the widow of Elimilech’s son. Twice the price. The price was too high. Rejecting the deal, following tradition he took off his shoe to witness to his refusal. Boaz says I have bought all that was Elimelech’s and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s of the land of Naomi. Moreover, Ruth, the Moabites, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.
The story ends in an unexpected way. Ruth bears a son but it is seen as Naomi’s child. The neighbors named him Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David and you can follow the geneology right down to Jesus.
With all the focus on doing things ‘by the book’ it’s easy to overlook the huge matter of Ruth being a Moabite. Deuteronomy 23: 3-6 is unambiguous. 3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, 4because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5(Yet the Lord your God refused to heed Balaam; the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you.) 6You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.
What is this? Ruth over comes the law. There is no way she qualifies for any consideration at all much less special treatment. The law is absolute – “No…Moabite”.
It’s a fascinating realization for us that the law isn’t absolute. Even the law is open to exceptions. Even the law has to make way for love and compassion, for sacrifice and service. Ruth came with a fatal flaw, her family heritage. But Boaz saw through it and said 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!”
This is the message of Ruth. It is a story of redemptive love that overcomes the limitations of the law. And that’s good news to each and everyone of us.
As we said a few moments ago – God needs people like Boaz who can see beyond the requirements of the law and grasps the importance of grace. Some people need human redeemers, who see their worth and importance in God’s great scheme of things. And we too can go to the threshing floor as a forbidden outsider, regardless of our heritage or baggage. We too can, with Ruth say “Spread your covering over me for you are my redeemer.” The enmity we must push beyond isn’t from God, it’s what we bring to the threshing floor with us, our own sense of unworthiness, our failures, our brokenness, maybe just our humanity. Boaz, Ruth’s redeemer says to her and to us “may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”