Unusual Marriage Proposal
Scripture: Ruth 3:1–4:22
Synopsis: It is the story of a very Unusual Marriage Proposal. It took place in the dark at midnight, on the edge of threshing floor near Bethlehem. Who asked whom? What was the answer? What were the implications for Ruth? For Naomi? What was God doing? And why is the Book of Ruth in the Bible? Find out in this message from Ruth 3 and 4.
My sermon this morning is entitled, “An Unusual Marriage Proposal.” Maybe some of you, like me, received this attachment in your e-mail this week. (Show slide of Brent and Molly and his “sky diving” proposal.) This is our own Brent and Molly. And Brent assured us, she said yes!
Ruth chapter 3 contains the story of another unusual marriage proposal. We read it in the Scripture reading a few minutes ago. This unusual story is embedded in the culture and laws of the Old Testament, so we need some background to understand what is going on. Ruth is a love story, but it is one that may sound rather strange to our ears.
The first thing we need to understand is the cultural concept of marriage. In the West over the last few generations, we have elevated romantic love as the one and only reason and purpose for marriage. When romantic love leaves, we end the marriage, saying, “We don’t love each anymore, so there is no reason to stay married.”
In much of the world, and in the culture and world in which Ruth lived, marriage has many dimensions. It is an economic institution. It is an institution for preserving family continuity and the family name. A marriage is an important contract between two extended families. Marriage provides a secure environment for the care and nurturing of children. All of these are major factors in marriage. I am not belittling the importance or value of romantic love. But I believe we err when we overemphasize it to the exclusion of the other dimensions of marriage. This is why the concept of an arranged marriage sounds so preposterous to Western years, and yet it is a system that has worked remarkably well for many cultures – as many of you can attest. It is also why the story in Ruth 3 may sound strange to some of us. It doesn’t quite fit our concept of romantic love and courtship.
The next bit of background we need has to do with a word that is used repeatedly in this chapter. It is the word “redeemer”. The New International Version translates it “kinsman redeemer.” The laws pertaining to the kinsman redeemer had two sides or functions.
The first had to do with land ownership, or property. In the Old Testament view, individuals did not own land. All the land ultimately belonged to God. This land was then allocated to tribes, then to clans and finally to families. There were laws regarding keeping the land in the family, or the clan or the tribe. One of the reasons behind these laws was to prevent a long term situation in which one person or clan became richer and richer by acquiring more and more land, while others became poorer and poorer as they were cut off from the land. One of the ways this balance was preserved was through the laws for redeeming the land. We see an example of this in Leviticus 25:25: If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold. Redeeming the land was the right of the nearest relative. He had the obligation to “buy it back” in order to keep the land in the family.
This is what is happening in the story of Ruth. Naomi had a field that belonged to her deceased husband, Elimelech. In her poverty, she is now being forced to sell it to survive. Who will buy it? Elimelech is dead. Both of Naomi’s sons had also died. Unless a redeemer came forward, the land could be lost to the family or clan.
The second function of the kinsman redeemer laws related, not to land, but to the preserving of the family name or genealogy. In Jewish culture, a son to carry on the family line was extremely important. For a man to die without leaving a son was deemed a great tragedy. So there was a provision in the law for this as well. This is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:
“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
So, the first son of this marriage was legally and genealogically the son of the husband who died and inherited his name and all his property rights in the nation. When there was no brother, this right then, apparently, passed on to the next nearest relative. However the obligation decreased when the relationship was less close.
With this cultural and legal background, we are now ready to make sense of the story. It takes place on a threshing floor. Threshing floors were usually outside the town, made of packed earth or stone. The sheaves of harvested grain were spread on the floor about a foot thick and animals were driven back and forth across the sheaves to knock the grain from the stalks. This mixture was then all thrown into the air to allow the wind to blow away the useless chaff and allow the heavier grain to fall back to the floor. It was hard work, but it was also a very festive time. Everyone worked together and the mood was one of celebration for the successful harvest. The harvesters would then sleep alongside the threshing floor and the grain to protect it from thieves and animals.
