Moving: Ruth Finds Gainful Employment in Boaz’s Field (Ruth 2)

Ruth’s Initiative to Find Work (2.1-7)

Up through chapter one the narrative has primarily been focused on Naomi. Indeed, the transitional verses (1.22-2.1) are about Naomi’s return and serve as a transition in the setting with the introduction of a new character named Boaz.[1] Boaz is a relative of Naomi’s husband, of the clan of Elimelech. In 2.20 Boaz is called “a close relative” and three times throughout the book he is called a “kinsman-redeemer” (2.20; 3.9, 12). This latter term is “a technical legal term, related specifically to Israelite family law.”[2] Boaz, as the redeemer, was responsible for ensuring that the parcel of land in Bethlehem which Elimelech had sold during the famine would stay in the family and that the family name continued after the death of all the males with no male heir to carry on the name. This function was prescribed in the Law in Leviticus 25.25-30 and Deuteronomy 25.5-10.

Boaz is also a “worthy man.” He is a model Israelite, a man of wealth, and possibly a valiant warrior (see Judg 6.12, where Gideon is described using the same phrase). While the phrase is somewhat ambiguous, the intent seems to be to emphasize that Boaz is a noble man of character.

At 2.2 the narrative shifts focus onto Ruth. In fact, she initiates the conversation with her mother-in-law about going to work in the fields. Her aim is to “find favor” with a field owner. “Finding favor” is a theme of chapter 2 (v.2, 10, 13). Overwhelmingly the Hebrew term chen is translated as “favor” in the Hebrew Bible (53 out of 70 occurrences) though this word can also be translated “grace” (e.g. Est 2.17; Jer 31.2). A field owner showing Ruth grace would mean she would be allowed to “glean” the corners of his field. According to the Law, Ruth was dually qualified to glean the corners of fields as both a sojourner and a widow (Deut 24.19).

Given a brief affirmative answer by Naomi, Ruth makes her way to the fields. Will she find favor from some field owner? We do not wait long for the answer as she perchance ends up in the field of Boaz.[3] Enter our hero with whom Ruth will find grace. “Behold” marks his providential entrance. He happens to show up the same day and quite possibly the same time as Ruth happens upon his field. Boaz came out to the field from the town of Bethlehem. That is, the boss came to the work site. Boaz appears to be a benevolent employer; he invokes Yahweh’s presence upon them as they work. With such an employer, the workers respond in kind by invoking a blessing from Yahweh upon Boaz. Of course, Yahweh blessing Boaz will mean blessing for them also.

Boaz apparently knows who his workers are and the regulars who glean behind his workers because he notices a newcomer. He inquires as to her identity with the foreman. The question itself – “Whose young woman is this? – may be Boaz asking who’s daughter or wife Ruth is or which clan she belongs to. Or it may just be generally informational. The youth mentioned in this verse (“young man” and “young woman”) stands in distinction from Boaz who is apparently an older gentleman (cf. 3.10).

The young man gives no indication that he knows Ruth’s name. Rather, he states information the reader has been given previously: she is a Moabitess who returned with Naomi. He also relays a conversation he had with her when she came to the field; she came to glean. By the young man’s admission we find out that Ruth has worked much of the day, taking only a “short rest,” probably to get water and seek respite from the sun.[4]

Ruth and Boaz Meet (2.8-13)

Verses 8-13 records the first conversation between Ruth and Boaz. In verses 8-9, Boaz urges Ruth to stay in his field and that she will be one of his female workers. “Keep close” is the same word used in 1.14 when Ruth “clung” to Naomi and is used again in verses 21 and 23. He promises protection from the men who are instructed not to lay a finger on her. She is free to drink water drawn by the young men. Ruth has found grace in Boaz’s field. In response to Boaz’s kindness, Ruth prostrates herself before him as a sign of respect and gratitude. Seemingly astonished by Boaz’s grace, she asks why he has taken notice of a foreigner like her. Ruth’s reputation has preceded her (Bethlehem had been “stirred” by Naomi’s return in 1.19) and “all” of Ruth’s kindness and self-sacrifice has been “fully” told to Boaz. Therefore, Boaz invokes a blessing from Yahweh upon Ruth. He calls on “the God of Israel” to “repay” and give a “full reward” to Ruth. Because of her kindness to Naomi the Israelite, the God of Israel is indebted, as it were, to Ruth. Further, since Ruth has chosen solidarity with Yahweh, she has found protection and safety under His wings. The image was a common one used for Yahweh.[5]

Ruth, like the reader, wondered at Boaz’s grace. How will this repayment manifest? What form will Yahweh’s reward take? Time will tell. In the meantime, Boaz has “comforted” or relieved Ruth. She went out in the morning in search of grace and has found it before the day is out. Whatever mental strain this had put on Ruth has been removed by Boaz’s kindness and she can breathe a sigh of relief. In addition, Boaz has “spoken kindly” to Ruth. He is an Israelite and she is a Moabite. Yet Boaz has been willing to cross these racial barriers to show compassion to Ruth.

