This aint no fairytale

by Chris Burton

As you’ve probably gathered from my last two posts, Naomi and Ruth were pretty much penniless when they returned to Bethlehem. Luckily for them, though, it was the beginning of the barley harvest when they got there, and Israel had a basic welfare system in place… It was called gleaning, which is another word for scrounging. (Gleaning seems like such a nice word, while scrounging sounds so… scroungy. But they really are the same thing.) Don’t mistake the word scrounging with begging, however. That wasn’t the idea at all. Scrounging or gleaning was the act of collecting the leftovers from farmers’ fields after they’d been harvested, and was part of the law given through Moses. The corners and edges of the fields in Israel were not to be harvested, and farmers were not allowed to go over their fields a second time when reaping. And if a bundle of grain were dropped or forgotten, it had to be left. “Thou shalt leave them for the poor.” “It shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.” (See Lev. 19:9-10 and Deut. 24:19)

Ruth was a poor, widowed, stranger so if anybody was “entitled” to go scrounging through the fields, she was. It was long, laborious work and Ruth scrounged from sunup to sundown. It happened that she found herself in the field of Boaz who took notice of Ruth, and according to the scriptures, Boaz asked, “Whose damsel is this?” But I think it probably went something more like: “Who is this lovely young lady? And why have I never seen her before?” (Remember, the book of Ruth is a love story!) Boaz then instructed Ruth to stay in his fields working alongside his own servant girls. He promised his protection, offered water as she worked, and invited her to lunch with his workers. Ruth continued in Boaz’s field and worked almost without ceasing. And Boaz went way out of his way to give Ruth special treatment, even directing his harvesters to drop handfuls of grain when they saw Ruth following them.

That night when Ruth brought home the bounty she had “scrounged,” Naomi caught on quickly: “Where did you get all of this?” she asked, “Who was it that took notice of you?” Ruth had no doubt worked hard, but this was much too much for her lone efforts. Someone had to have helped her. When Ruth revealed Boaz’s generosity, Naomi exclaimed that he was one of their “next kinsman,” which would have been better translated “redeemer kinsmen.” Ruth had been in the field of a “redeemer!” (meaning a close relative who had a legal obligation to help the poor in his family—a redeemer was to buy back family land which had been sold (Lev. 25:25), pay the price to free those sold as slaves (Lev. 25:47-49), and even marry widows who had no sons (Deut. 25:5)). And you can guess how the story ends… they got married and lived happily ever after. But this Cinderella story wasn’t a fairytale. Ten years of gut-wrenching hunger and famine wasn’t a fairytale. The pain of sorrow from losing a husband and sons wasn’t a fairytale. Being a stranger, forced to scrounge for a living, the sun beating on her back as she scraped leftovers off the ground to take home… it was real—not a fairytale. Just as finding her redeemer was real. And the salvation he provided was real. Just as it’s real for us.

Ours may be an uphill path with no end in sight. We may experience poverty, bondage, and loss no less real than Ruth’s. And though we are reduced to scrounging, if we will continue in the Redeemer’s field, ours will be a glorious (if not a fairytale) ending.