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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, ‘How did it go, my daughter?’”
Over the centuries, that line – or something very much like it – has been spoken countless times in countless families.
Somebody has been sitting at home, gripped by suspense, waiting for a relative’s return.
They only want to know one thing: How was the job interview? Did you win the big game? Do you think he might actually be The One? How did it go?
In the case of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, the future is very much on the line. Everything has come down to a single all-or-nothing relational roll of the dice. As a pair of widows living in the ancient Near East, they have no income. No 401(k). No pension or Social Security. If Ruth can somehow end up with Mr. Right, they won’t have to wonder where their next meal will come from. They can dream of a household with little children. God will finally remove their shame. The future will be filled with hope.
Ruth is a small Old Testament book with a huge message: God can be trusted.
But on the road to the future that God is providing, we will almost certainly need to take risks of faith that other people may find unacceptable. Unless we surrender our need to be in control every minute of every day, we will never find out if God is really God.
During the time of the Judges, circumstances have left Naomi and Ruth, two generations in the same household, without husbands. Now they are working and praying and hoping that God will address their urgent needs.
Suddenly, out of the blue, an opportunity presents itself. “It just so happens” (that’s the Bible’s subtle way of saying that God is working behind the scenes) Ruth finds herself gleaning in the fields of a man named Boaz. He’s highly respected. And gracious. And compassionate. And, according to his Facebook page, single.
It’s barley harvest time, and Boaz is spending the whole night, alone, at the threshing floor watching over his grain. No one has posted a sign that says For Men Only, but in this culture it’s abundantly clear that a young woman of good character would never dare to enter this scene unaccompanied.
But Ruth dares.
With Naomi’s encouragement, she decides to pursue an extraordinary, faith-based gamble. She risks her reputation and her well-being by approaching Boaz in the middle of the night at the threshing floor. Here’s what happens next:
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. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man, and he turned and discovered a woman lying at his feet. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer” (Ruth 3:7-9).
This is the big moment. In the pitch darkness of the threshing floor, her heart beating fast, she is symbolically asking Boaz, “Will you marry me?” It’s not as if she can say, “Hey, I’m heading down to the mall tomorrow and wondered if maybe you’d like to go and check out some wedding bands. A diamond lasts forever, right?”
Boaz immediately recognizes what’s at stake here. He grasps the enormity of the risk Ruth is taking. Instead of blasting her, he honors her. He seems immediately won over by her sheer audacity:
“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. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:10-11).
Here we arrive at a famously awkward moment in the history of interpretation.
Different cultures cherish different euphemisms for human body parts. It’s well known that one of the ancient Hebrew euphemisms for male genitalia was “feet.” When Naomi instructed Ruth to lie down and uncover Boaz’s feet, was she advising her to throw caution to the wind in their relationship? This is where beginning Bible students sometimes say, “You know, this book is turning out to be a lot more interesting than I thought.”
But there are compelling reasons for affirming that there’s not a hint of impropriety in this scene.
Consider Boaz’s last sentence: “All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of character.” Ruth is regarded as a person of unimpeachable honor. In verse 14 he urges her not to talk up the fact that she, a woman, actually visited the threshing floor. That’s not a coverup of misbehavior, but a safeguarding of her reputation. In an “honor culture,” even to this day, the value of one’s reputation exceeds everything else. Once sullied, it is virtually impossible to restore.
In Ruth chapter three, there are good reasons for believing that Boaz’s feet are just Boaz’s feet.
Commentators agree, however, that there is a Hebrew euphemism at the center of this text.
Ruth literally pulls back Boaz’s garment, uncovering his feet, as a way to invite him figuratively to spread that same cloak back over her. This acted-out parable reflects an idea that was deeply planted in biblical culture. Ruth is saying, “Will you cover me with the protection of your faithfulness and love?”
Here we recall that Boaz had told Ruth, on the day they first met while she was gleaning, that he hoped the God of Israel would cover her with his wings. Now Ruth is saying, “Boaz, will you be the answer to your own prayer? Will you become God’s means of taking care of me?”
He responds tenderly:
“Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.” When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and put it on her… [When Ruth returned home] she told [Naomi] everything Boaz had done for her and added, “He gave me these six measures of barley, saying, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed’” (Ruth 3:15-17).
“Empty” is a key word in the book of Ruth. In chapter one, verse 21, Naomi moans as she trudges sadly back to her hometown of Bethlehem, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” Now God is addressing her deepest needs. She will not be empty-handed. He is re-filing her life with blessing.
So let’s revisit our “3.16” verse. How did last night go?
It went very well.
Boaz has resolved to marry Ruth. Soon they will have a little boy named Obed. And he’ll have a little boy named Jesse. And he’ll have a son named David.
And one day, in the distant future, a descendant of David will be born in Bethlehem so he can provide God’s gifts of peace and joy to planet Earth.
Not bad at all for a first date.
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