Khesed for the Stranger: The book of Ruth
“…They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest…”
The Setting: Moab
What we didn’t hear Weldon read was the opening words of the book of Ruth, which begins phrase ‘in the days when judges ruled, there was a famine in the land…’ This is a sort of ‘Once upon a time…’ phrase. When we hear ‘Once upon a time’ we instantly know that what we are about to hear is a fairy tale that will involve perhaps magical creatures, a princess in distress, perhaps an evil sorceress or step mother, and of course a charming savior. ‘In the days when judges ruled…’ also sends a signal about what to expect: distress, trouble, hardship and in many of the stories of the Bible chaos and violence as well. And then when it is accompanied by famine…so much the worse.
Something of the same can be said of the setting. When hearers of this story find that ‘a certain man from Bethlehem…went to live if the country of Moab,’ they may have even whispered an audible and knowing ‘oooh.’ Knowing that Moab is the place where bad stuff goes down. It was a nation said to have been formed out of perversion (it’s ancestor being Lot, who slept with his daughter), its leaders corrupt and weak, and it’s women seductresses who lure men from faithfulness.
With all of that in the first few sentences, the audience will not have been surprised to learn that the certain man, Elimelech (God is King) and his two sons (who had taken Moabite wives) die, leaving their wives and mother bereft. And this is where Weldon picked up the tale…with the women.
The Women: Naomi and Ruth
Because this is a story with much dialogue and little description, we need to read the characters from the speech. And people definitely read these women in different ways. I think the biggest risk is to let the characters fall into one-dimensional types, the main women, included. Naomi is old, she is terse, but she is in mourning. She has lost a great deal and all in a country to which she does not belong, she is close to the edge. I also see her as sarcastic, clever, and determined but having a bit (maybe more than a bit) of a martyr complex – oh the use of rhetorical questions: ‘what, do I still have sons in my womb? You would wait for them to grow up and marry you? And the very ‘woe-is-me’ ‘oh no, it’s much worse for me than for you.’ Similarly with the speech making use of the word play on her name – Sweetness has become bitter.
This is fairly starkly juxtaposed with Ruth, whose impassioned speech to Naomi is much more similar to a marriage covenant than daughter-in-law to mother-in-law or even daughter to mother or friend to friend. In fact these words are often used in wedding ceremonies. Ruth is loyal and faithful and forthright, but she also a women who is willing to take risks – big huge risky risks. This is a woman who will be branded throughout this book as ‘Ruth the Moabite.’ She is rarely called by her name alone and is sometimes just ‘the Moabite woman.’ She’s going into foreign territory branded: woman, widow, childless, foreigner.
Themes: Hope in Risk and Return
One of the words that is repeated again and again in this first part of the text is ‘return.’ It was in the first words that we heard read from the text: ‘Then she started to return with her daughters in law.’ But the two women relate to this theme in very different ways. Both Naomi and Ruth are childless widows. For Naomi, returning to Bethlehem, even though her return will be bitter, it is a return home. She urges her daughters in law to return to their homes as well, find hope in homes, husbands, the possibility of family in their own land. Orpah, of course finally does this. Ruth however, ‘clings’ to Naomi and returns to Bethlehem as well. But for Ruth this is a ‘return’ to a place where she has never been. It will not be a homecoming, it will be likely the scariest and most risky thing she has ever done.
Nonetheless, we see the very beginning seeds of hope from what begins as a very stark and dark story. These two lonesome women, making their own way to an unknown future in Bethlehem. It is the beginning of the barley harvest. Bethlehem that has been in famine is now once again the ‘house of bread’ (it’s meaning in Hebrew). So, does this foreshadow fertility for the stories main characters? Certainly Naomi is not optimistic – at least she answers the stir caused by her and Ruth’s arrival with the words about her bitterness and emptiness.
I think we know very well that abundance of food or wealth does not guarantee access to those things. I only need to look around my neighborhood to see it. It’s true in Lake City and in Seattle, and it was true in Bethlehem. The question still remains, how will the women make themselves a part of this community and it’s plenty
“…She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over…”
Life in the Field
Here in the field, it is this scene and this whole section of Ruth more than any others that really give this story it’s pastoral feel – the setting is the field and harvest. There is work and camaraderie, thanksgiving and the partaking of the fruits of labor. We are introduced to the community and the life of workers – men and women both.
We are also introduced to Boaz, a man of some prominence and position we are given to understand – a worthy man. He notices Ruth among his workers and she takes note of him. When we heard about the stir that was caused in Bethlehem when Naomi and this unknown Moabite woman arrive in town, it was apparently not only the women who were talking. Boaz has heard about what Ruth has done. He is impressed and he says so.
