Studies in Ruth No. 2


Ruth 2:1-23

The account of chapter 1 ended, you remember, with Ruth and Naomi arriving in Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest, that is, towards the end of April.  Barley was the first crop to be harvested each year.  That remark about the harvest beginning foreshadowed what was to come.

Text Comment

 

v.1       A new and important character is introduced but neither Ruth nor Naomi have any inkling at this point how important Boaz will prove to be.  However, the fact that Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s husband would peak the interest of anyone who was familiar with Israelite family law and customs.  [Block, 650]  So little does Boaz figure in any of Naomi’s plans that, though he is a man of property and standing, she does not send Ruth to glean in his fields; that happens, as it were, by accident.

v.2       Remember, the Law of Moses, provided for the alien, the orphan, and the widow by stipulating that harvesters must leave the grain around edges of the field and that they must not go back to pick up any ears of grain they might have dropped or failed to cut.  [Lev. 19:9,10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19]  Ruth, of course, qualified on two counts:  as a Moabitess she was an alien and she belonged to the household of a widow and was gleaning for her as well as for herself.

v.3       The NIV’s “as it turned out” is literally “her chance chanced upon.”  “We would be inclined to say nowadays, “As luck would have it…”  We know what a stroke of fortune this represented because we already know that Boaz was a relative of Elimilech, Naomi’s late husband.

v.4       In a single exchange we learn that Boaz was a pious man and an employer who created a happy environment for his workers.  That tells you a lot about a man.

v.5       The presence of an attractive young woman whom he does not recognize, who obviously did not belong to his own workforce, prompts his question.  The fact that he describes her as “young” indicates that, at the very least, she is considerably younger than he is.

v.9       Boaz assures her that she can continue to glean after his workers – she is to move from field to field as they do (remember, they are out in the countryside, outside of town) – that she will be safe doing so, both because she will be treated as part of his own group of servant girls and because he has warned off his men (a good boss prevents sexual harassment in his work place), and, finally, and perhaps most notably, she is to have free access to the water drawn for his workers.  Gleaners, in the nature of the case, would have no right to the water that had, with some labor, been brought from a well to the particular field. 

v.11     In other words, Boaz knew just who Ruth was and what had brought her to Bethlehem and the story of her remarkable attachment to Naomi, her mother-in-law.

v.12     Boaz does not yet say that he had a special reason to be impressed by Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi – viz. that he was Elimilech’s relative – but his statement in v. 12 certainly does suggest that Boaz was the kind of man to be impressed with Ruth’s character.  He was, in other words, a good man.  He was a man of faithfulness himself and so he recognized and admired that faithfulness in others.  He is also a man of faith who sees life in terms of the action of the Lord.  He wishes the Lord’s blessing for Ruth.

v.13     Ruth understands how unusual Boaz’s kindness has been toward her and is grateful for it.  She doesn’t have even the standing of one of Boaz’s servant girls and he has treated her with notable generosity.

v.14     In other words, Boaz invited Ruth to eat the noon meal with him.  In the ancient Near East such an invitation was more significant than we would find it today.  The fact that Boaz ate with his men tells us something about him to begin with; the fact that Ruth had, at first, kept her proper distance as a stranger tells us something about her, and the fact that Boaz invited Ruth to share in the meal prepared and brought for his workers and that she ate her fill indicates that anyone present would have realized that she was being singled out for treatment that was especially kind and generous.  This is not simply a matter of feeding the hungry; this is a public demonstration of acceptance and favoritism.

v.16     Make sure she goes home with plenty for her day’s labor.  That is the idea.  A worker might expect to be fired if he left too much grain in the field. Boaz is letting his workers know that he expects them not to reap too well.  He has already told them, as we read in v. 9, not to touch Ruth; here he tells them not to embarrass her.  Nothing of that speech and behavior toward a single woman that might well have been expected by the sort of men one hires to harvest a field, in those days or our own.

v.17     We are not told where Ruth threshed the grain she had picked, but, given Boaz’ generosity, we would not be surprised to learn that he had invited her to use his threshing floor.  There are different opinions about the size of an ephah, but the smallest size of those suggested by the evidence is about 22 liters, or almost 6 gallons.  In other words, a lot of grain.  Here is the proof that Boaz’s instructions were carried out by his men and it had been made easy for Ruth to glean a sizable amount of grain.

v.18     There was obviously some separation between the women in terms of cooking arrangements.

v.19     Naomi’s questions are prompted by the amount of grain Ruth brought home.  Naomi knew what even a hard-working woman could reasonably expect to glean in a day’s time.  She is in effect asking, “Where in the world did you get all that grain?”

v.20     The NIV’s kindness is again our important word hesed (דסח).  Naomi had prayed, in 1:8, that the Lord would show kindness to Ruth and Orpah.  Now the Lord has shown kindness to Ruth through Boaz.

