Ruth 3: The Threshing Floor
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 23, 2007
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this fourth Sunday in Advent. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and many of people here at Home Church will spend most of the day in church. Hundreds of people volunteer as musicians, ushers, dieners, coffee-makers, candle-makers, and decorators so we can host four lovefeasts on Christmas Eve. You’re all invited to join us.
Naomi’s Plot Today we are continuing in our study of Ruth. You may remember that we left Ruth last week gleaning in the fields of Boaz. We saw that Boaz took steps to make Ruth’s efforts more productive and less onerous. At the end of the day, Naomi was amazed at the bounty that Ruth brought home from her labor. When Ruth told her that she had gleaned in the fields of Boaz, Naomi was even happier and praises God that he has shown kindness to the living and the dead. This phrase sounds odd in our time. How could Boaz’s kindness to Ruth and Naomi be a kindness to the dead? The ancient Hebrews did not have a well-developed view of an afterlife. The dead went to Sheol, which was similar to the Greek Hades, but they continued to leave through their descendents. As long as there were descendents, the dead were not forgotten. In an age before life insurance and social security, the living had an obligation to the dead to take care of their children and widows. So, the kindness Boaz shows to Naomi was also a kindness to her husband Elimelech who could no longer provide for her.
Redeemer Naomi then tells Ruth that Boaz is one of Elimelech’s close relatives. She identifies him as a kinsman-redeemer. This is one of the places in Ruth that scholars struggle over how to translate for a modern audience that does not have such redeemers. There is a lot about this Hebrew practice that we don’t know, but the basic idea is fairly clear. The extended family had obligations to assist relatives who fell on hard times. “It is a melancholy truth that even great men have their poor relations,” Dickens wrote, and I’m sure many redeemers felt this way. The redeemer was a family member who had the moral obligation to redeem a poor relative who had sold himself or his family into slavery. Slavery in ancient days was in some ways a safety net to keep people from starving, but the Hebrews recognized that slavery is an evil even if it were sometimes necessary. So there was a provision to redeem family members out of slavery. When the NT calls Jesus the redeemer, he is being compared to someone like Boaz who intercedes for a family member who is in trouble. Today we might say that Jesus is the one who bails you out of jail.
The redeemer was also the one who paid your ransom if you were kidnapped by a rival tribe or if you were captured in battle. You may recall from English history that King Richard was kidnapped by the German emperor and Prince John had to raise taxes to redeem him. The memory of the hardship caused by the redemption of King Richard shaped the legend of Robin Hood. None of that has anything to do with the book of Ruth, but it does show us that redemption continued in some fashion long after Bible times.
The kinsman-redeemer in ancient Israel was also responsible for redeeming land that a member of the family had sold. That becomes important later in the story, and so we’ll save a discussion of redemption of land. Just keep in mind that Naomi recognizes the importance of Ruth making a good impression on Boaz. She was telling Ruth that Boaz had a role similar to that of next-of-kin in our legal system. There is a hierarchy of next-of-kin in most states: spouse, children, parents, siblings, etc.. The next of kin may be asked to make all kinds of legal decisions, particularly at the time of death. We allow people to designate someone other than the next of kin to take care of some of these obligations. We live in a world of written laws and procedures for enforcement, but even in our world many of the duties of a next of kin rely on the goodwill of the person. There is only so far the law can go in forcing a next of kin to do the right thing for a dead person and his or her family. There are many lawsuits in America over next of kin issues, but the ancient Israelites did not have so many lawyers. They relied even more heavily on the powerful force of social pressure and personal morality.
