Naomi & Ruth

Scripture: Ruth 1 & 3

 

Title: Naomi & Ruth

 

Structure:

  • Introduction – unlikely friendship
  • Ruth 1 – Naomi & Ruth’s hesed
  • Ruth 3 – Ruth & Boaz’ hesed
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

On the wall here we have a picture of a bird nestled on the belly of a cat

–         This is an unlikely pairing – normally we would expect cats to hunt and kill birds, not give refuge to them

 

Today we continue our sermon series on intergenerational relationships in the Bible

–         An intergenerational relationship is a relationship between two people from different generations, someone older and someone younger

–         We find a number of intergenerational relationships in the Bible

–         For example: Moses and Joshua, who we heard about two weeks ago

–         The aging priest Eli and the young prophet Samuel

–         King Saul and King David

–         As well as the apostle Paul and his protégé Timothy

 

Our focus this morning though is on the relationship between Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth

–         Naomi & Ruth’s friendship was as unlikely as that of a cat and a bird

–         They were years apart in age

–         They were from a different ethnic & cultural background – Naomi from Israel and Ruth from Moab

–         They had grown up with a different religion

–         Their nations had been at war (off and on) for many years

–         And, they were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, which is often (but not always) a relationship fraught with tension or at least distance

 

Despite all these differences though there was real warmth and commitment in their relationship

–         It wasn’t a mentoring relationship as such (like Moses & Joshua)

–         It was more of a mutually caring intergenerational friendship – with both of them looking out for one another’s interests

 

The name Ruth means ‘friend’ or ‘companion’

–         And the name Naomi means ‘sweetness’ or ‘pleasantness’

–         Although they are an unlikely pairing, Naomi and Ruth characterise the ideal inter-generational relationship – one of friendship & companioning, sweetness & pleasantness

 

We don’t have time to cover all four chapters of Ruth this morning

–         I will be focusing mainly on chapters 1 & 3

 

Ruth 1 – Naomi & Ruth’s Hesed:

The story is set during the time of the Judges in ancient Israel – which is after Joshua and before Saul & David

–         In many ways it was the worst of times – but it brought out the best in certain people

–         There was a famine in the land and Naomi’s husband and two sons were forced to leave Bethlehem to try and find food in Moab, the land of their enemies – they were essentially refugees – displaced people

 

While they were in Moab, Naomi’s husband died and her two sons married Moabite girls: Orpah and Ruth. Neither Orpah nor Ruth had any children

 

Ten years passed in Moab before Naomi’s two sons died also

–         There are no words to describe the profoundness of Naomi’s loss

 

When she hears that God has provided food for his people in Israel, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem with her two daughters-in-law

–         Not long into the journey home Naomi releases Orpah and Ruth from their obligation to her, saying:

 

“Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

 

There weren’t many options for single women in the Ancient Near East – it was a tough world

Although Naomi has suffered the worst kind of loss imaginable, and could well do with the comfort and support of Orpah & Ruth, she puts aside her own need and releases her daughters-in-law

–         Naomi knows she can’t provide for them herself and, having already been married, it will be hard enough for Ruth & Orpah to find another husband among their own people let alone among the men of Israel

–         Going back to Moab is Orpah & Ruth’s best bet, even though it means more loss for Naomi

 

That word ‘kindness’ is hesed in the original Hebrew

–         We don’t really have one single word in English for hesed

–         It is a Jewish term which is sometimes translated as kindness, sometimes as mercy and other times as steadfast love or loyal (covenant) love

–         Hesed isn’t just an abstract concept though – it is an action, something tangible that you do for someone else’s well-being

 

Both Orpah and Ruth had shown hesed to their late husbands, while they were alive, and to Naomi – now Naomi wants to return the favour

 

Katherine Sakenfeld, who did her PhD on this subject, outlines the three main criteria of hesed[1]

–         Firstly, the action is essential to the survival or the basic wellbeing of the recipient – so it’s not something you do to entertain a whim or a fancy

–         Secondly, the needed action is one that only the person doing the hesed is in a position to provide – given the circumstances no one else can do it

–         And thirdly, hesed takes place in the context of an existing relationship

 

Now an act of hesed can be a relatively small thing or it can be a really big thing

–         Let me give you some examples of hesed – one which is relatively simple and two which are more significant:

 

Imagine you are tucked up in bed one cold winter’s night, enjoying a nice sleep when your cell-phone goes off – you sit up and answer it

–         It’s someone you know from work – what could they want at 2 o’clock in the morning?

