Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?
Through the weeks of barley harvest, Ruth gleaned regularly in the fields of Boaz. In doing this, she honored the request of Boaz and the instructions of her mother-in-law; but she also followed the inclinations of her own heart. She saw in Boaz an ideal man of Israel, and she enjoyed nothing more than being where she could observe him in his work. He, in turn, enjoyed having her there and showed it in every way that he could. The two were deeply in love with each other.
Nevertheless, their relationship had come to an impasse. Neither dared to approach the other any closer than the relationship of land-owner and gleaner allowed. Each labored by the day, preoccupied with this secret admiration of heart, without daring to express it until the harvest was over and the fields were left bare without any more barley to harvest, without any more grain to glean.
In part, this impasse was psychological and natural. Each saw the other in such idealistic terms that he could not imagine that their feelings could be mutual. Boaz saw Ruth in the light of her kindness and complete dedication to her mother-in-law, a perfect example of a God-fearing young woman, such as was hardly to be found in his day. He could not imagine that she should be genuinely interested in him. He was somewhat older than she, and in his mind the difference in years became exaggerated to form an impossible barrier. Besides, when Ruth appeared, she always still wore her widow’s weeds; and he took it to mean that she still felt loyalty and love only for the deceased. On the other hand, Ruth’s feelings toward Boaz were much the same. He after all was extremely rich while she was very poor. Boaz was a man of noble family in Israel and of immaculate reputation before the law, while she was only a Moabitess. How could he be interested in her?
Besides this, however, there was an even greater legal barrier that stood between Boaz and Ruth. It was the law of kinsman responsibility found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10: “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother. Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her; then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his feet, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe, loosed.”
In order to appreciate this law, we must understand the importance which the true child of Israel placed in maintaining his name in the nation of Israel. Israel was a nation whose viewpoint was always directed toward the future. This was because God had promised that from this nation His kingdom and His promised salvation was to be realized. Although it was often evident that the individual Israelite could not expect himself to live until the realization of the kingdom, he did find in his children a means by which his name and his place in Israel could be maintained unto the day when the promises of God would be fully realized. It was a typical means by which the believing Israelite saw his own life implanted into the life and kingdom of the coming Messiah.
It was for this reason that the children of Israel considered it to be such a serious thing if a man should die without children. It meant that his name and place in Israel was cut off from the promised glory of Israel. Naomi felt this very strongly when her husband and sons died without seed in Moab. It was as though the reproach of God had fallen upon them for their sin, and she grieved because of it. But the law of God made one provision even for such. It allowed that, if the brother or closest living relative of the man who died would marry his widow, their firstborn child would be counted as the rightful heir to bear the name and the place in Israel of the deceased. In fact, this was counted to be the duty and responsibility of the nearest eligible relative which could be refused only to his public shame.
It was this, more than anything else, that prevented Boaz from approaching Ruth with a proposal for marriage. From the time that he had first met Ruth, he was mindful of the fact that he was a relative of Elimelech and his son and that possibly the responsibility of a kinsman would fall upon him. Not only because of the attraction which Ruth held for him, but also because of his serious respect for the law of God, he had proceeded immediately to investigate if it were so. He found, however, that it was not. He found that there was yet a closer relative to Elimelech, still single and eligible to become the husband of Ruth. This made it impossible for him to present a proposal of marriage to Ruth. If he would and she would accept his proposal, it would mean that their first child could not be counted the rightful heir of Elimelech and Chilion because he was not their closest eligible relative. To ignore this would only mean that they would be denying the family of Elimelech its rightful place within the nation. The only thing that could change that was if this nearer kinsman would refuse to marry Ruth according to the law; but it would be presumptuous for Boaz to encourage this. It was Ruth that would have to take the initiative to do that. As long as she did not, Boaz could only assume that as yet she was not interested in marriage.
Meanwhile, it appears that Naomi and Ruth were quite unaware of the existence or at least of the eligibility of this closer relative. Perhaps, upon her return from Moab, Naomi had merely assumed that he was already married and therefore unable to marry Ruth even if he might have been willing. She merely assumed that Boaz was the only one capable of fulfilling the responsibility of a kinsman to her family. When, providentially, Ruth had been brought to the field of Boaz and a relationship of friendliness had developed between them, she fully expected that very soon Boaz would move to fulfill this duty and responsibility. Day after day as Ruth returned from her gleaning, she waited in anticipation of the proposal she felt sure would come; but it did not come. There were many signs of Boaz’ kindness and consideration for Ruth; but never the real thing for which she looked. At last the work of harvest was over. No longer would there be any occasion for Ruth to visit the fields of Boaz. Naomi found herself disappointed and perplexed that Boaz had made no move to fulfill his obligations under the law, especially because it was apparent that he thought most highly of Ruth.
It was then that Naomi determined to press the matter further with their own initiative. To Naomi this was a matter of vital importance. Not only was she concerned about the welfare of Ruth, although that also was surely included, but she was moved by the love-which lived in her for her departed husband and children. She was determined to do all that she could to see that their place within the covenant nation should be maintained. It is hard for us to appreciate the importance which the saints of the Old Testament attached, to these external, typical relationships; but to them they were of the greatest importance, inseparable from their spiritual relationship to God and His grace.
Thus it was that she called Ruth to her and said, “My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee? And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshing floor. Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.”
There are several things which we should note about this instruction of Naomi to Ruth.
In the first place, we should note her opening phrase, “My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?” By seeking “rest” for Ruth, Naomi meant much more than merely seeking a husband for her that she might not need to live out her days as a single woman. What Naomi had in mind was that she should seek for Ruth a place and a family within the nation of Israel, a place where she would no longer be looked upon as a Moabitess but as a full-fledged member of this covenant nation and, people. It was the rest of belonging to and taking part in the life of covenant communion between Israel and its God.
In the second place, it must not be thought that Naomi was encouraging Ruth to be improperly aggressive in her relationship with Boaz. Rather it was quite the opposite. The law specified that the widow of a deceased and childless man was free to press her claim for marriage to his kinsman publicly before the elders of the people. This Naomi hesitated to have Ruth do. It was out of consideration for Boaz. To press such a public demand would be tantamount to accusing him publicly of neglecting his obligations under the law of God. This she did not want to do to Boaz. Her regard and respect for him was much too great for that. She did not feel free to subject him to an open shame. Although she could not understand why as yet Boaz had not moved to do what they expected of him, she felt sure that if he were reminded of his obligation under the law, he would not hesitate to fulfill it. The course of action which she outlined to Ruth was designed to remind him privately and in as gentle terms as possible how that they felt dependent upon him to preserve for them a place within the nation and the future of Israel.
In her usual gentle and unquestioning way, Ruth replied to her mother-in-law, “All that thou sayest unto me I will do.” She was new in her faith and young in her knowledge of the law; but she held explicit confidence in the instructions of Naomi. She would do whatever the law required of her as different and strange as it might be. It was her joy to walk in the way of the law.