There’s Shady Business Afoot

The following is the sermon notes from Sunday, July 20th, looking at Ruth 3. Trigger warning- there is some discussion of topics of a sexual nature.

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Ever notice that there’s certain things Christians don’t want to talk about? But what’s weird, is that when you read Scripture, you notice that it talks about the very things Christians don’t want to talk about?

Ruth 3 is a weird story, which seems even weirder when you dig into what’s actually happening, and then realize that in this depiction of things, we are led to believe that something sacred is happening. Something sacred happens in the midst of something which might be construed as profane. We typically have a sacred and profane dualism, or perhaps even dividing into three, sacred, profane, and mundane; holy stuff (prayer, worship, bible study), dirty stuff, and every day humdrum stuff (grocery shopping, eating, yard work). But in Ruth, we see all three interconnected; we see all three colliding in one place.

Ruth 3 begins with Naomi coming up with a plan. A plan to assist her widowed daughter in law find a situation in which she will be cared for. Like any good parent, Naomi wants Ruth to be “in good hands”, cared for, protected, etc. In a world in which women are vulnerable, being under the care of a man was the only way to ensure safety. That’s the sad reality of the ancient world. So, she instructs Ruth with steps be taken to make romance happen- to get Boaz’s attention. In the culture, “courtship” was a very different process, usually involving two young people’s parents sitting down and bargaining an exchange of livestock to make a marriage happen. What happens here with Ruth and Boaz is unique because it is Naomi who is the mastermind, and Ruth the one who obediently takes initiative to make a romantic relationship happen. We’re rooting for these two to fall in love, but so far, Boaz has not shown romantic interest in Ruth. So steps must be taken to get the message through.

The plan is this: bathe, perfume yourself (given the financial status of these two widows, this is a gamble here) and put on your “best clothes” (actually in Hebrew it’s just a “dress” or a garment of some sort). Go down to the threshing floor, wait for Boaz to fall asleep, uncover his feet and lay down next to him. Now, this sounds really weird. Straightforward, but weird. Why uncover his feet? Well there’s a couple of things going on here that are complex. First, there are two ways to translate this sentence. Almost all English translations take the more “polite” option- uncover his feet and lay down. The other option is “uncover and lie down at his feet”. Now that seems a bit more provocative- get naked and lie down next to him.[1] But in actuality, the other option is almost as provocative. You see “feet” doesn’t always mean feet. Much like we Christians don’t talk about certain things, ancient people didn’t like to speak of certain things too. In fact, in ancient Hebrew (and other ancient languages also) there weren’t even words for certain things. They used euphemisms when they had to. Feet are actually used as a cultural euphemism for several ancient middle eastern cultures (which even persists in Arab culture today- to wave one’s shoe at another person is a gesture which suggests shame on the other). Uncovering Boaz’s “feet” can be read two ways. Either she isn’t uncovering his literal feet, but exposing him, or, she is actually uncovering his feet as a symbolic gesture- uncovering his feet, in order to say “I want to uncover your ‘feet’ *wink wink*”. So no matter how we read this, there are extreme sexual connotations going on. Boaz could potentially read these actions as Ruth soliciting sex for some nefarious purposes. Fortunately, he doesn’t.

Add on top of this feet euphemism the fact that all this is to take place at the threshing floor. Marriage proposals and bargaining about kinsman-redeemer matters don’t take place at the threshing floor. Legal and marital stuff usually happens by the city gates, or in the village square, or at the very least, in front of witnesses. Every community, whether a small village or a major city had a public gathering place where decisions of a legal nature were made openly in front of witnesses to ensure all parties can be held accountable. Threshing floors are places where other stuff happens. And when I say other stuff, I don’t just mean threshing grain. For instance, the prophet Hosea, who compares Israel to an unfaithful spouse, writes this:

Do not rejoice, O Israel!
Do not exult as other nations do;
for you have played the whore, departing from your God.
You have loved a prostitute’s pay
on all threshing floors. (Hos. 9:1 NRSV)

Threshing floors became places with a reputation for being where folks went to do stuff that they didn’t want other people to know about. It was connected to “secret rendezvous”. So we have feet euphemisms, secret meetings at the threshing floor, and then we get even worse- “When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain.” A “contented mood” or “good spirits”, is a nice way of saying he’s had a good deal of wine. So, we have a tipsy Boaz, asleep beside the grain pile, and Ruth is possibly naked, or uncovering feet in a suggestive way. And as if that’s not bad enough, there’s more. Ruth is a Moabitess. Moabite women were considered by Israelites to seductresses, who might lead unsuspecting Israelite men astray (see Numbers 25). But also Moabites had other associations in Israel. Remember who the Moabites are; descendents of a man called Moab, the son of Abraham’s nephew lot. Remember that unpleasant event? After fleeing Sodom, Lot’s two daughters served Lot a few too many glasses of wine so that he was in “good spirits” and then they had sex with him, and both got pregnant. Their two sons were Ammon and Moab. The name Moab means “from my father”. Kinda icky, right? So, now a Moabite woman is having a rendezvous with an Israelite who is in “good spirits”, at the threshing floor, and there is some very suggestive exposure of body parts.

Hardly a scene we would connect with holiness. But as we unpack the events it seems like the narrator is praising Ruth for this. When Boaz wakes up (the language here suggests he is startled awake by something- the subtle hand of God perhaps- and finds out he isn’t alone) he asks who are you? (remember last week, his first question was “whose is she?” [2:5]). “I am your servant Ruth”. Last time we had these two talking she said she was a foreigner, looking to glean (2:10). Now, she’s his servant. But then she adds, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer of our family.” In chapter 2, Boaz gave a prayer of blessing over Ruth, “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (2:12). The Hebrew word for wing is kanap. Now, Ruth says “spread your kanap over me.” The corner of his garment is a kanap. Probably not a coincidence. Elsewhere in Scripture, we read of a kanap covering up a naked woman- Israel. Ezekiel 16:8 says “Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.” This spreading of the wings or corners of a garment are symbols of covenant faithfulness, a “marriage” of God and his people, symbolically played out in the marriage proposal of Ruth to Boaz. Yes, Ruth is proposing to Boaz. She is requesting covenant fidelity and kindness and protection from him.

