Returning to Bethlehem
One of my favorite reads of the year occurs each time I cycle through the Bible into the book of Ruth. This book is laden with insights into the gospel narrative.
The story begins with an explanation of how the God of Abraham would bring an outsider, a Moabite woman, Ruth, into the lineage of our Lord. God is all about outsiders, in a day when religion is all about exclusivity and fear; again, the Good News.
It seems that a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi had been driven from Bethlehem of Judah, to the country of Moab, and that due to famine. There, both her husband and their two sons had died, leaving Naomi with only two daughters-in-law, both from that foreign county.
Naomi, in her grief and loneliness, decides to return to Bethlehem; up until this juncture in the story, she represents the typical pilgrim on life’s journey. Orpah, the other daughter-in-law, an example of God’s law of free will, decides to go back to her own; in reality, she appears to have made the best decision, given her age and Naomi’s lack of surviving offspring. Ruth, however takes a path “less traveled” with a statement often employed in the contemporary marriage ceremony: “Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16b).
I chose the word ‘laden” earlier, because one can hardly navigate through each verse without tell-tell signs of the God I have come to know. He is sovereign in His ability to work life’s tragedies to our good.
Ruth was now “all in,” though at her young age that statement could have meant a vow of celibacy and loneliness, if perhaps Naomi too passed. This commitment to the unknown and even to suffering is often the first step toward God’s providence. Yet, as one reads further, the mystery and reward of following this sovereign God seems always to make the risk worthwhile.
As the story unfolds, Naomi subtly takes on the persona of a devout companion for Ruth, paralleling the experience of the Christ follower by way of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit may also work in subtle ways, though often also powerfully, coming along side of the daring devotee, assuring provision for life’s journey.
I love the statement in verse 1:19 as they return to Bethlehem: “the whole town was stirred because of them.” This, my friend, should be the response of any community when they witness the awesome change and bountiful love that comes to play in the life of the believer.
Immediately, the hand of God becomes evident in the life of Ruth, this foreign follower of God. You see, they just happened to arrive in Bethlehem (the word means, House of Bread) “as the barley harvest was beginning.” In need of provision, she did what beggars (a mentality in the new believer that will eventually mature as humility) would typically do in her day, she became a gleaner. It also “just so happened,” that while they were away, a near-kinsman of her deceased father-in-law had become a person of standing in the community; and, “as it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz….” You gotta love the way this book is written.
It seems that Boaz arrives in the field simultaneous with Ruth’s first day on the job, and asks the foreman: “Whose young woman is that?” (NIV). She had caught the eye of the Omnipotent. Here I reference my last posting, The Man on the Mat: “I now have come to realize, that I was that treasure (in the field) and He found me! No, far from arrogance, my awareness (of favor) has nothing to do with me, but rather with the seducer God who is madly in love with me”
For Boaz, who now represents the God of the Gospel, it is love at first sight. He immediately sets out to secure his bride, negotiating through the legalistic customs of that day (religion) while Ruth is being prompted on her end by Naomi; again, a type of the Holy Spirit.
Boaz boldly enters the town gates of Bethlehem (I might rather envision saloon doors in cowboy days), with the intent of redeeming his love (the manger story should now come to one’s mind). He skillfully navigates through his opposition (the judges and Pharisees of Jesus’ day) with a discussion around a piece of property rightfully owned by Naomi (again the Holy Spirit), while informing those who by right could also purchase this property, that the girl is a part of the deal! He then provides the necessary price for the land and the lady, as required by the Law, and forever seals the deal…”he removed his sandal.” At Calvary, God removed His sandal for us, His Bride!
The writer of Ruth (4:11), then prophetically foretells the Messiah, “May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem.” There again is reinforced, the hope of all foreign, and of those of whose lives have been less successful than that of Joseph, the prince of Israel, for he aligns this Messiah not with the tribe of Joseph but with Perez, the son of Tamar (a Canaanite), from whom would come the Victor for all mankind, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.