Three Models of Stewardship from the Book of Ruth: Boaz, the Farmer of Worth (Session 2 of 3)
- Author: Dr. Diane Jacobson is Professor of Old Testament and Associate Dean of the MA/MSM programs at Luther Seminary. Click here for more info.
- Updated: 07/26/2006
Each of us is called to establish a pattern in our lives, enabling us to steward our living fruitfully and joyfully in ways that God would have us live. This calling is not a call to drudgery and sacrifice, but rather is a call to live a life that frees us to enjoy to the fullest the abundance of God's good gifts. Such a life not only tends to the needs of the other but rewards us abundantly as well. Our driving question in this Bible study is this: What does stewardship look like in the life of an individual? The biblical book that will aid us on this quest is the book of Ruth.
Three Models of Stewardship from the Book of Ruth: Boaz, the Farmer of Worth (Session 2 of 3)
The leader's guide includes the following:
- A "gathering time" section, which includes opening questions to get the ball rolling
- Sections of background material on the book of Ruth to share with the group
- An introduction to the main character of the book of Ruth being studied
- Interpretive comments on the particular passages to share with the group
- Various questions, with hints on the direction the discussion might fruitfully take
- A "closing time" section, which reflects on the lesson and suggests a larger question for the group to consider.
A PowerPoint presentation of pictures, texts and questions to go along with the study can be found at Ruth presentation
NOTE: It would be helpful if each participant could read the four chapters of the book of Ruth before participating in this study. Ask everyone to bring a Bible. The text quoted will be the NRSV, but folks may compare their various translations.
Gathering Time and Opening Question
Call the group together with a hymn. Begin with a word of prayer.
Q: Thinking back on last session, what is one thing you remember about how Ruth helps us to understand how to live a life of stewardship?
In this session we will consider a second figure in the book of Ruth: Boaz, the Farmer of Worth.
Q: What is one question you bring to the character of Boaz?
Exploring the Character of Boaz
Begin by reading the first verse of Chapter 2:
"Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband's side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz." (Ruth 2:1)
Q: What do you know of Boaz from this one verse?
A: You might want to compare different translations of this verse to see how the different translations effect how you think of Boaz.
If you were reading this verse in Hebrew, you would notice a number of things. First, one notices that Boaz is related to Naomi, that he comes from the same family as her late husband, Elimelech
Q: How might you react to the wife of a now diseased distant cousin if she came back from living in an enemy country after ten years, having lost both husband and children?
Second, the man Boaz is, as the NRSV says, "a prominent rich man." The NIV has "a man of standing," while the Jewish translation, the Tanak, says "a man of substance." The Hebrew might be literally translated, "a man of value" or "a man of worth." The Hebrew word, hayil can designate military strength, wealth and/or strength of character.
Q: Does Boaz's value or worth really come from his wealth -- or is there more? What makes someone a person of "value" or "worth"?
Finally, one notices that the name, Boaz, itself means "strength." This pillar of the community shares a name with one of the literal pillars of the temple. The builder of the temple, Hiram of Tyre, named one of its pillars "Boaz" (see 1 Kings 7:21).
Q: How old do you think Boaz is?
A: Many folks think of Boaz as a fairly young man, but the Hebrew text helps us to know that he is closer to Naomi's age. We know they are both older because even though they never speak directly to each other in the book, they speak the same old fashioned form of Hebrew, a kind of "King James" Hebrew. They both address Ruth as "my daughter," and they both put old-fashioned extra syllables after their verbs.
Read through Chapter 2, noticing Boaz's actions.
Q: Which actions of Boaz mark him as a faithful steward?
A: Take some time with this, and let people share what they notice. Most of what follows will undoubtedly be observed by folks in the group.
1. We notice first how Boaz greets his workers, the seemingly insignificant exchange between Boaz and his reapers, when he first goes out to his field.
"Just as he came from Bethlehem, He said to the reapers, "The LORD be with you." They answered, "The LORD bless you." (Ruth 2:4)
Normally one barely notices this exchange. But when you look back through the book, one can notice how important blessings are throughout. I am reminded of a friend, a local pastor from the Twin Cites, who happens to be here among us, Jerry Hoffman.
The context is the universal daily encounter we all have with one another. Normally, I greet a friend or am greeted by them with a "Hi, so how are you?" Their response is usually "Fine" or "Not so good." I confess mine is often "Fine, but I am way too busy!" Whenever one offers this casual greeting to Jerry, he responds, "I am grateful, thank you!" I am always taken aback by the profound proclamation of his response. No matter how many times I run into him and ask him how he is, I am stunned, surprised and amused by his response.
