Women in the Bible: RUTH ~ Easter 4A 05/07/17

The Story of Ruth in Word, Art, and Reflection
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
May 7, 2017 ~ Fourth Sunday of Easter
First in the Series Women in the Bible

Prelude

Stories are one of the ways we understand ourselves and the world, and that’s why they’re central to every religion and every culture around the world. Now, a story told as a purely chronological list of events is a boring story indeed. What captures our attention and imagination are the distinct episodes that “provide meaning in the lives of the characters – moments of loss, risk, change, transformation, relationship, and survival.” [1] And so it is with us: those defining moments are what make up the stories of our lives. Hopefully the stories we hear speak to the stories we live.

This month we will hear the stories of some of the women in the Bible, women whose names may be known to us but whose stories may be but vague memories in our minds. Today we begin with Ruth, a woman whose story is full of defining moments that may resonate with us, if we but take the time to let her speak to us.

So, best beloved, listen: this is the story of God for the people of God.

The Story

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. In the days when the judges judged, there was a famine in Bethlehem, Bet-Lechem, the House of Bread.

And a certain man from Bet-Lechem in Judah went to live in the country Moab – he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Eli-melech, My God is King. And the name of his wife was Naomi, Pleasant. And the name of his two sons were Mah-lon, Diseased, and Chilion, Dying. They were Ephrathites from Bet-Lechem in Judah. And they went to the land of Moab and they remained there.

But Eli-melech, My God is King, died, leaving his wife with their two sons. These sons married Moabite wives. The name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other, Ruth.

Now when they had been married for about ten years, both Diseased and Dying died, so that the woman Naomi, Pleasant, was left without her husband or her two sons. And she, along with her two daughters-in-law, prepared to return to Judah from the land of Moab, because she had heard in the land of Moab, that The Lord – YHWH – Yod-Hey-Vov-Hey – it’s unpronounceable; our Jewish cousins often say Ha-Shem, The Name – she had heard in the land of Moab that Ha-Shem had considered the people of Judah and given them food.

So she set out, she and her two daughters-in-law, from the land of Moab, to return to the land of Judah. But she said to her daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you to your mothers’ house. May Ha-Shem deal kindly, love kindness, do chesed with you, as you have dealt with me and with the dead. May God grant you security, each of you, in the house of a husband.”

And she kissed them and they wept aloud.

They said to her, “No, we’ll return with you to your people.”

But Naomi said, “No, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? My daughters, go your own way. I’m too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I had a husband tonight and bore sons, would you then wait until they had grown up? Would you then refrain from marrying? No. It’s been far more bitter – mara – for me than for you, because the hand of Ha-Shem has turned against me.”

And they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung – dabak – to her.

Naomi said to her, “You see? Your sister-in-law is returning to her people and her gods. Go after her!”

But Ruth said, “Don’t press me into leaving you or keep me from following you. Where you go, I’ll go. Your people, they’ll be my people. Where you lodge, I’ll lodge. Your God is my God. Where you die, I’ll die. There they’ll bury me. May Ha-Shem do thus and so to me if even death parts me from you.”

And when Naomi saw that Ruth was determined not to leave her, she said nothing more.

And they came to Bet-Lechem in Judah, and when they came to the town of Bet-Lechem, the entire town was stirred because of them.

The women of the town said, “Isn’t that Naomi?”

And Naomi said to them, “Don’t call me Naomi – Pleasant – anymore. Call me Mara, because God has dealt bitterly – mara – with me. I went away full; God has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi anymore, when God has testified against me, and El-Shaddai has brought shud, calamity, upon me?”

Well, it was in this way that Naomi returned from the land of Moab with Ruth, the Moabite, her daughter-in-law. And they came to Judah, to Bet-Lechem, at the time of the barley harvest.

Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side. A wealthy and prominent man from the family of Eli-melech, whose name was Boaz, which means, In Him Is Strength.

Now Ruth said to Naomi, “Let me go and glean in the fields among the sheaves behind someone in whose sight I might find favor.”

“Go, my daughter,” Naomi said. And Ruth she went into the fields and she gleaned and gathered among the sheaves behind the reapers. And it just so happened that she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz.

And just then Boaz returned from Bet-Lechem. And he said to his reapers, “God is with you,” and they answered him, “God blesses you.”

Then he said to the servant in charge of the reapers, “To whom does that young woman belong?”

And the servant in charge of the reapers said, “Oh, she’s the Moabite who returned with Naomi from the land of Moab. And she said, “let me come and glean and gather from among the sheaves,” and so she came and she’s been on her feet from early in the morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

And Boaz said to her, “Listen, my daughter, don’t go and glean in another field or leave this one. Stay close to my women. Keep your eyes on what’s being gleaned; stay behind them. I’ve ordered my young men not to assault you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what my young men have drawn.”

