Ruth leaves her home with a barren womb and an empty future after losing her husband. She forsakes her abusive parents and follows the woman she has grown to love as a true parent, her late husband's mother, Naomi.
Ruth arrives in Israel with nothing to recommend her but Naomi's love. She is destitute, grief-stricken, and unwanted by the people of God.
But God has great plans for her.
While everyone considers Ruth an unworthy outsider, she is shocked to find the owner of the field—one of the wealthiest and most honored men of Judah—is showing her favor. Long since a widower and determined to stay that way, Boaz finds himself irresistibly drawn to the foreign woman with the dark, haunted eyes. He tells himself he is only being kind to his cousin Naomi's chosen daughter when he goes out of his way to protect her from harm, but his heart knows better.
Obstacles. Heartache. Withered dreams. How can God forge love, passion, and new hope between two such different people?
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In the Field of Grace
By Tessa Afshar, Pam Pugh
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2014 Tessa Afshar
All rights reserved.
FIVE YEARS LATER
* * *
To whom do you belong? And where are you from? 1 SAMUEL 30:13
Everyone in the city of Kir-hareseth seemed to have descended upon the marketplace, making final purchases before the stalls closed down. Crowds. Why couldn't they just stay home? Ruth tried to ignore the jostle of too many bodies. Dragging a perspiring hand down her worn tunic, she took a deep breath to steady her jangled nerves; the scent of sweat covered thinly by oily perfumes hit her with the force of a blow.
Ruth's mother had sent her to buy dates. She eyed the mounds of brown sticky fruit in a stall, trying to calculate how to get the best price so she could avoid one of her mother's blistering set downs. Bending forward, she picked one and examined it with intensity. It looked like a date to Ruth, which exhausted the breadth of her knowledge on the topic. About to open her mouth to ask for the price, she was surprised when a gentle hand caressed her arm.
"You can find better," a soft voice whispered in her ear. Startled, Ruth turned to find the source of the advice. The woman was in her middle years, with smooth skin and thick grey hair that peeked from beneath her ivory headdress. Her faded blue tunic appeared clean, the only good thing that could be said for it. The leather of her sandals, visible beneath her ankle-length tunic, showed signs of long wear.
Brown eyes sparkled at her. "What a lovely young woman. May the Lord bless you, child."
Compliments and Ruth did not go together. Certainly, no one had ever called her lovely. Her eldest sister was the acknowledged beauty of the family. Ruth was the last born and the Great Disappointment. The last chance at her parents' hope for a son, unfulfilled.
Too tall. Too quiet. Too female.
"Pardon?" she said, fumbling with the empty cloth bag she held, trying unsuccessfully to swallow.
"Forgive me. My sons tell me I am too free with my tongue. But you are such a pretty creature, I had to tell you."
Ruth gaped at her like one of the cows of Bashan.
The stranger flashed a wide smile, displaying a full set of startlingly white teeth. "I've embarrassed you. I'm sorry. We are more forthright with our thoughts in Israel. I've never lost the habit."
That explained the odd lilting accent. And the strange blessing she had given Ruth. What had she said? The Lord. Not Chemosh, but the Lord bless you. "You are an Israelite," Ruth said, forcing her tongue around the words.
"Yes. My sons and I have lived here for some years. We came when Bethlehem went through a famine and we feared we might starve. My husband was with us then, but he died of a wasting disease some years ago."
"That must have been hard to bear," Ruth said. "Having to raise your sons alone and in a foreign land."
"Hardest thing I've ever done. But the Lord has seen us through."
Ruth, who knew nothing about this Lord other than a vague recollection that He was the deity worshiped in Israel, gave a short nod.
"I am Naomi. Naomi of Bethlehem, in Judah. And you, my sweet girl? What do they call you?"
"Ruth." Naomi nodded. "I like it. Have you brothers and sisters?"
"Four sisters, all older."
Naomi raised her brows and made a gentle humming sound in her throat. An odd silence settled over them; Ruth felt the crowds receding from her senses, their incessant sounds and smells muted. She had a strange notion that the woman had gazed into her life and seen it, known its pains and sorrows, just from that one sentence. As if Naomi knew that four older sisters meant Ruth had grown up invisible. Unwanted. Never quite managing to please anybody.
Yet she had uttered no words. Just that gentle humming in her throat.
As if coming to a sudden decision, Naomi said, "You must come to my home and share supper with us. My sons will be delighted to meet you."
Ruth's jaw dropped open. "I ... thank you. But I must buy dates. For my mother."
"Ah. Try that stall over there. Mesha is almost an honest man. And his fruit is fresh. Don't let him pick for you, though. Insist on picking the ones you want. He'll grumble, but pay no mind. Your mother will be happy with what you bring home."
You don't know my mother.
"That's kind of you. Thank you, Naomi."
Before Ruth settled on a price with the vender Naomi had recommended, the woman herself showed up again, stationing herself at Ruth's side. "Come, Mesha. What kind of price is that for a daughter of Moab? You can do better."
Mesha complied by lowering his price a fraction. Ruth, who had no talent for haggling, gave the Israelite woman a grateful smile. "For once I'm returning from the market with a decent purchase. Not only do I thank you, my whole family thanks you."
