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Today we are continuing our Bible Stories for Grown Ups series by looking at the story of Ruth. Before we jump in to the story, I thought I’d share a couple fun facts about the book of Ruth, just in case you find yourself in some sort of impromptu Bible trivia battle.
In the Christian Bible, Ruth appears after Judges and before 1 Samuel.
However, in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth appears in a section known as the Ketuvim, (which means “writings”) alongside the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, and others. Ruth is part of a collection called, “The Five Scrolls,” which includes Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther. These were likely grouped because 1) they could all be copied on one scroll together, and 2) they were used as part of the liturgy for specific seasons, as Ruth was read on Shavuot / Weeks / Pentecost.
One final point before we dig into the story: one of the strange-to-us details of this story is leverite marriage. This practice is detailed in Deuteronomy 25 (v.5-10):
5 If brothers live together and one of them dies without having a son, the dead man’s wife must not go outside the family and marry a stranger. Instead, her brother-in-law should go to her and take her as his wife. He will then consummate the marriage according to the brother-in-law’s duty. 6The brother-in-law will name the oldest male son that she bears after his dead brother so that his brother’s legacy will not be forgotten in Israel. 7 If the brother does not want to marry his sister-in-law, she can go to the elders at the city gate, informing them: “My brother-in-law refuses to continue his brother’s legacy in Israel. He’s not willing to perform the brother-in-law’s duty with me.” 8 The city’s elders will summon him and talk to him about this. If he doesn’t budge, insisting, “I don’t want to marry her,” 9 then the sister-in-law will approach him while the elders watch. She will pull the sandal off his foot and spit in his face. Then she will exclaim: “That’s what’s done to any man who won’t build up his own brother’s family!” 10 Subsequently, that man’s family will be known throughout Israel as “the house of the removed sandal.”
Essentially, leverite marriage is about preserving the lineage and legacy of the deceased brother. This will come up in the story of Ruth and her relationship with Boaz…which we will get to in a bit.
Let’s begin at the beginning…
Ruth 1:1-2, CEB
1 During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. 2 The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.
Those beginning words have a certain feel to them, perhaps like a story that begins “Once upon a time,” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” It’s almost like we are being told that the story we are about to hear will have a parabolic function, meaning that it’s going to try to speak a truth that is challenging to cultural conventional wisdom. Often we can only hear the difficult things when they are told parabolically. It’s like putting medicine in a pudding cup to get your kids to take it.
The story begins with a famine, and a family of Ephrathites (which means ‘fruitful’) from Bethlehem (which means ‘house of bread’) are forced to leave Israel for Moab in search of sustenance. This means they are leaving the Promised Land, and settling in non-Jewish territory. While there, Elimelech dies, and Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon (meaning ‘sick’) and Chilion (meaning ‘wasting’) marry Moabite women named Orpah (not Oprah, but I end up saying that half the time) and Ruth. They live there for a decade, and then Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law alone. In the patriarchal society of the ancient world, this meant these women were extremely vulnerable in every way. So, Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem, and she told Orpah and Ruth to return to their father’s houses. Orpah reluctantly agreed, but Ruth refused. Her response to Naomi is so lovely that it’s been used at weddings to speak to the kind of commitment that is being expressed.
Ruth 1:16-17, CEB
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
When they arrive back in Bethlehem, Naomi tells the people not to call her Naomi, but Mara, which means “bitter.” She has experienced such loss, such grief. Who wouldn’t be bitter by this point?
Ruth begins to go to the field of Boaz, a relative of her deceased father-in-law, to glean the leftovers from his fields. The Hebrew Law contains a command about not harvesting all of the produce from your fields:
Leviticus 23:22, CEB
When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the LORD your God.
The Law calls for compassion and generosity toward the poor and the immigrant. How progressive, right?!? It’s actually just a human way to be in relationship to others. After all, we are all connected.
Eventually, Naomi and Ruth devised a plan to ask Boaz, as a relative, to fulfill his responsibly to his deceased relative by marrying Ruth and producing offspring, which is exactly what happens. This story ends “happily ever after.”
Ruth 4:13-17, CEB
13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. He was intimate with her, the LORD let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi, “May the LORD be blessed, who today hasn’t left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel. 15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.” 16 Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian. 17 The neighborhood women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They called his name Obed. He became Jesse’s father and David’s grandfather.
Naomi is no longer Mara, bitter. She is celebrating the birth of a grandson, to whose care she devotes herself. The story wraps up by telling us that Ruth and Boaz’s son is Obed, the father of Jesse, and grandfather of David — the greatest king Israel would know.
