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How We Taught This Lesson in the Past: Lesson 20: “All the City … Doth Know that Thou Art a Virtuous Woman”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 16, 2010

Lesson 20: “All the City … Doth Know that Thou Art a Virtuous Woman”

This lesson from the Sunday School class for teens in 1940 is not a whole lot different from this year’s lesson. The old lesson narrates the story of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz as a great love story; the current lesson extracts the story by having the class read verses (in a tedious way, I think, if you were to follow the lesson manual precisely): “And then what happened? (Read these two verses.) And then what happened? (Read the next two verses.) And then what happened?” The current lesson asks students at regular intervals to relate the story to their own lives, while the old lesson obviously expects students to get the point without explicit questions. But aside from these stylistic differences, the lessons are the same: Ruth was kind, hard-working, loyal, and selfless, and was rewarded with marriage to a good man and posterity that included Jesus Christ.

All in all, this is one of the weaker lessons in the manual, I think, and the “additional teaching ideas” section is far more interesting than the main lesson – but those ideas all deal with matters that older manuals incorporated into “gospel principles” rather than “Old Testament” lesson sets. Because it falls in my teaching rotation, I expect to bring in stories of other women of the Old Testament, all of which will support the stated lesson purpose of “encourag[ing] class members to emulate the righteous qualities of” Biblical women.

Ruth and Boaz – “How Great is the Reward of Human Kindness”

The period from the time that the Israelites entered Canaan under the leadership of Moses and Joshua to the reign of King Saul, is known as the “Rule of the Judges.” Local wars and conflicts swept to and fro across the land like destructive cyclones, leaving pestilence and famine in their wake. it was an important period, however, in Israel’s history. The tribes were gradually changing from jealous, quarreling groups into a consolidated people – “The Kingdom of Israel.”

This was the Bible period of “hero worship.” Many are the tales of daring and bravery told of these restless times. Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, and many others are among the most interesting characters of the Old Testament. Not only men, but the women also, come in for their share of distinction, honor, and romance during the rule of the judges. Deborah, the Joan of Arc of the Bible, led the Israelites to victory; Jephthah’s daughter became a heroine; and now, we will tell of Ruth, a perfect example of love and devotion.

Ruth was of Moab beyond the Dead Sea. She might even have been of Israelitish blood for the tribe of Reuben had settled near her land. As the story will show she immigrated to Bethlehem, married Boaz, a Jew, became the grandmother of King David, and an ancestor of Jesus. This may seem a bit odd for in past lessons parents have been careful to select brides of the right pedigree.

Sometimes people adopt children. Through training and culture these children become actual members of the household in name, ideals, love and devotion. Again, our sweetest fruits rarely grow in trees developed from the seed. Choice varieties are budded, or grafted onto the healthy, vigorous roots of another tree. So Ruth, the Moabitess, was adopted, or grafted onto the strong Israelite roots and the choicest fruit in all the world – Jesus, our Savior – grew on her branches.

And it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem-Judea went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi, and the name of his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. And they came into the country of Moab and continued there.”

The sons married two Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. Then an epidemic swept the land. Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion all died, and Naomi was left with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Years had passed and she prepared to return to Bethlehem (House of Bread) for she had heard that there was food in the land of Judah. The girls loved Naomi and with her began the journey from Moab. But Naomi knew well the trials ahead and begged them to return to their homes and people. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and turned back, but Ruth said:

Entreat me not to leave thee,
Or to return from following after thee;
For whither thou goest, I will go;
And where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people shall be my people,
And thy God my God;
Where thou diest, will I die,
And there will I be buried;
The Lord do so to me, and more also,
If aught but death part thee and me.

In all the world’s literature there is not a more beautiful expression of resignation, love, and devotion than this. Truly Ruth was worthy of a name among the heroines of Israel. A modern poet has beautifully rewritten the experience thus:

“Entreat me not to leave thee, but convert me to the truth”;
So spake in sorrow and in tears the gentle-chiding Ruth.
“Entreat me not to leave thee, nor unclasp thy loosening hand;
I’ll follow thee, my mother, to the far Judean land.”
But, turning still in grief away from her young, pleading face,
And sadly putting back the arms so fondly that embrace –
My daughter,” thus Naomi said, in measured tones and deep,
“We have our Sabbaths in that land, and holy days to keep.
And there’s a bound we can not pass upon that day, you know”;
But Ruth said, “Only where thou goest, mother, will I go.”
Still spake Naomi, “Turn again – thy home is not with me;
For Judah’s children must not with the outcast Gentile be.”
Ruth answered, “In that stranger-land with thee, oh, let me stay,
And where thou lodgest I will lodge – I can not go away.”
And then again Naomi, “We have precepts to observe,
And from our fathers’ worship are commanded not to swerve.”
Ruth answered with religious zeal, “I bow to Judah’s Lord;
Thy people shall my people be – thy God shall be my God.”
And now the mother’s love burst forth, and rose in accents wild:
“Turn back, beloved, oh! turn back, for think you, Ruth, my child,
Your fainting heart could ever bear the woes I number now?
They must not dim those gentle eyes, nor darken o’er that brow;
For though thy mother yields to them, yet, dearest daughter mine,
It were not meet that they should fall on such a head as thine.”
Then Ruth, with sudden brightness in her mild and loving eye,
“However hard thy death may be, thus only will I die.”
But yet once more Naomi spoke, “My daughter, for the dead
We have a house of burial”; but Ruth, still answering, said,
“And there will I be buried; and the Lord deal thus by me,
If aught, my mother, on the earth, but death, part thee and me.”

