|Topical Bible Study||February 1957|
The People of the Bible
Article XXIII—The Book of Ruth
Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz
THE last two verses of the Book of Ruth read, “Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David.” It was David whom the Lord chose as the one through whose line the Messiah would come, and one of the chief purposes of the Book of Ruth was to enlarge on the overruling providences of God in continuing the genealogical chain which connects David with the royal line of Judah. Jacob had prophesied, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.”—Gen. 49:10
Instead of simply informing us that Boaz married a Moabite woman, the Lord caused this fact to be embellished in one of the most beautiful stories of all time. The opening verse of the book locates the time of the story during the period of the Judges. This period began a short time after the death of Joshua and continued to Samuel, who served as the last of Israel’s judges. In Acts 13:20 we are informed that this was a period of four hundred and fifty years.
During this time there was a famine in the land of Israel, and an Israelite by the name of Elimelech decided that he would move to the land of Moab, where he supposed conditions were more favorable. He took with him his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Soon thereafter Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow. Then her two sons married women of Moab. The name of one was Orpah and the name of the other, Ruth.
But after ten years these two sons of Elimelech also died. Naomi then had no one in Moab of her own kin, and hearing that conditions were now better in the land of Israel, she decided to return to her home country. And here is where the beauty of the story begins. Her daughters-in-law were evidently living with her at the time, and as she started on the return journey to Palestine they accompanied her.
But Naomi considered the matter and concluded that it would be better if Orpah and Ruth remained in Moab. She said to her two daughters-in-law: “Go, return each to her mother’s house: the Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept.”—ch. 1:8,9
At first both the young women refused to heed Naomi’s advice, saying to her, “Surely we will return with thee unto thy people.” (vs. 10) But Naomi was quite insistent, and finally Orpah did decide to return to Moab and to her own people. But not Ruth. She said to Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”—vss. 16,17
Touched with this expression of love and devotion on the part of Ruth, Naomi no longer insisted that she return to her own people. “So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi?”—ch. 1:19
Bethlehem was evidently but a village at that time, with essentially the entire population being acquainted with one another. And, although many years had passed since Elimelech and Naomi had left to go to the land of Moab, she was remembered when she returned, and apparently a hearty welcome was extended to her. But Naomi, while glad to be back among her own people, was nevertheless sad when she reflected upon what had happened in her life since she had left.
She said to the people of Bethlehem: “Call me not Naomi (meaning pleasant), call me Mara (meaning bitter): for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty.” (vss. 20,21) There is here an acknowledgment of a wrong course which had been taken by Naomi and her husband in leaving the land of Israel to go into a strange land simply because they thought it would be economically better for them. God had given the Holy Land to his people, and he had promised to bless them in that land. To leave this provision and leave the Lord’s people was disregarding the Lord’s promises, due, probably, to a lack of faith in him.
Beginning of Harvest
Naomi and Ruth reached Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. The famine had long ceased, and the land apparently was abundantly yielding its increase. The harvesters were already at work, and apparently the only immediate opportunity of gaining a livelihood was for Ruth to become a gleaner in one of the harvest fields. Leviticus 19:9 sets forth the Lord’s law governing the privilege of the gleaners. It was a special provision for the poor. The “corners” of the fields were to be left unreaped, and the grain was not to be too carefully gathered from the remainder of the fields.
The gleaners did not wait until the harvest was finished before beginning their work. Rather, they worked at the same time as the regular reapers. This is rather an important illustration of the “harvesting” of the Lord’s “wheat” at the end of the age, as foretold in Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Although the parable says nothing about “gleaning” in connection with this work of “harvest,” should we wish to include this detail we would have to consider it as representing small opportunities enjoyed by some during the time of harvest.
There was no question about Ruth finding an opportunity to glean. The law of God guaranteed her this privilege. It was merely a question of which field she would select in which to glean. Chapter 2 verse 3 explains that Ruth just happened to select a field which was owned by a kinsman of Naomi’s husband. His name was Boaz, who is described as “a mighty man of wealth.” (vs. 1) It might have seemed to Ruth that she just happened to select the field of this wealthy kinsman of her mother-in-law; but, unknown to her, the Lord’s providences were at work, for his promises concerning the lineage of the tribe of Judah and the house of David were at stake.
The fact that this kinsman of her husband had become a mighty man of wealth doubtless helped to impress upon Naomi the mistake that was made in going to Moab. She returned poor, while the kinsman who remained had become wealthy. Boaz was unmarried, although by now he would not have been a young man.
Ruth went to work in the field of Boaz. Soon he came also to the field, evidently just to see how the work was progressing. He noticed Ruth and realized that she was a stranger. He asked the foreman of the reapers, “Whose damsel is this?” (ch. 2, vs. 5) “The servant that was set over the reapers answered and said, It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab.”—vs. 6
Boaz was at once interested and sympathetic. He had heard about the Moabitish damsel who had returned to Bethlehem with Naomi, his kinsman’s widow, but this was the first time he had seen her. He appreciated her industrious effort to secure a living for Naomi and herself, but especially for Naomi, who was no longer a young woman. (ch. 1:12) Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law was indeed commendable.
