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I was asked to talk about the book of Ruth. It’s a book in the Old Testament and it’s quite different to most of the Old Testament, being a self-contained personal story. It’s only four chapters long and a very easy read. It’s a story of faithfulness and reward, showing God’s care for ordinary people. It’s an insight into everyday life in the Old Testament times. It’s set during the time of the judges in Israel and that period between the time of Moses and Joshua &– we heard about Joshua from Martin two weeks ago – and the time of the first kings of Israel, Saul then David and then Solomon. The book starts with a time of hardship and famine. The land wasn’t always flowing with milk and honey. We can read in Judges that the Israelites were not in complete control of the land until the time of David. During the time of Gideon, for example, the Midianites were taking most of the crops away. The story of Ruth starts at one of these times of hardship. Naomi and her husband were economic migrants, not too dissimilar to much of the world today.
Ruth chapter 1
Here’s a recap from today’s reading of Chapter 1 of Ruth. Naomi and her husband Elimelech had to leave Judah with their two sons to live in Moab. “Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. (NIV)” But God came to Israel’s aid and there was food again in the land, possibly even a bumper crop. “When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of His people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law, she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. (NIV)” But Naomi said, “’Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?’ … At this, they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother in law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. ‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and their gods. Go back with her.’ But Ruth replied, ‘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 even death separates you and me.’ When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (NIV)” Ruth was showing her faithfulness to her mother-in-law’s God, who had become her God as well.
Now, where was Moab? It was to the right of Israel, a small country opposite the Dead Sea. If you remember, the children had been afraid to go into the promised land directly because the spies had brought back the report and it had frightened them. Then they had to spend 40 years going round by Edom, which was below Moab, and then Moab itself, before crossing the Jordan opposite Jericho. Relations weren’t always friendly between Israel and Moab, but obviously at this time they were.
Ruth chapter 2
Naomi and Ruth seemed to have very little when they arrived back in Israel, so Ruth had to go straight to work. The poor were allowed to pick up the stalks of grain dropped by the harvesters as a means of relief. Then Ruth said to Naomi,
’Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.’
Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter.’ So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.
Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you!’ [he said.]
’The Lord bless you!’ they answered.
Boaz asked the overseers of his harvesters, ‘Who does that young woman belong to?’
Now, why does Boaz ask who Ruth belonged to? Ruth had had a reputation already from her good behaviour, because “Boaz said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me.…’ At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, ‘Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me &– a foreigner?’ 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’ve come to take refuge.’ (NIV)” Just remember that word, wings.
Ruth chapter 3
Now a little later, Naomi was thinking about Ruth’s future and she thought Boaz’s care for Ruth might go further. She thought it wasn’t a coincidence that Ruth had gone to Boaz’s field. “One day, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, ‘My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he’ll be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you’re there until he’s finished eating and drinking.’” (NIV) Obviously, she wanted Boaz in a good mood. “’When he lies down, note the place where he’s lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He’ll tell you what to do.’ … In the middle of the night, something startled [Boaz]; he turned and there was a woman lying at his feet. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘I’m your servant Ruth,’ she said. ‘Spread the corner …’” (NIV) That word for ‘corner’ in Hebrew is the same word as the word ‘wing’ when he talking about resting under God’s wings. “’Spread the corner of your garment over me since you’re a [kinsman]-redeemer of your family.’ ‘The Lord bless you, my daughter,’ he replied, ‘this kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier. You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town will know that you’re a woman of noble character.’” (NIV) Interestingly, in the Living Bible, what Ruth says to Boaz is also translated as, “Make me your wife according to God’s law.” It is also in my Italian Bible the same. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Of course, we’ve just said that Boaz was called a kinsman-redeemer. Now, what’s a kinsman-redeemer all about? In Hebrew, there’s a word ‘goel’ (גאל), and that’s translated ‘kinsman-redeemer’, and it indicates a traditional behaviour in ancient Israel. Something similar occurred in other countries round about.