– Mrs. E.H.J. Cleaveland.

“So they two went until they came to Bethlehem.” Can you picture these two women as they trudged along the dusty road from Moab to Bethlehem? There was no “thumbing rides” in those days. At last they came to the little city among the hills of Judea. In imagination we see them walking along the narrow street. All the people were interested, for the older ones remembered Naomi, but most of the interest would be in Ruth, the stranger.

In such small towns, even now, everybody knows everybody and everybody’s business. In the large cities it is not so. It is common to hear people say, “I have lived in this same house in this city for eight years and I scarcely know my next door neighbor.” That is almost a tragedy. Our lives are enriched by the fine, wholesome contacts and friendships we make. Take our friends out of our lives and there isn’t much left.

“Is this Naomi?” her friends exclaimed as the women passed their doors. “Call me not Naomi (sweet),” she said, “Call me Mara (bitter),” for her life had been beset with many sorrows. They found shelter in Naomi’s old home where soon began the beautiful romance of Boaz and Ruth. No story in the Bible gives us more interesting customs of those ancient times than this one.

It was harvest time and farmers cut the ripened grain with small sickles, and bound the grain by hand. But Naomi had no grain to harvest, nor other means of support. The needy were not neglected, however. An interesting law in Israel provided for them at harvest time. “And when ye reap the harvest of your land,” it said, “thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest” (Deut. 19:9). So the women gathered the scattered heads of grain after the reapers.

“Let me now go to the field, and glean heads of grain, after him in whose sight I shall find grace,” Ruth said. Naomi replied, “go, my daughter.” By chance (or was it cleverly directed by Naomi?) Ruth came to the field of Boaz and gleaned with the girls who followed his reapers.

In imagination try to see the field of Boaz with its reapers and gleaners. There were some specially interesting situations: The reapers were at work long before Boaz arrived. He was a man of affairs, wealthy and influential. he was mature but not married. he was a close relative of Naomi which means much in the bit of drama related.

Note the friendly relation existing between Boaz and his workmen when he arrived. He was kind and much respected. “The Lord be with you,” was the common greeting.

A surprise awaited Boaz. A strange and beautiful girl had joined his gleaners. “Whose damsel is this?” he asked. he had heard of Ruth and had admired her courage, but apparently had not seen her before.

There is good evidence that it was “love at first sight,” with Boaz. “Go not to glean in another field,” he begged of her. “When thou art athirst, go and drink of that which the young men have drawn.” “At meal time come thou hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar.” To the reapers he said, “Let fall some of the handfulls on purpose for her, and rebuke her not.” All of these were special favors accorded Ruth but not to the other gleaner girls.

Love is life’s end (an end, but never ending):
All joys, all sweets, all happiness, awarding;
Love is life’s wealth (ne’er spent, but ever spending);
More rich by giving, taking by discarding;
Love’s life’s reward, rewarded in rewarding.

– Phineas Fletcher.

And here is something of double interest. “Youth is youth in any age or any land, only customs change.” What happens in our day when a group of young men and women are together? Suppose a new and beautiful girl is introduced, what effect does it have upon the boys? In this case Boaz sounded the warning, “hands off.” “Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?” he said to Ruth. In other words, “Ruth is my girl, let her alone.”

The day was doubly profitable to Ruth. she had gleaned an ephah (about three-fourths bushel) of barley and established a friendship which will continue throughout eternity. Note, too, that she had remembered Naomi while she was enjoying the meal at Boaz’s invitation. “And she brought forth and gave to her (Naomi) that which she had reserved after she had eaten.”

In ancient Israel there was a strange but interesting law. If a man died who had no children, his brother or nearest kin was to marry the widow. (Gen. 38:11; Deut. 25:1-10). Ruth’s husband had died without children but he had no brother to marry Ruth. Naomi understood the importance of Ruth meeting Boaz. “The man is near of kin unto us, one of our next kinsmen,” she said.

Naomi took the matter in hand. Today we would not recommend her method, but in those far-off times it was entirely proper. Naomi knew the customs of her people, and she had perfect confidence in Boaz, her kinsman.

