Ruth – part 4 (3:1-18)

Previously, in Ruth…

Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, had moved from the land of Israel to Moab, with her husband; but her husband soon died, and she was left with her two sons. While they were living in Moab, Naomi’s sons married Moabite women – Ruth and Orpah. But ten years later, her sons died, too. So Naomi and Ruth, her daughter-in-law, moved back to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem, empty: no food, and no children.

But yesterday, in chapter 2, we saw how God graciously provided for them. Ruth went to glean grain in the field of Boaz, of one of Naomi’s relatives. There, she found incredible kindness – more than was required by the law. Boaz encouraged Ruth to remain under his protection by only gleaning in his fields; he even instructed his workers deliberately to leave behind some of the good parts of the grain for her to gather. And when it came to mealtimes, Boaz invited her to share in the meal with him and the other workers. Naomi spoted the potential, and encouraged Ruth to keep gleaning in Boaz’s field.

And this is where chapter 3 begins, with Naomi encouraging Ruth to explore this possibility that Boaz might be interested in her; that he might be willing to be their kinsman-redeemer. But how to do this in a subtle way, to match the subtle signals they thought that Boaz was giving? So Naomi comes up with a plan, which Ruth puts into action.

3:1-5 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. 2 Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. 3 Wash, 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. 4 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.” 5 “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered.

OK, a bit creepy. Plotting with your mother-in-law to get a new husband. But let’s go with it. She goes to where Boaz will be that night, winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Then, when everyone is asleep, she does something subtle, yet risky. She matches his earlier signal of interest with one of her own:

3:7-9 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. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! 9 “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-redeemer of our family.”

This uncovering of the feet – the spreading of his garment over her – what did she mean by it? Was she simply trying to seduce him there and& then, so that in a moment of weakness he’d give in and be obliged to marry her? Boaz could just as likely have interpreted it like that, which could have spelled disaster!

But we need to look back at the signal Boaz gave in ch 2:

2:12b ‘May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’

eaglewingsIt’s like Boaz was really hinting: ‘Because you take refuge under the wings of God, you are precisely the kind of woman I want to cover with my wings.’

We see this image somewhere else in the Bible, too. In Ezekiel, God describes Israel as a young maiden that he took for his wife. To understand the connection, you need to know that the Hebrew word for ‘skirt’ or what the NIV translates as ‘the corner of a garment’ is also the word for ‘wings’. So in Ezekiel, God says:

Ezek 16:8 ‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you [or ‘spread my wings over you’] and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.’

Boaz’s signal to Ruth uses the same image: you seek refuge under God’s wings; I’d like to cover you with my wings, too.

And so Ruth’s rather elegant response mirrors the offer Boaz made. She uncovers his feet and asks Boaz:

3:9b “Spread the corner of your garment / your wings over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer.”’

Can you imagine the trepidation she’d be feeling, in the still of the night, as she waited to find out what his response would be. Was he really interested? Will he wake everyone up and humiliate me for approaching him in this way? How will he take this?

But Boaz replies:

3:10-11 “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. 11 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.

And Ruth breathes a huge sigh of relief. He was interested after all! And in his answer we also find out a little of why he didn’t come right out and ask her – she’s young, he’s getting on a bit, and he didn’t think she’d be interested! But now it’s all out in the open, he’s more than happy to be her guardian-redeemer – to buy back the land belonging to Naomi’s husband, and to take Ruth as his wife.

But the drama doesn’t end there; this isn’t the climax of the story. Because Boaz knows that there’s another man who’s an even closer relative. By law, it’s his duty to perform, should he want to. That’s another reason Boaz might not have wanted to be too open in revealing his interest. And so we have to wait until the next chapter – the next day – before Boaz can deal with the final hurdle to their marriage.

In the meantime, he sends her back to Naomi with six measures of barley. Why? Again, his actions are symbolic. In chapter 1, Naomi complains that God seems to be against her:

1:21 ‘I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.’

In a nice twist, Boaz sends Ruth back with food, saying:

3:17b ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty’

In future posts, we’ll see Boaz overcome that final obstacle – the other relative – and he and Ruth are married. What a great love story! But what on earth has it got to do with us?

To think about

The danger in applying the story of Ruth to us is that we’ll look at the specifics of the story & try to turn them into some kind of moral lesson, or even a how-to guide! Someone’s even written a book called: ‘Men are from Israel, women are from Moab: a biblical guide for improving communication and building godly relationships.’ Is this what Ruth is really all about? Is this why it’s in the Bible? So we can learn communication techniques from some guy who couldn’t simply ask a girl out but had to muck around with an obscure wordplay on skirts and wings? Or so we can learn how to snag a man by strategising with your ex-husband’s mother? More seriously, a quick internet search showed many people using this chapter in Ruth to decide what’s appropriate behaviour in Christian dating!

The right approach to Ruth is to ask first and foremost, what does it tell us about God? After all, the Bible is firstly about him, not us. Think about that for today – because that will be our subject for tomorrow!

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