Sermon on Ruth 4

I have mostly relegated my sermons to the Colvinism blog, but since this one was delivered for our church here in Davao, I thought I should post it here.

Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah, by William Blake

Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah, by William Blake

Pastor Vic is in the middle of a series on Exodus right now. I preached last time on the time Sarah and Abraham went down to Egypt, and pharaoh took Sarah, and God brought them out again. My point with that sermon was that the Exodus motif is everywhere in the Bible: God the creator rescues His people, defeats their enemies, delivers them from all their sins and misery, and condescends to dwell with them and be their God. He gives them laws to live by and promises for their future. That is the story of the Exodus. It is also our story, so that we may live in terms of it.

Today, I want us to look at another instance of this Exodus motif, in the book of Ruth, which is one of my favorite books of the Bible. From a literary perspective, it shows an economy, a tight-knitness of plot, that is without comparison. All the characters have significant names: Elimelech (“My God is king”) takes Naomi (“the pleasant one”) to Moab. He dies, and so do his two sons, Mahlon (“Sickly”) and Qilyon (“Weak”). Of the two sons’ wives, Orpah, “the turner-back” goes back to Moab, while Ruth, “the friend”, insists on throwing her lot in with Naomi. Once back in the land, they find a relative, Boaz, “the Pillar” and seek to redeem their family’s property.

Ruth starts, as does the book of Exodus, with the chosen seed in a foreign land: just as Jacob’s family came down to Egypt because of a famine, so here, an Israelite family has moved to Moab, because of a famine. Affliction and trouble have removed them from Israel. They are in exile, just like Israel in the book of Exodus. They need to be redeemed and brought back to the land, to live with God again.

The failure of crops is also accompanied by the failure of human seed, so that Naomi in the first chapter of Ruth is bereft of her sons, and being beyond menopause, has no prospects of children in the future. So she says to her daughters in law Ruth and Orpah,

 “Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:12, 13 ESV)

Please keep this in mind: Naomi cannot have children. It is an important detail for the plot. It also likens her to other women who cannot have children: to aged Sarah and to Hannah the mother of Samuel, to frustrated Rachel, and last of all, to Mary, who knew not a man. You see, our adversary Satan is depicted in Revelation 12 as a dragon waiting to devour the seed of the woman. He knows that God’s plan was to deal with the world’s problem of sin through the seed of the woman, and after the covenant with Abraham, that seed would come specifically through Israel. That is how we should understand Cain killing Abel, Pharaoh killing the male babies, Herod killing the innocents in Bethlehem — they are the attempts of the adversary to prevent the coming of Christ. But they all fail. God thwarts Satan’s plans at every turn. He gives conception to 90 year old Sarah. He brings life from the dead. Here in the book of Ruth, the biggest problem is “How can we get an heir for Elimelech’s line if Naomi can’t have children?” In other words, How can we have life from the dead?

Exile is the death of a nation. That is why the book of Genesis ends with Jacob dead, and Joseph in a coffin in Egypt. To bring a nation out of exile is unheard of. When the Babylonians carry off Judah, that should have been the end of Israel as a people. The ancient Mesopotamian superpowers – Assyria, Babylon, and Persia — knew what they were doing: if a subject nation is troublesome, remove them from their land and carry them off to be lost via intermarriage and cultural assimilation. No nation ever survived such treatment before, let alone came back to their own land. The exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylon are acts of resurrection on a national scale.

The family of Naomi and Elimelech fit into this pattern of exile. They are an Israel in miniature, and like Israel, their prosperity and suffering are from the Lord. Indeed, Naomi even recognizes this herself. That is why she says,

“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:13, 20, 21 ESV)

This is the situation of Naomi at the start of the story. And she has truly been brought low, first by famine, then by death. She must miss her home greatly; she must miss her husband more; and then, she must see her sons die before she does – always a terrible blow to a mother’s heart. Naomi, then, speaks like Job: “the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”

The book of Ruth is a story of how God brings life from this dead family — dead three times over, Elimelech dead, Mahlon dead, Qilyon dead –, and how God reverses the calamity of Elimelech’s house.

