There was a famine (Ruth 1:1) in the land of Judah, in Bethlehem. One of the many families there decided they couldn’t take it anymore, so they went where they heard there was food: the Land of Moab.
Yet, disaster struck again for this family. The father died, leaving a widow and two unwed sons. What’s a woman to do in a foreign land, with no income to get food, with two sons to raise and no father to get them a proper marriage in the custom of the time?
She hustled to make it work. She found two wives for her boys, her last blessings on earth. She wasn’t able to get them the best wives, since they didn’t have a dad, or any land or money or inheritance to speak of since they left their everything, which still wasn’t much, to go to Moab.
Ten years go by and disaster strikes again. Her beloved boys, both wed now for ten years, die. Both. Boys. Gone. How? Why? And worse yet, neither of them had any children. The family line is doomed. No husband. No sons. No grandsons. In a Foreign land. Her Daughters-in-law did not come from good families anyway. Who will care for the mother now?
She is the female Job of the people of God, of the Old Testament. Naomi has had everything she cares about in life taken from her and, in their society, that means she has no hope for a future, no hope for provision or love or companionship.
The foreign, poor, now widow, who was not from a good family, not worthy of a good husband, not part of the people of God, idol-worshipping daughter-in-law became the mouthpiece of the Word to that mother. Ruth brought the Gospel to Naomi, the Word of life when only death abounded (see Ruth 1:16-17).
Together they travel back to Bethlehem. It was hard there too. They are just two women. Actually, they are worse. They are two women who are two widows, who have no man in a patriarchal system, and thus have very few provisions in the law and religion for their care and safety. The only way to get food is to beg or become a harlot. But there’s hope for a few weeks, because it’s the barley harvest and the law allows for gleaners to gather the meager leftovers on the ground from the paid laborers after each day’s work. Naomi is unable to help, maybe because she’s old, maybe because she’s sick or weak, so Ruth must make it happen. Naomi has carried the family load for 10 years since her husband died, now Ruth looks forward to returning some of the good favor that she has received.
She goes to glean and for seven weeks experiences the providence of God. Instead of being abused by the field workers or illegally thrown out of the fields by the owner of the land, Ruth gleans from the very field which is owned by a relative of Naomi’s husband. What providence! As well, Naomi has had these 7 weeks to think and pray and try to figure out how to provide for Ruth, who has been only Good News to her for a while, when she isn’t around any longer? Naomi is constantly thinking ahead, constantly showing us just how wise and powerful she is in her marginalized body.
Naomi tells Ruth her plan. It’s risky, tricky, many things could go wrong, but if they are going to be provided for after the barley and wheat harvests are over, during the winter and their life ahead of two widows with no inheritance, then they must try something. Boaz has proven he is a good man, even if he is old and possibly has other wives and children. So surely a God-fearing, wealthy business man of his standing would not forsake the two laws that show up in these contexts, the first being the Levitical law of providing a male heir for his relative so that side of the family name will not die out. But that will cost him. That heir will inherit the inheritance that would be due to him as next of kin. The second law is similar, being that the closest relative must buy back the land so that the male heir he might provide the widow would gain that inheritance back. That is more money Boaz will lose if he does was is right and lawful. But Naomi has been watching, praying, waiting. She is a woman of God and she is dependent on God’s people to do what they are supposed to do for the poor and the widows.
Naomi speaks up (Ruth 3:1-5, NLT). “Ruth, My Daughter, it’s time that I found a permanent home for you, so that you will be provided for. Boaz is a close relative of ours, and he’s been very kind by letting you gather grain with his young women. Tonight he will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. Now do as I tell you—take a bath and put on perfume and dress in your nicest clothes (not your widow’s garments you’ve been wearing this whole time). Then go to the threshing floor, but don’t let Boaz see you until he has finished eating and drinking. Be sure to notice where he lies down; then go and uncover his feet and lie down there. He will tell you what to do.” Ruth doesn’t need long to think; she knows what has to happen. Ruth tells Naomi, “I will do everything you say.”
It sounds sketchy. It sounded sketchy then, it sounds sketchy in the original Hebrew, it sounds sketchy in English. The undertones in the next part of the story are overtones and strong tones—there’s lots of insinuating going on no matter how you look at it. Naomi knew that the threshing floor was the public place of celebration, where parties got way out of hand and immorality abounded. Then, throw in the repeated commentary to lay down, repeated instructions to make yourself look real good in every way, repeated instructions to wait for the man to finish eating, drink everything he can, and be asleep before you approach him to uncover his feet, which could be his feet or something else. Naomi, what are you throwing Ruth into? Do you really love her after all? Do you really have her best interest at heart?
Maybe Naomi gave up on God and decided that, for Ruth’s sake, she needed to take action in her own hands?
We, Church, experience this event in the Word from a bird’s eye view, making it easier to judge Naomi’s decisions and Ruth’s behavior or even to sugar coat the probable realities in the story. We don’t have to feel the despondency of Naomi and Ruth, we don’t have to feel the effects of only eating barley for 7 weeks and being grateful even for that, most of us don’t have to feel the grief of losing spouse and both children and having no way to pay the mortgage, and thus it is easier to quickly judge her, “O Naomi, ye of little faith!” Yet, even if this moment began in doubt and mistrust of God’s goodness, it ends in providence.
The Word shows up. God provides. (Ruth 4:13-17, NLT) “So Boaz took Ruth into his home, and she became his wife. When he slept with her, the LORD enabled her to become pregnant and she gave birth to a son (even though she had previously been married for 10 years and had no children before!). Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the LORD, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!” Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. The neighbor women said, “Now at least Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David.”
God is the hero of this text, not any other man. The Word which was from the beginning came to two destitute women in the midst of a man’s world, a culture which would not allow them the means to survive without being attached to a male as husband, son, or father. Providence shines through in the beautiful lives of Naomi and Ruth, but only because there were some severely ugly days, months and years.
God is the hero of this story, but God’s heroism comes in the form of two females, two matriarchs of the faith, two women who were bearers of the Word just as Rahab, Tamar, Hagar, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Mary the mother of Jesus, Elizabeth, Mary Magdelene and many others bore the Word both in their flesh and in their words. Life must have been difficult for them, yet, God provided for these strong, bold, faith-filled, marginalized people even when doubt-filled and depressed at times too, and the Word goes out still.
Davis, Ellen F., and Margaret Adams Parker. Who Are You, My Daughter?: Reading Ruth Through Image and Text. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
Hubbard, Jr., Robert L. The Book of Ruth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.
James, Carolyn Custis. The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008.
Linafelt, Tod, and Timothy K. Beal. Ruth and Esther. Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry. Edited by David W. Cotter. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999.