Naomi’s Plot This helps explain something that often troubles readers of Ruth. If Naomi knew that Boaz was the kinsman-redeemer who had an obligation to Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, why didn’t she just go up to him and demand that he fulfill his social obligation? It is quite likely that many kinsmen-redeemers simply failed to do their duty, either through moral lassitude or lack of resources. It is also likely that redeemers resented bailing out their unfortunate relatives and often fulfilled their duty in ways that were not very pleasant for the person redeemed. I can imagine that a lot of people redeemed in ancient times were treated like servants or worse by their redeemers. I’m reminded of the movie “Places in the Heart” when the bank president forces a widow to take his blind brother-in-law as a boarder. He claims that he is fulfilling his Christian duty to his brother-in-law and to a poor widow woman when the truth was that he saw an opportunity to free himself from two burdensome problems at once by forcing the widow to take in a blind border.
Naomi did not want to force herself on Boaz. She knew that Boaz had not stepped forward to claim the role of redeemer right away. She waited to see what kind of man he had become over the past decade, but waiting does not mean she was passive. The opening line of ch. 2 may indicate that she intentionally sent Ruth into Boaz’s field hoping that he would notice her. Or it is possible that she saw a God-given opportunity when Ruth returned home. In any case, Naomi let Ruth know that it was good that she was gleaning in the fields of their redeemer. If she were wise, Naomi might work out a solution to several problems. Thus Ruth works through the barley and wheat harvests while Naomi devises a plan.
Security Ruth provides well for Naomi and herself. They have plenty of food to make it through the winter, but Naomi is looking farther ahead than that. We see a change in Naomi over the summer. No longer is she the depressed widow calling herself “Bitterness” instead of “Sweetness.” She is no longer planning to curl up and die along the side of the road. She has someone else to care about and she begins making plans to repay Ruth for her loving kindness. The fact that Naomi will probably benefit from these plans does not diminish the fact that she is looking out for Ruth’s welfare and responding in gratitude to Ruth. I think the commentators who see Naomi as cunning and selfish miss the whole point of the story. She is cunning, but the OT praises such worldly wisdom. It is good to be wise so long as you are also good.
Naomi knows that Ruth needs to get married. This may sound odd to modern people, and there are those who reject the Book of Ruth on the grounds that it defines women in terms of marriage. We need to recognize that it is our modern world that is unusual. It may be better, but it is not the way most of the world through most of history has been. So, let us not judge Naomi and Ruth’s actions by our standards. The simple fact is that in the ancient world the only hope for survival and happiness that most women had was marriage to a good man.
Normally, Ruth’s father or brother would have negotiated a marriage to someone like Boaz. The men would settle on the bride-price and the marriage contract, and if Ruth agreed, she was married. But Ruth has no man to negotiate for her. Naomi can’t do it. For one thing, she is a woman. For another, she is not related to Ruth. So, Naomi has to be shrewd. There has to be a way to get Ruth and Boaz together so that Boaz will take the initiative and marry Ruth.
Naomi offers advice that has helped get young people engaged for thousands of years. Get cleaned up; wear your nice clothes; make yourself smell good; and go to him when he’s is a good mood. A lot of people are shocked to find this passage in the Bible. Some even accuse Naomi of being sinful here, but I think that reflects our distorted view of the Bible and religion. We think the Victorians were right about the relationship of sex, religion, and morality, even though we reject their opinions on proper behavior. We don’t want to recognize that Jews and Christians for over two thousand years have read as sacred Scripture this passage where Naomi gives Ruth advice. But here it is, and we should simply accept the fact that the writers of the Bible knew perfectly well how love and marriage work. Modern science has not improved ancient courtship rituals.
Risky Business In the Song of Solomon, the women singers warn against arousing passion too early because they know that desire is dangerous. Naomi’s instructions to Ruth are not a prescription to be used again and again. She and Ruth both know that there is one chance to make this work. They also know that their plan is dangerous. Therefore Naomi urges caution as well as boldness. Wait until the proper moment, she instructs, and try not to get caught. Ruth is vulnerable and must use stealth in order to talk to Boaz. Think for a moment about what might have happened to Ruth that night when she entered a room of drunken men at the end of the harvest. Having her reputation ruined would be the least of the misery she could have experienced. Had Ruth known the stories in Genesis and Judges, she would have known the danger she faced. I am sure Ruth was tempted to stay home and live by gleaning, but she had the courage to take action.
