This is the final sermon in the series on Ruth, given July 27th, 2014 at Knox Church.
When we left off in the last sermon, Boaz had promised to approach his male relative, who would be the law and custom have first opportunity to become kinsman-redeemer to Naomi and Ruth. Boaz does as he had said, going in the morning to meet with this relative, a certain man, who is never named (Boaz doesn’t use his name, even though he’s a relative- he is referred to as paloni-almoni which is probably best trasnlated something like “Mr. So-and-so”, highlighting his anonymity) who has first dibs on redeeming Elimelek’s property and dependent household members.
He gathers the elders at the gate- the customary way of seeking a decision like this. When a legal discussion was needed, it was done in a public place, in front of witnesses and the community leaders. But there are some oddities which occur in the text:
1. Boaz says Naomi is looking to “sell” Elimelek’s field. She technically cannot inherit land, so it isn’t actually hers to sell. “Sell” would likely mean pass ownership to. She would be compensated in some way, but it wouldn’t be a straight forward purchase of land.
2. After Mr. So-and-so accepts the role of redeeming Boaz says “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.” This statement poses several problems. First if we look at the “letter of the law” in Lev. and Deut. no such obligation is stated. Mr. So-and-so is not, according the OT law, required to marry Ruth. So why would Boaz say he was taking on Ruth as a wife? Either 1. he is trying to trick Mr. So-and-so into forfeiting his rights to the whole estate (which shouldn’t surprise us since other biblical heroes use trickery at some point- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Tamar), or 2. Boaz (and the rest of the community) is mixed up on the law, or 3. there are more customs and practices regarding redemption and remarriage which were practiced in Israel which are not in the Scriptures. But the elders and Mr. So-and-so agree with Boaz, so it seems the interpretation and application of the Laws expanded them in some way. According the Mosaic Law, a brother would be required to produce an heir for his deceased brother if the brother had not yet had children. It seems that the interpretation and application has broadened to include the closest male relative.
3. In the case of Levirite marriage rights, the widow (in this case Naomi or perhaps Ruth) would appeal to the elders. The Law states that if the brother refused to marry and produce an heir, the widow was to call him before the elders, remove his sandals and spit in his face (Deut. 25:9). In this instance, why is Boaz calling for this hearing at the gate, and why does he take the sandal? Taking the sandal was associated with shame. In Gen. 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, the ground was cursed, so being barefoot was a sign of shame. That’s why Moses was told to removed his sandals on Holy ground; God removed the curse there by his presence.
So, Mr. So-and-so removes his sandal and refuses to take Ruth and produce an heir for Mahlon. He was totally fine with redeeming the field, but won’t do this marriage thing. Technically, according to the OT he doesn’t have to. It appears though that Boaz appeals not to the requirements of the Law, but something between the lines of the law- hesed. Mr. So-and-so will follow the letter of the Law, but will not conform to hesed. Boaz, like Ruth, will go beyond what is required, and do what adheres to hesed. Ruth, like Orpah, could have stayed in Moab, but didn’t. Boaz could have claimed the field only, but unlike Mr. So-and-so, he does hesed and not simply the minimum. This should cause us to maybe rethink the way we read the OT Laws. They aren’t absolute prescribed “this is the only way it must be” in all cases. The Law gives a framework, or a minimum standard. “Eye for an eye” does not mean if some takes your eye you must take his. You don’t have to gauge an eye out. But you must not do more than that. One to one restitution is the limit of punishment. Hesed however appeals to the other direction. Jesus says turn the other cheek, not eye for eye. Turn the other cheek appeals to mercy, not vengeance. Eye for an eye caps vengeance, but Jesus says don’t push vengeance to its limit, but instead turn away from vengeance altogether and choose mercy.
So, Boaz has now secured from Mr. So-and-so the rights to Elimelek’s house. And there is rejoicing in Bethlehem, as the town celebrates this couple coming together. The elders bless Boaz and his forthcoming marriage with allusions to the wives of the Patriarchs. May Ruth be like Leah and Rachel- the source of promised, blessed children. And may she be like Tamar… wait, what? That’s an odd choice… until you look closely. Tamar, if you aren’t familiar, married Er, son of Judah (Jacob’s 4th son). Er died with no heir. So Tamar was given to Er’s brother Onan. Onan however refused to impregnate Tamar, and we are told he died as a result. Judah, fearing the Tamar was to blame for the death’s of his son, refused to allow his third son marry Tamar. Tamar’s solution seems… provocative. She disguised herself as a prostitute, and solicited sex from Judah, and got pregnant, and gave birth to twins. When Judah heard Tamar was pregnant, he joined the townspeople in condemning her, but when it was revealed that Judah was the father, Tamar was declared right in what she had done. Weird, right? On the one hand, she did something considered sexually unethical, and unlawful. But she did so because she was showing hesed to her husband Er. Er needed an heir.
Last week we looked at the steps Ruth took to get Boaz’s attention. And we noted that those actions were sexually explicit, and taboo. In her culture, women were not supposed to do what she did. But she did so because she wanted to demonstrate hesed to her husband Mahlon by producing an heir with a male relative. So suddenly the connection to Tamar makes sense. And interestingly, Tamar and Ruth, along with Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, all show up in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1. Bizarre, right? The “outsiders”, two Canaanites and a Moabite woman who take actions which are sexually explicit become part of God’s redemptive work in the world.
