“Listening to the Story” – on Ruth 2 by Joe Ellis — May 15, 2022
I think the person who wrote the story of Ruth is having a lot of fun with us. I imagine that whoever wrote this story of Ruth, did so with a twinkle in their eye. Sometimes the story teller gives us a little nod and a wink to help us along. At times, the story teller gives us a hint about the characters, letting us in on the secret, but the characters are left to figure what God’s up to on their own. Then abruptly, the story teller stops holding us by the hand, and gives us the push of a teacher by saying, “You figure it out. Climb into the story with Naomi, and Ruth and Boaz. Walk along side them, and see if you can learn from them what God is up to in this story.” Naomi, Ruth and Boaz know far more than the story-teller directly tells us. In all this, I think the story-teller would have quite a bit of fun watching recognition and surprise come on our faces as we figure out alongside Naomi, Ruth and Boaz what God is up to in this story.
I’m saying “story-teller” pretty intentionally. The Book of Ruth is one of the most artfully told stories in the Old Testament. It is written by someone who has a keen understanding of how to tell about this moment of Israel’s history really well. That’s the way history is told in the Hebrew Bible — through artfully written stories. In being faithful to both the art of telling how God moves in history, and how God inspires stories to be well told, the storyteller of Ruth helps us to see how God is beautifully at work in this particular point in history. He helps us thoroughly enjoy the experience and be spiritually formed along the way.
As I said, the storyteller is having fun with us. In the first verse of this chapter, the story teller lobs a slow pitch right over the plate — he gives us some information that lets us know what’s going on while leaving Naomi and Ruth in the dark. At the beginning of chapter 2, the storyteller tells us: “And Naomi had a kinsman through her husband, a man of worth from the clan of Elimelech, and his name was Boaz.” Now, remember, Naomi and Ruth just returned to Bethlehem from the land of Moab. In Moab, Naomi’s husband died, as well as her son (who was Ruth’s husband). Back in Moab, Naomi said to Ruth, “Don’t follow me to Israel. Your husband has no kin that can help support you.” You see, there was a law, you’ll find it in the book of Deuteronomy (25:5). This law is about the practice of Levirate Marriage.
Levirate Marriage has it so that if a brother dies without kids, it is the responsibility of the other brother to take the widow as his own wife and have kids with her and support her as his own wife. Their firstborn will be considered the son of the deceased brother so that his name won’t die out. Although this seems strange to our ears, Levirate marriages did a few things. First, it made sure that the widow would not fall to ruin on account of her husbands death. She would still be provided for. Second, it made it so that the deceased name would continue on. His inheritance could be passed on through the widow’s firstborn. When the brother steps into that role, he is known as the ‘Kinsmen Redeemer’.
When they were back in Moab, Naomi was saying to Ruth, “Don’t hope for a Kinsmen Redeemer. There is nothing for you back in Israel. Stay in Moab and marry a Moabite. Levirate Marriage is not an option. No one will support you if you follow me back to Bethlehem.” Yet, in a beautiful display of valour and courage, Ruth says, “Wherever you go I will go! And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people is my people, and your God is my god.” (Ruth 1:16)
So at the end of chapter 1, Naomi and Ruth head to Bethlehem together. Returning home to a country in which there seems to be no possibility of family coming in to help support Naomi and Ruth who have come on such hard times. Except, the storyteller lets us in on a little secret. He tells us, “And Naomi had a kinsman through her husband, a man of worth from the clan of Elimelech, and his name was Boaz.” He lets us in on the secret, but not Naomi and Ruth. He lets us know that one of Elimelech’s next of kin is a super wealthy landowner. It would have been kind if the storyteller had let Ruth and Naomi in on the secret, maybe by having some old wise woman approach them and say, “You need to go see Boaz, he can be the kinsmen redeemer for Ruth.” Yet this kindly old wise woman never shows up and Ruth and Naomi are left to grope their way through the darkness.
That can often be how God writes our own story. We aren’t let in on the secret. We aren’t told in advance how it is all going to work out. God leaves us to muster courage and to walk in faith, just like Ruth. So Ruth musters her courage and says in v. 2, “Let me go to the fields so I can gather grain behind whoever permits me to do so.” She then heads out into the great unknown, a foreign woman, vulnerable to abuse and ridicule. Her plan is to go to the ancient equivalent of the soup kitchen (in the law of Moses, landowners were told not to fully harvest their fields but to leave some produce for the poor and foreigners to gather, or to glean).
So Ruth heads out. Naomi watches her go, keenly aware of their vulnerability. Then the storyteller tells us, “By a stroke of luck, she happened to come upon the plot of Boaz.” Again, you can almost see the storyteller giving us a wink as he says that line. Of course, it isn’t luck, it’s the hand of God is guiding this story from beginning to end. It is the same hand of God that sent the famine, and later provided food. This is the same hand that led Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem just at the beginning of the harvest. And now, the hand of God is guiding Ruth to the plot of land that belongs to Boaz — their relative, their Kinsmen Redeemer! All this happened by “a stroke of luck”, says the narrator in good humour. Of course, there was no luck about it. Or at least it was the Lord’s kind of luck, which is the type of luck you’ll find in Proverbs 16:33: “The dice are thrown into the lap, but their every decision is from the LORD.” Yes, luck would have it, chuckles the narrator, that Ruth found her way into Boaz’s field. And then as Ruth arrives on the scene, the narrator says, “And look, Boaz is coming up from Bethlehem”. What a coincidence! The storyteller takes us by the hand, helping us, the audience, see where God is at work. The storyteller is giving us information that Naomi and Ruth would have to work quite hard for. Sometimes God, as the divine story teller, gives us little hints as to what he’s up to. But most often he’s more subtle, forcing us to pay close attention.
