Faithlife Sermons

Working with God--Ruth 3

Ruth  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  23:17
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In the third chapter of Ruth, Naomi hatches a scheme to ensure Ruth is cared for. Her scheme sounds bizarre to our ears, and even lewd to ancient Hebrew ears. Will God honour such a scheme? Will Ruth go through with it? Join us as Malcolm takes us through this extraordinary episode in one of the most famous love stories of all time.


Previously, in Ruth

More than a decade before the present events, during the reign of the Judges in Israel, a tribesman from Bethlehem fled from famine to the neighbouring country of Moab. There he died, leaving his grieving widow with two sons, who married local girls Ruth and Orpah. Ten years later, still childless, the two sons also died. Naomi was left completely empty.
Hearing that the famine had broken in Bethlehem, Naomi returned, leaving Orpah behind with her own family, but trailed by a determinedly loyal Ruth. Ruth soon found herself under the protection of one of Naomi’s relatives, Boaz, who helped both women by supporting Ruth as she gleaned in his fields. The fortunes of the two widows seemed to have turned, and Naomi insisted that Ruth stick to Boaz’s field.
Ruth 2:23 NLT
23 So Ruth worked alongside the women in Boaz’s fields and gathered grain with them until the end of the barley harvest. Then she continued working with them through the wheat harvest in early summer. And all the while she lived with her mother-in-law.

And now...

And so we come to the start of chapter three.
Ruth has been gleaning at Boaz’s fields for perhaps seven weeks, and we can assume that the two women have enough grain to last them the rest of the year. It is now Pentecost, and the two women remain in the precarious situation of all widows, even with sufficient grain for food. What can they do? Why hasn’t Boaz done anything more?

Scene 1: Naomi’s secret plan

Naomi, still focused on the opportunity to secure her daughter-in-law’s future, hatches a secret plan to get Ruth married. Of course, she can’t keep it secret from Ruth.
Ruth 3:1–4 NLT
1 One day Naomi said to Ruth, “My daughter, it’s time that I found a permanent home for you, so that you will be provided for. 2 Boaz is a close relative of ours, and he’s been very kind by letting you gather grain with his young women. Tonight he will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. 3 Now do as I tell you—take a bath and put on perfume and dress in your nicest clothes. Then go to the threshing floor, but don’t let Boaz see you until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 Be sure to notice where he lies down; then go and uncover his feet and lie down there. He will tell you what to do.”
We’re so familiar with this story that it’s sometimes hard for us to remember just how weird some of it is. This plan is one of those weird things. Naomi is telling Ruth to get dolled up, wait for Boaz to finish feasting and lie down, and then to go and lie at his feet. Somehow, this is cause Boaz to “tell [Ruth] what to do,” whatever that means!
Now, certainly much of the strangeness of this plan is a part of our cultural differences. We don’t sleep outdoors at harvest time, for example. Nor do we choose dark threshing floors as a place to make romantic engagements (well, I guess that does sound like a nightclub). But much of the strangeness was strange even when this book was written!
What wasn’t strange was getting dressed up and smelling nice. That’s always appreciated by men. Some commentators point out that Ruth’s clothing wasn’t really what a potential bride would have worn, but at the very least, Naomi was instructing Ruth to dress like someone who no long wanted to be a widow.
And, even though it’s weird for us, and potentially scandalous back then, the threshing floor was a conveniently private location for Boaz and Ruth to have a heart-to-heart. There really weren’t many opportunities for that sort of thing back then, so Naomi made one. She didn’t have to worry about Boaz taking advantage of Ruth because he had been such a stand-up guy for weeks now. Nonetheless, you can’t miss the sexual overtones here.
The really strange part comes at the end. You see there are several phrases that, for ancient Hebrews, would have been seen as extremely suggestive.
The first is Naomi’s mention of Boaz lying down. All through this encounter we read about Boaz and Ruth lying down and sleeping. In Hebrew, the word used for this has sexual connotations, just like the word “sleep” in English. In English “sleeping with” someone usually doesn’t mean that you slumbered side-by-side, and in Hebrew this word, shakav, shares the same connotations. In fact, the Hebrew word is even worse than the English word, because shakav, if it is referring to sex, always refers to an illicit sexual relationship. There is actually an entirely different Hebrew word, translated by the English word “know,” which refers to a legitimate sexual relationship.
So why would Naomi be giving Ruth such provocative instructions?
But that’s not all. Naomi instructs Ruth to “uncover Boaz’s feet.” That sounds a bit strange to us, but to ancient Hebrew ears it’s an outrageous double entendre. You see, the Hebrew word for “uncover” was most often used to talk about “uncovering someone’s nakedness,” which sounds bad by itself, but is even worse to Hebrew ears since it was often a euphemism for having sex. And, although the Hebrew word is a little different here, “feet” were often a euphemism for a man’s genitalia. Naomi’s instructions, which seem merely a little strange to us, would therefore appear to a Hebrew reader, to be outrageously suggestive.
And yet, Naomi goes one step further and tells Ruth to lie down at Boaz’s feet. Now, not only is “lie down” a euphemism for having sex, but even if it only means that she is to recline horizontally at Boaz’s feet, that is still an outrageous act in ancient culture. Good women simply don’t go around reclining at good men’s feet, no matter where they are or what time it is! Unless they’re married, of course.
Does Naomi think that she can somehow do God’s work, by entrapping Boaz in this snare? Or is she simply speaking in a provocative way to make clear to Ruth what the end-game is? We don’t know.
But Ruth had every right to look at Naomi and say, “What?! What!? What!!??”
Ruth 3:5 NLT
5 “I will do everything you say,” Ruth replied.

