Jesus didn’t invent the parable – he may have perfected it, but he didn’t invent it. The book of Ruth is, in its entirety, an Old Testament parable as critical of Jewish culture as Jesus was in his day. The Book of Ruth isn’t just a story with a nice moral, but is just as “in your face” to the Jewish culture as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Ruth, as a Moabite, was unacceptable in Jewish society. Racism was alive and well back then, too. Deuteronomy, Ezra and Nehemiah all tell how Moabites were ostracized – barred from being part of Jewish society. And it all went back to the time of Moses, when the men of Israel blamed their promiscuity on the women of Moab. Sound familiar – well, if they weren’t here, we wouldn’t have sinned. They’re the problem.
How is this story critical of that attitude?
Well, first, this is story about the laws of Israel applying to Ruth, a Moabite, just as they would be to any Israelite woman. I mean, that’s just unthinkable. The laws were designed to preserve the integrity of Israelite families and property. They were meant to protect Israel from “people of other races”, not include them.
Second, there’s that word – hesed. Hesed is the Hebrew word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the unconditional loving-kindness-mercifulness of God. And that word, hesed, is only used to describe God. Well, all except for the times it’s used in this parable to describe none other than Ruth – the Moabite woman. Imagine, one of those people – a woman no less – described with a word we only use to describe God. This is just as bad as saying that the Samaritan was kinder and more caring than the priest or elder.
Like many of Jesus’ parables, this one mocked certain societal values and rules. It didn’t just criticize racism; it also criticized gender-bias. Yes, that’s also nothing new. The Israelite culture had all kinds of laws limiting women when it came to land ownership, inheritance, marriage, and many other things. Women were second-class citizens.
With regard to gender, the laws where set up so that, in the absence of a son, widows would have no claim to their husband’s property. Widows would end up destitute unless someone in the husband’s family would “redeem” the estate along with the widow. Redeem – what does that mean? It means that a male relative of the dead husband had to accept his dead relative’s wife and property as his own. She had to marry a next of kin and become his property – just like the land and wealth.
Now, the first choice always went to the closest next of kin, then next closest, and on until someone married her. If no one stepped up to the altar, so to speak, the widow and the family lost the property. By being redeemed by a male relative, the widow was made a “worthy woman”. Remember that, it’s important. By redeeming her, the man made the woman worthy.
Okay, now we know that, let’s recap the story so far.
In this story, Naomi was the mother of two sons, one of whom was married to Ruth and the other to another Moabite woman, Orpah. Naomi’s husband dies, followed a few years later by both her sons. This sets up the basic problem. When Noami’s husband died, the wealth went to the sons. When they died, neither Naomi, Ruth nor Orpah had any claim to that wealth – any of it. They were penniless.
Naomi thought she was too old to be attractive as a wife – she couldn’t bear children anymore. And Ruth and Orpah – well, you know, they were Moabites. They didn’t qualify because – well, you know, they weren’t like us Israelites.
Orpah came to her senses and went home to her mother’s family. But not Ruth. Despite Naomi’s objections Ruth goes with her to Bethlehem, where they will be destitute. Why? Because of her hesed.
Once there, Ruth goes behind the harvesters in the field to glean enough scraps of grain to feed Naomi and herself. Why? Because of her hesed..
Boaz, the farm owner, recognizes the kindness of Ruth in caring for Naomi and provides safety in his fields, as well as some extra grain. Why? Out of respect for her hesed.
Three times Ruth is described as possessing the same kind of unconditional loving-kindness-mercifulness that only God shows. But we’re not done yet.
Naomi, knowing that Boaz had been nice to Ruth thought, “Maybe there’s a chance.” After all, Boaz has previously recognized the hesed. of Ruth, and treated her in like manner – with respect and kindness – even providing additional grain for her and Naomi. But it would have to be discrete because Ruth’s a Moabite. Naomi eventually sends Ruth to Boaz at night, in the dark, and tells her “lay at his feet” and then “he will tell you what to do”.
