Introduction to the Book of Ruth
Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast Nov. 25, 2007
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good holiday week for you and your family. It was quiet around the church and campus this week as everyone went their separate ways to be with those they love most. You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I have a friend whose family has lobster at Thanksgiving instead of Turkey because the father claims that it is much easier to feel thankful for lobster than turkey. Of course, we know from historians that lobster was more likely to have been served at the first thanksgiving than turkey so he may simply be more historically accurate. Speaking of lobsters, I think one of the bravest people in the history of the world was the person who first looked at a live lobster and said, “I’m going to eat you.” And that is all I have to say about lobster. On the subject of turkey, though, let me point out that Benjamin Franklin did indeed want the wild turkey to be our national symbol because wild turkey helped our ancestors endure in a harsh environment. Hopefully the same is not true for you today, at least not the liquid variety of wild turkey.
I attended the community interfaith Thanksgiving service at St. Timothy’s on Tuesday, and I was glad that Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn lived up to the billing I gave him last Sunday. He told a wonderful Talmudic story about the true nature of gratitude. He repeatedly told us that in Jewish theology, humans are active participants with God in the world. We have the responsibility to work with the design of God for a just and wholesome society and environment. It was a powerful message that I wish more Christians would internalize. For some reason, Christian theology got so wrapped up in the idea that everything is a matter of God’s grace that we forgot that God expects us to respond to grace with action. We are called to work with God in the on-going creation of the world. At the very end of the Hobbit, Gandalf notes with satisfaction that the ancient prophecies have been fulfilled and the dragon defeated. Bilbo snorts in disagreement and says that he had a hand in fulfilling those prophecies. The wise wizard looks at him and says, “Surely you do not doubt the prophecies just because you had a hand in fulfilling them?” During this Advent season as we listen to beautiful prophecies in church, let us remember that we have a role to play in the fulfillment of those visions and dreams.
Ruth The reason I am bringing this up this morning is that we are turning our attention to a book of the Old Testament, the Book of Ruth. It is a story about a strong woman who takes action. She does not placidly sit around waiting for Divine Providence to solve her problems; she works with the resources that God has given her and uses them to create a better future. You may ask why I wanted to use this book during the Advent season. You might have expected something on the Messianic prophecies that point to the coming of Christ into the world. Those are important passages of Scripture, but I thought it might be illuminating to take a look at a woman who is listed as a direct ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Book of Ruth, there would not have been a King David or a Messiah if an ordinary woman had not acted with extraordinary wisdom and courage.
Canon In the Christian Bible Ruth is placed between the Book of Judges and I Samuel. This is because the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures was organized chronologically. Ruth takes place during the time of the Judges before there was a king in Israel, so it makes sense to place it just before the book that describes the selection of Saul and David as kings. She is thus classified among the “Early Prophets,” in the Christian canon, which implicitly makes her into a prophet.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, though, Ruth is included in the section called the Ketubim or Writings. This section includes the Psalms, Song of Songs, wisdom literature, and novellas like Esther. I think this is a more appropriate location for Ruth because it is more like a short story or parable than a book of prophecy or history. It is quite pointless to try to use Ruth as a bridge between Judges and I Samuel since the only bridge is that Ruth is the ancestor of David. Personally, I am convinced that Ruth should be classified as Wisdom Literature alongside Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Very few scholars agree with me on this, by the way, but that’s okay. I think they are reluctant to call Ruth a book of wisdom because they associate Wisdom literature with wizened old men and government scribes. But women have wisdom, too.
There was some debate in ancient days as to whether Ruth should be considered sacred Scripture and include in the canon at all. It is different from other OT books in that God does not speak or act directly in the story. This is one reason it is wrong to put Ruth among the prophets, by the way. Some rabbis were uncomfortable with the book simply because the main characters are women: Ruth and Naomi, and as we all know, the Bible is about men (he says sarcastically). As we shall see, there are also some shocking aspects related to Ruth’s behavior that continue to bother preachers and teachers. Lastly, some of the rabbis were less than thrilled that Ruth was not an Israelite. How could you have a book in the Bible about a Gentile woman? But the fact that Ruth was an ancestor of the great King David, who in turn was the ancestor of the expected Messiah, convinced most rabbis that the Book of Ruth is indeed sacred Scripture. Plus, it is such a good story that illuminates so many important themes of the OT, it had to be true.
Liturgical Cycle As Jewish worship developed after the Temple was destroyed, Ruth became part of the yearly cycle of readings in the synagogue. It is one of the Five Scrolls set apart for special festivals. Ruth is read each year on Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which was originally a harvest festival and is now the celebration of the marriage of Israel and God. Since Ruth is about the harvest and a marriage, it is a good text for Shavuot. Ruth is also a story about faithfulness, which is a major theme of Shavuot, and it may not be too much of a stretch to claim that in the book itself Ruth is a representative of the faithfulness of God. You may be more familiar with the festival of Shavuot by its Greek name: Pentecost. As we study Ruth, keep in mind that this may have been the scroll read on the day that the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and they spoke in many tongues. When Peter gave the first Christian sermon on Pentecost, the text of the day was not the Gospel of John; it was the Gospel of Ruth.
