Risky Business

Ruth 3

August 17, 2020 | Ray Pritchard

A good man is hard to find.

That’s the backstory of Ruth 3. It’s all about the strangest marriage proposal in the Bible. If you’re looking for ways to ask someone to marry you, the strategy Ruth employed will likely be at the bottom of your list.

Here’s what we have: a woman asks a man to marry her, and he agrees. That’s a bit unusual. But there’s more to consider. A foreigner asks a Jew to marry her. That’s extremely unlikely. If we peer a little closer, we realize that an employee asks her boss to marry her. Stranger yet. Finally, it’s a younger woman who approaches an older man at midnight–on the threshing floor!–to ask him to marry her.

A good man is hard to find

All of this is highly irregular, to say the least. This story teaches us that God has his ways, and sometimes those ways seem very strange indeed.

We’ll come back to that in a second.

The Predestined Empty Space

If you are married, how did you meet your spouse? My wife and I met while attending a Christian college in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It started when I noticed this cute girl who seemed to be popular on our campus. I tried to think of ways I could meet her, but nothing worked. One Monday night, I came late to a basketball game on campus, arriving at halftime because I had been leading a Word of Life Bible Club. When I got to the gym, it was packed with students, but I saw that Marlene was sitting in the bleachers with an empty space to her left. Summoning all my courage, I walked up and tried out my best line: “Anyone sitting here?” She smiled and said no. So I sat down, and the rest is history. We celebrate our 46th anniversary this week.

I sat down, and the rest is history

When I tell that story to an audience, I like to say that the empty space to her left was put there in the sovereign, predestined, eternal plan of God. People laugh, but I believe it’s true. Had I been thinking about her before that night? All the time. When I got to the gym, was I hoping to see her? Yes! Did I know there would be room to sit next to her? No, it just happened. I believe God did whatever he needed to do to keep that space open for me.

When we contemplate the future, we like to say, “Anything can happen.” That’s true because “anything” happens all the time, but you can’t predict it in advance. That goes for empty space in the bleachers, and it goes for midnight meetings at the threshing floor.

Before we jump into Ruth 3, let me add that the way couples meet is infinitely varied. These days it often happens online, through some dating app like Match.com or “eharmony” or “OKCupid.” I know a Christian man who met his wife that way. They met online, fell in love, got married, and now have four children together.

Sometimes people are introduced by a mutual friend. Or they may meet through work or at church or at a party. Occasionally people don’t want to say how they met because it embarrasses them. Perhaps it happened because of sinful choices. Sometimes the way couples meet each other seems so strange as to be almost unbelievable.

A good woman is also hard to find

That leads us back to the story of Ruth and Boaz. Nothing about their meeting or their marriage seems normal, at least by modern standards. Ruth didn’t have many good options. Today she might write an ad like this: “Widowed woman from Moab seeks godly Israelite man of character for long walks in the barley fields and quiet evenings by the fire. Must like children” (Iain Duguid Esther & Ruth, Loc. 2215). That wasn’t an option 3000 years ago.

A good man is hard to find.
That’s true.
But a good woman is also hard to find.

Ruth 3 tells us how a good man and a good woman found each other and ended up getting married. It’s proof positive that God works in, with, and through our choices to accomplish his will.This story seems so unlikely that it must be true. File it under “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction.” The chapter divides into three scenes:

A Risky Plan
A Midnight Proposal
A Providential Pause

The whole episode happens overnight. It begins one evening, the main event happens around midnight, with the final scene taking place early the next morning.

 Scene # 1: A Risky Plan                 (vv. 1-6)

Harvest time had come.

That’s key to everything else that happens in this story. After many years of famine, there was a good harvest at last. That’s why Naomi knew Boaz would be at the threshing floor. When you read “threshing floor,” don’t think of a barn, but imagine a flat spot near the top of a hill where the winds could separate the barley from the chaff.

It was the happiest time of the year for farmers because it meant their hard work was about to pay off. Months earlier they had planted barley and then waited for the rains to come. As owner of the land, Boaz would be at the threshing floor to oversee his workers. He would also spend the night there to protect the crop from thieves.

It’s harvest time!

That’s why Naomi knew where to find Boaz on this particular night.

That brings us to her plan, which she hatched to provide “rest” for Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law (v. 1). She and Ruth had already experienced kindness from Boaz. Now it was time to take the next step. Her plan was risky, to say the least:

“Wash, put on perfumed oil, and wear your best clothes. Go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let the man know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, notice the place where he’s lying, go in and uncover his feet, and lie down. Then he will explain to you what you should do” (vv. 3-5).

