Women of the Bible - Ruth
Passage: Ruth 1:1–1:22, Ruth 4:13–4:17
Something I’ve learned recently is that one of the hardest parts of being a parent is the way your children hold a mirror up to yourself. It’s scary, it’s humbling, it’s startling when Patrick does something or says something that I know is revealing a part of who I am.
For instance, my son never stops talking. Over the summer movie theaters have been doing special showings for kids with like $1 or $2 tickets. So Patrick and I have gone to a few of them. And we’ll be driving to Manassas or Kingstowne or Fairfax and I’ll just want to listen to a podcast and Patrick will keep asking me questions. Which made me realize how you all feel towards the end of my sermons. Or when Patrick is misbehaving I’ll say, “Patrick you need to start listening, you need to start making good choices, or I’ll just take all your trains away.” And I realize that’s what I say nearly every time because when I tell Patrick he can’t do something, like he can’t watch anymore TV he’ll say “Daddy if I can’t watch TV I’ll just go away and hide.” Ok so these stories weren’t as great as you all would have liked them to be, but it leads me to say this:
In a similar way, one of the hardest parts of reading the Bible is when the Bible holds a mirror up to yourself. There are numerous stories in the Bible that, when I read them, show me more of myself than I am comfortable with. It’s almost as if the Bible is reading me. Has that ever happened to you? When you read a passage of Scripture and you begin to see yourself in it? Most of the time when it happens to me I see myself as the character in need of grace, the one in need of mercy, the one in need of transformation. I’m rarely the hero, instead I’m the one that God is coming to rescue.
I can’t read the story of the prodigal son without being convicted of my own self-righteousness. I’m totally the older brother in that story and every time I read that story and hear the older brother talk to the father about how long he has toiled and slaved I see a mirror sliding up and the Bible revealing my own feelings. I often think that I have toiled and slaved and my lifetime of being a disciple has left me missing out. Missing out on what? I don’t know. And I hear God say to me this is not how I want you to feel about your discipleship. It’s not about toiling and slaving, it’s about joy and life.
This morning we are going to continue to look at different female characters in the Bible and our story this morning is one that often holds a mirror up to us. We are going to be looking at the story of Ruth and Naomi, a tale of deep sadness and amazing redemption, and as we do I want to challenge us to see how their stories can be an avatar for our stories.
Ruth and Naomi’s story begins this way:
Ruth 1:1-5 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, 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.
The story of Ruth begins with a family living in Israel seeking salvation from a famine by going to Moab. While in Moab, the sons of Elimelek and Naomi marry two Moabite women. Then the tragedy begins. First Namoi’s husband dies. Then her two sons die. So Namoi is left in a foreign country with no husband, no sons, and two widowed daughters-in-law to care for. And here’s the biggest problem: as a widowed woman and a foreigner, Naomi had no rights, had no standing, had no property, had no money, and had no ability to make money. And yet she has to take care of herself and her daughters-in-law.
Now you might ask what would Namoi be expected to do in ancient times if she had no rights or standing to inherit property and no ability to make money and very long odds of marrying again? In ancient Israel there were provisions for situations like this where a family member could come in and be a kinsman-redeemer. This was a close male relative who would essentially have first dibs on the inherited property but he would have to take in the vulnerable family members into his household and under his care seeing to it that they were well cared for.
So Naomi, being an Israelite, had her best option for survival to return to Israel and find a kinsman-redeemer. Now if she returned with two foreign women in tow it would make it harder for Naomi to find a kinsman-redeemer, three extra mouths to feed being three times as many as one extra mouth to feed. And with all that backstory in mind we can continue with the first chapter of Ruth.
Ruth 1: 6-22When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people 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,” she told them. “Call me Mara, 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.
There’s a beautiful line in here that’s the most famous in the book of Ruth. “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” It’s quite beautiful and this amazingly sweet sentiment. I don’t think Naomi wanted to hear it, though. I think Naomi wanted Ruth to stay with her own people and make it easier for Naomi to find a kinsman-redeemer. But Ruth comes anyways. And Naomi returns to her homeland dejected claiming that God has led her into ruin.
The first chapter ends in a curious place with this little throwaway detail that the barley harvest was beginning. In ancient Israel there were certain provisions in Torah that were an ancient safety net if you will. One of them is about gleaning. Torah says that landowners during harvest, landowners are to leave the corners of their field unharvested and they were not allowed to take anything that fell to the ground or anything that was overlooked during the main harvesting time. This food was to go to the widows, foreigners, and parental orphans. So when Naomi and Ruth arrive back in Israel Naomi tells Ruth to go out to the barley fields, it is barley harvest after all, and glean. It just so happens that Ruth goes to a field of one of Naomi’s kinsman, an man named Boaz. Boaz takes pity on Ruth and gets his servants and his men to help her to make sure she brings home a good amount of flour to Naomi.
