Shavuot: The First Fruit!
We have been counting the Omer, from the eve of the second Passover Seder. We count seven weeks and on the next day i.e. the fiftieth we celebrate Shavuot. This holy day is called “The Festival Of Weeks” in English. The Torah’s typical verbal parsimony states that from the day of the first fruits of the barley harvest are brought, count seven weeks and on the next day celebrate Shavuot. Shavuot literally means “weeks”. It is on the face of it a purely agricultural event.
However, Shavuot has been attached, or anchored into the Exodus saga. There are many commentaries and opinions on the question of “which day do we begin the count?” The Torah only tersely states that the count is to begin after the Sabbath.. The mainstream of rabbinic opinion and Jewish practice is to consider the Passover to be the “Sabbath”, a rest day, and therefore the count begins on the next day. Others have read it to mean what it says: from the next Sabbath after Passover. In any case there is a clear connection made between what was once a purely agricultural holiday and the Exodus from Egypt. (Similarly, there appears to have been an ancient festival of unleavened bread to which a newer meaning is overlaid; that we eat unleavened bread in recognition that the Israelites fleeing Egypt had no time to allow natural rising of leavened dough.)
The written Torah takes us no further in regard to Shavuot. But there is a major addition made in its understanding through the Tradition that it was on this day that the Torah was given to Moses. Much apocryphal writing exists on that theme, to which we shall turn to later.
The Christian holiday of Pentecost is Shavuot. It is well known that pente refers to fifty, and the holiday is the fiftieth day from Easter. For Messianic Jews, an understanding of this day of Shavuot and its parallels with Pentecost can illuminate many levels of meaning. One approach is through a deeper understanding of the Book of Ruth.
The Jewish Bible, (or Tanaach) contains the Torah (the five books of Moses), the Prophets, the Writings, and Poetry. The Book Of Ruth is from the Writings. Other Writings include Ester, (read at Purim), Lamentations, (Tisha b’av), The Song Of Songs (Shabbot within the week of Passover) and Ecclesiastes (Shabbot within Succoth).
The Book Of Ruth is read on Shavuot. The mainstream consensus is that it was chosen because its plot unfolds within the time of the barley harvest, and Shavuot is celebration of that same first harvest. (In The Land, barley is the first harvest and wheat is the next. And only toward the end of the agricultural season comes the harvest of grapes and olives.)
When Ruth is read quickly on the assumption that its only connection to Shavuot is that they both relate to the barley harvest, its profound symbolism and indeed prophetic qualities are completely missed. Ruth has much to say to Messianic Jews.
Initially the book seems little more than a sweet story of loyalty and generosity. It is not classified with the Prophets, but as Writings. And yet there seems more to it than a mere source of homiletic exhortation. Something clearly messianic is being whispered between the lines. It is about David’s ancestry; and to a Messianic Jew that must say something about Messiah, whether Yeshua or One as of yet unrevealed. The expectation of the Messiah is considered a cardinal tenet of faith according to Maimonides. And of course in the daily prayers we pray for the Son of David to return to and restore Jerusalem.
What might we find when we look closer at this book? This Scroll, Ruth, is the story of the genealogy of David, and as said above, is read on Shavuot, the celebration of the first, the barley harvest. Shavuot has also become linked with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. And in the B’rit Hadashah (New Testament) it is on Shavuot that the Ruach HaKodesh (holy spirit) fills the group of believers and allows them to speak in the various tongues. Jewish believers and believers from all the nations were present in “one place” (Acts2: 1-4) and yet were able to “hear the great things that God has done” in their own languages! So upon this Day of First Fruits the Holy Spirit invited the first Yeshua believers from the nations to become engrafted into God’s nation, Israel!
The Book Of Ruth is the story of the Moabite woman who somehow became the Great Grandmother of David and earned a whole book in the Tanaach to be named for her, and to be listed in the genealogy of Yeshua HaMoshiach. (Mt 1: 5)
The story of Ruth takes place “In the days when the Judges judged (ruled)”. And because of a famine Elimelech his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion left Bethlehem-Judah. All of these names have meaning. Eli My God, melech King, so Elimelech means “God is my king”. We learn later in the text that Naomi means “pleasant”. Mahlon, and Chilion mean Sickly and Frailty, respectively. And because of the famine they must leave Beit LeChem, (Bethlehem: ironically means house of bread). Further, the family is called Ephratim (that term reappears toward the end of the book and we will deal with it there.) And they left to sojourn in the fields of Moab.
Elimelech died leaving Naomi and her two sons alone in Moab. The sons married two Moabite women. The rabbinic commentators perform feats of contortion to circumvent the plain reading of Deuteronomy 23: 4. “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the lord; none of their descendents even in the tenth generation shall be admitted into the congregation of the lord, 5. Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam…to curse you”. One such commentary claims that the taboo only included Moabite males since the term Moabitress is not in the commandment. Many are content to say that this law in Deuteronomy was not known at this time and place. I think it is ducking the issue, and if pursued the question may give answers that shed light on other points.