And Ruth fell with her face to the ground, and she said, “How is it that I have found favor in your sight, my lord, that you would treat me with kindness when I’m an immigrant?”

Boaz said, “No, no, no, what you did for your mother-in-law after your husband died? It’s been fully told to me: how you left your mother and your father in your native land and you came to a people you didn’t know before. May Ha-Shem reward you for your deeds. May you receive a full reward from Ha-Shem, the God of Israel, under whose wings you’ve come for refuge.”

And Ruth said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, because you have spoken kindly to me, and you have shown compassion on your servant, even though I’m not one of your servants.” (hint, hint!)

At mealtime, Boaz said to Ruth, “Come here, have some of this bread, this lechem. Dip your morsel into the sour wine.” But Ruth went and sat by the reapers. And Boaz went there and heaped up for her some parched grain, and she ate until she was satisfied, and there was some left over.

Now when Ruth got back up to glean, Boaz ordered his young men, “Let her glean among the standing sheaves. Do not embarrass her. You must also grab a handful from the piles and leave them for her to glean. Do not embarrass her.”

And so Ruth gleaned until evening, and when she beat out what she had gleaned it was almost an ephah of barley! And she went into town and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Ruth gave some of the grain to Naomi after she herself had been satisfied and there was more left over.

Naomi said, “Where did you glean today? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!”

And Ruth told her the name of the man who had taken notice of her, saying, “It was Boaz!” And Naomi said, “Blessed be Ha-Shem whose kindness hasn’t forsaken the living or the dead! That man, Boaz, he is a next-of-kin, a redeemer, a go’el.

And Ruth said, “Yes, he even said, ‘Stay close to my young women and glean in the fields.’”

Naomi said, “This is good, my daughter. This is good. Otherwise you might be assaulted in another field.”

So Ruth gleaned with the young women of Boaz until the end of the barley and the wheat harvests, and she lived with her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Now it came to pass that Naomi said to Ruth, “Listen my daughter, I must seek some security for you so that it may be well with you. Now, here is our relative, our redeemer, our go’el, Boaz, with whose young women you’ve been working. See, he’s winnowing barley at the threshing floor tonight. So, wash and anoint yourself, put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor. But don’t make yourself known to the man until he has eaten and drunk and laid down. Then observe the place where he lies, and go, uncover his ‘feet,’ and lie down. Then he’ll tell you what to do.”

And Ruth said, “OK.” And she went down to the threshing room. And after Boaz had eaten and drunk and was in a contented mood, he went and laid down at the edge of the pile of grain.

Then Ruth stealthily went over, uncovered his “feet,” and lay down. And at midnight, Boaz was startled. There, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, “Who are you?”

And she said, “I’m Ruth. I’m your servant, Ruth. Now, spread out your cloak over me, because you are a redeemer, a go’el.”

And Boaz said, “May you be blessed by Ha-Shem. This last instance of your loyalty – ooh, it’s better than the first! You haven’t gone after young men whether rich or poor. And now, don’t be afraid, I will do everything you ask of me, because the entire of my people know that you are a woman of valor. But there is another go’el who is more closely related to you than I. Remain here this night, and in the morning, if he will act as a go’el then let him do it. But if he will not act as a go’el, then as Ha-Shem lives, I will act as a redeemer, a go’el. Now, remain here until morning.”

And Ruth lay at Boaz’s “feet” until the morning.

Early in the morning she got up before one person recognized another, because he had said, “It’s not right for a woman to be on the threshing floor.” And he said to her, “Hold out your cloak,” and she held it out, and he measured out six measures of barley, put it on her back, and he went into town.

And Ruth went to Naomi, and when Naomi saw her, she said, “So, uh, how’d things go?” And Ruth told her everything – well, not quite everything – that Boaz had done for her, saying “he even measured out six measures of barley because he said ‘you can’t go to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”

And Naomi said, “This is good, my daughter. You don’t know how this is going to turn out, but…but the man will not wait. He’ll settle the matter today.”

And no sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate of the town and sat down then the go’el of whom Boaz had spoken came passing by. And he said to him, “Come here, friend, sit down.” And so he sat down.

Then Boaz took ten of the elders of the city and said to them, “Come, sit down,” and they sat down. Boaz said “Listen, Naomi is selling a parcel of her land belonging to Eli-melech, and I thought I’d tell you and say, buy it here in the presence of our elders, and in the presence of our people. If you will act as a go’el, as a redeemer, then redeem it. But if you will not act as a go’el, then tell me so I’ll know. Because there’s no one more closely related than you, and I come after you.”

And so the go’el said, “I’ll redeem it.”

And Boaz said, “OK, now, when you acquire the land from the hand of Naomi, you’re also acquiring Ruth, the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on the inheritance.”

