- I apologize – there was a recording problem and there is no audio for this sermon.
“Naomi and the Child Obed” (1881) by Simeon Solomon, 1840-1905
Ruth 3.1-9 (NRSV)
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
6So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 7When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down. 8At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! 9He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”
Ruth and Naomi knew Boaz was a good guy, he was kind and generous to Ruth and Naomi, but how would he respond to Ruth sneaking up in the night and essentially asking him to marry her…
Naomi’s proposal was kind of risky … It was risky in a number of ways;
- Its counter cultural. Even in our times, it doesn’t happen all that often that the girl turns the tables and proposes to the guy,
- there was no guarantee Boaz would say yes and there were a lot of reasons why he might say no,
- Ruth and Boaz seem like they could be really good for each other. Ruth is loyal, hardworking and persistent. Boaz is kind and generous. They both seem big-hearted, but Ruth is a poor emigrant who doesn’t have much of anything, and Boaz is well off and greatly respected, and
- Ruth has a meddling relative, who sets up the whole proposal – Ruth is a young widow and her late husband’s mother, (her mother-in-law!) pushes her into this whole proposal fiasco … that has awkward written all over it …
There is a lot of risk here. Still, Ruth did everything Naomi asked.
Many people don’t know what to make of the next scene. The Hebrew is filed with puns and plays on words. The language is kind of vague. It leaves a lot to our imaginations.
The more I think about it, the more I’m curious if there could be some humor in this part of the story. I mean what do you get when you take two good, respectable, and likable people … people we are cheering for … put them in a really awkward and potentially scandalous situation and watch how they navigate it. There is bound to be something unpredictable and funny that happens:
8At midnight [Boaz] was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! 9He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” 10He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. 12But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. 13Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning” (Ruth 3.8-13).
In ancient Israel, and even in some other ancient Middle Eastern cultures, there was this thing called Levirate Law. Levirate comes from the Latin word for “brother-in-law.” The idea behind it was that if a man died before he was able to have a son, his brother was responsible for marrying the man’s widow and providing a son so the dead man’s name could continue and his wife would have security in a home.
Both of Naomi’s sons had died, so there wasn’t a brother for Ruth to marry. This idea of Boaz marrying Ruth doesn’t exactly fit with what we know about Levirate law in scripture, since he is a distant relative and not one of Naomi’s sons.
Even though Boaz doesn’t exactly fit the role, Ruth calls Boaz, her “next of kin” – other translations say, “redeemer” or “kinsman redeemer.”
In the Old Testament, a “redeemer,” is a legal term that has to do with a person who has a responsibility to help out a relative who finds themselves in serious trouble.
A redeemer is essentially a rescuer – someone who does what a person can’t do for themselves. In the Bible it has to do with someone who buys back land for a family member, buys back a family member who had to sell themselves as a slave to pay off a debt, or provides a family for a widow.
Boaz could have been asked to help Naomi and Ruth get back Elimelech’s land, but asking him to marry Ruth as a redeemer, may have been a stretch, it seems to fit better with the spirit of the law than with the letter of the law.
There is a play on words here that it makes Ruth’s proposal fit a little better with the story. In chapter 2, when Ruth and Boaz first met, Boaz prayed that “the God of Israel, under whose wings Ruth had taken refuge would reward Ruth for her deeds.” The word translated as cloak here, is the same word that is translated as wings in chapter two. Ruth may have been asking Boaz to take a part in answering his prayer for her. Maybe it was a way to ask Boaz to be God’s instrument of blessing.
If Ruth married someone who was not a relative of Elimelech, her situation would be better, but Naomi would have still been in a bad situation. By pursuing someone who could be a family redeemer, Ruth was providing security for Naomi too.
Boaz accepted Ruth’s proposal.
The only problem was a closer relative who was in line to be redeemer before Boaz. Boaz needed to ask that relative, if he will buy back the land and redeem Ruth, first.
Boaz went to the city gate the next morning and sat down…the city gate was the local gathering place in those days. (Maybe the ancient version of the Post Office – that place in town where you tend to see everyone you know.) As providence would have it, just as Boaz sat down, the man he was looking for happened to pass by. We aren’t told the nearer-kinsmen’s name. In the NRSV, Boaz says to the man, “Come over, friend.” But really the most literal translation is “Come, over, so and so…”
“So and so” came over. Boaz gathered up ten of the communities’ elders – the agreement Boaz and Mr. So and So came to would be public and official.
What Boaz told old “so and so” is kind of confusing … no one has mentioned anything about Naomi having land before … Boaz says Naomi is selling land that belonged to her husband Elimelech … “so and so” gets first chance. If he doesn’t want to redeem it, Boaz wants to redeem it.
“So and so” would do it
Then Boaz told him that when he acquires the field from Naomi, “He will also be acquiring, Ruth, the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on the inheritance.”
There is a lot of cultural and legal information we just don’t have that would help this transaction to make more sense … it doesn’t exactly fit with what we see in other places in the Bible about inheritance and Levirate law. It doesn’t fit the letter of the law, but it fits the spirit and intent of the law … keeping land within a family … providing a home and family for a widow.
