Today we’re in our second week of our month-long look at the Old Testament Book of Ruth… a book which, by the way, is considered by many literary experts to be one of the finest short stories ever written… literary experts agree that this story, besides being a beautiful story, is a perfectly organized: it has the 3 components that every well-written short story needs to have: a strong beginning, an engaging middle, and a satisfying end! Last week Barry talked about the Book of Ruth’s strong beginning… and what a sad, strong beginning it is! Just to recap the beginning: a Jewish man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leave their home in Bethlehem due to a terrible famine, and immigrate to the not-so-friendly country of Moab. And once there, after settling as immigrants in Moab, Elimelech dies, and Naomi is now a widow. Then, following their father’s death, the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, both marry local Moabite girls, but sadly again, within the next 10 years, both Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving Naomi not only a widow, but a childless widow… and as Barry pointed out last week, a childless widow living in a foreign land would have been a terrible situation. Naomi then decides it’s time to return to Bethlehem and at first both of her daughters-in-law choose to go with her, but soon after they start their journey back to Bethlehem Naomi advises her daughters-in-laws that the best thing these two young widows can do is return to their families in Moab… well, one daughter-in-law decides to go home to her family, but the other daughter-in-law, a young woman named Ruth, stays with Naomi, swearing that she will never leave Naomi no matter what might happen. That is the beginning of the story… and as Barry pointed out so clearly last week, Naomi had every reason to feel that God had raised his fist against her.
Today we come to the second chapter of Ruth which marks the beginning of the middle of this story… the part of the story where the ‘events’ start to happen! Now, I do want to tell you that this middle part of the story we will be looking at today isn’t where we will come to any final conclusions… that all happens at the end of our story… but today’s passage, chapter 2, will still be a chapter where Ruth’s story not only takes a significant, unexpected turn, but just like last week’s chapter, it will have something important to say to all of us… So, let’s turn to chapter 2 in the Book of Ruth. Page ???? in the house Bible. Welcome; Pray.
Now there was a wealthy and influential man in Bethlehem named Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. The Hebrew words (gibor hayil) that give us ‘wealthy and influential’ were used to say all sorts of things: they could mean that Boaz was strong, or that he was a person of high social standing… they could even mean he was a war hero … we can’t be certain exactly what the author meant here, but any way we might translate ‘gibor hayil,’ and wealthy and influential is a great translation, would say that Boaz was a big deal. One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.” Clearly, Ruth knew of the commandments in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy that say this: “When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:22. And the Deuteronomy command goes even further. “When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all you do. When you beat the olives from your olive trees, don’t go over the boughs twice. Leave the remaining olives for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. When you gather the grapes in your vineyard, don’t glean the vines after they are picked. Leave the remaining grapes for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. That is why I am giving you this command. Deuteronomy 24:19-22. We have no idea how closely the Israelites followed these rules. We do know that during this time period, the period of time described in the Old Testament Book of Judges, was said to be a time when ‘everyone in Israel did what they thought was right in their own eyes.’ In other words, some people were obedient to God’s commands and others were ignoring them completely. But Ruth knew that she and Naomi needed food and since it was, as the last verse of chapter 1 stated, the time of the barely harvest she must have assumed that she would find farmers somewhere that were following the commandment of the Lord… farmers that would be kind enough to let her, as a foreigner and a widow gather some leftover grain. Well, Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.” 3 So Ruth went out to gather grain behind the harvesters. And as it happened, she found herself working in a field that belonged to Boaz, the relative of her father-in-law, Elimelech. Exactly how Boaz, who, by the way, is the third primary character in this short story, how he was related to Elimelech we can’t tell from the Hebrew, but him being a relative of Naomi’s husband is a very important detail, a detail we’ll learn all about soon! And something else in this verse, the phrase ‘And as it happened’ is, believe it or not, may be the most important little bit in this entire chapter… maybe the entire book! This phrase, ‘qara miqreh’ in the Hebrew, meant something like, ‘As luck would have it’ or ‘Can you believe it?’ But actually, this was a tongue-in-cheek phrase that the original readers would have recognized immediately as a ‘wink-and-a-nod’ from the author. What the author was doing here is telling us that there is a 4th character in this story… someone unseen who is busily arranging events… and, of course, we all know who this 4th character is: it’s God. So, with the use of two small words the author has told us that there was nothing ‘lucky’ or ‘coincidental’ or ‘Can you believe it!’ about Ruth finding herself working in the field of a relative of her father-in-law. 4 While she was there, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters. “The LORD be with you!” he said. “The LORD bless you!” the harvesters replied. These sorts of greetings would have said to the first readers that Boaz, as well as his workers, were good people… people who were doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord. 5 Then Boaz asked his foreman, “Who is that young woman over there? Who does she belong to?” 6 And the foreman replied, “She is the young woman from Moab who came back with Naomi. 