Readings: Ruth 3:1-11, 4:13-17, True Christianity 599 (see below)
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Here we are in the third installment of our series on the book of Ruth. Let’s recap where we have been. Naomi is an Israelite women who goes to live in Moab due to famine. Her sons marry local Moabite women, one of whom was named Ruth. After a time, Naomi’s husband and sons die, and she has no choice but to return to Israel. She is bitter and feels forsaken by God. But, even though it means leaving her homeland, Ruth will not abandon Naomi, and so she travels to Israel with her.
Once they arrive, they must contend with how they will survive. Ruth attempts to glean the leftovers from the harvest in the fields of a local wealthy landowner named Boaz. Boaz had heard of Ruth’s act of loyalty to Naomi and orders extra grain to be left behind for Ruth to collect. Naomi is glad to hear of this development, and points out that Boaz is related to her husband’s family and thus has a responsibly for their welfare. She calls him their guardian-redeemer, a specific term with both social and legal meanings.
Today we hear the climax and the resolution of the story in chapters 3 and 4. Naomi has a plan for securing their future, and so she gives Ruth some very specific instructions. These instructions probably sound pretty strange to us now - uncovering feet? - and we might not really feel clear about what is happening.
But what might confuse us a little in English is very plain in the Hebrew. The original text contains a lot of suggestive wordplay and euphemistic terms. Given Ruth’s model behavior in the previous chapters, our first instinct might be to resist what is suggested in the Hebrew text, to make her completely chaste, non-transgressive, uncalculating, and demure. But the fact is, Ruth takes a risk here, and acts outside of what might have been considered acceptable behavior in Israelite society. We might wonder: was it right for her to do so? Was it “right” for Naomi to ask Ruth to act in such a way? And what does “right” in this context even mean?
Boaz must have been aware of his relationship to their family, and of his responsibility as their guardian-redeemer. Yet, as of Chapter 3, he had not done anything more than allow Ruth to glean a little extra grain. We might also ask: was he intending to act? Why was he taking so long? What would have happened if Ruth had done nothing? Was it not “right” for Ruth to call him to account, to remind him of his responsibility?
Like many stories in the Bible, these characters are all very human, feeling real human emotions, acting with mixed human motives, trying their best within the context they are given, sometimes falling short, and sometimes bringing about miracles.
As one of my commentaries notes:
“We have to acknowledge that what Ruth did was scandalous in the eyes of the world, *and* that it was an act of loving kindness.”(1) It was an act that sought to take care of her mother-in-law, to alleviate her emptiness; it was an act that gently called a “pillar of Israelite society to responsibility”(2) as well as relationship, it was an act that would heal a family and begin a line that would culminate in one of Israel’s greatest leaders.
And so the text prompts us to ask ourselves, in what ways might *we* be called to risk, might we be called to push against social norms in order to practice connective and covenantal love, what in the Hebrew is called hesed, love that enfolds people into community. Is there a place in our lives that is calling out for accountability, for relationship, for encouragement, for change, but we are constrained by what feels to us like social respectability, social expectations, and the embarrassment and fear associated with with pushing against those norms?
Because, the next most important question to ask is: What occurs as a result of Ruth’s risk-taking? One thing, among many, is that Naomi experiences a reversal of her emptiness. Her overall and understandable bitterness drives the narrative of the first chapter. But by the end of the story, we find her heart is filled again. The narrative is signaling that her personal trajectory mirrors the trajectory of her people as a whole, that her grandchild, so precious to her in a personal way, will also play his part in leading a whole people towards redemption, as a link in King David’s familial line. An act of risk, courage and hope, grounded in hesed, that first *uncovers* and lays bare human vulnerability and need, and then culminates in the *recovery* of hope and meaning.
The text aims to drive this home in its use of language. The Hebrew scriptures often like to juxtapose similar sounding words in order to contrast their meaning. In chapter 3, we notice the juxtaposition of the word gala, meaning uncover, reveal or remove, and gaal, meaning recover, redeem, or restore. In the words of my commentary again: the “narrator encourages the audience to consider the ways in which uncovering can lead to recovering - the redemption of what was lost.” (3)
Ruth acts to uncover the feet of Boaz - and in the Hebrew this has a suggestive association. And yet, this uncovering leads to a recovering. Her vulnerability and his responsibility are uncovered, and into that place of need a relationship is formed, and dignity is recovered.
Swedenborg writes about how the act of “uncovering” in the bible represents a removing of external things so that internal ones may be apparent(4). Often, external things (learned perspectives, attachments, anxieties, habits) get in the way of spiritual progress. But, as suggested in our Swedenborg reading, this is just part of the process, a process of redemption that has been built into the divine design. We are called to uncover the truth about ourselves, to quiet the ego long enough for truth to be revealed to us, and then to remove that which cannot serve love, cannot serve hesed. This act of faithful gala — uncovering— makes space for, makes a path for, gaal — restoration.
And so as we consider divine design, and God’s intention for us, we might ask, where is God in the book of Ruth? Even though the narrative is dealing with very human problems and very human interactions, God’s presence is very much woven into the story as well. There are no prophets speaking God’s word directly, the settings are fields and roads and threshing floors rather than tabernacles or a burning bush, and yet God feels very close to this story, we see God within this story. The way God is known in the book of Ruth is through people. There is loss, and there is death and God responds with loyalty and hesed from a daughter-in-law. There is poverty and uncertainty and God responds with mutual relationship and kindness from one who can help. There is bitterness and perceived abandonment, and God responds with new birth and new life.
In chapter 3, verse 9, Ruth asks Boaz to spread his garment, or his cloak over her. The word for cloak, kanap, is also the word for wing, and Boaz had previously used that word in chapter 2, when he praised Ruth for her loyalty “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” We might wonder though, how much at the time he said this, was this some vague blessing, or did he consider the reality that many times the love of God becomes real and palpable through human decision. Ruth makes that connection clear to him, that if God’s wings are to give her refuge, that refuge in a physical sense must come through him. One of the ways that God’s love finds its way to us, is by the care and concern we show each other.
And so we find ourselves back to asking the question: what is our part? We are all sometimes Naomi, sometimes Ruth, sometimes Boaz. Naomi’s bitterness was not where she began, or where she was destined to end up. She was taking a detour, a necessary and understandable one, one that we all take from time to time. But God’s wings were over her the entire time. May we all find the courage to step into our place in the divine process, the uncovering and the recovering, one that brings all people into redemption. Amen.
Ruth 3:1-11, 4:13-17
1 One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. 2 Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. 3 Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” 5 “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. 6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do. 7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! 9 “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” 10 “The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 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.
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” 16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
True Christianity 599
During the battles or conflicts within us, the Lord carries out an individual act of redemption, much like the all-encompassing redemption he brought about while he was in the world.
While he was in the world, the Lord glorified his human manifestation, that is, made it divine, through battles and inner conflict. In a similar way within us individually, the Lord fights for us while we are undergoing inner conflict and conquers the hellish spirits who are assaulting us. Afterward he "glorifies" us, that is, makes us spiritual.
After his universal redemption, the Lord restructured all things in heaven and in hell in accordance with the divine design. He does much the same thing in us after crises of the spirit - that is, he restructures all the things in us that relate to heaven and the world in accordance with the divine design.