The law that this is concerned with is expressed in a passage in Leviticus and another one in Deuteronomy. The passage in Leviticus 25:25 says, ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.’ Then in Deuteronomy 25:5–6 it says, “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother should take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.” (NIV) That second passage only applies to brothers living together.
Boaz was not a brother of Elimelech, and they certainly didn’t live together, but Boaz was interpreting the law in the spirit that Jesus later taught us. He was going the second mile, going beyond the strict confines of the law. We also see here a picture of God’s relationship with us through Jesus. Jesus is our ‘goel’, paying the price of redemption for each of us on the cross, and then welcoming us into his family. The story of Ruth gives us the clearest example of this in the Old Testament.
There were others in the Old Testament who were bad examples of applying the principle. Lot’s daughters, remember Lot was Abraham’s nephew, ended up having children by their father, and one of them became the founder of Moab. Then Judah and Tamar were another couple who had a disreputable episode you can read about, but their son, in fact, was in direct line to David and then Jesus.
There was a problem about Boaz being kinsman-redeemer, and he says, “’Although it’s true that I am [kinsman]-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your [kinsman]-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he’s not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.’ So she lay at his feet until morning but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, ‘No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.’ He also said, ‘Bring me the shawl you’re wearing and hold it out.’ When she did so, he poured in six measures of barley and placed the bundle on her. Then he went back to town.” (NIV) Ruth and Boaz were being discreet because nothing had been settled between them yet. Boaz again showed his generosity to Naomi and Ruth.
Ruth chapter 4
Boaz went straight next morning to the town gate where business was done and to see his closer relative, who should be the kinsman-redeemer. This man offered to buy Naomi’s field. He probably thought he was getting a bargain because it would become his when Naomi died childless. But “Boaz said, ‘On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.’ At this, the [kinsman]-redeemer said, ‘Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.’” … So the [kinsman]-redeemer said to Boaz, ‘Buy it yourself.’ And he removed his sandal.” (NIV) Doing that was a way of showing his guilt in not having been the kinsman-redeemer when he should have. “Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Kilion, and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his home town.’” (NIV) Now we have a happy ending. “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi, ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a [kinsman]-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, ‘Naomi has a son.’ And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (NIV)
So Ruth obtained a husband and a son and Naomi became a very happy grandmother. And we see that last throwaway line that Ruth will become in the direct line to King David and then Jesus. She’s one of the four women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Besides the Virgin Mary, the other two are Rahab the harlot, who you may remember hid the Israelite spies before the fall of Jericho, and Tamar, who we’ve already heard about. Both of them, and Ruth, were non-Israelites, so God wasn’t bothered about racial purity and spotless character in the ancestry of Jesus. He was more concerned about the heart. What can we learn from this story? Ruth was an outsider, but she was accepted readily and joyfully. God cared for her as much as any of His chosen people. Then Ruth’s hard work, honesty and integrity was rewarded, as she received blessings she probably never imagined. But she did have to wait for them, and we may have to wait.
Then Ruth found a family of God’s people. It’s a bit like being under God’s wing. And if we’ve experienced blessing like that, we should thank God also, like Ruth did. Ruth was also fruitful, not only with the child, but she was a blessing to others. Might we have said about us half as glowing a attribute as Boaz said about Ruth.
I want to finish with a New Testament verse that sums up the story. It’s the verse, “All things work together for good,” et cetera. I’ve used the J B Phillips translation, except I’ve modified it a bit at the advice of N T Wright. In J B Phillips it says, “To those who love God, who are called according to His plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.” But according to N T Wright, he says it a bit differently. Instead of “to” at the beginning, it should be “for”, and the Greek word can mean either, because I think God doesn’t do things to us, God does things for us. Then the second part about everything fitting, in fact in the Greek really, the word is singular rather than plural, so God should be the subject in the sentence. As I said, God is not watching from the sidelines, He’s actively involved. The sentence really, or the verse really, should read, “For those who love God, who are called according to His plan, God fits everything that happens into a pattern for good.” That’s Romans 8:28 in this J B Phillips translation modified by me.
J B Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English (London: Harper Collins, 1972).
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1–8 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 153.
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Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.