Faith brought Naomi the pauper and Ruth the stranger into Bethlehem, Jehovah's house of bread. Both felt much as the prodigal in the parable did — to tarry in the "far country" of Moab would be to "perish with hunger," while in the land of Naomi's God there was "bread enough and to spare," food for the soul also as well as for the body. The land of divine promise must be the land of plenty, where the poor are never forgotten, but always fed.
Before the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, Jehovah through His servant Moses gave them a full code of regulations for their religious and social behaviour when settled there. And along with other duties, the people were enjoined to care for the poor (Deut. 15:7-11), and especially for the widows and orphans (Deut. 24:19).
The landowners of Israel were enjoined not to forget the needs of the poor, particularly at harvest-time, but to allow them to share in the bounties bestowed by the God of heaven. A special clause to this effect was attached to Jehovah's instructions regarding the annual observance of "the feast of weeks," when the tribute of a freewill offering was to be given Him according as He had blessed them (Deut. 16:10). The children of Israel were then to bring with their animal sacrifices "the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering" before Him. But it was added, "Thou shalt not in thy harvest entirely reap the corners of thy field, and the gleaning of thy harvest shalt thou not gather: thou shalt leave them unto the poor and to the stranger" (Lev. 23:20, 22). See also Lev. 19:9, 10; Deut. 24:19. A similar combination of giving our thanks to God and our goods to the needy is found in the New Testament (Heb. 13:15, 16); our worship will be incomplete and unacceptable if it lack either the one or the other.
Jehovah desired to develop a merciful spirit in His people. By its exercise they would themselves be blessed, and would obtain still further mercy (Matt. 5:7). The nation should remember the kindness of God to themselves when they were all "strangers" and bondmen in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:21). Therefore they ought to show their kindness to any "strangers" in their midst by allowing them to glean in their fields and vineyards, taking care that the reapers left something specially for the gleaners. Though the strangers were not of "the seed of Abraham according to the flesh," and though they had taken no part in the ploughing or sowing or reaping, they were not to be stinted in their share of the bounties of God at harvesting-time.
This commandment of Jehovah concerning the poor and the stranger was recorded in the statute-book of Israel, and in accordance with its generous terms Naomi and Ruth found their immediate sustenance in Bethlehem, and also divine favours far more surprising and extensive than could have been imagined. Only the transcendent mercy of Jehovah could have brought both these widows into genealogical contact with the promised Messiah of Israel. Their humble entry into Bethlehem in the obedience of their faith was the first step to this unexpected end.
Going out to Glean, Ruth lighted on the Field of Boaz
Prompted by the pinch of poverty, the two women sought relief through the national poor law. It was, however, not Naomi, the elder, a "mother in Israel" by birth and breeding, that took the initiative, but Ruth, the younger, a convert from the worship of idols to the service of Jehovah. As barley harvest had begun, she volunteered, "stranger" though she was in Bethlehem, to glean in the barley-fields. Her mother-in-law agreed.
Now Naomi had rich kinsmen of her husband's, who apparently did not emigrate from Bethlehem on account of the famine as she had done. They stayed at home, were preserved, and had prospered. One especially, named Boaz, had risen to eminence in Bethlehem. "And Naomi had a relation of her husband's, a mighty man of wealth, of the family of Elimelech, and his name was Boaz" (Ruth 2:1). But Naomi, though badly in want, had not solicited any favours from her relatives, not even from Boaz. The poor often cling to their pride to the very last.
Nor, as it appears, did Ruth on setting out to glean intend to seek the field of Boaz, her mother-in-law's kinsman. Early in the morning she went forth humbly as a poor stranger to gather up a gleaner's portion of corn wherever opportunity offered, not however, without a firm trust that the God of Israel under Whose wings she had come to take refuge, would guide and protect her. "And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, Let me, I pray, go to the field and glean among the ears of corn after (him) in whose sight I shall find favour. And she said to her, Go, my daughter. And she went; and she came and gleaned in the fields after the reapers; and she chanced to light on an allotment of Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech" (Ruth 2:2, 3). To outward seeming, Ruth by "chance"' chose the field of Boaz, but to faith it was by God's devising and directing that she went to the field of a pious and gracious man who was her mother-in-law's kinsman by marriage, and in whose eyes she quickly found favour.