Overview of the Story One of the reasons Ruth is such a popular story for Jews and Christians is that it is short. Many children have read Ruth because a teacher or preacher told them to read a book of the Bible, and so they checked to see which were the shortest. Ruth is also popular because it is a story. Unlike many books of the OT, Ruth does not include lists of laws and obscure prophecies. It is delightfully straight-forward, and it provides enough description for us to visualize the story without needing a lot of knowledge about the ancient Near East. Though it is set in the time of the Judges, it has a timeless quality. Ruth could be set in almost any rural village in any country of the world at almost any time before the industrial age. It is easy to translate the story for Africa, Central America, or even Asia. In my little country church in the 1970s the youth fellowship made a movie of Ruth that was set here in Forsyth County. As I recall, my sister played Ruth, and the movie was filmed at the quarry because that looked most like our pastor’s slides of the Holy Land. It didn’t win any Oscars, but it was a creative approach to the sacred text that I remember after all these years.
Ruth should be read in a single setting, but we do not do that in most churches in worship. One of the problems with the lectionary is that we have grown accustomed to biblical sound-bites that preachers then expand on. Rarely in worship do we listen to a narrative and let ourselves be drawn into the story. This morning I’m going to read the whole book of Ruth out loud, and then over the next few weeks we’ll discuss it in detail bit by bit.
Date and Authorship: Though Ruth is set in the time of the Judges, it is clear that it was written long after the events it describes. In today’s terms, this is a historical novel. We know it was written later because it includes customs that the author has to explain because they are obsolete. Also, it ends with a genealogy that includes Ruth’s great-grandchild, who was born after she was dead. So, the book does not pretend to be a contemporary account. For the most part, modern scholars agree that it was written long after the period of the monarchy, probably in the 5th or 4th century BC. The vocabulary used in the book is similar to that of books written after the Babylonian Exile. Also, the genealogy of King David given in Ruth agrees with that of I Chronicles, which is a very late book. Had Samuel written Ruth, as tradition claims, we would expect that I Samuel would have included the same genealogy of David as that in Ruth.
Folktale The fact that the book of Ruth was probably written down in its current form by an anonymous sage in Judah after the exile does not mean that he made the story up. Ruth may have originally been a folktale that had been told for centuries before it was written down. Some of the names in the story, such as Elimelech, are very ancient. The portrayal of the period of the Judges is not dependent on other books of the Bible, and thus may reflect ancient memories. The story also has the polished feel of a folktale told repeatedly to audiences. Years of retelling leave only the best parts of a story.
If it is true that this was originally a folktale, then I think we must consider the possibility that this was originally told in the women’s tents in Israel. We will see that the main actors are two women, Ruth and Naomi, and it strikes me as unlikely that a man would have told their story in this way. The sensitivity to their situation indicates that the original storyteller understood their plight and their limited options. I think that for many years, this story was told by mothers to their sons and daughters to help them understand what it means to be righteous and faithful. Centuries later, one of those sons became a sage and scribe. He took his grandmothers’ tale and turned it into a parable for men and women. Still later, another sage took this ancient wisdom story and used it to protest the racist policies instituted by Nehemiah and Ezra in the 5th century.
Political Statement: Yes, this sweet tale of female faithfulness and wise maneuvering also makes a strong political statement that is still relevant. After the Jews were allowed to return from exile in Babylon, they set out to build a new society in Judea. Many of their religious leaders had decided that the reason God let the nation be destroyed was because of the sins of the people. They collected the sayings of the prophets and wrote the history of Israel, and one theme stood out. The children of Abraham were called by God to be different than their neighbors. The Israelites were to abolish idolatry and not be corrupted by Gentiles and pagans. Many of the Jews who returned from Babylon wanted to follow the Jewish Torah as strictly as possible. They thought that if they could separate themselves from all foreign influences, they could remain pure and God would not punish them again.
This post-exilic Jewish attitude has a long history in Western religion. It remains a point of controversy between Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic Jews. At Thanksgiving, we Americans should remember that the Pilgrims were called Puritans because they wanted to create a pure and perfect Christian society. We see this concern for purity most clearly in Christianity in certain sects, such as the Amish, who intentionally separate themselves from the rest of society. It figured in Moravian history in the desire to purchase 100,000 acres in North Carolina so we could set up a colony without the bad influence of outsiders. The post-exilic Jewish notion that God will punish the nation if the people are impure continues to influence politics in our day as we debate civil rights for homosexuals and foreign workers.
In order to understand the book of Ruth fully, we need to recognize that one way that the Jewish leaders hoped to purify the nation was to forbid Jews to marry Gentiles. Stories were told about how Solomon’s foreign wives had led him into idolatry and foolishness, and the Phoenician Queen Jezebel was turned into one of the great villains of Israelite history. Foreigners, especially women, were blamed for the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersal of the Israelites. In the 5th century BC, the Jewish governor Nehemiah and the lawyer Ezra went so far as to demand that Jewish men divorce their Gentile wives. We do not know how many women and children were abandoned and left destitute by this policy of ethnic cleansing, but we can imagine the heartbreak caused by this law.
It is quite likely that the Book of Ruth was written and circulated in the post-exilic period as a form of protest against this inhumane policy of the emerging Jewish state. At a time when there was a strong desire for a descendent of King David to reclaim the throne of his ancestors, someone took an old folk tale about the great-grandmother of David and turned it into a subversive text calling the nation to a higher morality. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that it was a foreigner, a woman from hated Moab, who was righteous and faithful. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that the line of David depended on the love and devotion of a foreigner whom Boaz loved and married. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that morality does not depend on the purity of our blood or separation from foreigners; morality depends on the depth of our love and our willingness to sacrifice for others. Ruth is a rejection of all notions of racial purity and racial superiority.