Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Role of Ruth: The Seductress

by John Shelby Spong

The third woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is also unique in a number of ways. Her name is Ruth and she, like Rahab, is a foreigner. Rahab was a Canaanite citizen of Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite, and the widow of a Jewish man named Mahlon. Her story is found in the tiny book that bears her name that is nestled in the Hebrew Scriptures between Judges and I Samuel. It is a dramatic tale involving some unfamiliar Jewish practices that are strange to us today, but that made sense in terms of the Jewish values of that day, rooted as they were in both tribal and patriarchal assumptions. Listen first to the story.

It was around the year 1100 BCE when a time of famine produced a down turn in the Hebrew economy. Elimelech, a citizen of Bethlehem, his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, moved to the land of Moab in search of work, food and survival. Soon thereafter, Elimelech died leaving Naomi with her two sons, strangers and aliens in a foreign land. The two sons then assumed the care of their mother and settled into their life in Moab, living there for about ten years, during which time they even took Moabite women to be their wives. Mahlon married Ruth and Chilion married Orpah. Then tragedy struck once again when both Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving the remaining members a very vulnerable family of three widows, women who had no male support and no male protection.

This patriarchal society had not developed any way of enabling lone women to care for themselves outside the protective structure provided by a father, a husband or a son. “An independent woman” was an unimaginable category. Hebrew law,
therefore, required that women who are alone be cared for by the nearest male kinsman in the family. Normally this meant that the next oldest brother in the family must take the widow of his deceased brother as his wife. In the case of Naomi, Orpah and Ruth, however, there were no younger brothers and, with Naomi being of post-menopausal age, there was no chance of ever producing any. Nothing was more fragile or tragic in this society than a woman who had no father, no husband and no son. She thus fell out of the social safety net, which that society had built to care for the vulnerable. The next level of support was to identify the male, who was simply the closest of kin and to turn all of her assets over to him. This included his taking the widowed woman to be his wife, or at least a member of his harem, for which he had responsibility and for which he assumed sexual privileges with the stated hope of raising up children to the deceased male.

As long as this fragile trio of women lived in the land of Moab, there was no male closest of kin. Naomi, facing this reality, called her two daughters-in-law to her and told them that she was moving back to the land of the Jews, presumably to Bethlehem. She instructed the young widows to do the only thing left open to them. She told them to return to their families and to the protection of their fathers. That was a demeaning act as these widows would from then on be considered “damaged goods.” They would be unable to contract another “proper” marriage. Perhaps some men could be found to take them, but prospects were bleak; not as bleak, however, as what they faced as a family of three vulnerable women living alone. Orpah accepted that option and returned to her family, disappearing from this story forever. Ruth, however, declined and informed Naomi that she would go with her back to the land of the Jews, that she did not want to leave her mother-in-law alone and that together they would face the hardship that both knew awaited them.

In one of the most beautiful passages in this book, Ruth says words that have been set to music today and we know them as “The Song of Ruth,” “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God, where you die, I will die and there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17) This song of Ruth is frequently sung at weddings as the bride and groom stare deeply into each other’s eyes.. I wonder how many couples would choose this music if they knew that originally it was Ruth’s song sung to her mother-in-law!

The two single women then returned to Bethlehem and began their struggle for survival. It was the time of the beginning of the barley harvest. Naomi plotted her strategy. She was aware that her husband, Elimelech, had a kinsman named Boaz, who owned much land in the Bethlehem area. She thus settled into a humble dwelling near the fields of her husband’s distant relative. Jewish law also required that the reapers should not seek to harvest every grain of barley, but that some should be left in the field to be gleaned by the poor. Each day Ruth went into these fields to gather the grain the reapers had missed. She brought it home, ground it and baked it into a barley cake sufficient to keep Naomi and herself from starving.

