From our first woman in our Christmas story, Tamar, to the time of Rahab there were six generations. We left the last story with Rahab surviving the destruction of Jericho and she apparently married a man named Salmon and they had a child named Boaz. And Boaz becomes the connection for our next not-so-famous Christmas character, the woman Ruth.
Hold that thought and stay with me. So a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, living in Bethlehem, Judah, were in the midst of a famine. They decided to go in search of food elsewhere and headed to Moab. While there, Elimelech died and the two sons each married local girls Orpah and Ruth and they all lived happily ever after in Moab. Actually, for just ten years, then both sons died. By now Naomi was done with Moab and heard it through the grapevine that God was feeding her people back home in Bethlehem. She packed up her daughters-in-law and headed down the road but told Orpah and Ruth to go home to their families. Much weeping ensued (I mean, we are talking about three widowed women here) and, ultimately, Orpah left but Ruth refused.
And here’s where it gets really beautiful – get a hanky ready:
“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The Lord do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.” Ruth 1:16-17
Ruth was not afraid of commitment and was buying into whatever fate awaited Naomi back home. And that fate was quite good – the whole town of Bethlehem was happy to see Naomi after all these years. Plus, the barley harvest was starting, which meant plenty of good eats.
Now we all know someone who is always trying to fix someone up with someone else – a matchmaker. It may even be you, engineering circumstances to try get a couple together who, without your well-meaning interference, would have never met. So, just like Tamar and Rahab before, the stars aligned, fate intervened, or downright clever conniving took place (you choose). Or maybe God does work in mysterious ways.
Naomi noticed a relative, who happened to be well-off, was harvesting his fields. So she sent Ruth out to glean after the harvesters. This was allowed for those in need – you just followed behind the workers and picked up what they left or missed. Ruth got to it.
And Boaz noticed.
Boaz asked around to find out her story, found out about how she had stuck with Naomi, and then approached her with a great offer: don’t go to any other field, stay here, feel free to drink from the water supplies, none of my guys will bother you. That was a good deal for an unmarried woman in that time, so she humbly agreed.
Boaz, being the smooth operator that he was, invited her over to lunch to enjoy bread and vinegar. And then he really upped his game when he told his crew to purposefully leave extra grain behind for Ruth to glean. Ruth ended up with a huge load of grain and took it home to Naomi.
So Naomi upped her game.
She knew Boaz was more than interested in Ruth, so she devised a plan for our girl to clean herself up, get dressed in her best clothes, spray a little perfume on (Naomi was pulling out the stops) and head over to the threshing room. Ruth was instructed to hang back in the shadows, waiting for Boaz to finish work, eat, have a few drinks, and lay down for the night. Subtlety not being her strong suit, Naomi told Ruth to wait until he was sacked out, uncover his feet, and curl up.
Imagine his surprise when he woke up!
Ruth, um, offered herself to him (actually she said, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”). In the custom of the time it was not wrong at all, as Boaz was a close relative and could redeem her from her widowed circumstance. But ol’ Bo was a man of high character, and he knew there was another man in town who was legally closer, so he would need to resolve that first. He invited her to stay until morning until he could solve the problem, and then sent her home with a full load of barley. Interestingly, she left before others could see her leaving Boaz in last night’s clothes, I guess just to keep the rumor mill down.
To make a long story short (although the four chapters of Ruth make a compelling read, so you should read them), Boaz went to the town square, used a bit of strategery of his own, and managed to edge out the competing, but unwitting, suitor. Boaz redeemed – paid for – the land of the dead male heirs, which means he won the grand prize, which was Ruth. And the story closes with a soft-focus love scene, worthy of a Christmas Hallmark movie:
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Ruth 4:13-15
You have patiently waited for the punchline and can rightfully ask: “What does this have to with a holly jolly Christmas?”
So far in our story of the four women in Matthew’s genealogy, the first three – Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth – were not Israelites. They all were from other tribes, all had complicated pasts, all had followed other gods. And yet, all are heralded as an important part of the story of the coming of Messiah.
Just as Boaz redeemed Ruth through a complicated legal maneuver, Christmas is about a complex chain of events, spanning many generations, whereby I am redeemed – you are redeemed – even though we are not of Hebrew lineage. We are not God’s promised people – we are strangers and foreigners. Yet Christ came for us, all of us. You, me, that guy over there, and that lady you can’t stand at work.
Let me correct myself. We were not God’s people, we were strangers and foreigners. If, that is, on our journey to Christmas, we follow Ruth’s lead:
“Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.”
It’s not happenstance that this story takes place in Bethlehem. That city is mentioned forty-four times in the Old Testament, including this familiar prophecy:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.” Micah 5:2
So a redeemed Ruth ended up with a good life and had a son after all, Obed, and he had a son named Jesse, and he had a son named David.
Which is exactly where our Christmas story takes us next.