One reason so many marriages are floundering is because the husbands have not prepared themselves spiritually for their task. —Richard Strauss, bible.org (2012)
The world doesn’t lack for love stories, but few have any substance. Fewer still show us a mature love that moves in self-sacrifice toward marriage and family. Part of the problem is settling on a definition for love. The world tells us that love is something wild and overwhelming, a passion that lives beyond any rules. It’s an earthquake, a hurricane, a temporary madness.
There’s little talk of purity or responsibility. There’s no mention of God’s law or covenant commitment on God’s terms. Words like patience, propriety, and courtesy have no place in the world’s narration of love stories. “Love” can’t wait; it can’t be bound by tradition or custom. It bursts forward, careening this way and that, toward who knows what —ecstasy or catastrophe. Anything less is unromantic and dull. Anything less won’t sell movie tickets or books.
Scripture knows about this sort of “love”—Amnon’s passion for his half-sister Tamar comes to mind (2 Sam. 13)—but it is also very clear about its destructive nature. The most beautiful love stories in Scripture show us a very different sort of love, one that reflects the love of Christ for His Church. The Book of Ruth is such a story.
The two widows came back from the land of Moab. Naomi was a returning émigré; Ruth was her devoted daughter-in-law. Naomi was old and worn; Ruth was young and strong. But Ruth was a foreigner, an immigrant. Her accent was alien; so were her clothes and her mannerisms. Now she was a stranger in a strange land, but she had committed herself to the God of Israel.
It was barley harvest. Ruth went to glean in the fields outside the city. In God’s providence, she found herself in a field belonging to one of Naomi’s kinsmen, a wealthy landowner named Boaz. Ruth set herself to the hard work of gathering what the harvesters had missed.
Sometime in the morning Boaz came to oversee his harvesters. He greeted them in God’s name, and they blessed him in turn. Immediately, Boaz noticed Ruth. We aren’t told what caught his attention. Perhaps it was her exotic appearance. Perhaps it was her beauty. Maybe it was her diligence. In any case, Boaz asked his foreman about her.
The foreman told Boaz that she was the young Moabite woman who had came back from the land of Moab with Naomi (2:6). He gave her a good report: She had asked for permission to glean even though the harvesting was still going on, so she was eager. And she had labored very diligently all morning. Boaz was well aware of this young woman. Naomi’s homecoming had moved the whole town (1:19). Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and her trust in Yahweh were also common knowledge. Boaz decided to speak to her, but with gravity and proper courtesy.
Calling her “my daughter,” Boaz invited Ruth to stay in his fields beside the young women who worked them. He told her that he had warned his men to leave her alone. He encouraged her to drink from the water drawn for his workers. This was a special favor. Drawing water was hard work, and it would have been presumption to ask the harvesters for a share of theirs.
Overwhelmed by this kindness and courtesy, Ruth bowed deeply and asked, “Why have I found grace in your eyes that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (2:10). Ruth had no sense of entitlement, no expectations of fair and equal treatment. She was truly thankful for any opportunity or kindness she received.
Boaz told Ruth that he knew all about her kindness to her mother-in-law, her immigration from Moab into Israel, and her trust in Yahweh. He prayed God’s blessing upon her: “Yahweh requite your work, and a full reward be given you by Yahweh, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to trust” (2:12).
Ruth acknowledged his prayer and graciousness, “even though I am not like one of your young women” (2:13). Boaz then granted her a further favor. He told her that she should eat from the bread provided for his workers and even use the dipping-vinegar. He gave her a good batch of parched barley for lunch—a lot more than she could eat, in fact.
When Ruth returned to her gleaning, Boaz went to his young men and ordered them to let Ruth glean among the sheaves—that is, right where they were working and where the pickings would be the easiest. He even told them to subtly drop handfuls of grain where she could find them. Having made these arrangements, he went back to his work.
Ruth went home that evening with a bushel of grain (about eight gallons). She also had the extra barley left over from lunch. Naomi was ecstatic; she recognized that someone had shown Ruth special favor. Ruth told her the man’s name was Boaz. Naomi blessed Boaz and explained the family connection: “The man is a close relative of ours, a kinsman-redeemer” (2:20). Ruth continued to glean in Boaz’s field through the wheat harvest.
