Coincidence?—Or Providence?!

Coincidence?—Or Providence?!

Last week we saw how Ruth, a Moabite woman who had married an Israelite man, clung to and refused to leave her mother-in-law, Naomi, after they had lost their husbands and Naomi thereby determined to return back to her home in Bethlehem in Judah. For Naomi this decision was a means of seeking survival for having no husband or sons who could support or take care of her meant, during this time in history, that she wouldn’t have had the means of providing for herself. Knowing this, she encouraged her two daughters-in-law, both of whose husbands had died, to return to their own people and gods in Moab that they might be able to start their lives anew rather than face the prospect of poverty were they to stay with her. One of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, accepted her generous and selfless offer; but, again, Ruth, her other daughter-in-law, did not. Instead she chose to give up her own people and gods and chose to embrace Naomi’s people and God. In Ruth’s own words, she said to Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”[1] Thus did Ruth determine to make the people and God of her mother-in-law and deceased husband her own.

Now at the end of chapter 1 it states that when Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, “the barley harvest was beginning.”[2] As one commentator notes, “The season of harvest was a time of celebration, rejoicing together before God, and remembering the poor. The narrative development is tied to this scheme.”[3] And as chapter 2 opens, we’re provided with two important pieces of information about the events that unfold: first, that “Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz” (verse 1). If you’ll recall, Elimelek was Naomi’s husband and, as we’ll see, his being related to Boaz is significant; second, we see how right from the get-go Ruth was all in. So in verse 2 of chapter 2, Ruth was ready to get to work. As she said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” As her mother-in-law had taken initiative by returning to Bethlehem once she heard about how the LORD was providing food for his people,[4] so now Ruth was similarly taking initiative in trying to find a means of providing for them. Again, living as widows in this time, their situation was dire. But Ruth was willing to try and find some food for them by “pick[ing] up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” And Naomi agreed as she said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter” (verse 2).

Now it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Ruth would be allowed to pick up even the leftover grain. But fortunately for Ruth the LORD God of Israel whom she had made up her mind to serve had made clear to his people that as his followers, they were to care for the poor. As we read in the book of Leviticus, God commanded his people by means of his servant Moses, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.”[5] The LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was a God who cared for the poor and the foreigner. Therefore all who loved, served, and followed him were to do likewise. Yet though Israel was God’s chosen nation that he created for himself from one man, Abraham, we also know that as is far too often the case with those who follow God, God’s people didn’t always do his bidding but instead lived in ways that went against his will. So although this command by God to care for the poor and foreigner was in place for all Israelites, there was no way of knowing whether the owner of the field in which Ruth chose to glean would be someone who actually followed and practiced the bidding of Israel’s God.

Well, upon receiving Naomi’s approval of her plan to pick up any leftover grain we read in verse 3 how Ruth, “…went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.” Again we’re being reminded about this significant piece of information. Boaz was related to Naomi’s deceased husband, Elimelek, both men being from the same clan. Is this coincidence? Or is it providence? A coincidence is defined as “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection”; whereas providence is defined as, “the protective care of God.” Well given that this story began with Ruth leaving her own people and gods to serve the people and God of Naomi, her mother-in-law, I’m pretty sure we’re being encouraged to view this turn of events as providence. This certainly is “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances” but it’s difficult to see it as anything other than occurring under God’s providential care.

Next in verse 4 we’re actually introduced for the first time to the third key character in this story, Boaz, who “arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you!’ ‘The Lord bless you!’ they answered.” And again, as it happened, Boaz noticed a foreigner, Ruth, harvesting in his field, so he “asked the overseer of his harvesters, ‘Who does that young woman belong to?’” So the overseer told him, verses 6–7: “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. 7 She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.” This is now the fourth time in just over two chapters that we’re told that Ruth is a Moabite.[6] Why does the narrator keep drawing our attention to this fact? Perhaps, as one commentator notes,[7] it’s because “[s]he is not just any Ruth. For the story it is crucial that she be remembered as a foreigner….” Suspicion and dislike of foreigners isn’t common simply in our own day but even in ancient times xenophobia was alive and well. As a foreigner and a widow, Ruth would have had two strikes against her. Yet foreigner though she might be, she nonetheless had resolved to make a go of a new life with her mother-in-law’s God and people. Rather than sit by and wonder how in the world she and Naomi would get by, given that both had lost their husbands, again, she instead took the initiative and “entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters” (v. 3). And in our gracious LORD’s providence—not coincidence—she chose just the right field for not only did it happen to belong to Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi’s husband, but Boaz turned out to be an extraordinary godly man of great integrity.