Ruth's First Day of Gleaning
Naomi's relation's name, Boaz, signifies "a pillar," or "strength is in him." One of the two pillars or supports in the porch of Solomon's temple was called "Boaz" (1 Kings 7:21). Boaz, the strong man of Bethlehem, is described also as "a mighty man of wealth" (2:1). The same phrase is applied to Gideon and to Jephthah, but in these instances it is translated "a mighty man of valour" (Judges 6:12; Judges11:1), courage and leadership being necessary qualities in their service for God. Here, in reference to Boaz, "wealth" is used as it is in Deut. 8:17, 18, where it signifies God-given personal possessions in the land, such as the goodly houses, herds and flocks, silver and gold, mentioned in vers. 12, 13. For the godly Israelite "wealth" was a mark of the blessing of Jehovah which "maketh rich, and He addeth no sorrow to it" (Prov. 10:22).
Boaz, then, was a godly man of substance and standing in Bethlehem, whose moral and spiritual character had been strengthened rather than spoiled by His riches. He was courteous, considerate, and generous to the poor. His recorded words and actions both witness to his deep-rooted faith in God; and therein lay the secret of his strength. "And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem; and he said to the reapers, Jehovah be with you! And they said to him, Jehovah bless thee!" (Ruth 2:4).
As Boaz was wont to do, he took a personal interest in the welfare of all the workers. Observing the newcomer, he made inquiries concerning her of the overseer, who described her as the Moabitish maiden. "And Boaz said to his servant that was set over the reapers, Whose maiden is this? And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and said, It is the Moabitish maiden who came back with Naomi out of the fields of Moab; and she said, I pray you, let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers. And she came, and has continued from the morning until now: her sitting in the house has been little as yet" (Ruth 2:5-7). The "house" was a temporary shelter in which the workers might rest awhile from the great heat.
As a "stranger," Ruth would no doubt have been timid and shy. Boaz addressed her with friendly words of encouragement and consideration, speaking like an elderly man rather than a master. "And Boaz said to Ruth, Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, neither go from here, but keep here with my maidens. Let thine eyes be on the field which is being reaped, and go thou after them; have I not charged the young men not to touch thee? And when thou art athirst, go to the vessels and drink of what the young men draw" (Ruth 2:9, 10).
This friendly and gracious advice touched the damsel deeply. She felt herself altogether unworthy of such favour. "Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said to him, Why have I found favour in thine eyes, that thou shouldest regard me, seeing I am a foreigner (stranger)?" (Ruth 2:10). For similar acts of prostration to show reverence, according to the Eastern custom, see 1 Sam. 25:23, 24; 2 Sam. 1:2.
The reply of Boaz showed that he was already acquainted with her devoted attachment to Naomi, giving up her parents and her fatherland to accompany her to Bethlehem; he prayed that Jehovah, the God of Israel, Whose overshadowing protection she had sought, would reward her labour of love. "And Boaz answered and said to her, It has been fully shewn to me all that thou hast done to thy mother-in-law since the death of thy husband; and how thou hast left thy father and mother and the land of thy nativity, and art come to a people that thou hast not known heretofore. Jehovah recompense thy work, and let thy reward be full from Jehovah the God of Israel, under Whose wings thou art come to take refuge" (Ruth 2:11, 12). By these gracious words the lonely "stranger" was cheered and comforted, and her faith in Jehovah encouraged. "And she said, Let me find favour in thine eyes, my lord: for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken kindly to thy handmaid though I am not like one of thy handmaidens" (Ruth 2:13).
