Ruth Part 5: The God who Covers our Shame (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings: 
Genesis 3:8-11, 21
Zechariah 3:1-10
Ruth 3:1-18

Today we look at the third chapter of Ruth.  This chapter begins the climax of the drama of Ruth.  For the last few weeks we followed the story of Ruth who the text makes a point of identifying repeatedly as a Moabite woman.  The Moabites were a nation of people located next to Israel.  They were a people with a disgraceful origin who worshipped pagan gods.  The Moabites relationship to Israel was one of animosity.  Not only is Ruth a Moabite but she is a poor, desperate refuge whose husband has died, who has left her home and her family to move to a strange, alien land.  Yet she has found protection under Boaz who has provided for her.  She arrived in Israel at the beginning of the barley harvest and Boaz allowed her to glean from his fields and accepted her under his care as one of his own.  However, the harvest is now ending and Noami and Ruth find themselves in desperate circumstances once again.  

It is at this point that chapter three takes up our story and Naomi knowing the women would need a new long term strategy to survive concocts a plan.  This is where the story gets interesting.  Naomi tells Ruth to clean and perfume herself and put on her best clothes and then wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking and then to uncover his feet and lie down with him.  She explains to Ruth that Boaz will know what to do.  The question for us then is what exactly is going on here.  

The text is purposely ambiguous.  This is not uncommon in Old Testament literature.  Sometimes a story is not spelled out to us because the writer wants to draw us in and force us to think about what is happening.  Now we in the church have a problem with passages like this because we want to make the Bible into a morality tale.  We come across a character and if they are a good character we draw the lesson that we should emulate that person.  If they are bad we then we say we should not be like them.  So since Ruth is clearly the hero of the story we take this ambiguity and instead of reading  it like any other story we come up with some convoluted explanation about how Ruth is doing something noble.  

A common interpretation sees Ruth’s action as an ancient custom where she is symbolically making a marriage request.  The problem is there is no evidence for this at all.  Others think she is communicating to Boaz by changing her clothes and wearing perfume that she is no longer in a period of mourning for her husband.  The problem for this explanation is it seems the text would have probably emphasized that she was in a period of mourning earlier and there is are also Naomi’s persistent conversations with Ruth about finding a new husband.  If Ruth were still in a mourning period it seems unlikely that Naomi would have brought this up.  I I think if we read this anywhere else but the Bible I think we would know exactly what is going on.  

So let’s try to read this like its any other story.  Boaz and his men have spent the last eight weeks working hard harvesting grain.  They are now finished for the season, they are an agricultural based society so this grain is like money in the bank.  So what do they do now that their work is finished and they have a lot of money - they have a party?  As the owner Boaz would be responsible for putting together a celebratory feast for his men.  They are feeling good, they have just consumed a big meal, and likely also celebrated with drink.  The scene would have been like when sailors come to port after being at sea or cowboys riding into town after making their run.  No doubt there would have been the general debauchery at least among a certain portion of the men if perhaps not Boaz himself, but this would have been the atmosphere in some way or another.  All this revelry would have taken place at the threshing floor.  We know that Judah’s dalliance with Tamar took place at the time the sheep were sheared.  In Hosea 9 we are told that threshing floors were the places where prostitutes frequented.  

Boaz is described as having eaten and drunk and his heart was merry.  This phrase his heart is merry is the same phrase used in Esther to describe Xerses state when he commands his wife to show herself off before his drinking buddies.  So we have a man whose inhibitions have been dulled by food and drink, who has just completed a hard period of work, who is in a festive mood, being approached by a woman who has perfumed herself and put on her best clothes. 

The words Naomi uses when she explains her plan to Ruth are also suggestive.  Naomi tells Ruth to uncover his feet and lie down.  Uncover, feet, and lie are all words that can have a completely innocuous meaning, but are also frequently used as euphemisms.  The fact that these three words are used together combine with the set up tells us that Ruth is actively trying to seduce Boaz in attempt to force him to propose marriage.  Also keep in mind that Ruth is a Moabite and Genesis 19 tells that the Moabites because Lot’s daughters got their father drunk in order to take advantage of him.  

