I have spent the last few days studying the Festival of Weeks, aka Shavuot. It is such a rich holiday, full of tradition and connection that I decided I needed to divide my thoughts into multiple posts. This is the final post about how the Jewish celebration of Shavuot (this year on May 14-16) connects to the modern Christian church. There are many lessons for Christians today.
Another element of Shavuot is the reading of the book of Ruth. Traditionally it is read on the second day of the celebration. It is an ancient custom, written about in a talmudic tractate in the eighth century. Since Shavuot is a holiday with multiple angles, I was curious, why Ruth? (I also love the idea that two of the major Jewish holidays feature women of the Bible. God's sense of humor in a primarily patriarchal world.)
The story of Ruth is a multi-dimensional love story. Naomi and her husband, Emilelek, left Bethlehem and moved to Moab to escape a famine in Judah. While there, Emilelek died and the couple's two sons married Moabite women, strictly forbidden by Jewish law, but practicality requires heirs to maintain the family lineage. Not long after the marriages, both sons also died, leaving no heirs, and rendering Naomi alone with two daughters-in-law in a foreign land. Naomi then learned that the famine had ended, so she made plans to return to her home and family in Bethlehem.
Act of love number one: Naomi knew that her daughters-in-law were too young to live as widows, so she released them from their vows. She was not required to do so. As matriarch of the family, she could have insisted that the young women care for her in her old age. But she refused. She said, "Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband" (Ruth 1:8-9). Caring more for the happiness of others is one sign of genuine love. Naomi saw a bitter road for herself, but rather than submit her daughter's in law to loneliness, she sent them back to their people, where they could find hope and peace and a future.
Act of love number two: One of the young women did return, accepting Naomi's loving gift with sorrow. The other, however, refused to turn back. Ruth spoke the words that now find their ways into wedding vows. Sweet, but out of context. Ruth promised Naomi, "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God..." (Ruth 1:16). Ruth, in her love for her mother in law, stayed loyal to her. That's genuine love. Nothing compelled her to leave everything she knew to become a foreigner, but she chose Naomi's well-being over her own.
Ruth fits into the Shavuot celebration by timing. Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, which would be the time when the pilgrimage for the Feast of Weeks would occur. The harvest was plentiful, and Naomi knew that for this season, they would not starve.
Elimelek, Naomi's deceased husband, had a relative named Boaz, who grew barley, but also had high standing among the Jewish elders. It was common in those days for the poor to follow along the harvesters and glean the leftover grain for their own food. That provision came from Leviticus, and was acceptable. Because Ruth and Naomi had no way to earn a wage, Ruth went to glean in the fields. She happened to begin in the fields of Boaz.
Ruth, as a newcomer and a Moabitess, stood out from the other gleaners. Boaz took note of her and made a point to welcome her.
Act of love number three: Boaz had no reason to protect Ruth, but out of respect for his kinsman, he ensured her safety and made sure that the harvesters "left" plenty of grain behind her her. He explained to her that her actions to Naomi had not gone unnoticed, and that the Lord would bless her for her kindness.
After the harvest, Naomi determined that Ruth needed to marry again so that she would be provided for. Boaz, as a distant relative, was a candidate because the traditions of that culture ensure that a man's widow could be married by his brother in order to preserve the family name. The relative who did so was the kinsman-redeemer, for he redeemed the property and the legacy of his relative.
Act of love number four: Ruth didn't argue with Naomi; she simply obeyed. She went to Boaz's threshing floor, and when he fell asleep, she lay at his feet. Of course, he was rather startled when he awoke, but quickly reassured Ruth that Naomi's wisdom was good and proper. He would take on the role of her husband because Ruth's character won him over. There was another relative who was closer in the family tree than Boaz, but Boaz quickly made sure that he was not interested in taking on the responsibility of Ruth, and by extension, Naomi.
Act of love number five: Boaz married Ruth and the two had a son to carry on the family legacy. Naomi was delighted, and the family was restored.
In addition to the illustration of loving-kindness in action, the story of Ruth is important to Shavuot in the connection with King David. Tradition holds that King David was born during Shavuot and also died during the holiday. Boaz and Ruth's son was Obed, whose son was Jesse, whose youngest son was a shepherd boy who would be king.
The book of Ruth is rich with meaning for both Jews and Christians. For Jews, the idea kindness reaps reward is part of the Torah way of life. Kindness demonstrates a connection with the Creator, whose loving-kindness drives the faith. That Ruth, a foreigner, was accepted into the Jewish culture is another important reason to remember her story. That she is the grandmother to the greatest king of Israel (and a man after God's own heart) is another.
For Christians, the story takes on an even deeper meaning. The concept of a kinsman-redeemer ties into the reason Messiah came to earth. He was born in Bethlehem (home of Boaz), was a direct descendant of David, and therefore in a position to redeem the people who, although chosen, were lost in a foreign land made up of rules and traditions that separated them from God in many ways. Ruth, being a foreigner, demonstrates that Jesus was able (and willing) to spread His love, grace, and mercy beyond the Chosen and to the Gentiles. All of humanity is eligible for the Kinsman-Redeemer to cover its debts and become part of the family.
Kindness itself plays a role in Christian faith. It is part of the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 2:22-23), it is evidence of a changed heart (Ephesians 4:32), and it is a key element of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). What better reason then, to remember Ruth's story as a real world demonstration of how the Father wants His children to treat each other and how He, in His sovereignty, rewards that loving-kindness?