Ruth: Sexuality and Self-sacrifice? (Ruth 1:16-18)


“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.” (Ruth 1:16-18)

Welcome to All Saints Day!

As some of you will be aware, there was a bit of confusion this week over today’s Bible readings. There is a special set of readings for All Saints Day that can be used instead of the standard readings. It was these special readings that were published in our bulletin last week as being this week’s readings yet I decided to reinstate the original readings. This was in part to maintain continuity but mainly because the regular readings already focus on one of the most spectacular of the Bible’s great saints – namely, Ruth!

Ruth is another of those not-often-read books of the Hebrew Bible that we’ve been working our way through lately (Song of Songs, Esther, Job…). Ruth is also the name of the lead character in the book and a saint of some significance!

For those who expressed concern that in my sermon on the Book of Esther a few weeks ago I demolished one of the few female saints and role models in the Bible, let me assure you that today you will hear nothing bad about Ruth who I see as an entirely admirable figure, even if she is rather confronting and was in her own day highly controversial!

Ruth though is a woman of initiative, daring, compassion and determination, and as such she puts the lie to any attempt to depict women in the Bible as figures who only ever move about quietly in the background, playing support roles to the leading (male) characters.

Ruth makes a key contribution to the greater Biblical drama, and she makes a contribution that only a woman can make. Moreover, when we think of Ruth in the long line of great saints who fill the pages of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, she stands out, not so much because of her gender (though that certainly puts her in a minority listing) but because of the way she looked. Ruth looked different. Her skin colour was different from that of all the other great Biblical heroes because Ruth was not a Jew!

Of course many of us are not even familiar with Ruth’s story, 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.

If I skim too fast you can always read the book in its entirety when you get home. The book appears near the beginning of our Hebrew Bible, nestled in between the book of Judges and the books of Samuel (where we first 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 there was a famine in the land of Israel, and that Elimelech and Naomi and their children decided to escape to Moab where their economic prospects were evidently better.

The family settles in Moab where the sons both marry, but a shadow remains over them, owing no doubt 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 these people took off for greener fields. No doubt many interpreted this as an act of cowardice (if not treason) and no doubt some reckoned that a just God would repay this family 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. Their situation is desperate. They have no husbands or children to look after 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 land back then! “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)

It was a brutal law, though no more brutal than some of the discriminatory laws that govern the people of Bethlehem today! Indeed, it does seem bizarre when you consider that Bethlehem – the very little town where the Prince of Peace was born – has been a focal point of racism and violence for thousands and thousands of years!

Some of you will remember when we had the Mayor of Bethlehem here with us in church. It was in August 2007. We had Father Amjad, former parish priest of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem preach for us that day.

Some of you may also have met Brother Peter Bray of Bethlehem University – a Catholic University in Bethlehem that is unique in the way it integrates both Muslims and Christians together in the learning environment.

Those of us who are familiar with the situation in Bethlehem know that almost all the Christians have left Bethlehem, though the real issue in Bethlehem today has less to do with tensions between Christians and Muslims than it does has to do with issues between Jews and Palestinians, where there are still race-based laws that discriminate and make survival difficult if you are of the wrong tribe and the wrong skin colour.

As it is now so it was back then! Ruth is not likely to last long in Bethlehem. She would be a single woman in a hostile environment without anyone to protect her. She wouldn’t know anybody in Bethlehem. She would have no job, no property, and no rights! There was no community of faith to support her as her religion was not welcome in Bethlehem, and she could not even rely on the protection of the law. Yet what does Ruth say?

“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 in the Hebrew Bible as ‘hesed’, which we translate as ‘loving kindnesses’.

‘Hesed’ is a divine quality. It is something God does. God has hesed for His people. He loves them warmly and steadfastly – 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 why Ruth committed herself in steadfast love to 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 a future in Moab was a choice of death over life, and yet she makes that choice for the sake of love (hesed)! 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 through the rest of the Book of Ruth if we are going to finish this story, and yet there is 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!

I appreciate that the term ‘hot’ may seem inappropriate and unnecessarily sexual in its overtones but (once again) this begs the question! We keep having this problem with these not-often-read books in the Hebrew Bible.

The Song of Songs bordered on the bawdy! The Book of Esther combined both sex and violence. Similarly, the drama of the Book of Ruth revolves around the fact that Ruth is hot property. I expect that by now we’re past asking ‘what is this doing in the Bible’ and instead recognise simply that this is the Bible and that the Bible tells it as it is. It is Ruth’s physical gorgeousness that functions as a counterpoint to the racist ideology of her adopted town. They want to look down on her but they can’t stop looking at her!

I do believe that the reality of human beauty really is one of those things that puts the lie to all racist ideologies. As I mentioned some weeks ago, I’ve been reading the autobiography of Adolf Hitler lately (Mein Kampf). I still haven’t finished it. The more I persist with it the less enthusiastic I am to complete it!

In his oft-repeated racist diatribes, Hitler consistently extols the beauty of the Arian race while depicting other races as not only being relatively unintelligent and uncreative but as ugly! There’s only so long anyone can buy a lie like that. You can go on sprouting how beautiful your own people are and how ugly everyone else is but the reality is that when a beautiful young Moabite girl starts gleaning the fields for scraps of barley, none of the field hands in Bethlehem fail to notice her.

Of course a young refugee woman would be in a vulnerable situation amidst a group of farm labourers. Fortunately for Ruth, she catches the eye not only of the workers but of their boss, Boaz. 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 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 is entirely integrated with her extraordinary humanity. She is beautiful both within and without. She has already shown herself to be capable of Christ-like divine love, but now she shows 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 Naomi who is the driving force behind Ruth’s sexual adventures, which seems rather distasteful, and yet who are we to judge? Christians have never been slow to judge those who sell their bodies and yet few chose such a course except out of desperation. The plan of Ruth and Naomi to snare a partner for Ruth and a future for both of them is indeed one that is borne of desperation, but it is a desperation that cannot be separated from Ruth’s body and soul commitment to the welfare of Naomi. Divine hesed and human eros are seen here as working in perfect harmony.

“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 simply ‘lie down’. Likewise, the implication of ‘uncovering the feet’ is that you do a bit more uncovering than just the feet!

The scene in Ruth did remind me of the first meeting of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates as described by Geldof in his autobiography, “Is that it?” (which was the first autobiography I ever read). As I remember the story, Paula Yates simply turned up at the door of Geldof’s 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 in fact 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!

The drama ends happily in chapter four with Ruth and Boaz marrying in an almost comically drawn out process. Boaz, shows himself to be radically disinterested in the law that prohibits him from marrying a Moabite, shows himself to 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 to.

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 and the same loving kindness of God that we see embodied most unambiguously in 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 words and gracious deeds, but even gave up her body for the sake of love!

I’m not suggesting that the two acts of physical self-sacrifice are entirely parallel, of course. Even so, the reality is that, like Christ, she gave up her body for the sake of love – as only a woman could in that context – and so embodied the steadfast love of God that prefigured our Lord Jesus!

And so today as we remember all the saints who from their labours rest, let us take a moment to show special respect for this young Moabite girl – feisty and alluring, passionate and committed, determined and faithful, ready to die and ready to give up her body for the sake of those she loved. Ruth – our daughter, our sister, our mother, and a uniquely feminine reflection of the person of Christ.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 1st of November, 2015.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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