And so we rejoin the story. Naomi has done her homework. She knows that Boaz and his workers are in the midst of the barley threshing. She knows where they are working. So she sends Ruth with these unusual instructions: “Take a bath, anoint yourself with perfumed oil and go to the threshing floor after dark. Wait until they have finished eating and drinking, then watch where Boaz lies down to sleep. When he’s asleep, creep up quietly and lie down by his feet, under the covering of his cloak.”
Ruth does exactly as she’s told. She waits until Boaz had finished eating and drinking his wine. We are told that his “heart was merry.” He was feeling the mellow effects of the wine and the celebratory spirit of the occasion. Ruth watches carefully and gives him time to fall asleep before she comes softly, lifts the corner of his cloak or blanket and lies down crosswise at his feet. Can you imagine her feelings as she laid there: nervousness, excitement, fear, foolish, impatience. Meanwhile he slept. And slept.
We’re told it was midnight. The language of the original text here becomes quite descriptive, even amusing. He started up awake in a kind of trembling astonishment. The next verb literally says “he turned” or twisted himself. It describes the motion when we reach out to touch or grasp something. We can picture it happening in the darkness of the night, can’t we? When he did, “Behold! A woman! Lying at his feet!”
The natural next question in the dark was, “Who are you?” Now comes the romantic part. The proposal. “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
Some translations read “spread the corner of your garment over me.” But the word is actually “wings”. It is the same word used in Ruth 2:12, where Boaz describes Ruth as seeking refuge under the “wings” of the God of Israel. In either case, it is a metaphorical use – for it is clear, when Ruth describes him as “a redeemer” that she is proposing marriage under the laws of Israel.
This is clearly how Boaz receives it as well:
And he said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11 And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. 12 And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. 13 Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the Lord lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.”
And so the story plays itself out. In the morning, Boaz fills her cloak with grain and sends her away while it is still too dark for anyone to recognize her. As soon as it is light, Boaz wastes no time and goes immediately to the city gates where official business was transacted. It is an interesting account of how the transaction was carried out.
Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. 2 And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. 3 Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech. 4 So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.” 5 Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” 6 Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8 So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal. 9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. 10 Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”
It is the conclusion, the climax to the story. There are just a few, very satisfying details to be sketched in:
Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, 12 and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.” 13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.
It is a happy ending for Ruth. But let’s not forget Naomi. In many ways, I believe if we truly followed the author’s intent, this book should have been named “Naomi” rather than Ruth. Naomi is there in the opening verse and she is there at the conclusion. This is the story of God restoring her broken life. Listen to the conclusion.
14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. 17 And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.”
There it is. The final snapshot in this timeless story. The bitterness of chapter 1 has been erased as Naomi sits in the sun, holding little Obed on her lap. She is secure. Her husband’s name, lineage and property will be carried forward. Her shattered dreams and broken life have been mended. It’s not quite the way she’d imagined it. But it’s been restored none the less. In fact, her friends point out that it’s even better; “Your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons…”
As we draw the story to a close, I want to step back and ask the question: Why is the Book of Ruth in the Bible? It’s a good story. It’s a feel-good story with a happy ending. It is a story that is called in the classical sense, a comedy. A classic comedy is not a story that makes us laugh. It is a story in which the main character starts out happily, descends into conflict or loss, and then returns to happiness. It would make a good play on the stage. But why is it in the Bible?
I have been thinking about this week, and I’d like to share several answers to that question.
First, it is there to illustrate this simple Biblical truth: God loves to restore broken lives. This is the overall message of the story. I used it as the theme for the opening message, and I want to come back to it now. God loves to restore broken lives. For all of us, life gets broken at times. We suffer losses. There are few things in life more painful than the death of a dream. We lose our health. We lose a job and with it our self-esteem. Our children disappoint us. Our spouse is unfaithful. People we depended on let us down. People we love, die. There are countless ways that our lives get broken. Sometimes it’s our fault. Often it is not. But life is broken.
God loves to restore broken lives. Hear that message as you reread the story of Ruth and Naomi. Hold on to that as you think of Naomi cuddling little Obed: “Your daughter-in-law who loves you is more to you than seven sons.”