For a brief and uneventful ten years nothing of any import occurs in the story. That “nothing” actually becomes the “something”, for both young men die, childless. Their death following their father’s leaves Elimelech’s estate “intestate”, in need of a Redeemer. As 4:7 later makes clear, when the Israelites came into their land it was divided by lot between the tribes, and then between the clan’s of the tribes and even to the males of the families. Their allotment was to be considered adherent to their families, and passed from fathers to sons. It could not be sold. It could only be leased out if necessary but it had to be returned in the Jubilee years. In this case, Elimelech’s holdings near Bethlehem had no male inheritors (when one considers the etymology of “intestate” the similarity is apparent!). Therefore it was in need of being redeemed. The Redeemer was the male who had the right and/or obligation to take the land in the name of the deceased so that it would not pass out of his clan, or tribe, or out of Israelite ownership itself. This becomes very important to the story later on!
Back at the ranch, the mournful, lonesome trio of widows, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, were in an untenable situation. Naomi arose to leave Moab because she heard that the lord had remembered the people (exactly as Moses spoke to the Israelites in Egypt) giving them food (lehem as in Beit Le-hem, Bethlehem!). As the three started on the road back to the Land of Judah, Naomi blessed her daughters-in-law for all their loving support and loyalty and told them to return to the homes of their mothers. “May Adenoi deal as kindly with you as you have dealt with the deceased and me.” The girls cry and cling and desire to return to Judah with Naomi. She reminds them that she is too old to have any more sons, and even if she miraculously married and conceived a son, could Ruth or Orpah wait for him to mature so as to fulfill the levirate marriage custom. (Levirate marriage was the means for a man’s name and land allotment to be perpetuated if he died without male offspring. His brother was obliged to take the widow and conceive a son to carry on his brother’s line.)
Finally Orpah said good-bye and went back to the home of her mother. Ruth did not. Despite Naomi almost scolding her to do like Orpah and return to her people and her “gods”, Ruth declared her unshakeable commitment: “For where ever you go I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge, your people are my people and your God is my God.” And she declares that nothing but death will separate her from Naomi.
So Naomi quit arguing and the two continued on until they reached Bethlehem. When they arrived there the city was in a tumult over them. (“When he entered Jerusalem the whole city was stirred. ‘ Who is this?’ they asked” MT 21:10-11.) And the crowds asked, “is this Naomi?”
And so returned Naomi with Ruth, the Moabite, …from the fields of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Chapter 2 begins with the narrator telling us that “And, Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a man of substance from the family of Elimelech whose name (was) Boaz. Boaz means, “in him is strength”. The narrator knows this, but the text seems to indicate that Ruth was unaware of this. Ruth, the Moabite (again the book refuses to allow that fact to be swept under the rug), asks permission of Naomi to go and glean in the field. It is very interesting that (1.) Naomi is aware of the Torah’s command, in Lev.23: 22 “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the lord your God.” And interesting that (2.) this pasuk occurs immediately after the explicit instructions given for establishing the holy day of Shavuot! (Lev. 23: 15-21) Which just to remind, is the day on which this book is read!
So, Ruth goes and gleans in the field behind the harvesters. When the harvesters pass and miss an ear of grain, or one drops to the ground, that ear is not to be harvested, but is to be left for the gleaners. “And it happened that she came to the part of the field of Boaz.” (I think we are meant to ask ourselves if she truly happened upon it, or perhaps planned to do so.) And then coincidentally, Boaz, himself, the important man of the area, and from the family of Elimelech, happens to arrive at the fields, returning from Bethlehem, the regional center. Boaz immediately blesses his workers (who were probably day-laborers and not people to whom important big shots to would typically defer!) His workers blessed him in return, both using the name HaShem, the name of God associated with mercy. (Previously, upon returning, Naomi tells the excited townsfolk not to call her Naomi (pleasant) but Bitter, because Shaddai had dealt bitterly with her. Shaddai is the name of God in His attribute of strict Justice.)
Boaz notices Ruth, and his foreman tells him that she is the Moabite girl (na’ra young woman, “lass”), who returned with Naomi. He also tells how she asked if she might glean and then worked without rest almost the whole morning. Boaz is impressed, perhaps by her beauty, her loyalty to Naomi, and her humility and willingness to work hard. He speaks to Ruth “Hear me well my daughter” do not glean anywhere else; stay nearby and close to my female workers. He makes it known to her that he has warned his male workers to keep their distance and that she is to feel free to drink from the jugs that his workers draw. She falls on her face before him and humbly asks “Why have I found favor in your eyes that you should take note of me, though I a foreigner?” Boaz’s answer is worth repeating verbatim: “It was fully reported to me all that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband; that you left your father and your mother and the land of your birth and went to a people whom you had not known yesterday or the day before that. May HaShem repay your actions and may your reward be complete from HaShem the God of Israel, Whom you have come, to seek refuge under His wings.”
He gave her roasted grain to eat and had her continue gleaning, though he made sure that his harvesters “missed” many ears of grain! Ruth loyally returns to Naomi with an ephah of barley. When Naomi learns from whom Ruth gleaned she says Baruch hu HaShem, (notably, no longer does she use the name Shaddai.) “Blessed be the lord Who has not abandoned His kindness with the living and with the dead!” And Naomi informs Ruth that Boaz is in fact a relative, one of “our” redeemers! And she instructs her to stay close by his female workers and Ruth does so, and completes the barley harvest and then the wheat harvest as well.
