“Ruth & Boaz” - on Ruth 3 by Joe and Michelle Ellis - May 22, 2022
I’d like to begin with noting that Joe and I have team written this sermon — this passage invites us to reflect somewhat deeply on how men and women relate to each other — it’s probably a good thing to wonder which parts of this sermon were written by a man and which parts written by a woman.
Now, to the passage. If there is ever a young woman in the church who is interested in a guy, this wouldn’t be my go-to passage for advice. I could basically adapt Naomi’s line to Ruth and say, “Take a shower put on perfume and your best clothes. Then, late at night, after the man you’re interested in has gone to sleep, sneak into his bedroom, lay at his feet, and he will tell you what to do.” Of course, Joe and I have never given that advice, if we had we likely would not have lasted this long in ministry.
But that’s Naomi’s advice to Ruth at the start of chapter 3. She says to Ruth, who is a widow, “As your mother-in-law it is my responsibility to find some security for you so that you won’t always have to depend on the generosity of others, and working in the field.” Naomi recognizes that it’s her job to play matchmaker so that Ruth won’t always be living hand to mouth. In Ruth and Naomi’s time and place in history, they would always be vulnerable as long as they were single women. At that time, so much of a woman’s security—financial, physical, relational— had to do with being connected to a male. That’s not true in the same way in our world as it was in theirs, though it’s true that single women in our society can still find themselves more vulnerable in some arenas than a single male peer would be. So Naomi develops a plan for Ruth to marry Naomi's deceased husband’s next of kin. By Mosaic law, that’s the way it should happen — last week we talked about how this practice was called “Levirate Marriage.”
Yet, Naomi’s way of going about this is utterly wild. Naomi is aware at this time in the harvest, that Boaz will be sleeping outdoors, probably in order to protect the harvest from theft. He’ll be accessible and late at night he’ll likely be alone. Naomi sees here a unique opportunity. In reading, this I always wonder whether Naomi’s advice to Ruth to lay at his feet has something to do with some weird custom that they had back then. But it doesn’t, at least not as far as anyone knows. It was likely just as strange and daring then as it sounds now. In fact, the narrator has some fun with making us squirm—in the Hebrew, the language this book was written in, nearly every line in Naomi’s directions to Ruth has a double meaning that could involve sexual innuendo.
This might be a good time to point out an important principle of biblical interpretation that we always need to hold onto when reading Hebrew Narratives — the things that characters say and do in Hebrew stories are not always meant to be models for how we should act. One of the fun aspects of reading the Bible is that we read about characters saying and doing some things that are wild, stupid, risky, mistaken, or noble and righteous and beautiful. The narrator often doesn’t tell you or I what to think of any one character’s actions, leaving it up to us to decide what to make of it. They expect us to think and decide! So, what do you think of Naomi’s plan of action to get Ruth and Boaz married? What ever you think about it — it worked!
Apparently, Boaz has been dragging his feet around taking the next steps with Ruth — it's been a while, they’ve gone through both the barley harvest and the wheat harvest, and you know how long that takes! Now, it could be that Boaz doesn’t want to presume upon Ruth. Maybe he is honouring the fact that Ruth is a widow, that she may still be grieving her husband. Maybe Boaz is waiting for the ‘first in line’ kinsman-redeemer to make some kind of offer to Ruth. Maybe he’s not certain that Ruth would be interested in a guy like him and doesn’t want to use his position of wealth and power to cause Ruth to do something she doesn’t want to but also wouldn’t feel the freedom to decline. Meanwhile, Naomi’s thinking it’s time for a pretty major push.
Notice here, that both Naomi’s plan and Ruth’s actions seriously challenge our view of gender roles — they might especially challenge what is generally thought of as a “Christian” view of gender roles. Often in the church there is a general view that men are to be the active ones in the relationship. They are to be the leaders, they are to make the decisions and women are to be more passive, they are to wait patiently for the guy to make up his mind, and never, ever are they to ask a guy out and even more importantly, they are never to ask a guy to marry them. (This was certainly the understanding I absorbed about how Christians should act when I was in the dating world).
So you might have been surprised when Ruth walks right into where Boaz is sleeping and when he finally wakes up and asks what she’s doing there, she answers by proposing to him. When Ruth says to Boaz in v. 9, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a Kinsmen Redeemer of our family.” — Ruth is going far beyond Naomi’s instructions. To say “Spread the corner of your garment over me” is basically a Hebrew way of saying, “You are to marry me.” It means take me under your wing, your wing of protection and provision, which at that time was one of the primary parts of the marriage agreement. It also carries the meaning of take me into your fold, or under your blanket, fully aware of all the things that happen under blankets in marriage. This is one of the places where the Hebrew carries a ton of meaning, even some sexual innuendo and my guess is that Ruth is aware of and okay with that.
