We are continuing our study of the book of Ruth. So far in our story we have followed the story of a man named Elimelech who fled his home in Judah because of a famine and took his wife and his two sons with him to a country called Moab. I emphasized that this famine is presented not as a random event but the result of a curse because of Israel’s failure to obey the law. Ruth is set during the time of the book of Judges which is not Israel’s finest hour. Mostly Judges is the story of oppression, violence, and abuse of power.
Elimelech’s sons marry two women from Moab, something forbidden by Israelite law. During the family’s ten year stay in Moab, Elimelech and his two sons die leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. Naomi decided to return to Judah. This is significant because the word return is related to the word repentance and is the remedy to the curse. Her daughter-in-law Ruth decided to return with Naomi to Judah despite being a member of an enemy nation and having very little prospects in this new country. We are told Ruth does this out of devotion to Naomi. In this she embodies the Biblical idea of hesed which describes loyalty and kindness above and beyond duty. Hesed is the word often used to describe the devotion of God to His people. So the crazy thing about this story is that this Moabite woman presents to us a picture of the love of God.
As we begin our passage today we are introduced to a new character in this story, a man named Boaz. Boaz is introduced as a relative of Naomi’s husband, a noble man, from the clan of Elimelech. Typically, when the Bible introduces a character we are given the name, the person’s family, status, and then the significance for the story. Here the order is reversed because the narrator wants to highlight that Boaz is a legal relative of her husband. This detail would raise the hopes for the readers who understand that as a relative he had a legal responsibility to Naomi. At this point Naomi is unaware of Boaz and the reader is unaware of whether or not Boaz would fulfill his duties but the hope is raised.
When Boaz himself appears on the scene we are told that he greets his workers with a blessing, “YHWH be with you.” Boaz uses the name YHWH the personal name for God used by people who are in covenant relation with Him. Once again our hopes are raised that Boaz is committed to YHWH and to the law. This reinforces the description of Boaz as a worthy man and if He is a follower of YHWH then perhaps Boaz will fulfill his duty to Naomi as her relative. At this point we only have the words of Boaz we do not know if his deeds will match them.
In the Old Testament we are frequently expected to look and see if the words and actions of the characters match. For example, in the book of Judges which I said earlier was set in the same time as the story of Ruth, there is a character named Gideon. Gideon is chosen by God to route one of Israelites enemies called the Midianites. After Gideon does so in spectacular fashion, the people try to make Gideon king but Gideon refuses saying that only God is king. That sounds great and we often tell stories to our children about how faithful Gideon is and suggest they be like Gideon. The problem is that in the next chapter we find Gideon building a harem and fathering 70 children with his wife one of which Gideon names Abimelech. The name Abimelech means ‘my father is king.” The text really does not comment on this, but sharp readers will realize that the picture of Gideon is of a person who says one thing but does another. So at this point the reader of Ruth is supposed to anticipate the question will Boaz’s actions match his words.
At this point Boaz asks the question, “Whose young woman is this?” or “Who does this woman belong to?” We may be forgiven if we find this sexist and a relic of a patriarchic society. However, the real question Boaz is asking is who protects this woman? If she is affiliated with a husband or a father or even a clan then she would be safe since anyone accosted her would suffer repercussions from her protector. What Boaz really wants to know is Ruth safe.
This was no small concern. Remember as we have said earlier, Ruth is set during a particularly brutal and lawless time period in the history of Israel. The powerful did what they wanted and the weak suffered what they must. Women were particularly vulnerable and Judges gives several instances in graphic detail of the horrible treatment of women during this time period. Boaz is right to be concerned and upon discovering she was a foreign and enemy nation if he had any concern for her safety it should have been heightened.
The question Boaz asked is answered by a field supervisor, a manager. Although he answers the question, he also gives a few more details. First, he says that she has come to “glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.” So lets talk ancient near east agriculture.
Barley is a type of grass that grows in stalks. At the top of the stalk is the head which contains the seeds or grain. The great thing about grains is that they can be dried and stored and used for food, animal fodder, or you can make beer out of it. Now when it was time to harvest, the stalk was cut with a curved blade called a scythe. This was before the iron age so the sickle would have been made of flint attached to a stick or possibly bronze. Once the stalks were cut they were stacked in sheaves. At this point the seed has to be removed from the head which would have done by beating the stalk against something hard like the ground. This was known as threshing. If you were really fancy you would beat it with a stick called a flail and you would have a special prepared hard surface made of stones called a threshing floor.
