Holy Mothers (and One Unholy Grandmother) –

The Perfect Jewish Woman: Ruth the Moabitess

Ruth 1:1-14, Naomi's family.
Ruth 1:15-22, Ruth and Naomi.
Ruth 2, In the fields of Boaz.
Ruth 3:1-5, Naomi the matchmaker.
Ruth 3, Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor.
Ruth 4, Ruth marries Boaz and becomes a great-grandmother.

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Ruth 1:1-14, Naomi's family. (6/19/2008)

The book of Ruth is probably the most beautiful and best-written short story in the history of literature.  In the form that we have it, Ruth was almost certainly written after the Exile; remember that point, because we will come back to it in a few days.  The story itself is very old, most likely contemporary with David, who, along with his family, took refuge with the king of Moab once when Saul sought to kill him (1 Samuel 22:1-4).  So there's no serious question about the truth of the story, even though it was not written down for hundreds of years after the events.
Today we see the setup.  Elimelech and his wife Naomi and their sons move to Moab, where the sons marry Moabite women.  Remember how important it is that the Jews not intermarry with the Gentiles?  What's going on here?  Anyway, Elimelech and the two sons die.  Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem.  The daughters-in-law start out with her, but Naomi, who loves them, tries to send them back to their families so that they may remarry.  She points out that in Bethlehem, they would have to marry brothers of their late husbands, and she is way too old to produce any sons, even if they were willing to wait.  Orpah, weeping, turns back. 
Ruth 1:15-22, Ruth and Naomi. (11/2/2007)

Ruth says she won't leave Naomi, and that's final.  My mother-in-law died eight years ago today (Friday), and I still miss her very much.  Would I have left my home, my parents, my country, and my gods to live with her in dark, rainy Seattle?  Would I have committed to a life of widowhood to be with her?  It's not surprising that Ruth is one of the four women named in the genealogy of Jesus.

When Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi's old friends are amazed to see her, but Naomi says she isn't the same woman they remember, because when she left, she had everything, and now she has nothing.  What will become of these impoverished and widowed women?

Ruth 2, In the fields of Boaz. (6/20/2008)

According to the Law of Moses, a farmer or landowner could not glean his own fields.  Instead, any produce that fell from the sheaves must be left on the ground for the poor, widowed, and orphaned (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:21).  This was one of the few resources available to the poor.  Ruth decides to go gleaning so that she and Naomi will have some food in the house.  She happens on the field of a wealthy man named Boaz, who shows her great kindness, not only because he is a fine person, but also because he has heard of what she has done for Naomi and of how hard she has worked.  Notice how carefully the writer shows us the qualities of Boaz and Naomi, but especially of Ruth, who is loving, kind, hard-working, and polite. 
Ruth 3:1-5, Naomi the matchmaker.

It was a terrible thing to be childless in Old Testament times.  Not only were you deprived of the pleasure of children and grandchildren, but you had no retirement plan, no pension, no Social Security, and no health plan.  Worst of all, it was a sign that God did not approve of you!  So it is no wonder that Naomi busies herself with finding a husband for Ruth.

Ruth 3:6-18, Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. (6/23/2008)

My mom used to have a little notebook full of sayings she had copied.  One of them was this short poem*: People in Bethlehem had been talking about Ruth, but even so, Boaz had heard nothing but good about her.  She was respected by everyone in town (3:11).  At Naomi's instigation, Ruth suggests to Boaz that he should marry her under the Levirate Law, which said that a deceased man's nearest male relative should provide a son for the dead man (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).  Boaz is even further impressed with her conscientious faithfulness to her mother-in-law and to her new God and country.  He points out that unfortunately he is not the nearest relative, and that he will have to take it up with that man.  What will happen to Ruth?  Will she marry kind, upright Boaz?  Or will she be obligated to marry some stranger?
Ruth 4, Ruth marries Boaz and becomes a great-grandmother. (6/24/2008)

Just as Naomi predicted, Boaz immediately sets out to determine whether he or someone else will marry Ruth.  He waits at the city gate - where all serious business was conducted - for the nearer relative.  Inviting the man and ten witnesses to sit down, he lays out the problem:  Naomi is selling her husband's land.  The other man says he will buy it.  Boaz notes that the buyer must marry Ruth.  Oh, no!  Will Ruth marry this stranger?
Have you ever read any stories by O. Henry?  The reader is led gently along the path to the obvious conclusion, and then - whammo! - there's a twist at the end that neither the characters nor the reader have foreseen.  The real punch line of the story of Ruth comes in vs. 4:17 (and in fact vss. 18-22 may well have been added later).  The child that is born is the legal heir of Naomi's husband Elimelech, and that's what we expected all along; hence the neighbor ladies' comment that "There is a son born to Naomi." (Any subsequent children belong to Boaz and Ruth.) But that's not the end of the verse!

Remember that the book of Ruth was written after the Exile.  When the Jews returned to Judah after the Exile, Ezra led the people in re-instituting the Law of Moses.  As a sad part of the reform, Ezra insisted that the many men who had married foreign women and brought them to Judah must now divorce them and their children (Ezra 9-10, Nehemiah 13).  The writer of Ruth has led us gently along the path.  Ruth, a foreign woman, has forsaken her gods and her country to come to Judah.  Everyone speaks well of her.  She is so respectful of her new nation that she is willing to marry someone in order to give her mother-in-law a child.  And then the mighty blow descends:  this foreign woman was the great-grandmother of King David!  The unspoken question is:  And now you want us to divorce our wives who have left their homes and families to come to Judah? 

* Which turns out to be by Edward W. Hoch (1849 - 1925).

Other Mothers
Rachel and Leah
The Four Most Important Women Who Never Lived
Women Who Expected Miracles
Mary and Elizabeth
UMW in Bible Times

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