Pursuing Partnership: Men & Women in Ministry
The Blessed Alliance – Week 8
Dividing Wall Demolition – Ruth, Naomi, Boaz
By Carolyn Custis James
The myriad of painful and divisive realities in current times makes the notion of a Blessed Alliance among God’s image bearers seem preposterous. And yet, it does happen. Even under the most unlikely circumstances and against impossible odds.
The Old Testament book of Ruth is a stunning example of the Blessed Alliance. The story brings together an explosive combination of individuals—two impoverished, vulnerable widows, Naomi and Ruth, and a powerful Israelite man, Boaz. Disparities between Ruth and Boaz represent the kinds of combinations that form dividing walls and destroy human lives throughout history.
- Male and female
- Old and young
- Rich and poor
- Powerful and powerless
- Native born Israelite and Jordanian immigrant
- Jew and Gentile
- Valued and marginalized
- Nitro and glycerin
The Blessed Alliance forged in the book of Ruth will demolish all these dividing walls.
Famine in Bethlehem compels Naomi’s husband Elimelech to migrate for food to Moab (today’s Jordan) with his wife and two sons. Ruth’s entrée into the story occurs when she’s married off to a famine refugee—Naomi’s eldest son.
Instead of escaping suffering, the flight to Moab intensifies it. First, Elimelech dies, stranding Naomi in Moab as a widow. It’s all downhill from there. Naomi’s sons marry pagan girls, and both girls endure ten years of infertility followed by the deaths of both Naomi’s sons. Naomi plumets to ground zero.
Scholars rightly label Naomi “a female Job.” Job questions God’s justice; Naomi questions his love—his hesed.However, unlike Job, Naomi won’t get a second chance. She is post-menopausal.
News that the Bethlehem famine is over prompts Naomi to return home—not to start over, but to run out the clock and die. Patriarchal marriage legally binds both Naomi’s widowed daughters-in-law to her. In an act of mercy, en route to Bethlehem Naomi emancipates both girls and instructs them to return home. Bethlehem promises only poverty, hunger, and vulnerability. Unexpectedly, and to Naomi’s exasperation, Ruth digs in her heels and refuses to turn back. Instead, she embraces Naomi, Naomi’s people, and her God.
It is a watershed moment for Ruth. The girl who arrives in Bethlehem is not the same girl who left Moab. Ruth’s center of gravity has changed forever. She has reconnected with her Creator and found shelter under Yahweh’s wing. She vows to care for Naomi to the grave. This vow emboldens Ruth to make radical initiatives on Naomi’s behalf to a very powerful man.
Ruth’s encounters with Boaz are not romantic. They center on three Mosaic Laws, and Ruth raises all three on Naomi’s behalf. The Gleaning Law permits the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners to scavenge leftover scraps of grain after harvesters clear the field. The Levirate Law applies when a man dies without a male heir and requires the blood brother to marry his brother’s widow. The son produced from that union takes the dead man’s place on the family tree, including his inheritance. The Kinsman Redeemer Law applies when a relative falls on hard times and is forced to sell his land. This law requires the nearest relative to purchase that land, which reverts to the original owner or his male heir in the year of Jubilee.
Boaz enters the story as a man hayil (2:1)—a military Hebrew word that signals power, valor, and stature. Both Boaz and Naomi refer to Ruth as “my daughter,” which suggests he is of Naomi’s generation. He is also in perfect compliance with the letter of all three laws Ruth raises. He allows gleaners in his field and he is neither Elimelech’s blood brother nor his nearest male relative. Conversations with Ruth point beyond the letter to the spirit of the law, and Boaz learns from this novice to the faith that there are infinite ways of living before the face of God. He exerts his male power and privilege to ensure Ruth’s initiatives on Naomi’s behalf succeed.
The Blessed Alliance appears at the threshing floor. It is a gospel convergence where three image bearers take risks and make huge sacrifices for the good of another. This is hesed in action, and it foreshadows Jesus gospel long before Jesus shows us the way.
Naomi emerges from her grief to focus on Ruth, who likely will outlive her. She gives Ruth detailed instructions to ensure her safety. The older widow hope’s that the kindness Boaz has shown to Ruth throughout the harvest season will move him to show Ruth mercy now.
When Boaz awakens in the darkness and discovers a woman at his feet, Ruth confronts him with the Levirate and Kinsman Redeemer Laws. In essence, barren Ruth is volunteering to produce a son to replace her dead husband and restore Naomi and Elimelech’s family.
Boaz is dumbfounded and honors her as a woman hayil for outdoing her earlier acts of hesed for Naomi. Although he is not a blood brother or the nearest relative, he vows to fulfill her request if the nearest relative refuses.
The Blessed Alliance is a call to sacrifice—to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz center on God’s good purposes when they put the interests of others ahead of themselves. Naomi plan to secure Ruth’s future is a monumental sacrifice. Ruth is all she has. Ruth, however, is not about to start thinking of herself. Still fighting for Naomi, she offers herself to rescue the family. After ten years of humiliating barrenness—she is putting herself at public risk to rescue Naomi’s family. In a sacrificial act of faith, barren Ruth volunteers to produce a son for Naomi. And by purchasing Naomi’s land and fathering a son to inherit that land, Boaz depletes his own estate.
The Blessed Alliance asks much more of us that being nice or making space at the table for others. It reflects Jesus’ gospel and God’s self-giving love—his hesed. The Blessed Alliance of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz rescues a dying family and, beyond their knowing, God works through their sacrificial actions to advance his purposes for the world. Obed, the son born becomes the grandfather of King David and ultimately leads to Jesus.
For further reading:
- The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
- Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth.
 [Hesed] is the way God intended for human beings to live together from the beginning—the “love-your-neighbor-as-yourself” brand of living, an active, selfless, sacrificial caring for one another that goes against the grain of our fallen natures.