Category Archives: Ruth

Ruth 4 – Marriage

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.

Read:            4:7-end

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.

Ruth 3 – Boaz

Ruth 3:11-4:6 Boaz

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Jan. 24, 2008

Craig Atwood

Introduction                        Several people asked why I was doing Ruth in Advent, and the answer is simple. She was one of the ancestors of King David and Jesus. There is more about Ruth than Mary in the Bible, but the church does not tell her story often enough. Since it has been awhile since we’ve been together, let me briefly review Ruth. So far we have seen that the book could have been named for Naomi, who is a central character. She was a woman from Bethlehem who had move to Moab with her family to escape a famine, and there her sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. After her husband and sons died, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth accompanied her because she loved her mother-in-law. In Bethlehem, Ruth had to labor hard, gleaning in the fields so they could eat. In our last lesson, Ruth took the advice of Naomi and went to Boaz at night during the threshing festival. He was kind to her and spread his cloak of protection and love over them both. Ruth and Boaz spent the night together, and he promised that he would arrange things for the best for her and Naomi. Boaz was already impressed with Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her hard work in the fields, but he was even more impressed that she sought him out rather than finding a younger man to marry. He knew she was trying to do what was best for Naomi.

 

A Decent Man:            So far in the story, it is women who have been the main actors. Ruth, in particular, has acted with courage and cunning, but now the plot depends on Boaz. We described Boaz earlier as an upright person, a pillar of his society. Ruth trusted him, and now we see that her trust was well-founded. Notice that he tells Ruth to leave before the morning grows light. He does not want her reputation to be damaged by vicious rumors about her nocturnal activities. In short, Boaz proves to be a gentleman who protects women rather than exploits them. There is an element of self-interest in this as well, of course, since Boaz did not want his own reputation to be harmed, but his main concern appears to be for Ruth.

He also sends Ruth off with a sizeable gift of threshed grain for her mother-in-law. Through the centuries, commentators have speculated that there is something significant in the six measures of barley, but we can’t be sure. It is possible that it represents the six days of work that go into harvesting and threshing, with marriage representing the Sabbath day of rest, but who knows? In any case, it was a lot of barley, and in the context it is pretty clear that Boaz was providing an informal bride price for Ruth. I think there is no reason to doubt that Ruth and Boaz engaged their vows that night, and the tension in the story is whether he will be able to fulfill his promises to her.

Kinsman-Redeemer                        Boaz introduced an element of suspense when he told Ruth that there was someone else in the village that had a better claim to be a kinsman-redeemer than he did. We never learn this man’s name, but he is the closest thing to an antagonist in this folk tale. He is the one who has failed to come to his kinswoman’s aid, and he is the one who can thwart Naomi’s plans. But he is not a bad man. One of the enchanting things about Ruth is that all of the characters are both human and good. They try to do what is right in difficult circumstances. But this unnamed relative of Elimelech could undo everything by asserting his right to be the redeemer.

This is one of the most difficult historical problems in the story, and I am not sure that we have yet found the solution. The story implies that there was a relationship between redemption and marriage in the time of the Judges, but there is no evidence elsewhere to support this. There is a long debate among modern scholars over the nature of the kinsman-redeemer and marriage laws in Ruth. In the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish literature, there is no indication that a kinsman-redeemer had an obligation to a widowed in-law. The kinsman-redeemer was responsible for rescuing family members from slavery and buying back property that had been sold. There is nothing in the laws that we know of that imply any obligation to someone like Ruth who is outside the family. The kinsman-redeemer mentioned by Boaz had an obligation to Naomi, but not to Ruth. To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced that the story teller knew the details of ancient Israelite social customs. Remember, this story was written much later than the events it describes, and the writer threw in an old, barely remembered custom to increase the authenticity but he or she did not know for sure how it worked.

