Ruth the risk taker

Ruth graphic from timewarpwife.com

Each time I read about her, I’m singularly impressed by the Ruth of the Bible. I admire her as a loving risk taker.

Out of love for her mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth risks leaving her family, her country, and her culture to move to Bethlehem. Widows did not have it easy in ancient Israel, and things would have been even more difficult for an immigrant widow like Ruth. Yet she declares to Naomi:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

These brave words echo down through history, sometimes even making their way into wedding vows today.

Once in Bethlehem, Ruth does not passively wait around to see what will happen next. She takes the initiative, suggesting to Naomi that she go out and find work and food for the two of them. Destitute people in Israel (often foreigners and widows) were permitted to pick up leftovers from the edges of the fields during harvest time. Perhaps recognizing those leftovers would not be enough for both her and Naomi, Ruth takes another risk and asks the foreman if she can gather grain from among the sheaves behind the workers who were harvesting. Instead of being told to remember her proper place, Ruth is allowed to work among the harvesters. Landowner Boaz recognizes the spirit and not just the letter of the law meant to help the poor and he ensures Ruth is both welcomed and protected among his workers.

Naomi soon perceives that Boaz may make a fine husband for Ruth and she concocts a plan that looks like a marriage proposal. Naomi carefully instructs Ruth with what to do and say, but when the time comes, Ruth veers away from the script Naomi provides her. Ruth asks not only for Boaz to consider her, but to embrace his role as the entire family’s guardian-redeemer, making it possible for Naomi to reclaim her family’s estate. Out of love for Naomi, Ruth risks challenging a powerful landowner to fulfill his duty for Naomi’s family regardless of how costly it will be for Boaz.

Ruth is rewarded for her love-filled risks: She finds a stable food source for herself and Naomi, she restores Naomi’s honor in Israel, and she herself finds a place among God’s people that will be remembered for all history.

The apostle Paul calls God’s people to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Some might argue that headstrong, risk-taking Ruth is not very submissive. I disagree. She perhaps is not always very compliant, but I nevertheless see her as one who, instead of looking out for her own interests, looks out for the interests of others – a good role model for myself and my selfish tendencies. She submitted to the God of Naomi and discovered how to submit to others while still taking the initiative. She sets a great example for both male and female Spirit-filled followers of Jesus today.

Read the entire story of Ruth – at only 4 chapters,
it’s a quick and exciting read. To dig deeper into this story,
I recommend Carolyn Custis James’s book,
The Gospel of Ruth:
Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
.

Scandalous

When talking about the story of Ruth, you have a choice to make about the motives and morals of the main characters.  I grew up hearing about a bitter old widow (Naomi) and a kind young woman (Ruth) who experience God’s providence in God’s good timing.  Everything is aboveboard, even the part where Ruth lies down at the feet of sleeping Boaz on the threshing floor in a bid for him to become her family’s kinsman-redeemer.

That’s the way I know (and am currently preaching) the book of Ruth.  But not everyone reads it that way.

Some people see Naomi not as helpless, but as shrewd and manipulative: Her instructions to Ruth to sneak up on Boaz in the middle of the night on the threshing floor is a sly way to arouse the rich relative of Ruth’s late husband.  Naomi’s instructions to Ruth include this line: “Don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking.”  The verb to know often has sexual connotations in Scripture, such as in Genesis 4 where “Adam knew Eve his wife; Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floorand she conceived” (KJV).  When Ruth uncovers Boaz’s feet, the original Hebrew can alternately be read to mean that Ruth uncovers Boaz all the way up to his waist, exposing his private parts.  Finally, historical evidence suggests that the only women who visit a threshing floor at night are prostitutes offering their services to the workers there.  Is Naomi hoping that Boaz and Ruth will have sex, which Naomi could possibly use to pressure Boaz to marry and then provide for Ruth?

Personally, I still go with the reading I grew up with.  Naomi seems too despondent to be devious.  Boaz sounds like a righteous man beginning with the first words we hear out of his mouth (“The LORD be with you!”).  Ruth is characterized as “a woman of noble character;” her words consistently echo of loyalty and humility.  With the whole threshing floor incident, I see a Godly woman taking a bold initiative with a man who is righteous.  I myself do not question the integrity or purity of any of the characters.

But even if one day I am proven wrong – that Naomi and Ruth indeed acted scandalously, even immorally – I don’t think I’ll be overly distraught.  Regardless of Naomi and Ruth’s motives and morals, Ruth is still the great-grandmother of David and the ancestor of the Christ child laying in the manger on Christmas morn.  That is to say, God will use and bless us when we’re at our best; however, God will also work in and through us when we’re at our worst.  It’s not that Spirit-filled people strive for it, but scandal does not frighten God.  Regardless of whether Ruth is at her best or at her worst on the threshing floor, God graciously wove her story into His larger tapestry of redemption.

And it’s into that redemptive tapestry our stories are woven, too.  Even the embarrassing and scandalous parts.

Credits:
Two resources I have on Ruth that reflect the “alternate” way of reading Ruth and the way I grew up with are Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer’s commentary on Ruth in the New Interpreter’s Bible series and Restored! God’s Salvage Plan for Broken Lives by Daniel Schaeffer, respectively.

Artwork found here.  Original artist unknown.