At the same time, the Book of Ruth is an addition, an appendix, to the book of Judges. At the end of the book of Judges, Israel has just been torn by a horrible civil war against Benjamin, and its national life is in disarray: “There was no king in those days. Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” And Ruth shows how, in reversing the fortunes of Elimelech’s family, God also reverses the fortunes of Israel, so that the book ends with the genealogy of King David. From “no king” to David.

2. The man who brings this redemption about is Boaz, “the pillar”. He is the one who ultimately ends up redeeming Naomi’s land and marrying Ruth. He is the father of Obed, and thus the grandfather of Jesse and great-grandfather of King David. He is the hero of the story, and a type of Christ, Israel’s redeemer, the one who brings an end to her exile and gives her a future.

Boaz has kindly intentions from the start. He is marked out as a good guy by the way he goes out of his way to have his harvesters leave abundant wheat in his fields for the gleaners, including Ruth. He is suitably impressed by Ruth’s character, and inquires, “Whose young woman is that?” Boaz is at least a middle-aged man; Ruth is a young woman. To call her so using the Hebrew “nearah” is to imply that she is marriageable, and indeed the same word is used in other betrothal narratives, like those of Moses, Samson, Jacob, and Isaac. Then Boaz says to Ruth:

Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.” (Ruth 2:9 ESV)

It is almost gratuitous: why mention wells here? Because when the Bible talks about a young woman and wells, the violin music swells and the camera focus goes all soft, and we just know what is going to happen. Moses meets Zipporah at a well. Jacob meets Rachel at a well. Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah at a well. And so, the author of Ruth is telling us that the scene is set for love.

So why doesn’t it happen right away? After all, Boaz is a good guy, and he has made clear that he sympathizes with Naomi and Ruth. They arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest — late April or early May. Nothing happens until after the wheat harvest has also past: by this time, we are in the month of June, and still Boaz does no more than let Ruth glean in his fields.

Well, what could he do? The decisive thing, the thing Naomi wants him to do, is to redeem the land of Elimelech. Israel’s eleven tribes (except Levi) were assigned portions of land, which was held by families or clans within each tribe. Ultimately, this land could not be permanently alienated from a family, since it would all be restored at the Jubilee year. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet redeems a cousin’s property even while it is occupied by the Babylonians and Jeremiah is in prison. That is what Boaz would like to do. But there is a snag: the Torah was also very concerned with maintaining the lineage of the family that owned the land, too. We see this concern in the law of Levirate marriage: if an Israelite dies without children, Deuteronomy 25 requires that his brother should marry his widow and raise up children for him. We see this law at work in Genesis 38, the story of Tamar, who marries Er, the son of Judah. Er was wicked, so God killed him. Then Onan married Tamar, but because he knew that any children he conceived would not count as his, he spilled his seed on the ground in an effort to avoid giving his brother offspring. The result would be that Judah’s estate would only be divided two ways — between Onan and the third brother Shelah – and not three ways between Onan, Shelah, and the children of Tamar who would count as the continuing line of Er, even though biologically conceived by Onan.

Deuteronomy 25 recognizes that there will be a strong temptation not to fulfill one’s duties as a Levir. It therefore stipulates a punishment for a brother who refuses to raise up children for the dead: the widow shall loose his shoe from off his foot and spit in his face, and his name shall be called in Israel “the house of him that had his shoe loosed.” If a man will not take care to preserve his brother’s name and house, his own name shall become infamous, a matter of scandal; and his own house will be forever tarnished with this faithlessness of his. We see, then, that something very close to this is at work in Ruth, but in this case, there is also the matter of the land.

If Boaz were willing, he could offer to buy the land of Elimelech back. But under the system prevailing in this epoch, if the land belongs to a childless widow, a “redeemer” must take her to wife and the firstborn will be her original husband’s heir. And this is what holds Boaz back: the requirement to marry the widow. Why? Because she cannot have children anymore. And it appears that he is either forbidden from taking another wife as well, or only monogamy is legal at this time. At any rate, this is the consideration that prevents him from redeeming the field at first.