7 She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes’ rest in the shelter.” Now, the commentators have come up with all sorts of reasons as to why Boaz would have noticed Ruth: her clothes, her foreign appearance, her beauty… but I’m going to leave it at this: Boaz noticed Ruth and he immediately wanted to give her some special attention. 8 Boaz went over and said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don’t go to any other fields. Stay right behind the young women working in my field. 9 See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well.” 10 Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. “What have I done to deserve such kindness?” she asked. “I am only a foreigner.” 11 “Yes, I know,” Boaz replied. “But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. 12 May the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.” Take my word for it, Boaz was showing Ruth an incredible amount of favor here… and did you notice that his reason for wanting to be so kind to her was due to her faithfulness to Naomi? Bethlehem wasn’t a very big place and he’d heard all about what she’d gone through to bring her to this moment. And you can see his deep understanding of her situation and his appreciation for her faithfulness to Naomi when he blesses her, saying, May the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done. “I hope I continue to please you, sir,” she replied. “You have comforted me by speaking so kindly to me, even though I am not one of your workers.” The Hebrew that gives us the phrase ‘under whose wings’ pictures a tiny, lost bird being adopted by a much larger, mother bird of a different breed. I don’t think he could have described Ruth’s circumstances any better! And Boaz’ kindness gets even deeper! 14 At mealtime Boaz called to her, “Come over here, and help yourself to some food. You can dip your bread in the sour wine.” So, she sat with his harvesters, and Boaz gave her some roasted grain to eat. She ate all she wanted and still had some left over. Can I just say, what Boaz was doing here was, in their culture more than just being generous with Ruth…. he was being lavishly over-the-top with her! And he wasn’t done, either. When Ruth went back to work again, Boaz ordered his young men, “Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don’t give her a hard time!” Let’s just say, ‘The boss has spoken!’ So, Ruth gathered barley there all day, and when she beat out the grain that evening, it filled an entire basket. She carried it back into town and showed it to her mother-in-law. Ruth also gave her the roasted grain that was left over from her meal. Ruth was always thinking of Naomi! “Where did you gather all this grain today?” Naomi asked. “Where did you work? May the LORD bless the one who helped you!” So, Ruth told her mother-in-law about the man in whose field she had worked. She said, “The man I worked with today is named Boaz.” And now the wheels in Naomi’s brain start turning! “May the LORD bless him!” Naomi told her daughter-in-law. “He is showing his kindness to us as well as to your dead husband. That man is one of our closest relatives, one of our family redeemers.” 21 Then Ruth said, “What’s more, Boaz even told me to come back and stay with his harvesters until the entire harvest is completed.” 22 “Good!” Naomi exclaimed. “Do as he said, my daughter. Stay with his young women right through the whole harvest. You might be harassed in other fields, but you’ll be safe with him.” 23 So Ruth worked alongside the women in Boaz’s fields and gathered grain with them until the end of the barley harvest. Then she continued working with them through the wheat harvest in early summer. And all the while she lived with her mother-in-law. A couple of things: first when Naomi says, ‘He is showing his kindness to us as well as to your dead husband,’ it is a tossup as to whether the ‘He’ Naomi is talking about is Boaz or God! Scholars argue. I have no problem with the ambiguity. It’s clearly both as far as I’m concerned. Second, this business of a ‘family redeemer’ is a cultural reality that has almost no connection to our world. The Hebrew word is go-el, and a go-el was not necessarily a specific relative, like a brother, or uncle or cousin, but it WAS someone who was considered to be one of the family leaders, someone who had very specific responsibilities to the wider clan… and those responsibilities were two-fold: first, the go-el was responsible for buying back any family land that might have been sold due to economic hardship. This kept the wider clan’s property intact. And the go-el was also responsible for buying back, or redeeming, any family member who might have sold themselves or other family members into slavery due to economic hardship. You can see from these responsibilities why Boaz so appreciated Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi. Naomi, since she was his poor relative, she was his responsibility in many ways… and Ruth, even though she was a Moabite immigrant, was faithfully looking out for one of his own! In fact, the last sentence of this chapter tells us that Ruth continued to be faithful to Naomi… Ruth lived alongside and cared for Naomi just as she had promised… Naomi’s people had become her people and Naomi’s God had become her God. And this is where Chapter 2 ends: Ruth providing for Naomi by working in the fields of the kindly Boaz a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband… and we can feel the possibilities swirling in Naomi’s mind.
Okay. So, what do we learn from this middle-of-the-story chapter? Well, for me, as I said earlier, the most important part in all of Chapter 2 is that tongue-in-cheek phrase, ‘As it Happened!’ What this phrase tells me is that the 4th character in this story has been busy… and to be honest, this entire 2nd chapter has been written under the umbrella of this 4th character… this fourth character, as it happened, is the one who made the rules for harvesting… this fourth character, as it happened, is the one who was concerned about foreigners and orphans and widows sharing in the bounty of the harvest… this fourth character, as it happened, is the one that directed Ruth to a specific field that, as it happened, was owned not only a godly man, but, as it happened, was a go-el in Naomi’s family. the author clearly wants us to know that God had been busy behind the scenes working alongside the decisions and the circumstances of the people in this story.
