What does it mean to leave one’s gods and to choose a new god?
Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return to them with her, says Naomi.
Ruth replies: Don’t beg me to leave you, or to return home instead of coming with you. For where you go, I will go, and where you live, I will live. Your community will be my community, and your god will be my god. Where you die, I will die, and be buried there.
For the participants of this story, God, land and people are one. Ruth uses an ancient oath formula. By saying when she dies she will be buried in Naomi’s land, she is emphasising her desire to identify with Naomi’s people, her reality and community.
At that time, “there was as yet no formal procedure for religious conversion, nor was it even conceived of. One’s ethnic identity determined for all time one’s religious persuasion. Therefore, Ruth mentions ‘people’ and ‘God’ together. Each people had its own god; or as it was viewed in the ancient Near East, each god had its own people. Ruth is adopting a new people, a new ethnic identity, along with a new faith.”
While Orpah her sister-in-law does what is proper and conventional, Ruth—and later, Boaz—go beyond convention and recognise no limits.
Here’s a woman breaking with her traditions, breaking the rules of her culture and upbringing, to choose a new life in a strange land. She acts out of loyalty and love, which lead her on a barrier-breaking journey.
The story of Ruth operates on many levels and we’ll return to it in more detail. In contrast, the new testament story of the widow at the synagogue seems slim. What do the stories of Ruth and “the widow’s offering” have in common? If we can find no answers, what questions do they make us ask?
In the earlier story, there are three childless widows; in the new testament story, we might speculate that the widow was also childless, as she appears to have no family to support her.
There’s an expectation in both stories that those who are well off will provide for those who are poor. Over 400 years before the time of Jesus, as a widow and resident alien, Ruth was entitled to glean where she chose. We could assume that the systems of caring for the poor were even more highly developed by Jesus’ day; certainly the Jews seem hemmed about with laws and rituals which Jesus constantly challenged. “…Widows were traditionally considered subjects of special moral concern because of their generally defenceless legal and financial position.”
In each story, wealthy, land-owning, learned men appear: Ruth is taken as wife by one of the great men of the city, and the marriage is formally approved by all those in authority and by the people at large; the scribes, or learned men, walk around in long robes and like be greeted with respect in the marketplace and to have the best seats at the banquet. Boaz is described as “a great man”, and we find no criticism of the flowing robes—their glad rags: Jesus doesn’t condemn them for wanting to be acknowledged, or trying to get the best seats at the festival! Rather, among other things, for… appointing some supposedly reputable and pious man to oversee the affairs of a widow, only to use the estate for his gain.
In each instance, the customs and rulings which govern people’s lives are questioned.
Whatever was meant by Mark’s telling the story and Jesus’ comments on the widow who gave all she had, we can compare her offering with Ruth’s. The widow “put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them… contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on”—literally, says Jesus, “her whole life” .
And what did Ruth have to give? Travelling with Naomi from Moab to Israel, from the land of emptiness to the land of plenty, Ruth apparently has nothing to give—except her loyalty and love. In seeking Boaz’s protection and the redemption of Naomi’s land, Ruth gives all that she has—her body, her potential as the bearer of a child, her future: we might say, her whole life.
For shortly after this, Ruth drops out of her own story. Having presented her mother-in-law with a son, she is not mentioned again. Naomi “nurses the child, the local women name him, and they even proclaim, ‘A son has been born to Naomi’… Ruth, the ostensible heroine of the story, is left an enigma. Remember this for later!
Likewise, it seems Jesus objectifies the widow at the treasury, referring to a woman with whom he apparently never interacts, as an example of the exploiting power structures of the time.
As Jesus watches from the sidelines, perhaps although he can do nothing for her at the moment, she does something for him. The Women’s Bible Commentary suggests, “Her presence may lead Jesus to accept his final collision with the power that determines his fate. [In giving her whole life] She inspires Jesus to be truly Jesus… From her behaviour which can objectively be said to be meaningless, and from Jesus’ reaction to it, we can only acknowledge the inclusive scope of the community of faith Jesus proclaims…”
Can the poor widow whose reward is unknown, Ruth who finds a new life in a new community, inspire us to be truly ourselves?
Now, let’s return to Bethlehem. In the journey of Ruth from Moab, in the promise of a son, can we see the kernel of a later journey tale?
The story of Ruth is carefully structured, and there are hints of an older tale recounted, a folk story retold—details added and discarded—to suit the teller’s purpose and the life and times of the listeners.