Her faithful caring for Naomi was noticed. Boaz inquired of her identity and learned that she was Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law, that she had asked permission to glean in the field behind the reapers and that she had gathered the scanty remains from sunup to sundown without resting. Inspired by this example, Boaz spoke to Ruth, telling her not to gather grain in any other fields and gave her access to water drawn by the young men for the workers in the field. He ordered the young men not to molest her. Ruth thanked Boaz for his kindness, inquiring as to why he was so gracious to a foreigner. Boaz replied that her faithfulness in the care of Naomi had inspired him and revealed that he had been told of the death of Ruth’s husband and of her willingness to leave her own people in order to care for Naomi. Boaz then instructed the reapers to leave some of the sheaves that they had gathered for her to glean. When Ruth told Naomi about the kindness of the man who owned the fields, Naomi was pleased that the trap she was setting was about to be sprung. She waited until the harvest season was over before she put her plan into operation.

Naomi shared with Ruth that Boaz was a distant relative of Elimelech, her father-in-law, and thus of Mahlon, Ruth’s husband. He thus had a social responsibility to care for her. When the reaping was over, Boaz and his workers would celebrate at the threshing floor and Ruth would attend that celebration. She prepared carefully, she bathed, she anointed herself with perfume, she put on her best dress and off she went. Naomi instructed her that she was not to make herself known until the man had finished eating and drinking. The text says until “his heart was merry.” The wine flowed freely that evening and by midnight Boaz, now well drunk, lay down on the floor and went to sleep. Ruth came over to him, placed a pillow under his head and covered him with a blanket. Then the text says she “uncovered his feet,” and lay down at his feet. In the scriptures the word “feet” was a euphemism for the male genitals. The fact is that Ruth undressed him and climbed under the blanket with him. This was an overt act of seduction.

When Boaz awakened at the dawn’s first shaft of light, he found this woman under the blanket with him. He had no idea who she was or what he might have done in his drunken stupor, and so he spoke to her. “Who are you?” He asked. She replied: I am Ruth, you are my next of kin. Marry me!” Boaz pretended to be flattered that she had not gone after a younger man, but he was not quite ready to accept this new responsibility. There was one other, he said, who was a closer kinsman to her husband than he. He would have to speak to him first. It seems this other man had the right of first refusal. Boaz went to meet with him, telling Ruth not to let it be known “that a woman came to the threshing floor.” He then gave Ruth “six measures of barley,” perhaps it was payment for her “night’s work” and he went off to the city. Ruth reported back to Naomi with this grain and Naomi rejoiced. Her plan had clearly worked.

Boaz, gathering ten men of the city to serve as witnesses, met with this nearest kinsman and the negotiations proceeded. Boaz informed this man that Ruth, Mahlon’s widow, has returned from Moab and that she has a parcel of land that belonged to Mahlon’s father, our kinsman, Elimelech. You, as the nearest of kin, have first refusal. Will you redeem this land? If not, I am next in line. The nearest of kin agreed to redeem it. Then Boaz said that is fine, but you need to know the day you take over this field, you are also agreeing to care for Naomi, Elimelech’s widow, and to take Mahlon’s widow, Ruth, to be your wife and to raise up children to her deceased husband. That was a sticky wicket. He would then have to include any children he might have with Ruth among those who would inherit his estate. So he declined. “I cannot redeem it,” he said, “Lest I impair my own children’s inheritance.”

So, in the presence of the elders, he renounced his claim. The decision was affirmed in the traditional way of exchanging a sandal. Boaz then was authorized to buy the parcel, to become heir of all that belonged to Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion. He would care for Naomi and Ruth would become his wife so that the name of Mahlon would not be cut off in the land. The elders saluted Boaz and said, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” thus linking these two stories. Boaz and Ruth had a son whose name was Obed. When Obed reached maturity, he had a son named Jesse. Jesse in turn grew up and had a son named David, who became the great king of the Hebrew nation. Ruth was thus the great grandmother of King David.

Matthew incorporated Ruth into the genealogy of Jesus that served as his prologue to the introduction of the first account of Jesus’ miraculous birth, In that genealogy, Matthew is saying the line that produced Jesus of Nazareth flowed through the incest of Tamar, the harlotry of Rahab and the seduction of Ruth. It also proclaimed that Moabite blood flowed in the veins of the Jewish King David, thus countering all of the claims of racial purity made for the Royal House of David. One more woman will appear in Matthew’s genealogy. We will turn to her story when this series continues, but surely by now we should be asking what Matthew’s purpose is; what is his agenda that he has chosen to introduce the Virgin Birth story in this way?


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