For nine posts I’ve hammered home that God’s plan from the beginning was mostly concerned with how societies are arranged. No doubt, the arrangement of society involves the actions of individuals. And no doubt, the proper actions of individuals arise out of the proper formation of individuals. This is religion, and this is our religion. Last post’s topic, Jubilee, was about a massive transfer of wealth from society’s winners to its losers (or, you could say, from its job creators to those who “should have just gotten a job”). Jubilee is radical, and it is a matter of faith.
But other parts of the Torah also demanded that society take from its winners and give to its losers.
Those other parts are readily identifiable, and I could just list them here and be done with it so we could move to Part 11. That would be an easy way to simplify my work, but in this post I would rather you walk Torah. I would rather take your imagination to where Torah really does its work. Sometimes Torah is best taught from a vantage point way up in the sky, but today we will see it operate at the ground level.
Today I’m going to tell you a love story.
This story is already in the Bible, but it’s almost always told poorly, and I think it deserves retelling. The story is complex, edgy, absolutely scandalous, rebellious, controversial, political, rule breaking, and unmistakably Jesus. Tragically though, the way the story virtually always gets taught saps out all of this.
Of course, I’m talking about the Old Testament book of Ruth. If you’ve been taught the story of Ruth and didn’t come away with what I just described, you need to go back to whoever told it to you and demand your money back.
I used to think Ruth was boring—kind of a vanilla story about two friends.
Today, I can’t believe they ever allowed that book in the Bible.
Before we get to the story, I want to make a few general observations about it. First, in order to appreciate the story, you need to accept the fact that the Old Testament does not speak with a single voice. I’ve written about this plenty, but its worth saying again: the Old Testament is constantly arguing with itself. This is not a flaw but an essential feature of the whole project. When you read the Old Testament, you are reading on-going debates about a variety of issues, and both sides are usually presented without censorship. Ruth is part of that tradition. It was written as part of a big dispute. When you get to the life of Rabbi Jesus in the New Testament, the subtext of much of his teaching is him actually picking sides in on-going debates. What I’ve just said is an essential part of reading the New Testament well. Ruth is important for the Christian not simply because it is in the Bible, but because Jesus emphatically sides with the arguments its author makes throughout the story.
Ruth is also important because of its unique perspective. The first seven books of the Bible—Genesis through Judges—are dominated by larger-than-life characters and stories: Noah and the Ark; Abraham, the “father of all nations”; Jacob, the father of the tribes of Israel; Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt; Moses, the giver of the Torah; Joshua; Sampson; Gideon; etc. Their stories are epochal, supernatural, and fantastical. But the story of Ruth is none of that; Ruth is an ordinary person. Her story involves no conquests, no parting seas, no battles, no angels or spirits, and no miracles. Also, Ruth is the only book of the Bible in which women do more of the talking than men (interesting then that Jesus would adopt so much of this book). For these reasons, Ruth provides perspectives that the rest of the Bible sometimes misses.
Lastly, as Old Testament stories go, Ruth is probably one of the more recently written stories. As I said earlier, Ruth wasn’t written to tell you “what happened”. It’s not just some history. It’s not just a nice thing that involved a woman named Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi.
Ruth is a polemic.
It is an argument.
It may not be a “true story”, but yet it is a completely true story.
Sickness, Death, and Bitterness
The story of Ruth begins not with Ruth, but with Naomi. She has a husband and two sons, Mahlon and Khilion. They live a spartan but content life in Bethlehem. Beit-lekhem is famous today, but it carried zero notoriety in this time (as when Jesus was born in one its many caves that are used as barns). Few people lived there, and what few people did live there were unmistakably poor.
So to begin the story of Ruth, the author tells us that the conditions of this poor village were made all the worse by a regional famine (read this as “economic crisis”). Economic crises, of course, hit hardest the most poor, and so it did with Naomi’s family. And the problems piled on. After months of the stress that comes from living in any famine, the economic crisis hit Naomi’s family especially hard. They couldn’t pay their debts, the bank foreclosed, and they lost their home. By the way, all of this takes place before the very first sentence of the story is completed. It’s as if whoever was first listening to this story was already well acquainted with these kinds of life events.
