Editor’s note: I began this blog with excerpts from Carol’s sermon about the book of Ruth entitled You Never Know. It is appropriate that I end this exploration of Carol’s unpublished works with the complete sermon. I appreciate your readership and your positive comments. Carol did all the work of study and writing. All I did was read and edit her manuscripts into a form appropriate for this digital medium. Thank you for hearing her voice, which had already spoken in sermon and lecture. My study of her written work has only amplified my admiration for her scholarship and wisdom. I hope her words have been a blessing to you. In this final post, Carol speaks about Ruth, my favorite book of the Old Testament:
The book of Ruth is unique in the Bible in several ways. For one thing, there are no villains in it: no greedy or manipulative characters, no evil king, no attacking nation. Everyone in the book is doing the best they can. For another, there are no high-status people in it: no judges, no kings, no generals, no prophets, no sages. God does not speak, nor do we see direct divine action after the first few verses. All the characters are everyday people dealing with the tragedies and triumphs of normal life. Finally, nothing happens that seems to be of any importance to anyone except the humble people who are involved. There are no wars, no visions, no vital task to be achieved. It’s the only biblical book we have that’s about “just folks.”
In order to understand the conversation between Naomi and her daughters-in-law in Chapter 1, we have to know some of the laws in the Torah. Until a woman married, it was the responsibility of her father to provide food, clothing, and shelter for her. If she were wronged or assaulted, it would count as a crime against him and he would receive any reparations; he had to represent her in order for the crime to be punished. If her father were dead, her brother took on these responsibilities. Once she married, her birth family had no more obligation to her; these things became her husband’s responsibility. When he died, these things became her son’s or grandson’s responsibility even if they were newborn. Women couldn’t ever inherit from their husbands, but sons could, and so widow and son could survive. But no one had the obligation to take care of a sonless widow, so if she did not remarry and nobody was willing to assume that task, her options were begging, prostitution, or starvation. So if a married man died without sons his closest male kin had the obligation of marrying her and fathering a son with her; this boy would count as the dead husband’s and would inherit his property. This is called “levirate marriage.” It wasn’t a trick; everyone including the child would know who the birth father was.
This law couldn’t help Orpah and Ruth in Moab: their husbands, brothers-in-law, and father-in-law all died. That’s why Naomi makes a point of telling her daughters-in-law that she has no more sons for them to marry, and why Orpah reasonably returns home. But Ruth insists on staying with Naomi. It is to her great credit that she is willing to share this poverty-stricken and dangerous life in order to make it easier for the older woman. “Ruth” means “compassionate”; this has fallen out of the English language except in the term “ruthless.” Her compassion is particularly evident because, since the men who connected their lives are dead, Naomi and Ruth are no longer actually related. Notice that each of them is arguing against her own best interests for the sake of the other: Naomi will have an easier time in Bethelehem if she’s accompanied by a young, strong woman, while if Ruth stays in her own country she will be cared for and will have an easier time remarrying.
The two widows have a difficult time when they get to Israel. Naomi succumbs to depression after the multiple deaths in her family. Ruth is supporting them both by gleaning in the fields. It’s not a job. She’s just permitted to follow the harvesters and take whatever is too under-or-overripe for them: it’s all hard or rotten. She and Naomi are surviving on food that isn’t good enough for other people. This is marginal living at best. And it’s harvest; how will she and Naomi survive when winter comes and even this meager source of food is gone?
At this point Ruth meets Boaz, a landowner in whose field she’s gleaning. He looks after Ruth, ordering his men “not to bother her.” This is important. Without father, brother, husband or son, Ruth was fair game. When she returns to Naomi that evening, she tells Naomi about Boaz’ kindness. Naomi suddenly comes alive. She remembers that Boaz is a relative of her dead husband Elimilech and consequently should marry Ruth. Obviously Boaz has not realized the implications of his distant kinship connection to Elimelech. But Naomi has and, suddenly energized, gives her Moabite daughter-in-law advice: she tells her to dress her best and then go to the harvest festival and, after Boaz has eaten and drunk, uncover his . . . feet “and he will tell you what to do.” In a G-rated sermon, I can’t tell you what that idiom means, but if you read 2 Samuel 11, especially verse 8, you’ll get the idea.
Ruth does as Naomi tells her. She goes to the harvest festival, waits until Boaz has finished celebrating, and uncovers his feet. Boaz, expressing gratitude that she didn’t choose a younger man, agrees to marry her. In time they have a son named Obed. The women of Bethlehem then gather around the rejuvenated Naomi in 4:13-15, saying “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without kin, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” [NRSV] That’s quite a statement. To say that a daughter was worth more than a son would be unheard of in that patriarchal society. To say a daughter-in-law was worth more than a son would make no sense. To say that a daughter-in-law, and a foreign one at that, was worth more than seven sons was probably grounds for an insanity hearing. These women have incredible respect for Ruth.
There are several good points to be drawn from this story. One is that Naomi and Ruth, although they are on the lowest rung in their society, nevertheless aren’t passive. There isn’t much that they can do, but they band together, increasing their chances for survival, and they stand up for Ruth’s legal right to have a husband and child from her first husband’s family. They don’t wait for Boaz or anyone else to notice their predicament and come up with a solution. They know their rights and take responsibility for their own lives, and that’s a good lesson to learn.
