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Stories from the Bible: A Love Story

February 12, 2006

Ruth

When you were a child, you probably owned a Bible storybook with pretty pictures. You enjoyed listening to your mother, your father, or a grandparent read those stories to you; but somewhere during your spiritual process, you decided those tales were for children. The stories of the Bible are not just for children. They are for adults as well. Over the next few Sundays, I am going to share some of them with you.

Women do not need reminders that Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. Men, let me remind you: Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. You have heard it twice in this service today. Please remember. My mother used to tell her daughters and her daughters-in-law that they should start reminding their husbands of the occasion far enough ahead of time so that they would remember. If their husband forgot Valentine’s Day, it was the women’s fault. Tuesday is Valentine’s Day.

The message today is a love story that comes from the book of Ruth. Please open your Bible, as I will refer to several passages along the way. I would suggest that you sit down and read the entire book of Ruth at some point. It will take you about twenty minutes to read these four wonderful chapters.

The town of Bethlehem was the breadbasket of the land of Israel. It was the region where grain, primarily barley, was grown. The very name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” When the land encountered a famine, one of the elders of Bethlehem, Elimelech, decided to move his family, as was the usual practice. We see the same reaction in the children of Israel when they encountered a famine. Remember that Jacob and eleven of his sons moved to Egypt where they found Joseph.

Those involved in today’s story – Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion – moved across the Jordan River to Moab, the land that had been inhabited by the descendants of Abraham and Lot. The family had hopes that conditions would be better there, but that was not the case. The land of Moab also suffered; and in time, Elimelech died. Sometime later, the two sons married Moabite women: Mahlon married Ruth, and Killian married Orpah. Naomi’s husband was dead, but her two sons and two daughters-in-law assumed the responsibility of caring for her. When the two sons died, Naomi and her daughters-in-law faced a crisis. In the ancient Near East, a widow had no rights unless she had male children. A woman really did leave her mother and father and cleave to her husband’s family when she married. Because Naomi had no way of caring for these two women, she asked her daughters-in-law to return to their own families. When they told her they wanted to stay with her, Naomi, a strong-willed woman, persisted, “You need to go back to your own families. You are not going to get a husband if you stay with me. You are both young, and you need to find a husband.”

Orpah decided to return to her family. She did exactly what her mother-in-law asked her to do and should not receive condemnation for her wise decision. Ruth, however, chose to remain with Naomi. We must admire Ruth because of her stance, stated so beautifully to her mother-in-law in Chapter 1, Verses 16-17. The King James Version reads, “Don’t entreat me to leave you. Don’t urge me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” Verse 18: “When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.” Both Ruth and Naomi are strong-willed women, but Ruth had the stronger will. We see in this story an alliance, devotion, and a relationship of love between an older woman and her daughter-in-law.

We sometimes hear the verses I just read recited at weddings. In fact, when Clare and I were married at the little Methodist church in Leesville, South Carolina, a soloist sang this passage: “Whither thou goest, I will go. Whither thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, thy God my God.” If we used this passage as it was intended, the bride would make these comments to the mother of the groom.

My mother used to tell her daughters-in-law, “You are my daughters-in-law because legally, you are my daughters. More than that, you are my daughters-in-love. The bond that connects us is not just a legal bond. It is a bond of love.” Seeing that kind of relationship between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law is beautiful. If you do not have that type of relationship, I would urge you to cultivate a close bond of love with the people who come to your family by law.

Naomi realized that she could not survive in Moab, so she decided to return to her hometown of Bethlehem. She and Ruth created quite a commotion when they arrived. Verse 19 states, “the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?’” News traveled slowly in those days. These women who had known Naomi a decade earlier were unaware that she had lost her husband and two sons. Naomi, now thrice bereaved, had returned to people she had known most of her life so that she could survive. Many were glad to see her, but some were possibly concerned because she had brought with her a Moabitess, Ruth.

According to the law prescribed in the book of Leviticus, the community was responsible for providing for the poor. Farmers were required to let the grain in the corners of their fields go unharvested. That grain, which was generally of poorer quality, was fair game for any poor person to glean. Ruth went to gather grain at the property of Boaz, a gentleman farmer with a sterling reputation throughout the area. Many admired and respected him.

The good Lord created men and women to be attracted to each other. Genesis 2 tells of God, searching for a companion for Adam, parading the animals He had created in front of Adam. Not one of them was considered suitable. Then God put Adam to sleep, took a rib from his side, and fashioned a woman. According to the King James Version, when Adam woke up and saw Eve for the first time, he reacted, “Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” The Living Bible describes Adam’s reaction to Eve with, “This is it!” God had found a suitable companion for man with woman. He intended men and women to have an attraction for each other.

When Boaz first noticed Ruth in his field, he was attracted to her. He knew immediately she was not one of his maidservants. He inquired about her identity, and the supervisor informed him, “She is the Moabitess who came back with Naomi. She asked if she could glean and gather barley from among the sheaves left by the harvesters. She has worked steadily from morning until now except for a short rest.” Boaz was, first, physically attracted to her. He was also very impressed by the fact that she worked so hard, a characteristic a gentleman farmer would desire in a woman.

Boaz was protective of Ruth. During a conversation with her, Boaz invited Ruth to return to his field to glean barley. He informed her that a single woman could put herself in a dangerous situation, a vulnerable position, in another field. He assured her that she did not have to be afraid while she was on his property. He also revealed to her that he had instructed his men to leave her alone and permit her a drink of water. Ruth did not know that Boaz had told those harvesting grain to allow some stalks of quality grain fall to the ground. Remember that plants growing in the corner of the field tended to be inferior. Ruth found Boaz’s interest in her safety attractive. Naomi was also pleased with his protectiveness.

