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Ruth: The Woman and the Book

 

   Ruth 1:1

 

I: — Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Today we begin thinking of the build-up to Christmas, the story whose crescendo gathers force throughout Advent and is crowned on Christmas Day with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who is Messiah of Israel, Ruler of the Gentiles, Son of God, Saviour of humankind, Lord of the entire universe.

As we revisit the Christmas narratives in Matthew’s gospel we start with the genealogies. The older translations of the bible said “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat…” on and on for dozens of generations.         The newer translations of the bible say “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob…” and so on.

“Begat.” “Father of.” It sounds one-sidedly male, doesn’t it. Where are the females in the genealogy? Most women (and all feminists) would shout “Nowhere.   That’s just the problem.”   Actually among the dozens of males who “beget” in the genealogies there are a few women mentioned.  But only four. Even so, if there are only four mentioned, the four are surely going to be the four most-celebrated women in Israel ’s history: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

No. These four aren’t mentioned in the “breeding record” of Jesus.  The four mentioned in our Lord’s ancestry are Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba and Ruth.

Things aren’t looking good at this point, because each of these women is tainted.

Rahab was a Canaanite woman – which is to say, she belonged to Israel ’s arch-enemy. Still, when Joshua sent two spies into Canaan to assess its military strength, especially that of Jericho , Canaan ’s principal city, Rahab hid the two spies and saved their lives.  Months later, when Israel conquered Jericho , Rahab was spared. Israelite soldiers didn’t pulverize her house.  How did they know which house was hers?   She had hung a red ribbon in the window.  With today’s electrical power she would have put a red light in the window. The red light would be appropriate too, because Rahab was a harlot, we are told, a prostitute. Of the four women mentioned in our Lord’s ancestry, one is “iffy” already.

Next is Tamar. At least she’s an Israelite, not a Canaanite.  Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah . Her husband died.  She was childless. No one would marry her. So she disguised herself – disguised herself so thoroughly as to be unrecognisable – and then seduced Judah, her father-in- law, and bore his children.

Bathsheba.  David was already married when one day he saw a woman (a married woman) who was so gorgeous she was almost an apparition.  Bathsheba and David “carried on”, as we say today.  She became pregnant. Whereupon David arranged to have her husband murdered, subsequently marrying Bathsheba himself.

Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite. By the time Ruth was on the scene the Moabites were considered Gentiles, since the Moabites were descended from Lot ’s incest with his daughters.

Our Lord’s background is questionable several times over.   He isn’t a pure-bred. Of course his background includes Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  But they aren’t mentioned in his genealogy.  Mentioned instead are Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba, and Ruth.

Today we are talking about Ruth.

 

II: — The story of Ruth has always been regarded as a tale of romance. How many times have we become sentimental as we heard Ruth’s moving speech to Naomi, her mother-in-law, “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following you. For where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.”   It is moving. Nonetheless the story of Ruth isn’t finally about romance.  It’s about a crushing episode in Israel ’s history and two different responses to the disaster.

In 587 BCE the Babylonian armies overran Israel and carried off into exile many of the people and most of the leaders.  Eventually the exiles were permitted to return.  The repatriated leaders found the people who had never been taken into exile but who had been left behind; the leaders found these people demoralized. The people were dispirited, disillusioned, confused, floundering.   The leaders knew the people had to have their morale restored.         The people had to be infused with new heart, fresh confidence, hope. Essential to all this, the leaders insisted, was ethnic purity.  Israelites were to stop marrying foreigners.  And since Moabites were hated more than other foreigners, no Moabite was to set foot in an Israelite place of worship for ten generations (two hundred years.) Two men especially, Nehemiah and Ezra, were vehement on this matter.  In fact Nehemiah’s vehemence boiled over into violence.  He was heartbroken when he came upon Jewish men who had married Moabite women and whose children couldn’t speak Hebrew.  His heartbreak heated up into white-hot anger and he fumed at these irresponsible men. “I contended with them,” Nehemiah tells us himself, “and I cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair….”  Certainly Nehemiah thought he was doing the right thing.  After all, he was maintaining the honour of God’s cause and preserving the ethnic purity of God’s people.

We mustn’t be too severe with Nehemiah.  He had a point. It was Israel ’s God-ordained vocation to be a light to the nations. But how could they ever be a light to the nations if their own light sputtered out? Nehemiah told the people the light they were supposed to be was on the point of sputtering out; they weren’t of much use to anyone.         Their children couldn’t speak Hebrew?   Then how would their children ever learn Torah, Torah being both the vehicle of God’s revelation to them and the “Way” that God appoints his people to walk? If they couldn’t learn Torah they couldn’t obey God.  If they couldn’t obey God what could they do besides meander and stumble, the blind leading the blind, as Israel ’s greater Son was to say centuries later, with everyone eventually falling into the ditch? Nehemiah had a point. He and Ezra and many other leaders proposed handling the problem this way.  One, mixed marriages were no longer permitted.  Two, foreigners were to be treated with hostility, relentless harassment driving them out of the land.  Three, the people of Israel were to ghettoize themselves and shun contact with the wider world as much as possible.

