Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Book of Ruth

At church recently we've been reading the Book of Ruth, and it's got me thinking about a few things.

For those who don't know the story, here's a summary. An Israelite man called Elimelech goes off with his wife Naomi and two sons to live in Moab to escape a famine. While there, the two sons marry Moabite women, then all three men die.

Because men owned all the property in their society widows had few means of support,  Naomi decides to return to Israel, where her kinship networks are, and suggests to her daughters-in-law that they should likewise return to their families. One of them agrees, but the other, Ruth, vows to stick with her mother-in-law and go to Israel with her. "Your people shall be my people, your god shall be my god," she says. She claims the protection of the law and kinship networks of Israel.

This is a brave and perhaps foolish decision. The Moabites and Israelites were often at war, and various Israelite laws discriminated against foreigners. Naomi could possibly be her only friend, and as a poor widow herself she could hardly provide much support. Their only hope is that the laws of Israel will be sympathetic enough to enable them to survive.

They arrive during the harvest, and Naomi immediately sends Ruth out to glean in the fields - that is, to follow the harvesters and pick up scraps of grain they have dropped. This was what passed for welfare in the laws of Israel. Landowners were instructed to not be too careful when they harvested their fields, so there would be spare grain left lying around, which poor people could come along and pick up. Whether by accident or design, Ruth ends up in the field of a man called Boaz, who is some kind of relative of Elimelech (the relationship is not specified).

It is interesting what Boaz does. Legally, he is obliged to let even a foreigner scrounge in his field, because this law explicitly includes foreigners. He is not obliged to do anything else, but he does. He invites her to drink the water drawn for his workers, and to share their lunch. He instructs his staff to drop extra wheat in her path. At the end of the day he gives her an extra gift of grain to take home to Naomi. In other words, he treats her as a family member, not as a foreigner.

The problem with the law about gleaning is that it only feeds the poor during harvest time. Once the harvest is over, they can only hope they have gathered enough by this incredibly inefficent means to tide them over to the next harvest, or else they will need to beg. Boaz's generosity has impoved their chances, but Naomi sees another possibility. If Boaz is treating her and Ruth like family, perhaps it might be worth reminding him of other family obligations.

Another of the Israelite laws was that if a man died leaving a childless widow, his brother was to marry her and have children who would be considered the children of the dead brother. Such a law would be horrifying to women in our society, but when marriage was about property, not love, it was a way of ensuring the woman was fairly treated, and had means of support throughout her life. Apparently in the time the book of Ruth was written, this law was interpreted to apply to extended family as well, so a more distant relative like Boaz could also be obliged to marry. However, Ruth represented a legal grey area, because she was a Moabite and Israelis were not allowed to marry foreigners. Which law would triumph?

Naomi's tactics are hardly subtle - she sends Ruth to spend the night with Boaz. Whether she does indeed spend the night sleeping at his feet, as described, or whether this is a euphemistic description of a sexual liaison, the claim to the rights of a wife is unmistakeable and Boaz both recognises it as such, and is willing to marry her (indeed, seems quite eager). However, there is an instructive piece of family politics to negotiate first. There is a nearer relative who must be invited to take up his obligations, and there is also a block of land involved. Boaz finds this relative, and starts the negotiation by discussing the land - Naomi needs to sell this block of land, he says, and you as nearest relative have first right of purchase. The relative agrees to purchase the land. Then Boaz hits the punch-line - with the land goes Ruth, the Moabite widow. You can hear the sound of brakes screeching as the relative backs off, listing the reasons he can't marry her. So Boaz gets him to renounce his claim, makes a deal in front of the village elders, and marries Ruth, presumably getting Naomi's field into the bargain.

So, aside from a description of quaint ancient marriage customs, what does this story tell us? My thoughts...

  1. If you have a choice between a strict and a generous interpretation of the law, pick the generous one every time. Go one step further. You can never be punished for being kinder than the law requires. "If someone asks you to go one mile with them, go two."
  2. Treat foreigners like family. When migrants come to your shores asking for refuge and protection, give it to them and make them part of your community, don't keep them on the outside and force them to beg.
  3. God's kingdom is inclusive. It is not just for one nation, it is not just for a single in-group, it is open and inviting, even to those we think of as enemies.
Apart from being curious story, the book of Ruth is a piece of dynastic history. Boaz and Ruth are great grandparents of King David, the dynastic founder of the kings of Judah. The author is saying, "this is the origin of our greatest King - the descendent of a foreign woman and a man who interpreted the law openly and generously". The implication - all the kings of Judah should do the same. "Go and do likewise."

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