Naomi laughed. Ruth liked the sound of it, clear and pleasing, without drawing needless attention. She could imagine the hardships of the woman's life. And yet Naomi had not lost her ability to find joy in small things.
"Will you come and visit me after you deliver the dates to your mother? It's only my sons and me, and our house is simple. But you would be most welcome. I'll give you supper and afterward walk you home so you won't have to worry about finding your way in the dark."
Ruth felt her skin turn warm as blood rushed to her cheeks. "I would like to."
Naomi patted her hand and told her how to find her house.
Before delivering the dates to her mother, Ruth hid two of the plumpest in her sash. For once, her mother had no sour comments when she examined her daughter's purchase. It never occurred to Ruth to expect praise for her success. Praise and her mother were not frequent companions. Not when it came to the woman's fifth daughter.
"Where is Grandfather?" Ruth asked.
"Where else? Slumbering on his mat as usual, expecting everyone to take care of his lordship."
Ruth flushed at her mother's bitter complaint. The only true kindness Ruth had received growing up was at the hand of her grandfather. Though everyone else in her family had found her wanting, her father's father acted as though Ruth were the most precious member of his brood.
In fond remembrance, Ruth fingered the luxurious linen sash tied at her waist. The old man had bought it for her years ago, after Ruth's sisters had teased her more mercilessly than usual. Unable to bear their mean words another moment, she had run into the field behind their house and hidden through the night, shedding her tears in private. No one had bothered to try to find her. Except Grandfather.
Late the following morning he had come upon her, crouching in order to see into her eyes. "There you are. I've been looking everywhere for you."
"I was here."
"So I see."
"Is Mother very angry?"
"No more than usual, shall we say? So long as you finish your chores, I believe she will grow calm. Now, I have a present for you."
"Yes, indeed. Because you are my adorable granddaughter and I am proud of you." He proffered the most exquisite sash Ruth had ever seen. It had white and dark blue stripes, with lighter blue flowers embroidered through the edges.
She gasped. "This must have cost a fortune."
The old man smiled. "It did. And you are worth it."
Ruth let the memory fade, blinking back tears.
The grandfather she held dear had disappeared in the past few years. His mind had grown dim with time. Often he didn't seem to recognize any of them. He had grown tangled in a shadow world, isolated, unable to grasp the ordinary things of life. He was with them and yet lost to them.
Ruth knelt by his mat and caressed his shoulder with a light hand. His eyes opened, faded and unfocused.
"I have a present for you, Grandfather." Ruth handed him one of the dates, trying to keep the exchange hidden from the rest of the room with her slim body.
The withered man stared at the date in the palm of his hand, his expression blank. "Put it in your mouth," Ruth encouraged. "It's sweet." She moved his hand toward his mouth, and obediently he took a bite.
He made a small sound of appreciation. "I told you you would like it," she whispered. "Don't let Mother catch you, or there will be great gnashing of teeth."
A smile broke on the old man's face and for a moment he looked like his old self, understanding and humor twinkling in the filmy eyes. Sometimes lucidity broke over him like the summer rains, sudden and inexplicable, and he became again the man she loved and missed like part of her own heart. But those moments were growing rarer with each passing day.
"Oh Grandfather." Ruth gave him a hard embrace; by the time she moved away, the empty look had taken the place of the momentary clarity. Ruth's shoulders slumped. Gently, she fed him the last date before leaving his side.
Her mother made no demur when Ruth spoke of her intention to visit Naomi. In truth, no one cared much if Ruth remained in the house or left it for hours, so long as she fulfilled her endless list of duties.
Ruth enjoyed the walk to Naomi's house. The streets were empty save for a few children lingering late to play one last game before being called home. It was her favorite time of day, just before twilight when the world became more still, when the intense bustle of the day drew to a close and the noise of the rushing crowds ceased.
The sycamore door to Naomi's house stood open, revealing one narrow room, the only chamber that the house boasted. The high lattice windows had been thrown open, allowing the pale, dying rays of the sun into the chamber, giving the place a cheery look. A few handwoven mats covered most of the bare, earthen floor, and two cushions with faded weaving sat against the far wall. A cluttered cleanliness marked the small space.
Ruth felt an odd peace as Naomi welcomed her inside. She could not explain it. But here, in this stranger's home, she felt more settled than she ever had in the house where she had spent her whole life.
Naomi took her hand and drew her farther into the chamber. "Aren't you tall? I have to tip my head back to look into your eyes."
Ruth bit her lip and lowered her face. Her height had been a source of unrelenting shame since she had turned ten and, without warning, grown into a pole. She managed to be taller than everyone in her family, even her father. Her sisters tormented her with names like tree trunk and rooftop.
Naomi gasped. "Oh my dear, I meant it as praise. You are like a willow, soft and full of grace. In Israel, tall women are much admired."
Then I should have been born in Israel. But she swallowed the words.
"Sit down here, dear Ruth. The cushions have gone flat, I'm afraid."
Ruth sat, tucking her feet up to the side of her hip, arranging her loose tunic to cover her toes. "They are very comfortable."