One commentary suggests that, “Certain details in the book of Ruth may once have adorned a tale of the Babylonian Ishtar, to whom Esther owes her name… It is even possible that the outline of the story of Naomi, the ‘pleasant one’, who after her lament for her sorrows is comforted by the child who takes the place of the dead, comes from a myth once told or recited in liturgy by the priests of the fertility cult which gave Bethlehem its name. There, even in Jerome’s day, stood a grove of Adonis.”
What is the significance of this story? For it’s not just a perfectly formed tale, balancing Orpah against Ruth, the unnamed kinsman against Boaz, prolonging suspense while we wait to see if the kinsman will marry Ruth, his handing over of the sandal to indicate that he is giving up his claim.
The most significant thing about Ruth is her foreignness. “She seeks and finds refuge ‘under the wings’ of the God of Israel, she marries one of the great men of the city, the marriage is formally approved by all those in authority and by the people at large. The child of the marriage is adopted by Naomi, and that child’s grandson is David the king.”
A genealogy added to the book makes the connection between Naomi and Boaz and Ruth’s child, tracing the family tree from Obed, to Jesse, to David—a family tree to whose branches a later storyteller added the ultimate birth story: Jesus, born in Bethlehem, to another unconventional young woman, a stranger to the town—Jesus, the ultimate rule-breaker.
The story reflects a truth which is implied in the Genesis genealogies, a truth which Jesus persisted in demonstrating, a truth that Peter reluctantly accepted and Paul proclaimed: that “God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation those that honour God are acceptable”; that “in the Christ there can be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”—neither Hebrew nor Moabitess, landowner nor stranger, influential people making decisions at the gate nor foreigners seeking refuge .
Have we, too, journeyed to a chosen Bethlehem, a place of promise, a place of scandal? Does the inclusiveness we claim, the social justice we espouse, the “place with no labels” by which we label this community, make this a land of transformation?
And who is Ruth, this childless widow? This scheming, seducing, law-breaking, ruthless Ruth—who loves so totally, offers such loyalty, that she finds in the fertile land of Bethlehem, a good harvest, family, security and a child of promise.
For Ruth is not just a loving daughter-in-law, a loyal family member, a conventional wife. Her meeting with Boaz reverses the typical meeting stories found elsewhere in the bible, between couples who will eventually marry. Ruth takes on a man’s role, leaving home to seek her fortune; she encounters hardships; she has water drawn for her.
This is a wily tale, full of euphemism and seduction.
At Naomi’s suggestion, Ruth goes to gather grain; fortuitously, she finds herself on the property of Boaz, who—good landowner that he is—blesses the reapers and is blessed in return, and during this meeting of management and employees, he notices Ruth and asks who she is. The overseer explains that “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi.” At this point, she is no one’s wife, betrothed or servant; nor is she yet a member of the community.
As a widow and resident alien, Ruth is entitled to glean where she chooses, but she requests Boaz’s permission, and he makes sure she gathers the best grain, is not bothered by the men, is given water to drink, and invites her to share the communal meal. He hands her food—as a spouse would do; when she’s finished eating, she has food to spare, which she saves for Naomi.
Boaz arranges for his reapers to provide Ruth with extra grain, and Naomi is astounded by Ruth’s good fortune and offers a blessing to the one who took notice of Ruth. Naomi may be offering a prayer to her god, but Ruth insists that the one who caused her good fortune was Boaz. She twists Boaz’s words, telling Naomi he’d suggested she keep close to his young men, when in fact he’d told her to keep close to the women.
Naomi advises Ruth to glean among the women. She recalls that Boaz is a male relative, who may act as a redeemer, saving family members from slavery and exile, and ensuring property remains in the family.
“Put your glad rags on”, says Naomi! “Get dressed up,” she tells Ruth, “wash and put on perfume and go down to the threshing floor.” There, Ruth is to find where Boaz lies down, in a contented mood after eating and drinking, and “uncover his feet”—Naomi politely uses a euphemism for genitals. Boaz, Naomi says, will tell Ruth what to do.
The threshing floor, not so incidentally, is associated with sexual activity, probably related to celebrations of the spring harvest. After all, this is Bethlehem, shrine of a fertility cult, and this year there’s a splendid harvest!
At midnight, Boaz wakes, disturbed, and realises this woman is next to him. Earlier in the fields, he recognised Ruth as the loyal and loving daughter-in-law of Naomi; he’s commended her for not going after younger men, ensured the men do not shame or molest her; he has acknowledged her as a woman of worth, and prayed that her full reward will come from the deity under whose wings Ruth has come for refuge. The word for wings is the same as that for cloak; it, too, can suggest genitalia.