After Boaz continues showing her kindness in the coming days and weeks and ensures that Ruth and Naomi have enough food to get by, Naomi gives Ruth some motherly advice. She tells Ruth to go to the threshing floor and wait until the men have had finished eating and drinking. Now to bring this euphemism into modern language, the threshing floor was basically the pub. At the point when this plan goes into action, the Bible describes Boaz as “being in good spirits.” And Naomi tells Ruth to wait until that point and then go over to Boaz and see what happens. And what happens is Boaz wants to be with Ruth.
But Boaz knows that there is another familial relation that is closer in line to be the kinsman-redeemer. So Boaz calls the town elders together and the person first in line to be kinsman-redeemer and Boaz asks this guy if he wants to buy Elimelek’s land and be the kinsman-redeemer to Naomi. At first this guy says yes but then balks when Boaz reminds him that he will need to also take care of Ruth. So the one guy passes and the dibs fall to Boaz. Boaz says he will be the kinsman-redeemer for Naomi and for Ruth. And then Boaz marries Ruth.
There’s another little bit to the story, but I want to stop here for the moment. It’s certainly an interpretative move, but I think I’m on firm ground to make it, to say that Naomi would rather Ruth have not come with her to Israel. When we feel downtrodden, when we feel like the world is against us, how often do we simply want to be left alone? How often do we recoil from the idea of community? When we are in survival mode, how often can we only see the three feet in front of our face to the detriment of those around us?
I said the hardest part about Scripture is when it holds up a mirror and we see ourselves. In the first chapter all Naomi can think about is how can I save myself. She’s in survival mode. And when we are in survival mode we only ask “how can I save myself” we never ask “is there someone around me who could save me.”
And yet, as the story is told it’s Ruth who becomes the means through which Naomi is saved. Literally Naomi is redeemed because of Ruth. Or at least Naomi has a redeemer because of Ruth. And yet Naomi tried to turn Ruth away, Naomi tried to convince Ruth to go home to her family.
I think the difference is in seeing ourselves in trouble and seeing ourselves as in need of a savior. Kathleen Robertson Farmer puts it this way, “If the story told in the book of Ruth is to be redemptive for the people of God, then the people of God must identify with the one who is redeemed. The story of Ruth becomes a story of redemption for Israel only if Israel can be persuaded to believe that the redemptive efforts made by God on Naomi’s behalf will be made by God on Israel’s behalf as well.”
There’s a simple truth about the Christian life: we can only be redeemed if we see ourselves as needing a redeemer. We can only be justified if we first admit that we are sinners. We can only be sanctified if we admit there are areas in our life that need healing, areas of our life where we can do better. Can you admit that? Can you admit that you need a redeemer? And yet how often are we so slow to ask for help, even from those who seek to love us? How rarely do we let people into the most vulnerable places of our lives? Ho often does our pride get the best of us as we hide the most important parts of our lives from those closest to us? In other words, how come we always say “doin good” when someone asks us how we are? In a few minutes I’m going to ask you to talk to those sitting around you and here’s one of the questions: where in my life do I need help from God, from my family, from others?
And all of this leads to the one detail of the story that I have left out. And it’s how the book of Ruth ends.
Ruth 4:13-17 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.
There’s this weird thing that happens at the end of the book of Ruth. We could easily read about 95% of this story and think that Boaz is the redeemer of Naomi and Ruth. But then Ruth conceives, bears a child and Ruth tells Naomi that Ruth’s child is Naomi’s redeemer. Which is kind of confusing. Because Boaz has already declared himself to be Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer and has married Ruth, so it’s not like Naomi needed any extra security. And yet Ruth says it’s her son, not Boaz, that is Naomi’s redeemer.
There’s another element to this story that I haven’t raised yet and it has to deal with the greater historical context of a part of this story. Ruth is a Moabite. Last week we briefly mentioned a conflict between Israel and the Moabite where God raises a Judge to kill the Moabite king. The Moabites were a descendant of Lot. Lot was Abraham’s brother. When God told Abraham to leave his homeland and go to a land God would show him Abraham left with his wife Sarah and his brother Lot and his family. A few chapters later Abraham and Lot part with a blessing. And are never seen together again. So for an Israelite to marry a Moabite and for the pairing to produce within a few generations king David, God has redeemed a conflict that goes back centuries and generations. God has reunited the brothers Abraham and Lot. God has done a big new thing.
The book of Ruth is a story of redemption. It’s a story of redemption for the particular events that happened in the life of Ruth and Naomi. But it’s so much more. As Ruth and Naomi reconcile, as Ruth marries Boaz we see the redemption of a centuries old conflict between the descendants of Abraham and his brother Lot. And as Ruth tells Naomi that Ruth’s son is Naomi’s redeemer we see this story point towards the redemption of Israel realized in King David. And as Obed begets Jesse we hear the promise that Isaiah 11:1-2 “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord”. And this story is about our redemption because the child of Ruth and Boaz is our redeemer: Jesus the Christ.
So what we see in this story is God working to redeem the past. What we see in this story is God working to redeem the present. And what we see in this story is God’s plan for a future redemption. All of which means I have three questions for you:
- Where in my life do I need help from God, from my family, from others?
- What past sins does our community need redemption from?
- What future redemption do you have hope for?