THE STORY OF BOAZ AND RUTH
The story of Boaz and Ruth is from the distant past, over three thousand years ago, and is from the early history of the Hebrews, who were chosen by Jehovah to be his race on earth.
How shall we picture the characters portrayed here? Not as a people so primitive as to be quite different from ourselves, but as a people like ourselves, now utterly vanished, just as we ourselves shall vanish. History can tell us something of their style of life, their words and works, their hopes and fears. They felt the same emotions and temptations as we do. With just a change of costume, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, could mix with our own womenfolk, doing housekeeping, window shopping, gossiping just as they would and not be noticed as an outsider. Boaz, as well, could be with us here today as one of our brethren.
Authorities tell us that, from the style of writing, this tale was not written until after the return of the Hebrews from their Babylonian captivity - that is, about six hundred years after the events took place. The Hebrews, like the Bedouin of today, loved stories and in particular their great traditional stories. So this one was handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, as a well-loved piece of national folklore, until eventually, it was committed to writing.
Why was it written? It may be that in a great national revival on the return to their native land, it was determined that this gem dealing with the family history of their great King David should be preserved for posterity. On the other hand, it may have been written as a piece of clever propaganda. You see, on their return to Palestine, it was found that many of those whom Nebuchadnezzar had left behind to till the soil, had married women of the pagan tribes adjacent to Palestine. This was so opposed to their national and religious laws that the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah demanded that they should put away their foreign wives, sending them back to the countries whence they had come.
This edict was most unpopular and eventually led to a split in the nation. Thus, it may have occurred to the clever story writer to publicise the fact that their own beloved King David was descended from the union of a man of Judah with a woman of Moab.
The great German writer, Goethe, himself a freemason, has declared it to be the most beautiful love story in any language. It deals with two women and a man and for presentation of beauty of character and true nobility of spirit is quite unsurpassed.
From the opening passage we know the incident took place during the period when the so-called “judges” ruled over Israel, before the time of King David and King Solomon. It was a black period for Israel, when any man with power would subdue adjacent tribes and assume the rights and title of a Judge in Israel. It has been called 'an age of iron', when unscrupulous dealings, robbery, and even murder were hardly regarded as crimes. In this dark period of low morality and ethical standards the story of Ruth stands out with all the radiance of a beacon.
But the historical interest and beauty of the story do not justify it as a subject for a Masonic meeting - there must be other reasons. It may seem strange to give the story of a woman to a gathering such as this, but the truth is that, with the exception of the books dealing with the construction of the temple, craft Masonry is more closely connected with the book of Ruth than with any other in the holy writ.
Tonight we will hear quotations from the Bible, which are integral parts of our craft degree work. We will see how the story leads up to these so that, in future, when we hear them read by our chaplain, we will be aware of their proper setting and hear them with greater understanding.
There is another and very important reason. Of all the names connected with freemasonry there is none more highly regarded than Boaz, the primary guardian of our secrets. Our founders were wise and thinking men, steeped in the ethics of living and in the literature of the Bible. They did not select any name for our ritual casually. They had sound reason and purpose. Yet what do we know of this man Boaz, except that he was "the great grandfather of David"?
Let us learn something of his words and works and note how his fellows regarded him. We can then judge for ourselves whether his reputation justifies the exalted position his name occupies in our workings.
The dark days when the Judges ruled over Israel, we are told that there was a great drought when “there fell not any rain nor was there any dew”. This proved too much for Elimelech, a man of Judah, living in Bethlehem, so, with his family, he prepared to migrate to the land of Moab, a country to the east, across the River Jordan. Their hearts were sad because they were leaving behind their friends and fellow-countrymen as well as their home farm. But for the heart of Naomi, his wife, there was some comfort, for she was taking with her that which has, from the earliest times, been dearest of all to a woman - her husband and her sons.
So they departed and eventually arrived at the Moabitish capital, where they pitched their tents. Here they lived and worked many years until Elimelech fell ill and died. As he was buried in foreign soil, it could not be said of him that "he was gathered unto his forefathers". Naomi, in her great loss, sadly missed the consolatory weeping of her country women. Her sons, Mahlon and Chilion, grew into men and took unto themselves two young Moabitish women, Ruth and Orpah, for wives. So once again the family circle was formed.
But further sorrow awaited Naomi, for Mahlon sickened and died, leaving Ruth childless. Shortly after, Chilion also died, leaving Orpah childless. It seemed that the house of Elimelech was doomed to extinction. Naomi was indeed downcast and sad at heart, bereft as she was of all that was near and dear to her. There was left to her three graves on the hillside and two foreign daughters-in-law.