Mealtime (2.14-16)

“At the mealtime” signals that the morning shift is over. That Boaz eats with his workers is yet another testament to the kind of man he is. This particular meal is more than just refreshment before the afternoon shift begins. Boaz’s compassion continues into lunch as he invites Ruth to join in the meal. Ancient Near Eastern culture saw the table as an opportunity for hospitality and fellowship. Thus, Boaz is essentially communicating to his fellow Israelites that he is in fellowship with this foreign woman. Yet again, Boaz’s generosity knows no bounds.

Boaz is the only spokesperson in this particular scene (2.14-16). First, he invites Ruth to join the meal and ensures she has plenty to eat. Then, he gives instructions to his young men. His instructions to them are two-fold: let Ruth glean, even intentionally pulling from their sacks and leaving it behind for her, and do not be harsh with her by reproach or rebuke. Anything which caused Ruth to blush with embarrassment, any occasion in which the workers even raised their voice would be a violation of Boaz’s command. So through Boaz the protection of Yahweh is extended to Ruth.

The Rest of the Day and the Rest of the Harvest Season (2.17-23)

Ruth works the rest of the day “until evening” (2.17). She threshes the barley, presumably on Boaz’s threshing floor, though the text does not indicate this. When all that Ruth gleaned is accounted for, it totals “an ephah” or, as the footnote in the ESV indicates, 22 liters, which is 5.8 gallons, an extraordinary amount for a single day of work. Then she carried the “thirty pounds” (NET) home to Naomi, which she seemed to notice immediately. Ruth also gives Naomi her leftovers from lunch.

No doubt Naomi is surprised by the haul. She inquires as to where Ruth gleaned such a hefty amount of barley while invoking a blessing upon the man who “took notice” of Ruth (2.19). Ruth recites the day’s activities, finishing off her narrative with the reveal that the field she worked in belonged to a man named Boaz.

A remarkable thing occurs in Naomi (2.20). She is woman who has lost and grieved, blaming Yahweh for her bereavement and bitterness. In a stunning turn, she invokes a blessing from Yahweh upon Boaz for the “kindness” (or mercy, Heb hesed) he has shown. Although the ESV translates the phrase as referring to Yahweh’s hesed, the Hebrew indicates that it is actually because of Boaz’s kindness that he is to receive a blessing from Yahweh. By taking care of Ruth and Naomi, Boaz has shown faithful love to the living (the two widows) and the dead (Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion).

Naomi continues and says that Boaz is “a close relative…one of our redeemers” (2.20b). As mentioned previously, “redeemer” is a legal term referring to the family law practice of levirate marriage as prescribed in the Law. Lev 25.25-30 and Deut 25.5-10. It referred to the buying back of land sold during impoverished circumstances (Lev 25.25-30). It also referred to the duty of a brother to raise up heirs with the widow of his deceased brother to continue the family name (Deut 25.5-10). “The book of Ruth extends his duties to providing an heir for a male relative who has died childless.”[6] It seems that over time the levirate law grew in the scope of who could be a kinsman-redeemer. In Ruth’s case, since there was no brother-in-law to perform the duty of raising up a male heir, a distant relative like Boaz could fill the void and perform “the duty of a husband’s brother.”

One vital part of the levirate law was if the brother-in-law refused to perform the duty. In such a case, the man would be summoned by the elders of the city and make a public pronouncement that he refuses to perform the duty of raising up progeny for his brother with his widow. The widow would then take her brother-in-law’s sandal from his foot and spit in his face. From that day forward his house shall be called “the unsandaled family.” It is assumed that should Boaz refuse to fulfill this duty this would be his fate.

The final exchange between Ruth and Naomi (2.21-22) is Ruth’s reiteration of Boaz’s statement to remain in his field throughout the harvests. Naomi concurs that this is a “good” thing lest she fall into the hands of those who seek to harm her. This is essentially a different way of saying what Boaz had said earlier in the day. Verse 23 serves as a summary statement. Ruth stays in Boaz’s field with his young women for the duration of the barley and wheat seasons. She continues to live with Naomi as she promised to in chapter one.

[1] While the name Boaz could mean “strong” or “strength,” the meaning remains debatable and obscure.

[2] Block, 674.

[3] “[Ruth] happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (2.3). The chance part of this is clearly seen in 2 Samuel 1.6 where a young man “by chance…happened” to see King Saul dead on his spear. In fact, Block says the phrase could be rendered “her chance chanced upon” the field of Boaz.

[4] There are translation problems with the exact meaning of the Hebrew phrase שִׁבְתָּהּ הַבַּיִת. The Septuagint and Vulgate seem clearer, indicating some kind of shelter whereby workers could take a break. Thus, the foreman’s point is to emphasize Ruth’s good work ethic.

[5] Yahweh is portrayed as a mother bird spreading out her wings over her fledglings (Deut 32.11-12; Isa 31.5). Perhaps no other text makes use of this image so vividly to capture the safety offered by God’s faithfulness than Psalm 91 (esp.v.4).

[6] Joyce G. Baldwin, “Ruth,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 292