At this, the go’el said, “I can’t redeem it without endangering my own inheritance. Take the right of redemption for yourself.”

Now this was the custom in those days in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging. To confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other, this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So as soon as the go’el said, “Take the right of redemption for yourself,” Boaz took off his sandal, and he stood up, and he said in the presence of the people, “Today you are witnesses that I am acquiring from the hand of Naomi everything belonging to Eli-melech and everything belonging to Diseased and Dying. I’m also acquiring Ruth, the Moabite, the widow of the dead man to maintain the dead man’s name on the inheritance, so that the name Ha-Shem may not be cut off from his relatives and from the gate of his native place. Today you are witnesses.”

So Boaz took Ruth to become his wife, and Ruth took Boaz to become her husband. They lay together and Ha-Shem made her conceive, and she gave birth to a son.

And the women of the town said, “Blessed be Ha-Shem, who hasn’t left you today without a go’el, a redeemer.” They said to Naomi, “May this child’s name be praised in all of Israel, because he will be for you a restorer of life, a nourisher of old age, because this woman who loves you, who you love more than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

And Naomi took the child into her bosom and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him his name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed.

Obed became the father…Well, let me back up. These are the descendants of Perez.
Perez became the father of Hezrom,
Hezrom of Ram,
Ram of Amminadab,
Amminadab of Nashon,
Nashon of Salmon,
Salmon of Boaz.
Boaz became the father of Obed by way of Ruth the Moabite.
Obed became the father of Jesse,
and Jesse became the father of David, King David.

And thus our story ends…and a new story will begin.

The Moments

1. LOSS – Ruth 1:1- 1:5

Our story begins in tragedy. Naomi and Eli-melech, of the land of Judah and of the religion of the Israelites, escape famine by fleeing to Moab, a land with different gods and a different culture. Their two sons, Mahon and Chilion, become so completely assimilated that they marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.

But Eli-melech dies, leaving Naomi bereft. Her two sons become her only means of survival in a world in which women are completely dependent upon the support and protection of men. But after 10 years, her sons die too, and she is left with nothing – nothing but two other equally helpless women with no resources. Her situation is so precarious that she decides to return home to Bethlehem of Judah, where at least she has some relatives who might take pity on her and take her in.

Life has changed forever for the two wives, Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, and for Naomi herself. What will become of them?

We all face loss: not only the deaths of loved ones, but many other kinds of loss as well. Job loss, the loss of youth and vigor as we age, the loss of health or wellness, the loss of independence, the loss of a plan or a vision for our future, the loss of important relationships. At some point in our lives – probably at many points in our lives – we all face the losses that come with rejection, abandonment, divorce, death. With such losses, we might also lose all sense of meaning or hope.

As you meditate on this painting, notice the grief, the pain, the hopelessness that radiates from the three women. The women’s faces are in shadow, the colors are muted. Let Ruth’s story speak to you of your own stories of loss. What aspects of the painting speak to a loss you may be facing in your own life, or a loss you are anticipating, or a loss from the past that still causes your heart to ache?

2. RISK – Ruth 1:6-22

In the midst of her fresh grief and terrible new circumstances, Naomi prepares to go home to Judah. She tells her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab, their homeland. Orpah does as she says, and we must not judge her too harshly. After all, there was no guarantee that the land of Judah would provide any security for her; there was no promise that she would find a man to take care of her, which is, of course, what she needs in order to survive. Staying with her family made perfect sense, emotionally and practically.

But Ruth makes a different choice, which she declares with her familiar speech:

…whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. [KJV]

Ruth does something no one would ever expect: she switches her alliance from a man (that is, a potential future husband) to an old woman who cannot provide for her. The love she feels for Naomi overpowers any fear she has.

This may even be a case of more than just the feelings of love a daughter-in-law has for her mother-in-law. It could be that Ruth is thinking practically as well. If she finds a husband then that husband will become a provider for Naomi as well, but only if Naomi lives in the same region. It won’t work if Ruth remains in Moab and Naomi returns to Judah. In uprooting her own life, Ruth is hoping to plant Naomi’s life in a land and among a people who are dear to her. Such chesed, such loving-kindness, such selfless care and protection, is one of the hallmarks of the Jewish religion. By acting with such chesed, Ruth is already more a member of Naomi’s people than she may have thought.

In 1624, Pieter Lastman painted Ruth’s conversation with Naomi as they are about to embark for Bethlehem. Notice how Naomi is trying to push Ruth away, and how Ruth looks at her with what might be silent reproach. There’s no way she’s going to be persuaded to abandon Naomi.

Let this painting speak to you of love. Let it speak to you of bravery. Let it speak to you of selfless acts of kindness. Let it speak to you of fidelity and solidarity. And wonder: when have you been brave in the past? When did that courage allow the possibility of new life?