Scene 2: Ruth’s secret plan

And Ruth does do just what Naomi had told her to do. We learn a little bit about Naomi’s cleverness, as we see Boaz leave his dinner with a merry heart. Naomi knew that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and she factored that into her plan.
Ruth 3:7 NLT
7 After Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he lay down at the far end of the pile of grain and went to sleep. Then Ruth came quietly, uncovered his feet, and lay down.
We also gain an insight into the provocative act of uncovering Boaz’s feet: you see, with his feet uncovered, Boaz is guaranteed to wake up sometime during the night, disturbed by his cold feet. He will then encounter Ruth, which he does.
In fact, it is this part of the story that reassures us that Naomi was not, in fact, asking Ruth to initiate a sexual encounter, because Boaz behaves exactly like a man who has been rudely awoken by cold feet only to find a strange body there:
Ruth 3:8–9 (NLT)
8 Around midnight Boaz suddenly woke up and turned over. He was surprised to find a woman lying at his feet! 9 “Who are you?” he asked.
But here, Ruth changes Naomi’s plan. Remember, in Naomi’s plan, Boaz was supposed to tell Ruth what to do. In Ruth’s plan, however, Ruth has something for Boaz to do.
Ruth 3:9 NLT
9 “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she replied. “Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer.”
There’s a lot in Ruth’s simple request here, so let’s unpack it.
First, we should recognise that Ruth is identifying herself as Naomi’s family—Boaz is, after all, Naomi’s family redeemer. If anyone still thought Ruth identified herself with Moab, that idea is put to rest here. Ruth is Naomi’s daughter, and therefore Boaz’s responsibility.
The second thing to note is the phrase, “spread the corner of your covering over me.” In the ESV, it’s translated, “Spread your wings over your servant.” Why does one say “corner of your covering (or cloak)” and the other “wings?” Well, the answer is that the word for “cloak corner” sounds a lot like the word for “wings,” and the author is using this pun to cleverly refer back to Boaz’s blessing for Ruth:
Ruth 2:12 NLT
12 May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.”
The author is, through this pun, pointing out that Boaz is actually being used to deliver the blessing that he asked for Ruth. Puns are important, you know, and we should always value them!

Ruth’s purpose

Let’s not get carried away, though: what was Ruth making this change to Naomi’s plan for?
Remember that Naomi’s goal was get a secure a home for Ruth? Well, Ruth’s goal is to get a secure home for both herself and Naomi!
By appealing to Boaz as a family redeemer, Ruth bring’s Naomi into the deal. Boaz will not only marry Ruth, he will also take on responsibility for Naomi. Naomi seems to have given up on Boaz taking up this responsibility, but Ruth has seen an opportunity and taken it.