–         Well, they’ve been out on the town, it’s freezing cold, they’re wearing a cocktail dress and they’ve lost their jacket and their purse

–         It’s too far, too dangerous and too cold for them to walk home

–         And without money or a card they can’t pay for a taxi so they are asking you for a ride – no one else is returning their calls

–         It’s a bit of an inconvenience for you but you are a kind hearted person

–         What’s more you couldn’t live with yourself if you did nothing and some harm came to them

–         So you put on some clothes, get in your car, drive to where they are and take them home

 

That is an act of hesed – a simple act of kindness or mercy

–         Getting them to a warm & safe place is essential to their well-being

–         Under the circumstances there is no one else available to help them

–         And you have an existing relationship with them

 

Okay, that’s a relatively small act of hesed – now a more significant or demanding example…

 

Imagine a good friend of yours gets sick and they need a kidney transplant but no donor can be found

–         You care for your friend deeply and want to help them

–         So you go and get yourself checked out to see if you are a match and as providence would have it you are

–         You donate one of your kidney’s to your friend and they live

 

That is an act of hesed – but the meaning of hesed in that situation goes beyond simple kindness – it is really a sacrificial act of mercy & loyal love

–         The action of donating a kidney is essential to your friend’s basic survival

–         It is something that, under the circumstances, only you can do

–         And it’s done in the context of an existing relationship with your friend

 

Another example…

–         This time imagine a slightly different scenario with your good friend

–         Imagine they are sick but there is nothing the doctors can do for them

–         Your friend is going to die and, because your friend has no family members able to do it, she asks you to take care of her 2 year child

–         So you agree to adopt the child and raise her as your own

 

That is an act of hesed – an act which demonstrates both kindness & loyal love

–         Although you can’t save your friend’s life you are still doing something huge for their well-being (and the well-being of their child)

–         You are giving them peace of mind in their last days by providing security for their daughter

–         No one else is going to love that child like you will – without you the child would most likely end up lost in the system

–         And you are doing this in the context of an existing positive relationship with your friend

 

Returning to Ruth & Naomi: by releasing her daughters-in-law Naomi is performing an act of hesed for them

–         It meets all three criteria

–         Her action in releasing them from further obligation is for their wellbeing

–         It is an action that only Naomi can perform – no one else can do it

–         And Naomi has an existing positive relationship with Ruth & Orpah

 

Orpah takes a bit of convincing but in the end she accepts Naomi’s advice and returns to Moab

–         Ruth, on the other hand, insists on staying with Naomi saying:

 

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried…”

 

Ruth commits herself to Naomi, to Naomi’s people and to Naomi’s God

–         And this commitment isn’t just until Naomi dies – it is until Ruth dies

–         Ruth will be buried where Naomi is buried

–         If you think about it Ruth was essentially saying goodbye to her family and her homeland for good

 

This was huge – Ruth was making this commitment at great risk to herself

–         She didn’t know whether Naomi’s people would accept her or not

–         Abraham, that great father of the faith, stepped out into the unknown but only after God called him and made a promise to him

–         Ruth’s faith was even greater than Abraham’s

–         Ruth steps out into the unknown without any word from God and what’s more she does so without the wealth and backing that Abram had

 

The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians:

–         The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love

–         Ruth takes a massive leap of faith out of her love for Naomi

 

Ruth knows that her own chances of survival are better if she returns to Moab but she also knows that Naomi’s chances of survival are better if she (Ruth) goes to Israel and takes care of Naomi

–         By releasing Ruth from further obligation, Naomi had performed hesed for her daughter-in-law

–         Ruth responds by going above and beyond, doing an even greater act of hesed for Naomi

–         Ruth is performing an action essential to Naomi’s well-being & survival

–         No one else is available to take care of Naomi – her husband and sons are dead and Orpah has gone back to Moab

–         Furthermore Ruth is doing this hesed in the context of an existing positive relationship with Naomi

–         Ruth’s hesed ticks all the boxes

 

What we note here is that both Naomi’s & Ruth’s acts of hesed are done freely and out of genuine love and concern for one another’s well-being – not out of grudging duty or obligation

 

When Naomi returns to Bethlehem (her home town) she is greeted by the people there but she says to them:

–         “Don’t call me Naomi (which means sweetness), call me Mara (which means bitterness) because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty…”

 

Naomi has been emptied by her loss

–         She has nothing to show for her life and nothing to look forward to

–         She is alive physically but (inside) her sense of hope has died

 

One of the things that young people can give us is hope – a sense that life doesn’t end with us (that the future holds something good)

–         The young don’t usually realise they are doing this though

–         By the same token those of us who are older may also miss the hope the young have to offer

 

Ruth embodies hope, only Naomi can’t see it straight away – she is blinded by her grief

–         But nor does Ruth realise it – she is simply getting on with it, making sure they don’t starve

 

Ruth 3 – Ruth & Boaz’ Hesed:

Ruth goes out to glean in the fields – picking up the left-overs after the harvesters have been through – and in the process she meets Boaz, a wealthy and influential citizen of Bethlehem

–         As providence would have it Boaz is a good match for Ruth – by which I mean he is related to Naomi’s late husband, he is able to provide for Ruth and they seem to like each other

–         When Naomi hears of Boaz her hope (embodied by Ruth) is kindled

 

After some months have passed Naomi comes up with a plan to find some security for them both by getting Boaz to marry Ruth

–         Not only would this provide Ruth & Naomi with financial security and protection, it could also provide an heir for Ruth’s late husband

 

You see the Law of Moses provided for widows through something called levirate marriage [2]

–         ‘The levirate law provided that when a man died without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child by her to preserve the lineage of the man who had died.’ [3]

–         Keeping the family line going was a really big deal in ancient culture

 

Under normal circumstances Naomi might approach Boaz herself and ask if he would help them out by marrying Ruth (sort of like an arranged marriage), but these weren’t normal circumstances

–         Ruth was a Moabite – a foreigner

–         Furthermore, Boaz wasn’t Ruth’s brother-in-law, although he was a near relative of Naomi’s late husband

–         So the law of levirate marriage was not an exact fit in this situation

–         If Naomi approached Boaz he might easily say ‘no’

–         But if Ruth dolled herself up and got close to him at night, well he might find it more difficult to say ‘no’.