During harvest time, Israelites landowners were required by the Torah to permit widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigner to glean from their fields. The landowners was not to cut all his grain but leave the corners for the gleaners. Workers were also not supposed to go back and look for grain they missed or dropped. This grain was also left to the gleaners. This grain was part of the Israelite safety net and was provided for the groups of people who would have been most vulnerable in their society - widows, orphans, and foreigners.
Notice in verse 2 Ruth says to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” However, the report the supervisor gives to Boaz is a little different. He tells Boaz that Ruth asked to glean AND to gather among the sheaves after the reapers. Remember sheaves are grain that has already been cut and harvested by the workmen. The supervisor is giving Boaz the impression that Ruth is not satisfied by merely gleanings but wants some of the harvest sheafs as well. This would have been considered the height of impertinence for a foreigner to demand this sort of thing.
The supervisor then goes on to note that the Ruth has been working in the field from very early in the morning only taking one short rest. When we read this we are immediately impressed with Ruth’s industriousness. There is something appealing and we think that is neat Ruth is a hard worker. However, what it means to the supervisor is that she is taking all our grain. Once again the supervisor is highlighting Ruth’s impertinence. Now the syntax of the supervisors words is very confusing. Its possible this is meant to convey to the listener that the supervisor did not quite have the story straight. In any event he certainly created the impression to Boaz that she wanted more than just the allotted gleanings.
By contrast Boaz is accepting, generous, and kind. He calls her my daughter indicating to everyone that Boaz has accepted the responsibility of providing protection to Ruth. Boaz tells her not to bother going to any other fields where her position may be more precarious. His workmen are ordered not to harass her. A Moabite woman would ordinarily been subject to whatever a man could get away with, Boaz is letting his workers know this is not the case on his land. She is also privileged with drinking from the workmen’s water. Ordinarily the first thing a woman would do on the way to the field was stop by the town well and fill her animal skins with water. Boaz tells her that she does not have to do this. Later Boaz will invite Ruth to her table even offering his sauce rather than just giving her bread and then will even allow her to harvest from the sheaves rather than just the gleanings.
Ruth is understandably overwhelmed by Boaz’ kindness toward her. She falls on her face in a sign of respect and asks Boaz how she had found favor, literally the word is grace, in his eyes. After all she is a foreigner and she understands the unlikelihood of her receiving any special treatment. Boaz answer is that he knew of the way she had sacrificed everything out of devotion to Naomi. However, there is something else he adds. Ruth had left her father and her mother and everyone she knew and love to come with Naomi to Israel. She had responded radically and irrationally.
Throughout Ruth the text has subtlety made references to stories of the great men of Genesis. We start with a focus of Elimelech who flees from a famine. The same circumstance confronted Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and each time they received blessing from God. Yet Elimelech and his sons die and so the story shifts to Naomi. Naomi though is old and it unlikely she will carry on the family name. The same circumstances had occurred in the life of Sarai and Rachel and God had intervened and the result was a great multitude of descendants that struck fear into the heart of the Egyptians. Yet with Naomi we see no sign of history repeating itself. Instead we see God’s blessing falling on Ruth. In fact she is oddly fulfilling the story of Genesis by radically and irrationally leaving her family and the land she knew just as Abraham way back in Genesis when God said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Ruth is actually the parallel with Genesis that we have been waiting for. Somehow Boaz understands a glimpse of this.
However, I want to spend the rest of the sermon focusing on the actions and decisions of Boaz. First, Boaz is taking an ordinary event and has made it an occasion for compassion, generosity, and acceptance. He is demonstrating the hesed to this woman that goes above and beyond the law. His commands to his workers and his actions all go above and beyond the requirements of the Torah. In this way Boaz acts as an ideal Israelite. Remember that one of the purposes of the Torah, was to be a light to the Gentiles. By keeping the laws, foreign nations would see the wisdom and understanding of God reflecting through them. Ruth remarks that Boaz has shown her grace. She has seen the character of God demonstrated in the abundance of Boaz’s generosity.