Naomi had no doubt hoped for more from Boaz, but nothing materialized. Naomi decided to take the initiative. She called Ruth and gave her a series of very specific instructions (3:1-4). Ruth agreed to follow them. She washed and dressed for her mission.
When night came Ruth made her way through the dark city and out to the threshing floor where Boaz and his workers were wrapping up their harvest. It was a good time, a time for celebration. But when all of that was over, Boaz found a secluded spot to sleep out the rest of the night. Ruth watched from the shadows. When she was sure he was asleep, she went quietly to him, uncovered his feet, and lay down there.
At midnight Boaz woke, startled. By starlight or dying fires he could make out the shape of a woman lying at his feet. “Who are you?” he asked.
She said, “I am Ruth, your maidservant. Spread your wings over your maidservant, for you are a kinsman-redeemer” (3:9). In other words, she proposed. And she used the same sort of language that Boaz had used when he had spoken of her trust in Yahweh.
Boaz blessed her for her kindness in coming to him rather than chasing after younger men, whether rich or poor. Boaz must have been quite a bit older than Ruth. He promised her he would do as she asked, for everyone in Bethlehem knew she was a virtuous woman (3:11). But there was one problem: “And now it is true that I am a kinsman-redeemer… however… there is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I” (v. 12). He told Ruth to wait out the night where she was, and he would deal with the matter in the morning. He sealed his promise with an appeal to Yahweh.
Before dawn, Boaz loaded her down with more than a bushel of barley as a sort of dowry and sent her back to Naomi. When Naomi saw the gift and heard Ruth’s story, she was content to wait for Boaz to carry out his promise. She knew his character.
Boaz found his potential rival and assembled ten elders at the city-gate, the ancient equivalent of city hall. The proceedings went quickly. The other kinsman was willing to redeem Naomi’s lands, but he had no desire to marry Ruth. Boaz immediately picked up the covenantal responsibility and announced his commitment to marry Ruth. The elders and the others present pronounced themselves witnesses and prayed a blessing upon Boaz and his future wife—specifically, the blessing of children.
Boaz and Ruth married. Their first child was named Obed. He was the grandfather of David the king (4:17) and an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1).
Love in Action
This love story is very unlike those we see in movies or read about in modern romance novels. Both Ruth and Boaz acted with consistency and propriety. Each showed kindness to and respect for the other. Both of them were completely open and sincere about their commitment to Yahweh and His promises to Israel. Neither was interested in romance as recreation or abstraction.
Boaz admired Ruth from their first encounter, but he understood the legal hurdle that would stand in the way of courtship and refused to be presumptuous. He was also sensitive to the difference in their respective ages. He waited honorably for some sort of encouragement from Ruth and Naomi.
Ruth could have pursued romance with someone younger and more exciting. She chose instead to submit to the pattern of the covenant life she had adopted. She chose to propose to Boaz because he was a proper kinsman-redeemer… because her mother-in-law advised it and because he was kind and honorable and godly.
Ruth defied normal propriety, though perhaps not broader custom, by coming to Boaz by night and forcing the issue. Boaz also defied propriety by keeping Ruth beside him until morning. But he did this to protect her. When the danger of wild beasts and robbers was past, he took great care to guard her reputation by sending her straight home. At no point did either of them give way to sexual desire or flirt with expressions of romantic love.
Their sights were set on godly marriage in a godly community and on future children who would live in terms of the same vision. Their choices were covenantal, not individualistic. They were governed by wisdom, rather than passion. Both Boaz and Ruth made commitments and kept them with diligence. Their love, marked by grace, changed the world by giving us remarkable role models for love and marriage.
For Further Reading:
Richard L. Strauss, “The Story of Boaz and Ruth,” bible.org (2012) <http://bible.org/seriespage/two-get-ready%E2%80%94i-story-boaz-and-ruthi>
R. C. Sproul, The Intimate Marriage, A Practical Guide to Building a Great Marriage (Phillipsburg, NJ: 1975).
Doug Wilson, Reforming Marriage (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1995).
Nancy Wilson, The Fruit of Her Hands, Respect and the Christian Woman (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1997).