And then comes the moment of truth, which we’ve anticipated all along, a baby boy. Ruth delivers a son, but then some odd things happen. The women bring words of blessing to Naomi. This son is a kinsman redeemer to Naomi. A male relative who will care for her in her old age. And Naomi takes the baby into her arms and cared for him, and the women exclaim “Naomi has a son”. Huh? This poor kid must have grown up so confused, because biologically he is the son of Boaz and Ruth, but legally, he is the son of Elimelek, and of Mahlon. And since we know of no other children born to Boaz, Obed also becomes heir to Boaz. So Obed has three dads and two moms.
And then we get some more data to bring out the importance of this event. We’ve been listening to a story unfold, which is artfully crafted, it comes to a happy ending. But is it just a nice story? Why tell it? Stories would usually be told to illustrate a point, or to have some importance to life. Obed, son of Ruth and Boaz, has a son named Jesse, and Jesse is the father of David. If you were an Israelite who had never heard this story before, and suddenly, you’re hearing this read aloud, your jaw would hit the floor. The name David, once uttered, held considerable power. David, the legend, the king, the giant slayer, the Psalmist, the man after God’s own heart comes to exist as a direct result of this weird, and raunchy, and inappropriate and explicit and provocative series of events. And we’re left wondering what on earth can God be up to in all this? And Matthew reminds us of this when introducing Jesus to his readers. He could have left out Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. But he didn’t. He made sure we knew that Jesus is connected to this weirdness. Jesus, says the author of Hebrews, was like us in every way, except without sin. He shared our humanity in its fullness. And who among us doesn’t have some sort of weirdness in their genealogy? Who doesn’t have some relative in their family tree they don’t like to talk about or least don’t brag about? I know I have a few oddities in my tree. Jesus gets that. He understands it. He’s been there.
So, just to wrap all this together, let’s just review the points we’ve been making all along:
1. Lament transformed to celebration. Naomi declared herself afflicted by God, that she was empty and bitter because of her circumstances. But in the end, she is told that the one person she had left, Ruth, was better than having seven sons. Ruth, a woman described as eshet hayil a woman of valour or courage, becomes the means of Naomi’s healing.
2. The outsider. Ruth, the source of healing and restoration of Naomi and Elimelek and Mahlon comes from a group maligned; a foreigner, whose people were despised, and labelled as those who would lead unsuspecting Israelites astray. But instead she becomes the focal point of God’s work in Israel. She lives out the call which was supposed to be Israel’s mission- to act out God’s lovingkindness in the world. Ruth embodies what it means to be one of the people of God, in spite of the assumptions of those who are on the inside. We must be attentive to this. We must not build walls between us and “them”. If we dismantle the walls as we are called to do, we will find people who may be messy, but know what to do with God’s grace. Sure “they” may be sinful, but aren’t you? Aren’t we more like Mr. So-and-so than Ruth? Aren’t we doing our “Christian duty” (as defined by us) and no more?
3. Hesed. Ruth and Boaz show us what hesed looks like. Ruth clings to her mother in law. She will not allow herself to be away from her. She will lose her own identity her own people, her gods, and homeland, to be wherever Naomi is. The covenant love of God is a crazy thing. We aren’t loved because we’re good enough, but because God is faithful. He gives an oath, he takes us a covenant partner, and loves us, even when we are spiritual adulterers. He forgives, even pursues us, to bring us back to him. And we are called to embody that to other people. Love as Christ loved us. Paul wrote, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 5:1-2 NRSV). God will not push us away, or walk away from us, but will cling to us, and go where we go. He will pursue us even into death to redeem us. We are to be a people defined by and known for the audacious extent of our love for one another. Are we doing that enough? Where are we at in our imitation of Christ?
4. The subtle hand of God. God plays a background role in the book of Ruth. God does not impose himself, or act as a dictatorial power. He guides gently, leading Naomi home to Bethlehem, and guiding Ruth to fields of Boaz that these two women may find hope and joy for a future. God may be at work in your life in a way you can’t see. Sure sometimes dumb luck may happen. Some things may be a coincidence. It’s possible. But have an open eye and open ears to see where the Spirit of God may be leading you.
5. The peaceful, just community. Ruth and Naomi by nature of their situation needed help. They need to be in a place where systems lift up the oppressed, not kick them while they’re down. When just systems work, the poor and needy are cared for. Justice is not punishing people who break the rules. Justice means ensuring that the vulnerable are not exploited. Justice means feeding hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the outsider, ensuring the safety of anyone who may be at risk. And we, the people of God are called to be adamant voices in the pursuit of justice, for the help of the poor, for the rights and protections of the marginalized. I am often speechless at the ways that the church has gotten this wrong, and has become part of the system of oppression. But we are called to break down those systems, and implement ones which benefit those whose voices are ignored. Ruth and Naomi’s story has a happy ending because Boaz was willing to act justly, and to do even more than was required of him. He honoured Ruth, Naomi, Mahlon and Elimelek. Who do we need to speak up for? I’m fairly confident that each of us will regularly encounter folks who need us to be that peaceful and just community. Will we do it? Will we become part of stories like Ruth’s, or will we instead keep the Ruth’s and Naomi’s of our world trampled underfoot? Being Christian means creating stories like Ruth’s. As James wrote, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (and I intentionally leave off with James, because beginning in Sept. we will be taking a journey through James). Will we be on the side of the vulnerable? When we are, we might realize that that is the side God is on.
R. L. Hubbard Jr. “Kinsman-Redeemer and Levirite”. Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings. Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns (eds.). Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.
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.