And this has got me thinking. Last week Barry said much of what chapter one tells us is that it is okay to shake our fists at God in the midst of terrible circumstances… that our bitterness in the midst of confusing times of suffering isn’t something that God can’t handle… in fact, it is what he would prefer from us… our staying engaged and allowing him to have a back-and-forth with us in our times of trial. And I agree with this wholeheartedly. But this week we are introduced to the flipside of that coin. I know that nowhere in this entire book do we read that God did this or God did that… all we get is ‘As it happened,’ but what a huge statement that little phrase is making! I don’t do this very often, but can I tell you a story? As it happened, a long time ago I went to a Bible College in the north of England. I had finished my studies and Jennifer and I were planning on staying in England at least 2 more years… we’d sold our home and our car and many of our possessions back home and gone to England with no real plan to return for a good while. We had 2 children, and Jennifer was carrying our youngest. Well, as it happened, I had become good friends with one of my professors and as it happened, he lived on top of an unusual land mass called ‘The Wharton Cragg’… it was one of those huge, odd mountain-like rock formations that come right out of the ocean… all cliff on one side down to the sea and then some flat space on the top… and, as it happened, on the top of the Wharton Cragg, there were 3 farms. My professor’s land, the farm of a middle-aged farmer and the farm of a quite elderly man. Well, as it happened, the middle-aged farmer had hurt his back and needed help on his farm and, as it happened, my professor knew that I, as it happened, had worked on a family farm for a number of years. And this middle-aged farmer hired me to help him while his back recovered. Well, as it happened, while I was working one day, I noticed that the roof on the elderly neighbor’s 500-year-old barn was on fire, and as it happened, I had visited with him just a few days earlier and knew that he kept a number of animals in that barn and, in particular, lots of young chicks… and I also knew that there was no one else on the top of that mountainy Cragg that could save those animals if they were in that barn, but me. So, I ran over to his barn, released his frightened horses and sheep, and somehow carried all the cages of chicks out of that barn while the fire raged above me in the roof rafters. Eventually, literally everyone from the nearby small, local village hiked their way up to that farm… a big fire like that drew everyone, but there was nothing anyone could do since there were no fire hydrants up there… and so we all watched as the barn burned to the ground. Well, one of the people that made his way up to the fire was the local ‘chief’ of police and I heard him ask the elderly farmer how on earth he’d saved all his animals. And the farmer pointed at me with his cane and said, ‘The Yank who works for my neighbor saved them all.’ Well, as it happened, I was the only ‘yank’ living anywhere near this village… and I was on a student visa… I’d had to register with the police when I first came to England… and as it happened, this policeman knew who I was and that I wasn’t supposed to be working… especially then, when, as it happened, the British economy was in the tank. Well, he came over to me and said, ‘Tim, we appreciate your bravery, but when your visa comes up for renewal soon, I am going to have to deny it. You’re breaking the law by working.’ And so, Jennifer and I had to come back to America at least 2 years before we’d planned. and we weren’t happy about it. Well, as it happened, we ended up on the northside of Indianapolis… and, as it happened, we started going to Faith Church, and as it happened not long after we started attending Faith, they hired a new choir director/youth group leader named David Rodriquez who soon became, not only my friend, but my children’s youth group leader, and as it happened, when the time came to plant Grace, Faith’s leadership happened to call Dave to be the pastor and Dave knew that I’d been to theology school in England and as it happened, he was looking for someone to share the pulpit and he asked me to join him on the preaching team and then, as it happened, he spearheaded my attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School a few years later… and here I am, as it happens, 25 years later. And can I say that there were multiples of other ‘as it happened’s’ in our lives… way too many to talk about today… But to be completely honest, we were sad and confused and bitter when we came home to America. It was a dream destroyed. And yet now we see that there was a third character in the middle of our story… a third character that was working alongside our decisions and our faithfulness and our willingness to dialogue with him as we navigated life. As it happened, Ruth ended up in Boaz’ field; as it happened, we ended up just a few blocks down the road from Faith Church… soon we will find out where Ruth eventually lands; you know where Jennifer and I landed. And the lesson for me is that I have to be willing to see those ‘as it happens’ not as, ‘can you believe its’ but as the hand of our God working in mysterious ways to bring about his intensions… our call is to consider the pathway… the ‘as it happens’ and to be willing to believe that when God promised to never leave us or forsake us, no matter what the circumstances, he is, like Boaz, a redeemer who keeps his word. King David, Boaz’ great grandson, famously wrote, a song that is filled with recognition of God’s role in the ‘as it happens.’ My bet is that he’d been thinking about all the events in his life and had come to realize that it couldn’t possibly just be that everything was a, ‘Can you believe it!’ No, my bet is that he was thinking, as I am encouraging us all to do, about all of the, ‘As it happens’ and that is what led him to write, The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever.