[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given to the Portland, Oregon United Church of God congregation on Sabbath, May 15, 2021.]
I would like to begin my message today by quoting from page 407 of the NKJV Study Bible published by Thomas Nelson, which has the following to say about the book of Ruth: “The story of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges–a period characterized by extreme spiritual and moral decay in Israel. The beautiful love story of Ruth contrasts strongly with the pervasive depravity of the period, giving a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak era. The story itself reflects ordinary small town and rural life in Israel–specifically around Bethlehem. Details of cultural elements, such as the description of the barley harvest, the mention of the threshing floor, and the events at the city gate, add plausibility to the story. It is possible that the story was first circulated in Bethlehem by Naomi and her circle of woman friends. Later, the author of Ruth retained some of the lovely feminine touches that grace this story.” Some of you may know that Ruth is read annually by Jews for the feast of Pentecost, or Shavuot as they call it. What I wish to discuss is how the lovely feminine touches of the book of Ruth relate to and help us better understand the Book of Ruth and its continuing relevance and importance to us as believers in a period known for its pervasive depravity and general moral bleakness that give us a glimmer of hope in otherwise dark times. In particular, I would like to discuss two of the pervasive themes of Ruth, namely that of food and that of emptiness and fullness in means of love and relationships.
The book of Ruth has a lot to say about food. We often think of Ruth as a love story, and it is a love story, but it is not a love story that is unconnected with the physical needs of the people involved. Indeed, food is an important measure of the love that is felt by God for His people as well as the love felt between the various people in the story. And if that is something that you have never thought about I am going to point it out today. It is also important to realize that the concern of Ruth with matters of food is both a feminine matter and also something that is a thematic concern of the day of Pentecost itself. Indeed, the theme of food in Ruth starts in the first verse of the book of Ruth. Let us begin Ruth in the beginning, in Ruth 1:1: “Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” The first verse of Ruth begins with a family that leaves Bethlehem–which means “house of bread” in Hebrew, in order to seek enough bread to feed themselves. A few verses later, in Ruth 1:6, we see that the return of bread to Judah is what led Naomi to want to return to Bethlehem: “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had visited His people by giving them bread.”
It is the last verse of Ruth 1 that gives us an indication of the timing of this book, and it too is unsurprisingly a reference to food. Ruth 1:22 tells us the following: “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. Now they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” Although Ruth had never been to Bethlehem, her travel to the city is viewed as a return, in that it involved a conversion and a “return to God,” and this return happened at the beginning of the barley harvest, which sets the beginning of Ruth at the time of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, with the rest of the plot of the book extending from then to Pentecost. And this idea of the importance continues on through the rest of Ruth. We begin Ruth 2 with a look at Ruth gleaning, and how she “happens” to come to the fields of her late husband’s kinsman Boaz, in Ruth 2:1-3: “There was a relative of Naomi’s husband, a man of great wealth, of the family of Elimelech. His name was Boaz. So Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Please let me go to the field, and glean heads of grain after him in whose sight I may find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” Then she left, and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers. And she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.” Gleaning, or walking around in the field and picking up the scraps that were left after the gleaners had worked, is the way that food was obtained by poor people who had no land for themselves. And, it should be remembered, this is something that was a part of Pentecost’s observance itself in Leviticus 23. Keep a marker in Ruth, because we will be back, and let us turn to Leviticus 23:22, which gives a commandment at the end of talking about Pentecost. Leviticus 23:22 reads: “ ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.’”” Here we see that a measure of the level of belief in God and in His ways among the people of Israel was the way that they provided a means for the poor and the foreigner to earn a decent, if tough, living, through harvesting the corners of fields and gleaning from what was left, so as to have enough to eat for themselves.
When we return to the book of Ruth, in Ruth 2:14-19, we see that food is viewed as an important means by which both Ruth and Boaz show their character to each other and to others. In Ruth 2:14-19 we see all of this communication going on in the context of food: “Now Boaz said to her at mealtime, “Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed parched grain to her; and she ate and was satisfied, and kept some back. And when she rose up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. Also let grain from the bundles fall purposely for her; leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her.” So she gleaned in the field until evening, and beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. Then she took it up and went into the city, and her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. So she brought out and gave to her what she had kept back after she had been satisfied. And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where have you gleaned today? And where did you work? Blessed be the one who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.”” Let us note the way that food relates to the budding romance between Ruth and Boaz. First, a momentous conversation takes place at mealtime. Boaz is a kind enough landowner that he provides a lunch for his workers, even casual laborers like Ruth who were not a part of his household, providing bread and vinegar for those who work on his fields. Let us note that Ruth holds back the parched grain that Boaz gives her, the attitude of someone who is familiar with food scarcity and who either wants to save some food for later or to give some to Naomi. Boaz demonstrates his concern for Ruth by telling his reapers to let Ruth glean among the sheaves and to drop grain intentionally for her, all without her being aware of it and therefore embarrassed by it. And when Ruth ends her working day having gleaned an ephah, a bushel or 9 gallons of grain, Noami rightly wonders who paid attention to her, the amount of food being more than someone would be able to glean for themselves out of the scraps and leftovers. All of these elements relate to food and relate to the concern of the poor women in this story to have enough to eat in the absence of husbands.
