The story of Ruth

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all again for joining us for worship this morning.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at characters from the Old Testament. We’ve visited with Samuel, with David, and last week with Gideon.

Last Sunday, a couple of people asked me, “When are we going to get on to some of the famous women from the Old Testament?” So, I promised we’d do one of them today.

The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest books of the entire Bible. It’s only 4 pages long. It totals only 85 verses. It was written at least 2,500, perhaps as long as 3,000 years ago. And yet, it’s a story which still speaks directly to our hearts, and one which is full of love, faith and hope for us today.

What I’d like to do this morning, is to ask you all to open up your Bibles, and read it with me. We’ll just take it one chapter at a time.

The story takes place during the period of the Judges. When the people of Israel arrived in the Promised Land, the different tribes each received their own territory. There was no king or central government. Moses had died, and Joshua, who followed him. There were individual leaders, who came forward at times of crisis, people like Samuel and Gideon.
But there was no king in Israel. As it says at the end of the book of Judges, “each person did what was right in their own eyes.” It was a period of confusion, lawlessness, rivalry, and violence. And in the midst of this turbulent period, shining quietly like polished jewel, is the story of Ruth.

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

Now Elimelek, 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.

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people back in Israel 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.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

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? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

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 her 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.

So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”

“Don’t call me Naomi,” [which means pleasantness] she told them. “Call me Mara [which means bitter] because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

Ruth 1

The story begins with a famine. We forget today just how terrible that was. Today, if crops fail in one area, we just import food from somewhere else. If oranges freeze down in Florida, well, we get them from California. If there’s a dry summer in Indiana and corn and soybeans are bad, we get them from somewhere else in the country. Prices go up, but for the most part, nobody dies.

Well, back then, in time of famine, people died. There was nothing they could do, except maybe move, if they could. It meant abandoning their homes, abandoning their land, and hoping that they would be able to find a new place, far from home.

A man from Bethlehem did just that. He moved with his wife and two sons from Israel, to Moab, the country next door. The people of Moab were distant cousins of the people of Israel. The people of Moab were the descendants of Lot, who was the nephew of Abraham.

The people of Moab were considered foreigners by this time. They had opposed the people of Israel, during their return from the exile in Egypt. But they had food there. So this family from Israel went to Moab.

While they were sojourning in Moab, the father died. The two sons married Moabite women. This was not considered a good thing. During most of Israel’s history, one of the worst things you could do was to marry someone from another country. Other countries were the enemy. They invade Israel, they persecute Israel, and they try to get the people of Israel to follow after foreign gods.

But here in Ruth, foreigners are kind to people. Foreigners care for God’s people in distress. And the story of Ruth shows that the kindness and love and faith of the foreigners, in some ways exceeds that of the “people of God”. So, her two sons marry Moabite women. After about ten years, both sons died. So Naomi decides to return home, because the famine back in Israel had ended. And she said to her daughters-in-law, “Go home. May God deal kindly with you, as you dealt kindly with my sons, your husbands, and with me. May the Lord help you find new homes, and new husbands.”

One daughter-in-law wept, and went home. But the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, said no, she was coming with Naomi.

The words Ruth said are the most famous ones in the whole book:

Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God; where you die I will die, too, and there I will be buried. . .”

I’ve heard those words often read as part of peoples’ marriage promises. I often hear them at weddings. But here, in their original setting, these words are spoken by a young widow, Ruth, to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi.

So, off they go, to Bethlehem, which is a place we usually associate with Christmas, or sometimes as the birthplace of King David. But here, it’s simply home. And they don’t know how they’ll be received.

Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of wealth and standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz.

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”

Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” So Ruth 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 Elimelek.

Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you!”

“The Lord bless you!” they answered.

Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?”

The overseer replied, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.”

So 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. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”

At this, Ruth bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor 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 have come to take refuge.”

“May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord,” she said. “You have put me at ease by speaking kindly to your servant—though I do not have the standing of one of your servants.”

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.”

When Ruth sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over. As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her.”

So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about two-thirds of a bushel – almost 30 pounds. Ruth carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough.

Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!”

Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,” she said.

“The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one who guards our family.”

Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay with my workers until they finish harvesting all my grain.’”

Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”

So Ruth stayed close to the women of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law.

Ruth 2

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded to be merciful and compassionate. The foreigner, the stranger, the poor person, the widow, the orphan, the person who has suffered from an accident, the neighbor – all these people are important.

When Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus wasn’t inventing something new. Jesus was repeating something which has been a part of God’s teaching from the beginning.

In an agricultural community, wealth comes in the form of land, and herds, and flocks. Prosperity comes at the time of harvest. People who have are commanded to be generous to people who have not.