So what we have here is a poor woman attempting to seduce a rich nobleman and force him to marry her because she is poor and desperate.  Ruth is trying to manipulate him and take advantage of Boaz.  In the parlance of our times she would be referred to as a gold digger.  When Boaz discovers Ruth at his feet he says, “Who are you?”  This is the same phrasing used twice by Isaac in the story where Jacob dresses up like Esau to swindle the blessing from his blind father.  Now once again we have a story of a person who use deception to get something she does not deserve.  

Cause here is the thing, Ruth’s attempt to railroad Boaz into marrying her is a two pronged attack.  First, she will seduce him.  Second, Ruth asks Boaz to marry her  because he is her go’el.  However, while Naomi might be able to claim Boaz as a Naomi, it is unclear that a Moabite who has married into an Israelite family has that right.  Furthermore, even given that she might be considered part of Boaz’ clan it was not the duty of a go’el to marry a widow.  It was the brother of the dead husbands duty but at no point does the Torah assign this task to the go’el.  Ruth by asking Boaz to marry her as a go’el is asking Boaz to do something he is not required to do.  

Yet this has been the story of Ruth all along - in this simple tale we have two characters who go above and beyond their duties and obligation.  Earlier we talked about this going above and beyond and we said that Hebrew has a special word called hesed.  Hesed is usually translated as lovingkindness or steadfast love which does not really get across the point.  In fact no one word can probably contain the concept of hesed.  Ruth has shown hesed in her relationship with Naomi by remaining with her and caring for her despite the fact that her own husband is dead severing the connection between the two.    Boaz has shown hesed by going beyond the requirements of the Torah for gleaning, but also ensuring that Ruth is protected and also lavishly providing for her even letting her eat at his table.  

The reason this is important and the reason we are dwelling on this point is because continually God is described using the term hesed.  What makes the story of Ruth important is that it illustrates the concept of hesed better than any simple definition.  If we understand the story of Ruth, then we understand a bit better the character of God.  God is a God who goes above and beyond duty.  He provides lavishly for the outcast.  He takes the despised and calls her my daughter.  He brings protection and rest.  So lets dig a little more into this story and see what this tells us about the character of Boaz and how this illustrates to us the character of God.    

First, Ruth’s actions to seduce Boaz are amazingly impertinent.  Yet, Boaz’s response is neither to take advantage of her nor to condemn her.  Once again we see this demonstrated in the life of Jesus.  Think back to Mary who pours the expensive perfume on Jesus, unbinds her hair, and washes his feet.  This is amazingly awkward and puts Jesus is a precarious position and yet he is not concerned about his reputation.  All he sees is a woman desperately looking for protection and rest. 

Second, Boaz’ does not respond to Ruth’s actions by calling her out as a gold digger and then saying I accept you any way look how magnanimous I am.  No, instead Boaz dignifies her and praises her.  Listen to his words in verse 10, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter.  You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether rich or poor.”  Boaz was not an old man by any means since he has demonstrated that he can work a full day in the fields. However, he looks at Ruth and praises her for not going after the man with whom she had better chance at having a child with or the richest person.  This was not simply about physical love since Ruth had plenty of opportunities.

Boaz even describes Ruth as a worthy woman in verse 11.  This is the same phrase used in Proverbs 31 to describe the ideal wife.  Boaz knew that despite Ruth’s actions, there was something about his character that attracted Ruth to him and not just anyone.  

We see this demonstrated by Jesus as well.  When Mary empties the perfume on him he dignifies her actions by publicly praising them knowing it would earn him scorn of others.  When the Syrophonecian woman confronts him, Jesus tells everyone that her faith is great.   When the woman with the issue of blood essentially tries to steal Jesus’ healing power, Jesus tells her to be of good comfort and acknowledges her faith.  

Third, in verse 14 we see that Boaz is concerned that Ruth’s action of spending the night at the threshing floor would bring shame to her by the community.  Boaz wants to protect her from this.  He says, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”   Boaz then gives Ruth six measures of barley.  Why does he do this?  Boaz does this so that if she is seen leaving the threshing floor by anyone in Bethlehem, they will conclude she is simply a hungry woman asking for food.  Boaz once again demonstrates hesed by protecting her from shame.  

Think back to the story of Adam and Eve.  If you will recall after they broke God’s one commandment and became aware of their shame and vulnerability before God, how does God respond?  We would expect that God would end the human project right there, but God doesn’t do that.  God issues a promise of a redeemer that would defeat the serpent.  Rather than allowing Adam and Eve to continue in shame he replaces their own flawed attempt at covering themselves with fig leaves by providing animal skins for clothing.  

