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Richard J. CliffordFebruary 08, 2021
Ruth in Boaz's Field, 1828, by Julius Schnorr von Carlsfelt (Wikimedia Commons)

Though the media tells us that trust in institutions is at an all-time low and that increasing numbers of people think only of themselves rather than the common good, the biblical story of Ruth tells quite a different tale. Two vulnerable women place extraordinary trust in each other, treat their townspeople with decency and in return are treated respectfully, play a major role in their village, and contribute to the welfare of the nation. Without their being aware of it, the women perform a small-scale version of the Exodus, the great deed that brought Israel into existence centuries before. The scribal author, like other scribes, preferred a story to a sermon, confident that watching these two women act will make readers appreciate the communal importance of trust and respect for others.

In the biblical story of Ruth, two women make their way toward the village of Bethlehem five miles south of Jerusalem, the hometown of King David. Both women are widows. Naomi is perhaps in her late 40s and Ruth her late 20s. Both are also orphans—more accurately fatherless—lacking the support of a nearby family. Ten years earlier, severe famine forced Naomi’s family to leave Israel for Moab, west of the Dead Sea. During the course of their stay, Naomi’s two sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Misfortune fell heavily on the family there, however: Death took Naomi’s husband Elimelech and her two sons.

Hearing that the Lord had brought prosperity back to her homeland, Naomi decided to return. She bade farewell to her daughters-in-law, addressing what was foremost in their minds: “May the Lord guide you to find a husband and a home [In Hebrew, mĕnȗḥāh]. Have I other sons in my womb who could become your husbands?” Orpah returned to her family in Moab, but Ruth declared she would never leave her mother-in-law:

Wherever you go I will go,
wherever you lodge I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people
and your God, my God.
Where you die I will die, and there be buried.
May the Lord do thus to me, and more, if even death separates me from you!

Although the arrival of the two women stirred excitement among Bethlehem’s townswomen, Naomi rebuffed their greetings, “Do not call me Naomi [‘Sweet’]. Call me Mara [‘Bitter’], for the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” God’s proper name, YHWH—conventionally rendered by the title “Lord”—occurs 18 times in the story, all but one time (Ruth 4:13) uttered in a blessing or a description.

Is the Book of Ruth more than a well-told story? Did it tell its original readers something important? Does it tell us something important today?

A parenthesis meant only for readers informs us that Naomi had a kinsman on her husband Elimelech’s side, Boaz, obliged by custom to help her. Unaware of that relationship, Ruth goes to a barley field to glean what the harvesters left behind. The field belongs to Boaz, who is similarly unaware that Ruth belonged to Naomi’s household, for he has to ask the overseer who the unfamiliar gleaner is. Registering her connection to Naomi, he tells Ruth how impressed he is by her dedication to her mother-in law—exclaiming that she may be blessed for leaving her own family and country to remain with Naomi. He sees to it that she takes home an abundance of barley to Naomi.

Upon discovering that Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s field, Naomi exclaims, “May he be blessed by the Lord, who never fails to show kindness (Hebrew ḥesed) to the living and to the dead. This man is a near relative of ours, one of our redeemers (gō’ēl).” The Hebrew word ḥesed, important in the story, means “affectionate loyalty especially to relationships”; Hebrew gō’ēl, also important (with 13 occurrences), means “redeemer” as a noun and “act as redeemer” as a verb.

Aware now of Boaz’s esteem for Ruth, Naomi devises a plan to find a secure home (Hebrew mĕnȗḥāh) for her daughter-in-law. Earlier, Naomi expressed the wish that the Lord guide her daughters-in-law to find a husband and a home (Hebrew mĕnȗḥāh). Now she finds herself to be the instrument for carrying out that wish. Her plan is simple: Ruth is to dress in her best attire and lie at the feet of the sleeping Boaz. When he wakes up, he will know she wants to be his bride. Just as Naomi planned, Boaz wakes from sleep, finds Ruth lying near him and quickly agrees to act as her redeemer—that is, a relative who comes to the aid of another family member in need. Touchingly, he tells Ruth, “You have been even more loyal (ḥesed) now than before in not going after the young men, whether rich or poor.” Grateful, he fills her shawl with six measures of barley. And, as Naomi had also predicted, he settles matters that very day.