Where are you being brave right now? Where are you risking the comforts of the familiar in order to expose yourself to newness and transformation? What love in your own life is more powerful than death?

Maybe you find yourself trying to get up the courage to take risks for new life. What is the new life you seek, and what risks will you need to take in order to make that new life possible? Are you willing to take those risks?

3. TRANSFORMATION – Ruth 2:1-23

The two women arrive in Bethlehem, and Ruth immediately takes the initiative of procuring food for them. Jewish law requires that farmers leave the edges of their fields unharvested in order that widows, orphans, and strangers or refugees might glean from the leftovers and have something to eat. Of course, a woman arriving at such a field alone was in potential danger from the men working the harvest. But Ruth goes anyway, determined to provide for herself and her mother-in-law.

By chance – or providence – Ruth ends up at the field of Boaz, who turns out to be a relative of Naomi on her husband’s side. And as Boaz takes a strong interest in Ruth, this woman of initiative, the possibility of a new life opens up for her.

Here we have James Tissot’s 1896 painting of Ruth gleaning in the fields.

I wonder: what fields can you begin to glean? That is, where are the little spaces of life and hope in the midst of whatever burdens you find yourself carrying today? What are the pockets of nourishment and sustenance that will form the foundation of your transformation?

4. NEW LIFE – Ruth 3:1-4:10

When Naomi discovers that Ruth was at Boaz’s field and had met him, she is filled with joy. According to the laws of Israel and Judah, male relatives of deceased men had priority when it came to finding a suitable husband for the widow. This evidently prosperous relative just might be their ticket to security and new life!

Naomi’s plan is not all that complicated. She instructs Ruth to seduce Boaz in the night by approaching him when he is asleep. She is to uncover his “feet,” which is a euphemism for genitals, and when he wakes, hopefully he will take the expected next step. And maybe after their tryst, Boaz will become enamored of her and eventually decide to marry her.

It goes, we can safely assume, according to plan. But Ruth takes it one step further, not waiting for a slow future to unfold: she seizes the moment and asks Boaz to cover her with his cloak. When he covers her, he is engaging in an ancient marriage ritual; now, here on the threshing floor at the end of the barley harvest, they are essentially married.

After Boaz convinces the one man who is more closely related to Ruth that taking a Moabite woman as a wife is probably not what he really wants, Boaz and Ruth are officially married.

All of this depends on a first step: Ruth must claim her own control over her fate. She is not the passive woman she is expected to be, waiting for someone – some man – to come rescue her. She takes the initiative to make a new life for herself and her beloved mother-in-law. She doesn’t wait around for something good to come her way; she makes her own way until she creates that something which is good.

We see her doing this very thing in this drawing by Phillips Galle from 1597. Ruth covers herself with Boaz’s cloak, taking control of her life and her destiny. Boaz appears to be asleep – maybe just exhausted from a day’s hard work or relaxed and satisfied after their encounter. Either way, he is the passive one here; it’s a complete reversal of gender norms. Ruth is determined to be strong and courageous, in control of her life in a way women rarely were.

Call to mind that transformation you desire, the new life you hope for.

What kind of risk, what first step might you take to begin to create that new life for yourself? Maybe that first step is unclear, or seems to risky. If so, is there one person to talk to, one small act to take that will give you even just a small sense of direction and hope? Can you find a way to take the initiative and walk towards the new life God has waiting for you on the other side of loss?

5. FULFILLMENT – Ruth 4:13-17

After her marriage to Boaz, Ruth bears a son, Obed. The women of the town say that Obed is Naomi’s son, because for all intents and purposes, Obed will be the provider for Naomi, just as her own son would be. Here is a painting by Emily Levy from 1859. Look at the joy and love and devotion in the women’s faces, particularly in Naomi’s face – the one who lost not only a husband, but two sons. Her life, once so terribly torn by tragedy, is now given back to her by her devoted daughter-in-law, and ultimately in the form of a tiny baby.

What will fulfillment look like for you? What is the joy that you most deeply desire? What does it feel like to begin to trust that such joy, such fulfillment is available to you, is indeed desired by God for you?

**

It is not only Ruth’s future and Naomi’s future that are secured with Obed’s birth. Eventually Obed grows up and marries and his wife bears a son. In a mere three generations Jesus, the son of David, the Son of God, will be born. Before Mary the mother of Jesus, there was Ruth the mother of Obed. Her bravery and her love made it possible for the Savior of the world to come.

And that is the promise, the Easter promise: new life, resurrection, the triumph of life over death, is possible. Christ is risen, and so are we.

The Easter miracle is the story of wholeness, it is the hope of fulfillment, it is the promise of God in Jesus Christ that gives us the courage to walk through hard times.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Joan D. Chittister, The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, p. 1.

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