by Daniel Harrell
When last we left Ruth the Moabite she’d hauled a shawl full of barley given to her by Boaz the Bethlehemite, a token of his good faith pledge for her secure future security and for the security of her mother-in-law, Naomi. However, for this secure future to come to pass, somebody had to marry somebody; but for those somebodies to be Ruth and Boaz, a certain somebody else had to be gotten out of the way. That Boaz and Ruth were entwined at all, you’ll remember, occurred on account of a conniving, albeit successful, scheme hatched by Ruth’s good Jewish mother-in-law to help her land a husband. Knowing Boaz to be kin and exceptionally kind toward Ruth, Naomi sought to cash in on this stroke of providence by instructing her daughter-in-law to wash up, dress up and then go down to where Boaz worked late and drank late. Once Boaz became Tired-az and conked out, Ruth was to crawl under his covers and wait to see what happened. Of course, everybody knows full well what usually happens given a scenario such as this. But what actually happened was that Boaz got the chills, woke up, grabbed for his covers only to get a handful of Ruth, who, unwilling to wait to see what Boaz would do, took the initiative and brazenly demanded Boaz tie her a marital knot.
To recap one last time how we got here, it all began with Naomi, her husband Elimilech and their two sons, Chilion and Mahlon, fleeing Bethlehem because of famine. They sojourned to the fertile yet contemptuous country of Moab; a stinking, obstinate and despicable nation, contemptuous due to a long line of bad blood. Descended from the offspring of Abraham’s cousin Lot and his drunken incest with one of his daughters back in Genesis, Moab was a constant thorn in Israel’s side. Moab meanly blocked Israel’s passage out of Egypt during the Exodus, salaciously seduced Israelites into pagan idolatry, and once even hired a psychic to hex them. Given the sordid history, an Israelite would normally never step foot into Moab. But Moab had food, and people have to eat.
Tragically, no sooner did Naomi’s family make it to Moab, than Elimelech the patriarch died. Attempting to save the family tree, his sons snatched two local girls, Orpah and Ruth, to be their wives, but then the sons died with no kids to show for it. Orpah and Ruth and Naomi were now all widowed and childless in a culture where for women, marriage and children were the only means of security and survival. Naomi became convinced that God was out to get her. Yet rather than wallowing in her bitterness, Naomi stormed back into Israel and back into the presence of God, casting her burdens in his lap, though not first without trying to ease those burdens by persuading Orpah and Ruth to remain in Moab. She told them what they already knew: there was no future for either of them as widowed and childless outsiders in Israel.
Orpah took Naomi’s advice and stayed, but Ruth stuck to Naomi, for better or worse, declaring that “your people will be my people and your God my God” despite God’s less than stellar track record thus far. Jewish tradition teaches that these words denote Ruth’s come-to-Yahweh moment, but unlike what we hear from most conversion testimonies, Ruth’s life only went from bad to worse. No husband, no kids, no country, and now no money, she was forced to scavenge for her supper from the grain inadvertently dropped on the ground during harvest. (You’ll note by this point in the story that the famine had eased). Ruth was humiliated, which in the Bible usually means you’re ripe for some divine intervention. As the psalmist sings, “the LORD adorns the oppressed with salvation.”
Providentially, unbeknownst to her, Ruth ended up scavenging, or gleaning, for grain in the field of Naomi’s cousin Boaz. Having heard of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, Boaz delivers Ruth from her humiliation by granting her privileged status in his field and all the grain she could eat. Boaz’ kindness inspired Naomi to play matchmaker. As it turned out, again providentially, Boaz was not only a kind man but a kissing cousin, meaning he was available to genealogically reverse the women’s ill-fated circumstances.
