After her husband and both her sons die, Naomi returns from the country of Moab to her hometown of Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth, hoping to find her a new husband.
“Listen to me, Naomi!” As she spoke, Ruth took hold of her mother-in-law's hands and looked straight into her eyes. “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if anything but death separates me from you.”
As she heard those words, tears began to flood down Naomi's cheeks. She thought she had lost everything. Her family had been driven from their home in Bethlehem by a famine. In search of food, Naomi and her husband had travelled to the country of Moab with their two sons – God's people were forbidden from having anything to do with the Moabites, but they were desperate. Then Naomi's husband had died and her sons had married Moabite women. Now, ten years later, Naomi's sons were gone too and she had told their wives to return to their own families. One had left, but one had stayed and what she had just said changed everything.
“Oh my child,” Naomi whispered, “When your husband died I thought I had lost a son and a daughter, but you have put your faith in the LORD and become one of the Children of Israel.”
That very day Naomi left Moab forever and returned to Bethlehem with Ruth by her side. As they entered the town the news that Naomi had come home spread quickly and people came out into the streets to see her. “Is it really her?” they asked each other, “Is it really Naomi? And who's that woman with her? What does she think she's doing bringing a Moabite here?” But when they heard Naomi's sad story and that Ruth believed in the God of Israel they welcomed them both.
Now Ruth and Naomi had no food to eat but the barley harvest was just beginning and God had given the people of Israel a law which said that when a crop was harvested any that fell on the ground must be left behind for the poor to collect for themselves. So Ruth went out into the fields, followed the men harvesting the barley and began to pick up the leftover grain. It was hard work, bending over to scrape up a few specks at a time from the dust, trying to keep it all gathered together in the folds of her apron without spilling any and all the time the spring sun beating down on her. Every now and then Ruth would stand up straight and stretch her back to ease the pain. It was at one of those moments when she saw a man at the edge of the field she was working in. He was talking to the foreman who was in charge of the harvesters, they were both looking in her direction and the man was pointing at her. Then he began to walk towards her and even though it was hot, a shiver ran down Ruth's spine, but as the man came close he waved a hand at her in greeting and his face broke into a smile.
“Hello there,” he began, “Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Boaz and this is my field. Please, feel free to stay here and work alongside my servant girls until the end of the harvest. I've told the men not to bother you and to let you take a drink from their water jars whenever you want one.”
“Thank you”, replied Ruth, bowing her head, “but why are you being so kind to me?”
“I hear you're the young woman who has shown Naomi such devotion,” he explained, “leaving your family and your homeland to stay with her. May the LORD, the God of Israel, reward you richly for what you have done. Now come and join the rest of us for lunch.”
When the meal was over Ruth went back to work. The men harvesting the barley seemed to be leaving behind more for her to collect than they had that morning, sometimes whole stalks, and she began to suspect that Boaz had something to do with it. The work went on until the sun began to set and then Ruth carefully separated the grains of barley from their husks.
“Naomi, come and see!” Ruth cried out as she arrived home. When Naomi saw how much barley Ruth had gathered, enough to feed them for several days, she was astonished. “Where did you work today?” she asked. Then Ruth told her all about her meeting with Boaz and what he had done for her. “Of course,” said Naomi, nodding, “God bless him! He is related to my husband. Do as he says, go back to his fields tomorrow and every day until the harvest is finished.” So that's just what Ruth did.
Every day Boaz would visit his fields to see how the harvest was going, every day he invited Ruth to join him and his workers for lunch and every day as they ate he sat and talked with Ruth.
On the last day of the harvest Naomi told Ruth, “It's time you got married again and as your mother-in-law it's my responsibility to find you a husband. But I think you've already found him.”
“It's true,” Ruth agreed, “I would be glad to marry Boaz, but I don't know if he wants to marry me and even if he does, he won't ask me in front of all his workers and we can't be alone together because people would think we were up to no good.”
Naomi thought for a few moments. “There is a way to sort this out,” she said, “But you must do exactly as I tell you.”
“I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered.
The workers spent most of that day taking everything that had been harvested from the barn to the threshing floor, the place where the grain would be separated from the husks. That job would begin tomorrow, but tonight a great feast would take place at the threshing floor to celebrate the end of the harvest, then Boaz and his men would sleep there to protect the crop from thieves.
Boaz didn't see Ruth, dressed in her best clothes, hiding in the shadows as he and his men ate and drank. He had no idea she was there when he lay down behind one of the piles of grain that ran all around the edge of the threshing floor, pulled his cloak over himself and went to sleep. He still thought he was alone when something woke him up in the middle of the night. It was only when he turned over to make himself comfortable and realised that his feet were cold because somehow they had become uncovered that he finally saw her, lying there by his feet. But in the darkness, he couldn't see who it was.
“Who are you?” he asked. “It's me, Ruth,” she replied. “Please, put the corner of your cloak over me. You're a relative of my father-in-law, we're family.”
Such a simple request, but Boaz knew that it meant so much more. You see in Israel people didn't wear fancy hats or badges on their shoulders or arms to show their authority, for them it was all about the edge of your clothes, the hem of your robe or cloak. Boaz understood what Ruth was saying – put me under your authority, ask me to marry you, we're already family, now make me your wife.
“I will,” he told her, “But I am not the only family you have in Bethlehem, there is another man more closely related to you than I am. If it's my responsibility to marry you because we're related, then he has an even greater responsibility. I must ask him first if he wants to marry you, if he does not then I surely will. Stay here until morning, it's not safe for you to go home in the dark. Now hold out your shawl.”
Ruth did as he asked and Boaz filled her shawl with six cups of barley to give to Naomi. Then he went back into town.
At first light, Ruth hurried home before anyone saw her. She told Naomi what had happened and showed her the barley that Boaz had given her. “Now you must wait,” Naomi told her, “but not for long, you can be sure he will settle this today.”
And she was right. Boaz waited at the town gate until this other relative came along and in front of ten witnesses he told him the whole story. When he'd finished the man shook his head and said, “I can't afford to marry her, I cannot do it.”
So with nothing to stop them, and to the great joy of everyone in Bethlehem, Ruth and Boaz were married. Soon they had their first child, a boy, and they called him Obed. Naomi laid the baby in her lap and smiled down at him. Now she had a new family who would care for her as much as she cared for them. “The LORD has blessed me,” she said. How true that was! That little boy grew up and had a son called Jesse and when he grew up he had a son called David, who became a great king, and from their family, many, many years later, came yet another king and his name was Jesus.