That is the same consideration that prevents the rival kinsman in Ruth 4. For Mr. So-and-so – that is literally what his name translates as from Hebrew, because no one is supposed to remember him ever after, because he refused to act as a redeemer for Elimelech! – he explicitly says in Ruth 4:6: “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I ruin mine own inheritance; take thou my right of redemption on thee; for I cannot redeem it.”

Some translations miss this point completely: they say “lest I mar my own inheritance” or “lest I harm my own inheritance”. But the Hebrew verb is ‘ashtiyt, the verb to destroy or ruin completely. Mr. So and So recognizes that if he buys the property, he will have to marry Naomi, and that will mean that he cannot have any children, since she is evidently too old to have anymore, as she already said in chapter 1.

At this point, I want to point out that many translations make Boaz into a lucky fool. They suppose that he comes to the gate with Mr. So-and-So, and hopes against hope that Mr. So-and-so will decide not to marry Ruth – that he leaves everything to chance. They suppose that Mr. So-and-So looks over at Ruth, and sees that she has a wart on her nose, or that she’s a Moabite, and he doesn’t want to marry her. Some even suggest that the reason he doesn’t want to marry her is that her children will not count as Israelites, because she’s from Moab. But is that really true? Everybody congratulates Boaz on his marriage and on the birth of Obed. It is evident that he has gained a good thing, not an embarrassment. Is Boaz really such a fool as to run the risk that Mr. So-and-So will say “Yes, I’ll marry Ruth and buy the land”?

To solve this problem, we need to look closely at the legal transaction. First, Boaz takes Mr. So-and-So to the gate: that is, to the place of lawcourts and official business. He takes him aside and says, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech.” Notice who he says is selling the land: Naomi. Who did it use to belong to? Elimelech. At first, Mr. So-and-So’s answer is, “Sure, I’ll buy it.” Mopalit ‘ko! But then Boaz warns him about the law concerning widows and land:

“The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, and from Ruth the Moabitess, you also acquire the wife of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.”

As soon as he hears this, Mr. So-and-So’s “yes” turns to “No.” And here, too, I must insist that some translations are wrong. They have changed the text to say, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead.” Notice what this does: by changing the text this way, these translators make it so that the reason for Mr. So-and-So’s refusal is nothing more or less than the realization that he must marry Ruth. He wants to buy the field, but then he discovers that Ruth comes with it. How very unflattering to Ruth!

No, the Hebrew says, “what day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi and from (ume’eth) Ruth the Moabitess, you also acquire the wife of the dead”. Now, notice how carefully Boaz has phrased this. Back in 4:3, he told Mr. So-and-So, “Naomi is selling this field. It used to belong to Elimelech, but he is dead.” Now in 4:5 he says, “If you buy the field from Naomi (and from Ruth the Moabitess), you also acquire the wife of the dead.” Now put yourself in Mr. So-and-So’s shoes. When you hear “the dead”, who do you think it is? Elimelech, obviously. So who is the “wife of the dead”? Naomi, obviously. And if you marry her, are you going to have any children? Obviously not. In fact, if you marry her, you get this field, but not only do you not get to leave it to your kids, but you can’t leave your OWN field to your kids, because you can’t have any kids with her.

Boaz has tricked Mr. So-and-So. Mr. So-and-So falls for it. Notice how Boaz then carefully WAITS until Mr. So-and-So seals the deal by removing his sandal. And then as soon as the sandal transaction is finished, Boaz announces:

“You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. Also

– the Hebrew is emphatic, wegam, “and furthermore”  –

Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”

Well, this is a surprise! Suddenly, “the dead” turns out to be, not Elimelech, but his son Mahlon. It was an ambiguous label in the first place, so Boaz was not strictly dishonest. And the wife of the dead is not Naomi, but Ruth! And he emphasizes, twice, “You are witnesses”! Everyone has seen the sandal, everyone has heard the oath. Mr. So-and-So would surely like to change his mind now! After all, Ruth is a young, fertile, beautiful woman, and the field was a great bargain. But it is too late now: the whole court has seen him sign away his rights to Boaz.