Why would she suggest such a preposterous scheme? We find the key in verse 2: “Isn’t Boaz our relative?” Naomi has already taken Ruth in and made her part of the family, even though she is from Moab. That’s an astonishing statement by itself. But then she calls Boaz a “relative.” In some way or another, he was related to Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. A cousin? An uncle? A more distant relative? We don’t know. But he shared the same family tree as Elimelech, which means he was qualified to be a “kinsman redeemer.” To fill that role, he must be a relative able to take on the responsibility, and above all, he must be willing to do it. The “kinsman redeemer” stepped in during a time of great need (the death of Elimelech would qualify) to preserve the family property and to maintain the family line.

Ruth needed a “Kinsman Redeemer”

Naomi knows all this, and she knows Boaz could rescue Ruth and provide a home and a future for her. He and Ruth could also have a baby, which would preserve the name of her late husband. All of this was no doubt in her mind.

Some Bible commentators take a dim view of Naomi’s plan because they think it was borderline immoral. Some even think she wanted Ruth to convince Boaz to sleep with her. I’ve already said the plan was risky. It was dangerous for a young woman–a foreigner!–to go to a threshing floor at night dressed in this fashion. You can think of a dozen ways this might go wrong. This story is in the Bible because it is true, not because we need to do what Ruth did.

Beyond the risk factor, I see no evidence Naomi had bad motives. Remember that Ruth and Boaz had already met in the harvest field, and she had already made a positive impression on him (Ruth 2:11). He knew about her loyal love for Naomi and how Ruth had left Moab to live with her. Plus, he saw how hard she worked in the field. Her reputation had preceded her. He had already welcomed her, had warned his men not to bother her, had invited her to his table, and had sent her home with grain.

Perhaps thoughts of romance had already entered Boaz’s mind. Certainly he appreciated how difficult it was for a woman from her background to come to Bethlehem. But think about it for a moment. Boaz couldn’t approach Ruth.

She was young.
She was a widow.
She was from Moab.
She was now working for him.

In that culture, at that time, it couldn’t happen. Understanding that, Naomi hatches her audacious scheme. Was she a matchmaker? If so, who could blame her for wanting to see Ruth and Boaz get married? Boaz was a good man, and Ruth was a good woman. That much has already been established.

“I will do everything you say”

If Boaz can’t propose to Ruth, then she can propose to him.

The details about her dress and the perfume simply set the scene. They would show Boaz how serious she was. Far from being some sort of midnight seduction, here was a way (perhaps the only way) for this man and this woman to come together as husband and wife.

Note how specific Naomi is. She knew Boaz would sleep with his head facing inward and his feet facing outward. Ruth had to find a way to arrive at the threshing floor undetected, figure out where he was sleeping, and wait until he had finished eating and drinking. Finally, she was to uncover his feet because that would guarantee he would eventually wake up.

Perhaps the most surprising part is Ruth’s response in verse 5: “I will do everything you say.” She knew the risks involved. There were many reasons to say no, but she said yes. Thus does God’s plan unfold for his children. When Walt Kaiser preached on this chapter, he called it “veiled providence.” That’s a fine phrase that perfectly balances both sides of the story. On one hand, it looks as if Ruth is taking a big risk on her own. But behind Naomi’s plan stood God who orchestrated every detail, including Boaz’s cold feet that woke him up at midnight.

Faith means taking a risk for God and leaving the results in his hands. When the sun went down and Ruth left for the threshing floor, Naomi was pacing nervously, not knowing what would happen next.

That’s how faith works. We take a step forward, following the light we have, trusting God to bring us out in the right place. Sometimes things don’t work out as we planned, but that’s okay too. Our part is to take the first step. God can take care of the rest.

Scene 1 ends with Ruth stepping into the evening darkness, wondering how Boaz will respond. Her future hangs in the balance.

Scene # 2: A Midnight Proposal     (vv. 7-15)

Midnight comes, and all is quiet at the threshing floor.

Suddenly a man stirs, realizing his feet are uncovered. Peering into the darkness, Boaz makes out the form of a woman lying at his feet. That was startling and troubling. Was she a prostitute? After all, it was known that a man could buy sexual favors at the threshing floor. So Boaz asks (in a whisper, we presume), “Who are you?” No doubt her answer shocked him:

“I am Ruth, your servant,” she replied. “Take me under your wing, for you are a family redeemer” (v 8).

It was a straightforward marriage proposal. The phrase “Take me under your wing” can also be translated as “Spread your covering over me.” It was Ruth’s way of saying, “Marry me, and bring me under your protection.” She uses the same Hebrew word Boaz used in Ruth 2:12 when he described the God of Israel, “under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.” He knew exactly what she meant: “As I have come to God for my spiritual refuge, I now come to you for my personal refuge.”

“Spread your wings over me”

If Boaz had been a lesser man, he might have tried to take advantage of her. He could have said, “Let’s sleep together, and I’ll think about it in the morning.” But he didn’t do that. He responds in three ways that show the greatness of his character:

First, he prays that God will bless her because this kindness to him is greater than her earlier kindness to Naomi (v. 10). She could have married a younger man (for passion or for money), but she didn’t.