            A “kinsman-redeemer,” in the Mosaic law and in the family custom of Israel was a near relative who became responsible for the economic welfare of the family when the family was in distress and they could not extricate themselves from their problems.  The kinsman-redeemer served various purposes.  By paying the family’s debts he ensured that the family property would never be lost to the clan; he might also ensure freedom for members of the family who had had to sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts; he was even the family member who was obliged to track down and see to the punishment of the murderers of near relatives.  There was no police department in those days.  The clan had its own policing function and, in the case of a murder, it was executed through the kinsman-redeemer.  The Hebrew term for this functionary is gō’ēl.  This man, in other words, was responsible to maintain the wholeness and secure the welfare of the family, especially when a father had died.  It is important on the level of Israelite family law, of course.  It is also important because Jesus Christ is our redeemer and the idea of a redeemer paying debts on behalf of his extended family to secure their freedom – an important way of explaining the work of Christ in the Bible – finds its background in this feature of family law and custom.  Here in Ruth it becomes clear that levirate marriage – the marriage of a widow by the dead husband’s brother – was also a function of the gō’ēl.  That is not explicitly said elsewhere.  That is, in the other texts in the law of Moses that refer to the role of the kinsman-redeemer levirate marriage is not mentioned.  It seems plausible, however, given a gō’ēl’s role, that he would function in this way as well.  As he is to prevent the family’s property to be lost to the clan by paying a family’s debts, so he prevents the same fate by marrying a childless widow and providing her an heir.

            In any case, as one commentator puts it, “When Naomi learns that Ruth has met up with Boaz, the sun rises again in her life.”  [Block, 676]

v.22     There was a crime problem in Israel in those days, as we have learned in reading the book of Judges.

The second act of the book of Ruth closes with the problem of Naomi and Ruth’s poverty resolved and with the hint of something more (Boaz being one of Naomi’s kinsman-redeemers).  Now we could elaborate the work of Christ from this chapter by describing further the calling of the kinsman-redeemer, but Boaz has not, as yet, done his work as a gō’ēl, so we’ll have more to say about that in due time.  That awaits chapter 4.

But there is another lesson more obviously set out in the chapter; in fact, the chapter reveals its specific lesson in an explicit way.  In verse 3 the NIV reads “As it turned out, Ruth found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz.”  “As it turned out.”  Literally, “her chance chanced upon a field of Boaz.”  As luck would have it, Ruth found herself in a field belonging to Boaz.  And it isn’t just that.  She might have gone to that field and gleaned as others gleaned, got some small amount of grain for her day’s work, and left for home none the wiser.  But she happened to be there when Boaz arrived.  As we read in v. 4, “Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem.”  Had he not shown up when he did, none of what follows would have happened.  Now, the Hebrew doesn’t literally say, “Just then…”  It says “Behold, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem.”  But “Just then…” is the sense.  One translator reads the verse, “Wouldn’t you know it, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem.”  The point is the happy convergence of events.  Ruth was there and, lo and behold, of all people Boaz himself showed up.

It was what we would call a happy coincidence.  And it is proper to speak in that way, even as a Christian who believes that there is no such thing as “chance” in God’s universe.  Even Jesus spoke this way.  In telling his story about the good Samaritan, in Luke 10:31, he says, “A priest happened to be going down the same road…”  That is how the NIV reads.  Actually, what Jesus said was, “By chance a priest was going down the same road…” or “Coincidentally, a priest was going down the same road…”  The Greek phrase (κατά συγκυρίον), as any dictionary will tell you, means “by chance” or “by coincidence.” The KJV of the Bible reads the text that way, as does the ESV.

In other words, there is a way for believers to say that something happened coincidentally or by chance, even believers in the sovereignty of God.  Certainly the author of the book of Ruth understands that it can be right to describe something as happening by chance, because that is precisely what he says about Ruth’s meeting Boaz in vv. 3-4.  But in what way can we say that?  In what way can a Christian say that something happened “by chance”?