Naomi’s marital trap should have been easy to spring—Ruth was a looker. But Boaz, besides being kind, was also keen to the fact that there was another, closer cousin who by law had first dibs. This has confused scholars since Ruth’s situation did not qualify for what is known as a levirate situation. Under ancient Jewish family law, the younger brothers of a deceased husband (called “levirs”) were obliged to marry the dead brother’s widow (if she was childless) so to perpetuate the deceased brother’s name by having children who would be considered his offspring. Among the worst fates to befall a family in ancient Israel was for their name to die out. But Ruth had no brothers-in-law under Jewish levirate obligation. She wasn’t even Jewish.
The right of first refusal to which Boaz referred had to do with a piece of real estate owned by Ruth’s dead father-in-law. Elimelech held privileges to land that would have passed on to his sons, but since they were dead too, it now passed on to the next closest male relative, one cousin ahead of Boaz. Your Bible, read for us this morning, has Boaz calling this cousin “friend” in verse 1, but the Hebrew word is literally cousin “So and So.” Boaz knew his cousin’s name, but the narrator leaves it out for reasons that become clear later. In verse 3, Boaz informs cousin so and so in front of ten witnesses, that “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech.” Unfortunately this is something of a misstatement too on Boaz’ part. The land was not really Naomi’s to sell. Had she owned it, presumably she would have already sold it or used it to rescue herself and Ruth from their poverty. But in this patriarchal culture—where everyday was Father’s Day—wives did not inherit from their husbands, which was why widowhood without sons was so precarious.
Not that people in our culture ever actually own the land or homes that we buy either. It’s why we call home-ownership the American Dream. And we use the word mortgage instead of loan to describe the money we borrow for real estate because mortgage means pledge unto death. You promise to pay back the bank or you’re dead—or at least your credit score is. For Naomi, without a related man (called a kinsman-redeemer under Jewish law) who was willing to honor the mortgage on Elimelech’s parcel, she remained financially dead and homeless herself. Only a kinsman-redeemer could keep the land in Elimelech’s name. Moreover, the kinsman-redeemer would be morally obliged to provide for Naomi too.
So Boaz says to cousin so and so, “If you want this land, then buy it here in the presence of these witnesses. But if you don’t want it, let me know now, because I am next in line to redeem it after you.” To which cousin so and so rightly replied, “I’ll take it!” And why not? There was no financial risk. The land would expand cousin so and so’s holdings and harvests and eventually pay for itself. He’d also have his standing in the community heightened by the purchase and by helping out Naomi. And since Naomi was too old to have any more kids, he wouldn’t have to worry about divvying up his inheritance any further.
But then Boaz pulls a bit of a fast one. He says to cousin so and so verse 5: “Just so you know, the day you acquire the field from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” Now this did not mean that cousin so and so would be purchasing Ruth along with the land. What it did mean was that the moral obligation to Naomi stretched to include Ruth who was of childbearing age and connected to Elimelech through his dead son which meant producing heirs with Ruth to whom this land would go and who wants all that hassle to own a piece of land that you wouldn’t technically own and so cousin so and so says no and no, he’ll pass because he doesn’t want to mess up his own children’s legacy. At least that’s the reason he gives. But back in chapter 3, Ruth was described as having a citywide reputation as a woman of noble character. She was a certified catch for the most part. Surely cousin so and so was aware of this, especially being related to Boaz and Naomi. He knew Ruth was part of the package. Yet it sounds as if what he didn’t know was where Ruth came from. As soon as Boaz disclosed Ruth to be a despicable, loathsome and malicious Moabite, the cousin pulled back. Jewish tradition teaches he refused to redeem for fear that Ruth would contaminate his family’s bloodline. His prejudice is why his name is never worth mentioning.