“All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” Ruth a Moabite has now been lauded both by and found worthiness in the eyes of a worthy man. That gives her status. And after this episode she returns to Naomi and tells her of it and of all he has done for her. Naomi recognizes it too, “Blessed be he, by the LORD,” she says, “whose kindness has not forgotten the living or the dead.”
Here is where one of the main themes in Ruth really emerges. The word khesed is a word really not translatable into English and it is one of the reasons that I love Biblical Hebrew. It has a depth and fullness that go beyond ‘kindness,’ (as is was translated is when Naomi used just now, ‘faithfulness,’ ‘loyalty,’ goodness’. Boaz is showing Ruth khesed in is offer to her to pull up a chair at the circle of workers, when he heaps her plate full, when he encourages her to follow his women, when he instructs his men to leave her alone. The law and custom is to let the widow and the alien orphan glean in the fields – pick up the sheaves that are dropped, take the grain from the edges and corners. But Boaz goes beyond this allowance.
Khesed is the voluntary helping another in the moment of their greatest need. Boaz shows it in this scene, but he is not the first. Ruth has shown khesed to her mother in law when she made the risky choice to cling to her and return with her to Bethlehem. She has shown khesed in her determination to gain food for herself and Naomi by gleaning the field. And yet these two characters are the models on a micro level of what God is doing on a macro level.
The book of Ruth is about the meeting of the subtle working of God in everyday life with the things that we humans do to and for each other, and the ways we step out in faith. We hear the text from Romans 8 in which Paul writes that we do not know how to pray as we ought but that God is working in us to shape the words. And in likewise unseen and unknown ways God is working in the coincidences, the right-place-at-the-right-time moments. Paul says that everything is working together for the sake of Good. I believe this is true – but then I’m an optimist. But I also believe that this doesn’t exempt our own risking, working, offering hospitality. Ruth’s khesed action of gleaning for herself and Naomi meets Boaz’s khesed action of offering hospitality and a place at the table to Ruth – in these actions God works for the good of all.
“But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I…”
On the threshing floor
The plot thickens! What could Naomi have possibly been thinking! This just seems like a terrible and dangerous idea, even considering the ‘favor’ that Boaz has shown to Ruth until now. Even if one doesn’t read into it all the sexual innuendo – which the author is intending, but also leaving vague – we have a woman dressing in her most flattering clothes, dousing herself with perfume, waiting for a man to be ‘content’ with food and wine and meeting him in the dark in a secluded area. Even now we might consider this risky behavior and entrapment and this is the Bible, at a time when women rarely initiated contact with men at all. Ruth and Boaz’ conversation in the field may have been flirtatious (or maybe not) but this takes things to a whole new level.
This very intimate scene does, however, deepen the actions of khesed, here connecting it to themes of redemption. This scene evoked another story in the Bible that concerns kinship redemption. The custom in ancient Israel was that if a women’s husband dies, his brother has the responsibility to provide the dead man with heirs by the widow – ie. ‘marry’ or take as concubine his late brother’s wife. The first son born to her would be the heir of her original husband, carrying on the name, providing continuity in inheritance of property and money and continuing a family line. If the man has no brother, the ‘right-of-redemption’ (of the inheritance but also of the women) goes to the next closest person in line.
In Genesis, the widow of Perez whose name is Tamar dresses as a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law Judah to impregnate her. Judah had not let is other son do his duty as the next of kin/redeemer. When Judah find out that he is the father of her son, although he is angry he recognizes this duty to redeem and Tamar again becomes part of the family, her son the heir of Perez.
Of course even though we see women like Ruth and Naomi providing for themselves through gleaning, ultimately security is only found in the house of father, husband or son. And here on the threshing floor Ruth is engaging in a similarly dangerous ploy with Boaz. They really are hoping that Boaz can act as the ‘redeemer.’ This word, consistently translated as ‘next-of-kin’ in the NRSV that we’re using is more literally translate as ‘one who can redeem’ or ‘kinsman redeemer.’ It applies to the inheritance and the family name, but here in Ruth, it will also mean the return of Naomi and Ruth into the fold once more, the right-making of something that was wrong.
We don’t really know whether or not any kind of sex act occurred – there was definitely innuendo, most obviously when Ruth uncovers (or uncovers at) Boaz’ feet. That word feet is commonly used to refer to other parts below the waist. And Ruth was certainly propositioning Boaz – her word when she calls herself his ‘servant’ connotes the one whom a man can take as wife or concubine. But when she invites Baoz to spread his cloak, she recalls the words of blessing that he used earlier in the story when he prays that she find protection under the wings/cloak of YHWH. She is making a deal with him here, recalling his own words to her.