Well, we learn that in this chapter as well.  Later, in what is clearly an instance of the narrator’s evaluative viewpoint being put in the mouth of one of his characters – a technique we found employed many times in Genesis and Samuel – Naomi, commenting on all that had happened that day, says, “[The Lord] has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.”  That is, all of this – Ruth picking that particular field, Boaz showing up when he did, his kindness to Ruth – all of this was from the Lord.
The French have a saying:  “Coincidence is an event in which God wishes to remain anonymous.”

Now this is a subject we have considered before: the invisible hand of God orchestrating the affairs of men.  We saw it in our studies in Judges, we have seen it often before.  It is a frequent theme of God’s Word.  Events take place in our lives, in the lives of men and nations that seem random or happenstance only to be shown in time to have been the will and the plan of God.  The Bible’s most extended illustration of this theme is the Book of Esther, a book in which God is never so much as mentioned in all of its ten chapters, and yet one remarkable coincidence after another conspires to deliver the Jews from destruction and their enemies to catastrophe.  It is the more powerful an account of God’s sovereign orchestration of events precisely because he remains invisible in the narrative.

And we have the same thing here.  We have events occurring “by chance” that are later acknowledged to have been the will and the work of God.  So when we say that something occurs coincidentally, or by chance, we mean simply that it appears to be by chance, it seems to us to be an accident, or happenstance, an event that occurred without calculation on anyone’s part.  But, lying behind is the hand of God.

And it is worth our noting that so much in life does appear to be coincidental and by chance.  God obviously wants the world to seem to be full of accidents and wants his people to understand that, ultimately, there is no such thing as an accident.  So in the Joseph story events unfold seemingly in a haphazard way, according to the whims of various people, with no obvious sense of direction or intention – Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers – not killed but sold into slavery because, as luck would have it, a trading caravan happened to come by just when they were in the process of deciding what to do with their hated younger brother; Joseph prospers as a slave in Potiphar’s house only then to run afoul of Potiphar’s wife, he ends up in prison and languishes there seemingly at the end of any good fortune; but in prison he runs into the baker and cupbearer who find themselves in prison for some utterly pointless pique on the part of the Pharaoh; as a result Joseph finds himself the CEO of Egypt, and then, at that moment – not when Joseph is in prison but when he is atop the government of the greatest country in the world, a famine strikes and brings his brothers down to Egypt…  No one could have imagined what course events would take when the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. It was simply an accident that the Midianite caravan came by when it did.  Only later does Joseph, by faith, explain to his brothers that God’s hand was in all that happened; one coincidence after another leading inexorably into that position where he could save his family, both physically and spiritually.  “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.”  “God sent me ahead of you down to Egypt.”

As I mentioned this morning, I have enjoyed reading recently a new biography of St. Patrick.  Patrick is a figure of great mystery on the one hand – we wish we knew much more about him and his life and work in Ireland than we do – and of great appeal on the other.  What we do know can’t help but make us admire him.  As Protestants we are the more interested because, though Roman Catholics seem to have exclusive ownership of Patrick as one of their saints, the fact is there is very little in Patrick’s writing, his theology, his approach to ministry that is distinctively Roman Catholic.  He is an evangelical catholic Christian only in the wider sense of the word, catholic with a small “c.” Unfortunately, what most people think they know about Patrick is largely legendary, pious fraud invented by monks centuries later.  The true story of Patrick is not a story about driving the snakes out of Ireland – there is a document written two centuries before Patrick’s time that comments on their being no snakes in Ireland; or about his challenging pagan druids to contests to the death; or about using a shamrock to explain the Trinity.  It is the story of a man whose life was profoundly and wonderfully changed by something terrible that happened to him when he was young.

Born into a well-to-do British family in the closing years of the 4th century, the later 300s, Patrick enjoyed the life of a young man of privilege until that life came to a shuddering stop one night in his 15th year.  A band of raiding Irish pirates attacked his family’s villa, killed those who would not fetch a decent price, and carted off the rest to be sold as slaves in Ireland.  Imagine a 15 year old boy, awakened in the middle of the night, and in a few moments realizing that his life had suddenly, horribly, been changed forever.  Chained with others he was marched off to a ship for transport to Ireland and sale as a slave.  For six grueling years he worked for a single master in the distant northwest of Ireland, the edge of the world as he would later describe it.  For six years he watched over his master’s sheep.