Ruth doesn’t finish the first verse, and the story is already ground level stuff.
Having lost all they owned and all hope of survival in Bethlehem, the family moved across the Jordan River to the nation of Moab, hoping to find work there. Naomi’s sons married two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, but the drought continued.
(Yes, this is the Orpah after whom the leading 2020 presidential candidate is named).
But, as Naomi had known so often, good times were always followed by tragedy. First, Naomi’s husband died.
And then her two sons died.
(BTW, her sons’ names, “Mahlon” and “Khilion”, are Hebrew words that mean “sickness” and “death.” Unless you’re inclined to believe that a real mother had real children and actually named them Sickness and Death, you should be clued in by now to Ruth’s literary genre)
In this time when people—let alone women—had few means by which to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Naomi and her daughter-in-law suddenly found themselves all alone and vulnerable in Moab. Naomi was too old to work for herself, and now she had no one to support her. Of course, she had no economic prospects back in Judah either, but at least she had some friends and some family there. And one day, after hearing that Judah was beginning to recover from its economic crisis, she decided it would be better to trek back to the village of Bethlehem than die as a childless widow in Moab where there was no social safety net. She left for Judah when Orpah and Ruth began the trek along behind her.
But, in one of the more tender scenes of the Bible, Naomi turned around to face her daughters-in-law. “Go back to the land of your family. May the LORD grant you kindness as you have shown me kindness. Why would you come with me? Even if there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up?” Naomi could muster the strength to utter those words, but could hold it in no longer. The women wept together on the road, and Orpah agreed to go back home.
Ruth, however, was insistent, and the words she spoke have resonated for thousands of years: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
No doubt, those words are a beautiful statement of devotion and friendship. They stand on their own as an exemplar of loving faithfulness, but where modern-day Christians make an important mistake is assuming that this was the point of the story. That this is what made Ruth important. Judaism’s guiding ethical principal is and has long been khesed, or faithful devotion, but this was true long before the book of Ruth was penned down.
Yet, in recording these words of the story—which has found its way into untold women’s devotional books and Bible studies and sisterhoods and traveling pants—the author could not have been more controversial if he or she had tried. I’ll explain shortly.
Naomi and Ruth entered the village of Bethlehem, and, even through the new wrinkles on Naomi’s face, people soon recognized her. However, in one of the sadder moments of the Bible, Naomi protested that no one in the village call her Naomi (which means, “pleasant”). “Call me Mara,” which means “Bitter”, “for I’ve had a hard life. I went away full, but have come back empty.” Naomi had always had a hard life, but the previous ten years had given her the face of one who had known little more than hunger, worry, exhaustion, and thirst.
Naomi and Ruth entered Bethlehem homeless. As such, they were tired, hungry, and afraid.
Edges, Wings, and Blankets
Before we advance further, I have to teach you some Torah and some Hebrew. As I said earlier, the story of Ruth was part of a Torah dispute, and the author uses different parts of the law as well as some Hebrew wordplay to connect different parts of the story and, thus, to shape the questions you should be asking about it.
The Torah instructs those who own land not to harvest the edges of their fields; the edges of the fields are for the poor of the community to come in and “glean” whatever had grown there.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.
Not only did the edges of the field have to remain unharvested, but if you were harvesting the middle of your field and a sheave of grain were to fall off of your cart or wagon, the Torah said that you could not pick it up. Those sheaves were for the poor.
This law of gleaning sets in motion what happens when Ruth and Naomi enter Bethlehem.
Now some Hebrew: The Hebrew word for “edge” is the word kanaf. It also means “wings” and it also means “blanket.” As you’re about to see, the author of this story gets a lot of mileage out of this word. These different uses of the word are meant to make you link different parts of the story.
And now back to the story.