But not everyone in Israel agreed with this. In fact the book of Ruth, along with the book of Jonah, was written to protest against these policies. And now to the story itself.

 

III: — Famine arises in Bethlehem . Naomi, her husband, and her two adult sons go to the country of Moab in order to feed themselves. Naomi’s husband dies. Her two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.  Naomi, her two sons and her two daughters-in-law live ten years in Moab . Then Naomi’s two sons die. (This is scarcely surprising, since the sons’ names are Mahlon and Chilion, Hebrew words meaning “sickness” and “consumption.”)   Naomi learns that the famine is over at home, and she starts back. Ruth and Orpah want to go back with her. Naomi cautions them. “Don’t feel obliged to accompany me,” she says; “I’m an elderly widow, too old to remarry. You women are young; you need husbands. Stay in Moab , for you are Moabites yourselves and you won’t be welcome in Israel .” Orpah heeds Naomi.  Ruth refuses to. She clings to Naomi and cries, “Entreat me not to leave you….Where you go I will go; your people will be my people, your God my God.”   And Ruth, knowing that she’ll meet hostility in Israel , still goes back with Naomi, so dearly does she love her mother-in-law.

Ruth eventually marries an Israelite, Boaz.  They have a son. The son grows up and has a grandson whose name is David.  David becomes Israel ’s greatest king. David is poet, musician, warrior, ruler. David is the man after God’s heart. In Israel David is feted as someone whose glory approaches that of Moses.  David: the man who gathers up in himself so very much of all that the Jewish people have cherished for 200 years.  David is the paradigm of Jewishness.  Except that he isn’t purebred Jew.   His great-grandmother was a Moabite, a Gentile.

David had a son, who had a son, who had a son, for 1000 years; this time the son’s name was Jesus.  After Israel ’s greatest king came a still greater king.  On the one hand, Matthew upholds the virginal conception of Jesus. On the other hand, Matthew lists these “iffy” people as our Lord’s ancestors.  It is this one, already “numbered among the transgressors”, who is the Son of God and Saviour of the world.

 

IV: — What are you and I to learn from all of this? How is the story of Ruth “word of God” for us today?

[1] First we have to note that Nehemiah and others were right when they perceived the threat to Israel , but wrong in their response to the threat.  Here’s the dilemma. If God’s people try to preserve themselves by huddling together with their backs to the world; that is, if God’s people try to preserve their identity by refusing to identify with the rest of humankind in its suffering and perplexity and frustration and sin, then they are useless to God and others. They merely ghettoize themselves as they breathe a sigh of relief that at least they still know who they are just because they have kept themselves unspotted from the big, bad world.  At the same time, however, they are of no help to anyone.  This is what Jesus calls hiding one’s light under a bushel basket. The light is still light all right, but because it’s hidden under the basket lest a nasty wind blow it out or someone ridicule it or someone else deny it to be light at all, it doesn’t illumine anyone, most notably those who stand in greatest need of illumination.

On the other hand, if God’s people are so eager to identify with those to whom God sends them that they lose their identity as God’s people, then they too are useless just because they lack distinctiveness. This is what Jesus calls having the salt lose its saltiness.  When the salt loses its saltiness we have the sermon that is no different from the newspaper, the congregation that is no different from the community group, the minister who is no different from Lions Club tail twister, a gospel that aims only at making us feel good, a denomination that is manipulated by the noisiest lobby.

In the first case God’s people retain their identity but forfeit their identification with a needy world.  In the second case identification with human distress is upheld while identity as God’s people is lost.  This is the dilemma. And this dilemma faces every Christian, every congregation, every denomination.

Plainly we need to be able to discern and exemplify Christ’s own righteousness and truth in a world of sin and falsehood.  We can do this only if we avoid embracing the world uncritically; i.e., only if we remember and cherish Christ’s righteousness and truth. At the same time we can exemplify Jesus Christ in our world only if we insist on remaining one with a world of sin and falsehood.

Ezra and Nehemiah had said, “Let’s play it safe. Let’s come down on the side of preserving our identity while ignoring everyone else.” On the other hand the people who had sneered at Moses and had fooled around with the golden calf like the rest of the world; the people who had told Samuel that they wanted a king precisely in order to be like everyone else — they came down on the other side of the issue: they boasted of their identification with the world even as they had long since lost their identity as God’s children.

Jesus Christ is given to the world just because God so loves the world; and the selfsame Jesus tells Pontius Pilate that God’s kingdom doesn’t belong to this world.

The story of Ruth reminds us that the love which Naomi had for an alien who didn’t belong to God’s covenant people moved that alien to join herself to Naomi and say, “Your God, the holy One of Israel, has become the only one I can worship.”  It was Naomi’s persistent kindness to a foreigner when all the while Naomi knew her home to be in Bethlehem (“ Bethlehem ” means “house of bread”); this is what moved Ruth to journey to Bethlehem with Naomi where Ruth could learn for herself why the God of Israel is bread for the hungry when nothing else is.

It’s no different concerning us.  It is as you and I know who we are in Christ; it’s as we cling to our identity in him even as we identify with others that these people will come to embrace Israel ’s greater Son.

