Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Edges and Coverings

The book of Ruth is truly amazing. There’s no part of this story that doesn’t impress me. Most of my life I thought of it in the standard Sunday-school way we know much of the Old Testament: a person went somewhere and did something, which shows God takes care of us. This is not wrong. However, when it came my turn to be the volunteer Bible class teacher for the week, we’d been going through Ruth, and chapter four was on the docket. In my studies, I’ve found this little book to be deeper by far than I once thought.


First, “levirate marriage” from Deuteronomy 25.5–10:
If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, “The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.”
This doesn’t apply directly, but it’s good to keep in mind. Also, as a brief summary of Ruth to this point, Naomi and her husband Elimelech moved to Moab during a famine and married their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, but then Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion all die. Naomi can’t take care of her daughters-in-law, and as both the brothers and their father are dead, there’s no levirate marriage to be had, so she sends them back to their families. Ruth won’t go: apparently, Naomi has made a good enough impression that Ruth pledges to follow her in that most famous passage, Ruth 1.16–17:
Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.
They both go back to Naomi and Elimelech’s hometown of Bethlehem in the territory of Judah, and (chapter 2) as they’re gleaning[1] the fields, this man Boaz is nice to her. He tells Ruth that everything will be okay, and if she wants to gather grain, that his servants will take care of her and protect her. In chapter 3, Naomi tells Ruth to approach Boaz about this protection. He offers to protect her, but he says that he can’t do anything official because, as per verse 12, “there is a redeemer nearer than” him. So even though Boaz has been set up by 2.1 and 2.20 as a close relative of Naomi’s husband Elimelech, 3.12 clearly shows that even though Boaz is a prominent man in Bethlehem, a man who has a field big enough to employ multiple young men and young women as reapers and gatherers, he is not the closest relative, and Boaz is either so well-connected or had been thinking about this beforehand so much that knows who that man is.[2] That’s what brings us to chapter 4.


In 4.1–8, Boaz meets with the kinsman[3]. He does it in the open, at the city gate, in front of the elders of the city. This shows just one aspect of Boaz’s virtue: there is a law, and he does things by the book, in the open, with witnesses. Now, Deuteronomy 25 doesn’t apply directly in this case, because it’s only about brothers, not cousins, but because there are strong parallels, we can infer that even if Deuteronomy 25 isn’t an applicable law, Boaz is acting in his present murky case using it as a precedent. Again, Boaz doesn’t just go and do whatever he wants—he wants to rest his actions on something solid. Notice what happens:
Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.” Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal.
Note how Boaz crafts his words carefully to see the kinsman’s interests: “do you want to buy a parcel of land?”” “Sure,” he says. But there’s a catch: it comes with a wife. “Maybe not,” the kinsman says, “lest I impair my own inheritance.” What does that mean? I’ll tell you, I had to re-read this section several times and think on it a bit. He was willing to buy land, but it’s a risky investment if it comes with a wife? Here’s my guess: he would have marry Ruth, take care of her as a wife, father a child with her, and, if Boaz is using Deut. 25 as a precedent in front of witnesses, if that child would be legally considered the heir of Mahlon and then Elimelech, so the property that the kinsman buys from Naomi for would then go to that child rather than to him. Here’s the deal: get married to a woman, take care of her mother-in-law and her land, and let it pass to her child, not any of your other children or your own family. Use your own resources to tend it for her as a custodian, not an owner. And because it was done (per Deut. 25) in front of the city elders, he has to take the deal all-or-nothing, with no cover for weaseling out of it later. So we get verses 6–8: “Too rich for my blood.“ But also note that this is done without any malice or anger! Ruth isn’t spitting in anybody’s face (per Deut. 25), and it looks like the sandal business is less a sign of theft or inappropriate action than just signing on the dotted line.

Done and done. Now what? Verses 9–12:
Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.” Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.”
Boaz marries Ruth in the presence of witnesses—not just the ten elders, but “all the people,” and they make some specific references in their blessings:
  1. “May she be like Rachel and Leah,” that is, may she have a whole mess of kids to establish a major dynasty, in a way that connects her to the matriarchs of the entire land of Israel.
  2. “May you act worthily”: of course, sure.
  3. “May your house be like Perez’s”: May your son have a big family himself, yes, but as we welcome you in, let’s connect you with Tamar, the wife of Boaz and Elimelech’s ancestor Judah in a not-exactly-by-the-books levirate marriage
That last one is kind of an embarrassing story for their patriarch Judah, but here’s what’s happening. First, yes, it’s from Genesis 38, the most famous levirate marriage in the Bible: Judah marries Tamar to one son, who dies, then to another son, who God kills for avoiding fathering a child, and then with two dead sons and only one left, Judah tells Tamar “wait until he grows up a bit.” Tamar waits on her thumbs for a few years, and after it’s clear that Son 3 is really truly grown up, she pretends to be a prostitute, gets Judah to sleep with her in exchange for his signet ring, then later when he gets mad that this woman “intended” for his son seems to be pregnant on her own, Judah accuses her, only to be presented with the ring. Judah says, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen. 38.26) praising her and disclosing his own dishonor—after all, Tamar earnestly strived for a place within Judah’s family when he wanted to send her back to her father. This is kind of an awkward story—and I can only imagine it would be more awkward in a time when, as per verse 24, she would have been burned to death for adultery. But this is the story that the people of Bethlehem dredge up to emphasize the worthiness of Ruth. Yes, she’s a foreigner in an very exclusive ethno-religious part of the world. But the people welcome her in and knit her into their community. Ruth isn’t a Moabite woman who married an Israelite when he was traveling abroad. She’s in the family of Naomi, of Boaz, of Bethlehem Ephathrah, of Tamar and Judah and Rachel and Leah. Ruth will be a Fine Upstanding Member of the Community, not just some dead man’s Gentile wife. Ruth wants to be with them, and they want Ruth right back.


Throughout the whole book, I see edges and coverings everywhere. Ruth begins her story on the edge of Israel, on the edge of a family, but she hangs on to Naomi and to God, who cover her in protection and help. Ruth returns with Naomi, who has no husband and is herself on the edge of society, as a single older woman with no husband or sons to protect her. Only Boaz, a relative of Elimelech, is there: but Boaz is a distant enough relative for the nature of their connection to be unclear: not Elimelech’s brother, for instance, but more distant—on the edge of Elimelech’s family. Ruth gathers from the edge of the field, from the leftovers provided by the kindness of Boaz and the laws of God.[4] Ruth gathers at the edge of a group of other young men and women, but Boaz’s commands and Naomi’s advice cover her in protection. Ruth comes in to the edge of Boaz’s bed, an act that is on the edge of propriety, but under the cover of night she finds the protection of Boaz as he covers her in his robe. When he sends her home, he even covers her in barley! Even then, another kinsman is closer, but he himself doesn’t wish to risk himself by extending protection to her, highlighting Boaz. In the end, Ruth is brought back into society by Boaz, by the elders and all the people, covered in their love and protection. She and Naomi are given a son, further cementing them within the society.

In sum, then, Ruth’s story is about how the people at the very edges of God’s earthly kingdom are welcomed, taken care of, redeemed, blessed, and secured. What a message for us all today!

  1. That is, picking up leftover grain in other people’s fields because they have no other way to get food for themselves. They aren’t in the best of situations.  ↩
  2. Though the author doesn’t tell us that name  ↩
  3. Ruth uses the term “redeemer” in accordance with the language of Deuteronomy, but I’ll use “kinsman” to emphasize his familial order of preference  ↩
  4. Leviticus 19.9–10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”  ↩