Another tale might have ended then and there with Boaz’s assurance of marriage to Ruth—but this story is not primarily about romance. The story of Ruth (likely written around the time of Israel’s return from exile, the fifth century B.C.E.) widens its horizon to include Naomi, the villagers and Israel’s history and hopeful future. Boaz summons the town to the public space, “the gate,” to ascertain whether another relative of Elimelech closer than Boaz is willing to buy back (redeem) the property. When the relative learns that the property must also support Ruth, he bows out. Boaz declares:

You are witnesses today that I have acquired from Naomi all the holdings of Elimelech, Chilion and Mahlon (Naomi’s deceased sons). I also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, as my wife to raise up a family for her late husband on his estate so that the name of the deceased may not perish from his people and his place.

The villagers give their assent in a double blessing: “May the Lord make this woman come into your house like Rachel and Leah, who between them built up the house of Israel” and “With the offspring the Lord will give you from this young woman, may your house become like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” The first blessing is a reminder that the story’s real interest is the building up of Israel, because the twelve sons of Leah and Rachel became the twelve tribes of Israel.

The Book of Ruth enables readers to view, in a small-scale way, the foundational biblical story of the exodus.

The second blessing mentions Tamar, who in Genesis 38, like Ruth, bore a child after her husband had died. In the final verses of Ruth, the townswomen acknowledge a shift in relationship and status as they declare that Ruth’s newborn son Obed is the redeemer—not Boaz—and extol Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and Naomi’s motherly care for the newborn infant. Importantly, Obed will be the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David, the great king of Israel. The story ends with fullness, not the emptiness that Naomi had lamented.

Is Ruth more than a well-told story? Did it tell its original readers something important? Does it tell us something important today? Let me suggest two contributions the book makes to readers today and yesterday.

The first contribution the story makes is to take seriously the lives of ordinary people—villagers, immigrants, married people, widows and the poor (symbolized in the ancient Near East by “widows and orphans”). The story ennobles their actions. People act, but one senses that God directs. Divine action, however, is only visible in people’s actions: Naomi’s decision to return, Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, Naomi’s plan to take advantage of Boaz’s desire and the townswomen’s recognition of Obed as the ultimate redeemer (gō’ēl). The story uncovers the profound significance of the folks in Bethlehem.

 

The second contribution of Ruth is easily overlooked. It enables readers then and now to view, in a small-scale way, the foundational biblical story of the exodus. In the exodus of the 13th century B.C.E., the Hebrews fled depletion and exploitation and journeyed to Israel, the land of milk and honey. This original exodus from Egypt became a paradigm and explanatory model centuries later for the people’s humiliating exile in Babylonia during the sixth century B.C.E., as well as their gradual return to the land of Israel. One can only imagine the suffering of families depleted by their enslavement on state projects. Exilic suffering must have tempted Israelites to doubt that their God always truly cares for “the widow and the orphan.” But God’s mercy and care are not abstractions. They must be embodied in daily life by family members exhibiting loyalty toward each other, by ordinary people doing new things and following their best laws and customs.

The story of Ruth is the miniature of the national exodus, the founding event of Israel. A hint of its symbolism is found in its climax, which is not the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, as one might expect if the story were a romance. No, the climax is the celebration of the widow Naomi “giving birth” to Obed, her redeemer—not of Elimelech’s line alone, but of the nation Israel itself. Obed is in the line of David, the king of all Israel. The birth of Obed is more than an addition to Elimelech’s family; it is a link to the rebirth of Israel.

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