Now if it’s true that you only get one chance to make a first impression, Boaz certainly makes a solid one:

First, upon greeting the harvesters working for him, he greeted them in the name of God as he said to them, “The Lord be with you!” and the harvesters responded in kind, “The Lord bless you!” (verse 4). This God-centered orientation continues to remain key in this account;

Second, upon noticing Ruth, Boaz inquired about who she might be. And upon learning some details about her life, he went to her and said, as recorded beginning with verse 8, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. 9 Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women.” By encouraging Ruth to continue gleaning in his field, Boaz was offering to help provide and care for her;

And not only that but, third, notice what he went on to say to her in the second half of verse 9, “I have told the men not to lay a hand on you.” The fact that Boaz would bother making such a point is a sad reminder that even in ancient times there was a need for the “#MeToo” movement. As a widow, Ruth had no husband to protect her; as a foreigner, she couldn’t appeal to being one with the people of Israel for she was a Moabite. Therefore it would have been all too easy for the men working for Boaz to take advantage of a widow who was also a foreigner.[8] The possibility of Ruth being abused and assaulted was very real. Yet Boaz took care to note that he had made a point of telling his men not only to allow her to glean but not to lay a hand on her;

Fourth, Boaz didn’t simply allow her to work, but he provided for her by telling her as recorded at the end of verse 9, “And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” And he not only offered her drink but we’re told in verse 14 that at mealtime Boaz called Ruth over and told her to have some bread dipped in wine vinegar. And “[w] hen she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over.” Boaz wasn’t treating Ruth as a Moabite, a foreigner, but as an Israelite, one of his own people;

And not only did he allow her to glean in his fields but, fifth, he also gave his men further instructions concerning her. As stated in verses 15–16, he gave orders to his men, “Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. 16 Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her.” Boaz wasn’t simply meeting the letter of the Levitical law on gleaning but he was embracing the spirit of it: namely, that those who have been materially blessed have a responsibility to care for the poor and they should do so not simply out of a sense of obligation, but willingly and generously. As the apostle Paul later taught, “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”[9] Boaz, living centuries before Paul, nonetheless embodied his teaching.

For her part Ruth recognized how unusual Boaz’s provision was for “At this,” verse 10, “she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, ‘Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?’” As her mother-in-law, Naomi, would have had a difficult time in Moab given that she was an Israelite, so, too, Ruth understood that as a Moabite, there would be no reason for an Israelite to bother with her. Yet Ruth’s reputation preceded her for as stated in verse 11 Boaz replied to her, “11…I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”[10] Boaz recognized the sacrifice Ruth had made in traveling back with Naomi, her mother-in-law, to her homeland. Ruth had sacrificed everything to be with and help care for Naomi, even to the point of following the LORD, Israel’s God. And so Boaz blessed her and asked that that very God would continue to repay and reward her for the sacrifice she had made.

Well as we read in verse 17, hard-working Ruth “gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah.” Ruth was no shrinking violet! An ephah would have weighed about thirty pounds. Given Boaz’s generosity and her hard work, in one day she had collected “at least a two-week supply” of food for herself and Naomi.[11] She then “18…carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough.” So Ruth was not only hard-working but she was also strong—30 pounds is just a little less than what Rango weighs!

Now when Naomi saw how successful Ruth had been in her gleaning she understandably asked, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!” Naomi recognized that such an abundant haul would have been quite unusual, to say the least, and could only have been due to the kindness of a field owner. When Ruth told him who he was, Naomi, of course, recognized his name and exclaimed, verse 20, “The Lord bless him!…. He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead[12]…. That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian–redeemers”—or, a far more common translation and one I prefer and will be using, “he is one of our kinsman–redeemers.” As Ruth’s reputation preceded her, so did that of Boaz. By Naomi’s response we see that Boaz was known for the many kind and generous ways that he never “stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” I should note, however, that there’s some ambiguity as to whether Naomi was stating that it was Boaz who never stopped “showing his kindness to the living and the dead”—or God. A possible solution suggested by one commentator is that “This ambiguity is probably intentional; that is, the answer is both. In this story, Boaz embodies features of God’s own character, particularly his kindness.”[13]

Regardless of which is the case, the fact that Boaz is one of Naomi’s—and therefore Ruth’s by her marriage to Mahlon, Naomi’s son—kinsman–redeemers brings this portion of the story full circle. For among the laws God gave his people to follow were that kinsman–redeemers, or those who were one’s nearest relatives, had a responsibility to take care of their kinsman, or blood relations, in a number of ways. This would have included the levirate marriage practice we noted last week in which a brother was obligated to marry the wife of his deceased brother in order that he might care for her and continue his brother’s family line.[14] And as we’ll see next week, the fact that Boaz is a kinsman–redeemer to Naomi and Ruth will end up being the means of their deliverance from impoverished and destitute lives.

Well, in looking at the lives of Naomi and Ruth, we are struck by the “remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances” that have taken place. But are these coincidences—that is, without any apparent cause? Or are they providence—events occurring under God’s protective care?

Is it coincidence or providence that when Elimelek left Bethlehem to escape the famine that he ended up in Moab?

Is it coincidence or providence that his sons married Moabite women, one of whom was Ruth?

Is it coincidence or providence that through her marriage to Mahlon Ruth, the Moabite, was introduced to and ended up following the one true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Is it coincidence or providence that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them thus opening a door for Naomi’s return home when her sons died?

