Flannelgraph Preaching (Part 2)

In part one, we began a search to find a christological title for the Book of Ruth, and we found that its title would in fact not be “Ruth”— although she has many excellent qualities, she is not the main character since she passively receives redemption.

What about calling the book, “Naomi”? Everyone would agree that Naomi would be a poor choice for the title of the biblical book we call Ruth. Naomi was often manipulative, angry, sullen, and a poor example of an Israelite. If the Old Testament simply contained examples (and it includes much more than that—hence this book), she would go down in history as a wonderful illustration (drum roll) of what not to do! Naomi’s mini résumé in Ruth:

  • Insisting that her daughter-in-law stay among pagan people (Ruth 1:15)
  • Blaming God for her suffering (Ruth 1:13, 20–21)
  • Bitterly responding to the providence of God (Ruth 1:13)
  • Being a real downer upon returning to the promised land (Ruth 1:19 ff.)
  • Pushing Ruth to initiate a wedding proposal (instead of doing it herself) (Ruth 3:3–4)
  • Planning a rather sensual approach to a possible wedding (Ruth 3:3–7)
  • Placing her daughter-in-law in a dangerous position (Ruth 3:7–8)

It seems obvious that Naomi also is disqualified as a contender for book title and primary flannel character. It is important to recognize, though, that she does understand the redeemer concept and surely taught Ruth about Yahweh while they both were in Moab. Yet, sour and glowering are hard to depict in flannel, unless you resort to a Batman-like cartoon slogan (remember those? “Whack!” “Kapow!”) that says “Crabby” or “Grumpy.”

Boaz, aside from having what might be the coolest name of all time, was a man of wealth, integrity, and nobility. The book of Ruth portrays him as an ethically upright man in a slimy and decadent world. Boaz’s character shines forth as:

  • Generous (Ruth 2:8–16)
  • Compassionate (Ruth 3:11–13)
  • Fatherly (Ruth 2:8; 3:10)
  • Just (Ruth 3:12–13; 4:11)
  • Godly (Ruth 3:10; 4:11)
  • Sacrificial (Ruth 3:7–12)

But slow down, reader. Do not be tempted to do to Boaz what we tempered ourselves against regarding Ruth—making her, or him, central. Do not skirt Luke 24 and John 5. At all costs, avoid glomming onto Boaz as a means of highlighting social justice and welfare (since he allows Ruth to work for food so that she does not need to accept handouts).

Yet, in Boaz’ life, is there not stress on a man who redeems? A relative who rescues and provides? Boaz is more than a flicker of a sacrificial redeemer. Boaz shouts a truth. Boaz points to a greater Boaz. What kind of man redeems even a Moabite woman? If brown is the new black, then when it comes to Bible books, Boaz is the new Ruth.1 But the kinsman redeemer is illustrative of the greater Kinsman Redeemer. Remember, the Old Testament bears witness to Jesus. Boaz is a pointer, not the destination.

Think about the lunacy of the following illustration. A classroom of children watches flannelgraphic representations of stalks of grain, sand, and Middle Eastern looking people, but the teacher never describes them. The teacher is mute and basically allows the children to interpret the figures for themselves. Postmodern? Sounds like it. Abstract methods that would make Andy Warhol proud? Probably. Dumb? Oh yes, literally dumb. Figurines need words to be understood. How much more do abstract thoughts need words? Imagine a Sunday school teacher who would not speak while they were using the flannelgraph. Mime Sundays? Imagine a Christian Sunday school teacher who would not discuss the Messiah? Sadly, in light of the plethora of moralistic Vacation Bible School curricula and ideologies, one need not imagine this even for a nanosecond because they are seemingly everywhere.

Today, many insist that they are strictly visual learners, but God teaches both by sight in natural revelation (Rom 1:20–21), and by special revelation, which is his written Word. Abstract spiritual truths need explanations. What is a word worth? If you only use a flannelgraph, the students miss out on the most important truths in the book of Ruth. I would not deny that Sunday school teachers actually talk and use words while utilizing flannelgraphs, but if those teachers forget to tie the Old Testament characters to the redemptive theme of the Bible, they remain essentially mute. To lower the volume on the promised Redeemer of Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 12 is to deafen the reader to the sight of God’s plan of redemption.