Levirate Marriage            This has led many scholars to conclude that another ancient Jewish custom applied in the case of Ruth, namely the levirate marriage. You may recall from our study of Genesis that at one time in Israel’s history there was a law that said that a widow without children must marry the brother of her dead husband. The most famous example is in Genesis 38 which tells about Tamar who was married to a son of Judah. When her husband died, she married another son of Judah’s. When he died, Judah refused to let Tamar marry a third son, and she had to live as a non-person in the women’s tents. Finally she tricked Judah into sleeping with her and she got pregnant by him. When the truth was revealed, Judah acknowledged that Tamar was more righteous than he was. Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Since Tamar and Perez are mentioned explicitly in the last chapter of Ruth, many commentators through the centuries have assumed that Ruth’s story hinges on the issue of levirate marriage.

There are some problems with this assumption, however. The old custom of levirate marriage served two purposes. It was a way to continue to the family line of the dead man since the first male born would be his heir, but it also provided a home for the widow. When a woman in Israel married, she came under the authority of the patriarch of her husband’s household. It would have been difficult for a father-in-law to arrange a marriage for a widowed daughter-in-law, so it made sense that she should marry within the family. In an age where polygamy was common and acceptable, this was a reasonable solution even though it makes modern people uncomfortable. I wonder if ancient Israelite women paid close attention to how attractive a prospective husband’s brothers were, especially if he was old and not so healthy.

The situation described in Ruth simply does not fit the laws of the levirate marriage outlined in the Torah. Her husband and his brother were both dead, so there was no one in the family for her to marry. Her father-in-law was dead, so there is no patriarch she was responsible to. Legally she should have gone back home to her father in Moab, but she already made the sacrificial choice to go with Naomi. Legally, Ruth and Naomi had no relationship, but they have a bond of love. A kinsman-redeemer had no obligations toward Ruth even though he might have been obligated to help Naomi. If the laws of levirate marriage applied, Ruth would not have had to take extraordinary measures to make contact with Boaz. It is possible that the laws had changed by the time of Ruth or that the laws in the Torah were not standard throughout Israel, but it is more likely that something else is going on in this story.

Boaz’ Promise            If Ruth and Boaz exchanged promises of marriage and did what we would expect them to have done, it would be up to Boaz to make arrangements for a marriage. He could have simply married Ruth or even taken her as a concubine, but he wanted to make sure that Naomi was taken care of as well. He did not want to separate Ruth and Naomi, nor does he want to make Naomi depend on charity. Perhaps he had heard of Ruth’s vow that only death could separate her from Naomi, and Boaz did not want to bring that bond. Being a shrewd and well-respected man, Boaz hatched a plan to arrange things for everyone’s benefit. He had to make sure that the unnamed redeemer did not interfere and that the elders of the village approved of his marriage to this foreign woman.

The Ploy            In ancient Israel, as in many tribal cultures in the world today, business took at the village gates. Men would spend their days sitting, talking, politicking, and making business deals. It was kind of like the way executives sit in particularly nice restaurants in New York or LA and informally conduct business. In chapter 4 we see Boaz taking his place by the gate early in the morning. When he sees the redeemer, he calls him “friend” and asks him to sit next to him. Over the years, I’ve learned to be suspicious of people who call me friend and ask me to sit next to them. Usually there is something coming next.

Boaz baits his trap by telling the redeemer that Naomi is planning to sell a parcel of land that belonged to Elimelech. So far, we have not heard a word about such a plan. Naomi has not even spoken to Boaz in the story. It is possible that Ruth said something about Naomi’s real estate intentions as she and Boaz cuddled during the night, but I doubt it. Based on what we have in the text, I think Boaz simply made this up real estate deal up. It is a feint or stratagem of Boaz’s. And the poor fellow falls for it.

He very graciously agrees to enlarge his own land-holdings by helping out Elimelech’s poor widow. It is an easy decision since Naomi has no children and there is no danger he will ever have to return the land to her descendents. He can play the role of redeemer and profit handsomely from the exchange. It is easy to be generous in such a situation, especially since he knows that Boaz wants the land. But once he commits himself to the redemption, Boaz springs the trap. “By the way,” he says as an afterthought (kind of like Columbo the detective), “remember that if you take the land you also take responsibility for Ruth the Moabite.”