"My sons aren't home from the field yet. They leave early and return late. Poor lads. Their work is hard. We'll eat when they come. Do you like lentils?"
"My favorite," Ruth said, as if she didn't have to eat them every day. "May I help you with the bread?" Before Naomi could respond, she rose to go to her. Naomi was making cakes of dough with ground barley flour, and after rinsing her hands with water, Ruth took a large handful to knead.
"Such light flour," she said, allowing admiration to color her voice. She knew the effort it took to grind the barley grain into a fine powder. With Naomi the sole female occupant of her house, she could not share the burden of grinding with another woman, which would allow her to use a larger, more efficient hand mill.
Naomi smiled. "I fear I'm vain when it comes to my cooking. So if you want to win my heart, you've started on the right foot."
Another compliment? Ruth was losing count of them. She looked down and kneaded harder.
"The stone is hot. As soon as Mahlon and Chilion return home, we will bake the bread, so we can have hot barley cakes with our soup. Won't they be surprised to see you?"
Ruth gave Naomi a sharp look from under her lashes. "So you don't bring the daughters of Moab to supper every day?"
The older woman dissolved into peals of laughter. She wiped a hand against her cheek, leaving a white trail. "Not every day, no. But a woman with two unmarried young sons can't sit about doing nothing. The boys toil in the fields of their master most of the day long. What chance have they of meeting eligible young women?"
Eligible young women? Unmarried sons? What had she entangled herself in? Ruth swallowed a deep breath and pointed to Naomi's face. "You have flour smudged on your cheek."
Naomi lifted a cloth to wipe away the smudge of flour.
"I don't think this will work." Ruth tried to keep the panic out of her voice. The thought of meeting two strange men for the express purpose of being weighed as a possible bride turned her stomach into a big knot. They would only reject her. "Perhaps I should go home." She started to wipe her hands on the cloth next to her when the sound of conversation made her freeze mid-swipe. She frowned as she heard a feminine voice, softly responding to a man's comment.
The older woman spun toward the open door, her hands fluttering in the air.
"Mother, we have brought you a guest," said the shorter of the two young men. "This is Orpah. We met her at the field and asked her to supper. She ... She ..." His voice trailed as he spotted Ruth.
Naomi broke the tension by bursting into peals of laughter. "The Lord be praised. I have also asked my friend Ruth to supper. What a blessed night, to have two new friends join us."
Ruth gulped. It would be offensive to leave now. She would have to stay and see the evening through. At least the other girl, Orpah, would share the burden of attention. She was a pretty girl, no older than seventeen, with rounded cheeks and thick, long black lashes.
They sat on the floor around a well-used mat to eat supper. When Naomi introduced her sons, Ruth did not even lift her chin far enough to see which name belonged to whom. She busied herself with dipping her warm bread into the bowl of aromatic lentils and listened carefully to the conversation flowing around her.
Her attention strayed to Orpah as the girl fanned her face. "I can't abide the heat. This afternoon, I thought my head would bake in my headdress and drop right into the field. That would have been a mess. Knowing the foreman, he would have made me clean it up myself."
Ruth laughed, her outstretched hand forgotten where she had moved to dip her bread into the olive oil. To her surprise, her fingers bumped into solid flesh. She raised startled eyes and collided with a warm brown gaze.CHAPTER 2
A friend loves at all times. PROVERBS 17:17
His skin shone pale as bleached ivory against his dark beard. It was his smile that first caught Ruth's attention. His mouth, too wide for beauty, softened his otherwise ordinary face into the sort of friendliness that made her feel welcomed to the soles of her feet. As if she had known him for years. And she could not even tell his name! Mahlon or Chilion?
Guessing her thoughts, he said, "Mahlon."
With a sudden jolt, she found herself wanting to giggle. "I was going to guess Chilion," she confessed.
"I forgive you. Which is generous of me, considering when we were introduced, you disdained to look upon me even once."
"I thought it polite not to stare."
"Don't worry. I did enough staring for us both."
Ruth felt the rhythm of her pulse speed, making her breathless. "I don't think your mother has the measure of you."
The wide mouth flashed another winsome smile. "How so?"
Ruth nibbled on her lower lip, caught between laughter and embarrassment. "She believes you are helpless and lonesome. I think you know your way around many a Moabite maiden's heart."
He shook his head, looking tragic. "I hardly know any Moabite maidens."
"Counting you and Orpah? Two."
Chilion, overhearing his brother, shoved a shoulder into his brother's arm. "Not for lack of trying."
* * *
Naomi and Mahlon walked Ruth most of the way home. They finally turned back when she pressed them, just before she arrived at her house. As the outdoor enclosure of her home came into view, Ruth could hear the screech of her mother's raised voice. Frowning, she picked up her steps. Though her mother's temper bore a legendary sting, it rarely grew so noisy as to rouse the interest of the neighbors.
She shoved open the door, which someone had had the forethought to close. A wave of nausea pressed in on her as the scene inside unfolded.
Excerpted from In the Field of Grace by Tessa Afshar, Pam Pugh. Copyright © 2014 Tessa Afshar. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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