Second, Boaz has done this despite Ruth’s impertinence. It is likely the supervisor is exaggerating Ruth’s request, but Boaz is acting on his information. Rather than berating her he indulges Ruth. We see Jesus demonstrate this same indulgence. On more than one occasion Jesus is approached by a woman who we can classify as impertinent and in all instances His response is similar to Boaz’s. One of our readings gives an example of Jesus’ generosity to an impertinent woman. The Syro-Phonecian woman, a pagan from a land that was historically at war with Israel, approaches Jesus begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter. His disciples wanted to send her away but Jesus saw something in her and tested her. At one point he calls her a dog but she doesn’t miss a beat begging for Jesus’ help. Jesus not only heals her but holds her up as an example of faith.
Think of the prostitute who pours the perfume on Jesus and washes him with her hair. Think of the woman who suffers the discharge of blood and touches Jesus in order to heal herself. Remember Jesus is a holy man and her discharge of blood makes her unclean and yet she touches Jesus anyway. All of these women are rewarded by Jesus despite their impertinence. Each experiences God’s hesed.
Third, Boaz makes his decision to show Ruth grace and hesed despite an ethical dilemma. If you go back to verse 4 you will see that Boaz came from Bethlehem and went to his fields. Here is the question, why does Boaz not live near the field? A farmer like we know a farmer would have had a farmhouse on the same property as his fields. Not in the ancient world. Bethlehem is a city which has a very specific meaning in Hebrew - it means a settlement surrounding by a wall. The reason the wall was important is that it provided protection. So Boaz didn’t have a farm house on his fields because he would not be safe from raiders. Therefore, everyone lived in the city and then went to the fields to work. So who would raided places like this? Well it would probably be the enemy nation right next door to Bethlehem - Moab.
Let me read another passage from the Torah, “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever, because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia to curse you.” You see the Torah commanded care be provided for widows and for foreigners. Ruth was both of those things. Her connection with Naomi was a plus since she was a member of Boaz’s clan. However, let us remember that Ruth’s connection is only because Naomi’s son married a foreigner, something forbidden by Israelite law. Then not only is she the result of foreign intermarriage she is a Moabite on top of that.
So what does Boaz do when the Torah seems to command two different things? He chooses grace and hesed. You see, Boaz has realized that the Torah was not meant to limit God’s grace and hesed. Rather it is meant to demonstrate it in a radical way. For Boaz this is just the start of his ethical dilemma though. In a future sermon we will see how Boaz continues to demonstrate grace even when his ethical dilemma intensifies.
Fourth, Boaz understood something key about who he was. You see God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites. Each family was given an allotment and was charged to administrate and manage their portion of the land. However, the land was to be viewed as God’s property, not the Israelites. The Israelites authority was delegated by God. They were to rule over the land as God’s representatives. Ideally this meant reflecting Gods’s character in how they treated the land, the workers, and the people in their community. Boaz understood this in a way that most of the Israelites did not. The result was the Boaz is motivated to show God’s hesed and concern for the vulnerable.
So normally, I make a big deal about how we usually make a mistake by turning the Old Testament into a big morality tale where we are supposed to be like the character we decide is the hero of the story. However, in both the actions of Ruth toward Naomi and Boaz to Ruth I think we are supposed to be like these characters. You see Boaz is acting like Israel was supposed to act, like the Torah envisioned them to act but they so rarely did. The result of the actions of Boaz is that a woman from Moab is blessed. Remember that God’s promise to Abraham is that through him all the nations of the world would be bless. We see this being worked out in the story of Boaz and Ruth.
So the church and we as Christians must be people characterized by grace. We must be a people who give abundantly and overwhelmingly. Our actions should not be limited to duty and obligation but must go beyond. Jesus tells us if someone wants our tunic, we give them our tunic and our cloak. If someone forces us to go one mile, then we go two miles. We are to give to the one that begs. We should do this in the face of impertinence or cultural conflict or even religious prerogatives. Boaz does not understand the Torah as a limitation. When there is an opportunity to show anyone God’s grace we must take advantage of the opportunity.
What will motivate us to do this is the understanding that our lives, our stuff, our children and our families are not our own but gifts from God. We are to manage all of these gifts as if they belong to another. We are to reflect the character of God in how we administer all of the things we have been given in this world. This is what is meant by stewardship. We need to stop thinking as though we own it and instead see how we can use our possessions and gifts and resources and blessing to demonstrate the character of God. Like Boaz we must do so without fear of God’s law and even in the face of what is not customary, what is not courteous, even in the face of impertinence. Also in what I think is one of the greatest lessons this story has to teach us - we have the ability to demonstrate God’s character in the ordinary and know that it goes forward to build the kingdom.