But during the time of his lonely ordeal, Patrick drew near to God, or, better, God drew near to him.  He remembered the religious instruction of his youth, which he candidly admitted later he had been utterly indifferent to before.  He began to pray and to live his life as a Christian. 

As Patrick himself would later describe this time:

            “God used the time to shape and mold me into something better.  He made me
            into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone
            who can care about others and work to help them.  Before I was a slave, I didn’t
            even care about myself.”

Then came escape, a remarkable adventure in itself.  When he finally reached the Irish coast opposite England, he asked a ship’s captain if he could join the ship’s crew.  The captain, sizing him up, replied immediately and curtly, “Forget about it; there is no way you’re going with us.”  He didn’t need a runaway slave to complicate his life.  Now what was the young man supposed to do?  He couldn’t simply remain in the coastal village; he would be spotted and arrested.  But no sooner had he turned away to find a place to hide than some sailors from the same ship called to him and offered to take him back to the captain and, this time, though still surly, the captain took Patrick aboard.  And, finally, after more adventures, he was finally reunited with his loved ones back in Britain. 

            “So after many years, I finally returned home to my family in Britain.  They
            took me in – their long-lost son – and begged me earnestly that after all I had
            been through I would never leave them again.”

And then, most remarkably, came the call to the ministry, preparation, and his return to Ireland, the scene of his misery, to bring the gospel to the very people who had so mistreated him.

            “I came to Ireland to preach the good news…. I have had many hard times,
            even to the point of being enslaved again, but I traded my free birth for the good
            of others.”  [The above from Philip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland, 1-68]

If you read this great man’s history, in one very important respect it reads like the later chapters of Genesis or the Book of Ruth.  It is one remarkable accident, one lucky break, one coincidence after another.  And what was the result of all of that happenstance?  A great life lived for the glory of God and the salvation of a people who would not have heard the gospel except for some Irish pirates who devastated the life of a fifteen year old boy.  A gospel ministry that brought many, many people into the kingdom, that came to pass only because some pagan Irish sailors, for some selfish reason, urged their captain to relent and take the escaped slave aboard.  Those Irish pirates, when they kidnapped Patrick as a boy of 15, were certainly not planning on the evangelization of Ireland.  But so it happened.  One thing led wonderfully, surprisingly, mysteriously to the next.

Do you see what all of this means?  Of course it is right to say with Basil, the church father, that “‘chance’ is a pagan term.”  But it is also true to say that “by chance, Ruth landed in the field owned by Boaz, and just happened to be there when Boaz himself arrived.”  And when we say that, when we say, as Jesus said and as the Bible says, “now it happened,” or “by chance it happened that…” we are forced to notice how God works behind the scenes, how he accomplishes his will in what seems at the time to be such a haphazard way; we are forced to reckon with the fact that God’s control of life, of our lives, of events in the world, is exercised secretly, mysteriously, unexpectedly.

It is, of course, highly ironic for the Bible to say that “As it turned out Ruth found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz…” because, of course, we know it was not chance, not really that brought her to that field.  It was not an accident.  It was, all along, as we read later in the chapter, “the Lord showing kindness to Naomi’s family.”  But it is precisely because we did not know that at the first, because it seemed, like so many things, simply something that happened, a coincidence, that we learn here a most important lesson of life and of faith.

The fact is, your life is supercharged with significance at every step, in every moment.  Everything that happens to you, everything you encounter – at home, at work, at play – all of it seems to be just more things that happen but in fact it is more of what God has done.  In everything, at every moment of the day, in all that you do and all that happens to you, you have to do with and you are dealing with God.  And it is precisely because life seems, in so many ways, haphazard, unplanned that faith is taught to see “accidents” and “coincidences” in a different light, as the unfolding plan of our heavenly father.

Why God hides himself as much as he does in the orchestration of life and history, I do not know.  That he hides himself is a brute fact.  That, in fact, he does orchestrate every event in life, including those that seem most to be accidental, unplanned, fortuitous, is a fact of Christian faith.

But it is the conviction that the accidental, the coincidental – what seems least planned, least intentional – is, in fact, also ordered for us by our heavenly father, that teaches us the true scope of his sovereignty and of his interest in our lives.  Ruth in Boaz’ field teaches us to be looking, always looking for the hand of God and to reckon with God’s will at every moment, every turn in our lives.