It is impossible to determine if Boaz is simply bluffing here and trying to convince the poor guy of something that was not true, but there is no evidence that a redeemer had to take responsibility for the widow of a dead relative. Boaz may have been trying to convince the village elders that the redeemer had a moral obligation to care for the woman who had taken care of their kinswoman Naomi. In any case, the news that Ruth was part of the land deal came as a complete shock to the redeemer.

It is still not clear to modern scholars why this was a deal-breaker for the redeemer. He says that it would damage his own inheritance if he took on Ruth as an obligation. The author of Ruth is too good a story teller to fill in all the details of ancient Israelite marriage and real estate law. The point he (or she) was trying to make was that Boaz was a wise and good man. He made sure that his only potential rival publicly repudiated his right to redeem Naomi’s property so he could assume the role of redeemer. As soon as his position as redeemer is assured, Boaz announces that he is acquiring all of the property of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, and he announces that he is taking Ruth the Moabite to be his wife. Her first son will be Mahlon’s.

Conclusion                        We could rush things and finish Ruth today, but I learned in Italy that a good meal should take time. So we’ll save the final course for next week. Before I sign off, though, let’s review the lessons we’ve learned from this section of Ruth. If Ruth is a model of feminine devotion, courage, and resilience, Boaz is the model of the wise man. We have seen that he was a good manager of his estates and profited as a result. He protected Ruth in the fields, and he provided plenty of food for Naomi without sacrificing her pride. Most of all, he recognized the true worth of Ruth. When she came to him in the night, he treated her with kindness and compassion, and he valued the gift she offered. Boaz used all of the resources at his disposal to shrewdly do the right thing in the right way. Men today can learn a lot from Boaz. Next week we’ll discuss the happy conclusion to this folk tale of faith. 

The Gospel of Ruth, chapter 3

Ruth 3: The Threshing Floor

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 23, 2007

Craig Atwood

 

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. 

Gleaning with Ruth

 

Ruth 2: Gleaning

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 16, 2007 

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. I hope all is well for you and those you love during this festive season of the year. My wife has been playing in holiday concerts with the Salem Community Orchestra this past week. Friday night we decorated the church with cedar garlands and magnolia leaves. It is one of the high points of my year watching young and old working, talking, and laughing together in a common project. I keep reading that Americans are selfish and competitive, but you would not believe that if you were here on Friday watching people work together for no other purpose than to make the church beautiful for the celebration of the feast of the incarnation of Christ. This week I will be the speaker for the annual Rotary Club Christmas luncheon. One member of the Rotary told me that he had to make a choice between hearing me and having a particularly unpleasant medical procedure and he chose the procedure. That builds a guy’s confidence, I tell you.

Gleaning            This week we turn our attention to the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, which involves an obsolete custom known as gleaning. There are several references to gleaning in the law books of the ancient Israelites, particularly in Leviticus (19:9-10, 23:22). Israelite landowners were forbidden to pick their fields clean. Harvesters were supposed to leave any grain that dropped to the ground. They were not even allowed to harvest the stalks growing on the edges of the field. What was left over as a result belonged to the poor, especially widows, orphans, and foreigners. These were people without a household or land. They were of a lower class than the farmhands who harvested the grain.

This was one way that an agricultural society could provide some form of an economic safety net for the poor. Clearly, the Bible was written without the insights of modern American economists, like Milton Friedman, who claim that people should maximize their profits without concern for the social consequences of their actions. Modern economists would point out that the owners of the field could maximize their profits through a more rational harvesting procedure. Then, if they wanted to feel pious, they could give some of their profits to the poor as an act of charity. The Bible works on a different theory of economics. Gleaning was based on the idea that the land does not really belong to anyone other than God. Humans may have possession of it for a period of time, but only if they use the land with respect for the laws of the true landowner, God. Gleaning was a reminder to landowners that they were stewards of God’s property, and that the poor have a right to food. The division between rich and poor was still there, as it is in our day, but gleaning made it clear that the rich have an obligation to the poor. Leaving grain for the poor was an obligation of justice, not an act of charity.

