“But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”
If you’ve been part of the Sydney Anglican Diocese for any length of time, you know that our ecclesiastical leaders are apt to issue statements and working papers on subjects such as ‘the role of women’ or, more specifically, ‘the role of women in the church’. Either way, I confess that the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear of something like this. Such language seems to hark back to a generation long past and a generation that, in this regards at least, should be left in the past!
We have discovered, I believe, that in 21st Century life gender roles cannot be rigidly imposed. There are plenty of women who make fine executives and leaders just as there are many men who make fine full-time carers. Having said that, I recognise too that there are cases where women and men have unique roles to play and that there are times when the ‘only man for the job’ is a woman
I remember many years ago listening to Ray Bakke – a Baptist minister from Chicago who was well-known for his work with violent urban gangs. I remember him saying then that there were some areas that he worked in that were so dangerous that you could only send in a woman as a minister of the Gospel! Likewise, I think, when we walk through the Biblical drama we find that there are some situations there where the only man for the job is a woman, and one such situation is found in a book that is named after one such woman, and I’m talking about the Old Testament figure of Ruth.
Ruth, to my thinking, is one of the most confronting, impressive, controversial and downright outrageous figures in the entire Biblical drama, and yet I suspect that many of us are not even familiar with her story, and so I’m going to try to unpack that story for you, and explore the character of Ruth as I do so, by skimming through each of the four chapters of the book that bears her name.
‘Ruth’ is a book that appears near the beginning of our Hebrew Bible, nestled in between the book of Judges and the books of Samuel (where we meet the great kings of Israel such as Saul and David). The story of Ruth is indeed set before the time of Saul and David, back when the ‘judges’ ruled Israel – people like Samson and Gideon and Deborah.
As the narrative opens it is not a story about Ruth at all, but about a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi who lived in Bethlehem with their two sons. And we are told that there was a famine in the land of Israel, and that Elimelech and Naomi and their children decided to escape and move to Moab where their economic prospects evidently were better. And the family settles down in Moab and the sons marry there, but a shadow remains over the family, owing to the fact that when the going got tough for the people of Bethlehem, Elimelech and his family got going.
Rather than try to join hands with their fellow Israelites and weather the storm (so to speak) they took off for greener fields (quite literally), and no doubt many interpreted this as an act of cowardice, and no doubt some reckoned that a just God would repay them for abandoning their kinsmen in their time of need.
And if Elimelech and Naomi harboured such fears themselves, their subsequent family history did indeed suggest that they had been cursed. Elimelech dies while they are still in Moab, and then both the sons die as well, leaving behind them three women – Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Oprah and Ruth – and their situation is pathetic. They have no husbands or children of their own who might protect them. They have no land and presumably very limited resources, and they have few prospects for the future.
Naomi decides that her best chance of survival is to return to Bethlehem with her tail between her legs and live off the charity of her relatives, and she bids her daughters-in-law to break off and to fend for themselves as best they can.
While both daughters-in-law seem loyal to the old woman, Naomi points out that they have no future in her company. Even if she makes it back to Israel and manages to eke out an existence on the begrudging charity of her relatives, there is little chance that such charity will be extended to the two Moabite girls, for her homeland was very tribal, and there was little likelihood that there could ever be a future for two foreign widows in her home town.
And this perception of Naomi’s was not simply a reflection of her own bleak pessimism, for discrimination against Moabites was actually written into the laws of the people of Israel back then!
I’ve often said that racism in a community can take place on three different levels. The first is where it happens but is frowned upon by the law and the broader community. The second level is where it becomes socially acceptable to discriminate on the basis of race or colour, such as seems to be the case in this society now, where it seems to be increasingly acceptable to make jokes about Muslims or Arabic people. The third stage is where racial discrimination is enshrined in law, such as we associate with apartheid regimes or Nazism.
Sadly, I believe there are instances of legalized racism within our own legislative system here in Australia. In the case of ancient Israel, at any rate, it was unambiguous: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.” (Deuteronomy 23:3)
One could argue, of course, that there were good reasons for such a law, and I appreciate that we live a long distance in both time and space from the community that enacted this law. However we understand it though, such institutionalised discrimination made the prospects of Ruth – a young Moabitess widow in Israel – absolutely dismal, and yet Ruth decides to stick with Naomi!
Ruth’s speech and vow, made to Naomi, as recorded in the first chapter of the book, is absolutely beautiful: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-18)
In this statement of loyalty to her aging mother-in-law, Ruth shows what is referred to as ‘hesed’, which we translate as ‘loving kindnesses.
‘Hesed’ is generally considered a divine quality. It is something God does. God loves His people – warmly and steadfastly – and it’s not because those God loves are particularly deserving of His love but simply because God is the sort of God who shows ‘hesed’.
Likewise, there are no special clues given as to how or why Ruth developed this steadfast love for her mother-in-law. It is simply given to us as who she was. For the sake of her mother-in-law she gave up everything she had – her homeland, her resources, her people and her religion. To choose Naomi over her own future was a choice of death over life, and yet she makes that choice! And thus we start to recognise in Ruth, right here in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, the face of Christ!
And yet this is only the first chapter and we are going to need to move quickly now through the rest of the Book of Ruth if we are going to finish this story, and there is yet one more vital thing that we need to learn about Ruth before we can get a complete picture of the woman, and it is revealed to us in the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, and that is that Ruth is hot!
