Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
7 July, 2019
Third in a 4-Part Series on the Book of Ruth
Clearly, Naomi had anticipated that something more might have come from Boaz during the harvest season during which Ruth gleaned in Chapter Two. But her greater hopes weren’t realized—at least, not yet. It’s not uncommon in the Bible for women to be more closely attuned to the social needs, or to fraught relationship scenarios, and to be the first to set the wheels in motion to get the problem solved. So Naomi says, “Ruth, my daughter, I want to see you settled happily; I need to seek some security for you. Look,” she says, “as I mentioned before, Boaz is a kinsman. And I have a plan. Tonight, he’s going to be winnowing barley at the threshing floor.”
Now, the early Hebrew audience hearing “threshing floor” would have known that that venue was often associated with sex for hire. No big deal yet—a threshing floor could just be a threshing floor—but it’s an important part of the context we need to know about in the wider scope of the story.
Next, Naomi directs Ruth to bathe and anoint herself with perfumed oil before she gets dressed, and she should put on her best clothes. “And then,” Naomi instructs Ruth in verses 3 and 4, “go down to the threshing floor, but don’t make yourself known until after Boaz has finished eating and drinking. After he lies down, then go and uncover his feet and lie down yourself. And he’ll tell you what to do.”
Well friends, here’s some more helpful context: in the original language and culture, these two verses were full of double-entendres. Because to “wash and anoint” with perfume, and to “put on one’s best clothes” was usually done to mark the end of a mourning period. It was also something a bride did to get ready for her wedding. Was the author trying to convey that Ruth’s period of mourning for her husband was officially over? Or was this Naomi’s subtle way of trying to plant an idea into Boaz’s head about Ruth becoming his bride—or maybe both?
And then, there are the Hebrew words that in English get translated, “to know”, “to lie down”, and “to sleep”—all of which can be euphemisms for sexual intercourse, even in English. And, audience members who were fully aware of the double-edged meanings of these words also would have smirked at Naomi’s advice that Ruth wait until after Boaz had eaten and drunk before she “made herself known” to him; verse seven says, “… he was in a contented mood [when] he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain.”
Finally, there’s a word that makes all the difference in how we imagine what’s going on in this scene. As we read, Naomi specifically tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s feet. However, the Hebrew word that’s translated as “feet” here is frequently used as a euphemism for genitals. Numerous biblical scholars argue that it would be more straightforward to translate the Hebrew word as “lower body” or “private parts” than feet. In any case, the narrator was no doubt very aware that his choice of words would allow for quite a . . . nuanced story, giving the imagination permission to wander, depending on how one chose to hear the words. (And some of you thought the Bible was boring!)
Back to the storyline itself. Ruth agreed to do everything that Naomi had told her to do. She went to the threshing floor and hid herself until the “contented” Boaz came to lie down, at which point she crept over to him and uncovered him and lay down. At about midnight, the story says, Boaz woke with a start—what on earth could have startled him?! There, at his feet, was a woman! “Who are you?” he asked. “I am Ruth, your servant,” she responds, “Spread your cloak over me, for you are my next of kin.” In verse 12 we learn that Boaz wasn’tNaomi’s next-of-kin—but by now the security risks that have been taken for and by each character have drawn all of them into a rather tight little knot. Naomi had risked her honor and integrity by supplying Ruth with a plan that effectively represented marching orders, given the power dynamic between the two. Ruth—now known to the townspeople as a hardworking immigrant—had risked her own honor and reputation by obeying her mother-in-law. Furthermore, she had gambled with her personal long-term security when she vowed to support Naomi in the first place. And wittingly or not, Boaz had just risked his own good repute.
A further piece of background information to this section is the emphasis that the narrator had earlier put on Ruth’s being a Moabite. The Hebrew people didn’t much like immigrants or “outsiders.” But they disdained and despised the people of Moab, in part because of a legend that they were descendants of Lot’s incestuous relationships with his two daughters. Lot was Abraham’s nephew, and his entire family had been lost in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. All, that is, exceptfor Lot and two of his daughters, who decided to protect the family lineage by getting their father drunk and conceiving children by him. The older daughter’s son was called Moab; the younger was Ammon. (The Hebrews also disdained the Ammonites.) No doubt, the original audience would have thought it reasonable if Boaz had suspected Ruth of practicing the same sort of subterfuge. Boaz surely recognized that if anyone were to discover Ruth was with him on the threshing floor, his own dignity and honor could be called into question for having come to the aid of a woman who took after her sordid ancestors. Ah, the tangled webs we weave (or find ourselves woven into)!
But Boaz doesn’taccuse or suspect Ruth of trying to take advantage, does he? Instead, he praises Ruth for her loyalty and loving-kindness—her selfless act of love toward the family by not running after a young man, whether rich or poor, but rather going to him whom she believes is next-of-kin somehow, or at least close to that. Boaz acts on the true things he’s learned about Ruth, as opposed to suspicions rooted in spurious stereotypes. He praises her, saying that everyone in town knows that she’s a truly good woman, devoted to family. Of course, there isthe potential wrinkle of one kinsman who would have a prior claim to her, but Boaz thinks he can iron that out. “Just stay the night,” he says, “and I’ll get it all worked out in the morning.”
