When my nephew moved into his dorm for his first year of college, I noticed it was Boaz Hall, and I hoped he recognized the significance. My nephew was very familiar with the story of Ruth and Naomi, but he had forgotten the name of Ruth’s Bethlehemite husband. I would imagine that many Bible readers may have to pause a bit to recall his name, or upon seeing the name, to attach it with the story of Ruth.
The book of Ruth is best known for the loving relationship forged between two women: Naomi, an older woman from Bethlehem who spent some years exiled with her husband and sons in Moab because of a famine back home, and Ruth, a Moabite woman who married one of Naomi’s sons. When the men of the family died, and the famine had moved into Moab, this mother-in-law and daughter-in-law duo settled in Bethlehem and prepared for the hardship of living as single women in a culture that paid them little attention. Thankfully, they had each other. And they drew upon the laws of gleaning grain for survival.
Grain crops such as wheat or barley were common in the region of Bethlehem and would have been sown and harvested by hand. The plant stalks would be cut down individually, the edible grain at the top of the stalks separated from the dry coating or chaff by beating the stalks against the ground or rocks (a process called threshing), and then the grain would be further cleaned before it could be used. The entire process required intensive labor and several passes through the fields to harvest crops as they ripened.
Gleaning interrupted the process to allow for the poor of the area to reap the benefits of some of the grain that would have fallen to the ground in the fields, or would still be on remaining stalks after the first pass through the field. The owner of the land was to allow the poor and the aliens to gather what they could before his regular workers passed through another time to complete the harvest. It is prescribed for grain crops and for grape harvesting in Israel’s law (see Lev 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut 24:19-22).
Boaz, a cousin of Naomi through her husband’s family, was a landowner whose fields were being gleaned by Ruth. What she gathered became the source of food for the two women, and Boaz took note not only of her determined labor but also of her kindness to her mother-in-law. Boaz made provisions for Ruth to have access to drinking water when gleaning and to work without fear of being harmed or harassed by other workers. Eventually, he took Ruth as his wife, and their son, Obed, would be the grandfather of King David.
Boaz is more than a stock character, and more than a benevolent relative. He is clearly presented in the story as one like God, filled with compassion for the poor. He enters the scene in much the same way that God entered the scene in Egypt centuries earlier. Just as God witnessed the affliction of the Hebrew slaves, heard their cry, and came down to rescue Israel (Exod 3:7-8), Boaz witnesses, hears, and rescues or redeems Ruth and, by extension, Naomi.