Expositor's Bible Commentary
And Naomi had a kinsman of her husband's, a mighty man of wealth, of the family of Elimelech; and his name was Boaz.2
IN THE FIELD OF BOAZ
Ruth 1:19-22; Ruth 2:1-23
WEARY and footsore the two travellers reached Bethlehem at length, and "all the city was moved about them." Though ten years had elapsed, many yet remembered as if it had been yesterday the season of terrible famine and the departure of the emigrants. Now the women lingering at the well, when they see the strangers approaching, say as they look in the face of the elder one, "Is this Naomi?" What a change is here! With husband and sons, hoping for anew life across in Moab, she went away. Her return has about it no sign of success; she comes on foot, in the company of one who is evidently of an alien race, and the two have all the marks of poverty. The women who recognise the widow of Elimelech are somewhat pitiful, perhaps also a little scornful. They had not left their native land nor doubted the promise of Jehovah. Through the famine they had waited, and now their position contrasts very favourably with hers. Surely Naomi is far down in the world since she has made a companion of a woman of Moab. Her poverty is against the wayfarer, and to those who know not the story of her life that which shows her goodness and faithfulness appears a cause of reproach and reason of suspicion.
Is it too harsh to interpret thus the question with which Naomi is met? We are only using a key which common experience of life supplies. Do people give sincere and hearty sympathy to those who went away full and return empty, who were once in good standing and repute and come back years after to their old haunts impoverished and with strange associates? Are we not more ready to judge unfavourably in such a case than to exercise charity? The trick of hasty interpretation is common because every one desires to be on good terms with himself, and nothing is so soothing to vanity as the discovery of mistakes into which others have fallen. "All the brethren of the poor do hate him," says one who knew the Hebrews and human nature well; "how much more do his friends go far from him. He pursueth them with words, yet they are wanting to him." Naomi finds it so when she throws herself on the compassion of her old neighbours. They are not uninterested, they are not altogether unkind, but they feel their superiority.
And Naomi appears to accept the judgment they have formed. Very touching is the lament in which she takes her position as one whom God has rebuked, whom it is no wonder, therefore, that old friends despise. She almost makes excuse for those who look down upon her from the high ground of their imaginary virtue and wisdom. Indeed she has the same belief as they that poverty, the loss of land, bereavement, and every kind of affliction are marks of God’s displeasure. For, what does she say? "Call me not Naomi, Pleasant, call me Mara, Bitter, for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me The Lord hath testified against me and the Almighty hath afflicted me." Such was the Hebrew thought, the purpose of God in His dealings with men not being apprehended. Under the shadow of toss and sorrow it seemed that no heat of the Divine Presence could be felt. To have a husband and, children appeared to Naomi evidence of Gods favour; to lose them was a proof that He had turned against her. Heavy as her losses had been, the terrible thing was that they implied the displeasure of God.
It is perhaps difficult for us to realise even by an imaginative effort this condition of soul-the sense of banishment, darkness, outlawry which came to the. Hebrew whenever he fell into distress or penury. And yet we ourselves retain the same standard of judgment in our common estimate of life; we still interpret things by an ignorant unbelief which causes many worthy souls to bow in a humiliation Christians should never feel. Do not the loneliness, the poverty, the testimony of Christ teach us something altogether different? Can we still cherish the notion that prosperity is an evidence of worth and that the man who can found a family must be a favourite of the heavenly powers? Judge thus and the providence of God is a tangle, a perplexing darkening problem which, believe as you may, must still overwhelm. Wealth has its conditions; money comes through some one’s cleverness in work and trading, some one’s inventiveness or thrift, and these qualities are reputable. But nothing is proved regarding the spiritual tone and nature of a life either by wealth or by the want of it. And surely we have learned that toss of friends and loneliness are not to be reckoned the punishment of sin. Often enough we hear the warning that wealth and worldly position are not to be sought for themselves, and yet, side by side with this warning, the implication that a high place and a prosperous life are proofs of divine blessing.
On the whole subject Christian thought is far from clear, and we have need to go anew to the Master and inquire of Him Who had no place where to lay His head. The Hebrew belief in the prosperity of God’s servants must fulfil itself in a larger better faith or the man of tomorrow will have no faith at all. One who bewails the loss of wealth or friends is doing nothing that has spiritual meaning or value. When he takes himself to task for that despondency he begins to touch the spiritual.