So, what is this story about? There are several themes to note.
Women have agency. They don’t just respond to men, they take the initiative. When Boaz doesn’t act to fulfill his obligation to his deceased relative, Ruth and Naomi take action.
Ruth embodies faithful love (chesed). Chesed is the faithful love most seen expressed by God toward people. “Give thanks to the LORD for she is good, her love (chesed) endures forever.” Ruth embodies this. She refused to abandon Naomi, and instead returns to Bethlehem with her and works to secure their position and bring joy back to Naomi’s life, and ultimately shapes the Jewish tradition by being the great-grandmother of king David.
The main purpose of this story is actually to speak to the context in which it was written. The narrative context of Ruth is set in the days of the Judges, i.e. c.1150–1025 BCE, but the date Ruth was composed was likely during the post-exilic period of Ezra-Nehemiah, meaning the 500s-400s BCE. The Jews had been exiled by Babylon (587 BCE), but when the Persian empire conquered Babylon, the Persian emperor Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to their land, and rebuild their Temple. During this period there was an emphasis on keeping the tradition pure, creating boundaries that would protect them from being absorbed into or diluted by the surrounding Gentile cultures. One of the resulting laws concerned the marriages of Jewish men to non-Jewish women, and the children that resulted from those unions.
Ezra 10:2-3a, CEB
Then Shecaniah, Jehiel’s son, from the family of Elam, spoke up and said to Ezra, "We’ve been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the neighboring peoples. But even now, there is hope for Israel in spite of this. Let’s now make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children…
Ezra 10:10-11, CEB
Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have been unfaithful by marrying foreign women and adding to Israel’s guilt. But now, make a confession to the LORD God of your ancestors and do his will. Separate yourselves from the neighboring peoples and from the foreign wives.”
Nehemiah 13:1-3, CEB
On that day, when the scroll from Moses was being read to the people, they found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter God’s assembly. This is because they hadn’t met the Israelites with food and water but instead hired Balaam against them to curse them. Yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. When the people heard this law, they separated out from Israel all those of mixed descent.
In an effort to be faithful and purify their community, they wanted to expel anyone of foreign descent. When we are seeking explanations for why something bad has happened, we often look for someone or someones to blame. In this case, it was the foreign wives and children that resulted from those marriages.
As Richard Rohr puts it, “Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history.”
Then someone wrote down the story of Ruth.
What challenge would this story pose during the Ezra-Nehemiah period?
Ruth is the story of a Moabite (!!!) woman who saves the day for her Jewish mother-in-law, and becomes the great-grandmother of the greatest Jewish king, David. This would be a shock! The greatest and idealized king was a descendant of a Moabite woman? What would have happened if Boaz had not married or decided to divorce Ruth? If he had sent her and the child they bore, Obed, away? There would have been no David!
The book of Ruth is a response to xenophobia, which is the product of fear and scapegoating. Maybe we need the story of Ruth now more than we ever have in our lifetime. We are living through an intensely difficult and divided time in our history. There are those in the highest offices in the land who want to appeal to our worst sentiments: fear, hate, racism, classism, and the list goes on. Ruth reminds us that God works in surprising ways, and that it’s often in those we have tried to marginalize that God is to be most found and experienced.
Perhaps the challenge, the point, is that God works through all sorts of people. That where you were born or who your family is doesn’t ultimately decide who you are or become. That God doesn’t play favorites, and the group of people that we fear most might one day be the very people who save us.
John Shelby Spong, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non Religious World, p.174 :
That is the point of the protest book of Ruth. It was designed to confront the raging xenophobia that was sweeping the land and to reveal its inherent weakness. As the fear subsided, the xenophobia also faded. It always does. The call of God to human beings is always a call to wholeness. No one is whole when acting out of fear. Fear causes people to diminish the worth and the dignity of another when that other is judged to be somehow impure or inferior by reason of one’s very being over which there is no human control: That is for reasons of race, ethnicity, gender, left-handedness or sexual orientation, many of which are regularly reinforced by human religious codes. The book of Ruth… was written to protest all of the limits that human prejudice forever tries to place on the love of God. How wonderful that such a book was included in the sacred scriptures read and valued by both Jews and Christians! The book of Ruth provides us with a biblical mirror into which we can stare at our own prejudices and then be led to free ourselves from them.
May we hear this truth that Ruth seeks to communicate, and may we seek to embody it in the way we engage the world around us.
Grace and peace.