At mealtime, Boaz showed further favour to the Moabitess. Ruth was allowed to share fully with the rest, and to dip her morsel or sop in the dish of vinegar or sour wine. As she sat among the reapers Boaz himself passed her a bountiful helping of parched or roasted corn, a double portion to mark his favour. "And Boaz said to her at mealtime, Come hither and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar. And she sat beside the reapers; and he reached her parched corn, and she ate and was sufficed, and reserved some" (Ruth 2:14). Truly blessed are the meek; they "shall eat and be satisfied" (Ps. 22:26).
When Ruth resumed her gleaning, Boaz instructed his young men to afford her every facility in gathering up the barley-stalks left scattered on the field when the sheaves were tied. They were also to pull out a few handfuls from the sheaves for her special benefit. "And when she rose up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, Let her glean even among the sheaves, and ye shall not reproach her. And ye shall also sometimes draw out for her some ears out of the handfuls and leave them that she may glean, and rebuke her not" (Ruth 2:15, 16).
Harvest work continued while the light lasted. Then with a stick Ruth threshed her gleanings, and found that she had about an ephah (three pecks) of barley grain to take home to Naomi. This would be a substantial addition to the household store. "And she gleaned in the field until even, and beat out what she had gleaned; and it was about an ephah of barley. And she took it up, and came into the city, and her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned" (Ruth 2:17, 18).
Naomi and Ruth's Evening Talk
It was surely a tired but happy gleaner that returned home that evening to her new home in Bethlehem; for Ruth had on that first day proved for herself how good a thing it was for a poor stranger to trust in the God of Israel, Who "regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward; Who executeth the judgment of the fatherless and the widow, and loveth the stranger, to give him food and clothing" (Deut. 10:17, 18). The ephah of barley told the tale of Jehovah's goodness, while the bread and parched corn from Boaz added a richness to the bounty for the widow and the stranger. "And she took it up, and came into the city, and her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned; and she brought forth and gave to her that which she had reserved after she was sufficed (satisfied)" (Ruth 2:18).
The elder woman was evidently affected by these unexpected but undeniable marks of God's providential care. Only yesterday she had said, "The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me" (1:20); but today Naomi saw that He was dealing very graciously with Mara, as she had called herself. The love of God was lifting the veil of unbelieving complaint from Mara's heart. And soon Mara the bitter would once again be Naomi the pleasant. "And her mother-in-law said to her, Where hast thou gleaned today? and where hast thou wrought? Blessed be he that did regard thee! And she told her mother-in-law with whom she had wrought, and said, The man's name with whom I wrought today is Boaz" (Ruth 2:19).
The name Boaz awakened fresh hopes in the despondent widow woman. Provision for present needs had come through her wealthy relation; might not Jehovah through this rich kinsman also redeem the inheritance forfeited by the death of her husband and sons? Mara's distrust of the Almighty was disappearing, and making room for Naomi's confidence and hope in Jehovah. "And Naomi said to her daughter-in law, Blessed be he of Jehovah, who has not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead! And Naomi said to her, The man is near of kin to us, one of those who have the right of our redemption" (Ruth 2:20). See Lev. 25:25.
Being a comparative stranger to the laws of Israel, Ruth had nothing encouraging to say to her mother-in-law in reply, but she did tell her that Boaz had bidden her to continue gleaning in his fields not only throughout the barley-harvest but through the wheat-harvest which would follow. "And Ruth the Moabitess said, He said to me also, Thou shalt keep with my young men until they have ended all my harvest. And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, It is good, my daughter, that thou go out with his maidens, that they meet thee not in any other field. So she kept with the maidens of Boaz to glean, until the end of the barley-harvest and of the wheat-harvest. And she dwelt with her mother-in-law" (Ruth 2:21-23). The young men of Boaz were his reapers, and the maidens the gleaners. The harvesting of barley and wheat usually extended from early April until late June, a period of about three months. The prospects of food supplies for Naomi and Ruth had brightened; and for the lost inheritance there were now tokens of its redemption on their horizon of hope.