Gleaning was not welfare the way we organize it today, but it was a governmental program to provide food for those whose circumstances prevented them from participating fully in the economic system. Gleaning was not the same as begging. Gleaners worked hard for the grain they gathered. In fact, it was probably harder than harvesting since gleaning involved picking up individual pieces of grain rather than whole stalks. Perhaps we should call it a workfare program, but the most important point of gleaning is that it was part of God’s law that the poor had a right to glean in the fields of the rich. We should remember though, that gleaners were shadow people without a household who were bent over looking for kernels of hope.

Ruth                        Ruth became a gleaner. Though Elimelech had some land, it was not producing crops for Naomi when she returned from Moab. The storyteller doesn’t bother us with the details of what had happened to Elimelech’s land. Ruth is not a legal brief or a history book; it is a story about Hesed and faithfulness. All we need to know is that Ruth was forced to glean. It is possible that someone had taken possession of the land and it would require legal action to get it back. It is possible Elimelech had sold it before leaving for Moab. It is possible that the land was lying fallow since no one had been there to plant grain for the harvest. Preachers and spiritual guides often tell you to live in the moment, which can be good advice, but the truth is that if farmers lived only in the present we’d all starve. You’ve got to plant and harvest long before you get hungry. Ruth is a story about planning for the future and seizing opportunities in the present.

It is interesting that Ruth asked Naomi’s permission to glean. That could be a sign that she recognized Naomi as the head of their little household. Ruth may have also been worried that Naomi would be too proud to live by gleaning. There are people in this world who are simply too proud to do the things that survival requires. There are those who would rather die than enter a nursing home or accept meals on wheels or go to a drug rehab. Pride is a narcotic that can be self-destructive. Many commentators have wondered why Naomi wasn’t in the fields herself. Perhaps she was too old, or she may have simply been too depressed to get out of the house. It is Ruth who takes action. She reminds me of Ruby in the novel Cold Mountain. She is a woman who knows what survival requires and is willing to risk her life to save her life and the life of Naomi. There are many forms of heroism in this world; most of them do not come with medals.

As it happened            One of the reasons Ruth belongs in the Wisdom literature of the Bible is because it is a story about virtue. In addition to the virtues of loyalty and kindness, Ruth displays courage and prudence by going into the field to glean. She knows that the harvest will not last long and she must seize the opportunity. She plans for the future, and she is willing to work hard in the present. These were some of the fundamental values of our Moravian ancestors as well. Women and men alike should work hard and be wise in their dealings with the world. We didn’t build a town like Salem in the wilderness simply by singing hymns and writing liturgies.

Another reason this book belongs in the wisdom literature is that it has a slightly different understanding of God than some of the books of the Old Testament. There are no miracles in Ruth, but this doesn’t mean that God is absent from the story. All of the characters in the story talk about God and invoke his blessings, but it is ambiguous as to whether it is God or humans who are responsible for what happens. Thus, the storyteller says that “it happened that” Ruth chose the field of Boaz to glean in. That phrase “it happened that” may be pregnant with meaning or it may be just be good rhetoric. The storyteller does not say that God led Ruth to Boaz’s field; merely that it happened that she was there. Was this simply good luck, a chance encounter, or was God at work? The reader has to decide.

In many ways, the difference between coincidence and providence is a matter of perspective. I’m reminded of the old adage about seeing a glass as half empty or half full. A optimist sees the glass as half full; a pessimist as half empty. A realist might point out that it doesn’t matter which is true if you do not drink the water. We waste a lot of time and energy arguing over whether an event is divine providence or coincidence rather than simply receiving it in gratitude. It happened that Ruth found herself in the field of Boaz, a member of Elimelech’s clan. Does it matter how it happened? What matters is that she was there. Ruth accepts the grace that she has received and works hard to be worthy of that grace. We should also be grateful for providence, including the providence that we help make happen.