 

[2]         The second feature of the book of Ruth that seizes me is this: God’s work moves ahead despite the sin of God’s servants. Ruth, we should note, wasn’t “Miss Goody-Goody Two Shoes.”   She was calculating, manipulative, devious.         We mustn’t sentimentalize her.  She knew she needed a husband. A widow, in those days, was marginalized on all fronts at once.  To be sure, Ruth had been allowed to glean in the field belonging to Boaz as a way of fending off dire poverty.  To glean was to pick up stalks of grain that had fallen out of harvesters’ arms, as well as to cut the grain left standing at the fringe of the field. It was hard work for little food. It would avert starvation, but no more than this.         Ruth wanted more. She wanted a husband. And she snared one, really “snared” him, since she used the shabbiest entrapment to get him.

Now this is where the story of Ruth gets earthy.  Here’s what happened. At the conclusion of the day’s harvesting Boaz was thirsty.  He drank some wine. He drank more wine, and more still. Now he was deep into the “twilight zone.”         In fact he was beyond the twilight zone.  Whereupon, we read in Holy Scripture, “Ruth came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down.”  Now to “uncover one’s feet” in Hebrew idiom means to expose one’s genitals. Ruth exposed Boaz. Next verse in our story: “At midnight Boaz was startled, turned over, and behold a woman lay at his feet.” “Who are you?” Boaz asked, and she replied, “I am Ruth, your maidservant. Spread your skirt over your maidservant.”         Whereupon Boaz flipped his cloak over Ruth and covered himself up as well.

What had happened was this. Ruth had “uncovered the feet of Boaz,” exposed him.  He had drunk too much wine to be aware of this.  When finally he did wake up, he saw that he was exposed, and Ruth as well. Plainly she had exposed herself too; that’s why she had said, “Cover up your maidservant.” But because Boaz had drunk so much wine, he couldn’t remember what had happened; specifically he couldn’t remember whether you-know-what had happened.  He only knew that he had awakened, naked, with a naked woman beside him. It would certainly appear that something had happened.  Little wonder that Boaz insisted, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”   He thought that the only proper thing left him to do was to marry Ruth. He did.

In other words, Ruth blackmailed Boaz.  She falsified herself and trapped him.

We cannot excuse it. We cannot approve it. And we had better not imitate it. Yet we may and must glory in the fact that God’s work surges ahead despite the most appalling clay feet of his servants.

All God’s servants have feet of clay. Abraham is the prototype of the person of faith in both older and newer testaments.  Yet Abraham lies to save his own skin even as he jeopardizes his wife. Abraham sees men ogling his wife, Sarah. He says to himself, “If I say she’s my wife, they will kill me in order to rape her. But if I say she’s my sister, they will rape her anyway but spare me.”    “She’s my sister,” Abraham shouts, “my sister.”  Abraham did this twice.

David is “a man after God’s heart,” scripture tells us, and he commits adultery with Bathsheba after he has arranged for the murder of her husband.

Paul is sarcastic. Elijah taunts his opponents. All God’s people have feet of clay. We ought to deplore this and repent of it.   But at the same time we ought never to despair on account of it.  So very miraculous is God’s grace that we are going to be used of God anyway. God’s work moves ahead despite the sin of God’s servants, including your sin and mine.

 

[3] I cherish the book of Ruth, finally, in that Ruth calls Boaz her kinsman. The Hebrew word for kinsman is “go’el.”         “Go’el” doesn’t mean kinsman in the modern sense of “next of kin,” the person to be notified when the dump truck runs over my bicycle and me. In Hebrew “go’el” means redeemer.  A kinsman-redeemer-go’el is someone who rescues another person, rescues someone dear to the go’el from real danger.

In the older testament a go’el or redeemer could do many things. He avenged a family member who had been molested. He vindicated a loved one who had been slandered.  He paid off debt and thereby secured the release of someone who had been enslaved because she couldn’t pay her debts.  Redemption, in Israel , always entailed some kind of rescue, release, deliverance.

The description of kinsman-redeemer-go’el came to be applied to God; in fact it came to be one of the most characteristic descriptions of God. Over and over God is spoken of as the One whose love for us moves him ultimately to sacrifice himself for us in order to rescue us, release us and deliver us.

What do we need to be rescued from?   Enticement at the hands of the evil one, our own sin arising from such enticement, and God’s just judgement judging us on account of our sin.

What do we need to be delivered to? We need to be delivered to, handed over to, the freedom and gratitude and obedience of God’s children.

It’s all won for us in Christ, given to us in Christ, the go’el or redeemer, guaranteed for us in Christ — who is himself king eternal above King David, even as Jesus Christ and King David are alike descendants of a Gentile, a Moabite, a devious woman, Ruth.  Even as our blessed Saviour, whose Advent we celebrate today, is descended also from Bathsheba, Tamar and Rahab – wicked sinners like us, and like us grateful beneficiaries of God’s mercy, wrought for us all in God’s only Son, Christ Jesus our Lord.

                                                                                            Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                

November 2005