Week 3: Aug. 5, 2018
Preaching text: Ruth 3:1-18; accompanying text: Matthew 7:7-8
Preaching text: Ruth 3:1-18; accompanying text: Matthew 7:7-8
As a reminder, the book of Ruth is really useful to us in a lot of ways. It really lifts up complex layers, hints, and innuendo found within the people – it’s very relatable – it’s like reality television! Some reality television may be really trashy, or it may feel very forced, like when it is obvious that a person (or “character”) is reading from a script in order to move the drama forward. But you can watch reality television and learn a lot about how people act in times of stress and in times of celebration. In the book of Ruth, the entire story can be thought of as a morality narrative that demonstrates the blessing of godly living.
Second, knowing that in the world of the bible women’s voices are largely unheard, this story is extraordinary since the voices of Naomi and Ruth are not only heard, their voices move the story forward. Yes, there are men in the story – dead husbands and sons, farmers, business owners and men with power. But Naomi and Ruth are living in a world where women without husbands or other male relatives to care for them are vulnerable. And the book of Ruth is all about how Naomi and Ruth choose to take control of their lives. Their story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.
As a reminder, we left Ruth doing something very risky. She is a foreign widow, unknown to anyone in her new community. She simply heads out of her hut for a difficult labor of gleaning in a field of a person she does not know, hoping against hope that the man will be at least partially sympathetic to a woman in such a straightened position. Gleaning is a technical term in Israel; it is in short the Israelite welfare system. When hired workers pass through the field for harvest, they are allowed to bundle the grain they have cut, but of course they are bound to miss some of the grain in their work. That grain, fallen on the rows of the field, are to be left alone, not bundled in a second pass through the field, but left for the poor: the widows, strangers, foreigners, orphans, all those who have no direct access to the society in which they live. It is a most difficult and meager way to try to survive, but as a foreign widow, Ruth has little choice.
Ruth ends up gleaming in Boaz’s field, and he makes sure that she is safe from assault, she is able to gather more than enough food for her and Naomi, and even invites her to a family lunch and sends her home with leftovers for Naomi.
His treatment of Ruth in particular is extremely kind. He goes out of his way to make sure that Ruth and Naomi are provided for.
When Ruth presents this harvest (and the leftovers from lunch!) to Naomi, of whom she has been thinking during her entire interchange with Boaz, Naomi exclaims that she has never seen a glean quite like that one (2:19)! And upon hearing that Ruth has in fact worked in a field that belongs to Boaz, a light bulb (finally!) goes off above Naomi's head. Well, what do you know? Boaz is a very near kin of mine! Stay close by him, Ruth, she counsels; who knows what the man may do?
But Ruth continued to glean in Boaz' field right up to "the end of the barley and the wheat harvests," as long as six or seven weeks, and nothing happens. Boaz may have appeared very anxious to have some sort of relationship with Ruth in chapter 2, but he retreats into silence at the beginning of chapter 3. There are no chocolates, no phone calls, no e-mails, no texts, no Facebook posts.
As a more distant relative, Boaz is not under obligation to marry Ruth. Though he and Ruth appear to respect and perhaps even feel attraction to each other, and though he is evidently available for marriage, two months of daily contact have not fanned the spark between them.
Until now, both Boaz and Naomi have taken care to protect Ruth from male harassment (2:8-9, 21-22), but now Naomi's plan gambles on Boaz's honor, exposing her daughter-in-law to the danger of humiliation, if not rape. So Naomi, who began chapter 2 in passive despair and ended it with hope, initiates a plan. She tells Ruth to bathe, perfume herself, and gussy up in her best attire to go find Boaz at his threshing floor, where he is winnowing the barley. She is to wait till he has eaten, drunk, and gone to sleep, slip under the blanket with him, and do whatever he says.
Naomi says, “uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do”
Yes, “feet” sometimes are a euphemism in the Bible. But “feet” are also sometimes just feet and there’s no way to know for sure what’s meant in this passage. In any case, there are obviously some sexual overtones to this chapter. Ruth comes to Boaz by night at the threshing floor. She lies down beside him, uncovering some part of his body. On the other hand, it must be noted, there’s no explicit mention of sexual relations here (as there is, for instance in 4:13). Some things are best left to mystery.
So Ruth lies down beside him. He is too soundly asleep to notice her approach, and then when he wakes up he is entirely too startled to play the part Naomi had assigned him. "Who are you?" he demands in surprise when he wakes at midnight.