Boaz                        After Ruth had started working, the owner of the field appeared. He was checking on the progress of the harvest, as a wise landowner should. He greeted his reapers with the accustomed pieties, saying “The Lord be with you,” and they responded in kind. Our first picture of Boaz is that of a well-respected and respectful man. One of the pillars in Solomon’s Temple was named Boaz, a fact that the first hearers may have known. By using the name Boaz, the storyteller may have been painting a picture of Boaz as a “pillar of society,” a man of strength who had standing in the community. Or, the storyteller could have just been telling us what the owner’s actual name was. That is one problem with literary criticism. Sometimes a name is just a name, but Boaz’s name fits his character. He is portrayed as a pillar of the community, a respected landowner who displays the type of wisdom valued in the book of Proverbs. It is possible that he was even a warrior chieftain or a knight.

Boaz notices Ruth. We aren’t told why he noticed her. Romantics like to portray the meeting as love at first sight. Boaz was captivated by the beautiful Ruth who was like a rose among the thorns, according to many paintings. Historians are more apt to note that Ruth was probably dressed like a foreigner and in a small town any strange woman would have been noticed. It is also possible, perhaps even likely, that Boaz was on the look-out for Ruth since he had already heard the amazing story of her devotion to his kinswoman Naomi. It is also possible that Boaz asked who Ruth when he saw how hard she was working. Perhaps all of these things excited Boaz’s interest. The key point is that he noticed her.

The foreman tells Boaz that the Moabitess from Moab has worked without taking a single break. That no doubt impressed Boaz. The foreman gives another pertinent detail about Ruth. She had asked permission to glean. Based on the laws in Leviticus, foreigners and widows, like Ruth, had a right to glean in the fields, and some commentators think it is odd Ruth asked permission. This may be an indication that Ruth did not know Israelite custom, but I think it simply demonstrates that Ruth was always respectful. It is wise and courteous to ask permission even when you have a right to something. We should also keep in mind that people do not always obey the law and observe rights. I imagine there were many landowners in those days who did not allow gleaning, just as there are employers today who discriminate against people because of sex or race. Ruth wanted to make sure that the owner of this field believed in equal opportunity gleaning before she risked herself in the fields with the workers.  

Boaz and Ruth            Once he has gotten a good report on this stranger in his fields, Boaz takes the initiative to talk to Ruth. He calls her daughter, which is both a term of endearment and a reminder that he is older and more powerful than her. He tells her to keep close behind his female harvesters and that he will treat her almost like one of his servants. At this point in the story, we might wonder if Boaz was considering adding Ruth to his household as a servant. There is no indication he is viewing her as a future spouse, but he does reward her for her sacrifices. He gives her permission to drink from the water jars that the men use, which was a great benefit to someone laboring under the Mediterranean sun.

Most important, he orders the men not to bother Ruth. It is not clear what this means. It could simply mean that the men should allow Ruth to drink from their water jars, but it may be more significant than that. Although there were laws to protect woman in ancient Israel, we know that women are vulnerable throughout the world. Ruth had no male to protect her. If she were raped, there would be no one to insist on justice. We have terrible stories in the OT of women being raped, sometimes even to the point of death. The original hearers of Ruth’s tale knew that she was taking a great risk in going into the fields alone, and they would have recognized the import of Boaz’s command that no one should touch her. He has assumed the role of father-protector for Ruth. His order reassured Ruth that she was safe. Why did he do this? It was because he was a righteous man who lived by the code of wisdom.

