Bible by Request: Ruth
Pentecost XI (O. T. 18)
The rest of the summer will focus on characters from the Bible that you wanted to hear about. This will give me a chance to say what I think is most important about the people in the Bible: that you are familiar with them. In each sermon I'll probably make comments about ideas and implications of the stories – I know I will today – but really the most important thing is for you to know these stories. You should know them so you realize that this God-stuff is real stuff for real people. I remember once when I was teaching a confirmation class and we were talking about the Hebrew people in Egypt; the young people happened to be studying Egypt in school at the same time. One of them – Raymond, I think – said, "Wow; I always thought the Bible stories were in some kind of fantasy land! I didn't know they were real places!"
Real people encountering God in real places. They are worth knowing.
So, the story of Ruth. The story doesn't begin with Ruth, however, but with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion were from Judah, from the town of Bethlehem. During a famine – which is sort of ironic, since "Bethlehem" means "House of bread" – they went and moved to the nearby country of Moab. Moab was on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, in what is now the western part of the Kingdom of Jordan. While they were there, Mahlon and Chilion got married to women from Moab: Ruth and Orpah. Over time, all three of the men died, leaving Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth.
So Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem; her daughters-in-law resolved to go with her. Before they got to the border, Naomi said to them, "Go home to your mothers; look for husbands among your own people. You have been very good to me; may the Lord be good to you." Both of the younger women replied, "No; we will go with you." But Naomi insisted, and so Orpah gave in, kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, and went home. Ruth replied with the words you heard from the Scripture, words you may have heard sung at a wedding or other event: where you go, I will go; your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.
Ruth's fierce loyalty to her mother-in-law makes her one of the great icons of friendship in the Bible. I think it's worth pointing out that these beautiful words that you may have heard sung at a wedding are not someone's words to a spouse; they are the words of a young woman to her mother-in-law, whom she claims as friend and to whom she commits herself. So the two women set off to Bethlehem.
They arrived about the time of the barley harvest. Now, you may have heard of the practice of "gleaning." It was a law among the people of God that farmers could not completely harvest their crops; they had to leave some in the field for the poor and for immigrants (Leviticus 19:9). Yes, I didn't make that up: aliens were especially provided for. Anyway, Naomi's late husband had a relative named Boaz, a wealthy man of some influence; Naomi told Ruth to go to Boaz' fields to glean. And she did so.
Boaz happened to come out to his field and saw her and asked his hired men who she was; they told him that she was the Moabite woman who came with Naomi. Boaz then spoke to her; he urged her not to go to anyone else's fields but to take all she needed from his fields. He added that he had ordered his workers not to bother her, and to give her water whenever she wanted it. She fell to the ground at his feet and asked, "Why are you being so kind to me, a foreigner?" He said it was because he had heard what she did, how she left her family and her homeland out of loyalty to Naomi. And he added, "You have come under the wings of the Lord, the God of Israel, for refuge; may the Lord reward you for what you have done."
Then at mealtime Boaz offered her food and wine; she resumed working until the evening. She beat out the grain she had gleaned, and took home a good quantity of barley: an ephah, however much that is. Well, it's ten omers (Exodus 16:36). Does that help? Okay, it's probably about a bushel. Anyway, she took the grain home, Naomi took what she needed and returned the rest to Ruth. And Ruth continued to do this daily (except, of course, Sabbath) throughout the harvest.
Now, as the time of harvest was drawing near its end, Naomi hatched a plot to get a more secure future for Ruth. To understand this, you need a little more background on ancient Hebrew law and custom. When a man died and left his wife childless, then his brother was supposed to marry her (even if he was already married; he just took another wife) and father children in the name of the deceased. That way the man's name was not lost to history; it also kept property in the family. Also, he was to assume any property the brother left, including costs associated with it. If there were no brothers, then the opportunity would go to the nearest male relative. Ruth's husband had died, as you know; his brother also had died. Keep that in mind and hear what Ruth did, following Naomi's instructions.
