The Mid-Point Shift (Ruth 3)

The Book of Ruth began with disaster and death. We watched Naomi fall from wealth and happiness and belonging all the way down to the bottom of society where she did not even believe in God anymore — at least, not in the good parts of God.

In Chapter 2 we saw that begin to change. Ruth, her daughter-in-law, found work for the first time after the end of the famine. She brought home food and hope. And Naomi began to believe again that maybe, just maybe, God had been taking care of her the whole time.

But still, Chapter 2 ended with a cliff-hanger. Because these ladies need more than just food. They need more than just work. Just like us, they need a place to belong; they need a people to belong to. But this need for a people and a place is really just a shadow of a more fundamental need: the need to belong to God. Yahweh is the Covenant-Keeping God, the God who has promised to love his people with an ever-lasting love. But you’ve gotta be his covenant people in order to benefit from this everlasting love!

At this point in the story, Naomi is still a widow who lost her husband and sons in Moab, a foreign country, which means that she is probably under the curse of God. Ruth is still a foreigner from Moab, which means that she is certainly under the curse of God. Yes, Naomi has repented and returned to the land of the covenant. Yes, Ruth has promised to worship the God of the covenant. But their situation here at the beginning of Chapter 3 is sort of like a person who believes in Jesus and wants to join his people — but hasn’t been baptized yet.

Naomi and Ruth both realize they are in this half-way house position. One or the other of them needs to be “baptized” into God’s covenant. And in the Old Testament there was only one way to be “baptized” into God’s covenant: through the ritual of circumcision. Men joined God’s covenant people by getting circumcised. Women joined by marrying a circumcised man. So, in order to fully belong to God’s people, either Naomi or Ruth needs to get married.

Naomi is a little old for that. But Ruth…

So [1] One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. [2] Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours.”

Now this answers a question that we had last week, doesn’t it.

Last week Naomi told Ruth to stay away from the young men at work, which made no sense if she was supposed to be looking for a husband. Now it makes sense: Naomi has been setting Ruth up to aim for the bossman. Why? Well, Naomi says here it is because he “is a relative of ours.”

Now, why is that important? Because, as we discovered in Chapter 2, Boaz is a guardian-redeemer for Naomi. Actually, more specifically, Boaz is a guardian redeemer for Elimelek, Naomi’s dead husband. And what does that mean? Basically, it means three things:

First, Boaz is obligated to buy Elimelek’s land if Elimelek — or his family — needs cash. Second, Boaz is obligated to hire Elimelek — or his family — if they need cash. Third, Boaz is obligated to marry Elimelek’s widow and give her sons if Elimelek dies without any sons.

This third obligation is what Naomi has in mind. See, we just mentioned that Naomi, as a widow, looks like she is under God’s curse. And she certainly felt like she was under God’s curse at the end of Chapter 1! And the reason she felt this way is because one of the worst curses that could come upon an Israelite family in those days was for parents to die without sons to inherit their lands. Elimelek’s family line is under a curse right now.

This is the curse that Naomi wants lifted from her, and from her husband’s family. She feels like she is outside of God’s covenant. She wants back in. And the best way for her to do that is to get married to a guardian-redeemer and have another son who can inherit Elimelek’s land.

However, as we have also just mentioned, Naomi is a little old for that. She knows this, which is why Ruth is her Plan B.

This is how her Plan B is supposed to work: remember, Naomi did have sons. Those sons inherited Elimelek’s land when Elimelek died. But then they died without sons. So who does the land belong to now? It belongs to the widows of these men. Elimelek’s land now belongs to Naomi and to Ruth. If Naomi — or Ruth — can marry a guardian-redeemer and have a son, then that son will inherit Elimelek’s land. The curse will be lifted. The family will be saved.

But: this is extremely irregular. Boaz is obligated to marry Elimelek’s widow. He is not so obligated to marry Elimelek’s son’s widow — especially since that widow is a foreigner. And Naomi knows this. Otherwise, she would just show up at Boaz’s house and say, “Hey, it’s time for you to do your duty and marry my son’s widow!”