Boaz tells Ruth that he has heard about all that she has done for Naomi. He knows about her Hesed, her loving-kindness for her mother-in-law, and he wants to reward her for doing the right thing. He knows the risks Ruth has taken and how difficult her life will be, and he has compassion on her. Unlike Ruth, Boaz is not vulnerable. He has power and status and plenty to eat. He draws upon his strength to assist the one who was merciful even though she was weak. In this way, he can also assist Naomi, a member of his clan. Here is one of those great moments in the Bible where worldly wisdom and compassion come together. Just think of how much better the world would be if the Boaz’s of today would voluntarily reward the Ruths around them. Just think if an employer said to an employee, I know how you are taking care of your invalid aunt and are volunteering in school, and I want to make your life a little easier by raising your salary.

The Lord’s Reward                        Boaz blesses Ruth in the name of the LORD and asks the LORD to reward her for her devotion. Such a blessing is really a prayer. Boaz prays that God will take Ruth under his wing and protect her. This is a beautiful maternal image of God, by the way. God is a bird protecting her young from the elements and predators. Keep that in mind when someone tells you that the OT only portrays God as a male. Here God is a mother hen looking over her vulnerable chicks. What I find most fascinating about Boaz’s blessing or prayer is that he is the answer to his own prayer. He prays that God will protect Ruth, but he is the one who has given instructions that she is to be unmolested. He is the one who has taken Ruth under his wings and has become the refuge for Ruth. Keep this in mind when you pray. It is possible that God will use you as the answer to your own prayers.

Ruth responds with appropriate gratitude. Though she has a legal right to glean, she recognizes that Boaz is treating her with loving kindness. He is going beyond a grudging compliance with the law and is showing Ruth true Hesed. She will still have to work hard, but she will not be risking her life to bring home food for Naomi. She will have water and protection from assault. At mealtime, Boaz shows her even more kindness and lets her eat bread and wine with the reapers. In front of them all, Boaz heaps grain for her to eat so that all will see that she has been blessed because she has been good. In this way, Boaz was also able to give Naomi charity without sacrificing her pride. He knew Ruth would take the leftovers home. Like God, Boaz is subtle and good. He tells his male reapers to let Ruth take grain from the sheaves they have already harvested and to drop a few stalks for her to pick up.

Conclusion                        We will leave Ruth working in the fields gathering food for her and Naomi, but before we go we should take a moment to consider the lessons in this story. We have a picture of a woman who seizes the opportunity to live a meaningful and moral existence in a dangerous world. She risks everything to go out into the fertile fields and bring home some of the bounty. She labors hard and without complaint. And Boaz notices her. There is not a word about Ruth being beautiful, but she is compassionate and devoted. Boaz admires Ruth before he loves her. Boaz is a good model for men. He is a pillar of strength who uses his power for good. If only we had more examples of manhood like this today. This chapter gives us something else to ponder today. Think of hard-working foreigners in our country who are struggling against great odds to provide the necessities of life for their families. Could we today show Hesed to those who labor in our fields? Finally, let me say that it may be impossible to tell the difference between providence and coincidence, but we should go ahead and receive all grace with gratitude. Most of all, remember that you may be the answer to your prayers. Be prepared to be an agent of God’s loving kindness and justice today.

Gospel of Ruth – Intro

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.

Read Ruth:

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. 

Gospel of Ruth, ch. 1

Ruth the Moabite: Prelude

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 2, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class at Home Moravian Church on this First Sunday in Advent. Tonight is the annual Moravian lovefeast and candlelight service in Wait Chapel. It is a beautiful service and the public is welcome. Today we are singing the Hosanna in worship, which is one of my favorite traditions, even though I do not sing well. My youngest daughter has been breaking into Hosanna at random times for a couple of weeks now. Of course, the big news is that it is my 47th birthday. I kept trying to have a mid-life crisis, but somehow I just couldn’t afford it, and now I’ve passed the mid-point. I do think the one thing age teaches is that you cannot undo the past or re-live it. Time is a one-way stream, but memory allows us to learn from experience.