When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, the author tells us about a relative on Naomi’s late husband’s side named Boaz, one of “standing” who owned several barley fields. Naomi—who before would have been too ashamed to enter the life of a dependent welfare recipient—now instructed her daughter-in-law to go glean in the field of her relative, Boaz.
Gleaning was frustrating, humiliating, and even dangerous work. First of all, landowners knew well the commercial parts of the Torah and were careful to leave just as little unharvested grain as permissible under the law. Gleaners were maligned and frequently were attacked.
(Had Fox News been around in this time in Judah, Tucker Carlson would have run nightly reports on “those lazy, immoral, and ungodly gleaners.”)
Nobody wanted their field to be known as the place for gleaners to feel too comfortable. This was especially true when the gleaners were women, even more so when the female gleaners were foreigners.
Further, Ruth is shy, she’s a foreigner, she’s in a new land, and she’s about to embark in a lifestyle that was subject to harassment. The author of Ruth assumes you know that it is only out of profound desperation that anyone would take on this sort of life.
And that gets us to Boaz.
When all the nervous gleaners arrived on this particular morning at the start of the harvest, Boaz didn’t try to run them off. He didn’t call the police. He greeted them. At some point in the day, Boaz noticed Ruth, for she was a gleaner he hadn’t seen in years past. When Boaz asked one of his workers who she was, the man responded, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.”
And that gets me to a second point about the Torah. There’s something I haven’t told you this whole time, this time about one of the Torah’s darker corners. The Israelites and the Moabites were bitter enemies, and, by the time of this story, had been for a long time. Most of Israel’s national stories go out of their way to paint the Moabites in a bad light. There’s a story behind that, but what you need to know is that the Torah is absolutely 100% clear that Moabites may not have any participation in Israelite society.
No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.
Just pause and think about what this story is doing.
Not only is Ruth poor.
Not only is Ruth a welfare recipient.
Not only is Ruth a foreigner.
Ruth is an illegal immigrant.
And one from a place the Israelites would have considered a shithole country.
Ruth should not be as virtuous as she is. She should be rotten to the core. She should be selfish and greedy and violent and foaming at the mouth—she’s a Moabite. She’s illegal. If this Moabite wants to glean in our fields—the fields we worked hard on—she should go back to Moab.
But that’s not how the author the story describes her. Ruth is a Moabite who has the best qualities to which Israelites would aspire. Imagine a modern Israeli story about a Palestinian with these qualities, and you will begin to understand the scandal. The words that we read earlier, “I will go where you go; your people will be my people; your God will be my God,” would suddenly jump off the page.
Can you believe what Ruth said??? would have been a common response.
So Ruth, a woman of noble character, finds herself on this morning at the field of Boaz as the prime target for savage mistreatment. And that’s when Boaz activated some pre-Jesus Jesus, “My daughter, you are welcome to glean in this field. Just follow along after the harvesters. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”
If at this point you need a moment to let out a good cry, I assure you this post will wait on you.
Of course, Ruth too was in shock over his kindness. She’d never encountered in Moab such a generous national system like this one for taking care of poor foreigners like her. It was dog-eat-dog in Moab. But Boaz was not even done! While Ruth was pondering it all, Boaz quietly went over to his field hands and instructed them to make sure that plenty of grain sheaves would accidentally fall out of the wagon. “You’re going to do your worst work today”, he said. Finally, he goes back to Ruth and tells her this:
“I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
That word, “wings” is that word kanaf again. It’s the place where the poor and foreigners and refugees could come and glean in the fields. This is what God has in mind for societies of means. The gods of Moab didn’t take in refugees and let them glean in fields, but the God of Israel was insistent on it.
And then, just to make sure she felt 100% welcome there, he offers her to take some bread and dip it with him in some wine.
(Are the blinkers on your Christian dashboard going off yet? Are you seeing the literary tradition from which centuries later Jesus would borrow?)
It’s okay to cry again.