Naomi knows that she is going to have to persuade Boaz to marry Ruth. Naomi knows that Ruth is going to have to…entice him.

So she goes on: “Tonight Boaz will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. 

And I’d better explain this. At the end of the harvest season, the men of the town would have to “winnow” the crop, which means breaking off the hard shells around the grain. This is how they would do it:

Every town had a “threshing floor”, which was a large flat place usually on a hillside or hilltop, where the winds could blow steadily. They would spread out the crop and roll heavy cart-wheels over it. This would crack the shells. Then they would use a tool sort of like a rake to scoop up the crop and throw it into the air. The wind coming over the hill would blow away the shells while the grain would fall back down to the ground. Then they would sweep up the grain and put it in a big pile on the edge of the threshing floor, and then do the process all over again until the entire harvest was done.

And the men of the town would sleep at the threshing floor to help guard the grain from thieves.

They would also sleep at the threshing floor because this was a time of celebration. After all, this was like a pay-day for them — and by the way they only got paid every six months! So this was a big deal for the men. They would work hard during the day, then they would party hard during the night. That means food. That means wine.

That means women.

See, pagan Canaanite religions were fertility religions, a lot like modern Hinduism. They believed that if a man slept with a “sacred” prostitute — a woman dedicated to the goddess of fertility — his crops would grow better, his harvest would be greater. And one of the best times and places to do this was during the winnowing season at the threshing floor. The men would work hard all day, and then during the night these sacred prostitutes would come and visit. For good luck, you know.

Now, I know you are thinking, “But this is Israel, they didn’t worship God that way!” That is true. But we have to remember, the Book of Ruth took place during the time when the judges ruled. And in the Book of Judges, we are told very clearly that the people did do these things. That is why God had to keep disciplining them and bringing them back to himself.

We have to remember that this is one of those times: the famine has just ended. That means that the people have just repented of these practices. So most likely at least some of these men of Bethlehem used to sleep with sacred prostitutes at this threshing floor, perhaps even just the year before.

So what we need to understand is this: as soon as Naomi says the words “tonight,” “Boaz,” and “threshing floor,” the original readers of this book would say, “Oh? Ohhhhhh!”

Naomi goes on: [3] Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. [4] When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”


Uhhhh…Naomi, can we talk to you for a minute? Because, what you are suggesting here seems a little…suggestive!

I mean, even in English, we’re thinking, “This doesn’t seem like a good idea!” And the original Hebrew has even more sexual connotations than the English.

For instance: “wash” “put on perfume” — that’s pretty obvious. But the next part — “get dressed in your best clothes” — scholars believe that up until now Ruth has been wearing widow’s clothing, to symbolize that she is still in mourning, she is not ready to get married again. So at this point Naomi is saying, “You are available now. Dress like it!”

Or is she saying, “Dress sexy”? Scholars are divided on this question. However, the original readers would have been reminded of another event from their own history: about eight hundred years before this, in Genesis Chapter 38, there was a young woman named Tamar, who needed a son in order to lift God’s curse from her dead husband’s family. And when her father-in-law Judah refused to let her marry another one of his sons, she “took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself,” and pretended to be a sacred prostitute. She seduces her own father-in-law. She gets pregnant. And she gives birth to a son named Perez. Boaz is descended from Perez. He is descended from Judah. So the original readers would be thinking, “Oh no! Is Boaz going to give into temptation the same way his ancestor Judah did?”

And then, according to Naomi, Ruth is supposed to wait until Boaz is finished eating and drinking before approaching him. Now besides the obvious connections between drunkenness and sexual immorality, again the original readers would have been reminded of another event from their own history: about one thousand years before this, in Genesis Chapter 19, there was a man named Lot, who had two daughters. Those daughters needed sons, but there were no men around. So they get their father drunk, and then seduce him. They get pregnant. And the oldest daughter gives birth to a son named Moab. Ruth is descended from Moab. So the original readers would be thinking, “Oh no, is Ruth going to seduce the man who keeps calling her “daughter”, just like her own great-great-great-great grandmother did?”

