Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

This week’s reading concludes the book of Ruth, which was begun last week.  The prescribed passages appear to be representative of the book overall, and especially this week preachers must fill in the gaps.

November 11, 2012

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

This week’s reading concludes the book of Ruth, which was begun last week.  The prescribed passages appear to be representative of the book overall, and especially this week preachers must fill in the gaps.

For background and chapters 1 and 2, see last week’s lectionary comments.

Before returning to Bethlehem Naomi had expressed concern for Ruth’s economic security, telling her she had no other sons to offer in marriage and not even the wildest hope of offspring (1:11-13).  Behind Naomi’s words lies the levirate custom, which dictated that a childless widow’s brother-in-law must marry her, and that the first son of this union would become the deceased man’s heir (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).  The availability of food during the harvest has postponed the problem of economic security.  But the issue returns in Ruth 3:1.

As a more distant relative, Boaz is not under obligation to marry Ruth.  Though he and Ruth appear to respect and perhaps even feel attraction to each other, and though he is evidently available for marriage, two months of daily contact have not fanned the spark between them.  So Naomi, who began chapter 2 in passive despair and ended it with hope, initiates a plan.  She tells Ruth to bathe, perfume herself, and gussy up in her best attire to go find Boaz at his threshing floor, where he is winnowing the barley.  She is to wait till he has eaten, drunk, and gone to sleep, slip under the blanket with him, and do whatever he says.

Until now, both Boaz and Naomi have taken care to protect Ruth from male harassment (2:8-9, 21-22), but now Naomi’s plan gambles on Boaz’s honor, exposing her daughter-in-law to the danger of humiliation, if not rape.  Why doesn’t Naomi simply go talk to Boaz?  For one thing, this plot twist, dangling on the edge of morality and custom, makes a more interesting story.  Perhaps she perceives that Boaz needs his initiative jumpstarted.  It’s a gamble, but Ruth neither protests nor even raises questions. “All that you tell me I will do,” she replies (verse 5).

But when Boaz goes off script, Ruth is ready to improvise.  He is too soundly asleep to notice her approach, and then too startled to play the part Naomi had assigned him.  “Who are you?” he demands in surprise when he wakes at midnight.  Ruth identifies herself, but doesn’t wait for his initiative.  “Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin,” she says, in probably one of the least romantic marriage proposals in human history, or at least in Scripture: take me to redeem my dead husband’s inheritance.

Boaz considers her request neither crass nor unseemly, but generous.  Like Naomi (2:2,22; 3:1), he has called Ruth “my daughter” before, hinting at his own age, but now we hear what he has been thinking: had she not been so loyal to Naomi, she would have sought out a younger man.  Now we understand why he has refrained from courting her: he did not wish to oblige the dutiful foreigner to a marriage she might not have wanted for herself.

Boaz offers another surprising detail — there is another relative, a nearer one.  Since this one has not stepped forward to help before, readers aren’t excited about him now.  His existence introduces another plot complication, another obstacle to the happy ending for which we are rooting.  Balancing honor and desire, Boaz promises to take steps to conclude the matter, and suggests she remain safe with him for the night.  Before dawn he sends her home, giving her yet more food to take with her and the assurance that everyone knows she is, like him, a person of worth (eshet hayil; cf. 2:1, ish gibbor hayil).

But he knows even more still.  Just as Ruth improved on Naomi’s instructions to her, now Boaz improves on Ruth’s request.  He stops the other relative in the city gate.  In front of witnesses, he invites the other man to buy a field he says Naomi is selling.  How he knows of this field, and even whether the field actually exists, is left unsaid.  Perhaps even Naomi didn’t know as much about Elimelech’s business affairs as his landowning relatives do.  But in asking, he smokes out the fact that the man has means but has not offered to help the widows improve their fortune.  This doesn’t help our estimation of him.

The man agrees to buy the land.  But the next revelation causes him to backpedal: Ruth comes with it.  This means that her first son will become Elimelech’s heir, and the land he paid for will no longer be his. Unwilling to take that risk, the man declines the offer.

For modern readers there is much to puzzle over here.  There are complexities in the story’s unfolding, and gaps in our historical knowledge, making it difficult to pin down what precisely is going on.  But we see the result clearly — publicly dismissing all other claims, Boaz has cleared the way to join his property and Naomi’s, free from impingements.  Like a Greek chorus, the witnesses bless Ruth, not as a Moabite, but as the spiritual successor of fruitful and formidable, if somewhat unorthodox, ancestors — Rachel, Leah, and Tamar.

Unlike her marriage to Mahlon (whose name meant “sickly”), this one immediately fulfills the promise of good seed that Boaz has come to symbolize.  Having given her all kinds of seed to eat, he now gives her human seed (the word is the same in Hebrew), and she bears a son who, in the story’s punch line, turns out to be the ancestor of all the Davidic kings.

Although the story, like all fine narratives, is filled with gaps that invite reader participation, one value that comes through distinctly is loyalty (1:8; 2:20; 3:10).  Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi leads her to leave her home behind, toil tirelessly for her welfare, and even to endanger both herself and her reputation.  Admiration of her character soon overshadowed any doubts about her nationality, as her loyalty is reciprocated by Naomi and Boaz.  The end result is security for two widows, an heir for Elimelech and a son for Boaz, delight for the whole community, and a dynasty that will rule Judah for four hundred years.