I don’t at all think that she’s inviting Boaz to sleep with her then and there, nor do I think she is trying to be a tease. Instead, I wonder if her language with multiple facets of meaning allows her to describe her marriage invitation in its fullness. I wonder if it allows her to express, “This isn’t just me inviting you to provide for and protect me, though that is very important to me. It’s also me inviting your love, the love of your whole person.” It’s an invitation to it all. It is bold. There’s not a lot of blushing bride posture here for Ruth. The whole thing is bold and feels even a bit scandalous. We have a woman approaching a man where he is sleeping. This is strictly against the rules.
Can you think of any other stories where a woman approaches a man while he’s sleeping? I cannot. On the other hand, we don’t bat an eye when a man approaches a woman in her bedchamber. Some of our greatest plays use it as a major plot device, like Cyrano de Bergerac, or Romeo and Juliet. Disney is all over this. It’s the most natural thing in the world for Aladdin to fly up to Jasmine’s bedchamber to literally sweep her off her feet. Can you imagine if Jasmine flew up to Aladdin’s bedroom in that blue thing she wears and sang about showing him a whole new world?
I bring this up and frame it that way because it gets at a deeper, darker dynamic at play in our culture. We have different standards for men and women about what kind and how much sexual behaviour is appropriate. Think of the names that we have for promiscuous men in our culture — there aren’t many. Player or ladies man are the ones that come to mind. Yet, those can have positive connotations, and can be used among friends as they describe their sexual exploits.
Now think of the words our culture has that describe a promiscuous woman: I can sure think of more than just two. I bet you can too. We have this incredible double standard in our culture and our language is proof. We hold up one standard of righteousness (or unrighteousness) for men, and another for women. This message has created a pernicious dynamic where men begin presuming it is their right, privilege, and perhaps duty to take advantage of the vulnerable women in their life. The “Me Too” movement is witness to how damaging this is and the terrible wake of destruction this double standard leaves behind. I wish I were exaggerating — but unfortunately the headlines we read every other month about a prominent preacher taking advantage of a vulnerable woman in his care are a very disturbing testimony.
What I noticed in this story is that Ruth is praised throughout for her boldness and her initiative in following how she feels led by God to be faithful. With Naomi and with Boaz, Ruth takes a lot of initiative and her actions really change the course of the story. For me, this story invites me to see that I think what God would expect from women has a pretty broad range, depending on the circumstances --sometimes calling them to be real leaders and take initiative, challenging others (the way Ruth did to Naomi in sticking with her), and sometimes calling them to patience and waiting for the leadership of others. I've also noticed that sometimes in seeking to be faithful to what people understand as biblical gender roles, women and men act in ways that I'm not certain God is calling them to act and that can be the source of a lot of pain. In this story, if Ruth had been totally passive and obedient, she would have gone home like Naomi told her to, and the story would be very different.
Here is where we need to note that Naomi’s plan is extremely risky. She is asking Ruth to place herself in an extremely vulnerable position, in a culture where foreign women were vulnerable to be sexually exploited by men. Naomi’s plan can go wrong in two catastrophic ways. After all, the two different standards of righteousness for men and women that we have in our culture, weren’t so different than in Ruth and Boaz’s culture. Especially when the words ‘whore’ and ‘Moabite woman’ were used nearly interchangeably.
One way this plan could go wrong is that Boaz could wake up, find Ruth sleeping there and utterly reject her, thinking she’s trying to play the whore. You can tell he is really caught off guard at the way he brusquely asks, “Who are you?” And Ruth says, “I am Ruth, your servant.” The way Boaz responds, we know that he doesn’t think she is trying to do anything untoward. Yet when Ruth responds to Boaz by saying “I am Ruth your servant,” we see the other way the plan could have tragically failed. Ruth’s vulnerability is palpable. Here she is, at the feet of a powerful man, a man of wealth. She has nothing. She is poor. She is a foreigner. She is a woman. She could so easily be abused by Boaz in that moment. But she’s not.
Though Ruth’s posture could certainly be interpreted in many ways, Boaz interprets it in the best possible way. Boaz doesn’t take advantage of the ambiguity of the situation. He doesn’t assume Ruth is there to offer him sexual favours or take advantage of the fact that he could easily take them. Though Ruth is vulnerable, Boaz sees her as honourable, and he treats her as such. Boaz even praises Ruth for the honour she’s given him, and for her boldness. Moreover, later in v. 11 he says, “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.”
‘Woman of noble character’ — this is probably the highest praise you can give a woman in Christian circles — it's the word that describes the woman in Proverbs 31 — you remember that passage “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value…” Well, here this woman of noble character has just asked her future husband to marry her. And they’re well matched, because when we meet Boaz back in chapter 2, the narrator describes him with the same word — he is a man of noble character. And we see that in everything Boaz says and does here. He interprets the best in Ruth’s words and her actions. Boaz’s response honours Ruth and has her best, her flourishing, always at heart.
