When was the last time you heard the story of Ruth? For many of you, it may have been a while. And that’s a shame, because it is a beautiful story of sorrow and redemption. It’s an unlikely love story; those are usually the best kind, aren’t they?
But let me tell why this story is so important: it is an essential part of God’s upper story re: Israel’s history and the redemption that will ultimately come through Jesus.
Ruth & Boaz will have a son, Obed
Obed will have a son, Jesse
Jesse will have a son, David
Ruth’s story is a key part of the development of Israel’s history.
We first meet Ruth at the graveyard where she has buried her husband of 10 years. Not long afterward, her mother-in-law, an Israelite named Naomi, informs Ruth that she is headed back home.
A little bit of family history: Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two boys lived in Bethlehem. Famine strikes, they set out for Moab, east of the Promise Land. This is where the boys marry their wives, Ruth and Orpah. Over time, all three men pass away, Dad and both sons.
Their deaths leave these women destitute. No possibility of food, work, home. They can’t just go back to school, finish their degree, get a job waiting tables. History is not kind to women who are left behind, left alone. This is the grim reality these women face.
So Naomi packs up her belongings and decides to head back to Bethlehem. She’s heard the famine has let up and, after all, Israel was her homeland. She tells her daughters-in-law to return and go back to their mothers. “You all are young enough to find new husbands, start a new life.”
Orpah obeys, but Ruth refuses. In fact, she makes one of the most well known statements of covenant faithfulness in the entire Bible – and she speaks these words to her mother-in-law, of all people!
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” — Ruth 1:16-17
It’s worth remembering that Ruth is not an Israelite. She is a Moabite woman. The Moabite nation began when Lot — Abraham’s nephew — impregnated his daughter centuries earlier in Genesis 19:37. With that sort of beginning, Moab was doomed from the start. Child sacrifice was a regular component of Moabite worship to their god, Chemosh. Moabites were perennial enemies of Israel; not even allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:3).
But Ruth’s devotion to Naomi is so great, it leads her to this moment of accepting not only her mother-in-law and the responsibility of her well-being, but also the God she serves. 10 years of fixing meals, washing clothes, talking and laughing and crying – 10 years of doing life together leads to this moment where Ruth professes her faith — faith in Naomi, but even more importantly, faith in God. Over these 10 years, Ruth must’ve seen something in Naomi’s life that prompted this.
Imagine how difficult this would be for Ruth. In the ancient world, bloodlines were everything. Nationalism and tribalism were rampant. But here is Ruth, pledging her life to her Israelite mother-in-law. Imagine the pain Ruth’s parents must’ve felt as they stood at the entrance to their home and watched her walk away from everything and everybody she’s ever known. What would compel someone to do this?
Even though she’s not allowed in the assembly of the Lord, Ruth accepts the God of Israel. This is a testimony to Naomi, who seems to have accepted Ruth and loved her as if she were her own daughter. In fact, later on in the text, she actually calls her that, “my daughter”. You get the feeling that Ruth says, “If serving your God will make me anything like you, then I’m all in.” Naomi has her struggles, too, and we’ll talk about them tonight, but her influence over her daughter-in-law is undeniable.
Given where we are in Israel’s history, this story is a bit surprising. A few weeks back, we were talking about Joshua’s command to go and take the land by force, to drive out these pagan peoples. But Ruth’s story shows us an example of a foreigner coming to know and serve the God of Israel. Ruth’s story tells us what it means to truly be part of the family of God. In a world where bloodlines usually constitute battle lines, Ruth is a glimmer of hope, a message of Good News that reminds us of what we said in the first message in this series: all humanity bears the image of God, therefore all humanity is worthy of God’s redemption.
And so, Ruth returns w/ Naomi to Bethlehem. Penniless, Ruth goes to glean in the fields of Boaz. OT Law — we skipped over much of it in our telling of The Story this year. But back in Leviticus 19, God gave the Israelites a very important teaching, one that Jesus dusts off and makes a central tenet of His teaching: love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). One of the ways this command is expressed is found in 19:9-10:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.