When we reach the climactic moment of Ruth, where Ruth makes her daring proposal to Boaz at the beginning of chapter 3 of Ruth, food is involved there as well. Boaz’s presence in his threshing floor is to guard the grain from his fields from the threat of thieves, we might well imagine, and Ruth 3:1-7 gives us the following details: “Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now Boaz, whose young women you were with, is he not our relative? In fact, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. Then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down; and he will tell you what you should do.” And she said to her, “All that you say to me I will do.” So she went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law instructed her. And after Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was cheerful, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came softly, uncovered his feet, and lay down.” Here we see that Ruth did not go to see Boaz until he was done eating and drinking, and that she went while he was winnowing barley, to separate the wheat that would be kept and eaten or milled into flour from the chaff that was left to blow away. Sleeping at the end of a heap of grain, Boaz was quite unaware of what the women had been planning. But though he was surprised by the proposal, his response to it was gracious and, as we might expect, also used food to communicate to Ruth his willingness to marry her. As it is written in Ruth 3:15: “Also he said, “Bring the shawl that is on you and hold it.” And when she held it, he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her. Then she went into the city.”
So far we have seen that one of the feminine themes of Ruth is the matter of how it is that food communicates so much within the Book of Ruth, and that these matters simultaneously express some of the themes of Pentecost, including the unity of brethren in common faith and practice regardless of their background. God communicated his displeasure with wayward Israel by sending a famine upon Judah, which led Naomi and her family to go to Moab. When God restored bread Bethlehem, the house of bread, Naomi returned to her hometown. Ruth communicates her devotion to Naomi through gleaning, even though as a foreign widow she is doubly vulnerable in such a place, and yet that devotion and hard work earns her the protection and love of Boaz. Boaz then communicates his willingness to provide for Ruth and his relative Naomi through generously providing them with food and then through accepting the levirate marriage offer from Ruth. We often say that the way to a man’s heart is through his belly, but repeatedly a concern for the well-being of poor widows and their need to have enough food for survival shows the attractiveness of Boaz as a husband for Ruth and a son-in-law for Noami.
This leads us to our second theme, namely that of the feminine elements of Ruth as it relates to emptiness and fullness and how those themes relate to the feast of Pentecost. We get a sense of the theme of emptiness right from the beginning of Ruth. Let us return to Ruth 1:1-5 and see how in the first five verses of Ruth, Naomi goes from being a wife and mother to being a widow bereft of direct family. Ruth 1:1-5 reads: “Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion—Ephrathites of Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to the country of Moab and remained there. Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband.”
Naomi’s reply to this emptiness is interesting. First, she seeks to discourage her widowed former daughters-in-law to go along with her, and then Ruth expresses her devotion to Naomi and to Naomi’s God, but without immediate effect on how Naomi herself feels. We see how Naomi feels in Ruth 1:19-21. In Ruth 1:19-21, we read: “Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem. And it happened, when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was excited because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?”” Interestingly enough, this reference to Naomi calling herself Mara is itself a reference to the period between the Days of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost, when this book is set in its timing. Let us hold our place in Ruth and look at Exodus 15:22-25 and see what it has to say about bitterness. Exodus 15:22-25 reads: “So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea; then they went out into the Wilderness of Shur. And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” And just as was the case with the bitter waters of Marah, God would turn Naomi’s bitterness into sweetness as well.
And it is through Ruth and Boaz that Naomi finds fullness as well and is able to overcome her bitterness. We find this is one of the closing passages of the book of Ruth, in Ruth 4:13-17. Ruth 4:13-17 tells us about how it was that Naomi found fullness through the birth of Ruth’s firstborn son Obed. As we read: “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi.” And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Even though Naomi was not a blood relation to the child at all, she was nourished by the fact that she was connected to new life that she had helped to bring into this world.
In many ways, Ruth can be compared to a romance novel. We have a poor but virtuous heroine who is a widow and a wealthy but somewhat shy and timid hero, and they are brought together sweetly through Boaz’s implicit communication and then Ruth’s request for levirate marriage, which frees Boaz to be active in securing Ruth’s hand for himself through subtly dealing with the closer relative who could have a claim to Naomi’s land but does not want to jeopardize his own inheritance. It is these elements of romance, the reliance on indirect communication for so much of the action that takes place in the book, and the communication between Ruth and Naomi that led the commentator of the Nelson Study Bible to think of the delicate female touches of the book of Ruth. Yet these delicate female touches also strongly relate to the themes of Pentecost. It is through the marriage of Ruth first to Mahlon and then to Boaz that brought a Moabite young woman into belonging to the tribe of Judah and into the lineage of King David and ultimately Jesus Christ. It is Boaz’ generosity to Ruth and Ruth’s proposal to Boaz that led to the happy ending that the book provides, something that is not only romance for Ruth and Boaz themselves, but also connection between Ruth and the people of God and a connection of believers through the generations. And what is more in keeping with the themes of marriage and God’s generosity in providing His spirit and belonging in His people than that?