Second, he agrees to do what she asks because everyone knows she is a woman of noble character (v. 11). It’s the same word used in Proverbs 31:10 of the “noble” or “virtuous” or “excellent” woman. Though Ruth doesn’t know it yet, Boaz has agreed to do more than she asked. She wanted him to marry her, but he has promised to guarantee her future–with him or without him.

We hit a sudden detour!

Here we hit a sudden detour in the story. Boaz is willing to marry her, but there is another man who is a closer relative. He must have the first choice in the matter.

“Stay here tonight, and in the morning, if he wants to redeem you, that’s good. Let him redeem you. But if he doesn’t want to redeem you, as the Lord lives, I will. Now lie down until morning” (v. 13).

Boaz cares so much for Ruth and Naomi that he is willing for the other man to redeem Ruth, even if it meant Boaz could never marry her. He only wants her needs to be met.

Third, he protects her reputation and provides a pledge to Naomi (vv. 14-15). She is to leave in the pre-dawn darkness so that no rumors could get started. The gift of grain is like a dowry payment to Naomi. Six measures of barley might weigh 60-90 pounds. Boaz’s extravagant gesture to Naomi was intended to show his commitment to both women. A lesser man might say, “I’ll marry Ruth and not worry about Naomi,” but Boaz was not a lesser man.

The second scene ends as the sun rises over the mountains to the east.

Scene # 3: A Providential Pause     (vv. 16-18)

If we were writing the story, we would go straight to the wedding, but that’s not how life works. Every relationship has its ups and downs, its sudden twists and turns. No doubt Ruth went home elated and deflated.

She had every reason to smile because Boaz had not only welcomed her, he had promised to marry her if he could.

If he could.

“If he could”

Those three little words hung in the air. There was another man, a mystery man, a closer relative who had the first right of refusal. Boaz couldn’t be the “kinsman redeemer” until the first man turned it down. How would that happen? What if the other man decided to marry her? Would she have to do the whole threshing-floor-at-midnight routine again? So many questions flooded her mind.

That’s when Naomi offered some very sensible advice:

“Naomi said, “My daughter, wait until you find out how things go, for he won’t rest unless he resolves this today” (v. 18).

The word translated “wait” can mean to “sit down.” We would say today, “Sit tight.” Sometimes the godliest thing you can do is to sit down and wait.

Waiting time is not wasted time if you are waiting on the Lord.

As the chapter draws to a close, it seems like the story has hit a snag. But it is a providential pause that sets up the final act. It gives us time to think about each person in this story.

Naomi’s heart has been warmed by the Lord. The woman who came home bitter and empty now sees God at work behind the scenes. When she returned to Bethlehem, she was hungry and penniless. That’s about to change for good.

Naomi’s heart has been warmed by the Lord

Ruth has taken the daring step of proposing marriage to Boaz. She does it in a way that gives Boaz the option to say no, but he is not about to refuse her. Clearly, the Lord has stirred up love between these two unlikely people.

Boaz has acted with the highest character when another man might have taken advantage of the situation. No matter what happens next, Ruth will have a husband, and Naomi will never want again.

So what about this snag? As Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Faith waits for what it wants. How different that is from the way most of us live. Waiting is one of the hardest parts of the Christian life. Thousands act who cannot wait. Yet we all spend a big chunk of our lives waiting for things to happen. For every green light, it seems like there are five yellow ones and a dozen red ones. We all must wait whether we like it or not.

In this case, Ruth must wait for Boaz to take care of the matter. Perhaps it will be resolved favorably. But maybe not.

Faith waits on the Lord

When it cannot do anything else, faith waits on the Lord. Oh, how hard that it for most of us! But waiting has its uses. It slows us down, it gives us time to think and pray, and it teaches us God is in charge, not us.

Was it daring for Ruth to approach Boaz at midnight? Without a doubt. Could she have been seen by others? Definitely. Was it risky to put on an attractive dress and wear perfume? No question about it. So many things might have gone wrong.

I began by saying a good man is hard to find, but a good woman is hard to find too. In Ruth 3, a good woman finds her good man, and it happens through a risky plan that leads to a midnight proposal that ends with a providential pause. The fingerprints of God are all over this story.

Ruth 3 shows us how God works through our choices to accomplish his will for our lives. He used Naomi’s plan, Ruth’s daring, and Boaz’s integrity to bring them to the brink of marriage. Though they don’t know it yet, that union will produce a child who will be the ancestor of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World.

This story is going to have a happy ending, but we’re not quite there yet.

Stay tuned. You won’t believe how Boaz solves the snag and clears the way for a happy wedding day.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?