I don’t really understand this deal … is Boaz being tricky … is there a law or tradition we don’t know about?
However Ruth fit into the deal, the man said Ruth would be too costly … he couldn’t do it … “So and so” passed his right to Boaz.
He handed Boaz his sandal making it official – he gave up any right to buy the land or marry Ruth.
The witnesses gave Boaz and Ruth’s marriage their blessing.
They asked God to bless Ruth and Boaz with children.
Boaz and Ruth were married. Soon they had a baby. A son. And this isn’t just any son, this is a son who would be the great-grandfather of David, the greatest and most beloved king in Israel’s history.
God’s direct action is only mentioned two times in all of Ruth; in chapter one when Naomi hears God has “Considered his people and given them food” – this is what prompted Naomi’s journey home to Bethlehem. The second time is in chapter four when we read that, “The Lord made [Ruth] conceive and she bore a son;” this is the end of Naomi’s search to find security for her daughter-in-law.
In Ruth’s story we see God’s action and purposes worked out (or revealed) in behind the scenes ways, like Ruth “happening” to glean in Boaz’s field and the closer redeemer “happening” to walk by as Boaz arrived at the city gate. We also see God’s action in the actions of Ruth, in the commitment and love she shows to Naomi, and the actions of Boaz, in his kindness and willingness to go beyond what was required or expected of him.
Their goodness, their kindness, their faithfulness reflects God’s character.
There is a name for what we see of God’s character in this story – we heard it a few weeks ago when we first started studying Ruth. It is a Hebrew word that is kind of hard to translate into English … it is a really important thing to understand about God … it is the word hesed.
It doesn’t translate all that well into just one English word … usually in English we need a couple of words to get its idea across.
Love, loyalty, mercy, grace, kindness, faithfulness, steadfast-love, rescuing love, loving-kindness – those are the words we need when we talk about hesed.
It is more than an emotion, or attitude.
It is rescuing someone from a situation they can’t seem to find a way to get out of themselves.
Hesed is love in action.
At the very end of Ruth the women of the village point out where they have seen God’s hesed–where they have noticed God’s rescuing-loving-kindness. Hopefully Naomi saw it before the end of the story, but she missed it at the beginning of the story.
When Naomi first arrived, and the women of Bethlehem were wondering if this person really could be Naomi, Naomi told them not to call her Naomi any more. Naomi means “pleasant” or “sweet” – she didn’t feel pleasant or sweet. Now they should call her Mara – a name that means “bitter.” She said they should call her Mara, because she felt like God had dealt bitterly with her. She had gone to Moab full and she was returning empty. She returned grieving, discouraged, and defeated.
I think that’s the most gut-wrenching scene in the story. Ruth just made this beautiful promise to stick with Naomi no matter what. Ruth left her family, her homeland, everything familiar behind to be with Naomi and Naomi doesn’t even introduce Ruth to the women of the village. Naomi just says … I am returning empty … I have nothing …
How bad must that have felt for Ruth?
(“Umm … Hi, my name is Ruth, I’m Naomi’s daughter-in-law, I came back with her from Moab. I just committed my life to sticking with Naomi no matter what – maybe that was a mistake. It sounds like I don’t count for all that much.”)
At the end of the story, those, same women tell Naomi that God did not bring her back empty. Naomi came back with something really significant, with someone who loves her. Naomi returned with her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who has shown Naomi God-like, gracious, persistent, loyal, rescuing love.
Naomi missed it at first.
When that little baby was placed in her arms, there was no way she could miss it, she had a daughter-in-law who loved her, stuck with her, and even rescued her.
Are there places in our lives where we are missing seeing God’s love … where we are missing God’s hesed?
Ruth was an unlikely person to share God’s love. She was one of the most powerless people in ancient Israel. A foreigner. A widow. Ruth didn’t have anything. She was on the lowest rung of the status ladder.
Ruth made a powerful and life changing commitment to Naomi. Through her faithfulness, through the things she did, the big things, the little things, the desperate things, and the bold things, God’s goodness was revealed to Naomi, and on an even bigger scale, God brought redemption to Israel … through king David … if we push the story further we notice that Ruth is one of the few women who shows up in Jesus’ family tree and we see God bringing redemption to the world through Jesus.
Like Ruth, Jesus is also an unlikely character. He wasn’t born to wealthy or powerful parents. He didn’t grow up to be anything like what people expected from a Redeemer or Messiah. Jesus shows us God’s hesed, God’s great mercy, love, and grace through his life and ultimately in his death and resurrection.
The story of Ruth reminds us of God’s hesed in our own lives. It reminds us to look for God’s redeeming and rescuing love working and moving through the above and beyond, kind, caring, and bold actions of others.
And, like Ruth, you are able to show God’s love to the people around you. In your commitments … in your words … in your actions … you are an instrument God is using to bring Jesus’ steadfast, rescuing love to the people around you.