Kathleen Robertson Farmer, writer of the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Ruth, says, “The most heated debates concerning the interpretation of the book of Ruth revolve around the action on the threshing floor.” And then she asks, “What really happened there? Are we supposed to know? Should we be shocked by Naomi’s plan and Ruth’s behavior? Or should we admire the way these women have taken steps to guarantee both their own futures and the continuity of their family tree?” Do the ends justify Ruth’s actions? Even if nothing more happened than the straightforward conversation that’s reported in verses 8-13, her actions would still have been deemed scandalous, given the “optics” of the situation.
But surely, we the audience are meant to be asking ourselves what choice Ruth had. She was at the mercy of the men in her society, and the social systems and norms of the day; all the while, she felt compassionate responsibility for her mother-in-law. She was taking instruction and social cues from those who had some form of authority over her, and yet she was trying to provide for a family she had inherited by marriage. She had made a great sacrifice in coming as a stranger to a strange land in order to look after the mother of her dead husband. All she had done up to then pointed to her irreproachable character. Was all of that compromised when she resorted to the methods she did, when Boaz obviously wasn’t arriving at the idea of coming to her aid in a more permanent way on his own? She had proved herself as a hard worker, in doing all she should have needed to do to “deserve” security according to the world’s standards. And yet, she was still vulnerable at the end of the day.
Ruth is not unlike so many people for whom honest, hard work is not what’s holding them back—though it’s a storyline that’s often peddled. “If you’re stuck in poverty, you’re just not working hard enough”: that’s a false, stereotyping narrative that’s been circulating since before the Bible was written. And it’s one of the reasons for truth-telling counter-narratives like Ruth’s. The real problem more often is that the world we all mutually inhabit is structured in ways that allow many of us to remain blind, insensitive, or unresponsive to real and significant need. A common tendency is for people—including some who’ve been blessed enough to acquire security—to get defensive and dismissive when the suggestion is made that not enough is being done for the poor, the desperate, the vulnerable. But the invitation before us through Ruth’s story (and others) is to instead become curious and open to seeing things from the other’s point of view or experience.
A follow-up question might be: If we accept that what Ruth did is both scandalous and, as Boaz says, an act of loving-kindness, shouldn’t that shake up our notions of what we consider scandalous? After all, what Jesus did—consorting with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and reaching out to folks whom the rest of society had rejected—he was considered a walking scandal; it’s why they wanted him dead. But he was also the embodiment of divine lovingkindness. This passage asks us to consider whether the real scandal might be that the plight of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized has been so easily and systematically ignored, overlooked, or misunderstood and misrepresented, so that they are driven to socially shocking behaviors in order to survive or acquire the basic security and dignity God intends for every person.
A couple weeks ago, the United Church of Christ held its biennial General Synod in Milwaukee, WI. The keynote speaker this year was Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of the 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. (Apparently, I missed the invitation from our General Minister last year for the entire denomination to be reading the book together.) The challenge Mr. Desmond put to the UCC was for us to truly live out our Christian values: to care for those on the margins, to reject the world’s ways of largely ignoring the cries for justice and compassion by the vulnerable. We need to get better at courageously scandalous activity after the example of Ruth, and Boaz, and Jesus himself.
Also about two weeks ago, I happened to hear a radio podcast detailing other stories of individuals and families driven into ever more degraded circumstances—not because they were depraved people, but because they were the victims of a combination of circumstance, callousness, and a system that’s stacked against them. There were interviews with numerous people who were desperately trying to do what was right, but kept bumping up against entrenched biases and social norms working against them, preventing them from turning their own situation around. Many of them found it impossible to secure a full-time job, much less one with benefits, so they juggle multiple low-wage workplaces where it’s commonplace for employees to be let go with no notice or for very minor issues. And, because of their low wages, they’re forced to live in squalid conditions but still spend more than 70% of their income on monthly rent. One woman said, “I know too many women who, under these desperate circumstances of not being able to pay what they owe but wanting to be responsible and care for their loved ones, not having enough hours in the day, will find themselves doing ‘something funny for money,’ as they say in my neighborhood. They feel no choice but to hire out their body to pay the rent.”
Friends, the story of Ruth, and Naomi, and Boaz, challenges us to remember that every story of human need deserves to be considered with the God-given humanity and dignity of each individual in mind. It invites us to wonder what we might do if we were in any or each of the character’s shoes—and that should translate into becoming more curious about the larger stories of those who inhabit our own world today. Who are today’s Naomi’s, Ruth’s, and Boaz’s? Before we easily write off people as lazy, or merely taking advantage, looking for easy handouts, how much time have we taken to actually get to know them, to listen to the story from their own point of view—to treat them with the same dignity we ourselves would hope to be treated when we find ourselves in a vulnerable situation? Who is God inviting us to open ourselves to in new ways, so that all of us might experience redemption, and know the joy of more abundant life?
If we have ears to hear and hearts willing to learn, Ruth’s story calls us to a deeper wisdom, greater compassion, and a commitment to widen our welcome without first counting the cost. In Chapter Four (which we’ll explore in two weeks), we’ll learn more about the power of redemption and the ways God employs the most unlikely characters to change the world.
 Emphasis/italics mine.