Gleaning in the Field of Boaz
Ruth 2 Commentary
There is a well-known plot device in modern romantic comedies called the meet-cute. In fact, one primetime show, The Mindy Project, had almost an entire season based on the protagonist’s attempts to interpret every one of her encounters with a new man as a meet-cute. Meet-cutes are those moments in the book or scenes in the movie/play, when two characters meet for the first time and there is a spark of chemistry between them. These moments can be ordinary, such as being handed back a pen you dropped or bringing your new neighbour the mail that was accidentally delivered to your box. Or they can be wacky, such as running into each other and falling while ice skating or being forced very close to one another in an elevator while some inconsiderate bloke tries to get his bike inside an already crowded space. But meet-cutes are only magical and worth it if the couple gets— and stays— together. The circumstances of their meeting become this piece of charm for the couple, a badge of honour, the hallmark story people tell about their relationships at cocktail parties and that initial spark becomes a source of hope for how special the relationship is when the romance seems boring or even tough.
Ruth 2 is the biblical equivalent of a meet-cute for Ruth and Boaz, but with an interesting twist: the interested mother-in-law with stakes in the game. In fact, when I read this story, it’s not Ruth or Boaz I hear telling this story to anyone who will listen, it’s Naomi the mother-in-law who can’t help but gush about this meet-cute (as she’s depicted doing chapter 4). I can just hear her saying to the other women of Bethlehem, “You remember how bad things were for us when we go here. Well, Ruth went out to get us some food… and wouldn’t you know it, without even knowing whose field she was in, she caught Boaz’s attention and he went out of his way to help us. When she came home that day and told me, I knew it! I knew we would end up here!”
The other key component to using meet-cutes as a way of telling a story is that the audience always knows more than the characters so that the charm and unexpectedness of the first encounter carries maximum value. The reason why Mindy from The Mindy Project fails to ever have her deeply desired meet-cute, for instance, is because she is constantly trying to force them to happen. Meet-cutes are meant to be experienced as serendipitous, not orchestrated by those involved. We, the audience can readily recognize what’s happening, but the charm is lost if either of the characters are aware of what’s going on or are forcing it to happen.
So all along the way in our story, we the audience of Ruth 2 know what’s really going on with Ruth and Boaz. First of all, the narrator introduces Boaz at the very beginning of the story, even though he doesn’t actually enter the story until later. Then, immediately after explaining who he is and why Boaz is important, Ruth expresses her hope to find favour from a field owner so that she can glean enough food for her and Naomi to survive upon. Since there are no wasted details in the Scriptures, we listen to the rest of the story expecting to discover how these two things, Boaz and finding favour, are connected. When the story continues with “As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz…” we get our providentially orchestrated meet-cute that feels like a coincidence (serendipitous!) to those who are living it.
Resist the temptation to moralize Ruth’s industrious nature, her courageous spirit, and her wherewithal bravery to go into the field to glean as the reasons why Boaz notices her. To do so would be to cheapen the work of God in this story. Boaz notices her because he is a man of God, and an agent of God’s goodness in the world. It is through Boaz that God will intervene to provide for Ruth and Naomi, both in this moment, and as we will discover later in the story, throughout the rest of their lives. Ultimately, God will act through their family line to bring himself into this world, as Jesus’ genealogy includes the offspring of Ruth and Boaz. To credit this solely to the decisions and activity of Ruth or Boaz is to lose sight of the key theological lesson of this story: God acts primarily through people. In fact, this is God’s preferred way of acting in the world, hence the laws about gleaning that looks out for the poor and the widow and the foreigner, hence the tradition of the kinsman-redeemer, hence the calling for the people of God to bless the nations. Much like the story we hear in Esther, albeit on a much smaller scale (two people versus an entire nation), Ruth is the story of God saving lives and providing future protection through the choices of individuals.
