I know you are asking it, so I will answer you: Yes, this dress comes from Jerusalem, and No, I am not going to be Ruth or Naomi today. But I am wearing this dress for a reason: I want you to connect the beauty of this dress to the fact that Ruth is a BEAUTIFUL book. It is a little gem tucked between two tomes of history in the Old Testament. It is a book of exquisite beauty – both in literary terms as well as in theological terms. Unfortunately, some of the literary beauty is lost in translation. One scholar said that the original in Hebrew is quite simply, ‘the most beautiful short story ever written’. Its theological beauty however is very much all there. Please open your church Bibles to page …… and keep it open because we are going to leap through this lovely story – but I want you this afternoon to sit down and read these 4 short chapters slowly and relish the beauty in the detail.
Peter Johnson said of the reading last week that context in the Old Testament is very important to understanding, and this is especially true of the book of Ruth. So let’s start with the context. This story takes place about a thousand years before Christ – in the time when judges ruled Israel. In the opening scene we are introduced to three women, all widows. The younger women, Orpah and Ruth, are probably somewhere between 25 and 30 years of age. Naomi is probably closer to 50, maybe older. She certainly states she can no longer bear children. We are told ‘they’ lived in Moab about ten years. Now at that time, the family probably lived together in one extended household – especially if Naomi was widowed first as the text implies. So these three women will have worked side by side on a daily basis cleaning, cooking, making clothes, gathering food, etc. They would have known each other very well, and Naomi being the oldest would have led them. She would have been the ‘boss’ of this little team of women. When Naomi tells the younger women to go back to their mother’s homes and remarry among their own people, both girls protest. Eventually, Orpah gives in and kisses her good-bye; but Ruth pledges herself to Naomi in a display of love known as hesed. Why?
Because in those days a woman had no economic power in the marketplace. A widow left without husband or son was most of the time destined to live out her life begging for food, and was often left destitute, dying on the street in squalor. Ruth could not live out her life with the knowledge of Naomi being left to such a fate. So Ruth does something extraordinary. One scholar wrote that Ruth’s leap of faith is even more dramatic than Abraham’s because: ‘Ruth stands alone; she possesses nothing. No God called her; no deity has promised her blessing; no human being has come to her aid. She lives and chooses without a support group and she knows that the fruit of her decision may well be the emptiness of rejection, indeed of death.’ In fact, the Moabites were hated in Israel, and she and Naomi were not travelling with men. They would be very, very vulnerable.
I have mentioned the word ‘hesed’, and the book of Ruth is all about showing the meaning of hesed through the actions not just of Ruth, but also of Naomi and Boaz. ‘Hesed’ has no real equivalent in the English language. It is sometimes referred to as ‘covenant love’ or ‘sacrificial love’. It definitely is NOT romantic love, erotic love or even brotherly love. Hesed is a love that is freely given, is exceedingly loyal and goes beyond the call of duty. It is the love described by Jesus when he says in John ‘No greater love has a man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.’
So let’s look closely at the story in light of this unusual form of love. It starts with Ruth choosing to lay down her own right to choose: ‘Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.’ Naomi accepts this and takes her back to Bethlehem where she is greeted with a great deal of joy from the other women – who, by the way, act almost like the chorus in Greek tragedies; their voice may be in the background, but they play a strong role in this story: ‘Is this our Naomi, the pleasant one?’ To which Naomi says, ‘Don’t call me ‘pleasant’ but ‘bitter’ for I have lost everything!’ Naomi is so blinded by grief, she can’t even acknowledge the presence of Ruth! I have to say – though – I envy Naomi. She must have been greatly loved; she was certainly intelligent and very trustworthy. Perhaps this is why Ruth was so willing to pledge herself to Naomi.
Naomi was aware of the law of redemption, and chapters 2 and 3 are of her instructing Ruth in how to make claim to this law. The original law is found in Deuteronomy Chapter 25: 5-10. I want you to turn to these verses because I don’t think you will believe me; they are most unusual (read from Bible). Now, the situation with Naomi and Ruth is not so clear-cut because Ruth is standing in for Naomi, and she is a foreigner. It is an unusual situation.
And that’s what life is like – it’s messy. This is why Jesus gets so angry with the Scribes and Pharisees in our reading from Matthew. Life situations rarely throw up clear rights and wrongs, and no law book can contain a law for every situation. So laws need to be interpreted. The best method for interpreting a law is to ask, ‘Why was this law written? Who was it meant to protect or what was it meant to prevent?’ The Scribes and Pharisees were more concerned with the letter of the law instead of the spirit, the reason for it. Jesus accuses them ‘You tithe your mint, and cumin and dill, but you have no LOVE.’ If they were looking at Ruth and Naomi’s situation, they would have said, ‘Tough ladies; there will be no redemption for you.’ So let’s go back to their story.