Chapter 3 begins after Ruth spent some time home with Naomi after the harvests were in. Now the two women sit and Naomi sketches out a general plan to help Ruth find the contentment that she so very much deserves. Basically the plan is direct and simple. Ruth is to be bathed, perfumed and dressed in her best outfit. She is to go down to the threshing floor where Boaz will be found.
Threshing floors are places of importance in Biblical stories. Perhaps, because they must be open and level spaces they have been the sites of gatherings for various purposes. Goren, Hebrew for threshing floor, HaAtad, the thorns, is the site where Joseph accompanied by his brothers, and Egyptian elders mourned Jacob’s death. For seven days they mourned at the Threshing Field of Thorns, (Gen. 50: 10, 11). More significantly, the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite was bought by David in order to build there an alter to the Lord, the future site of the Temple. (2Sam 24: 18- 25.) We will return to this connection, for it pertains to the barley harvest as well!
Enough with the threshing floors! Back to the story: Naomi continues to coach Ruth in the wiles of seduction. Let Boaz finish eating and drinking but do not let him see you. Watch where he beds down and then you go, uncover his feet and lie down. Naomi tells Ruth that Boaz will tell her what to do. And Ruth says “All that you have said to me I will do”, and she does.
Boaz ate and drank and merry was his heart. And she came stealthily and uncovered his feet and she lay down. In the middle of the night he “trembled and turned about and there was a woman lying at his feet”! When asked she said “I am Ruth your handmaiden, you should spread your wing over your handmaiden for the redeemer are you”.
“May you be blessed by the lord, for your last act of kindness is better than the first inasmuch as you have not turned to young men, poor or rich.” Boaz appreciates that the young and beautiful Ruth might have reasonably set her sights on other younger men. Yet, for the sake of Naomi’s husband’s inheritance she is giving herself to Boaz. He has no illusions and she has given him none to suggest otherwise. Her first kindness, caring for Naomi in the tragic and lonely years in Moab, and loyally following her back to Bethlehem is superseded by her sacrifice of her youthful life to secure Elimelech’s portion. In recognition of this Boaz echoes Ruth’s statement to Naomi “And now my daughter, do not fear. All that you say I will do for you.”
Ruth’s declaration of love and oath of allegiance to Naomi were not enough. As commendable as that was it did not change her status of being a Moabite, and therefore being ineligible to marry an Israelite; and there is nothing in the story to supersede the direct statement in Deuteronomy that not even the tenth generation of Moabite is allowed to do so. Rather than just accept that the author of Ruth was not knowledgeable of Deuteronomy, or that the Torah is imperfect I have been trying to reconcile this apparent contradiction.
Elimelech died; (name= My God Is King). Then Ruth’s and Orpah’s husbands (his sons) died. Therefore Naomi’s land had no male heir. Only since both of Naomi’s sons died without producing any children did their property revert to Naomi. And since Naomi was widowed their land in Moab was in need of being redeemed. So Boaz redeemed Naomi’s property. Ruth, who could not inherit, instead became inherited by Boaz with the land! In the name of Yeshua are not the nations redeemed and engrafted into the tree of Israel? And of course this book involving the barley harvest (first fruits), is read on Shavuot celebrating the first fruit, and states that Ruth also gleaned into the wheat harvest.
Yeshua ate the Pesah Lamb with His disciples on the First Seder of Passover, recalled in Christendom as The Last Supper. Although one can say He was like the Pesah Lamb, He could not be it, for he ate it! But He was like another Lamb. Leviticus 23: 9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. 11 He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. 12 And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord.
Every year there are debates about which “Sabbath” is the Sabbath of Lev. 23:11. It is important, for it is from that day that the counting down to Shavuot begins. Ironically mainstream Jewish practice is to consider the 15thof Nisan to be that Sabbath. Many newly Torah Observant Messianics will count from the next seventh day Shabbot. But if done with Jewish custom we will see that Yeshua was elevated, taken up off the cross before the sun set on the 15th. Jews count the Omer from the day Yeshua was elevated. Yeshua is the Perfect Yearling Lamb given as and for the First Fruits!
Passover, and the First Seder begin as the light of Nisan 14 fades away into Nisan 15. Yeshua finished the Seder, requested that the last of the Seder table Matzo (the Afikomen) and the last cup of wine be done in remembrance of him. Returning to Gethsemane to sweat out the last night aware that in the morning his torment will ensue, it was still the 15th. When the Romans, brought by Judas Iscariot arrived to arrest Him it was the 15th.
So… perhaps Elimelech stands for Yeshua the suffering servant whose death initiates the story. Yeshua the son of Mary, son of Israel would have affirmed the sentiment “My God is King” (Elimelech). And despite Churchianity’s dogma, Yeshua never equated himself with God! God is HIS king
Boaz, at the other end of the story, whose name means “With Power”, is the Messiah, The Lamb in Revelation, whose return at the end of history will be with power and glory.