This law ensured compassion for “the least of these” in Israel.
And this is where we meet Boaz. He’s a relative of Elimelech, Ruth’s deceased father-in-law. He allows Ruth to glean in his field, which shows his desire to do things according to the command of God. But in addition, he shows compassion on Ruth. He commands his men not to lay a finger on her (2:9). In a society in which an unmarried foreign woman could easily feel vulnerable and defenseless, Boaz says, “Don’t worry. You’re safe here.” Boaz takes it even a step farther, asking Ruth to glean exclusively in his field.
2:10, Ruth says, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?”
2:11-12, Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband – how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
Throughout Israel’s history, the idea of “the wings of God” was used to convey God’s ability to provide, to protect, to deliver. Consider these Psalms:
- Psalm 17:8, Keep me as the apple of your eye; Hide me in the shadow of your wings.
- Psalm 57:1, I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
- Psalm 61:4, I long to dwell in your tent forever & take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
Guess who wrote each of those Psalms? David, Ruth and Boaz’s great-grandson. Are you beginning to see what an important story this is in the OT?
Naomi hears all of this and she begins to concoct a plan to get Boaz to marry Ruth. We ought to just call it what it is: she starts playing matchmaker. Naomi tells Ruth to get dressed up: Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. (Ruth 3:3). She tells her to go to the threshing floor where Boaz will be. Our story began in famine, but now it is harvest season — Boaz and his men will be working sunup to sundown and then they’ll sleep in tents they’ve set up in the field. Not only does this help keeps thieves away, it also lets them get right back to work first thing in the morning. Naomi tells Ruth to get dressed up, to go to Boaz’s tent, and to lie down at his feet.
Now, this is a risky move. It’s fairly scandalous, at least that’s how it would’ve been perceived. It’s a risky move, but it’s also a bold move. But Ruth does exactly as her mother-in-law tells her.
Boaz wakes up in the night and notices something is wrong:
3:9, “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.”
The Hebrew word for “garment” that’s used here — it’s the same word Boaz used in 2:12 when he prays for God to cover Ruth under the shadow of His wing. Ruth uses the same word — which also means corner of a garment — to ask for Boaz’s protection. She is asking Boaz to be the answer to her prayers; she’s asking him to be the answer to his own prayer. She’s asking him to be her deliverer, her protector, her redeemer.
The idea of a redeeming kinsman is another tenet of the OT law: when a man died childless, his brother was to marry the widow. The first born son of this union was regarded as if he was born to the deceased man, received his estate, so that the man’s line was not cut off. If the brother was deceased, as in this case, then the responsibility was transferred to the nearest of kin.
Boaz, although he is a relative, is not the nearest of kin. He knows who is — apparently, he’s given some thought to this possibility prior to Ruth showing up in his tent. So he has a decision to make. Boaz wants to take Ruth as his wife; but he also wants to do the right thing per the commandments. So he goes off to negotiate with the nearest of kin. And I love what Naomi says when Ruth reports back to her in the morning: “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today,” (3:18).
Boaz is a man who will do the right thing the right way. Remember the time frame here: this is the period of Judges, a lawless time characterized by the phrase, Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Well, not Boaz. There’s still at least one good man in Israel committed to doing things the right way. And he won’t rest until the matter is settled.
The nearest of kin isn’t interested; he seems fine with acquiring a little bit of extra property, but he has no interest in Ruth or risking his own estate over the affair. And so Boaz seals the deal, becoming Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer, reversing her fortune by giving her a place, security, and a future.
The final image of Ruth is the picture of Naomi holding her grandson, Obed, in her lap. This child will be the father of Jesse, who will be the father of David. Our story began in a graveyard; and it concludes in a nursery. Once again, fortunes have been reversed.
But Boaz prefigures another kinsman-redeemer, another deliverer — one who negotiates our purchase from sin and death, reversing our fortunes. One who will come from the line of Ruth and Boaz, from the line of David — Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer.