Ruth 4 – “Better than Seven Sons”
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 27, 2008
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. High schools students have finally completed their first semester examinations, which were interrupted by snow and ice, and they are now anxiously awaiting the verdict. I always tell students that it is too late to pray after the exams. Pray while studying! Ash Wednesday is very early this year. It is hard to believe that Lent will start in a week and a half. The women’s fellowships of the local Moravian churches sponsor days of prayer every Wednesday at noon during Lent. A schedule is available from the church office. Here at Home Church we have communion every Wednesday evening after dinner. Several people have asked when we are going to discuss more Twilight Zone episodes. We’ll save those for after Easter. Today we are finishing our study of the Book of Ruth and we start with I Samuel next week. During this election year, it seems fitting to study the book of the Bible that deals most honestly with politics and leadership.
Sandals Last week we discussed Boaz’s shrewdness. He had decided that he wanted to marry Ruth the Moabite woman and that he should honor Ruth’s dedication to her mother-in-law. How could he arrange it so that he could marry Ruth, take care of Naomi, keep Ruth and Naomi together, preserve Naomi’s inheritance, and do the right thing for the dead? It was a tricky problem since another person had a legal claim to Elimelech’s land. So Boaz made him repudiate his claim in front of the elders of Bethlehem and publicly proclaimed that he was taking possession of all of the land and property of Elimelech and his sons and would marry Ruth. More important, he declared that Ruth’s son would be the rightful heir to Elimelech’s property. This was a win-win solution that took some careful planning to arrange.
In the midst of all of this drama, the storyteller breaks in to tell us about a strange custom in ancient Israel. It was already an obsolete practice by the time Ruth was written, since the storyteller has to explain it to the reader. It says that in “former times,” or we might say “in days of yore,” or even “a long, long time ago” people legalized transactions by exchanging sandals. Clearly the old folktale of Ruth included this scene of the unnamed next-of-kin solemnly removing a sandal and giving it to the victorious Boaz, but the author of Ruth knew his audience would not understand this. This is one of the best pieces of evidence that Ruth was written hundreds of years after the events it describes. The author’s explanation of the practice of sandal exchange is really not very illuminating, and it is not clear if he even knew what the ancient practice was. This has left scholars through the centuries to speculate on what is going on here.
There is evidence outside the Bible that land deals in that region of the world included a ritual placing of the shoes of the purchaser on the land as a symbol of transaction. The sandals represented the owner of the sandals the way a man’s hat 50 years ago represented the man. To hang your hat meant that you were at home in a place. A friend of mine used to tell the story of a professor who would come into class and place his hat on the desk. Then he would go and talk to friends. One day, the students got restless and began to leave. He told them that as long as his hat was in the room, he was in the room, and they should act accordingly. The next week he came to class and all he saw were the students’ hats in their chairs. This sandal exchange appears to have had similar function. The sandal was proof that the next-of-kin had freely consented to this deal, and the witnesses could attest to that. Again, we see that Boaz is doing everything according to the laws and customs of his society. This way there will be no question of the legitimacy of Ruth’s son and his right to Elimelech’s property. Modern Christians can learn from Boaz that it is important to be wise as well as good.
It is interesting that Boaz twice refers publicly to Ruth as a woman of Moab. This could have been simply a way to make sure that everyone knew who he was talking about since Ruth had no father to negotiate for her. It is possible that Boaz was making a point of the fact that she was a foreigner as a way to challenge the elders. If they agreed to the legitimacy of Boaz’s actions in marrying a foreigner now, they could not criticize Ruth and Boaz later. As we said at the beginning of this study, though, it is very likely that it is the author of Ruth who is emphasizing that Ruth is from Moab. Here at the climax of the story, readers are reminded twice that this amazing woman whom Boaz has chosen as a wife is not an Israelite. She is one of those foreign wives that Ezra wanted men to abandon. She is one of those outsiders whom Ezra wanted the Judeans to shun, but she is the one who showed loving kindness to Naomi and who would be a partner in life to the great Boaz. And all of the elders of Bethlehem gave their assent to this marriage. Who knows, maybe King David kept the sandal in the treasury in his palace!
Blessing The elders at the gate blessed Boaz and expressed their hope that Ruth would bear as many children as Rachael and Leah, the great matriarchs of Israel and Judah. The Hebrew is a bit difficult, but it appears that they also expressed their hope that Boaz and Ruth would provide many children for the clan of Ephrathah, which means fruitfulness, and that their descendents would dwell long in Bethlehem. They acknowledge that it is the LORD who creates life and brings children into the world, but the LORD does use the joining of man and woman to populate the earth. This theme of human agents cooperating with divine providence runs throughout Ruth, but is most evident in this blessing by the elders. We know that this blessing came true, but for Ruth and Boaz, it was still a matter of hope rather than history.
It is not accidental that the elders focus on Ruth rather than Boaz in this blessing. It is Ruth who will bring forth children, and the elders compare her to three important women in the book of Genesis: Rachel, Leah, and Tamar. We read their stories a couple of years ago in our study of Genesis, and you will no doubt remember that their stories were all unusual. Jacob was tricked on his wedding night. When he went in to consummate the marriage, he did not know that he was sleeping with Leah instead of Rachel. Perhaps the story of Boaz waking in the night to find Ruth unexpectedly beside him recalled the old story of Leah and Jacob. Also, Leah and Rachel gave their servants to Jacob to have children for them. This surrogate motherhood justifies Ruth’s plan to have a child for Naomi who is passed the point of having children. The elders are telling Boaz that they know what is going on, and they approve. The patriarchs had acted similarly.
It was a little more problematic to bring up the story of Tamar, who was the daughter-in-law of Judah. We talked about that story in connection with the levirate marriage last week, but it is interesting that the elders specifically point to this story in blessing Boaz’s decision. They mention Judah and his son Perez, who was an ancestor of Boaz. Some scholars think that this was a veiled insult to Boaz and Ruth, but I don’t think so. When we studied the Tamar story, we saw that Tamar was considered righteous and there was no condemnation of her actions with Judah. We should avoid importing modern ideas of morality into the Old Testament. The elders are not saying that they approve of the marriage even though they think that Ruth had acted immorally; they are saying that Ruth and Boaz are acting righteously and for the good of the family even though this is a non-traditional marriage. They are drawing from the past to bless this unusual courtship, and they are praying that the results will be as good as they were for Tamar. Does this indicate that rumors had already spread about the threshing floor? Probably not. This blessing was written for the sake of the readers who knew the whole story.
A Son is Born Now we come to the happy conclusion. Ruth bears a son for Boaz. Verse 13 is the last time Ruth is mentioned in this book, and this has bothered a lot of commentators, especially feminists. The last time Ruth spoke in this story was when she returned to Naomi, and some people think that Ruth has been eclipsed by her husband and son. They read this as an all too familiar story of a strong woman taking action only to be silenced by marriage. Personally, I think that is unfair. Neither Boaz or Naomi have speaking roles after the marriage is settled. They have all played their part in this lovely drama and it is the community that speaks at the end. The elders bless the marriage and accept Ruth as a member of the clan, and the women of Bethlehem have the final word of blessing. This is a strong reminder that the Bible is not primarily about individual salvation; it is about the community of God’s people. Ruth and Boaz acted wisely, courageously, and independently, but they acted as part of a community. They did what was best for the clan as well as what was best for them. And in the end, it was the community that validated and legitimated their actions. This can be an unwelcome message in the modern world where we celebrate the rebel who lives by his or her own rules. The idea that the family, or the community, or the church has a role to play in your life sounds old fashioned to us. But it was important that the actions of Ruth and Boaz be affirmed by the people. In the end, this is not a story about two individuals falling in love; it is a story about the welfare of the clan and the blessing of God on the people of Israel. Ruth and Boaz were part of a larger whole, and they played their part with wisdom and loving kindness, but they have nothing more to say. They are not forgotten, but the future belongs to their descendents.
It is the women of the village who come to Naomi to celebrate the birth of Ruth’s son, but surprisingly they proclaim that it is Naomi who has had a son rather than a grandson. This has always struck readers as very odd, and scholars have tried to find ways to understand the scene described in chapter 4. Some have argued that Naomi legally adopted Ruth’s son as her own, which would make Ruth the sister-in-law of her own son. That is certainly possible, but it is more likely that this is being said poetically. Naomi, you will recall, came back from Moab “empty.” She was left barren and bitter, and she had no future. Now, thanks to the loving kindness of Ruth, she knew that she would have descendents and someone to care for her in her old age. She was no longer empty and desolate. Once again, her life was fruitful and sweet.