Boaz, then, is a very clever man, and he has phrased everything in just the right way to make sure that Mr. So-and-So will give up his prior right of redemption!

How did he know to do this?

Naomi had arranged everything. She knew, first, that Boaz was a good man, and friendly to her cause. She knew, also, that he was not willing to ruin his own inheritance by marrying her. She therefore gave him a huge hint: she sent Ruth to him at night, dressed up in her best clothes, her wedding dress, as it were. And she asks him, “Spread your wings over your maidservant” – marry me. It doesn’t get more forward, more clear, than this. This is Naomi’s way of making Boaz understand, “You can do everything the law requires by marrying my substitute, Ruth.”

How can we tell that Boaz understood this hint? Because in 3:14, he sends her out “before one could recognize another” and he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” In order for the trick to work, Boaz needs to keep it secret. Mr. So and So cannot be allowed to know that Naomi is going to use Ruth as her substitute in law.

Also, Boaz gives Ruth a betrothal gift, a bride price:

“Bring the garment you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley and put it on her.

But who ends up with this? Ruth gives it to Naomi, for “You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law.

No, Boaz knows the game, and he leaves nothing to chance.

And when everything has been sealed, and Boaz and Ruth are married, what happens to their baby, Obed? 4:16-17 tells us “Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse.” This is a ritual of adoption and surrogacy. In Genesis 30:3, Rachel gives her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob and says, “Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees” — that is, that the child will count as mine. Or the way Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manassah (in Genesis 48:5 and 48:12): Joseph puts them on his lap. So Obed counts as Naomi’s son, because he is placed on her lap. And this is recognized by the women of the neighborhood:

And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.”

Baby Obed is thus Naomi’s son. The law required that whoever buys the land must marry the widow. In order to let Boaz get around this, Naomi makes Ruth her substitute, so Ruth’s child counts as Naomi’s.

So our happy trio, Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz win out and prevail against all odds. This should remind us of certain episodes from the life of Jacob himself: how he got Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils – notice how he makes Esau swear first, just as Boaz makes Mr. So-and-So remove his sandal – ; likewise, how Jacob fooled his blind father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing; how he got even with Laban by breeding himself a huge herd of speckled and spotted livestock when Laban had changed his wages and tried to cheat him.

Should we be disturbed to find that Boaz is a trickster figure like Jacob? Not at all. For Jesus himself is the ultimate trickster: Satan thought that he could destroy Him by killing Him on the cross, but Jesus thwarted his plans. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:8,

“we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

This brings us to point 5: The rulers of this world do not understand resurrection. If they had known that Jesus would be raised from the dead and enthroned at the right hand of God, they would not have dared to raise a hand against him.

Mr. So-and-So does not understand resurrection. He looks with earthly eyes, and sees nothing but Naomi’s dried up womb and the sure loss of his own inheritance. But Boaz has eyes of faith, and he grasps the offered glory. He sees that via this Gentile woman, there is the possibility of life from the dead, of a child for barren Naomi, of an heir for dead Elimelech and Mahlon – of Obed, and Jesse, and King David, and ultimately, of the seed of the woman, who is Christ.

That is the true disgrace of Mr. So-and-So. He has his mind on earthly things, and he fails to see himself in terms of God’s plan. He has given up his right, has evaluated the proffered inheritance with the eyes of the flesh, so that he does not see the promise of God. He is an Esau figure, a profane man, and he is remembered that way – or rather, he is not remembered at all, since we don’t know his name. He is condemned to remain “Mr. So-and-So” forever after, while Boaz is enshrined in Scripture as an ancestor of Jesus, who rules the world forever. But Boaz sees with eyes of faith, and acts out of this faith.