So, in the book of Ruth, we learn first that Boaz, like Jerry, sees his life in the context of gratitude for God's blessings. We learn more through his treatment of the stranger Ruth, who is hanging around in his field.
2. We learn that Boaz follows the law of gleaning; that is, he freely participates in this welfare system by giving to others out of the abundance of his own wealth. (See the background material on gleaning from the first lesson.) Boaz knows that Ruth is both an alien resident and a widow and thus is owed by law the left-over grain in the field, thus caring for the widow and the stranger.
Q: What is your reaction to this ancient Israelite welfare system? How does it compare to our modern systems?
3. We next observe that Boaz offers Ruth protection. He says to Ruth, "Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn." (Ruth 2:8-9)
This act is more remarkable than it might appear. Boaz acknowledges what we spoke of in the last session -- that many would expect Ruth to make a living as a prostitute. Ruth needed protection from the young men more than most. Boaz treats her with a respect not often given to an unattached foreign widow.
4. Boaz judges Ruth more by the quality of her actions than by her nationality or "ethnic identity." That is, he doesn't make assumptions about her as a Moabite. Instead, he is impressed by her willingness to glean to support herself and Naomi. He says, "All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before." (Ruth 2:11)
5. He is able to hear good things about this foreigner and welcome her among his workers. We see an openness in Boaz to the outsider.
6. And then Boaz blesses Ruth as he had blessed his workers.
"May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!" (Ruth 2:12)
7. Finally, Boaz shares a meal with Ruth.
"At mealtime Boaz said to her, 'Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.' So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain." (Ruth 2:14)
Once again, grain adds symbolic weight to this encounter. We have here an exchange of bread and wine, something of a prototype of a communion meal.
Q: How might this exchange between Boaz and Ruth supplement our understanding of communion?
A: One notices that acts of giving, of generous and abundant sharing exemplify this meal. Such "stewardship" themes might well supplement our usual notions of communion. In that meal, God gives generously and abundantly of the divine bounty.
Q: In these actions, how does Boaz show himself to be a remarkable model of good stewardship of his wealth?
A: In his blessing, his sharing of both food and harvest and his protection of and openness to the stranger in his midst, Boaz shows himself to be a man of true value, a man of true worth.
In Chapter 3, the setting is the threshing floor. In the last session we explored the beginnings of this chapter and the beginnings of the relationship between Ruth and Boaz. As you recall, Ruth was dressed to the nines while Boaz was partying with the guys after a hard day's work. He had lain down on a heap of grain for a well needed rest when, at midnight, he was startled by a woman lying by his "feet." He said "Who are you?" You recall, Ruth answered: "I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin (go'el)." (Ruth 3:9)
Two items from this speech are worthy of note. First, the Hebrew word for "cloak" is the very same word translated "wing" in Boaz's speech in Ruth 2:12. God's anticipated "wing" of refuge becomes embodied in Boaz's cloak.
Secondly, Ruth declares that Boaz is "next-of-kin." This declaration bears some examination.
Background material: The meaning and responsibilities of "next-of-kin"
The Hebrew word translated in the NRSV as "next of kin" is go'el. The NIV translates this as "kinsman-redeemer" in this verse, while the Jewish Tanak translates it as "redeeming kinsman." Notably, this word, either in its form as a noun or as a verb, occurs 20 times in the Hebrew of the last two chapters of Ruth and once in Chapter 2, so understanding what it means is important.
The law prescribes several responsibilities for a person who is a go'el. This "next-of-kin" must make restitution if a relative sins against another (e.g., Numbers 5:8) or avenge a relative's death (e.g. Numbers 35:19-27, where go'el is often translated "avenger" or "avenger of blood.") Neither of these prescriptions plays any part in the Book of Ruth.
Leviticus 25 says that thego'el must buy a relative's property so that it might stay in the tribe. Another duty of the go'el is to keep the name of a dead relative alive by providing a child. This part of the levirate system is described in great detail in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, as we will see in the final session of this study. It is worth reading this text to gain a better understanding of the practice.
Often in the psalms and elsewhere, God is described as a go'el. In these cases the word is usually translated "redeemer," as in Job 19:25: "For I know that my Redeemer lives."
Boaz is first called a go'el by Naomi in Ruth 2:20. Next he is thus addressed by Ruth. Farther on, the verb corresponding to the noun go'el is translated "acting as next-of-kin" (3:12) or "redeeming" (4:4). In Ruth 3:9 Ruth declares that Boaz is her go'el, her next-of-kin, her redeemer.
Q: How would you expect Boaz to react to such a declaration?