As Joe mentioned last week, Boaz is being portrayed as the embodiment of Hesed — that Hebrew word meaning love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, and covenant faithfulness. We need men like this in our world. Men who will do the right thing, even in moments when they could so easily do wrong. Men who honour and protect when they could easily take advantage or dismiss. These are the moments when true Hesedis revealed. It is one thing to act lovely, merciful, graceful, kind, good, benevolent, loyal and faithful in the light of day. It's one thing to act that way when people see what your actions are and can praise you for them. It is another thing to be lovely, merciful, graceful, kind, good, benevolent, loyal and faithful behind closed doors. When no one else will know. When you can get away with taking advantage. When you are under the cover of darkness. These are the moments when true character is revealed — and it is truly shown whether a person is of noble character — and in those moments perhaps they will be the only one to know if they’ve passed the test. But God knows.
Boaz does pass the test. Beautifully. Admirably. May the Lord continue to raise up such men in our community! So, how did Boaz grow to be a person of noble character? I’d like to put Boaz in conversation with Dallas Willard, a famous philosopher and author of the 20th century — because between these two men, we get a bit of a picture of how good character is formed. First, Dallas Willard stresses the importance of spiritual practices. He says that telling people to act according to, “What Would Jesus Do” is like telling someone to play hockey like Wayne Gretzky without also telling them to train. Willard says that in order to act like Jesus, in order to make difficult ‘in-the-moment’ decisions — the hard ones, the ones when no one is watching — we need to make thousands of ordinary faithful decisions to be faithful in thousands of small seemingly unimpressive ways. Choosing not to read books or watch shows where someone’s humanity is reduced to their sexuality, choosing to not cheat on the spelling test, even though we could, choosing to listen respectfully to others. Willard says that a life of spiritual practices, like meditating on Scripture, fasting, worship, study, celebration, etc. helps to train us in living lives of Hesed, even behind closed doors. Admittedly, I may be slightly shoehorning Boaz into fitting this point, but everything about Boaz, suggests that he has spent a life cultivating a deep intimacy with the God of Israel. Every aspect of his speech, his kindness, his generosity, his readiness to bless others seems to be an indication that he has spent a life cultivating intimacy with his God, making thousands of ordinary, unimpressive faithful decisions to love, to serve and to bless.
A second lesson, which Willard talks about in cultivating good character is to cultivate a good, fulfilling life. Willard says that when you do things that are enjoyable, sin is just not really that attractive. That’s why I like verse 7 that says, “When Boaz had finished eating and drinking, he was a contented mood.” He seems like a man who can enjoy life. In fact, he seems to have a reputation for enjoying life. Naomi knew that after he feasted and drank he would be in a good mood — she knew that would be the time to send Ruth. Whenever someone is living such an intense life of duty and service that they don’t have space for enjoying a few of the finer things, I get nervous. I love the verse in Ecclesiastes 7:16 that says: “Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself?”
The final lesson we can take from Boaz is to always have an eye towards filling others. This needs to be heard in tandem with enjoying the finer things — but from all we hear about Boaz, he is constantly concerned with filling others. After Ruth proposes marriage, he praises her, talks about some of the practical details, looks out for her reputation, and says in v. 11, “My daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask.” Boaz has an eye for filling others, to building others up. He was in a position where he could have so easily taken from Ruth that which was so precious to her. He could have used her and left her on the threshing floor.
But Boaz has cultivated a life where he is consistently concerned with filling others. This is so beautifully represented when he asks Ruth to hold out the corner of her coat and he fills it with barley. Ruth tells Naomi in v. 17, “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty handed.’” He consistently has a disposition of pouring himself out so as to fill others up.
As we think about how men and women relate together, as we have so many examples of how easy it is for men and women to relate to each other poorly, let’s strive for our relationships to be characterized by Hesed —love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty and faithfulness. We don’t do this through simply steeling our will and saying that’s what we will do (although that could be a start). We do this through cultivating our life to be one of intimacy with God, practicing self-care through enjoying the good things of his creation, while always seeking to fill others up rather than take for ourselves.
And of course, we see this so powerfully exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus, Himself. “Who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”(Philippians 2:6-9) After living a life of profound intimacy with God, a life where he enjoyed feasting and had rich relationships with men and women, a life where he continually sought to lift others up — Christ poured himself out on the cross, he ultimately emptied himself, so that we might be lifted, welcomed back into the family of God. And as we are welcomed into His family, Christ pours his Spirit out onto us so that we can go live lives of Hesed, lifting up others.