Naomi and Ruth were perfectly modern. Then as now, men were attracted by a woman’s appearance, beauty, dress, poise, etc. “Wash and anoint thyself, and put on thy (prettiest) raiment,” Naomi advised. Girls still do the same when they “have a date.” Perhaps it was “leap year,” or was Boaz just bashful and backward? Naomi understood the importance of the modern slogan, “The turnpike road to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Ruth was not to intrude until Boaz had “done eating and drinking.”

What is more favorable for courting than a moonlight night on the “old threshing floor”? Men slept on the threshing floor at harvest time to protect the heaps of grain from robbers. We can easily imagine Boaz’s surprise and joy at finding Ruth near him. “I am Ruth,” she said, “spread therefore thy skirt over (me); for thou art a near kinsman.” This was a customary and tactful way of saying, “Boaz, you are my nearest kinsman, will you marry me?”

“Fear not, I will do it,” he answered, “for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.” But alas! love’s lane is not strewn with flowers all the way. “It is true,” he continued. “I am thy near kinsman; but there is a kinsman nearer than I.” But Naomi knew the power of love, and she knew Boaz. She said to Ruth, “Be patient, for the man will not be in rest, until he has finished the thing this day that thou hast begun.”

Many cities were surrounded by walls. The open space around the gate served as a sort of forum, a courtroom, a gathering place where people met to visit and gossip. Here they settled their problems and differences in the presence of witnesses who were always plentiful. Boaz lost no time. When morning came he was at the gate to meet the kinsman who had first right to Ruth.

He was soon found and with ten witnesses the bartering began. Naomi’s inheritance (property), was for sale and the nearest of kin had first chance. But the one who bought it must also marry Ruth. Note carefully the progress of the bargaining. Can you imagine Boaz’s suspense? It was a critical moment for him and the entire world. On the decision of that simple court rested the ancestry of Jesus, our Savior.

The man coveted the parcel of land, but was afraid to marry Ruth. “if thou wilt redeem it, (buy it), redeem it,” Boaz urged. “But if thou wilt not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know; for I am after thee, and I will redeem (buy) it.” “I cannot redeem it,” he said. “Redeem thou my right to thyself.” And the man plucked off his shoe and gave it to Boaz in the presence of the witnesses as a testimony that he relinquished his prior right to Ruth and her inheritance.

So ended the most colorful courtship of the Bible. Both parties were clean and virtuous in their lives. They were industrious and dependable. Such unions now as then are successful and happy. There will be no vain regrets – no divorces. To them was born a son, Obed who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David; and through David’s lineage Jesus was born. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Boaz and Ruth lived there.

A modern writer has the following to say about Naomi:

“The Book of Ruth: wedged in between the bloody struggles of the Judges and the Kings, it is an oasis of loveliness as restful as a beautiful strain of music from a great master.

“It tells of Naomi, who married and went to Moab. There death took her husband and sons, leaving her only poverty and grief, and two widowed daughters-in-law. Stout-hearted she started back to her own people. You stay with yours, she bids the widows, Ruth and Orpah. They could find no husbands among the foreigners in Naomi’s Bethlehem; in Moab they could re-wed.

“One, weeping, stayed in Moab. The other went with crushed Naomi, to glean in the fields of a rich kinsman. Now the mother-in-law becomes a match-maker; she manages the marriage of Ruth and Boaz. One day she clutched ruth’s baby to her heart. The baby was Obed, grandsire to King David.

“Hard critics sometimes call Naomi a schemer, self-pitying, self-seeking, egotistical. They forget that she wanted to go alone to Bethlehem. she schemed against Boaz? Well, what of it? Must we hate a hen scratching for her chicks?” – From Who’s Who in the Bible, page 73.

The same writer says this about Ruth:

“Was Wordsworth thinking of her as he wrote, “She was a Phantom of delight …? Ruth was better even than this. She transcended Phantomness, to be indeed a perfect woman, nobly planned. she was Delilah’s opposite: attractiveness of face and sex were glorified, outdone by the pure love and unselfish pity of her soul.

“In self-forgetting loyalty to her dead husband’s family, she chose to go with Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave thee – for whither thou goest, I will go: – thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” For Naomi’s sake she faced race prejudice and (which is worse) religious animosity. She sweetly overcame them both and in the end married a Hebrew!

“Ruth gleaning food for old Naomi; there she is priceless. Ruth commanding the respect of all who saw her by her very bearing and gentleness; Ruth the foreigner, loved for her own golden spirit in spite of clashing gods and national boundary lines, there she is sublime.

“Her age is gone, her sickle is rust. But Dr. Fosdick poignantly wonders: ‘We have improved on Ruth’s sickle as an agricultural implement, but have we improved on Ruth?’” – From Who’s Who in the Bible, page 75.



1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for this beautiful delivery of a story that I have always loved and now have an even greater appreciation for. Thank you for the many parallels that you have drawn that I can apply not only to what I need to do in my own life, but also what we can do in our various callings in the church. I have only just discovered this site, but will be making sure it won’t be the last time I visit. Thank you.

    Comment by Ann, New Zealand — June 13, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

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