Wisdom teaches us to wait for the opportune moment. Ruth waits until the big harvest festival when Boaz celebrates his prosperity with his workers. They eat and drink and then Boaz lies down contently beside his huge pile of grain. Here we see that men have not changed much in 2500 year. Can’t you just picture him as he lies there looking contently at what he owns? Some readers of this book have been bothered by the implication that Boaz may be a little tipsy when he lies down. It is important to remember that the Bible and most of the great documents of Judaism and Christianity were written before the Temperance Movement in America. Ruth and Boaz were neither the first or last couple who found that words of love sound more eloquent with a little wine. The threshing floor was no longer a workplace. There was music, food, wine, and romance.
Uncovering While Boaz slept, Ruth snuck onto the threshing floor and found him hidden away in a corner. Here we come to one of the most controversial translation issues in the OT. What did Ruth uncover that night? The Hebrew clearly says “feet,” but we know from many other passages in the OT that this word did not always mean the feet that you put sandals on. It is frequently a euphemism for another part of the body. In other words Ruth might have been verifying that Boaz was Jewish. The fact is that the way we read Ruth depends on our view of what a biblical heroine might have done. I think this was an intentional double-entendre that allowed ancient adults to smile knowingly while their children wondered if Boaz woke up because his toes were cold.
Whatever Ruth did, the story makes it clear that Boaz woke up in a cold sweat at midnight. He was terrified. What frightened him? Jack Sasson suggests that Boaz may have thought Ruth was the demon Lilith who attacked men during the night and stole their virility. It is possible that Boaz knew his Bible well enough to know what happened to old men like Noah or Lot when they got drunk and were uncovered! Or Boaz might have feared for his reputation. I don’t think we need to read too much into this. I’m sure if I woke up on threshing floor at midnight with parts uncovered that I thought were covered, with a stranger next to me, I would be surprised and scared.
I am Ruth It is dark and Boaz has to ask the name of the perfumed person is next to him. This is one of those awkward moments that you really should try to avoid, by the way. “I am Ruth,” she replies. There is another double entendre here. The Hebrew word for Ruth can mean “a friend” or “a merciful person.” Even today, to be Ruthless is to be without mercy or compassion. Once he hears her say I am a friend in that familiar voice, Boaz relaxes.
Covering Ruth then reminds Boaz that he is the redeemer for Naomi, and she asks that he spread his cloak over her. This was subtle. Ruth reminds Boaz of his obligation to the dead, but she does so in a way that will not shame him in front of others. She also lets him know that it will not be unpleasant for him to do what custom requires. She asks him to take the cloak she has removed and cover them both with it. This not only symbolism their union, it is also the answer to Boaz’s prayer that God would take Ruth under his wing. Boaz covers Ruth with his cloak, and I have no doubt that they exchanged vows of commitment that night in anticipation of a wedding.
Boaz says that Ruth has performed an act of loving kindness and he praises her for not having gone after a younger man. This means more than just the fact that Boaz is no spring chicken and might have been lacking in aesthetic qualities. Boaz is telling Ruth is that he respects the fact that she is not looking for a husband simply out of concern for her own happiness. Ruth herself has chosen a kinsman-redeemer as the man she will marry because she knows that this will benefit Naomi. Boaz promises Ruth that he will make her his wife because everyone knows she is a worthy woman. There is no indication that Boaz disapproves of what she has done on the threshing floor. But now it will be up to Boaz to bring things to a good conclusion.
Conclusion We’ll leave Ruth and Boaz under the cloak, but before we go, let me point out that there is a danger in reading the Bible literally. We should not universalize Naomi’s instructions to Ruth and teach our daughters to do this as a general rule. But there is a message in this passage that is universal: there are times when you have to take the initiative and take a risk to insure the future. This is part of faith. As we remember the story of Mary in the NT, keep in mind that she is similar to Ruth. She took the risk.