A: On one level, such a suggestion is outrageous. Ruth is not actually related to Boaz at all -- she is a Moabite! He is related to Naomi, not to Ruth. But in order for Naomi's scheme to work, Boaz must see this foreign woman come to him at the threshing floor in the middle of the night not as a prostitute but as a relative. Blood, tribal and national ties must be dismissed.
So, in considering the character of Boaz, his response to Ruth's request is paramount. And Boaz responds in the most remarkable way:
"May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty (hesed -- often translated "steadfast love" or "loving kindness") is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. ... all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman (hayil)."(Ruth 3:10-11)
Boaz once again sees beyond appearances, accepting Ruth's new view of reality. He once again blesses Ruth, recognizing her worth and her loyalty to and love for her mother-in-law. Boaz then adds something mind-boggling. Her request is not seen merely as an invitation to fulfill a family obligation; it is seen itself as an act of love to Boaz personally. Ruth has chosen him, this older man, rather than some young buck. In acting as next-of-kin, as steward to Naomi's family -- including this young Moabite woman -- Boaz not only helps them but the steward finds happiness and fulfillment himself. Ruth is called a woman of value, a woman of worth, of hayil, much as he himself is a man of worth, of hayil (Ruth 2:1) The scene is set for the marriage of these two people, each defined by their acts of kindness, loyalty and value.
Q: How often is it true in our own lives that when we do the right and generous thing, we receive twice back what we give, and we ourselves become the recipients of love?
Boaz's story does not end on the threshing floor. After he seals his generous acceptance of Ruth with the gift of grain to Naomi, which we discussed in the last session, Boaz must overcome one final obstacle. As it happens, there is another go'el, another next-of-kin who is closer to Naomi's family than Boaz. That one, called only "what's his name" (in Hebrew, peloni almoni, has the right of first refusal. To deal with this man, Boaz must proceed to the city gate.
Q: Why does Boaz go the City Gate? What do you think about gates?
A: Gates can be barriers or doorways. They can shut folks out; they can shut folks in. But they also are doorways, opening the world up to all manner of possibilities. They are often places where decisive things happen.
Background material: The city gate
In scripture, the city gate often plays an important role. Here the sentry takes his stand, watching out for the city's welfare. Here prophets come to deliver God's messages. The city elders also gather at the city gate, both to watch the comings and goings of the town and to conduct the affairs of the city. In this instance, the city gate functions as the county courthouse. At the gate legal matters are settled.
Boaz comes to the gate to look for Naomi's nearest relative. There Boaz sets the bait and reels in his catch -- one of the most hysterical scenes in biblical narrative. It is all about the relative merits of property and commitment.
Boaz spies the man in question and calls him over: "Come over, friend; sit down here." (Ruth 4:1) The word translated "friend" (in Hebrew, peloni almoni) actually means "what's his name" or "so-and-so," as found in the Tanak. How interested it is that the man who passes by the opportunity to become part of David and Jesus' genealogy is not blessed with a name!
"So," says Boaz, "You know that widow Naomi who came back from Moab? It seems her dead husband, Elimelech, has this field that needs to be kept in the family. So you are go'el. Do you want to go'el it? "Oh sure," says peloni almoni. "Of course I'll help the widow," he says, rubbing his hand as the prospect of more property. "Oh," says Boaz, "I forgot to mention. When you go'el the field, you also go'el Ruth, the Moabitess." (It goes unsaid, but Boaz's implication is understood: You also take on the responsibility and apparent stigma of this foreign woman, and the property will revert to her kid, not to your pure bloods.") "Oh," says peloni almoni, "I almost forgot. I've got two kids going to college next year and couldn't possibly risk buying that field."
Who knew property negotiations could be such fun? Boaz offers this man his chance, fair and square, though he sets it up in such a way as to allow the man to trap himself in the twisting reeds of self-interest.
Q: What do you learn of Boaz' character in chapter 4?
Q: We learn Boaz is clever and determined. He faces obstacles with confidence and humor. His joy at having found Ruth to be his wife is undaunted. He insists that his version of reality -- that Ruth is part of the responsibility of the next-of-kin -- becomes the public version of reality. His acceptance of Ruth is not kept hidden. His own acceptance helps to transform the community's vision of family, loyalty and responsibility.
Boaz is the wealthy patriarch. We expect such a one to have something to teach us about stewardship. We expect him to teach us that we must share our wealth with others. This he does. But stewardship as seen in Boaz is much deeper.
How might we who live in this wealthiest of lands learn something from Boaz about how best to exercise our stewardship?
A joint project of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, 2481 Como Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108.
Other lessons in this series:
Introduction to the Book and to Ruth, the Moabite (Session 1 of 3)
Naomi to Mara and Back Again (Session 3 of 3)