We also notice that Ruth the foreigner, Ruth from a land that had fought wars against Israel, is the best in this story of all good characters. She is the one who makes the happy ending possible, at least on the human level. If she had not been so incredibly loyal to her mother-in-law, if she had not been willing to do menial labor to keep them both alive, if she had not had the courage to speak to Boaz, their marriage would not have taken place. For people who felt that anyone from outside their tribal group was suspect and dangerous, this story of Ruth’s great loyalty would come as a revelation. It is Ruth the Moabitess who is God’s agent in Israel. The outsider may be the best thing ever to happen to your village.
Thirdly, we notice that speech the women of Bethlehem make after the birth of Obed. They don’t see the point of the story as “at last Ruth is married again” but “at last Naomi has kin again.” The child of her dead husband’s cousin and her dead son’s widow is, of course, no blood kin to Naomi, but because of the laws of levirate marriage he counts as her grandchild. The women of Naomi’s town understand that this desperate woman has been given family. She is no longer legally alone in the world. They see that God cared enough about an old widow-woman to act in her behalf.
This leads to the fourth point: the women give God credit for what’s happened: “Blessed be the Lord,” they say, “who has not left you this day without kin.” The birth of Obed was not announced by angels, as other births in the Old and New Testaments were, nor was it prophesied. God has taken no overt action here. We the readers have not been told that God did anything except end the famine, or told anyone to do something, or even wanted something to happen. But the women of Bethlehem see God’s action nonetheless. It takes special eyes to see God’s work when there’s no fanfare accompanying it. But these women have such eyes, and praise the Lord for the redemption they have seen in the lives of the forlorn elderly widow, the foreign widow, and the lonely landowner in their little town. They understand that God doesn’t act only in the lives of kings and generals, but is involved with all of us, powerful and powerless.
There’s one more point I want to emphasize; it’s the main one. In the very last verse of the book we find that in time Ruth and Boaz’ son Obed had a son named Jesse, and that Jesse had a son named David. This is announced matter-of-factly, just one of the many little genealogies in the Old Testament. But Jesse and David are names we know. Suddenly we realize that we have been reading the story of King David’s great-grandparents–and, when we look at the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, we realize that they are his ancestors as well. Wow. All of a sudden this may make us want to take a second look at this story. Suppose Ruth hadn’t left Moab but had stayed like Orpah did, like Naomi told her to? Suppose she and Boaz hadn’t even met during the harvest and Naomi and Ruth had starved that winter? Suppose Boaz hadn’t been willing to marry this foreign woman? What would that have meant to the history of Israel and the history of the world? We thought this was a story about people who didn’t have much effect on anything, and now it turns out that they did.
We should learn from this story that, just as we didn’t know everything about Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz as we were reading their story, so we don’t know everything about the people in our lives, the people in our newspapers, any people anywhere. We can never judge folks, saying, “Well, he’ll never amount to much” or “She’s just a waste of skin” because we don’t know what God has done, is doing, and will do with and through them. A lot of people in the Bible seemed of no account to most people: Joseph, the accused rapist and jailed slave; Moses, the fleeing murderer; Amos, the professional sycamore-fruit-slitter and part-time shepherd; Mary, the unwed mother-to-be; Peter, the excitable fisherman who left job and family; Paul, the persecutor of the church who, in the eyes of his own people, turned traitor. At various times in their lives, many people would have said of them that they’d never do anything that mattered–just as that might have been said of Ruth and Naomi. We need to remember that we never know all of anybody’s possibilities, how they may change, how they may contribute to the Kingdom of God.
But if that’s true of other people, it’s also true of us. Certainly Ruth and the others didn’t know what important people were going to come out of their genetic heritage. They never knew. Naomi obviously thinks when she returns to Bethlehem that her life is just tragedy. “Call me Bitter,” she says to the women of her town. Ruth herself, when she was gathering the soft and spotted vegetables that kept her and Naomi alive, must have had moments when she wondered what she was doing, why she hadn’t returned home as Orpah did, whether she had sentenced herself to death by hard work because of her decision to stick with a woman to whom she had no legal obligation. Boaz, I’m sure, took some heat for marrying a Moabitess–the Talmud, written a few centuries after the book itself, criticizes him sharply for doing so–and so he may have known self-doubt as well. And although they had a son, they didn’t live long enough to know that the greatest king of Israel would result from their controversial marriage, and also one greater than he. All three of them probably thought for their whole lives that they were just ordinary people whose names would never be known outside of Bethlehem and Moab, people there would be no need to remember after they were dead, people whose lives counted for nothing in the larger scope of things. Naomi never knew how great the family God gave her would become; Boaz never knew how cosmically important that night at the harvest-festival was; Ruth never knew that her loyalty to Naomi saved far more than one person. They never knew that they weren’t ordinary at all.
So I wonder: what don’t we know about our lives? What will we never know? What impulsive decisions and chance encounters like the ones in this book may turn out to be the most important moments of our lives? Maybe the things that we think matter most about us, like our jobs or our bank accounts or our talents or our preaching, will turn out not to matter next to something we think of as purely personal. We don’t know what our legacies may be. Ruth’s story shows us a different way of looking at life, both our lives and the lives of others. It should remind us to seek God’s guidance in all things, and not just the ones we think are important. We may not be the best judges of that. It should also remind us that, like Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, there are no worthless, no-account, ordinary people. Not even us.
Postscript: Recently, Carol and I were sitting on the front porch enjoying the spring weather. Her neurological disorder scatters her thoughts, so linear conversation is difficult. We were making occasional remarks about the flowers in the yard and random wisecracks. After a period of silence, she turned to me, smiled, and said: “Remember, whatever happens, God is still in control.” Her attention skittered away, but her words remain solid.