So the book of Ruth is a story about life from the dead. It is about the blessing of God coming upon a Gentile, a Moabite woman, because she has been grafted into Israel. And it is about the blessing of God coming upon Israel because of a Gentile. This is precisely what we find in Paul.

When Paul, in Galatians 4:2, quotes Isaiah 54:1 saying, “more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband”, he is celebrating life from the dead. He is saying that the future, the inheritance of God, the world, belong to those who have trusted not in the flesh, but in God, as Ruth did, and as Boaz and Naomi did.

Likewise, Romans 11, Paul says to the Gentiles:

For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

It is because the first-born, Esau has despised his birthright, that therefore the blessing has passed to the second-born, Jacob. It is because Mr. So-and-So, with a better right to redeem the field, has taken off his sandal, that therefore righteous, dependable, merciful Boaz receives the field and the widow and the child and the place in the line of the promise. It is because the Jews have rejected their Messiah that the gospel has been preached, and is still being preached, to the Gentiles – to Americans and Filipinos, to every nation under heaven, because they are all to be blessed in Abraham’s seed, which is Christ – and this is the mystery which the rulers of this age, and Satan, did not understand. Another time, I hope to be able to talk with you about Romans 11 and God’s pattern of mercy on Gentiles and then on the Jews themselves. But for now, we just notice the pattern: “For if Israel’s rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” It is all tied together: the stumbling of the Jews and their rejection of the promise; mercy for the Gentiles and their grafting into Israel; mercy on the Jews and their restoration to God’s people; resurrection from the dead. But let us hope that we will have time to talk further about this another time.

It is practically the family motto of Abraham’s family: the greater shall serve the lesser. The last shall be first and the first last. It is spoken to Rebekah when Jacob and Esau are still in the womb. Laban – he’s a pagan, who chases Jacob and Rachel and Leah down and rummages through their tents searching for his missing idols – Laban doesn’t like this pattern. That’s why he switches Leah for Rachel on Jacob’s wedding night in Genesis 29:26:

“It is not done so in our place, to give the younger before the first-born.”

But it is in God’s plan.

That’s why Tamar uses a similar piece of Jacob-like deception in Genesis 38: Judah refuses to give her his third-born son, Shelah, because he sees that Er and Onan have been killed. And he probably thinks, “What is wrong with this woman? Everyone who marries her dies!” And so he refuses to do what she has a legal right to require. So she takes it from him by trickery: she disguises herself and gets herself pregnant by Judah himself. And one of the children of that union is Perez, who is  an ancestor of Boaz – and his brother Zerah was the first to poke a hand out of his mother, so that the midwife tied a scarlet cord on it to mark him as the firstborn. But then Perez – the original “breach birth” (pardon the pun!) – comes out first and steals his position in the line of promise.

God overcomes barrenness. God overcomes widowhood. God overcomes menopause. God overcomes stingy fathers-in-law. God overcomes Laban who wants to keep Jacob in servitude. God overcomes the leaders of the Jews who want to keep the promise of the covenant for Israel only. God has mercy, and gives grace and an inheritance and riches to the younger, to the second-born, to the workers hired late in the day, to the Gentiles, to the prodigal son.

The book of Ruth started with three dead men, a family with no land, and Israel with no king. It ends with that family back on their own land, a good husband and a beautiful bride, a happy grandmother with her darling grandson on her lap, and a genealogy of David, the king. Praise be to God, the God of the Exodus, the God of return from exile, the God of resurrection from the dead – because, in the words of another young woman who trusted in God…

“He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me – not Mr. So-and-So – blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is His Name.

And His mercy is on them that fear Him throughout all generations.

He hath showed strength with His arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering His mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.”

This is our story. As Hebrews says, “We are not of those who turn back to perdition” — we are not Orpahs — “but of those who believe to the saving of the soul”.



One comment on “Sermon on Ruth 4

  1. Bill & Diane Jerdan says:

    Thanks, Matt. I was scheduled to lead a group discussion on the book of Ruth tonight and the ideas you wrote about were very helpful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s