When Dawn and I took out a death pledge on a condo in Boston, we experienced some similar prejudice. Our condo was in South Boston, or Southie, which if you’ve ever lived in Boston, you know hasn’t always enjoyed a particularly stellar reputation. Southie implies Whitey Bulger and the Irish Mob, welfare families and hard-scrabble life, that’s been depicted in recent movies like The Departed, Good Will Hunting, Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone. This is especially evident when compared to other tonier Boston neighborhoods such as the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, or the hipster South End. Setting aside our own prejudice, we moved into Southie and mostly enjoyed it, even as outsiders ourselves. One night, however, not long after moving in, we decided to order pizza from a favorite shop called The Upper Crust. Their take-out menu said they delivered to all of Boston, so I called them. The guy who answered and asked where I lived must have thought I said the South End because he went on and on about how of course they delivered to the South End and what a cool neighborhood it was what would I like and what an honor it would be to serve and…. I had to interrupt to correct him: No, I live in “South Boston.” Silence on the other end. I could feel the disappointment. The condescension. From a pizza delivery guy. Oh, he finally said. And then: “We do not deliver to South Boston.”
When we relocated to marvelous Minnesota, we left behind such petty prejudice, since here everyone is nice and above average and just happy to have you. We took out a death pledge on the corner of 54th and Drew, which happens to be the borderline between Edina and Minneapolis. It’s easy to tell which is which. Drive down 54th and you’ll marvel at the beautiful new pavement—on the Edina half of the road. Soon after Dawn and I moved in, we’d tell some folks our address, and the delight some would express at our having chosen to live in Edina was positively radiant. So much so that we’d have to interrupt their gushing to explain: “No, we actually live on the… Minneapolis side of the street.” Silence. The disappointment. Pity even. Oh, they’d finally say. “Well. I’m sure your daughter will be able to get into a fine junior college.”
It’s how I imagine cousin so and so sounding. He was all ready to redeem that land and the noble Ruth too until Boaz mentioned Ruth was a Moabite. Oh, he said. The disappointment. The condescension. And then verse 6: “I can not redeem it.” Which had been Boaz’ plan all along. Playing to his cousin’s prejudice, Boaz was able to make good on his pledge. Cousin so and so took off his sandal and handed it over to Boaz (an ancient way of formalizing agreements) and now the land belonged to Boaz, signed, sealed and sandaled. But Boaz cared much less for the land than he did for Ruth. He loved her. Which is why the elders who witnessed the transaction offered their blessings in verse 11 not for the acreage, but for the nuptials. They asked God to make Ruth into a woman like Rachel and Leah, Israel’s founding mothers. And like Tamar too, another childless widow whose redemption led to the birth of Perez, the progenitor of Boaz’ own tribe. And with that Boaz and Ruth tied the knot and had a son named Obed, whose name means to worship. Praise the Lord.
The story ends with the whole neighborhood praising the Lord for his goodness and with the formerly bitter Naomi getting some of that goodness herself. As the psalmist sings, “the LORD adorns the oppressed with salvation.” Naomi cradles a grandson who would end up the grandfather to King David himself—the savior of Israel as a nation—whose own descendent, the Son of David, will save the whole world. This is why Ruth warrants an entire book of the Bible to herself. But still, you’d think that if celebrating King David’s royal line is of primary concern, the last thing any Bible would want to do is highlight genealogical impurities. If your concern is for the royal bloodline of Israel, why in the world devote an entire book to the icky Moabite blood that snuck in no matter how sweet the story? If anything, you’d think that the Bible would have wanted to cover that up!
However Scripture is not concerned for the upper crust of King David’s bloodline, but for the inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God. It is the oppressed—the outcast, the stranger, the enemy and the sinner—whom the Lord adorns with salvation. But just in case getting adorned makes you feel all uppity and better than everybody else, Ruth provides a check. How uppity can you get when your salvation is despicably dependent on a match made in Moab?
Ruth chapter 1 challenged you to trust in God’s goodness amidst your bitterness. Chapter 2 challenged you to expect grace you’re desperate. Chapter 3 reminded you of the rewards of faith and trust, and encouraged you to be people worthy of them. May chapter 4 compel you to lay down your disdain—toward whomever you may feel it—and love the way Boaz loved a disdained Moabite; the way that Jesus loves—you.