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Women in the Old Testament: Ruth

Friday, August 17, 2012
Thus far Godzdogz's series on the women of the Old Testament has often had cause to draw attention to the courage and leadership shown by the women of Israel in furthering God's plan of salvation. These virtues are once again on show in the book of Ruth, yet it is striking that they are conditioned and to a certain extent distorted by the context of extreme vulnerability in which they are manifested. A famine drives Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his two sons from their home in Bethlehem into the plains of Moab - beyond the Promised Land. Here the family settles, and Elimelech dies. His sons,  by now married to Moabite women, die ten years later leaving their mother Naomi and their wives Ruth and Orphah as unprotected widows. Alone and isolated, Naomi decides to return to Judah and gives her daughters in law leave to return to their families. Orpah departs, but Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi declaring: 'Your people will be my people and your God will be my God' (Ruth 1:16). Ruth the Moabitess refuses the security that a return to her own family would offer and risks becoming an unprotected and unsupported young women in a foreign land, all so she might herself support the now-elderly Naomi. 

Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem (which means 'house of bread') just as the barley harvest it beginning. Ruth goes out to scavenge for ears of corn, hoping that 'some man might look kindly' on her (2:2). By chance she chooses the field of Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech and one who has a right of redemption over the land of Elimelech and Ruth as the widow of Elimelech's son. Boaz allows Ruth to take what she needs from the field, offers Ruth food and water, and orders his men not to molest her because he has heard of Ruth's kindness to Naomi. Ruth therefore works in Boaz's field until the end of the harvest. When all the work is finally finished Ruth hides, at her mother in law's instruction, until a 'happy' Boaz has finished eating and drinking and has gone to lie down. There, in what is something of a euphemism in ancient Hebrew, Ruth 'turned back the covering of his [Boaz's] feet' and lay down with him (3:4).

In a highly patriarchal society, Ruth needs the assistance of men if she is to provide for her own needs and the needs of Naomi. As a foreigner in Judah, she did not have the family connections that might have mitigated this vulnerability.  She must gain a husband, she must marry into the people People of God if she is to survive. She therefore chooses to risk her reputation and her dignity by offering herself to Boaz. If Boaz had taken advantage of her desperation and made it known, the consequences could have been disasterous for Ruth. Instead, Boaz acts justly. The nexts morning he moves quickly to claim his right to redeem Elimelech's land and marry Ruth after a kinsman with a prior claim  renounces this right on the grounds that it would threaten his own inheritance. The fact that another man was offered Ruth and did not take her for financial reasons suggests that marrying Ruth involved some sacrifice for Boaz, and gives us some idea of the risk Ruth ran when she came to him. Nevertheless, with all legal obstacles removed Boaz takes Ruth as his wife and she bears him a son who was named Obed. This boy would grow up to be the father of Jesse, and Jesse would become the father of King David.

The book of Ruth offers, then, a rich commentary on the difficulties that surround doing what is right in a  world twisted by ethnic, economic and gender inequality. Yet when we view this book in the context of the whole canon of scripture, a deeper significance emerges. Matthew's gospel includes Boaz and Ruth in the genealogy of Christ himself. Even in the midst, then, of the moral ambiguities and struggles that arise in situations that have been complicated by sin, God is still able to further his plan of salvation. Ruth the Moabitess, the pagan, in desperation married Boaz and became a member of God's people at least partly through a kind of sexual coercion. She herself would no doubt have admitted that this is not the ideal way to go about finding a husband, yet God used this marriage to prepare his people for the coming of his Son the bridegroom. For Ruth, entry into the people of God was fraught with risk and humiliation. For us it is a gift, the fruit of Christ's marriage to the Church. Ruth had to stoop low to enter the promise, we must not ask the vulnerable of our own society to do the same. 

Nicholas Crowe OP


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