In Bethlehem Naomi found the half-ruined cottage still belonging to her, and there she and Ruth took up their abode. But for a living what was to be done? The answer came in the proposal of Ruth to go into the fields where the barley harvest was proceeding and glean after the reapers. By great diligence she might gather enough day by day for the bare sustenance that contents a Syrian peasant, and afterwards some other means of providing for herself and Naomi might be found. The work was not dignified. She would have to appear among the waifs and wanderers of the country, with women whose behaviour exposed them to the rude gibes of the labourers. But whatever plan Naomi vaguely entertained was hanging in abeyance, and the circumstances of the women were urgent. No kinsman came forward to help them. Loath as she was to expose Ruth to the trials of the harvest field, Naomi had to let her go. So it was Ruth who made the first move, Ruth the stranger who brought succour to the Hebrew widow when her own people held aloof and she herself knew not how to act.
Now among the farmers whose barley was falling before the sickle was the land owner Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech, a man of substance and social importance, one of those who in the midst of their fruitful fields shine with bountiful good humour and by their presence make their servants work heartily. To Ruth in after days it must have seemed a wonderful thing that her first timid expedition led her to a portion of ground belonging to this man. From the moment he appears in the narrative we note in him a certain largeness of character. It may be only the easy kindness of the prosperous man, but it commends him to our good opinion. Those who have a smooth way through the world are bound to be especially kind and considerate in their bearing toward neighbours and dependants, this at least they owe as an acknowledgment to the rest of the world, and we are always pleased to find a rich man paying his debt so far. There is a certain piety also in the greeting of Boaz to his labourers, a customary thing no doubt and good even in that sense, but better when it carries, as it seems to do here, a personal and friendly message. Here is a man who will observe with strict eye everything that goes on in the field and will be quick to challenge any lazy reaper. But he is not remote from those who serve him, he and they meet on common ground of humanity and faith.
The great operations which some in these days think fit to carry on, more for their own glory certainly than the good of their country or countrymen, entirely preclude anything like friendship between the chief and the multitude of his subordinates. It is impossible that a man who has a thousand under him should know and consider each, and there would be too much pretence in saying, "God be with you," on entering a yard or factory when otherwise no feeling is shown with which the name of God can be connected. Apart altogether from questions as to wealth and its use, every employer has a responsibility for maintaining the healthy human activity of his people, and nowhere is the immorality of the present system of huge concerns so evident as in the extinction of personal good will. The workman of course may adjust himself to the state of matters, but it will too often be by discrediting what he knows he cannot have and keeping up a critical resentful habit of mind against those who seem to treat him as a machine. He may often be wrong in his judgment of an employer. There may be less hardness of temper on the other side than there is on his own. But, the conditions being what they are, one may say he is certain to be a severe critic. We have unquestionably lost much and are in danger of losing more, not in a financial sense, which matters little, but in the infinitely more important affairs of social sweetness and Christian civilisation.
Boaz the farmer had not more in hand than he could attend to honestly, and everything under his care was well ordered. He had a foreman over the reapers, and from him he required an account of the stranger whom he saw gleaning in the field. There were to be no hangers on of loose character where he exercised authority; and in this we justify him. We like to see a man keeping a firm hand when we are sure that he has a good heart and knows what he is doing. Such a one is bound within the range of his power to have all done rightly and honourably, and Boaz pleases us all the better that he makes close inquiry regarding the woman who seeks the poor gains of a common gleaner.
Of course in a place like Bethlehem people knew each other, and Boaz was probably acquainted with most whom he saw about; at once, therefore, the new figure of the Moabite woman attracted his attention. Who is she? A kindly heart prompts the inquiry for the farmer knows that if he interests himself in this young woman he may be burdened with a new dependant. "It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab." She is the daughter-in-law of his old friend Elimelech. Before the eyes of Boaz one of the romances of life, common and tragic too, is unfolding itself. Often had Boaz and Elimelech held counsel with each other, met at each other’s houses, talked together of their fields or of the state of the country. But Elimelech went away and lost all and died; and two widows, the wreck of the family, had returned to Bethlehem. It was plain that these would be new claimants on his favour, but unlike many well to do persons Boaz does not wait for some urgent appeal; he acts rather as one who is glad to do a kindness for old friendship’s sake.
Great was the surprise of the lonely gleaner when the rich man came to her side and gave her a word of comfortable greeting. "Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, but abide here fast by my maidens." Nothing had been done to make Ruth feel at home in Bethlehem until Boaz addressed her. She had perhaps seen proud and scornful looks in the street and at the well, and had to bear them meekly, silently. In the fields she may have looked for something of the kind and even feared that Boaz would dismiss her. A gentle person in such circumstances is exceedingly grateful for a very small kindness, and it was not a slight favour that Boaz did her. But in making her acknowledgments Ruth did not know what had prepared her way. The truth was that she had met with a man of character who valued character, and her faithfulness commended her. "It hath been fully showed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother-in-law since the death of thine husband." The best point in Boaz is that he so quickly and fully recognises the goodness of another and will help her because they stand upon a common ground of conscience and duty.
