November 20, 2017

A “Chance” Meeting

Naomi and Ruth on the road from Moab, entering Bethlehem, Bible Moralisée, Vienna, c.1122

By Chaplain Mike

Ordinary Time Bible Study 2011
The Book of Ruth (7)

We have completed the first part of the story told in the Book of Ruth. Chapter one introduced two problems in need of resolution:

  • The provision of food for Naomi and her family
  • The provision of heirs for Naomi and her family

If the Torah is hidden in our hearts, when we read this account we instinctively go back in our minds to the stories of Israel’s ancestors. For here, like there, we read about a pilgrimage because of famine, concerns about adversity with regard to marriage, family, and children, and an unlikely woman who steps forward in an unexpected fashion to take center stage.

This gives us pause and causes us to wonder if God is involved in this story as he was in those foundational narratives.

When last we observed Naomi, she had returned to Bethlehem and was publicly lamenting her situation. Despite the bitterness of her cries, we listened with a sense of anticipation about what might happen next. For there were some hopeful signs.

  • First, word had come that God had visited his people with food (1:6). Bethlehem was once more “the house of bread,” a place where the hungry might find provision.
  • Second, Naomi had not returned alone. She was accompanied by her remarkable daughter-in-law Ruth. This young woman, also bereft, had demonstrated a tenacious loyalty and love (hesed) that added new possibility to the circumstances of their return.

Can Naomi’s return, even in her embittered condition, possibly mark the beginning of some surprising good?

Today, we look at Ruth, chapter two.

Ruth, 12th Century Illuminated Bible

Ruth 2:1-3
Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side of the family named Boaz. He was a wealthy, prominent man from the clan of Elimelech. One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields so I can gather grain behind whoever permits me to do so.” Naomi replied, “You may go, my daughter.” So Ruth went and gathered grain in the fields behind the harvesters. Now she just happened to end up in the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.

• • •

Here we see the storyteller’s art. First, the reader is introduced to one of Naomi’s relatives. We have not heard his name before, nor has Naomi apparently considered him in her plight. His name is Boaz, and we are told of his clan-level relationship to Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband.

In addition, we should note the description of Boaz, translated in the NetBible as “wealthy, prominent man.” This is the masculine form of the word found in the poem in Proverbs 31 which describes the “woman of excellence” (eshet chayil). In an earlier study, we noted how the placement of Ruth among the “Five Scrolls” was tied thematically to that paradigmatic model of wisdom. Ruth is a historical example of the “woman of excellence,” and she herself will be given that designation in 3:11. In Boaz we are now introduced to her male counterpart, a “man of excellence.” This is getting interesting!

Another clue about things to come is the identification of Boaz as Elimelech’s relative within the clan. The clan was the most important social unit in Israelite society, larger than the extended family and smaller than the tribe. Clan relationships involved certain kinship responsibilities. Those versed in the ordinances of the Torah might be led to think, for example, of Leviticus 25:23-28

The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. Thus for every piece of your property, you are to provide for the redemption of the land. If a fellow countryman of yours becomes so poor he has to sell part of his property, then his nearest kinsman is to come and buy back what his relative has sold. Or in case a man has no kinsman, but so recovers his means as to find sufficient for its redemption, then he shall calculate the years since its sale and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it, and so return to his property. But if he has not found sufficient means to get it back for himself, then what he has sold shall remain in the hands of its purchaser until the year of jubilee; but at the jubilee it shall revert, that he may return to his property. (NASB)

Kinsmen at the clan level were responsible to help poor fellow family members. In particular, they carried responsibility to “redeem” land that they had lost through impoverishment. As we will see, this provision of the Law will ultimately play a part in the resolution of Naomi’s dilemma.

Back to our story.

Ruth arises early one morning in Bethlehem and decides to take initiative. Though many English versions translate her words in verse 2 as a request for permission—“Let me go to the fields”—in Hebrew, it is actually a statement—”I am going to the fields.” Ruth was no wallflower, not one for sitting on her hands, not content to sit back and let life come to her. The family needed food, God had provided a harvest, she was going to go out and get some of it!

The background of the practice mentioned here is detailed in Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-22. Those who raised crops or tended orchards were required to leave a portion of what they grew unharvested, so that the poor might have an opportunity to gather food for their needs. Ruth may have learned of this from Naomi and seen this as something she could do right away to get busy and help the family.

Verse 3 is delightful: “Now she just happened to end up in the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.” The Hebrew phrase is something like, “it happened to happen” that Ruth ended up in Boaz’s field.

Right.

By pure chance she wound up in the field of Naomi’s prominent kinsman, a man of wealth and exemplary love and wisdom, a fellow clan member who had responsibility to care for his poor relatives.

“It just so happened…”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a story.

Comments

  1. The land aspect of this book is one I often see under-emphasized in favor of talking about Ruth’s faithfulness and character. I wonder if it’s because we’re more comfortable talking about a certain stereotype of womanly virtue than about property issues that might give us pause about the ways we treat property and possessions in our own lives?

    • I don’t think we overemphasize Ruth. I also don’t think she represents a stereotype—in fact, she breaks the mold, as I hope to point out through these studies.

      Nevertheless, your point about the land is a good one. I’ve always been challenged by the laws regarding not harvesting the corners of one’s fields, the responsibility to care for those in our extended families, and laws such as Jubilee, that go totally against our personal property, capitalistic, ownership mentality.

      Certainly these laws tell us something about what God is like and his view of societal relations and obligations. How would you suggest that they might guide us in our lives and societies today?

      • I think we overemphasize the individualistic aspects of the story. I think one of the most important aspects of the book is the fact that a Moabite abandon her people to accept fully the God and the laws of the people of Israel. In my opinion, Ruth’s personal happiness is not the center of the story. The happiness of the individual is secondary to the fact that God manifests itself and works through the history of his people. The “chance” meeting is a “chance” meeting not only in Ruth’s story, but primarily in the history of Israel
        Ruth in chapter 1 does not give up to get married (this is nonsensical, because marriage was a blessing from God), Ruth relinquish to marry a Moabite.
        The fact that the protagonist is a woman puts more emphasis on the complete submission to the laws and to the God of Israel.

        • You are right, Luis. The individual happiness of the characters is secondary. However, the individual actions and attitudes of the characters are emphasized strongly as the means by which God brings his purposes to pass.

        • cermak_rd says:

          I’ve always understood this book to have been written as a reaction to Israel’s xenophobic reaction against converts. After all, Ruth is supposed to be an ancestor of David, the great king. And so she is portrayed as a convert to make a point.

          • WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

            I’ve come to see Ruth’s story as a kind of inversion of Jonah. Boaz is a kind of anti-Jonah. One of the things that seems to have not been discussed much is how big a deal it would be to assimilate a Moabite, let alone a Moabite woman. There is a sense in which Ruth embodied the widow the immigrant, and at least with respect to the loss of a patriarch from whom a family could gain stability, also a kind of orphan. In marrying Ruth Boaz reveals himself to be eager to show kindness to someone for whom he is a kinsman redeemer but also, in another way, showing kindness to a widow/immigrant/orphan.

  2. Randy Thompson says:

    Forgive me for totally changing the subject—in fact, I’m completely ignoring it—but, did anyone read Nicholas Kristof’s splendid tribute to John Stott in his column on the NY Times op-ed page yesterday? It’s called, appropriately enough, “Evangelicals Without Blowhards.” It seemed to me that people who appear here on the Internet Monk would appreciate this.

    Now, back to the subject hand. . .