Ruth 3 – Bare Feet and Full Hands
When Sarah and I found out we were pregnant for the first time, we didn’t wait the twelve weeks you’re supposed to before telling people. We wanted those close to us to be praying right from the start, to be supporting us, and to be ready if anything should go wrong. So, at about 6 weeks we phoned my Dad to tell him the good news. Do you know what the first thing he said was? Almost before I’d finished saying, ‘Dad, we’re pregnant,’ he was asking, ‘Do you know what you’re having?’ Why was he so concerned? Because he didn’t want the family name to disappear. As it turned out, we’ve done a good job in securing a lasting name! A similar concern has been running through the book of Ruth, though it comes to the front in today’s chapter.
In the Ancient Near East the family name, or to be more precise the father’s name was even more important than today. Think of all the lists of genealogies in the Old Testament. It was paramount that a father’s name be passed on, that there would be a line of male heirs. And so the tradition of levirate marriage arose. It’s the custom by which if a man dies before he has any children, his brothers are obligated to take his wife as their own and to sire and then raise children in his name. It’s a custom we see Tamar’s widow employing in Genesis 38. And in Deuteronomy 25 the custom is legislated and intensified, so that if a man fails to fulfil his duty, the widow in question can take him to the city gates and publically slap him with his own sandal as a mark of shame.
Well, if you remember back to Ruth chapter 1, Elimelech died leaving Naomi to raise their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. But they too died. It was a double curse. Both father and sons had passed away and there’s no one left to carry on the family name. We didn’t look at this in detail when we looked at Ruth 1, but one of the things that Naomi said to Ruth and Orpah was;
11But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? – Ruth 1:11-13
Naomi was referencing this practice of levirate marriage. She’s saying there are no brothers for the young widows to marry and that even if she were to fall pregnant right then and there, would they really wait around for the boys to come of age? It wouldn’t be practical, it would be creepy!
When they returned to Bethlehem, Naomi and Ruth had no hope. All we saw was Naomi, dejected and bemoaning ‘the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.’ Like all who suffer depression she was unable to move purposefully and hopefully into the future. But as we saw last week, when through ‘chance’, or really God’s provision, Ruth ‘just happened’ to end up gleaning in the fields of Boaz who is as it turns out, a near kinsmen, a close relative of Elimelech. This news gave Naomi and Ruth cause to hope. And filled with hope they can begin to plan and act for the future. How important is it for us a church to hope in God if we want to plan and dream for our future? How much must we remind ourselves that God is for us? That he has done great things in the past? That he promises to do even greater things in the future? That he is the one ‘who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’ (Eph. 3:20)
This hope in God leads Naomi, Ruth and Boaz to act with what one writer has called ‘strategic righteousness.’ Their actions are righteous, they have a zeal for doing what is right and good and appropriate in God’s eyes. They are also strategic. They don’t sit back and just avoid ‘unrighteousness’. They’re intentionally, purposefully planning on how to act righteously.
Naomi comes up with this plan to secure Ruth’s future and to rescue the name of Elimelech and his sons. She goes from moping about her misfortune to guiding Ruth in what she should do. Naomi’s heard that Boaz is taking his turn at the threshing floor that night. So she instructs Ruth to clean herself up, anoint herself with oil and to put on her best clothes. Then Naomi tells Ruth to secretly make her way to the threshing floor, to uncover Boaz’s feet and then to do whatever he tells her to do.
It all sounds a bit risky, or a bit risqué. Even more so when you realise that the Hebrew for ‘uncover his feet’ is ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. In fact the text and whole plan seems to be upon to misinterpretation. The writer wants us to feel this sense of suspense and ambiguity. What’s going to happen? If it were the Hollywood romantic comedy that we’ve said Ruth could be, this would be the point when the camera would discretely pan to the stars and then the next scene would be the couple lying next to each other in the morning.
Except as we’ve said Ruth isn’t Hollywood. As it turns out there’s no hint of anything inappropriate in what Naomi’s telling Ruth to do. Ruth is to prepare herself as a bride would before her wedding day, putting on her best clothes and makeup. It’s an invitation, not for Boaz to take advantage of her in the middle of the night, but to take up the opportunity to redeem Ruth through marriage.
This is made all the more clear in what Ruth says to Boaz. Did you notice that she too is acting with strategic righteousness? She doesn’t quite do what Naomi told her to do, to wait for Boaz to take the lead. No, Ruth acts decisively herself in what she chooses to say when Boaz wakes up and asks, ‘Who’s there?’ She says in verse 9, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ Ruth is taking charge and is proposing to Boaz. Actually, she’s inviting him to propose to her, but close enough. She’s not content with the suggestive plan that Naomi put forward and instead takes charge. Perhaps she was worried that Boaz, like all men, might not get the hint.
You might be thinking, hang on a second. Her words, ‘spread your cloak over your servant’ could be an invitation to something more immediate than marriage. But it’s more subtle and profound than that. The only other place in the Bible this phrase, ‘spreading your cloak’ occurs in such a sense is in Ezekiel 16:8, where God is talking to his people, the nation of Israel:
8I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.
Ruth is saying in effect, “I want to be the one that you pledge faithfulness and marriage to.”
What’s more, her choice in words actually reflects something Boaz has already said to her. Last week, when Ruth asked why Boaz was showing her such kindness he replied:
12May 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!’
The word for cloak that Ruth uses here is the same word for wings that Boaz used there. She’s inviting him to care for her the way that he prayed that God would.
It’s clear from his response that Boaz didn’t see anything immoral or inappropriate in what Ruth has done. In fact he praises her for her faithfulness, her hesed. There’s that word again. We’ve seen it in the last two chapters to describe God’s faithful, steadfast, covenantal love for his people. Here Boaz says that Ruth has been acting with hesed. She’s not gone after a younger man, as verse 10 says she could have. Instead she’s chosen Boaz, not because he’s a prominent rich man, but because he is next-of-kin. Ruth knows how important it was to God’s people that a man’s name and inheritance be passed on. So she places the interests of her deceased husband (and father-in-laws) before her own in seeking a levirate marriage with Boaz. This is deep faith acting in love.
Boaz is taken by Ruth, her faithfulness, her character and her actions. He promises to help, in fact, he’s not going to wait around. But here we learn of a twist in the tale! He’s not the closest next-of-kin! There is another, who has the right to act first and to ‘redeem’ Ruth and Elimelech’s inheritance. But Boaz is resolved to act with strategic righteousness himself. He promises to see that either this man, or he, marries Ruth.
Boaz shows his care in not just promising to act, but in other ways to. He tells Ruth not to go home on her own in the middle of the night, something that would place her in danger. When she does go, he’s careful to keep her visit a secret. Boaz is keen to protect Ruth’s reputation, and to ensure nothing jeopardises the plan, as a rumour of her midnight visit. Furthermore, Boaz gives her a great gift. Last week his generosity meant that she went home with an ephah of barley. This time he sends her home with six measures. We’re not sure exactly how much this is, but it’s enough that it’s enough to fill her cloak, and heavy enough that she has to carry it on her back.
Naomi and Ruth had returned to Bethlehem empty-handed. Last week they were clutching at straws, with only a glimmer of hope. Now, they’re hands are overflowing, with the promise of more to come. Though you’ll have to tune in next week, or turn up to see who gets Ruth’s hand in marriage and how the story is resolved!
The love story between Ruth and Boaz is greater than any that Hollywood could dish up. But it points to an even greater love story, the greatest love story there is. It’s the story of God’s love for us, as seen in the person of Jesus. The grace and generosity of Boaz are mirrors of the grace and generosity of God that we find in Christ. In our gospel reading today, Jesus provided for those in need with an overwhelming generosity. More than six measures of barley, he provided food for all and twelve baskets left over. But, as the sentence of the day tells us, this was just an appetiser.
‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven,’ says the Lord. ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ – John 6:51
Jesus is pointing to his death and resurrection. Through his death on the cross, in giving his body and blood, Jesus reconciled us to God. Through Christ God redeemed us to himself! God gives us a name, in Christ. God gives us an inheritance, in Christ. God shows his love for us in Christ, if we will accept his offer and come under his wings.