That It May Be Well with You – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 25B (Ruth 3-4)

The Story of Ruth by John August Swanson
3:1 Naomi, her mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 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. 4 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.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 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.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
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                When Naomi decided to return home from Moab after the death of her husband and sons, Ruth the Moabite wife of one of her two sons decided to follow Naomi to Judah, making Naomi’s people her people, and Naomi’s God her God. Making this choice wasn’t easy, as the two women had no guarantee of support. Naomi might find some support as she was older and might find family who would take her in. Ruth, however, presented a problem. Not only was she as a Moabite a foreigner, she was a much younger woman. In other words, she might live on for some time after Naomi. Why might this be a problem? Remember there wasn’t any form of Social Security or Medicare. The only safety net was the family, and if the family couldn’t provide you were on your own. Ruth’s only hope was marriage, but who would be willing to marry her? After all, she was a foreigner. Naomi had one possibility up her sleeve. There was a custom, even a law, which said that one’s nearest kinsman had a responsibility to marry a woman who had lost her husband and produce an heir for that person. It’s called Levirate marriage.  It may be a foreign practice to us, much like arranged marriages are in the West. We prefer to make our own matches (with the help of computers or not). For Naomi, however, this seemed to be the only way of providing for Ruth and herself. So, she began plotting a strategy for Ruth. That strategy is in play in this reading that excerpts parts of chapters 3 and 4 of Ruth.
                In this story, we learn that Naomi has a relative named Boaz. He seems to be wealthy. He’s not married. He doesn’t have children. He’s a close relative. In other words, he’s available, and fits the criteria. By the time we get to chapter 3, Boaz already seems interested in the welfare of Ruth and Naomi, allowing Ruth the opportunity to glean from within the fields and not just the edges. He makes sure the other men do not bother Ruth when she comes to the fields. Remember a lone woman would be vulnerable (chapter 2). It would seem odd that he didn’t know Naomi and Ruth’s story, since Bethlehem is not a large town. He may have already known that he was among the nearest kinsmen, if not the closest. And, perhaps he was interested in settling down and found Ruth a possible mate. That’s just reading between the lines, but it’s possible.
                The first excerpt, from chapter 3, finds Naomi directing Ruth to prepare herself to go a-courting. She has Ruth wash up, put on her best clothes, and then go out to the threshing floor and wait until Boaz goes to sleep. Then, while sleeping, she is to uncover his feet and then lie down next to him. Boaz will then tell her what to do next. I should note that uncovering feet is a euphemism. Naomi has a different body part in mind, but by doing this, Ruth will signal to Boaz that she is willing to be his wife (if he’s willing). Naomi is putting Ruth in a vulnerable position but seems to know what she’s doing. All of this seems well choreographed, as if this is a normal form of courtship. As for modern day application, I wouldn’t recommend it. Apparently, as we see in chapter 4, it works. Boaz marries Ruth. They have a son, named Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. The Gospels pick this up, of course, in the genealogies of Jesus, though only Matthew mentions Ruth, along with Rahab and Tamar (Matt. 1:1-17). This final piece isn’t in the book of Ruth, of course, but it’s worth mentioning, because Matthew thinks it’s important information.
 
                All of this is a rather nice story about the deliverance of two women in difficult circumstances. As the women of the village declared to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 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.

All’s well that ends well!  But is there more to this than meets the eye?
                Ron Allen and Clark Williamson remind us that the Book of Ruth, though the story takes place during the time of the Judges, was postexilic. It would have appeared at a time when the Jewish community was having serious conversations about marrying Gentiles. Both Ezra and Nehemiah, which focus on the period of rebuilding Judah after the return to Jerusalem by the exiles, call for Jews to divorce their non-Jewish spouses. While it may seem harsh to us, these calls for separation emerged at a time when the Jewish people were reforming their community. Allen and Williamson write: “In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jewish leaders sought to restore the vitality of the community. Intermarriage may have led some Jewish people to bring foreign gods and practices into Jewish homes, and some in the community sought to rid the community of such compromises with the culture and thereby to invoke God’s blessing on the restoration of the land” [Preaching theOld Testament, pp. 200-201]. Contextually, it’s understandable. But not all were of the same opinion. Ruth offers an alternative viewpoint and connects Ruth and Naomi to Israel’s greatest king.
                Allen and Williamson suggest that Ruth offers a challenge to this restriction on intermarriage in two ways. First, we’re told that Ruth demonstrated covenant loyalty (hesed) to Naomi, and thus to Israel. You might say she converted. Secondly, Boaz is an exemplary Israelite. Besides, “how could the community forbid relationship with the people of David’s grandparent” (Preaching the Old Testament, p. 201). As we consider this passage today, we might think here in terms of the challenges and possibilities of intermarriage. On the racial/ethnic side, the challenges are different than the religious ones. In one sense the religious challenge was resolved here by conversion—Ruth committed herself to Naomi’s God and to her people. To do so meant that she would have put aside her former religious beliefs. Granted, in the ancient world this worked much differently than it does today in a pluralistic culture like ours.
While Ruth does offer an opportunity for intermarriage, it is in the context of conversion. Marvin Sweeney offers some clarity here:

Although Ezra– Nehemiah stipulates no procedure for conversion of a foreigner to Judaism, there is no indication in the book that foreigners who adhere to YHWH were an issue. Again, the book of Ruth steps in to fill the gap by specifying how a foreigner would become a part of Israel, specifically by swearing adherence to YHWH and living as part of the nation of Israel as Ruth does in Ruth 1: 16– 18. Furthermore, Ruth is also in dialog with Num 25: 1– 9, which portrays the apostasy of the men of Israel with the women of Moab. Rather than viewing Moabite women monolithically as a source of apostasy, Ruth counters the image of Num 25: 1– 9 by stipulating that Moabite women can adhere to YHWH. [Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 11955-11960). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]

I believe that Allen and Williamson would concur with Sweeney on this, that Ruth isn’t offering a blanket response on intermarriage, but might be filling in a gap in the Ezra-Nehemiah trajectory.
                Whenever we engage conversations like this, it is always important that we do not fall into anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish paradigms, which paint Judaism in negative light to paint our own faith in better light. Intermarriage without conversion is always a challenging idea. Yes, it’s becoming common in our day, but it is not without its problems, especially when it comes to the children. Living in pluralistic America offers the opportunity, but we should beware of offering a cafeteria form of religion, that doesn’t affirm the integrity of religious traditions. Christians, Muslims, and Jews share certain features, but they also have significant differences that can’t be easily washed away.
                What Ruth can do, however, is open a conversation about the role of religion in family and community life. To be uncomfortable with religious intermarriage doesn’t make one a bigot. At the same time, our views shouldn’t be left unexamined. What is the issue? Is it spiritual or is it something else? Remember that Ruth was a “foreigner,” but she became a full member of the community and that is what was deemed most important. In the end, everyone was blessed!

Picture attribution: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561 [retrieved November 5, 2018]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 1991 by John August Swanson.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

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