Then Ruth is supposed to “uncover” “his feet” and “lie down”. And all three of these words have strong sexual connotations in Hebrew. To “uncover” someone also means to have sex with them. “Feet” is also a Hebrew code-word for genitals. And “lie down” — “sleep with” — well, that one is obvious.

And then here is Naomi’s final instruction: “He will tell you what to do…!” What exactly does Naomi think Boaz is likely to tell Ruth to do under those conditions? Threshing floor, night, a few glasses of wine, and suddenly there’s a young prostitute messing with his blankets — Boaz would have to be a very good man to resist that kind of temptation!

The question on every reader’s mind at this point is this: what are you doing, Naomi?! Are you hoping Boaz is a good man? or are you hoping he is not such a good man? Are you just trying to tell Boaz that Ruth is available for marriage now? or are you hoping Boaz will give in to temptation and then marry Ruth out of guilt?

No one knows. Scholars have been divided on this question for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But one thing everyone agrees on: these instructions are absolutely jam-packed with sexual tension.

[5] “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered.

[6] So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do. [7] When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile.

Now, is Boaz drunk enough to be out of control? The Hebrew word is ambiguous. All we know is that he is “feeling good”.

So Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down.

And allow me to reassure you: she is uncovering his feet, not something else. But there is definitely some kind of sexual symbolism to this action.

[8] In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!

Probably a sacred prostitute!

So he asks, [9] “Who are you?

I am your servant Ruth,” she said.

Last week, when Ruth first met Boaz, she called herself a slave-girl. The kind of girl who is not available for marriage.

Here, she uses a different word that means servant-girl: the kind of girl who is available for marriage.

And at this point, according to Naomi, Ruth is supposed to wait for Boaz to tell her what to do. But here she disobeys her mother-in-law. She speaks up. She says, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”

Basically she is saying, “Marry me.”

She has opted for the direct approach.

Now, once again, we don’t know what exactly Naomi had in mind, but we know it was not the direct approach. Legally she couldn’t just tell Boaz to marry Ruth. Apparently she didn’t want to ask Boaz to marry Ruth. So instead she set up this little clandestine midnight slumber-party-meeting thing, expecting Boaz to take some kind of initiative —

Well, Ruth has taken the initiative instead. We don’t know what Boaz would have told Ruth to do — though, of course, we may continue to assume the best of him — but Ruth, for sure, is making it clear that she is not here at midnight at the threshing floor to help bring Boaz “good luck.” She wants marriage.

And she is making at least one other thing equally clear: the reason she wants to marry him is because he is a guardian-redeemer.

Now, is Ruth trying to make Boaz feel obligated? Is she saying, “You have to marry me because I am your relative’s widow?”

No. She does not have a clear legal claim here. She is basically saying, “I’m not obligated to marry you, and you are not obligated to marry me. But I am willing to marry you for the sake of my mother-in-law’s family.” She is offering herself as a surrogate for Naomi. She is willing to marry Boaz instead of Naomi, and have a son for Naomi.

And Boaz gets it at once. [10] “The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.”

What does he mean? Well, in Chapter 1 Ruth gave up her homeland, her people, and her gods in order to join in covenant with Naomi. That is the earlier kindness that Boaz has already noticed. Here, Ruth’s greater kindness is that she is now giving up even her marriage rights in order to be faithful to her covenant with Naomi.

See, Ruth could have married any man in Bethlehem, and Boaz knows it. She could have had kids of her own, who would have grown up to inherit her second husband’s land, and Ruth’s own family line would have been preserved.

But that would have left Naomi with nothing. Oh, sure, Ruth would have taken care of her; but still Naomi would have died under a curse, without any sons to inherit her husband’s lands. So instead Ruth is proposing to marry Boaz, and let Naomi adopt her first-born son, so he can inherit Elimelek’s lands and redeem the family from its curse.

Ruth does not have to do this. But she is being absolutely faithful to the covenant she made with Naomi in Chapter 1. Even though it means marrying an older man.

And Boaz is really impressed with that. So he goes on: [11] And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.

She has a great reputation in town, even though she’s only been around for a few weeks. Which means no one will object if Boaz decides to marry her.

But then why did he say, “Don’t be afraid?”

Well, because…“Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news first? The good news is I am a guardian-redeemer. The bad news is that there is another guardian-redeemer who gets first shot at this opportunity.”

Legally speaking, if Ruth really wants to be Naomi’s surrogate…there’s another guy in line ahead of Boaz.

What a test of Ruth’s faithfulness! She was already giving up a lot by offering to marry Boaz for Naomi’s sake, but at least she knows Boaz is a good guy. Is she still willing to go through with it even if it means marrying some other guy that she doesn’t know at all?

And of course we have to ask: why didn’t Naomi mention this other guy before now? She would have known all of her husband’s relatives. She would have known which ones were more closely related than others. But she said nothing. Why not?

Well, maybe he’s a creep and Naomi doesn’t want to see Ruth married to him. Maybe Naomi was hoping Boaz would find Ruth attractive and just cut the other guy out. We don’t know.

But whatever Naomi’s motivations might be, it turns out that Boaz really is a very very honest man. Instead of just sleeping with Ruth, or just marrying her quickly and quietly, Boaz decides he is going to do whatever he has to do to make sure Naomi gets a legitimate son. So he tells Ruth he will meet with this other guy in the morning. And “if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it.”

And then, because Boaz doesn’t want Ruth wandering around in the dark by herself — that could be dangerous — he tells her to spent the night with him.

But don’t worry! She doesn’t spend the night with him: she sleeps at his feet.

But Boaz also doesn’t anyone to see her at the threshing floor either. People would assume they did sleep together, which would certainly destroy Ruth’s reputation at least, and probably ruin any chance she might have to marry this other guardian-redeemer. So early in the morning, while it is still dark, Boaz loads Ruth up with about 30 or 40 kilograms of grain, to make it look like she went out shopping early in the morning instead of spending the night.

Then Boaz heads back to Bethlehem to sort things out with that other guardian-redeemer, just like he promised.

Meanwhile, Ruth goes home. And Naomi says, “How did it go, my daughter?”

Actually, literally, what Naomi says is, “Who are you, my daughter?” Which has puzzled some people over the years: did she not recognize Ruth? But if she didn’t recognize Ruth then why did she call her “my daughter”?

But it’s not actually that complicated. Naomi is asking, “Do you have a new identity? Who are you: Ruth the Moabite widow, or Ruth the bride of Boaz?”

In other words: “What is your relationship status?”

So Ruth tells her: “It’s complicated.” And she shows Naomi the massive load of grain Boaz gave her: even more than Ruth came home with the first day she met Boaz. Apparently Boaz had told her, “Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.”

Which basically was a message from Boaz to Naomi, saying, “Whatever happens, don’t worry: you are not going to be empty anymore.”

And Naomi gets the message loud and clear. She tells Ruth, “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.”

The man will not rest.

But that means Naomi and Ruth finally can.

And they do.

This is actually the last time we hear Naomi or Ruth speak. Which is significant. The writer is telling us — showing us — that whatever else happens, Naomi has finally found peace. The story is not over yet! But despite the uncertainty, Naomi has finally decided that she is going to trust God to fill her again. She is going to trust God to lift the curse from her husband, from her family. She is going to trust Ruth and Boaz. She is going to rest.

And this is important. Because we have been watching Naomi’s journey, and we have been wondering where it is going to end: if she is going to find peace and resolution.

