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Recently on the Groundwork radio program I am privileged to co-host along with Rev. David Bast, we did a four-part series on that Old Testament gem, the Book of Ruth. The story is familiar to many: after what Lemony Snicket might call “a series of unfortunate events,” a widowed Israelite woman named Naomi (who has lost also both of her sons) comes back from a foreign land with her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth in tow. Naomi and Ruth are about as vulnerable a pair as you could find in the Ancient Near East. In Israel God repeatedly urged for special protections for “widows, orphans, and aliens” because anyone who found themselves in one of those categories could so easily fall through the social cracks. Well, Naomi is a widow, Ruth is both a widow and an alien from Moab (and seeing as Ruth seemed to have no family in Moab to stay with, for all we know Ruth might have been an adult orphan too). It is a grim trifecta of vulnerability.
But the story soon picks up speed in a more positive direction as Ruth meets the man Boaz who is a relative of Naomi’s and who can quite literally redeem their whole situation, which is what Boaz does. The story moves from bitter emptiness in Ruth 1 to joyful fullness in Ruth 4 even as we are reminded at the very end of the book that one big reason this story got preserved in Israel is because you can draw a solid familial line from Ruth and Boaz to King David (and now from there you can keep extending that line all the way to Jesus the Christ, as the evangelist Matthew reminds us in his family tree of Jesus in Matthew 1).
Ruth is a great story of God’s providence, and those of us in the Reformed tradition (and particularly of the Calvinist stripe at that) are big on providence. Indeed, there are places in the Reformed confessions that point to such a strongly activist God that it becomes difficult to resist the idea that the whole of our lives are all a pre-written scripted affair in which God may somehow be behind even less-than-savory events (cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 27 and Belgic Confession Article 13). At an extreme end of such beliefs, one could see how such robust views of providence could lead to a kind of quietism or passivity.
It reminds me of a well-known scene in the Bertolt Brecht play Mother Courage and Her Children in which a farmer and his wife can see an army approaching a neighboring city, obviously intent on a sneak attack at dawn. The couple is horrified by the carnage to come and so decides to pray fervently to God to protect the city’s residents. Meanwhile a young girl who is with the couple grabs a drum, climbs to the roof of the farmhouse and begins to bang the drum loudly so as to warn and wake up the city’s residents. The farmer and his wife want to pray so as to leave it up to God to act. The little girl wants to give God a hand. (Of course, the farmer and his wife are not bothered by anyone on account of their prayers. The little girl, though, gets shot.)
In the Book of Ruth, God’s hidden hand is not so hidden to us readers in retrospect. At the time it was no doubt a whole lot harder to see. God’s hand usually is rather hard to make out in the thick of things in our lives. But no one in the story of Ruth is passive in the belief God will just somehow take care of things. In Ruth 2 the Moabite Ruth risks molestation and worse by getting out of the house to go glean in the barley fields so she and Naomi can live. Boaz not only fulfills the gleaner laws in Israel but takes extra steps to protect Ruth and provide for her. Sensing an opportunity, Naomi tells Ruth to make herself as attractive as she can and then boldly visit Boaz on the threshing floor to make her romantic intentions toward him plain. Boaz then also springs into action and concocts a clever plan by which to get the next nearest kin out of the way so as to open up the path he wants to travel in order to marry Ruth.
Again and again the protagonists in Ruth spring into action. God may be superintending all this in his great and good providence–a series of actions that will enable God to bring forth no less than the Messiah some centuries later–but that does not render people passive. Their actions are key. Whether they move at the impulse of God’s providence or whether God is himself enabled to act on account of human activity is hard to say, and the Bible mostly seems disinterested in disentangling all that. It reminds me of what we see in Exodus in Moses’s various encounters with Pharaoh. The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart is a key part of all those stories in Egypt, but the author and final editor of Exodus is not the least bit interested in consistency as to who does what, why, or how that motors the story along. In the course of the narrative we are told that A) God hardens Pharaoh’s heart but then again we are told other times that B) Pharaoh hardens his own heart but then again at other times we are told that C) Pharaoh’s heart just self hardens. Which is it finally? I think the Bible’s answer can be “All of the Above.”
Of course, just how our actions and what we would regard as our taking the initiative tie in with and further God’s providential plans cannot always be known to us. And we can make mistakes, can even be a hindrance to God at times. But in the issues we face in our lives, we are called very simply to love what is right and act in accordance with it, seizing opportunities as they come if we think they can further the cause of righteousness. Many of the actions taken by the main characters in Ruth were not dramatic: some were everyday acts of faithfulness and following God’s ways. Yet through such actions God can and does change the world. Sometimes we have no choice but to, as we sometimes say, “Leave it all up to God.” But many other times being bold, speaking up, swinging into action are also ways to leave it up to God because God’s getting it done through us in the first place.