 

Naomi said to Ruth…

–         “Wash and perfume yourself and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down… go and uncover his feet and lie down too. He will tell you what to do.”

 

It was a risky plan

–         What if Ruth was seen by someone else, sneaking into bed with Boaz?

–         What if Boaz took advantage of Ruth? (Everyone would believe Boaz – no one would believe Ruth)

–         Or what if he thought she was a bit loose and rejected her?

–         Ruth was putting her reputation on the line in a culture where reputation was everything

–         But that’s one of the great things about young people – they are often more ready to take risks than those of us who are older and feel like we have something to lose

 

Ruth does what Naomi says – well, sort of

–         She gets under the blankets with Boaz while he is asleep

–         There is no hanky panky but when he wakes up in the middle of the night to find another person there he doesn’t tell her what to do

–         He is startled – it is dark and he can’t see, so he asks a question…

–         “Who are you?”  To which Ruth replies…

 

“I am your servant Ruth. Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer”

 

This is a poetic way of saying ‘marry me’

–         Ruth doesn’t wait for Boaz to tell her what to do – she tells Boaz what she wants

–         Some men might be put off by that sort of forthrightness but not Boaz

–         He responds positively to Ruth saying…

 

“The Lord bless you, my daughter. This kindness [this hesed] is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor…”

 

There’s that word, hesed, again

–         Ruth’s first act of hesed was to promise to go with Naomi wherever she might go – to be Naomi’s companion till the end of her days

–         Now Ruth’s second act of hesed is to marry within the family

 

In thinking of the three criteria for hesed

–         Ruth is doing something essential for the well-being of others – seeking an heir for her late husband and a grandson for Naomi

–         This is something no one else can do – Naomi has no other children

–         And it is done in the context of existing relationships

 

If Ruth had gone after a younger man who wasn’t related to Naomi, then Ruth’s first born would not be considered Naomi’s grandchild, nor would he carry on her late husband’s name (and as I’ve already mentioned, carrying on the family line was massive in ancient Hebrew culture)

 

Boaz is impressed by Ruth’s noble character – he loves her hesed

–         And, after a little plot twist, he reciprocates the hesed by redeeming Naomi’s land and marrying Ruth. Ruth gave birth to a son, Obed.

–         Obed became the father of Jesse and Jesse the father of king David

–         This really is an intergenerational story where people of all ages are valued and cared for – each with a vital role to play

 

Conclusion:

Ruth & Naomi provide an ideal to inspire our own intergenerational relationships

–         I’m not saying we all need to make the same level of commitment as Ruth did with Naomi – but we do well to look for opportunities to demonstrate hesed where it is in our power to do so

 

In Micah 6, verse 8 – the passage of Scripture we looked at last week – the prophet says:

–         And what does the Lord require of you? To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

–         The original Hebrew word, translated there as ‘mercy’, is actually hesed

–         So the Lord God Almighty requires us to love hesed

–         That is to enjoy performing acts of hesed, when it is in our power to do so, and to value or cherish the acts of hesed we witness or receive

–         Together Ruth, Naomi and Boaz show us what it means to ‘love hesed’

 

Some times our acts of hesed will be relatively small, like picking someone up in town in the middle of the night

–         Other times we may be asked to consider a far bigger act of hesed – one which can only be done once and can’t be repeated

–         If you donate a kidney to your friend you can’t donate one to anyone else

–         Likewise, Ruth’s hesed for Naomi prevented her from taking care of her own parents (presumably there were others in Ruth’s family who could do that)

 

My intention here is not to load you up with some impossible burden

–         It is not always in our power to do hesed – no matter how much we may want to

–         If you are not a match then you can’t donate your kidney to save your friend

–         What you can do though is walk with your friend through the process – be their companion so they don’t have to go through it alone

 

Who can you do hesed for – whether younger or older?

–         Who can you companion – through good times and bad?

 

[Jesus performed acts of hesed (kindness, mercy & loyal love) throughout his ministry as he healed the sick and forgave the guilty and delivered people from evil. His ultimate act of hesed though we remember now in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. Through his death on the cross Jesus did something for us that no one else could do – he reconciled us to God…]

 

https://soundcloud.com/tawabaptist/2-july-2017-naomi-ruth

[1] Katherine Doob-Sakenfeld, Ruth, page 24

[2] Deuteronomy 25:5-10

[3] Katherine Sakenfeld, ‘Just Wives’, page 36.

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