At the end of Chapter 1 we saw that she had begun the process of repentance. She was doing the right thing physically, but only only because God had given her no other options. She came back home, but she was still angry at God. And so we left her in the darkness, waiting for God to show himself to her.

Then, at the end of Chapter 2 we saw Naomi take the next step in repentance: she forgave God. Through Ruth’s faithfulness, and through Boaz’s obedience, God showed Naomi that he had been there in the darkness with her the whole time. And so she had hope again for the future. And we know this because, when we left her last week, we could see that she was already making plans for the future. She had something on her mind!

Here, in Chapter 3, we have discovered what that is: she wants the curse lifted from her husband’s family. And we have seen how she thought she could get that done: by helping God persuade Boaz to marry Ruth. Now, no one is really clear about what exactly she thought was going to happen on the threshing floor that night. But we can all agree that whatever Naomi had in mind it was risky and more than a little questionable.

And yet…it all turned out okay. Boaz did not give in to temptation. Ruth did not do what her great-great-great-great grandmother did. They both remained faithful to God. They both did the right thing. And yet it looks like God is still going to provide Naomi with a son through Ruth — one way or another.

So what has Naomi finally learned? She has finally learned that God is faithful. He is going to accomplish his purposes despite her best efforts to help. She has finally discovered that she can rest even though she does not yet know how God is going finish her story. Now, here, finally, she has repented fully, and she is ready for whatever God is going to do for her.

So, practically speaking then, how do we apply this to our lives? How can we get to a place of rest like Naomi?

Well, before we can come to a place of rest like Naomi, first we have to acknowledge that we have all begun from a place of disappointment and anxiety and manipulation like Naomi. Before we can find a solution we have to define the problem, right?

So, first we have to recognize that we are all just like Naomi. Whether we are Christians or not, whether we are religious or not, we are all on some kind of faith journey, we are all hoping for some kind of rest from our anxiety about the future. And in our anxiety about the future we often go wandering away from God, thinking we’ve got to fix things by ourselves. Then, if Yahweh is your covenant God, he closes all the doors on you. Like a good shepherd he herds us around in a big circle until we have no choice but to come back to him. So we come back — but just like Naomi we come back angry. We repent — but we repent angry.

Then something happens. God reveals himself to us in some small way. He gives us hope, and we begin to think, “Oh, wait a minute, maybe God is on my side after all!” We forgive God for what he’s done. We repent a little more.

And then, just like Naomi, we stand up and we say, “Oh, I see what you’re going here, God! Stand back. Let me take care of this!”

Don’t we?

It’s remarkable, really, how fast we can flip-flop. Just like Naomi, we have these moments of, “Fine! Whatever! I give up! Do what you want, God!” Then, two minutes later, we’re like, “Actually, hang on! I got this!” — which is really the same self-sufficient sin that led us away from God in the first place.

We run away from God because we think we have to take care of ourselves; but even after we come back to God we still think we have to take care of ourselves.

It seems like a problem without a solution, doesn’t it! How can we break out of that cycle?

Well…Naomi did. She has come to a place of rest here.

So…how can we?

Well Naomi’s solution points to our solution. Naomi’s messiah points to our Messiah. Naomi didn’t save Naomi. Who did? Who entered into the valley of the night on Naomi’s behalf? Who risked their reputation so that Naomi’s curse could be lifted? Who rose back up out of the darkness into the light of a new day and came home bearing gifts for Naomi?

Ruth did. Ruth is Naomi’s messiah in this story. And Ruth is the shadow of our Messiah, Jesus Christ. Ruth remained faithful to God even in the midst of a severe trial. She trusted that God would lead her safely into the darkness and back. God saw her faithfulness and rewarded her, and enabled her to share her rewards with Naomi.