However, not long after, news came that "the Lord had visited Palestine with bread", in other words, the great drought had broken. Naomi decided that the time had come for her to return to her native land so that when her days were ended she might be buried among her own people. To her surprise, the two daughters-in-law prepared to accompany her.
Now, Naomi was well aware of the reception these Moabitish women would receive from her Hebrew people, for of all the pagan tribes surrounding Palestine, none were more detested than the Moabites and the Ammonites. Most of us know the reason for the poor reputation of the latter, but the former, the Moabites were particularly detested because of their origin. It came about this way.
When Lot and his two daughters fled from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, they had to take refuge in the then deserted hills of Moab. From the incestuous union of this man and his daughters came about the nation of Moabites. This stained the pages of Jewish history for many centuries and the stubborn Hebrews had neither forgotten nor forgiven this infamous thing. Therefore Naomi endeavoured to persuade Orpah and Ruth to return to their own people and to their own gods; but they wept, insisting they would go with her. So they agreed to leave together on their long journey.
As they progressed however, fears for their future arose again and again in Naomi's mind, so she called a halt and sought to add further reasoning to her argument.
Are there yet more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn again, my daughters - go your way! For I am too old to have a husband. (Ruth 1:11-12)
In this impassioned plea, Naomi makes mention of a custom of her race dating back to early days in Hebrew history. When a man died, leaving his wife childless, it was the custom for the nearest of kin to go unto his kinsman's wife to give birth to a son to inherit the property of the dead man and to carry on the line. This would ensure that the name of the dead man would not be cut off from among his brethren. The law laid down the order of near kinsmen and it was strictly adhered to.
Hence Naomi said “If I had more sons, would ye wait till they were grown?” This eloquent pleading caused Orpah to falter and bidding Naomi a tearful farewell, she turned away to retrace her steps to her own people, but Ruth moved closer to Naomi.
As the two remaining women watched the retreating figure of Orpah, Naomi turned to Ruth and said, "see my daughter, thy sister returneth to her own people and her own gods. Return thou after her." Ruth's reply, as told in the VSL (Ruth 1:16-17), is a passionate and beautiful declaration of love and loyalty.
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.
We have here great beauty; let us pause and visualise the two women standing together on a lonely barren track watching the departing figure. What a remarkable woman was Naomi by any standard and in any age that she could inspire such trust and loyalty in her foreign daughter-in-law. As for Ruth - you have just heard her reply. One would not presume to add to that, beyond saying that such sentiments characterised the whole of her life.
So they journeyed on and, after an absence of ten years, reached Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. As they walked down the street some women recognised Naomi - "is it not Naomi? But where are your men?" and she answered saying, "call me not Naomi, but rather call me Mara (meaning bitter) for the almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went forth full, but I come home empty, all my menfolk are dead." They moved on, followed by the sad looks of Naomi's old friends. So they took up residence there but lived in great poverty for although Naomi still owned her husband's land, it was untilled.
Ruth pleaded with Naomi to let her go into the fields and glean after the reapers. Naomi agreed so Ruth went into the fields to glean along with the other poor and needy ones of Bethlehem.
Harvesting in those days was done by hand by hired labour who cut the crop, followed by the women of the household, who collected and stooked it. Odd pieces would be left lying about, as required by a very ancient and charitable Hebrew law, which laid this injunction on the more fortunate of the people: - "ye shall not glean your vineyards, nor gather every grape, nor wholly reap the corners of your fields, but leave something for the poor and the stranger." This quotation from holy writ can also to be found in the ritual of the seventeenth degree of the Ancient and Accepted Rite (Rose Croix).
Just imagine the position of Ruth - such was the task that presented itself to her. She was a stranger in a strange land and amongst hostile and prejudiced people. She had no friends, but Naomi, and did not know where to start or how she would be received. Behind her was poverty and bereavement and before her prejudice and uncertainty.
Partly because of the young woman's beauty and character, but also because of the tumult of emotion within her, she has been portrayed by artists (Millais) and sung by poets. Keats, in his 'Ode to the Nightingale' wrote:
Perhaps the self-same song which found a path through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home, she stood in tears, amid the alien corn.
We are told she chanced to come, or perhaps was providentially led, to the field owned by Boaz, a wealthy landowner of Bethlehem. Here she was permitted to glean. Later in the day, Boaz himself arrived to inspect the harvesting. It is written that he greeted the workers, "the lord be with you." to which they replied, "the lord bless you." This was evidently no unusual relationship in those days for we know that, many years later, the workers in the temple received their wages with the utmost self-respect, in the knowledge of work well done and with absolute confidence in the integrity of their employers.