Boaz spoke to Ruth, saying, “Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens.” (ch. 2:8) He continued, “Let thine eyes be on the field that they do reap, and go thou after them.” To further reassure her, Boaz said, “Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee? and when thou art athirst, go unto the vessels, and drink of that which the young men have drawn.”—vs. 9
Ruth was deeply moved by this gesture of interest and friendship by Boaz, for after all she was not an Israelite, but a Moabitess, at least by birth. She had, however, by profession, cast her lot in with the Israelites when she said to Naomi, “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” These were not mere words, but a true expression of her heart; and now Israel’s God was blessing her through Boaz, and she was deeply grateful, saying to him, “Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?”—vs. 10
Boaz’s answer was direct and to the point. It reveals that while this was the first time he had seen Ruth, he had heard much about her that was favorable. He said, “It hath fully been showed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother-in-law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come among a people which thou knewest not hertofore. The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”—vss. 11,12
Here the true character of Boaz is revealed. He realized that Ruth had made a great sacrifice in leaving her own people and her own country in order to remain with Naomi and minister to her needs. Ruth loved Naomi, and it is reasonable to assume that one of the things which had inspired this love was the manner in which Naomi’s religion influenced her life. Ruth could see that devotion to Israel’s God had wrought a beautiful character which induced her devotion and love. It was not in ignorance that Ruth had said to Naomi, “Thy God shall be my God.”
Boaz understood these circumstances. He knew that now, in favoring Ruth, he was favoring one who was at heart a true Israelite, regardless of where she might have been born. He knew that Israel’s God poured out his blessing upon those who are at heart devoted to him and to his people, so he did not hesitate to do the same. Ruth had come to trust under the “wings” of Jehovah, and he wanted her to be assured that she had made no mistake in so doing.
The friendliness of Boaz toward Ruth was not merely in words. He invited her to eat with the reapers, and he personally passed her the “parched corn,” which apparently was the substantial part of the meal. Then he instructed his reapers to allow Ruth to glean “even among the sheaves, and reproach her not.” This was a favor not ordinarily granted to gleaners. He also instructed them to drop some of the grain purposely so she would be sure to get a good supply. And she did. That night she returned to Naomi, taking with her an “ephah of barley.” We cannot be certain just how large a quantity this was. In Leviticus 6:20 we find instructions concerning a meat offering that was to consist of one-tenth of an “ephah.” This one-tenth of an “ephah” was sufficient to make a cake for a morning and evening sacrifice. So ten times this much would seem to be a generous portion of barley to glean in one day. But this was the way Boaz wanted it to be.
Naomi had a good meal that evening, and after it was over she asked Ruth, “Where hast thou gleaned today?” Ruth told her, and then Naomi said, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead. And Naomi said unto her, The man is near of kin unto us, one of our next kinsmen,” or, as stated in the margin, “one that hath right to redeem.” Then Naomi counseled Ruth to follow the instructions of Boaz and continue gleaning in his field, remaining close to his maidens. This she did and was faithful in her gleaning work until the full end of both the barley and wheat harvest, meanwhile continuing to live with her mother-in-law.
Now, the harvest over, Naomi concluded that it was time for her to make some suggestions concerning further procedure. She was acquainted with the Jewish law with respect to the redemption of property by a near kinsman and also the provision of the law that a childless widow should be taken to wife by a near kinsman. Here, she correctly concluded, was a situation in which these provisions could be carried out to the advantage of all concerned.
As we have noted, Boaz was evidently no longer a young man. He highly esteemed Ruth, appreciating her loyalty to Naomi and her purity of character. If he had thought of her at all from the standpoint of marriage, he had not so indicated. He perhaps concluded that Ruth, being still a comparatively young woman, would not be interested in such an old man. Naomi, however, made plans to change his mind.
She had evidently studied the habits of Boaz and knew that on a certain evening he would be winnowing barley on his threshing floor. She instructed Ruth to make proper preparation, including an anointing with oil—probably romantically perfumed—and go to the threshing floor, but to remain out of sight until Boaz had finished eating and drinking. “And she went down unto the floor, and did according to all that her mother-in-law bade her.”—ch. 3, vs. 6
“And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down.” (vs. 7) His first sleep over about midnight, Boaz discovered that there was a woman lying at his feet. Naturally he was somewhat disconcerted, and he demanded, “Who art thou?” The answer came, “I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.” The marginal translation reads “one that hath right to redeem.”—vss. 8,9
Boaz at once understood the implications of this reply; namely, that Ruth was saying she desired him to marry her and redeem the land which Naomi was offering for sale. The law of the Lord governing this matter is set forth in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. From Ezekiel 16:8, where the Lord makes use of this custom to illustrate his relationship to Israel, it becomes apparent that Ruth’s suggestion that Boaz spread his skirt over her, if acted upon, would be considered by her as a proposal of marriage.
Boaz was much pleased by this suggestion and was doubtless flattered. He said to Ruth: “Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter: for thou hast showed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followest not young men, whether poor or rich.” This statement is most revealing. Ruth had been kind to her mother-in-law in her old age, and besides, as Boaz indicates, had shown no interest in the young men of the community but was now offering herself to him, a man old enough to address her as “daughter,” to be his wife. All things considered, this displayed Ruth’s genuine interest in the welfare of the family into which she had married.
Boaz indicated at once his decision to act favorably upon Ruth’s request. But he was an honorable man, and he knew that there was a kinsman, as he said, “nearer than I.” He felt obligated to give him first opportunity. He asked Ruth to lie down until morning, promising that he would seek out the nearer kinsman and give him the opportunity to redeem the inheritance. If he declined to do so, “then,” he said, “will I do the part of a kinsman to thee.”
Ruth returned to Naomi in the morning and told her about what had happened. Naomi had a good understanding of human nature. She said to Ruth, “Sit still, my daughter, until thou know how the matter will fall: for the man [Boaz] will not be in rest, until he have finished the thing this day.”—ch. 3:18
And Naomi was right. Boaz acted at once. He proved to all concerned, and in harmony with the arrangements set forth in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, that the nearer kinsman was not interested in the proposition; so he bought the land from Naomi and married Ruth. It is a beautiful and interesting story, and, as we have said, supports what would otherwise be a weak link in an important genealogical line from which Jesus, the promised Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world, was born.