If your life is broken, first get up and return to your “Bethlehem”, your place of close fellowship with God. Place yourself back under the protective shade of his sheltering wings. Then watch and wait as God restores your broken life.
The second reason that this story is in the Bible is to illustrate that it is possible to be people of integrity and righteousness in a broken society. I believe this is an unspoken subtext of this entire little story. In the Scripture, it immediately follows the Book of Judges. The story takes place “in the days when the judges ruled…” It was a time period in which Israel was a broken society. We are told that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes. The final few chapters of the Book of Judges tell stories of rape and bodies being dismembered to call a nation to civil war, and women being forcibly taken for marriage. It’s ugly.
Yet in Naomi and Boaz and Ruth we see people living according to God’s laws, in righteousness and harmony. Even the way that Boaz greets his workers in chapter 2; And he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.” I think that was more than just a ritualistic greeting, but a genuine blessing of the Lord being exchanged between Boaz and the reapers. Boaz’s observing of the laws of gleaning and his initial generosity toward Ruth and Naomi. Even the meticulous care he takes in following the laws of Israel to be sure that his marriage to Ruth is completely honorable and legal – all of these speak of integrity and righteousness in a time of lawlessness and violence.
That is what God is calling us to do and be, even if we find ourselves in a lawless and faithless environment. We can still be a Boaz, a Ruth, a Naomi. Yes, we live in the kingdoms of this world, which are often violent and corrupt. But we are also citizens of a higher kingdom; the kingdom of God; a kingdom of righteousness and justice and love. That is where our values should come from. That is the kingdom that should set our moral compass.
The third reason this story is in the Bible is to demonstrate once again this timeless truth. God is sovereignly at work in history to provide a Savior and a salvation for his people.
It’s there in the final verses of chapter 4. Look at verse 17: They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. And we all know about David, don’t we? The sweet singer of Israel; the greatest king the nation ever had. But even more important than that – we know who David’s “son” or descendant is, don’t we? My mind takes me to the words of the blind man as he sat beside the road, crying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
In the story of Ruth – from the far land of Moab to the barley fields of Bethlehem - God was sovereignly at work, weaving together the threads of the lives of three very ordinary people to bring about a very extraordinary work to trace the human lineage of the Messiah, the Son of God, and bring salvation to his people. He’s still at work today, sovereignly weaving our lives together; yes, to mend our broken lives. But to do even more than that. To bring salvation to you and me and to others God wants to draw through us. How did you come to faith? Who told you the Gospel or brought you to church? How is it you found your way here today? Every one of us could tell a different story. But not one of us is here by accident. Yes, the Savior has come. But his story has not yet reached everyone. That is the ongoing, sovereign work of God. And you and I are part of that story, both as recipients of the gift of salvation and as its heralds as we share that message with others. There are no accidents in God’s providence. Just as Ruth “just happened” to glean in Boaz’s field, so you and I “just happen” to touch other lives for kingdom purposes. God is still and always sovereignly at work in history and in our lives to provide a Savior and a salvation. He invites us to join him in that work.
There is one final reason that I believe the story of Ruth is in the Bible. You’ll have to come back next week to find out what that is.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Describe some unusual marriage proposals you have witnessed/heard/read about.
- Read Ruth 3. Why does this marriage proposal seem unusual to us?
- Read Leviticus 25:23-28. What are the societal and family benefits in this law? How does it reveal God’s values of justice and righteousness?
- Read Deuteronomy 25:5-10. What do you think about this law? What values does it uphold? How do these values contrast with society’s values today?
- Pastor Cam says that if the author’s original intent were followed, this book should have been named “Naomi” rather than “Ruth.” Do you agree/disagree? Why?
- Pastor Cam concluded by suggesting 3 reasons why the Book of Ruth is in the Bible.God loves to restore broken livesIt is possible to be people of integrity and righteousness in a broken society.God is sovereignly at work in history to provide a Savior and a salvation for his people.Take time to discuss each of these points. How does the story of Ruth illustrate this truth? What are the applications to our lives?
- Can you suggest any other reasons why the Book of Ruth is in the Bible?