Is it coincidence or providence that Ruth refused to leave her mother-in-law, choosing instead to leave her people and gods that she might adopt Naomi’s people and God?

Is it coincidence or providence that the first field Ruth came upon to glean in belonged to Boaz, a kind and godly man who took care of those who worked for him and who, upon noticing her, chose to take care of her, a foreigner, as well?

Is it coincidence or providence that Boaz turned out not only to be godly but also Naomi and Ruth’s kinsman–redeemer?

You get the idea. The story of Ruth challenges us to consider whether coincidences even exist. Whether anything that takes place in life, even those “remarkable concurrences of events or circumstances” we all on occasion become aware of, are without any “causal connection”? I think it was in one of the Alpha videos we viewed this past Fall that the statement was made that the more we pray, the more we become aware of coincidences in life. In other words, the more we pray, the more aware we become aware of the fact that “remarkable concurrences of events or circumstances” aren’t without any causal connection but are, in fact, expressions of “the protective care of God”; are expressions of his providence. For in the end, aren’t all occurrences in our lives a matter of providence? If the God who disclosed himself initially by way of Old Testament prophets, and later by New Testament apostles, and ultimately in Christ Jesus, his Son, is who all of these reveal him to be, then there’s no such thing as a coincidence. There’s no such thing as events or circumstances, whether mundane or remarkable, that occur without cause. For if the God who has disclosed himself to us is who he says he is, then all of life is under his protective care—the good times and bad; the hard times and easy; the boring times—and happy times; the times of suffering and of joy—all of these are part of his mysterious providence, his mysterious rule and protection in which he manages to work in the lives of people who know and love him; and people who don’t care to know and hate him; and people who aren’t even sure about whether or not he exists.

However, as believers in and followers of Christ, we are reminded by the story of Ruth about how God cares for all of his creation and how he calls us to do likewise. In fact in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his followers this very point: “43 You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[15] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” And notice what Jesus goes on to say about our heavenly Father: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[16] In other words, if God in his providence takes care of even those who are evil by causing his sun to rise upon them; and sends rain even on those who are unrighteous in order that they may live, we who know and love and follow this kind and loving heavenly Father are to similarly love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. For God calls us to be like him. And God doesn’t change for we’ve just seen how the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is one with Christ Jesus is a God who cares for the poor and the foreigner and who, from the beginning, called those who followed him to do likewise. The apostle Paul similarly reminds believers that in the end, “in all things God works for the good of those who know him, who have been called according to his purpose.”[17] And his purpose is that we might walk in the good works he has prepared for us to[18] do as we seek to love and follow him and love and take care of one another.

Nothing that occurs in life is outside of this kind and gracious God’s providential care. So next time we notice “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances” in our lives, instead of exclaiming, “Oh, what a coincidence!” let us instead thank and praise our gracious and loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who has caused such a seemingly happy and serendipitous coincidence to occur in the first place. And let us seek to go and do likewise.

Let us pray.

[1] Ruth 1:16-17.

[2] Ruth 1:22.

[3] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Ruth 1:22 (emphasis added).

[4] Ruth 1:6.

[5] Leviticus 19:9–10. See also Leviticus 23:22: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.; Deuteronomy 24:19–22: 19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.; Concern for the poor and foreigner is also addressed in Exodus 22:21: Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.


[6] The other three instances are Ruth 1:3–4a:Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth.; Ruth 1:22: So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.; Ruth 2:2: And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”

[7] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Ruth 1:22. The note goes on to observe, “Also, the reader may be prompted to think of Ruth’s ancestor, Lot’s daughter, and the incestuous beginnings of the Moabite nation (Gen. 19:30-38). In both cases the problem is childlessness or lack of an heir.” Finally, in addition to the passages I’ve already noted, it also notes other passages in which Ruth is identified either as a Moabite or foreigner: Ruth 2:10: At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” Ruth 2:21: Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay with my workers until they finish harvesting all my grain.’” Ruth 4:5: Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, thedead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.” Ruth 4:10: I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”

[8] Time and again Scripture notes how God dealt with all-too-real fallen humanity and sought to make sure that his followers both punished evil behavior and didn’t partake in it themselves. See, for example, Deuteronomy 22:25–27: 25 But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.

[9] 2 Corinthians 10:6–8.

[10] Note Jesus’ poignant remark in Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

[11] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Ruth 2:17–17.

[12] However, ESV translates this differently: “May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” In other words, it is the LORD who is kind, not Boaz.

[13] Crossway ESV Study Bible.

[14] See Deuteronomy 25:5–6:If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.” As listed in the Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Ruth 2:20, kinsman-redeemers were also “responsible for protecting the interests of needy members of the extended family” in that they were “to redeem land that a poor relative had sold outside the family (Lev 25:25–28), to redeem a relative who had been sold into slavery (Lev 25:47–49) and to avenge the killing of a relative (Nu 35:19–21).”

[15] Leviticus 19:18: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

[16] Matthew 5:43–48.

[17] Romans 8:28.

[18] See Ephesians 2:10: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.