In the same way Jesus remained faithful to his Father even to death on a cross. He trusted that his Father would lead him safety through the valley of the shadow of death and raise him up again on the third day. God saw his Son’s faithfulness and rewarded him. And Jesus shares those rewards with everyone who asks to join the covenant. He redeems us from the curse…despite our best efforts to help him.

Naomi came to place of rest only after she gave up her plans, and decided to trust fully in Ruth and Boaz.

In the same way, we can only come to a place of rest after we have given up our plans and put our trust fully in Christ.

So if you are here today and you are not a Christian, and if you are so anxious about the future but nothing you do seems to work, your life-plans seem to keep falling apart — then that could be God closing all the doors on you, leading you to himself, leading you to a place where you can give up safely. If this is you, then do this: give up your plans. Repent and relax and begin your journey of faith in Christ, and you will find yourself carried to a place of rest.

But, of course, for those of us who have been Christians for a while, we are going to turn to each other and say, “But I’ve repented. I’ve put my trust in Christ, and I’m not at rest yet! I’m still anxious. I’m still disappointed. I’m still angry at God! I’m still trying to help God out!”

So what about us? Are we doing something wrong?

Well, yes and no. Yes: we are commanded to rest in Christ. So every time we try to arrange our own salvation we are doing something wrong. But, no, we are not doing something wrong, because: our Father knows that we are slow learners, so he has designed a repetitive learning process for us. It drives us crazy, but it doesn’t drive him crazy. No matter how many times we have been around the same loop from disobedience to disappointment to angry repentance to better repentance to “I got this!” to disobedience again — no matter how many times we feel like we are back at square one, our God is still the great God of the everlasting Covenant, the one who never gives up loving and guiding his children. We are learning. We are growing. God is revealing himself to us: through scripture, through Jesus our Messiah, through the faithfulness of our brothers and sisters and friends…No matter how slow and painful the process may seem, our Father is drawing us onward to a place where we will find rest.

So, what are we supposed to do, then? — we who are already on the journey of faith in Christ?

Well, we can’t really speed up the process. In part, we are supposed to do this: live through it. We all pass through the darkness. We all feel disappointed and angry with God. And we all try to fix things ourselves. And little by little over the years we gradually learn that God actually knows what he is doing. That is what a mature faith looks like. And generally speaking maturity only comes through experience. The process cannot be rushed.

But even though we can’t really speed up the process, we can have a clearer vision of how it happens. And that can be an encouragement to us when we feel like we are taking forever to learn how to rest; it can be an encouragement to us when we feel like our brothers and sisters and friends are taking forever to learn. This is where Naomi’s story can serve as a guide for us as we travel together down this road of faith. Some among us are wandering apart from God, and sometimes God allows that to go on for years. Some among us have been blinded by bitterness and disappointment, and we are struggling to believe God is really on our side. Some among us are pretty confident we know what God’s plans are for our lives, and we are trying to “help God out” by manipulating things in our favour —

— and the truth is, friends, we have been all these things; often we are all these things all at once. In one area of our life, we are wandering; in another area, we’re disappointed; in another area we are pretty happy with God and we think we have it figured out; and then there are areas in our lives where our Father has brought us to a place of rest. We are complicated creatures! None of us have it all figured out all the time; and none of us are completely lost all the time.

And this is because we all have the same Messiah. The Messiah who is driving the wanderer home is the same Messiah who is standing by patiently while someone else complains against him. The Messiah who is giving hope to one person in the dark is the same Messiah who is doing the right things for someone else even though that someone told him to do the wrong things.

So in conclusion let’s do this, then: let us preach the patience of our Messiah to ourselves, and to one another. When we are frustrated with our lack of progress, when we are frustrated with someone else’s lack of progress, let us remember that it took Naomi years to come around. Let us remind one another that Naomi’s repentance was a process — and ours must be also. Our God has bound himself in a covenant to us, which means that he does not give up on even the slowest learner. He has lifted the curse; he is lifting the curse. He has given us rest; all we have to do is live, and it will be revealed to us.

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