The women praise Boaz for acting as a kinsman-redeemer should act. He had provided a future for Naomi without reducing her to servitude in his house. He is the very model of graciousness, having gone far beyond what custom and law demanded. This is why Boaz should be famous in Israel. Not because of victories in battle or for lording it over others, but because he showed compassion to a poor widow and was gracious to her. That is what the Bible values most of all, and that is why we know the name of Boaz. He redeemed Naomi from her isolation and she no longer had to eat her morsel alone. The son of Boaz would provide life and nourishment for Naomi the way a mother provides for a baby. The circle of life has been completed beautifully because Boaz was righteous.
And Ruth was not forgotten in the praises of the women. They share in Naomi’s joy that she has a daughter-in-law who is truly a daughter-in-love. They declare that Ruth, the foreigner, is better than seven sons would have been. This is unimaginatively high praise in a culture that valued sons far more than daughters. You may be aware that there are many parts of the world that still treat daughters as a burden rather than the blessing they truly are. In India and China, women have tests to determine the sex of a fetus, and they frequently abort females because sons are more valuable. Before modern technology, it was not uncommon for female children to be abandoned by mothers or fathers who wanted only sons. Here in the Book of Ruth, the happy climax of the story is not that Ruth and Boaz have children, but that Naomi has a son. For unto a Son is born was good news. The originally readers of this story knew the importance of sons, which is why is such a wonderful shock that the women proclaim that Naomi’s daughter-in-law was worth more than a son, more than seven sons. Remember, seven is the number of perfection, so they are saying she is worth more than the perfect family.
This was a valuable lesson when this story was first written, and it remains valuable today. This is a strong affirmation of the biblical principle that the worth of a person is not based on gender, or nationality, or race, or social standing; it is based on actions and character. Ruth deserves such high praise because she treated Naomi better than a son would have. Ruth stayed with Naomi if when Naomi rejected her. Her life and devotion never faltered. And here at the end of the story, Ruth loved Naomi so much that she let Naomi care for her son. Most unusually, it was the women of the village that named the boy. We would expect that Naomi would have the honor of naming the child, so it is a surprise that his name is given by the women. This is a further indication that author believed that this was a story about the whole community, not just the main actors. The male elders validated the marriage; now the women validate the birth by granting a name.
Obed means servant, and it may have been a shortened form of Obediah, which means servant of God. Most likely the name indicates that Obed would serve Naomi in the sense that he is the one who will take care of her as she grows old. He is a gift from God provided through Ruth and Boaz.
Genealogy The Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy. This is not the most exciting part of Ruth for modern readers, and scholars disagree over whether this was an addendum to the original story. Certainly the book seems to end with the statement that Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David, but some scholars think that this closing listing of the ancestors is the most important part of the book. There is a theory that the main purpose of Ruth was to support the legitimacy of the Davidic monarchy. Personally, I think it worked the other way. I think the connection to King David was a way to highlight the importance of Ruth and her story of sacrificial love for Naomi. Ruth was rewarded for her faithfulness by being chosen by God to be an immediate ancestor of King David. Not only was she worth more than seven sons, she was a chosen agent of God to be the mother of the line of kings of Judah.
There is another reason for ending the book with David. If this book was indeed written after the Babylonian Exile, we can infer two messages embedded in Ruth. One is that there would not have been a King David if the law against foreign wives had been place in the days of the Judges the way it was after the Exile. That is a message of resistance to an unjust and prejudicial law. The other message is one of hope. Picture the exiles who returned from Babylon to a destroyed country. Think of the Judeans who were left behind and who lost their parents and children to famine and plague. Think of the people of God who saw jackals haunting the lands that were supposed to flow with milk and honey. Naomi is symbolic of Israel. She came back from a foreign land empty, bitter, and without hope, but God did not abandon her. Ruth, like God, showed Naomi loving kindness and faithfulness. She, like God, worked quietly to provide for Naomi and bring her back to the land of the living. And Naomi, who was empty, lives to see a son who will be the ancestor of David. There is a messianic hope in Ruth that is symbolized in this reference to King David. Though life can be almost unbearable, God remains faithful and sends a redeemer. Perhaps it is not the one you would expect. Perhaps the redeemer is a foreigner, and perhaps redemption has to be worked out in the middle of the night, but redemption does come.