by Daniel Harrell
First off a Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, including those reading this on your computer or listening to the podcast while sitting by a lake somewhere. Or on a lake somewhere. That’s where my Dad is this morning—skipping church to fish for a largemouth bass. He’ll joke he caught his favorite largemouth 53 years ago. That’s how long my parents have been married—and happily so. They met each other in elementary school. They still possess some of the notes they passed to each other in class. Studies show that before a man even speaks a word, the way he stands counts for over 80% of woman’s first impression. Good thing my dad didn’t slouch. Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania assert that most people make a decision regarding a person’s attractiveness within three seconds of meeting them.
A few other random facts about relationships: If a man can’t decide what to wear on a date, he might want to wear blue. Studies show that women are attracted to men in blue. One way to impress somebody is to mirror their body language. This impresses a date because it subtly conveys interest to the other person. However, one should avoid copying every move. In the online dating world, men are afraid of meeting someone “fat.” Women are afraid of meeting a serial killer. The good news for women is that only about 3% of men are psychopaths, of which only a tiny percentage are serial killers. Then there’s this from Match.com. A survey of 5000 single people revealed that what mattered most to prospective mates is fresh breath. This was followed by stylish clothes, a sexy fragrance, good skin and great hair. This is even true in the Bible.
In our passage from Ruth 3, a desperate mother-in-law instructs her widowed daughter-in-law on how she might catch a husband. She’s told to take a bath (a rarity in ancient cultures), put on sexy fragrance and stylish clothes, then go down to where her prospect was working late. Studies show that four out of ten workplace dating relationships result in marriage. The daughter-in-law is then told to take note of where her intended beds down for the night (so she wouldn’t get the wrong man). And then after he’s had dinner and a little wine and is fast asleep, sneak up on him, uncover his legs, lie down and wait for him to tell you what to do. Just reading the Bible here.
Our story began with an Israelite family escaping famine by sojourning into enemy territory. No sooner did they arrive than the father of the family inexplicably died. In an attempt to salvage the family tree, his two sons abducted two local women, but neither bore children despite ten years of trying. The two sons then died, leaving the three women on the verge of destitution. Theirs was a culture where husbands and children were the only means of social security. Bitterly convinced that God was out to get her, Naomi, the matriarch, nevertheless determined to go back to Israel and right smack into God’s hands—but not before first trying to smack some sense into her two daughters-in-law. With no future as widowed and childless Moabites in Israel (meaning they were not only aliens but enemies), Naomi released Orpah and Ruth from any obligation to her. She sent them back to their mamas to start working on getting new husbands for themselves from among their own people.
Orpah heeded Naomi’s sensible advice, but Ruth refused, irrationally choosing to cleave to Naomi in terms the Bible typically reserves for marital commitments. What inspired such loyalty and love? Certainly not Naomi’s bitterness. Studies show that happiness is contagious and that it’s hard to walk away from happy people. But so with bitter people. Misery may love company, but it’s not likely to find any. And yet Ruth inexplicably abandoned her own country, her family, her friends, her culture and her religion to follow Naomi into Israel. Judaism has always viewed Ruth’s decision as a religious conversion, a dramatic come-to-Yahweh moment. However Yahweh’s plan for her life was a degrading one. Force onto welfare, Ruth had to glean for her supper, a back-breaking practice where the poor were permitted to scavenge grain inadvertently dropped during harvest, not unlike the poor of our day scavenge for aluminum cans.
It was humiliating, but a girl’s gotta eat. So Ruth found a field to glean. But as providence would have it, the field she found was the property of Naomi’s cousin Boaz, who unexpectedly flung wide the gates of grace, granting Ruth privileged access to his fields, his workers, his table and his provisions. By the end of her first day, Ruth had gleaned more grain than one normally collects in a month. She hauled it all home and Naomi obviously flipped, especially once she learned that cousin Boaz had been behind it all. Again by God’s providence, Boaz turned out to be a kinsman-redeemer: an ancient title within Jewish family law denoting one’s responsibilities to preserve and care for one’s tribe. Kinsman-redemption sometimes included the social redemption of childless widows through marriage. The wedding bells went off in Naomi’s head.
However Boaz—whether due to loss of interest, shyness or fear of commitment—failed to take any initiative. Studies show that nearly 40% of men do not feel confident meeting women. Therefore, being a good Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi took matters into her own hands. But why all the sneaking around? If kinsman-redeemer obligations were in effect, why not just make arrangements directly? Why cook up this conniving plan? After all, the threshing floor, the place where edible grain was separated from unwanted chaff, was a notorious party scene. Harvest time had men working late and staying the night, getting wasted and hooking up with prostitutes. Who’d knowingly send their daughter into that, even if studies do show threshing floors to be good places to meet people? Rather than the light of day, Naomi sent Ruth under cloak of darkness. The whole “uncovering his legs and lying down” was loaded with sexual innuendo. The chances of Ruth’s being misinterpreted or misused were enormous. Then again, maybe this was Naomi’s intent. She was a desperate for Ruth to get Ruth married she’d do whatever it took.
Except men only take advantage of women like this; they don’t marry them. This is why dating experts typically suggest not being too available. Play hard to get because the longer the chase, the more likely love will blossom. Nevertheless, Ruth crawled right under Boaz’ covers and pulled them onto herself, so that when the night turned cold and Boaz—in a contented mood, we read—went to grab his blanket, he ended up grabbing Ruth. Again, all sorts of reactions were possible, from umbrage to embarrassment to delight. Boaz began with the obvious. He asked, “Who are you?” Here Ruth departed from Naomi’s script. Rather than waiting for Boaz to tell her what to do, Ruth told him. “I’m Ruth. Marry me.”