Put another way, Jewish rabbis might affirm flannel stories of Ruth, but they should not agree with the teacher who rightly and ultimately directs the student to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and the thread of redemption through the Abrahamic Covenant. Words that do not include a discussion of the Messiah are just as silent as flannel, even if they are softer than the flannel itself.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan bellowed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” as he verbally confronted the Russian government and insisted that they destroy the Berlin Wall. While I am not advocating perpetrating physical violence on flannelgraph easels, I do wish to rid Christian churches of every ism, including moralism and heroism, so that Jesus is preeminent in all Bible teaching, including the Old Testament (1 Cor 2:2). Tear down the flannel wall if doing so links the Old Testament story to the Messiah and to God’s redeeming character.

The following four critical truths require words, thoughts, and concepts.[2] These truths require Jesus’ words in Luke 24 to be taken seriously. These are four ways the book of Ruth preaches Christ.

  1. Ruth the Moabite points to Christ:

I am not sure how differently Jewish people looked compared to the Moabites. How would a flannelgraph depict the difference between Naomi and Ruth’s skin tone and color? How could enhanced stick figures stress what the author emphasizes with the haunting and ceaseless refrain, “Ruth the Moabitess”? Moabites were gross and wicked. Moabites worshiped the reprehensible god Chemosh. Reverence to an angry, murderous, destroying fish god is never admirable. But in a revolting way, the origin of the Moabites towers over the false god they served. I dare you to read the following without wincing, cringing, or looking over your shoulder:

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose. The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. (Gen 19:30–37)

The earlier lessons Lot taught his daughters were implemented in that dark, shameful cave. Who needs godliness and propriety when pragmatic needs are real? Lot was willing to hand over his daughters to the men in Genesis 19:8, so incest must not have been viewed as a significant issue either. The ends justified the means, and the repulsive Moabites were hatched. Remember the cave.

Ruth 1:3–4, with narrative understatement, states that the Jewish boys married Moabite wives. Ruth was a Moabite, and the author does not wish for the reader to forget that shocking fact. Listen to the refrain with the cave of Genesis 19 ruminating in your soul (emphasis added):

So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. (Ruth 1:22)

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” (Ruth 2:2)

And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.” (Ruth 2:6)

And Ruth the Moabite said, “Besides, he said to me, ‘You shall keep close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.’” (Ruth 2:21)

Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” (Ruth 4:5)

Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day. (Ruth 4:10)

Ruth is important because the reader sees God’s love for pagans like her. As an object of God’s favor, Ruth must be grasped. Bible students should be amazed at the inclusive aspect of the Messiah’s redeeming love. God loves Moabites. Did you catch that? God loves Moabites. Gentiles. Are you a gentile? Are you thankful that God’s grace in Christ Jesus reaches to sinners, ungodly, enemies, and the helpless (Rom 5:6–11)? From incest to the Davidic line—could anything but God’s condescending love explain such a turn of events? Who but Jesus himself could turn a dark dungeon of a cave into a bright and beaming light of salvation and sanctification?

If we could go to heaven and ask Ruth if she would mind people looking past her to the Redeemer, how do you think she would reply? Could you explain that with a piece of flannel?

Notes

  1. Cambridge Dictionary, online, s.v. “sth is the new black,” https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/is-the-new-black#
  2. These truths could be verbally added to any flannelgraph presentation!

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in Evangelical White Lies, NoCo Media, 2016.

You can find this whole series as it publishes here.


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Posted by Mike Abendroth | Tuesday, January 9, 2024 | Categorized Education, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching the Word | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Mike Abendroth

Mike Abendroth (MDiv, DMin) is Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Bible Church (West Boyleston, MA), where he has served since 1997. He is host of No Compromise Radio and author of Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers (2007), The Sovereignty and Supremacy of King Jesus (2011), Things that Go Bump in the Church (2014), Discovering Romans (2014), Sexual Fidelity (2015) and Evangelical White Lies (2016). He is married with with four children. When not enjoying his family he is often found on a bicycle.

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