Ruth and Naomi work together to claim redemption. Naomi tells Ruth about Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Naomi’s dead husband, and Ruth says, ‘Let me work in his fields and seek his favour’. So Ruth goes a courtin’. While Ruth is working in the fields, Naomi is working the local grapevine for when Boaz asks after Ruth, he already knows ‘all that she has done for his kinswoman Naomi’. I mentioned earlier that ‘hesed’ has within it an element of loyalty. I want to point out that this loyalty on Ruth’s part is not loyalty for its own sake. It is loyalty in response to the righteousness found in God’s people as exhibited by Boaz and Naomi. Neither of them is unkind towards Ruth nor abusive in any way. Boaz shows himself to be very gracious. He rewards Ruth by telling his servants to protect her (and that is a hint that she was an attractive woman), to let her glean – even to leave some of the best for her to glean. She is asked to dine with him. He invites her to glean with his maidservants right to the end of the harvest. By the end of the harvest Naomi is getting nervous. Boaz hasn’t offered to act a ‘next of kin’ yet, so she senses it is time to be more bold. And what she tells Ruth to do next is amazing. (Read 3:1-4) Our scripture says ‘to uncover his feet’, but actually she would have uncovered his legs entirely. This was a very provocative act! Now, if my mother-in-law told me to do that, I would be like ‘You want me to WHAT?!’ Ruth doesn’t even question it. She so trusts Naomi, that she says, ‘All that you say I will do’.
So she does it, and not only that, when Boaz wakes up, she asks him straightaway to ‘spread his skirt over her’ – basically take me as your wife. I want you to picture this scene. The threshing floor would have been very dark. Have you ever been in complete pitch blackness such that you cannot see your hand in front of your face? Boaz would have smelled her perfume, but he asks who is there because he cannot see her! She replies straight off, but can you imagine how scared she must have been. This was a very intimate conversation; their faces only inches apart in order to be seen. I want you to understand how brave this was on Ruth’s part; she is a young, foreign woman asking an older, established gentleman to marry her! She must have been shaking like a leaf.
Boaz for his part, responds with complete integrity. He could have said, ‘ooh yes, thank you Lord, juicy young thing at my feet!’ and taken her right there. But he doesn’t. He praises her for be willing to accept an older man, but makes it clear that there is a nearer kinsman who needs to be asked first. Imagine being Ruth at that moment. If I were directing this as a movie, I would have been yelling from the sidelights ‘CUE THE TEARS RUTH!!’ He’s not suggesting a blind date – but blind marriage here. But he is doing what is right. Boaz is making sure that due process is followed so that no one can accuse him of stealing what was not rightfully his. He tells her not to worry; if that kinsman doesn’t wish to redeem her and Naomi, he will.
Naomi and Boaz are both very clever. Naomi knows he will take care of it immediately; the hint in the text tells us why. He tells his servants that no one is to speak of a woman being on the threshing floor – he has to settle the matter before the grapevine of gossip heats up and burns off the two most vulnerable grapes! And he does.
Now Boaz isn’t certain there is a redemption case here either, so he baits the other kinsman. By the way, our scripture is kind in translation; the Hebrew comes as near as Hebrew can to calling the man ‘Mr. So and So’! Boaz offer the lands of Elimelech to Mr So and So claiming that he has the ‘right of redemption’ as next of kin. That is a law in Leviticus, which is similar to the one in Deuteronomy. Mr So and So loves the idea of buying the land; thereby admitting that he is ‘the redeemer’ and this is a ‘redemption’ case. Boaz then drops the clanger that he must take Ruth the Moabitess as his wife as part of the deal. And the guy weasels out. I had to laugh at the commentator I was reading. He stated that ‘scholars can’t find the law that Mr So and So is referring to which would ‘cause his inheritance to be messed up’. That’s because Mr So and So was speaking a load of rubbish! He was looking for a way out. Now remember the sandal being removed; Mr So and So takes off his own sandal, hands it to Boaz and tells him he may be the redeemer. Boaz then follows the custom of the day to the letter to ensure that the marriage is legal and accepted by the townspeople as an act of redemption. He even gets a blessing from them. He acts with complete integrity to redeem Naomi and Ruth even though it is not strictly required of him according to the law.
So Ruth becomes his wife and bears a son for whom? For Naomi. (Read 4: 14-16) Ruth is a surrogate mother. She put herself in Naomi’s place in order that Naomi should be saved. That bears repeating: She put herself in Naomi’s place in order that Naomi should be saved. Sound familiar? The text tells us that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David, and therefore the ancestress of Jesus. Jesus put himself on the cross in your place and mine so that we might be saved.
So what is the point of the story? Why do the Jews read it publicly each year – even today? Well, it is this: God rewards people who respond to His righteousness with hesed love – even if that person is at the bottom of the social totem pole – in this case a young, foreign woman. Hesed is love freely given, loyal and beyond the call of duty. It looks beyond the letter of the law. There was a lot of Ruth in Jesus!