Is it on such a ground you draw to others? Is your interest won by kindly dispositions and fidelity of temper? Do you love those who are sincere and patient in their duties, content to serve where service is appointed by God? Are you attracted by one who cherishes a parent, say a poor mother, in the time of feebleness and old age, doing all that is possible to smooth her path and provide for her comfort? Or have you little esteem for such a one, for the duties so faithfully discharged, because you see no brilliance or beauty, and there are other persons more clever and successful on their own account, more amusing because they are unburdened? If so, be sure of your own ignorance, your own undutifulness, your own want of principle and heart. Character is known by character, and worth by worth. Those who are acquainted with you could probably say that you care more for display than for honour, that you think more of making a fine figure in society than of showing generosity, forbearance, and integrity at home. The good appreciate goodness, the true honour truth. One important lesson of the Book of Ruth lies here, that the great thing for young women, and for young men also, is to be quietly faithful in the service, however humble, to which God has called them and the family circle in which He has set them. Not indeed because that is the line of promotion, though Ruth found it so; every Ruth does not obtain favour in the eyes of a wealthy Boaz. So honourable and good a man is not to be met on every harvest field; on the contrary she may encounter a Nabal, one who is churlish and evil in his doings.
We must take the course of this narrative as symbolic. The book has in it the strain of a religious idyl. The Moabite who wins the regard of this man of Judah represents those who, though naturally strangers to the covenant of promise, receive the grace of God and enter the circle of divine blessing - even coming to high dignity in the generations of the chosen people. It is idyllic, we say, not an exhibition of everyday fact; yet the course of divine justice is surely more beautiful, more certain. To every Ruth comes the Heavenly Friend Whose are all the pastures and fields, all the good things of life. The Christian hope is in One Who cannot fail to mark the most private faithfulness, piety and love hidden like violets among the grass. If there is not such a One, the Helper and Vindicator of meek fidelity, virtue has no sanction and well doing no recompense.
The true Israelite Boaz accepts the daughter of an alien and unfriendly people on account of her own character and piety. "The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord, the God of Israel, under Whose wings thou art come to take refuge." Such is the benediction which Boaz invokes on Ruth, receiving her cordially into the family circle of Jehovah. Already she has ceased to be a stranger and a foreigner to him. The boundary walls of race are overstepped, partly, no doubt, by that sense of kinship which the Bethlehemite is quick to acknowledge. For Naomi’s sake and for Elimelech’s as well as her own he craves divine protection and reward for the daughter of Moab. Yet the beautiful phrase he employs, full of Hebrew confidence in God, is an acknowledgment of Ruth’s act of faith and her personal right to share with the children of Abraham the fostering love of the Almighty. The story, then, is a plea against that exclusiveness which the Hebrews too often indulged. On this page of the annals the truth is written out that though Jehovah cared for Israel much He cares still more for love and faithfulness, purity and goodness. We reach at last an instance of that fulfilment of Israel’s mission to the nations around which in our study of the Book of Judges we looked for in vain.
Not for Israel only in the time of its narrowness was the lesson given. We need it still. The justification and redemption of God are not restricted to those who have certain traditions and beliefs. Even as a Moabite woman brought up in the worship of Chemosh, with many heathen ideas still in her mind, has her place under the wings of Jehovah as a soul seeking righteousness, so from countries and regions of life which Christian people may consider a kind of rude heathen Moab many in humility and sincerity may be coming nigh to the kingdom of God. It was so in our Lord’s time, and it is so still. All along the true religion of God has been for reconciliation and brotherhood among men, and it was possible for many Israelites to do what Naomi did in the way of making effectual the promise of God to Abraham that in his seed all families of the earth should be blessed. There never was a middle wall of partition between men except in the thought of the Hebrew. He was separated that he might be able to convert and bless, not that he might stand aloof in pride. The wall which he built Christ has broken down that the servants of His gospel may go freely forth to find everywhere brethren in common humanity and need, who are to be made brethren in Christ. The outward representation of brotherhood in faith must follow the work of the reconciling Spirit-cannot precede it. And when the reconciliation is felt in the depth of human souls we shall have the all-comprehensive church, a fair and gracious dwelling place, wide as the race, rich with every noble thought and hope of man and every gift of Heaven.