I want to repeat what I said earlier: this story is scandalous, and it’s only just getting started. Sure, the Torah required that foreigners be able to glean in fields. But Ruth is a Moabite! She is in violation of the Torah. Boaz should have called ICE and had her deported. At the very least, Boaz should not have been kind to her.
Because the law!
Over some period of time, Ruth continued to glean in Boaz’s barley fields and brought home each day more than she and Naomi even needed, yet Boaz continually insisted that she bring home even more, just in case her mother-in-law might need more. Out of Boaz’s illegal generosity it appears that over time, Ruth was able to use some of the surplus to make a living and buy some clothes.
And that gets me to Naomi’s plan.
One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Tonight Boaz will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor in his barn. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the barn, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, go and uncover his feet and lie down with him. You will know what to do.”
Ruth agreed to the plan. She put on some of her new clothes and put on perfume. Then that night she went out to the barn and hid behind some sheaves of barley. Boaz worked that night threshing barley, finished for the night, ate and drank, and fell asleep in the barn. Once the commotion of threshing and carousing had ceased, Ruth came out of her hiding place and laid next to Boaz.
Now, your Bible says that she “uncovered his feet.” Before we go further, you need to understand is your Bible uses a whole range of euphemisms for the main male organ and for sex in general. So, I don’t care what you think you’re reading in the third chapter of Ruth, she was not uncovering his feet, nor laying at his feet. I’ll let you use your imagination to figure out what she really did.
Regardless, when Ruth did what she did, it caused Boaz to wake up. Before I can explain what happened next, I have one more bit of Torah to teach you: the law of guardian redeemers. Under the Torah, if a creditor were to foreclose on a property, a relative of the property owner had the right to pay the creditor to redeem the property. This was true even if the creditor had already taken the property.
If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and loses some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have lost. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.
So when Boaz asked the woman who she was, she replied: “I am your servant Ruth. Spread your blanket over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”
(yes this is sexual, yes the author is connecting it to the story’s other uses of the word kanaf, yes she is using sex to get out of her poverty, yes this is in the Bible—are you starting to see what this story would have caused outrage?)
So, after a night of passion under the blanket in the threshing barn, Boaz the next day went out to find the man who ten years before had foreclosed on Naomi’s home. But it turned out Boaz could not redeem the property because there was another man who was more closely related to Naomi. Under the law, this man had the first right of refusal.
Boaz found the man and let him know that he wanted to buy the property and add it to his estate, but that he had the right of first refusal. The man at first indicated that he was interested in exercising his right of redemption, but in a final literary exclamation point, the author tells us that the man changed his mind when he found out that redeeming the property would mean under the law that he would have to marry the Moabite woman. Because of course.
In the end, Boaz redeemed the property, married the illegal Moabite, and gave the property back to Naomi.
I’m not impressed with people who say that we want our country to be generous, but these people are illegal so we can’t. Our nation doesn’t get to avoid being a place under whose wings foreigners come to take refuge by hiding behind its laws. The story of Ruth is the story of a man who avoids the law by finding an incredibly questionable loophole. Further, and more importantly, if our laws are the thing that stands between what we have today and justice rushing like a river, what we need to do is change our laws.
I’m also not impressed with those who say that relaxing our laws will lead to lawlessness. The book of Ruth did not lead to an outbreak of crime and anarchy. It did develop the Israelites in their vocation to shine justice on the rest of the word. And just as the redeemer of Ruth woke up in a barn in Bethlehem, the redeemer of the world also woke up in a barn in Bethlehem. Later, he would offer all people a see at the table to take some bread and dip it in wine.
Or maybe I could sum up this long post by saying it this way: I cannot imagine God blessing a country that complains about how many of its immigrants come from shithole countries. Today, America is in the position of Boaz. We have the means. We don’t have to find loopholes in our laws; we can simply change them. And, like Ruth, people are exposing themselves to great risk and humiliating themselves in numerous ways to come here and try to feed their families.
So here is the question: Do we want to be like Israel or do we want to be like Moab?