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. We know it was written later because it includes customs that the author has to explain because they are long forgotten. In fact, it is not clear that author even understands some of the customs himself. Ruth also ends with a genealogy that includes Ruth’s great-grandchild, who was born after she was dead. Since the great-grandchild was King David, we can assume that it was written after he had become famous. The fact is that the book does not pretend to be a contemporary account, far from it. But because the rabbis in the 1st century believed that all sacred books had to have been written by one of the prophets, they decided that Ruth was written by Samuel. Only traditionalists make that claim today, but a few modern scholars argue that Ruth was written in the days of David and Solomon. The general consensus among biblical scholars, though, is that it was written after the Babylonian Exile (587-540 BCE).

The vocabulary used in the Book of Ruth is similar to that of other books written after the Exile, most notably Ezra and Nehemiah. Plus, 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. Another reason for dating Ruth rather late is that she is not mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament. Had her story been important for the Davidic monarchy, as some interpreters claim, we would expect some mention of her in connection to David.

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 it may reflect ancient memories. The story 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. In that version, Boaz emerges as a model of wisdom and Ruth as the model of loving kindness. But the final version of this folktale was most likely produced during or shortly after the time of Nehemiah and Ezra in the 5th century. It is quite likely that one of the sages took this ancient wisdom story and used it to protest the racist policies instituted by Nehemiah and Ezra. Yes, this sweet tale of female faithfulness and wise maneuvering also makes a strong political statement that is still relevant.

Political Statement:            To fully appreciate the power of Ruth, we need to look at Jewish society in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. 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. The Pilgrims we remember at Thanksgiving were also called Puritans because they wanted to create a pure and perfect Christian society. We see this concern for purity in Christianity most clearly 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. 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 notions of racial purity and racial superiority. With that in mind, let’s look closer at the opening verses of chapter 1.

In the days of the Judges                        Ruth begins with a statement that this story took place in the days of the Judges, which was the period in Israel’s history before there was a king. Interpreters disagree over the significance of this setting for Ruth. Some think that that book was written intentionally as a bridge between the book of Judges and I Samuel, perhaps by the author of I Samuel, but that seems unlikely to me. Ruth gives a different picture of the period of Judges, and it does not connect well to I Samuel, which begins with the prophet Samuel and the anointing of Saul. Some commentators think that the author of Ruth was highlighting that this story takes place during a time of social chaos before the coming of the king, but there is nothing in the book to indicate that. In fact, the society depicted in Ruth seems remarkably peaceful. I think this opening sentence has nothing to do with actual history. “In the time of the Judges” is the equivalent of our phrase “once upon a time” or “in the days of yore.” Ruth is set in the most distant past of the Israelites as a nation in order to make it a timeless tale.

Like many good folktales, Ruth begins with disaster. There is a famine in the land of Israel and a family has to flee to find food. It is curious that the text does not say that God sent the famine, but the characters in the story will interpret the famine as God’s work. This statement about the famine does not have the same impact on modern Americans as it would have on most people who have lived on this planet. There was a famine in the land. The author did not need to give the details about the crops failing, about the rationing and the slow death of the animals. The author did not need to tell about the fear that stalked the people and what hungry humans do to survive. There is irony in Ruth. Elimelech came from Bethlehem, which means House of Bread, and he was of the clan of Ephrathah, which means fruitful. The story begins with the statement that there was no bread in the House of Bread and no fruit for the people of Fruitfulness.

Elimelech took his family to a land where there was food. When we read Genesis, we saw several times that the patriarchs had to leave the Promised Land because they were hungry. The original hearers of Ruth’s story would connect it to older stories about how their ancestors depended on the kindness of strangers to survive. Elimelech took his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to a foreign land, hoping to save their lives. If you ever have the opportunity to name a son, do not name him Mahlon or Chilion. Mahlon recalls one of the plagues on the Egyptians and can be translated as weak or puny. Chilion means perish or perhaps pining away. The Talmud says the names mean blot out and perish, and scholars have long speculated that the boys were always unhealthy, perhaps because of malnourishment. I doubt these are historical names at all. This is an historical novel about Ruth and Naomi. The story-teller is simply letting us know right away that these boys are not going to live long.

