< November 08, 2009 >

Commentary on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

 

After taking up Ruth 1:1-18 in the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, the lectionary now skips to 3:1-5 and 4:13-17.

Much has taken place in the pages of Ruth during this one week of liturgical time. First, Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, just in time for the barley harvest (1:19-22). In chapter two, we learn of Ruth's first encounter with Boaz, who turns out to be a man of means as well as a kinsman related to Naomi's husband and thus a possible "redeemer" (Hebrew: gōēl) who might rescue the two women from their unfortunate states (see 2:1, 20).

Ruth catches Boaz's eye--or at least he has heard of her reputation (2:5, 11; cf. 2:19b)--and he provides for her sustenance (2:8-9, 14-16) along with blessing her in God's name (2:12). This encounter with Boaz leads Naomi to bless him twice (2:19, 20) and to encourage Ruth to stay her present course, which was commended by Boaz himself (2:21-23).

The first paragraph in chapter three comprises the first part of this Sunday's lection (3:1-5). Here, after approximately two months (the duration of the barley and wheat harvests; see 1:22 and 2:23), we find Naomi hatching a plan. She states that it is for Ruth's own good (3:1), but if all goes well, Naomi, too, will benefit (see 2:18; 3:17; 4:9, 14-17). The plan is bold and not without a certain degree of sexual innuendo. Ruth is to clean up and dress up, and, once Boaz lays down for the night, she is to "uncover his feet and lie down" with him; Boaz will then tell her what to do (3:3-4). Ruth promises to execute the plan precisely (3:5).

She does just that--with one major exception: when Boaz wakes up in the night and finds a woman next to him, Ruth does not wait to be told what to do by Boaz, but instead tells Boaz what he should do (3:9)!

Preachers should know two things about what transpires at the threshing floor:
1. Reference to Boaz's "feet" (3:4, 7-8) may be a euphemism for his genitalia (cf. Isaiah 6:2). If so, Naomi's plan is bold indeed, and Ruth's act even bolder. Much of the story makes sense in light of this euphemistic understanding of "feet" (e.g., 3:9, 14). That granted, it is not entirely clear that this euphemistic interpretation is correct, if only because the language used is not straightforward--it is, after all, euphemistic! Among other things, the language used here conceals as much as it reveals. Clearly there are sexual overtones, but "undertones" may actually be more accurate. If sex is the topic, that is, both Boaz and Ruth are modest about it and their language reflects that--so much so that we are not entirely sure, even to this day, about what, exactly, is going on at the threshing floor.
2. Ruth's instruction to Boaz in 3:9 ("spread your cloak") evokes Boaz's initial blessing of Ruth in 2:12. The word for "wings" there is the same used for "cloak" here. There is something analogous, that is, between Boaz's action and the Lord's. Or, to relate the verses even more closely: one of the ways that Ruth is coming to find refuge under the Lord's wings (2:12) is by finding refuge under Boaz's wing (3:9). Moreover, it is significant that Boaz had wished blessings on Ruth in 2:12--which means he had prayed for her--and now he finds himself part of the answer to that very same prayer.

The lectionary leaves the entire threshing floor incident out (perhaps it is too racy?), jumping from 3:1-5 to 4:13-17. This jump also neglects the transaction that takes place between Boaz and the unnamed individual who is actually a closer relative to Naomi and therefore had the first right of redemption (to serve as a gōēl). Here we learn for the first time that Naomi has a parcel of land that is available for sale (4:3). One wonders, if Naomi owns real estate, why she is sending Ruth out to glean in the fields. Perhaps the women are not as destitute as we thought. Or, perhaps Boaz is a shrewd business man and the land deal is something of a ruse in order to achieve what he wants.

Either way, the other kinsman declines the land once he learns that taking on a widow is also involved (4:5-6). With this individual out of the way, Boaz can be the redeeming kinsman, acquiring "from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and....also...Ruth the Moabite" as his wife (4:9-10). The people at the gate witness this transaction and immediately pray that Ruth will become like Rachel and Leah (4:11-12).

That is exactly what happens in the second part of the lection (4:13-17). Ruth bears a son, Obed, who becomes the grandfather of king David. Several things should not be missed:

  • First, the remarkable fact that David's great-grandmother is a Moabite, and not only that, but a Moabite who is worthy of comparison with the great matriarchs of old! The book of Ruth thus takes its place among other traditions in the Old Testament (e.g., Jonah) that present foreigners in a much more positive light than others (e.g., Ezra-Nehemiah). Xenophilia (the love of foreigners) is as much a mark of the Old Testament as xenophobia (the fear of foreigners).
  • Second, 4:13-17 narrows in on Naomi, much like the opening paragraph of the book did (see the essay on the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost). Despite the importance of Ruth and Boaz and what they have accomplished, the book is concerned to see the past misfortune of Naomi (1:1-5) undone with love, restoration, and new life (4:15b-17)--all of which is said to come from the Lord (4:14-15a), whom earlier Naomi was sure dealt with her only in terms of disaster (1:13, 20-21).

Of course, not all stories that begin with profound misery end in great joy. Even when they do, the later joy does not always cancel out the prior grief--at least not completely, nor, ever, easily. And of course, life doesn't always work out as well as it does in Ruth, in this sort of clean, God-blessed sort of way. But sometimes it does! And when it does, that should be recognized and talked about; people should bless God for it (4:14).

It should be written down for posterity's sake so that future people can also see it, talk about it, praise God for it, celebrate it, and hope for more of the same. So it is in this particular case, where alongside Naomi--despite the great distance between us and the book of Ruth--we still celebrate God's goodness (4:14-15) and the weighty gifts that were to come then but that are known now (4:17b, 22; cf. Matthew 1:1, 5-6; Luke 3:31-32).