The passage we read earlier from Zechariah contains much the same message.  Joshua, the High Priest, stands accused by Satan.  This is one of the few appearances of Satan in the Bible.  Satan means accuser and in the Old Testament Satan functions like a prosecuting attorney.  Joshua stands before the court in dirty clothes showing his unworthiness and proving the point Satan is trying to make.  Joshua is not worthy.  God’s response is to cover his shame and to make him worthy.  This is God’s hesed - it is above and beyond the law.  God goes on to say that Joshua is not an isolated case of God’s beneficence but an example of what is to come.  God promises the redeemer that will be able to make us worthy.  

This is what hesed looks like and this brings me to my fourth point.  Ruth’s case rest on the fact that Boaz should marry her because it is his duty as the go’el, the redeemer.  Here is the thing though - the torah is very specific about the duties of the go’el.  Not once is one of the duties listed as marriage.  There was a custom called levirate marriage in which the brother of the deceased husband is to marry his brother’s widow.  However, that is not necessarily the go’el.  Boaz is not even her immediate go’el.  Yet Boaz again demonstrating hesed, again goes beyond the law and makes the oath “as the Lord lives, I will redeem you.”  Such is Boaz’s love for Ruth and such is God’s love for His people.

What I want us to see is a God who loves His people.  What I want you to experience is the depth of this love.  That is what I think is the heart and the beauty of this story.  Ruth, the rejected, the poor, the foreigner, the enemy, the gold digger comes before Boaz with her impertinent convoluted scheme and Boaz far from rejecting her, far from merely fulfilling his ethical obligations under the law lavishes her with generosity.    Just as in the story of the prodigal son, the Father rejects the sons scheme to work as a hired hand and instead gives his son his finest coat and his ring and his staff and kills the fatted calf.  

Boaz does not treat her as Moabite trash scavenging through Israel’s garbage bins.  Boaz shows instead God’s plan for Israel and God’s plan for the whole world by showing us and Israel what God’s hesed looks like.  Even allowing her to glean would have been a kindness that required a strained interpretation of the torah as she was a Moabite whose only connection to Israel was a dead husband who should not have married her in the first place.  Boaz accepts her, dignifies her, and protects her from shame and humiliation.  This is a love that will fully be demonstrated on the cross when Jesus wrings Himself of His divinity on the cross and accepts our shame and humiliation not because of any obligation or necessity or greater law, but for one reason and one reason only - because He loves us.  

I want to conclude the sermon with one more picture of this from the book of Ezekiel.  I did not include it our readings because I wanted to present here so that we can hear it with these thoughts fresh and our mind.  Its powerful and amazing and communicates the generosity and the way God covers our shames and dignifies his people much better than any concluding remarks I could possibly come up with.  This is Ezekiel chapter 16:

Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem:  Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.  And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling clothes.  No eyes pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on an open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.

And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you, ‘Live!  I said to you in your blood, Live’  I made you flourish like a plant of the field.  And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment.  Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; you were naked and bare.  

When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were the age for love, and I spread my wings over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine.  Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil.  I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather.  I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk.  And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck.  And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.  Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk, and embroidered cloth.  You ate fine flour and honey and oil.  You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.  And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor  that I had on you, declares the Lord God.  
Elimelech has a scheme, Naomi has a scheme.  Adam and Eve had a scheme to know good and evil.  The Bible is the story of people who over and over again reject Him and devise schemes.  The Bible is not the story of heroes.  Abraham, David, Peter and the great people of the Bible all have a scheme.  The Bible is a story of failed schemes that lead to shame.  Yet despite them all God works to cover the shame of His people despite their schemes.  Just as he covered Adam and Eve and just as Boaz covered Ruth by giving her the grain.  Ruth says that she wants Boaz to spread his wings over her.  This is a phrase to describe God’s protection of His people in Deuteronomy it is also used in the Ezekiel passage.   

The passage will grow on to tell how this woman rejects God’s love developing her own scheme , just as we all do, but it will end with the promise of an everlasting covenant that even through the rejection of God’s love will go on to atone and cover even this and this everlasting covenant, the fulfillment and culmination of all the stories of hesed is what Jesus gives to us on the cross.