It was threshing time and Boaz and his men were working at the threshing floor. Ruth washed and put on fragrant oil and her best clothes and went down to where the men were working, but didn't join in. She watched from a distance as they worked and ate and drank; she noted where Boaz lay down to sleep. After working hard all day and eating and drinking rather a lot, the men did not go home to bed but laid out mats and blankets there at the threshing floor. So Ruth saw where Boaz was and, after he was asleep, she snuck in and got under the blanket with him. In the middle of the night he awoke and discovered a woman with him! It was dark and he could not see her face, so he asked who she was; she said, "I am Ruth; now do your duty as next-of-kin."
Boaz was deeply moved; he said, "May the Lord bless you, child; your loyalty is even greater now than before, because you could have gone after any of the young men in town. Wait out the night and I will see tomorrow what I can do. I'm not really next-of-kin – there is one man ahead of me – but if he does not fulfill the responsibility, then I will."
Before it was light, she got up to go home, so that no one else would know she was there. Before she left, Boaz loaded her up with as much barley as she could carry to take home with her. Then he got up, got ready, and headed to town. In those days they didn't have county courthouses to take care of legal matters; the custom was to sit at the town gate and gather ten men to witness transactions. So Boaz sat at the gate and waited for the next-of-kin to come by; when he did, Boaz said, "Sit here with me." Then when they had ten witnesses, Boaz said, "Naomi is selling that bit of land that belonged to Elimelech; since you are next-of-kin, you have the first right to buy it." The man said that he would be glad to buy it. But Boaz added, "Of course, when you buy the land, you also are to marry Ruth the Moabite in order to continue her husband's name and line." Well, the next-of-kin said he could not do that; he didn't want to mess with his own inheritance. And so he gave the right and responsibility of next-of-kin to the next man in line; namely, Boaz. There's a fun bit of trivia in the story: the next-of-kin took off his sandal and handed it to Boaz as a sign that he was passing to him the right of next-of-kin. So Boaz made a little speech; he said, "Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and Chilion and Mahlon. Likewise I have acquired Ruth, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife and to continue his name" and so on. The ten men replied, "We are witnesses" and then they offered a blessing.
Boaz was thrilled; he had a young wife whose love and loyalty were unquestioned. Ruth had security and a good, attentive husband. And Naomi had the satisfaction of a job well done. Soon Ruth was pregnant and she gave birth to his first child, a boy named Obed. Naomi's friends blessed her and Naomi finally had the joy again that she had lost when Elimelech and her sons had died. And the women said to her, "Ruth, your daughter-in-law who loves you, has been more to you than seven sons."
Two concluding thoughts. The first is simply to reiterate that the story of Ruth and Naomi is one of the Bible's great stories of friendship. Part of the wonder of the world of the Bible is the value it places on friendship, something we have often neglected in our culture. We can celebrate what two women of different generations who care about each other can be for one another.
The other thought is that the story of Ruth is a good example of the dialogue and even conflict that goes on in the Bible, a conflict you will see in other stories too. One of those conflicts is over the question of racial purity. You see, the people of Israel had a strong tradition of racial purity, to the point that there were times in their history that men were required to divorce their wives if the women were not from Israel. Although they were, as I said, to provide for the well-being of aliens among them, they were not to marry them. But there were dissenting voices, voices that said that foreign women who were willing to become part of Israel, to worship the Lord the God of Israel, should be accepted.
Remember that Ruth was an alien; she was from Moab. Also, Ruth said to Naomi, "Your God shall be my God." And so it is often said that the Book of Ruth reminds us that God is less concerned with racial purity than with faithfulness. And to drive the point home, the story-teller reminds us that Boaz' and Ruth's son Obed went on to have a son named Jesse, who then had a son named David. Yes, that David.
Lest anyone think that two women cannot manage their lives out of love for one another, hear the story of Ruth and Naomi. And lest anyone think that God demands racial purity and nothing good can come from marriage with a foreigner, remember that the great King David's great-grandmother was from Moab.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master