On looking around, Boaz noted a strange young woman among the gleaners and asked the overseer who she was. The foreman of the reapers said “It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi, out of the country of Moab”. This evidently struck some chord of memory in the mind of Boaz, for he beckoned the girl to come to him. Ruth was filled with alarm. She had already been through a great emotional experience and was nervous among the strangers with whom she found herself. To be summoned into the presence of the lord of the field himself, was an ordeal indeed. So she approached Boaz, wondering what her reception would be.
Boaz welcomed her warmly and told her to glean in no other field but his and that he will charge his young men to look after her with water when she was thirsty and to protect her as they do to the other gleaners. These kindly words were so different from what she had feared that she bowed her head and in amazement, asked why she had found favour with him when she was a stranger? Boaz answered her by stating that it had been fully shown to him all that she has done for her mother-in-law since the death of her husband and how, by leaving her parents and the land of her nativity to come unto a people who not knew of her heretofore, she has endorsed that love she has for Naomi. The Lord God of Israel, under whose wings she has come to trust, decrees that he must recompense her as one of his family.
He invited her to come at meal time to eat bread with him. Overcome by the kindly and unexpected welcome in these words, Ruth gave a reply filled with pathos, "let me always find grace in thy sight, my lord, for that thou hast comforted me and hast spoken kindly unto me, though I be not like unto thine own handmaidens". (Ruth 2:13)
So Ruth continued with her gleaning and at midday, had the unusual privilege of sharing the food and drink of the labourers and women of the household. As she departed to continue her gleaning, Boaz spoke to the overseer, and said, "Let her glean, even among the sheaves and reproach her not. And let fall some handfuls on purpose for her that she may glean them, and rebuke her not."
At the end of the day she beat out that which she had gleaned and had gathered a good ephah (over a bushel) of barley. With great joy and pride, she hastened to the house of Naomi to show her the day's work and give her the roasted barley left over from the midday meal.
Naomi wanted to know how she came to have such an amount of barley. Ruth told her it was because of the kindness of a man called Boaz. Naomi immediately expressed her joy and confirmed that Boaz was indeed a near kin to her deceased husband, Elimelech.
So the daily gleaning continued throughout the barley harvest and then through the wheat harvest, so for the time at least, there was no want in the house of Naomi. However, the harvest was drawing to its close and Naomi had been doing much thinking and planning. When a woman such as Naomi starts planning, happenings generally follow. Eventually she called Ruth to her and outlined her plan.
Ruth was to wash, anoint herself with perfume and dress in her finest clothes before making her way to where the season’s harvest was being threshed; where Naomi knew that Boaz would be supervising. Ruth was not to make her presence known until the men had eaten and refreshed themselves and retired for the night. When Boaz was asleep, Ruth was to enter, uncover his feet and lie down at that end of his bed.
The threshing floor referred to was a patch of bare, hard level ground and it was the custom to cart the sheaves and stack them adjacent to the threshing floor. Here the men slept, to be ready for the next day's work and to prevent thieving. Naomi's directions to Ruth were full of womanly wisdom, in effect, to wait until after the men have finished work, have had their evening meal and turned in for the night. We might think it risky for a young woman to be sent on such a mission, and this would probably have been so, but Naomi was well aware of the character of the man to whom Ruth was going. Further, she had provided her with a talisman for her protection, as we shall see later.
When all was still, Ruth went to the threshing floor, lay down at the feet of Boaz, uncovering them as she did so. To his surprise he discovered a woman lying nearby. "Who art thou?" he asked and Ruth answered, "I am Ruth, thy hand maid. Spread thy cloak over me for thou art a kinsman." The appeal to "spread thy cloak" was the traditional phrase used when asking for help and protection, and "thou art a kinsman" was the talisman with which Naomi knew Ruth would be protected.
Though the Hebrews were no more moral than other men, then or since, there yet were very strict laws against promiscuous intercourse between kinsfolk. Naomi knew that Boaz was a man of honour and would strictly abide by the laws and customs of his country. As instructed, Ruth then told Boaz of their predicament, and, how there being no offspring, the family name of Elimelech and Mahlon would die out from among the people. She made a plea to Boaz that he should perform the kinsman's part.
Boaz said that he would honour this commitment as a kinsman but that there was another who was nearer a kin than he. He would hold counsel with this man to find out if he was willing to buy Elimelech’s field and take responsibility for Naomi and Ruth. If not, he himself would take Ruth as a wife to ensure that the inheritance would pass to her child, in the name of the dead Mahlon.
So in the early morning, while it was yet dark, so that one could not see the other, he filled Ruth's shawl with barley, bade her not tell anyone that she had come to his threshing floor, and sent her back to Naomi. Ruth told Naomi all that had happened and gave her the six measures of barley Boaz had given her. Naomi warned her to wait until they know how the matter will fall; for Boaz will not rest until he has finished his duty this day.