So here we are, in the midst of this page-turner, gasp-inducing plot waiting to see what will become of Ruth. And what happens is indeed what she and Naomi seem to be hoping for. Boaz responds resoundingly positively, not only agreeing to become the redeeming relative but also loads Ruth up with grain. Like the first episode in which Ruth and Boaz encounter each other, khesed is shown by Boaz. But there are many differences between them, literally day and night. from work to play and from chance to choice. Where God worked through the right place right time moments of Ruth coming to Boaz’s field in the first episode, here God is at work through the choice of Ruth to follow Naomi’s crazy and dangerous plan to meet a possible kinsman redeemer in the dark of the threshing floor.
We can recognize that God is at work through the unseen and seeming coincidences of life and name God’s presence for what it is. And although I believe that indeed things work together for Good, we also have work to do. I do not believe that the story of Ruth is to be a literal lesson about how to approach a sticky situation, but I do think that as listeners as the time may have heard it, it is a story about being open to welcoming the stranger and about stepping out in faith into possible dangerous situations for sake of khesed: faithfulness, loyalty, loving kindness.
“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…
Back in Bethlehem – the town court/marketplace
This is Boaz’s turn to take the stage – this is his realm. We’ve heard that he is a prominent man in Bethlehem and here we see his skills in action. The author of one commentary speaks of Boaz like this: “Boaz acts, not out of pure virtue, but our of real life. In the midst of this normal mixture of virtue, providence, circumstance and self interest, Boaz makes decisions that enhance life, not only for the widow and the alien but for himself. The widow receives food, the alien a home and the man a renowned name.” Boaz benefits from this deal that Ruth proposed to him. If he can argue the law and custom of inheritance this other man he will benefit. And it seems masterful. This is the final hurdle overcome.
Even here in the public sphere God continues to work khesed for these characters. This subtle but inisistent work of God through risk, determination and happy, timely occurrence. In the arrival of just the man Boaz needed to speak to at just the right time, his ready agreement to the terms that Boaz sets forth, the rejoicing of the community and welcome of Ruth into the family. The only times when God is named as directly having a hand in this story relates to fertility – the return of fertility to the fields of Bethlehem and the fertility of Ruth: ‘God caused Ruth to bear a son.’ This is the happy ending. Disaster is replaced by food and family – not at all what might have been expected by the beginning statement about the ‘time when judges ruled.’ God has responded to Naomi’s lament.
In this final scene Ruth, the one for whom the book is named, has faded into the background. In some ways, she’s served her purpose in the story. She has redeemed Naomi, been the vessel for an heir to her dead husband and to Naomi and she has already been drawn firmly into the family of Israel, a founding mother even as Rebekah or Leah or Rachel. So even though she is only one of two women for which a book of the Hebrew Bible is named and the only non-Israelite person for which a book is named, she has been adopted through bearing one of the ancestors of king David.
The final words of the book, a kind of epilogue which we did not hear, are a genealogy of Obed, the son to whom Ruth gives birth.
They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
For the stories original hearers this would have connected Obed and his mother and grandmother to the lineage not only of King David but to the progenitors of Israel. I have sometimes wondered why this book is called Ruth, not only because it’s so rare in her standing as woman and foreigner, but because it begins and ends with Naomi – Naomi’s lament and Naomi’s welcome back into redemption through Ruth’s loyalty to her. But perhaps that is indeed it. Ruth is the mover, the actor, the initiative taker in this story and God is able to work through her actions and through the spaces in between.
As Christians reading the text now, the genealogy should remind us of the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. There, Ruth is one of the foremothers named, in addition to Tamar (to whom I referred) and Rahab the prostitute and Bathsheba, who tricked David into letting her son inherit the throne rather than any of his other. In other words these women in Jesus’ lineage are unconventional women, bold women and it is they who named as the ones to give shape to the genetic makeup of God-with-us. It was important for the writer of Matthew to let readers know that Ruth numbered among those who made up his gene-pool.
We know of course that Jesus was well known for welcoming all manner of sinners and n’er do wells to the table with him. The story of Ruth reminds us again that this was not new behavior to Jesus. Then and now the invitation was open, encouraged by the movement of God’s spirit that it is God’s will to show khesed to the stranger, to sit and eat and welcome into fellowship the alien and the outsider. May we show such grace with the abundance that we have received. Amen.