Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves? (Ruth 3)

Does God “meet us halfway?”  I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said that “God helps those who help themselves,” a phrase that’s become so commonplace I suspect many are surprised to learn it’s not actually in the Bible(!).  Humans have a deeply-ingrained sense of fairness.  In October of 2014, NBC News reported findings of a study that shows humans are naturally wired to be gratified by “fairness:”

“You might expect that deep inside the human cortex, the brain generally acts to maximize rewards for itself. But new research shows that the same part of the brain that lights up when a person is rewarded for their work, the striatum, responds more when that award is fair. This suggests that we have an inbuilt idea of fairness as well as a learned one.” (from: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/human-brain-finds-fairness-naturally-rewarding-study-n230021)

What—if anything—does this have to do with religion?  We expect God to play “fair,” to reward our faith with an equal measure of blessing.  So when blessings occur, we feel a natural sense of pride at having deserved such a reward.  And when blessings seem absent, we might feel a sense of guilt or injustice over not having achieved what we expected.

In the story of Ruth and Boaz, we find a curious mixture of God’s power and human responsibility.  It’s mysterious, truly—and a relationship that the Bible never fully reconciles.  As we observed previously, the story of Ruth unveils the fact that God is orchestrating the events of human life in such a way that what seems random is actually within the sovereign control of God.

So now that Ruth has met Boaz, Naomi sees before her an opportunity.  It’s time to play matchmaker:

 Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? 2 Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.” 5 And she replied, “All that you say I will do.”

What’s going on here?  In his commentary on Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard observes the way that Naomi’s plan and God’s actions are beginning to flow together:

“Earlier Naomi had wished for these same things (1:8-9). Here human means (i.e., Naomi’s plan) carry out something previously understood to be in [God’s] province. In response to providentially given opportunity, Naomi began to answer her own prayer! Thus she models one way in which divine and human actions work together: believers are not to wait passively for events to happen; rather, they must seize the initiative when an opportunity presents itself.” (Robert L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, p. 199)

So her mother hatches this elaborate plan for Ruth to get Boaz to notice her—an event that’s become a common illustration in every bad Christian dating book ever sense.  I mean, this is where things get weird.  Naomi’s plan is for Ruth to put on her best party dress, a pair of heels and some mascara and go down to where Boaz is working.  She was then supposed to “uncover his feet.”  Now, here’s where interpreters like to point out that maybe this is getting a little risqué.  It’s possible—but only possible—that “uncover the feet” is referring to a lot more than just his legs (sorry; I only point this out because, again, a lot of bad Christian books have said exactly that).  But all we really need to see is that Ruth is supposed to uncover his robe a bit, then lay down at his feet.  It was an act of both submission and devotion—a way of communicating to Boaz, “Hey; I know I lost my husband, but I’m ready to move on if you wanna buy me dinner.”

Of course, that’s not to say the act wasn’t at least a little scandalous.  I remember my Hebrew professor pointing out that at the threshing floor, where kernels and chaff would separate in the winds, there was literally “fertility in the air.”  We’re meant to see romance and risk involved here.  And, what’s more, we can’t even point to some cultural reason why Naomi gets this idea in her head.  In his commentary, Leon Morris points out: “…why it should be done in this way we do not know. Nor do we know whether this was a widely practiced custom or not. It is not attested other than here.” (Leon Morris, “Ruth” in Judges-Ruth, p. 287)

Ruth obeys dutifully, waiting for Boaz to fall asleep before going in, uncovering his feet and then laying down (don’t miss the exclamation mark in our English text in verse 8):

6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. 7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! 9 He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” 10 And he said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11 And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. 12 And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. 13 Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the Lord lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.”

Ruth’s request is that Boaz spread his cloak over both of them.  The symbolism is clear, even to modern eyes.  She’s asking for a marriage proposal.  And Boaz is upstanding enough not to give her one, until he’s absolutely sure he’s the right man for the job.  There may, after all, be someone else who is closer to her and may have the “right” to marry her.  I know that sounds sociologically backward to today’s readers—and certainly a bit sexist.  But I’d love to point out the way that this story seems to be culturally subversive in its portrayal of women.  Despite all the ways that a patriarchal society has worked against Naomi and Ruth, God provides for them through his sovereignty.  Even the kindness of Boaz is ultimately seen as directed by the hand of God.

We’re left to understand that nothing untoward happened between the couple that night, though Ruth returns home early enough to avoid suspicion.  I can’t help but picture Naomi sitting in the kitchen in her bathrobe—pot of coffee on—waiting to ask: “Soooo…how was your date?  Did you uncover his feet?”  “Moooom!  You’re so embarrassing!”

14 So she lay at his feet until the morning, but arose before one could recognize another. And he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” 15 And he said, “Bring the garment you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley and put it on her. Then she went into the city. 16 And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said, “How did you fare, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, 17 saying, “These six measures of barley he gave to me, for he said to me, ‘You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’”18 She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.”

Naomi has a high view of Boaz.  She knows he’ll be true to his word, and the matter would be resolved—hopefully in their favor—that day.

What lessons are there for us?  Most of us won’t be put in a weird situation like this.  But we can trust in the providence of a God who offers us shelter, security, protection—not because we’re good but because He’s God.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty  He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge… (Psalm 91:1, 4)

So let’s get serious for a minute.  What about this story seems fair to you?  At what point is God merely helping a young woman who helped herself?   Sure, we see risks taken, and the promise of reward suspended above her head.  But ultimately we must equally see the way that up until this point, so much has rested in the hands of a God who brought her up to a point when such a risk could even be taken.

In the eighteenth century, a famous preacher named Jonathan Edwards suggested that perhaps both man and God are active in our lives:

“In efficacious grace we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest. But God does all, and we do all. God produces all, we act all….God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects, wholly passive and wholly active.”

I don’t know how else to put it, really.  More recently, Dallas Willard wrote that “grace is opposed to earning, but it is not opposed to effort.”  Indeed.  The miracle of the gospel—the miracle of Christmas, for that matter—is that God steps in.  He doesn’t meet us halfway.  He doesn’t wait until we’re out of the margins of life before He reaches in to help us.  And the most beautiful treasure of all is not merely that God offers us blessing, but that God is our blessing.  He arrives in a lowly manger, He ascends to the agony of a cross, and He promises a return, when all things shall be new again.

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