But here’s where it gets weird in a different way. She says marry me, because you are a kinsman-redeemer. But kinsman-redeemer customs have nothing to do with marriage, technically. Either Ruth isn’t clear on the rules, or else something else is happening. Kinsman-redeemer is about buying back property from someone outside the family so the property stays with the family to whom God gave it, or to rescue a family member from slavery. There are levirite marriage customs in which a childless widow is married to a brother of her deceased husband in order to produce an heir for him. But in chapter 1 Naomi told Ruth and Orpah to go home because the possibility of levirite marriage was out of the question. So this proposal of marriage to Boaz would mean Boaz is going over and above any obligations as a kinsman-redeemer. His obligations if he were to be the kinsman-redeemer would be to take possession of Elimelek’s property, and include Naomi and maybe Ruth as members of his household (because Ruth is a foreigner, it’s hard to know how far Boaz’s obligations to her go for sure). So Ruth is pushing it a bit here. Boaz could, in theory respond with rejection and even seeking prosecution against her. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t interpret Ruth’s actions as entrapment, or solicitation, but a genuine proposal of a woman faithful to her deceased husband and her in-laws. She wants to create a household with Boaz which would include Naomi, as well as Elimelek’s property, and would also heal and repair the vulnerable position she and Naomi are in. Boaz declares of this act of Ruth: “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: you have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.” This is an act of kindness, of hesed.

But there is a problem. Another man is more closely related, and would get first opportunity to claim Elimelek’s property, and responsibility for Ruth and Naomi. But Boaz says, stay here tonight, and tomorrow I will approach him. Oddly he says, if he wants to redeem, let him redeem. If he wants to take care of you, that’s fine by me. So romantic.

In the morning, before the sun is up, he says go home now, so nobody knows you were here. If they saw Ruth leaving the threshing floor in the morning, people would jump to conclusions. So go home before anyone sees you. But he sends her back with more grain. He won’t send her home empty; a bit of a play on words. Naomi said in her lament that she left Bethlehem full, but returned empty (1:21). Now, Ruth is going back into Bethlehem, but Boaz refuses to send her back empty.

So, we have some suspense now. Will this other gentleman throw a monkey wrench in the plan to bring these two together? If so, will he be a man of noble character like Boaz? But before we get to that next week, let’s pause here and unpack something quickly.

We have to ask where is God in this and what can we say about God because of this? God’s hand is subtle in Ruth, but also not timid, not avoiding the stuff we might like to avoid. We prefer to think of God as keeping his distance from certain things. But it’s very hard to insist on that when we see events like this. God is actually at work in this “shady business”. God acts within the “theatre” of our messiness and seemingly “shameful” stuff. We are too embarrassed to talk about sex, but God isn’t. We don’t want to deal with unpleasant or awkward topics. But God is present in it. God is present in the “unclean” and unpleasant aspects of life. He comes into it, and redeems it. He is not afraid of being tainted by our mess. God’s character is most fully and completely demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Crucifixion is not “nice” or “clean”. In fact the Roman author Cicero said that crucifixion was “a most cruel and disgusting punishment” (Verrem 2:5.165),and that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” (Pro Rabirio, 16). God is very much present in the places we often think he shouldn’t be. God is willing to get messy. God does “dirty” things. Jesus came in the incarnation to be with us, to be part of humanity in all it’s messiness. “One of the main points of Jesus’ incarnation was to prove that God is not distant and untouchably pure, but rather someone who ‘eats and drinks with sinners.'”[1]

The night before he was crucified, John 13 tells us that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Given what we’ve just discussed about feet, this act takes on a whole new view. Feet, because of the euphemism, were connected to shame. To wash another man’s feet was place oneself in a position of shame. In the Midrash (m. Mekilta on Ex. 22:2), Jewish masters were told that they should not force their Jewish slaves to wash their feet. But Jesus does it by choice. This is the God we serve and belong to. A God who will not run and hide from “icky” things, or not touch something which is too embarrassing, or shameful. God is interested in us, even in our mess. We don’t have to hide stuff in the closets, or sweep our mess under the rug when Jesus comes by. He actually comes to help us clean. We don’t have to tidy up to get God to love us. He already does. He comes to us as we are, to make us like him. And Jesus even said to Peter if I don’t wash your feet you have part of me. You don’t get who am and what I’m about. We can’t push Jesus out to the fringes or keep stuff in closets thinking he can’t know about it. Jesus claims it all, and redeems it all. Behold, he is making all things new.

[1] This is the position taken by Nielsen (68-73)

[2] Morgan Guyton. “4 Cringe-worthy Claims of Popular Penal Substitution Theology” Huff Post Religion. 2012/07/02. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/morgan-guyton/four-cringeworthy-claims-_b_1631944.html

Sources:

Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Anchor Bible). Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.

Kirsten Nielsen. Ruth (Old Testament Library). Louisville: WJK, 1997.

Katherine Doob Sakenfeld. Ruth (Interpretation). Louisville: WJK, 1999.

K. Lawson Younger Jr. Judges/Ruth (NIVAC). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

This entry was posted in church, culture, discipleship, ethics, gospel, hermeneutics, Jesus, New Testament, Old Testament, practical theology, sermon, Sermon Podcast, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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