Either way – whether Boaz says “marry me” or he says “get lost” – no-one else will know.
Ruth goes as instructed but does not do exactly what she was told. She did lay at his feet, but when he woke up Ruth said, “spread you cloak over me, for you are next of kin.” Much has been made of the phrases “laying at his feet” and “spread your cloak over me”. Most of it has sexual connotations. In this context, however, especially knowing Boaz’ reaction, what happened was not an encounter of that sort. Ruth, rather than wait for Boaz to tell her what to do, instead told him to “redeem” her. “Spread your cloak over me” is a euphemism for “take me into your family”. Otherwise, the rest of the sentence, “you are next of kin”, has no bearing whatsoever. Ruth proposed to Boaz.
Can you imagine this audacious Moabite woman telling an Israelite gentleman land-owner to marry her? Can you imagine the attitudes of Israelites hearing this parable? Well, at least Boaz will act like a real Israelite and kick her out. That way the story will end the way it should. I mean, following this marriage proposal, Boaz should be furious, appalled, sickened, or in some other way object to the possibility of marrying a Moabite. After all, that is how any decent Israelite should react. Right? Wrong!
Instead, he praises her hesed once again. He is flattered that she would choose him. Even though he knows that he might be a likely choice – there is another kin – younger and richer than he is. Boaz also says something else. He declares that, “all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.” Remember that, too. The people already know that she is a woman of inherent value.
Then Boaz sees the other kinsman and tells him that Noami – the wife of their relative – is looking to redeem the land her husband owned. Now, he’s being a little underhanded here. He talks about the land being redeemed – not Naomi and not Ruth. The other relative says he will take the land. Then Boaz says that, if he takes the land, he also has to take the Moabite, Ruth. Whoa! Now all bets are off. The other kinsman now says he won’t be able to redeem the land without damaging his own inheritance. I think we know what that means.
With that, we get to the last chapter of Ruth, when Boaz declares his intention to marry Ruth in front of his community. Well, now the feathers should fly. There goes the gene pool – right down the tubes. But what really happens? The townspeople say, “May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.” What kind of response is this?
The twelve sons of Rachel and Leah, by Jewish tradition, were always called the sons of Jacob and became the twelve tribes of Israel. To reference them by their mothers’ lines was unheard of. Likewise the reference to Perez, born of Tamar, situates the largest clan of Judah along maternal lines. This is controversial stuff – enough to inflame any respectable Israelite.
What more can be said? Is nothing sacred? Well, actually – no. Nothing is sacred. We hear that Ruth is better to Naomi than seven sons. Ouch! Then we hear at the end that from the womb of a culturally outcast Moabite woman is born the grandfather of King David. The final message – You, oh Israel, descend from the very people that you now despise.
So what does this story say? Just like most of the messages of the prophets, and the message of Jesus (who was, by the way, also descended from Ruth through Mary) this story is a call to the people of Israel to abandon their unjust attitudes and behavior.
Ruth, as a woman, is not dependent on Jewish law or a man for her worthiness – she is inherently worthy in God’s sight. So worthy that she is described with a word reserved only for God.
Ruth, as a Moabite, is not a member of a subordinate race but is to be recognized as a valuable asset to the community, as well as one of the ancestors of King David.
Boaz is memorialized not because he acted in concert with the culture around him, but because he dared to act in opposition to it.
The people of the community end up acting as God would have the people of Israel act – wholly accepting all people – Jew or gentile, male or female – as equal in God’s sight.
In today’s world, however, most will not act like Boaz or the community. Even those who believe that all are equal may not stand up and speak out for the outcast for fear of being cast out themselves. But, as recorded in this parable and many others, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?
In Matt 7, Jesus said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
There is good news to be found in taking the narrow gate – the hard road of justice – it’s just that we may have to search for it. Are we willing to look?