Let’s go back to the meet-cute moment. Neither Ruth nor Naomi truly know how blessed they are to have ‘happened upon’ their kinsman-redeemer’s land— the end of Ruth 2 ends with Naomi and Ruth in basically the same physical state as when the chapter started: in Bethlehem, without food. Notice how the end of this part of the story notes that the season is over— where will Ruth get food now? They need more than a saviour for the current season, they need a change in their circumstances! If Ruth were a man, we’d have no reason to doubt her ability to provide for the well-being of those close to her. Alas, the times and customs were different then, and for Ruth and Naomi to survive, they really do need to be brought in under someone’s favour, and they need to find themselves under the shadow of God’s wings. Ruth 3 and 4 tell us that part of the story…
But the foundation is laid in Ruth 2. Ruth declares her hope, her prayer really, to find herself in someone’s favour. Boaz blesses her, prays for her to experience the refuge of God’s wings, that she will know that she made the right decision in devoting herself to Yahweh by devoting herself to Naomi. Then, Boaz helps her experience God’s goodness and refuge by going above and beyond with his kindness. The letter of the law was to allow her to glean from what gets dropped or left behind in the field. Boaz gives instructions that Ruth be given special protection, special access, special treatment even; he gives her free access to his worker’s water supply, he feeds her lunch and makes sure she is well-nourished and able to complete the task before her, he makes sure that all of his men know that there will be trouble if they harass her and therefore offers her protection in this unknown world she now finds herself. Ruth leaves the field that day with an epah worth of crops, the equivalent of a half month’s wages! Twice the text describes Ruth as eating until she had her fill, an expression of abundance and satisfaction. The goodness and blessings overflow upon her. Ruth recognizes that her status as a foreigner does not guarantee her any of this good, and yet, here she is, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good because of Boaz’s lovingkindness— a word regularly used in the Old Testament to describe Yahweh— towards her and Naomi. Boaz was a man of God, living his life in a way that honoured God, creating the space and opportunity for God’s story to be told in the lives of others.
Though we cannot call him Christlike, Boaz witnesses to God’s goodness through his actions; he is a precursor to Christ, the entire world’s kinsman-redeemer.
Key Cultural Context Points
Levitical law (Leviticus 19.9-10, 23.22; Deuteronomy 24.19-22) required farmers to leave portions of their crop for the widow, orphan and foreigner, those in need because they lacked the customary provider in a husband, a father, or other clan/familial ties. Ruth fits all three of these descriptions: her Israelite husband died; she left her own family (and did not return to them) when she devoted herself to Naomi, her mother-in-law, but lacked a father; and as the story highlights a number of times, Ruth is a Moabite, from Moab, a foreigner.
So if God wanted women like her to be able to have access, why does Ruth ask permission to glean in the field? Is it because she does not understand the customs of her new homeland? Or, is it because the Israelites weren’t actually doing a very good job of living out this particular command of God? Like the year of Jubilee for the land, for instance, was this Levitical law one that had never really caught on among God’s people? The latter is the more likely answer. Our hints are in the text: Boaz tells Ruth to stay close to his women, orders his men not to hassle her and emphasizes that she is to stay in his fields rather than try to glean elsewhere. Even Ruth’s decision to ask for permission could be seen as a sign of the practice not being supported by the community. Furthermore, Naomi tells her to obey his wishes because she will avoid being bothered elsewhere. (Though, one could also read these as warnings of the mistreatment and violation of women in vulnerable positions, misogyny; but this option does not speak well for the men of God either, does it?)
The process of clearing the field of its crops involved a two-step process. The men entered the field first and cut the grain from the ground, collecting it into handfuls. When their hand was full, they dropped the bundles onto the ground which were then gathered by women who followed a distance behind them. The women ‘gleaned’ the handfuls into bundles which would then be carried off of the field. During each step of this process there would inevitably be pieces that would drop or fall out of the bundles. Instead of going through the field a second time, God says that these crops, along with those on the very edge of the field, are to be left for the poor and the foreigner.
Chelsey Harmon is an ordained minister in the CRC currently pursuing a ThM in Spiritual Theology from Regent College in Vancouver, BC.
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