Ruth now repeats Boaz’s earlier words, asking him to “spread his cloak over her and redeem her”—a request full of implications. Contrary to Naomi’s suggestion, Ruth tells Boaz what to do. And where Boaz had asked God to bless Ruth, she requests a blessing directly from Boaz—which he gives. He blesses her for accompanying Naomi and attempting to find a redeemer for them; and he asks her to stay the night.
But before dawn he sends her away, with a large quantity of barley. Perhaps he wishes to preserve Ruth’s reputation, or wants their relationship to be unknown to the next of kin; wants his motives to seem dispassionate and pious rather than personal and sexual.
No longer perceived as a foreigner, a servant, a handmaid or a daughter, Ruth is suitable for the role of Boaz’s wife; Boaz has agreed to be her redeemer and protector, securing her future and protecting Naomi’s land. So Ruth returns to her mother-in-law, and Naomi asks, “How did things go with you?” Ruth responds by pointing to the gift of barley and adds that Boaz did not want her to return empty handed to her mother-in-law.
In fact, Boaz had said no such thing, but Ruth adapts his words to include Naomi, and in her reply, perhaps there’s another double entendre: Ruth symbolically carries what Naomi most wants—Boaz’s seed. By handing Naomi the grain, Ruth is anticipating handing the child Obed to her mother-in-law. Through Ruth’s efforts, Naomi—the who has changed her name from “pleasant” to Mara, meaning bitterness because she has returned from Moab empty—will no longer be empty-handed.
Ruth has left home, risked attack in the fields, placed herself and Boaz in a compromising position, lied to her mother-in-law: the text may be implying she’s done all a woman can do, that it’s through deceit and trickery that women gain redemption. But the trickster has a respected place in biblical tradition, and we shouldn’t assume that Ruth is being condemned for her actions. Certainly when the townspeople hear of the marriage, they bless Ruth and wish for her fertility that she may build up Boaz’s house as Rachel and Leah (in another tale of seduction and trickery) had done for Jacob.
And then, we hear no more of her. Ruth, the heroine of the story, disappears; “her continuing relationship to Naomi, her feelings for her son and husband, and her sense of belonging in Israel are never addressed.” She’s completed her quest, and she’s no longer essential to the narrative. The action moves to the future, to the branch of Jesse, the house of David, the longed-for redeemer.
Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return to them with her, says Naomi to Ruth.
And Ruth’s response? Entreat me not to leave thee, or forsake thee. For whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people will be my people, and thy god, my god.
What tricks do we play on ourselves, pretending others—not we—are the strangers? What does it mean to redeem and secure our future, and ensure that we are not left empty? Who in these stories represents our community?
Who do you identify with?
Do you feel like Orpah: torn between the challenge of a strange country, the love of a family of choice, and the pull of the old gods and traditions of the past? Do you feel safer doing what is proper and conventional, instead of confronting what it means to live in the land of plenty?
Do you feel like the poor widow: giving and giving, until you have nothing left? Do you feel you must glean in the fields, take other’s leavings, instead of boldly seeking the generosity of this chosen family, and receiving a harvest so great that you have enough to share?
Sometimes, are we Boaz? Wealthy, land-owning, learned, worthy—like the scribes by the treasury—good people, loyal people, doing what’s required of us, wanting to be respectable. Needing to have our lives turned around by some rule-breaking, seductive, loving trickster who wears the face of the Christ.
Are we like Obed, a child of promise—born of a poverty-stricken, foreign mother from a far-off land, and a rich father who’s seduced by the claims of family and the promise of a son?
Or David: shepherd boy and king, lover and sinner, descendent of Israel and Moab, minstrel and giant-slayer?
Perhaps we’re Mara: the empty one who needs the generosity and loving kindness of others to find healing, who need companions to go with us to a place of plenty and fulfilment. But we can become Naomi, who challenges us to put our glad rags on and secure the community’s future…
Or are we Ruth: choosing a new god, a new family, a community which lets us explore and discard?
Have we the courage to put on our glad-rags, break with convention and find true fulfilment: the kingdom of god seeded and growing in us, bearing a rich harvest?
In this place,
where the old gods no longer control our seasons
and old explanations no longer satisfy,
we are challenged to give our whole lives,
to growing this community where we are free to be our real selves
—and ask the questions to which we are the answer.
So may it be.
by Bronwyn Angela White (1997)