Scene 3: Boaz’s response

That is why Boaz responds the way he does:
Ruth 3:10 NLT
10 “The Lord bless you, my daughter!” Boaz exclaimed. “You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor.
Ruth had shown how faithful she was to Naomi by taking the risk of asking too much of Boaz. Indeed, if Ruth only wanted a husband, Boaz seems pretty sure she could have had her pick. Instead, she chooses Boaz in order to secure Naomi’s future.
Boaz is so impressed by this that he immediately snaps out of his inaction and outlines a plan of attack. Unfortunately, this plan recognises a potential snag to Naomi and Ruth’s strategies: another family redeemer. Could all this risk and potential scandal be for nothing?
But even that, Boaz has a plan for:
Ruth 3:13–14 NLT
13 Stay here tonight, and in the morning I will talk to him. If he is willing to redeem you, very well. Let him marry you. But if he is not willing, then as surely as the Lord lives, I will redeem you myself! Now lie down here until morning.” 14 So Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet until the morning, but she got up before it was light enough for people to recognize each other. For Boaz had said, “No one must know that a woman was here at the threshing floor.”
And, to make sure that Ruth and Naomi knew that he serious, Boaz gave Ruth a gift of about twice as much grain as she had been taking home each day.
And so this chapter ends, with Ruth recounting the events of the night to Naomi. Will their plans succeed? Will the widows end up protected by the noble Boaz, or will they become the property of this unnamed kinsman?
Stay tuned and find out next week!

Working with God

But, of course, we can’t end a sermon there, can we? We don’t read the Bible for mere entertainment. It is God’s word: it somehow speaks to us. What is it saying here?
If we take a step back and look at the events of this chapter, we can see that Naomi has decided that she needs to work with God. She devises a risky and risque plan to ensure Ruth’s future. Now, if God were puritanical, perhaps he would have abandoned Naomi and Ruth because of their presumption and how far they pushed the moral boundaries of the era. But, of course, God isn’t puritanical.
It’s easy to forget that Boaz’s mother was Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who threw her lot in with Israel. I am sure that this experience would have made Boaz far more open to Ruth’s appeal than if his mother had been a more ordinary Israelite.
We may look at people’s history, or some of their actions, and judge them harshly. But God’s standards are quite different. When a human being attempts to work with God, to bless another, God honours that. God honoured Rahab’s actions and the spies’ promises to her, and her section of the wall of Jericho remained standing. And here God honours Ruth’s advances to Boaz, designed to provide for Naomi as much as, if not more than, for Ruth herself.
It’s important to note that, even though God was at work providing for Naomi and Ruth, they did not sit back and wait for all good things to fall into their laps. Rather they worked. Ruth gleaned Boaz’s fields. Naomi schemed. Ruth tweaked Naomi’s scheming. And God worked through all this, as human and earthy as it was. God didn’t look at Naomi’s plan and say, “that plan is way too sexually provocative, I cannot support it!”
Now, I’m not saying that you should fill your spiritual plans with double entendres. But what I am saying, is that God uses our humanity, even when it is shot through with failure and sin. The worst thing you can do is to sit on your hands and do nothing.
I’m sure you’ve heard the story about the guy who was caught in a flood. He climbed onto the roof of his house and prayed to God to rescue him. As he was praying, a person in a kayak came by and shouted for him to come down into the kayak. “Nope, God will rescue me,” the man shouted back. Some time later, as the water rose further, a rescue boat powered up to the house and hailed him. “Go away,” he yelled back, “I’m waiting for God’s rescue.” Finally, a helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a line down. But the man waved them off too. At last, the flood swept him and his house away. As he stood before St Peter at the gates of heaven, he demanded, “Why didn’t God rescue me?”
St Peter replied, “Well, he sent you a kayak, a rescue boat, and even a helicopter. What were you expecting?”
You see, we need to work with God. Our work is always going to be less than perfect, but God knows that, and he honours it, anyway.
Now, let’s appreciate this perspective as we listen to this chapter together.
[Play Ruth 3]
Let’s pray:
Lord, we know that you are the source of all good things. But we also know that you have called us to be your coworkers. Give us the wisdom and the courage to know how to work alongside you through our lives.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
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