OK, so she didn’t use those words exactly, but she might as well have. To ask a man to “spread his cloak” (or literally his wings) over you was tantamount to popping the question. Talk about being forward. Not only does the woman propose marriage to the man, but the younger to the older, the employee to the boss, a reviled Moabite to an Israelite. Ruth then went on to demand Boaz do his duty—all despite studies showing that men hate demanding women. “You are a kinsman-redeemer,” she insisted, “Redeem me.” All of which Boaz interprets not as some brazen act of desperation, but as a beautiful act of loyalty. Not only did Ruth degrade herself as a gleaner for Naomi’s sake, but now she risks any reputation she had left to secure the future of her mother-in-law’s family. “May you be blessed by the Lord,” Boaz replied, “This last instance of your loyalty—your devotion, your kindness—is better than the first.” And then, apparently flattered that Ruth would chase after him, he added, “You have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”
No doubt this was part of Naomi’s scheme. She hoped Ruth’s advances would flatter Boaz that she’d end up in the in-law apartment. But as it turned out, all the scheming was unnecessary. Boaz, renown as a man of noble character, responded in kind: “Don’t worry about a thing, my daughter,” he says to Ruth. “I will do what is necessary, for everyone in town knows you to be a virtuous woman.” Boaz allayed any concern that Ruth might have acted presumptuously or offended him by her forwardness. He assured her that all would know there was nothing wrong in her coming to him with the request to marry. There was just one problem though. Verse 12: “There is another kinsman more closely related than I.” By law and custom, this other cousin had the right of first refusal. Naomi probably knew this too. So why did she send Ruth to Boaz instead? Because Naomi also knew that the noble Boaz, faced with responsibility, would always do the right thing.
It’s not something you see a lot of in our day. This morning’s paper reports on the ongoing sad saga that is the Jerry Sandusky trial, the Penn State assistant football coach accused of abusing at-risk young boys. It’s a story of so many people knowing the right thing but refusing to do it—other coaches, eyewitnesses, Sandusky’s wife, authorities, university presidents. James Davison Hunter, professor of religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia, in his book The Death of Character, writes that while most people “think of their lives in moral terms and want to live good lives,” we “are more uncertain about what the nature of the good is…. We used to experience morality as imperatives. The consequences of not doing the right thing were not only social, but deeply emotional and psychological. We couldn’t bear to live with ourselves. Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it. We tend to personalize our ideals. And what you end up with is a nation of ethical free agents. We’ve moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality. The etymology of the word character is that it’s deeply etched, not changeable in all sorts of circumstances. We don’t want to think of ourselves as transgressive or bad, so we tend to personalize our understanding of the good.”
Not so with Boaz. His righteous character surfaces even in the shadiest of circumstances. He’s like Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” also cited in this morning’s Sandusky article. Sir Thomas dismissed his daughter’s pleas to compromise his ideals and save his life. In stead he says: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” Therefore Boaz swears “as the Lord lives” to do right by Ruth. If the closer cousin rejects her, Boaz will marry her. And then so that no one got the wrong idea, so to guard her reputation, Boaz had Ruth remain nearby for the night and depart early in the morning, before everyone else woke up. He then gave her more grain so as not to return to Naomi empty-handed. More than food, the bread symbolized Boaz’ good faith pledge for her guaranteed future.
What to glean from all this? There is Naomi’s outrageous trust in Boaz’ character. There was nothing in the kinsman-redeemer code that mandated Boaz marry Ruth and care for them both. Boaz could have easily told Ruth she was off her rocker, especially since Ruth was a Moabitess. Maybe Naomi figured that the only shot she had was to display Ruth’s worthiness as a wife while at the same time making Boaz an offer he couldn’t refuse (especially if he’d been drinking). But to do this, Naomi had to have faith in Boaz to get the message and do the right thing. Most importantly, Naomi had to have faith in God, despite the Lord’s recent track record on her behalf. Far from taking matters into her own hands, Naomi’s plan could only work if God was in it. She trusted both the character of Boaz and the eventual goodness of God.
Then there’s Ruth’s loyalty toward Naomi; a loyalty that carried her to Boaz’ bed in the middle of the night. She too trusted Boaz to do the right thing. How else to explain her refusing to follow through with the seduction and be honest instead? Choosing to trust is a cornerstone of any relationship. We used to speak of getting engaged (from the word meaning to pledge something) as being betrothed. Rather than just pledging something, betrothal is specifically about pledging troth. It’s choosing to trust. Trust is a move of loyalty, a determination of will and of faith. It’s why we ask in wedding ceremonies not “do you love” or trust, but “will you love, will you trust, for better or worse, no matter what, as long you both shall live?”
And finally there is Boaz’ character. Refusing to misinterpret Ruth’s advances, he attributed to her only the best intentions. He chose to think well of her even when things looked bad. This is not a consequence of any naïveté on his part, but an act of Biblical kindness that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” It’s a kindness which refused to exploit Ruth’s vulnerability. Rather than looking for what he could get, Boaz concerned himself with Ruth’s reputation, her security and best interests. He did the right thing. It’s a act many interpret as typifying Christ’s own as our kinsman-redeemer. Coming among us, like us, in our direst straits, Jesus redeemed us with his own body and blood, moving us out of our impoverishment to partake of his glorious riches, betrothing himself to us as his bride, and then providing for us his own body as bread; a good faith pledge for our guaranteed future.
Ruth chapter 1 challenged you to believe in God’s goodness amidst your bitterness. Chapter 2 challenged you to expect grace you’re desperate. Here in chapter 3 you are reminded of the rewards of faith and trust, and encouraged to be people worthy of it. May the character of Christ—his characteristic love, loyalty decency and kindness—be the characteristics others can trust in us.