Ruth is a wonderful story. It has the stuff of every great tale – tragedy and triumph, allegiance and dedication, love and romance, scheming and triumph. But its purpose goes beyond heartwarming inspiration: it involves the resolution of a complex legal problem that touches on the royal line of David itself. And in that resolution, it gives us one of the great heroes of Scripture, Boaz, in whome we see a powerful example of the quality of divine mercy. David at his best will be like Boaz, his great-grandfather, a most honorable forefather of our Lord Jesus.
The problem is bound up in the story. Famine has hit Bethlehem. Elimelech has decided to leave Israel and move to Moab with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. This is a permanent move – the family settles down and the sons secure local wives, Ruth and Orpah. We assume Elimelech has enough wealth to fund the move and that his land in Bethlehem is rented out or left fallow. This causes a deep frown among among Rabbinic commentators: a rich man such as Elimelech should have stayed to help the poor of Israel, and his stinginess brings divine punishment on him and his sons.
Be that as it may, Elimelech and his two sons do perish. This leaves Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah in an economic mess. By custom, when Elimelech died, his son Mahlon would have inherited the family estate and taken care of Naomi. Her grief and loneliness would have been mitigated by the care of her sons and daughters-in-law. When he passed, Kilion his brother would have become head of the family. Since Mahlon had no sons with Ruth, were he to follow the custom of Levirite marriage, Kilion would have taken Ruth as wife to give her a son and continue the line of his brother Mahlon. When Kilion died, all three women were left grieving and economically challenged.
Naomi does the sensible thing and heads back to Bethlehem for support. Elimelech has no brother to take Naomi as wife, and she is beyond marrying age. But it is spring, the famine is over, and the harvest has come. She will return to Elimelech's home, spruce up the place, and settle down to mourn as a widow. The two girls she sends back to their families in Moab for support and hopeful remarriage. Orpah leaves in tears, but Ruth pledges her devotion to Naomi, her faith in the God of Israel, and her fidelity to the people of Israel. The two ladies set out for Bethlehem. And yes, a husband will have to found in Bethlehem for Ruth.
The two arrive home. Ruth is young and strong, and eager to earn her keep. So she does what a responsible young widow should do: she heads out into the fields to gather grain. Farmers were instructed by the Lord to be “sloppy” in their harvesting, leaving grain for the poor to gather. “As it so happened,” she found herself in the field of Boaz, a wealthy relative of Elimelech and the head of the tribe of Judah. Her hard work made quite an impression on his foreman, who relayed his admiration to Boaz, who struck up a conversation with Ruth.
Their courtship is touching. He made sure she had water to drink and was safe from molestation in the fields. (What a horrible commentary on human brokenness, that men would prey on unprotected widows gleaning for survival in barley fields. Boaz would allow no such thing to happen to Ruth.) She wondered at his thoughtfulness to her. He shared that he knew the story of her suffering, her conversion, and her dedication to Naomi. He prayed the Lord's blessing on her. She humbly thanked him. He offered her lunch. She accepted. They enjoyed each other's company. She went back to work. He made sure his harvesters left plenty of extras for her in the field. She came home with an abundance. Naomi wondered who, what, where, and how. Ruth told her about Boaz. She told Ruth that Boaz was one of their “kinsman-redeemers.” She should stick to his fields.
And yes, a great plan was hatched in her mind. Naomi was a godly woman. Her sorrow and bitterness had not poisoned her soul. She saw the devotion and hard work of Ruth, and she wanted a good life for her daughter-in-law. And she went to work...