Ruth is a much loved domestic tale of God’s faithfulness lived out in the lives of everyday, ordinary human beings. It is a drama of human love reflecting and enacting divine love in which famine turns to abundance, loss turns to love, bitterness turns to joy, barrenness gives way to new birth and new life. And the catalyst for all this is not a patriarchal king, prophet or judge, but a childless widow and foreigner named Ruth.
The story starts “Along time ago…” That’s equivalent to saying “Once upon a time…” That’s a pretty good sign that this is a story that is meant to both transmit a moral and to entertain. When the Hebrew text was translated into Greek, because of the Book of Ruth’s opening claim to be from the time of the Judges, the Book of Ruth was moved from among the writings to where we find it now, between the historic scrolls of Judges and 1st Samuel. The Hebrew canon placed it before Ezra and Nehemiah, the two books which recounted the restoration of Israel after the exile. One of the demands made in the restoration was that Jews were to divorce their foreign wives. The story of Ruth blatantly challenges idea.
In this story Mahlon’s next of kin, Boaz, marries Mahlon’s widow, the foreigner Ruth. They have a son named Obed. Obed has a son, Jesse, who has a son, David, who becomes King of Israel. By becoming the great-grandmother of Israel’s heroic king the Book of Ruth points out how petty and short-sighted was such a policy of racial purity. It is one of the first calls for universality over endogamy. Ruth shows that outsiders who profess faith in Israel’s God can be fully assimilated into Jewish society. Ruth demonstrates that not only could a foreigner be completely assimilated, but he or she might be God’s instrument for some higher good.
Israel’s refusal to follow God’s law has, ironically, caused a famine in the House of Bread, that is Bethlehem. To escape the hardship Elimelech (whose name means My God is King), moves his wife, Naomi (whose name means Pleasant), and his sons Mahlon (whose name means Invalid) and Chilion (whose name could be translated Withering on the Vine) to Moad, a land east of the Dead Sea. According to Genesis 18 Moab was populated by the immoral descendents of one of the children born as a result of the incestuous drug rape of Lot by one of his two daughters. Other sources tell us that the Moabites were peaceful and prosperous traders who welcomed refugees from natural disasters. They shared the Mosaic Law, a common language and many other customs with the Israelites.
Both of Elimelech and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women, Chilion married Orpha (whose name means nape of the neck) and Mahlon married Ruth (whose name means friend). Naomi’s husband and sons died. It left her a bitter, landless vagrant with two dependent daughters-in-law in a foreign land. Despite Naomi rejecting her three times, Ruth chooses to go with Naomi to Bethlehem.
The second act of this story tells of the industriousness and fidelity of Ruth and how she caught the attention of a powerful man of integrity named Boaz. Boaz uses the exact same phrase found in Proverbs 31:10 to describe the ideal woman/wife to voice the community’s opinion of Ruth, a woman of integrity, a worthy woman.
In the third act of the play Naomi takes the matter of security for her daughter-in-law into her own hands. She evidently researched the implications of the redemption of property by a next of kin. It would provide for her security but were something to happen to her it would leave the young widow Ruth vulnerable. She also knows where Boaz was to be working, threshing the grain that has been harvested. The harvest that was beginning when they returned to Bethlehem was now over.
She tells Ruth to take a bath, put on some perfume, get herself dress up and then go to where Boaz was working. Here’s the language: “Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do”.
The word “feet’ is used in the Bible as a euphemism for a man’s private parts. Though there are no explicit mention of sexual relations here as is in chapter four you would have to be blind to miss the obvious sexual overtones. Freshly bathed and perfumed Ruth comes by night to the threshing floor where Boaz sleeps. She uncovers some part of his body, lies down beside him, spends the night and then leaves before dawn. This is pretty bold of her… actually a little bolder than you might expect.
The passage ends with Naomi telling Ruth, ‘he will tell you what to do…” But what we read is that when Boaz awakens to find himself uncovered and surprised to find Ruth next to him, it is she who tells him what to do. Listen: “I am Ruth, your servant;” she says, “spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” To “spread one’s cloak” over a woman was to marry her. Ruth proposes to Boaz! And she calls him to fulfill his duty as the close male relative who is obligated in Israelite law to redeem his kin who have fallen onto hard times. For some the story of Ruth is understood in terms of a Levirate Marriage in which it is the duty of a man to marry his brother’s widow. What we have described in the Book of Ruth is not levirate marriage, it is rather about a different custom having to do with the next of kin, the Go’el.
The significance of the role of the Go’el is that of a redeemer. In ancient Israel any duty which a man could not perform by himself had to be taken up by his next of kin. Any rights possessed by a man which lapsed through his inability to perform the duties attached to such rights, could be and should be resumed by the next of kin. This applied to relatives who had fallen into slavery and especially to parcels of land which any Israelite found it necessary to sell. In the Book of Ruth the next of kin was called upon to purchase a parcel of land formerly belonging to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. But the story becomes more complicated when the interests of Elimelech’s heir Mahlon is considered.
The river of true love always seems to have rapids to negotiate. The last act of the play opens at the city gate where legal proceedings are underway. It is intended to be humorous. You see, there is a fly in the ointment. There is an unnamed ‘next of kin’ nearer in line than Boaz and he is enthusiastic about acquiring Elimelech’s land. His claim on the property is primary and must be abandoned if Boaz is to be the man in Ruth’s future. So the plot twist is that the unnamed primary next of kin is informed that redeeming Elimelech’s land was a package deal that included taking responsibility for Mahlon’s widow and producing an heir who would ultimately claim ownership of the strip of land that was in question. Here is where customs related to leverite marriage become an issue. In response he pulls off his own sandal since he refuses to carry on the name of Mahlon. There’s yet another custom at work here, the “halizah” ceremony. Traditionally, in a situation in which the widow of a brother who has died childless wants to marry someone else, by removing the brother-in-law’s shoe he is released from the obligation of marrying her, and she becomes free to marry whomever she desires. The ceremony is very simple. The widow loosens the shoe of the brother-in-law in the presence of the elders of the town and spits on the ground in front of him. By the way, if the man’s private part is referred to as a foot, the shoe denied takes on a whole new significance.
In our story the nearest next of kin suddenly remembers a previous appointment and removes his own sandal. So, having fulfilled all righteousness, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his marriage to Ruth. He 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. Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” Ruth has chosen Boaz and they find new life in each other.
Love and faithfulness abound, like the piles of grain on the threshing floor, and blessings overflow into the lives of those who once were empty. Ruth conceives and bears a son. Where there was barrenness in her marriage to Mahlon, now there is birth. Where there was famine, now there is a plentiful harvest. The women of the village interpret this blessing for Naomi: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Ruth is Naomi’s greatest blessing.
Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the faithfulnessof God, embodied by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.
The story of Ruth leaves us with the promise of God’s faithful love, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel, and into our lives as well. Blessing upon blessing, heaped up and overflowing.