Commentary on Ruth 1:1—4:22
A story of human love reflecting and enacting divine love, the book of Ruth is a rich text for a sermon series, particularly in August days when farm fields flourish with the promise of an abundant harvest.
Themes of emptiness and fullness abound in this little book: famine turning to abundant food, loss turning to love, bitterness turning to joy, barrenness giving way to birth.
And the improbable catalyst for all this is Ruth, neither king nor prophet, but only a widow and a foreigner. This little domestic tale is a story of God’s hesed, God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant love, lived out in the lives of everyday, ordinary human beings, much like you and me.
I have written before on this website about the book of Ruth and will undoubtedly touch on some of the same themes, but I will organize this essay according to the four chapters of the book. It is a story in four acts, and lends itself well to a four-part sermon series. For an example of such a sermon series on Ruth, including a sermon that I preached, see the Spring 2013 issue of Word & World.
Week 1: August 10, 2014
Preaching text: Ruth 1:1-22; accompanying text: Matthew 5:3-9
Ruth 1: Loss and Loyalty
The first chapter of Ruth sets up the story that follows. “In the days when the judges ruled” (1:1) refers back to the time of the judges, a time of chaos and disobedience in Israel. In fact, the verse just previous to this (the last verse of the book of Judges) reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel.
Set against this backdrop of national calamity, a more personal calamity comes upon Naomi and her family. Famine in the “house of bread” (the literal meaning of “Bethlehem”) forces them to migrate to Moab. There, the deaths of her husband and two sons leave Naomi bereft, empty. The preacher may choose to focus this week on Naomi, who is arguably the main character in the book. No doubt there will be many in the congregation who can relate to Naomi’s loss and disappointment, her grief and bitterness. She speaks honestly, and the preacher would do well to acknowledge her loss.
Here in chapter 1, of course, is the most famous passage in Ruth: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). The bitterness of Naomi is not the whole of the story. Ruth’s loyalty, Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law holds the promise of something more, as does the final verse of this chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi is empty (1:21), but faithful Ruth is right beside her, and the harvest is coming.
Week 2: August 17, 2014
Preaching text: Ruth 2:1-23; accompanying text: Luke 6:36-38
Ruth 2: Gleaning and Hope
As the old adage goes, “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.” In the second act of this play, Ruth goes out to glean barley to sustain herself and Naomi, and “as it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (2:3). Boaz is a pillar of the community (whose name is attached to one of the pillars of the Temple) who just happens to be related to Naomi’s dead husband.
God does not speak from burning bushes in this book; nor does God divide the sea. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s hesed is embodied in human action. Boaz praises Ruth for her loyalty to her mother-in-law (2:11) and then enacts through his generosity the blessings of God that he calls down upon her: “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2:11-12).
Naomi sees the astonishing amount of barley that Ruth has gleaned (something like 30 pounds), and finds out that it is Boaz who has helped Ruth. And it is only then that Naomi begins to move from despair to hope. She recognizes in this turn of events the hand of God and she is quick to name God as the source of blessing: “Blessed be he [Boaz] by the LORD, whose kindness (hesed) has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (Ruth 2:20).
The tide is turning. Emptiness is being filled. Hope is born. And it is an old widow (one who has seen more than her share of sorrow) who recognizes the hand of God in these seemingly happenstance circumstances. Perhaps it is often thus: Those who have had long experience of seeing God at work can recognize and name those times in our own lives when miracles begin to happen.
Week 3: Aug. 24, 2014
Preaching text: Ruth 3:1-18; accompanying text: Matthew 7:7-8
Ruth 3: Daring to Act
Sometime later, Naomi takes matters into her own hands. She instructs Ruth, “Now 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.When 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” (Ruth 3:3-4).
A few things to note about this chapter:
- Yes, “feet” sometimes are a euphemism in the Bible. But “feet” are also sometimes just feet and there’s no way to know for sure what’s meant in this passage. In any case, there are obviously some sexual overtones to this chapter. Ruth comes to Boaz by night at the threshing floor. She lies down beside him, uncovering some part of his body. She spends the night there and leaves before dawn. On the other hand, it must be noted, there’s no explicit mention of sexual relations here (as there is, for instance in 4:13). Some things are best left to mystery.
- The more important matter has to do with the boldness and integrity exhibited by both Ruth and Boaz.1 Naomi says, “uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (insert knowing laughter here). But, in fact, when Boaz wakes up in surprise to discover a woman lying beside him, it is she who tells him what to do: “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin (goel)” (3:9). To “spread one’s cloak” over a woman is to marry her. Ruth, in other words, proposes to Boaz! And she calls him to fulfill his duty as the goel. A goel is a close male relative who is obligated in Israelite law to redeem his kin who have fallen onto hard times (Leviticus 25:25, 35-38, 47-49).2
- Boaz promises that he will do all that Ruth asks. Her faithfulness to her mother-in-law is matched by Boaz’s own faithfulness. And, it is worth noting, this foreign widow mirrors God’s own faithful love, God’s hesed. Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty (hesed) is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich” (Ruth 3:10). Ruth has chosen (apparently older) Boaz and they find new life in each other.
Love and faithfulness abound, as much as the piles of grain at the threshing floor, and blessings overflow into the lives of those who once were empty.
Week 4: Aug. 31, 2014
Preaching text: Ruth 4:1-22; accompanying text: Luke 1:46-55
Ruth 4: New Life
The scene at the city gate (where legal proceedings are conducted) is a humorous one. The nearer relative, the potential goel with whom Boaz speaks, is never named, which is entirely appropriate since he refuses to carry on the name of Mahlon (Ruth’s dead husband). He is enthusiastic about acquiring more land but suddenly remembers a previous appointment and makes himself scarce when Boaz says that marrying Ruth is part of the bargain. So, having fulfilled all righteousness, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his marriage to Ruth.
Ruth conceives and bears a son. Where there was famine, now there is a plentiful harvest. Where there was barrenness (in her marriage to Mahlon), now there is birth. The women of the village interpret this blessing for Naomi: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him” (4:15). Ruth is Naomi’s greatest blessing.
“Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and she became his nurse” (4:16). The rabbis, noting that the Hebrew word translated here often means “wet nurse,” said that a miracle happened, that Naomi’s old and withered breasts were suddenly plump and round with milk, and that she nursed the child herself.
Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the hesed of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.
One last note: The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy. This child, Obed, will be the grandfather of David, Israel’s most beloved king. Here is where the story of Ruth leaves us, with the promise of God’s faithful love, God’s hesed, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel, and through David’s greater Son, into even our own lives as well. Blessing upon blessing, heaped up, overflowing. Thanks be to God!
1 Note that both Ruth and Boaz are referred to as people of integrity. Boaz is introduced in the narrative as an esh gibor hayil (a powerful man of integrity) in 2:1, and he pronounces the community’s opinion of Ruth as an eshat hayil (a woman of integrity, a worthy woman) in 3:11. The latter phrase is also used of the ideal woman/wife in Proverbs 31:10, which in the Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Bible immediately precedes the story of Ruth.
2 The law of levirate marriage is also being evoked here, the law that instructs a man to marry his brother’s widow if the dead brother had no children (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).