Boaz spoke with Ruth about the way she had been so loyal to her mother-in-law. His admiration of her act is evident in Verses 11-12: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband – how you left your father and mother in your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

Because Boaz is attracted to Ruth’s physical beauty, her work ethic, and her loyalty, he offered a prayer of intercession for her: “May the Lord take care of you because of what you have done.” God sometimes answers our prayers of intercession through us. If we pray that God will lift the spirit of a despondent person, it may be that God will lift their spirits through us. If we pray about a person and their need, God may take care of that need through us. We are actually making a commitment to be a part of the answer with our prayer of intercession. As it turns out in this love story, God used Boaz as a means of answering his prayer for Ruth.

Several years ago, I talked with a young couple preparing for marriage. I asked how their relationship had developed, and the young woman explained, “Our relationship was going nowhere until I figured out that I would have to kiss him first. I knew he was not going to kiss me. Once I did that, our relationship moved right along.”

Ruth, returning home with a wonderful harvest for the day’s work, provided Naomi with a full report of how kind Boaz was to her and how he had invited her to harvest grain in his fields in the days ahead. Boaz, a somewhat reticent individual, had prayed for Ruth and complimented her, but these women wanted him to take more initiative and notice Ruth on a more intimate level. In order to help him along, Naomi used her knowledge of family duties, which were very important in biblical times. Boaz, Naomi’s near kinsman, had some responsibility for taking care of Naomi and Ruth, but not the primary responsibility. That duty fell to another man unnamed in the story.

Naomi and Ruth devised a good plan. Now that the harvest was almost completed, everyone would participate in a celebration, complete with much to eat and drink. Naomi pointed out to Ruth that Boaz would be interested in having a good time and that she should look her best. In Chapter 3, Verse 3, Naomi told Ruth, “Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Ruth, when you go to that celebration, you do not want to look like one of those maidservants. You want Boaz to see that you are different. You want to smell good and look pretty. Do your best.” Ruth participated in the celebration; and afterwards, Boaz went in the corner of the threshing floor and lay down. There he planned to sleep in order to guard the harvested grain from thieves who might try to steal it during the night.

Ruth went to Boaz, lifted the covers, and crawled underneath them at his feet. I have already made it plain that Boaz had “cold feet.” Ruth found a way to warm them. When Boaz woke up the middle of the night, he found this beautiful woman. At first shocked and then very pleased, he told Ruth in Verse 10, “I cannot believe you have picked me over the younger men.” He encouraged her to stay the night but to leave early enough in the morning so that nobody would know that she had been there. He was trying to protect her reputation as much as anything. Before Ruth left, Boaz tied a bundle containing six measures of barley on her back. His gesture assured Ruth and Naomi that their plan had worked.

In order to make this relationship legal, Boaz went to the city gate with its wide archway and seats underneath. This gate served as the convention center, the city hall, and the court of justice and legal transactions. Boaz found Naomi’s near kinsman and talked with him about the land Elimelech had left upon his death. By rights, this man could buy the land. Boaz reminded him plainly that if he chose to do so, he would also have the duty of marrying Ruth. This responsibility did not bother Boaz at all because he was in love with Ruth; but once the kinsman heard this stipulation and realized the added responsibility he would have to assume, he expressed no interest. Marriage to Ruth could threaten his estate. If he and Ruth were to have a child, that child would have rights, not only to Elimelech’s land but also to other property he owned. In the strange custom of sealing the deal in that day, the near kinsman removed his sandal and handed it to Boaz. It would be interesting to know if any connection exists between that custom and the odd custom of tying old shoes behind the car of a newly married couple.

The book of Ruth also includes a love story between a grandmother and grandson. At the end of the story, we see Naomi holding Obed, the son born to Boaz and Ruth. Upon Naomi’s return to Bethlehem, she had told the woman of the city, “Change my name to Mara, which means bitterness.” Now, however, holding her little grandchild on her lap, Naomi felt that God had blessed her.

These four chapters illustrate love, but not just love between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law, between a man and a woman, or between the family members at the end. It is also about the presiding love of God. God’s desire to provide for His children does not exempt them from hardship and difficulty. It does not mean His children do not have to work hard. Just ask Naomi and Ruth about that. God wants to love His children. We have been singing about the deep, deep love of God fully expressed in Jesus Christ: “Love divine, all love’s excelling.”

Turn to Matthew 1, a passage that provides a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Verse 5: “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.” Because Ruth married a second time and had a son with Boaz, she became the great-grandmother of King David. Look further with me in Verse 16: “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” God did not just love Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, and Obed. God’s love is expressed in this beautiful love story because here we see one woman who is in the ancestry of Jesus. This passage affirms that, for centuries, God had a plan to demonstrate His love.

On Valentine’s Day, we are going to celebrate love. Saint Valentine, for whom the day of celebration was named, never married. He did not have a sweetheart, but he did minister to persecuted Christians. For that, he was beheaded on the altar of the goddess Juno on February 14. Valentine’s Day is named for a man who demonstrated love that is not sweet, sentimental, and romantic, but love that is sacrificial and self-giving, the love of God, the love of Calvary.

Have you experienced that kind of love? You can do so by acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you have never done that, we invite you to make that decision this morning. Others here have other decisions to make, decisions perhaps regarding church membership. We invite you to respond to these invitations from our Lord. As we stand and sing together “Jesus Paid It All,” you respond as God leads.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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