Quite obviously Naomi had not the slightest doubt about the outcome. Boaz had said he would do it - and do it he would. From this we can gather much of the man's character and of his standing in the opinion of his fellow tribesmen. Dependability and integrity were of the very essence of his nature. The word of Boaz was his bond, on which all men could rely.
Was there ever a period in the world's history when such qualities were not of infinitely more worth than rank, or power, or wealth? The exhibition of how to live fills every hour and every day of our lives. Our Masonic code reminds us - "as a man lives so shall he die" - thus we may be sure that if a freemason has learned to live, properly and decently, with charity to all men, then he will surely know how to face death itself with dignity. Boaz was neither a saint nor a prophet; he was just an ordinary man like us. But his life and character provide standards that all true masons could well emulate. It matters not what our station or occupation in life may be the question each of us must continually ask ourselves is this: if we enter into a contract or agreement, written or verbal, can the other party say of us, "this man will not be in rest until he has completed his part as promised?" This will be true of the small incidents of our daily life, as well as of the faithful performance of the heavier obligations.
While Oscar Wilde was in prison he wrote these memorable words, "I had forgotten that it is the little actions of the common day that make or unmake the character of a man." Can the other party unreservedly depend on us? Is our word, like that of Boaz, our bond? If so, then we may claim to be worthy masons and brothers to Boaz. If not, then the most we dare claim is that we are subscribing members of a Masonic organisation.
The effect of this is felt in the little circles of our daily contacts with our fellow man. It is also felt nationally. The greatest loss the British Commonwealth has suffered in the past century is that of the justification of the proud saying, "an Englishman's word is his bond" if you or I have failed to honour our bond at any time, then we have contributed to the loss of that proud reputation. So we can see that our founders endeavoured to make freemasonry a complete "science of the art of living," in that we are taught by example as well as precept how to live, as well as how to die.
But to return to the story - the next morning we see Boaz riding into Bethlehem to sit with the elders of the tribe; the fathers of wisdom. The wall around the city was thick and strong for defence and in the wall there would be a gateway providing shade from the heat of a Palestinian summer. Here came Boaz and he asked ten of the elders to gather to grant him attention for the business he was to transact with a kinsman. According to the customs of the ancient Hebrews, this formed a legal assembly and all business agreed on there was legally binding.
The kinsman concerned was then sent for and when he had joined them, Boaz told him that Naomi, the wife of a dead kinsman, Elimelech, has come out of Moab seeking to sell a parcel of land. As he was the nearest kin Boaz asked him if he was willing to buy the land. The kinsman naturally knew the value of the property and saw an opportunity of increasing his holdings; so he stated that he would buy. But Boaz now disclosed that there was an important condition attached to the offer.
He told him that when he bought the land from the hand of Naomi, he also purchased Ruth, the Moabitess, to “raise up seed unto Mahlon”. Now this was an entirely different matter! The kinsman realised the land would not be his but the property of Ruth's child. Furthermore, as a conservative Hebrew, the thought of marrying a detested Moabite was utterly repugnant to him.
Now this was the manner in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things, a man plucked off his shoe and gave it to his neighbour; and this was a testimony in Israel. (Ruth 4:7-8)
Therefore the kinsman drew off his shoe said to Boaz: "it will mar mine inheritance. Buy it thyself for I will not do it".
Boaz then said to the elders that they were witnesses that he, Boaz, had bought all that that was Elimelech’s from the hand of Naomi and that he would marry Ruth to honour the family name. He said that the child she will bore will come upon the inheritance.
The elders were all in approval and likened Ruth to their forebears, Rachel and Leah, who bore the sons that were the builders of the House of Israel.
When the people compared Ruth with Rachel and Leah, they offered the greatest compliment that any Hebrew, then or now, could pay to any woman. For as the wives of Jacob, son of Abraham, the primary leader of their religion, these women occupy a uniquely honoured place in Hebrew history. So Boaz took Ruth to be his wife and she conceived and bore him a son.
The women of the village said to Naomi that she was blessed by the Lord this day with a kinsman born and that his name may be famous in Israel. He shall be a restorer of life and nourishment in her old age, for her daughter-in-law, who loved her, and was better to her than seven sons, had borne her a grandson.
So Naomi took the child and laid it in her bosom and cared for it. He was indeed, a restorer of her life and, eventually, a nourisher of her old age. She named him Obed, and Obed became the father of Jesse, who in turn became the father of David, who lived to be a prince and ruler in Israel, a great-grandson of Boaz.
And so, brethren, we come to the end of our tale; a page of ancient history, rich in nobility and in beauty and equally rich in Masonic significance.
The above was compiled from my reading of the Book of Ruth (VSL); several published research lodge papers and consultation on the internet.
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