Boaz is a relative of Naomi’s dead husband. Boaz’s actions show him to be an ideal Israelite. He sees Ruth, out there gleaning in the field, gathering whatever scraps of fallen grain are left over from the harvest.

Boaz notices her, and he shows compassion for her. He not only allows her to go on gleaning, but he goes out of his way to be kind to her. He tells Ruth to feel free to drink the water which is provided for his own workers. He shares the food which the workers are given, and invites Ruth to sit with them.

Boaz instructs the harvest workers privately to be sure to leave some extra grain behind them for Ruth. And he tells Ruth to continue to glean and gather in his fields, and not to go anywhere else, where someone else’s field hands might harass and molest her.

Ruth is gathering food to support herself and her mother-in-law. Boaz is being compassionate, and generous. Naomi is old. She’s staying in the village, cooking and trying to make a home.

What we’ve got is a triangle here, with the people tied to each other by different bonds of love and relationship. Ruth is tied to Naomi by her sense of love and family, through her dead husband. Naomi is tied to Boaz through his family relationship to her dead husband. Ruth is beginning to be tied to Boaz, directly through his kindness, and indirectly through Naomi.

But there’s still more of the story yet to go.

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 will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor.

Wash yourself, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”

“I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do.

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked.

“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian of our 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 know that you are a woman of noble character. Although it is true that I am a guardian 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 guardian, good; let him redeem you. But if he is 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 are wearing and hold it out.” When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and placed the bundle on her. Then he went back to town.

When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, “How did it go, my daughter?”

Then Ruth told Naomi everything Boaz had done for her and added, “He gave me these six measures of barley, saying, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”

Then Naomi said, “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.”

Ruth 3

In the Old Testament, family is everything.

It’s more than an economic unit. To belong a family is to belong to a living chain of descendants. If that chain was broken, it was the responsibility for others in the family to repair it.

In the book of Deuteronomy, it says: “If brothers live together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family, to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall take her as his wife, and the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. . .” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)

When we read the book of Ruth, today, we think of it as a lovely romance. And it is.
Ruth, the lovely young widow, goes to Boaz, the older man. She goes to see him at night. She risks her reputation. I think we have to read some love into the scene, possibly even some seduction.

But we also have to remember that Ruth was claiming his protection, as next of kin. Ruth was pleading for herself, for her own survival and Naomi’s. But she was also pleading for her husband, for the promise given to her husband, and for the children her husband never had.

This business of taking care of widows, and especially having children to continue the name of people, had a very strict order about it. If there was no surviving brother, then there was an order to be followed. Boaz was not the nearest relative, and it says that he wasn’t the youngest. He’s astonished that Ruth comes to him, rather than to a younger man, either poor or rich.

Let’s read what happens next.

Meanwhile Boaz went up to the town gate and sat down there just as the other relative he had mentioned came along. Boaz said, “Come over here, my friend, and sit down.” So he went over and sat down.

Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so. Then he said to the other relative, “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek. I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem the piece of land, do so. But if you will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line.”

“I will redeem it,” the other relative said.

Then 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 her dead son with his property.”

At this, the other relative said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.”

(Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Israel.)

So the other relative said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” And he removed his sandal.

Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, 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 hometown. Today you are witnesses!”

Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”

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 guardian-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.

Ruth 4

I just want to say a couple of things.

This is a love story. But it’s also about what Ruth, and Naomi, and Boaz did to fulfil God’s promise to them and to their family.

Naomi and Ruth were going to lose their home place, and their name, and their share in the country’s inheritance.

When we see farm families today, crying because the land they’ve worked for 3 or 4 generations is being sold at auction. We see poor people growing up in society, who are born disinherited, born without any place to claim them or really to call their home. That’s just a a hint of what’s going on in this story.

Boaz accepted Ruth as his wife. And he loved her. This is a love story. But it’s also a story of faith and hope. It’s a story of redemption.

It’s about love, but it’s also about social security, and loyalty to her husband who had died, and to his share in God’s promise to the people of Israel.

It’s a story about human survival, in the face of things like famine and natural disaster.

It’s a about two women, tied together by love and faithfulness, who struggle to make the best of it, in their own society.

It’s the story of a woman who had the daring, the gall, what the Jews call chutzpah, to do something risky in order to save herself and her entire future.

It’s about a woman who was not one of God’s people, who was not “one of the chosen,” who became part of the family through her own faithfulness, love, and hope.

We remember Ruth, and Naomi, for their faith, love and hope. And we claim them, as the story does, as members of our family, descended to David, from David to Christ, and from Christ to us.

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.