Moab                        Elimelech and his family settled down in the land of Moab. That statement does not send a shutter through us like it would have when someone first told this tale around the campfire in Israel over two thousand years ago. Moab was the neighbor of Israel, but it was a hostile neighbor. The book of Genesis claims that the Moabites were descended from the daughters of Lot who slept with their father. The author could have just as well said, and that Elimelech’s family dwelled in the land of their enemies. Just to add to the disaster, Elimelech died.

Again, it would be bad today if your husband took you to live in a foreign land and died, but think what this meant for Naomi thousands of years ago. Elimelech was the one who could protect her in that strange land. He was the one who could provide for her. She has no support except for her two sons, puny and perishing. One boy marries a woman named Orpah and the other Ruth. It is interesting that the word used for taking wives here is the word used in the later books of the Old Testament that forbid the practice of taking foreign wives. Not only does this help date Ruth to the period after the exile, this statement about taking Moabite wives would have set up certain expectations in the original listeners. Not only had Mahlon and Chilion left the Promised Land, they took foreign wives. We are being set up for bad things to happen. Nothing good can come of marrying a foreigner, especially one of the daughters of your enemy. And indeed, the young men soon die, leaving Naomi without a husband or sons. Her tragedy is nearly complete. In just five verses, the storyteller has left her almost bereft of hope. All she has to look forward to now is death.

Go back!            We need to pause for a moment and consider Naomi. It is rare that ancient literature makes a woman like Naomi the focus of a story. Who is she? A sojourner in a foreign land without a male to protect her and provide for her. She has lost everything that would normally identify her as a woman in society. She is too old to hope for marriage; she has no grandchildren to care for or to care for her. There is no retirement community for her; no social services; no meals on wheels or medicare. She knows her fate, or at least she thinks she does. She decides to return to the home of her ancestors, to Bethlehem, the house of bread, because she heard that the famine was over. She is going there, hoping to live a few more years before death claims her. She is not looking for a joyous homecoming.

The brides of her sons accompany her on her journey because it is not safe for a woman to travel alone. Clearly, these young women love Naomi beyond the love common for a mother-in-law. The word mother-in-law occurs several times in Ruth, but the only other time it appears in the OT is in Micha 7:6 (Farmer, 905). This was apparently not a social category in ancient Israel. Once Mahlon and Chilion died, Orpah and Ruth had no legal or moral relationship to Naomi, but they still considered her their mother-in-law. Thus the storyteller gives a glimpse into what a wonderful woman Naomi must have been. She is brave enough to journey back home rather than simply curling up and dying in Moab, but she inspired devotion from both her daughters-in-law. The sign that she loved them was that she refused their sacrifice.

“Go back,” she told them. Go back to your real mothers who bore you and love you. One indication that this tale originated with women is that Ruth and Orpah are sent back to their mother’s house not to their fathers. The original hearers would understand what Naomi is saying. She has nothing she can do for them. She knows what it would mean for these young women to leave their country, their families, and accompany her back to Bethlehem. There are no more sons for them to marry; no hope for a future with Naomi. She tells them to fulfill their social responsibility and return to their own mothers. Go back! Do the right thing; do the expected thing; do what is best for you and your families. Go back! Let me die in peace. Don’t risk your own lives. Go back, please. You have met your obligations to your dead husbands.

After some protesting, Orpah what the audience expects a good daughter to do. This is what they would have expected their own daughters to do. Orpah is not criticized in the story, and her name is recorded in Scripture. She is not the foil to Ruth, but by doing what was expected, she highlights how unusual Ruth was. Many years ago, rabbis decided that Orpah meant “stiff-necked” because she turned away from Naomi, but in the story it is Naomi who is stubborn. Orpah reluctantly does what Naomi commands and returns to her home.

Conclusion                        Our time is up for this week, and we need to end with this image of Orpah returning to her people. Naomi and Elimelech journeyed to the land of their enemies and found nourishment and love there in the midst of disaster. So far, there is nothing shocking or surprising in this story. It is sad, but not surprising. The surprise comes next week.