This week, we have as our text the first chapter of the book of Ruth, which gives us a good taste of the whole story, but just a taste.

October 16, 2011

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Commentary on Ruth 1:1-22

This week, we have as our text the first chapter of the book of Ruth, which gives us a good taste of the whole story, but just a taste.

Don’t be afraid this week to spend a good amount of time just re-telling the story of this beautiful little treasure of a book.

Just to set this in context, we’ve come from Israel standing on the edge of the Promised Land last week to the time of the Judges this week. “In the days when the judges ruled…” (Ruth 1:1) refers to the stories in the book of Judges, of course, when Israel was by turns faithful to God and unfaithful.

God regularly raises up “judges” — military and political leaders — to save Israel from their enemies, but they fall back into mayhem every time. The book of Judges, which comes right before Ruth, ends with inter-tribal conflict and these ominous words: “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 was right in their own eyes” is a direct denial of the Law given to Israel, the story we heard last week. The Law is given to promote life, life with God and life in community. Israel, in the book of Judges, fails to fulfill that Law and so falls into chaos.

In this context, we get the book of Ruth, which is a tale about belonging, about blessing, about faithful love (in Hebrew, hesed), God’s faithfulness, incarnated in human beings.

The podcast (“I Love to Tell the Story”), which accompanies this written reflection, touches on many of these themes and topics, so while I’ll repeat some of what is said there, I’ll try also to delve into other aspects of the book.

If the book of Judges is largely about the people of Israel not keeping the Law, then Ruth is about people going above and beyond the requirements of the Law. Ruth, a foreigner, a Moabite (a fact we’re reminded of often in the book), is not required to follow the laws of Israel. She has married an Israelite, but when he dies, the expected thing is that she will return to the home of her parents. That’s what her sister-in-law, Orpah, does. That’s what Naomi, her mother-in-law, urges her to do (1:15).

But Ruth chooses to demonstrate hesed (faithfulness, lovingkindness, covenant love) instead. She chooses to enter into the covenant of Israel and Israel’s God, out of love for her mother-in-law: “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).

Ruth, a woman, and a foreigner at that, chooses to join her story to the story we’ve been hearing the last several weeks; she chooses to enter into Israel’s covenant with God. She chooses thereby the life of being a stranger in a foreign land. She chooses to leave all that she has known and to go to a place she’s never been, with no assurance of security. A childless widow in ancient Israel had to rely on the kindness of those around her. In this story, Naomi relies on Ruth, and Ruth herself has to rely on the kindness of strangers.

One of the beautiful themes in the book is that hesed meets hesed; that is, faithfulness engenders faithfulness, kindness meets kindness. Ruth goes above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Law out of love for Naomi. And when Boaz learns of Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, he blesses her:

All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 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).

Ruth’s kindness and loyalty (and no doubt her beauty) stir up in Boaz the same response. He offers her protection and abundant food. He even instructs his field hands to pull out some grain from the standing sheaves so that Ruth has more to glean (2:16). Ruth comes back to Naomi with an abundance of barley, something like 30 pounds! When Naomi sees this astounding harvest and learns where Ruth has gleaned, she expresses hope for the first time:

Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness (hesed) has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin (goel).” (Ruth 2:20)

God has not abandoned Naomi, as she had claimed on her return to Bethlehem (1:20-21). Instead, God’s lovingkindness, God’s faithfulness, God’s hesed, has been incarnated for her first in Ruth, and now in Boaz.

Boaz is a goel, a kinsman redeemer, to Naomi. A kinsman redeemer was a near relative who was obligated by the Law to care for his impoverished relatives by (in part) redeeming land they sold because of debt (see Leviticus 25). Naomi, for the first time in the story, sees a way forward, and instructs Ruth to go down to the threshing floor.

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)

Whether Ruth uncovers Boaz’s feet or his “feet” is a matter of debate amongst interpreters. In any case, what she does is bold, and what is even bolder is that she doesn’t wait for Boaz to tell her what to do. She tells him what to do!

He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin (goel).”  He said, “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 3:9-10)

Ruth proposes to Boaz! She calls him to fulfill the responsibilities of the goel for her and for Naomi.1 She calls him to become the agent of God’s blessing, the blessing that he had earlier invoked over her. He spoke of the “wings” of the Lord, under which Ruth sought refuge (2:12). Ruth proposes to him by asking that he spread his “cloak” over her (3:9). The same Hebrew word is used here for “wings” and “cloak.” Ruth is in effect asking him to be the agent of God’s blessing, and he accepts!

Both Ruth and Boaz go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Law. Ruth is not obligated to stay with her mother-in-law or to leave her homeland. Boaz is not a brother to Ruth’s dead husband. He’s not even the nearest relative to Naomi (3:12-13). But neither Ruth nor Boaz act out of a legalistic mindset.

Instead, they fulfill the Law by demonstrating hesed — loyalty, love, kindness — to Naomi and to each other. And by doing so, they incarnate the hesed of God, a God who never speaks in the book of Ruth but who works behind the scenes to bless, to redeem, and to work new life where there was only emptiness and death.

When Ruth bears a child, the women of the village interpret for Naomi what this blessing of God means: “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’s love for Naomi is the conduit of God’s blessing. And isn’t that often the way God blesses even now, through the love and loyalty of human relationship?

One more note: Just as the first verse of the book of Ruth links it to what comes before (Judges), the last verses (4:17-22) link it to what comes after. Obed, Ruth and Boaz’s son, becomes the grandfather of David, whose story occupies most of 1 and 2 Samuel. We will hear part of David’s story next week. But for this week, it is enough to talk about one woman whose faithfulness mirrors and enacts God’s own.

1The story seems to invoke not only laws about the goel, but also about levirate marriage, where one brother is to marry his deceased brother’s wife in order to father a child who can carry on the dead brother’s name (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38).