So, the storyteller of the book of Ruth lets go of our hand and lets us have a chance at figuring out how else the hand of God at work in this chapter. We have to pay closer attention now.
Let’s briefly sprint through the whole next scene, where Boaz shows incredible kindness to Ruth. He institutes the first workplace policy prohibiting sexual harassment. He offers her a feast of a lunch. He commands his workers to drop grain for her, enabling her to gather far more grain than she needs. Boaz ensures she will not go thirsty. He does not show a hint of racism towards this Moabite, a nation traditionally reviled by the people of Israel. In short, Boaz is generally the embodiment of what the Hebrews call Hesed — a word that means love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, and covenant faithfulness.
We’ll come back to Boaz, but first I’d like to focus in on Naomi and Ruth’s conversation that happens when Ruth finally returns after her long day. Naomi sees Ruth coming up the road, with armfuls of grain, probably about fifty pounds. Naomi exclaims, “Where on earth did you gather grain today? Where did you work? May the one who took notice of you be rewarded!” So Ruth tells her for whom she worked, saying, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” So Naomi says to her daughter-in-law, “May he be rewarded by the Lord because he has shown Hesed to the living on behalf of the dead! This man is a close relative of ours; he is our Redeeming Kin.” It’s easy to miss, but Naomi is working really quite hard here to discern what God is up to. Listen to her last words again — “May he be rewarded by the Lord because he has shown Hesed to the living on behalf of the dead! This man is a close relative of ours; he is our redeeming Kin.”
Now, turn to Ruth 1:8-9 to see how Naomi prayed and blessed Ruth (and Orpah) in the same way when they were back in Moab: “May the Lord show you the same Hesed as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Because of the Hesed that Ruth showed Naomi and her family, she prays that the Lord would show this same Hesed to Ruth by helping her find a Moabite husband. Obviously God isn’t going to answer that prayer! Yet, when she sees Boaz showing Ruth the same Hesed that Ruth showed Naomi and her family, it dawns on Naomi that God is going to answer her prayer in an entirely different way. Naomi prayed for God to show Hesedto Ruth through finding a Moabite husband. God heard her prayer, but had other plans. God will show Ruth Hesed as Naomi prayed for, only it will come through Boaz. Naomi is beginning to see how her prayer will be answered.
I want to slow down here for a moment, because I think this point is significant. When I was reading through this chapter on my own, I didn’t make any connection between Naomi’s words to Ruth as she returned with the grain and the blessing she prayed over Ruth back in Moab. It was a commentator who pointed it out for me. When he did, I had a pretty wonderful ‘a-ha moment’. He helped me see that God did indeed hear Naomi’s prayer back in Chapter 1 when things were going so badly, yet God did not answer her prayer in the way Naomi supposed he would. Note that it wasn’t the Storyteller who gives us a wink, saying “Look, God’s answering Naomi’s prayer.” Here the Storyteller leaves it up to the reader to make the connection. And it was someone who was paying closer attention than I was who helped me see the way God was answering Naomi’s prayer. And the commentator was only able to make the connection between her prayer and God’s answer because Naomi herself made the connection. Naomi certainly was paying close attention to what she prayed and what was happening.
Do you hear in this an invitation? An invitation to pay closer attention? An invitation for us to pay close attention to both our prayers and our life circumstances. What if we went through our life oblivious to all the ways that God was answering our prayers? What if we went through our life oblivious to the ways in which God was constantly showing up and blessing us with Hesed — love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, and covenant faithfulness. Yet, this requires that we pay attention. Think how much we’d miss if we weren’t paying attention!
Naomi wasn’t the only one paying attention. Boaz was too. Again, the storyteller doesn’t do the work for us, but expects us to listen, watch, and pay attention. He expects us to know the story of Scripture and look for ways that God is continuing the story in the present.
Let’s back up a few verses and focus on the conversation between Boaz and Ruth — after Boaz shows so much Hesed. Ruth asks in 2:10-12, “Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 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 you did not know before. May 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.
I’d like to zero in on just one of those sentences, where Boaz says how Ruth “left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people you did not know before.” At first glance, this doesn’t seem significant until you read it alongside Genesis 12:1-4, where God calls Abraham, saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
Boaz is consciously framing Ruth’s arrival in Israel with the same language as God used in calling Abraham. The Hebrew Scholar, Robert Altar, says that Boaz’s words are the most significant biblical allusion in the whole book. Boaz doesn’t frame Ruth’s immigration to Israel as just another foreigner coming to freeload. He frames her arrival through the call of Abraham.
Perhaps, Boaz spoke more than he knew. For how would Boaz know that just as Abraham would be the founding father of the nation, Ruth was to become a founding mother. The line of Abraham would continue on through the descendants of Ruth, who would be the great-grandmother of King David. Abraham and Ruth and David’s family line would continue until God’s words to Abraham would find their fullness through the birth of Jesus Christ. For in calling Abraham, God said, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It's this passage in Genesis that Paul has in mind when he talks about the nations receiving the blessing of forgiveness when we place our faith in Jesus Christ. Paul puts it this way, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree) in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the nations, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.” (Gal.3:13-14) The blessing of Christ Jesus would come to us from Abraham’s blessing.
Boaz had some sort of inkling that what was happening with Ruth was bringing the grand story forward — he had an inkling, yet he wouldn’t live to see its fulfillment. So to may it be with us. The parts we play in God’s grand story may be generations away from fulfillment. Yet, the parts we play are no less important. As we pay attention to how God is calling us to live, the ripples will surely be felt through the generations as we see through the faithfulness of Boaz and Ruth.