Now I appreciate that the term ‘hot’ might seem inappropriate to some and unnecessarily sexual in its overtones, and yet what follows in the Book of Ruth is absolutely sexual in its overtones and, one might think, entirely inappropriate!
We pick up the ‘hotness’ of Ruth soon after the two women return to Bethlehem. Ruth takes it upon herself to glean some scraps of barley in one of the local fields so that the women might have something to eat, and immediately she catches the eye of all the field-hands!
Now, admittedly, any young refugee woman would be in a vulnerable situation when placed amidst a group of farm labourers, but clearly Ruth catches the eye not only of the workers but of their boss, Boaz, as well!
The first time Boaz sees Ruth he starts asking questions about her (2:5) and the first time he talks to her he starts flirting with her, and indeed the first action he takes regarding Ruth is that he passes the word around amongst his employees that nobody else is to touch her!
Ruth is hot property, and yet her alluring femininity should in no way distract us from her powerful humanity. She is beautiful both within and without. She has shown herself to be capable of Christ-like divine love, and now she will show herself to be equally capable of very human erotic love, for in chapter three she decides to use her body to secure Boaz for herself as a sexual partner, and so ensure a future for both herself and her mother-in-law.
Mind you, as the story is presented, it is actually Naomi who is the driving force behind Ruth’s sexual adventures, which in itself seems rather distasteful!
I’m sure we have all heard of families in struggling communities who sell their children to brothels in order to survive themselves. I know this happens but, as a parent, I find it impossible to understand how any parent could prostitute their own children.
Of course, in Naomi’s case, Ruth is not actually her daughter as such, but this surely doesn’t make her role in Ruth’s plan of entrapment any more palatable. Indeed, to me it makes it worse! At any rate, make no mistake about it, what Naomi asks Ruth to do is to give her body to Boaz in order to secure a long-term relationship
Surely there must have been other more subtle ways to go about snaring Boaz? What plan did Naomi reject in order to go with this one? Naomi says to Ruth:
“Tonight [Boaz] will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down.” (Ruth 3:2-4)
The term ‘uncover his feet’ is a euphemism, the Biblical commentators tell us, as is ‘lie down’. We still use the later euphemism. When we say someone ‘lay down’ with someone we imply that they did more than ‘lie down’. Likewise, the implication of ‘uncovering the feet’ is that you do a bit more uncovering than just the feet!
The scene frankly reminds me of the first meeting of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates. Geldof’s was the first autobiography I ever read, and I remember him telling the story of his first meeting with Yates. I might have some details wrong but, as I remember it, she simply turned up at the door of his hotel room in Paris completely naked and said “I bet you can’t resist this?” He said, “You’re right. I can’t”, and so began a 20-years relationship that generated three children!
Ruth’s (or rather ‘Naomi’s) plan to ensnare Boaz is equally unsubtle, though there is one significant difference – namely, there is no indication in the Ruth drama that the young Moabitess is actually personally attracted to her man!
Indeed one has to ask, if this is a historical narrative, why wasn’t Boaz – a man of high standing in the community and a man of wealth – already married? Was he really waiting for the right Moabite widow to come along? It is hardly likely!
Perhaps he already had multiple women and saw no need to marry any of them? Perhaps he was especially unattractive? Perhaps he carried some deformity? It’s impossible to know. What we can see though in the text of the Book of Ruth is that the gentle flirting behaviour between the two is initiated entirely by Boaz, and that Ruth’s only recorded initiative in the relationship is far less subtle!
Is ‘prostitution’ too harsh a word? Certainly it is far too derogatory a word in this case, for Ruth’s act is an act of love, even if (ironically) it is more an act of love for Naomi than it is for Boaz!
The drama ends happily in chapter four with Ruth and Boaz marrying. It is an almost comically drawn out process, as Boaz, who has shown himself to be radically disinterested in the law that prohibits him from marrying a Moabite, shows himself to nonetheless be meticulously law-abiding when it comes to the strictures of how you go about marrying the widow of a man you were once related too.
The story, at any rate, ends happily for everybody. Boaz is blessed with a godly and beautiful wife and Ruth is blessed with a loving and wealthy husband. Naomi is blessed, both with resources for the future and with a renewed social standing in the community, and the couple are ultimately blessed with a son – Obed, who becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes the father of David, who becomes Israel’s most famous king!
And if we know how these genealogies work, we know too that this puts Ruth directly into the genealogy of Jesus. In truth though, the connection between the two is far more significant than just their bloodlines.
For Ruth, from the first, embodies ‘hesed’ – the loving kindness of God that, and the same loving kindness of God that we see embodied most unambiguously in the person of the Lord Jesus! And yet the connection, to my mind, goes even deeper than this, for Ruth, like Christ Himself, did not simply give of herself in kind word and gracious deed, but even gave up her body for the sake of love!
I’m not suggesting that she found that first nocturnal encounter with Boaz particularly odious, and I’m certainly not suggesting that she suffered as Christ did when He sacrificed his body for us, but I am saying that she, like Christ, gave up her body for the sake of love – as only a woman could in that context – and so both embodied the steadfast love of God and prefigured our Lord Jesus!
Ruth – surely one of the most confronting, impressive, controversial and downright outrageous figures in the entire Biblical drama. Ruth – our mother, our sister, and a uniquely feminine reflection of the person of Christ. Amen!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on November 4, 2012.
To hear the audio version of the sermon click here.