Ruth does not do exactly what Naomi says. She does not simply sit by his feet and wait for his response. Instead, she takes initiative and calls upon Boaz to act.
Ruth identifies herself, but doesn't wait for his initiative. "Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin," she says, in probably one of the least romantic marriage proposals in human history, or at least in Scripture: take me to redeem my dead husband's inheritance.
To “spread one’s cloak” over a woman is to marry her. Ruth, in other words, proposes to Boaz! And she calls him to fulfill his duty as the goel. A goel is a close male relative who is obligated in Israelite law to redeem his kin who have fallen onto hard times (Leviticus 25:25, 35-38, 47-49).2
..and she proposes to him in secret, giving them the space for an honest conversation. No one else is around – and Women would not have been allowed on threshing floor. Ruth’s actions are quite bold.
Public engagement events/prom-posals/etc. aren’t quite the same situation today, but it’s common in movies and television to show a public declaration of love and one of the partners in the relationship says no, creating an uncomfortable, sometimes profoundly painful public experience.
So in the silence of the threshing room, with no one around, Ruth asks Boaz to marry her and take care of her.
Boaz considers her request neither crass nor unseemly, but generous. Like Naomi (2:2,22; 3:1), he has called Ruth "my daughter" before, hinting at his own age, but now we hear what he has been thinking: had she not been so loyal to Naomi, she would have sought out a younger man. Now we understand why he has refrained from courting her: he did not wish to force the dutiful foreigner into a marriage she might not have wanted for herself.
Boaz promises that he will do all that Ruth asks. Her faithfulness to her mother-in-law is matched by Boaz’s own faithfulness. And, it is worth noting, this foreign widow mirrors God’s own faithful love, God’s hesed. Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty (hesed) is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich” (Ruth 3:10)
Boaz offers another surprising detail -- there is another relative, a nearer one. Since this one has not stepped forward to help before, readers aren't excited about him now. His existence introduces another plot complication, another obstacle to the happy ending for which we are rooting. Balancing honor and desire, Boaz promises to take steps to conclude the matter, and suggests she remain safe with him for the night.
Before dawn he sends her home, giving her yet more food to take with her and the assurance that everyone knows she is, like him, a person of worth (eshet hayil; cf. 2:1, ish gibbor hayil).
Depending on context, much can be done with the sexuality of Ruth. Did she use sex for her gain? Maybe? Maybe not? Does it matter? Why do we always assume that she was a seductive harlot? Depending on how we unpack this story, we could see a seduction – or we could see a woman giving a man space to make a decision, as she tells him what she needs in order to be safe and happy and to take care of her mother in law! Is there room in the church to explore the sexuality of women in a positive light?
Be sure to remember Boaz’s response. He refers to Ruth as eset chayil, the same term as found in Proverbs 31. Rachel Held Evans has translated this famously as “Woman of Valor.” He remarks on her courage, and her place even though she is a poor, foreign, widow.
Ruth is not the evil seductress - she is the Proverbs 31 Woman.
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld makes the argument that Ruth’s use of word go-el, which can be described as next-of-kin, or redeemer is not a legal term, and cannot be traced directly back to Levitical interpretation. Instead, it appeals to the “central motif of the story as a whole, namely, human protection and support as a manifestation of God’s redemptive care.” (Interpretation: Ruth, p. 61)
In other words, caring for one another is the way that we love God. God’s salvation happens through the kindness, generosity, and love of humans toward one another.
What is redeemed for our time is the role that women who take initiative can find security, even sometimes in a patriarchal society and having to be dependent on a man. One hopes that the structures have changed that women do not have to behave in this way to gain life and security. The actions of Boaz are righteous in that he goes beyond the Torah Law. He did not have to marry Ruth, he could easily have had her as a concubine. Righteousness is different to Law in that the actions are not necessarily decreed, but acting in light of God's love is what may be right for the situation.
Love and faithfulness abound, as much as the piles of grain at the threshing floor, and blessings overflow into the lives of those who once were empty. People are messy. Relationships are messy. Finding security and happiness? Messy. And yet, God is able to work within our messes to bring forth insights – wisdom – Spirit-breathed direction – about what it means to care for our neighbors.
In the coming week, may you listen for the voice of the Spirit in the messiness of your own life, and if you find yourself falling into legalism, consider how God may be asking you to act as God does when you are called to care for your neighbor. Amen.