Conception & Imagination
Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17
The book of Ruth is one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible. It’s a short book – just 4 chapters long – but packed with love, scheming, generosity, sex, loyalty, and the unpredictable ways God works in the midst of real, messy, problem-filled lives and families. If this is your first encounter with the story, I recommend taking out the Bible later on this week for a great read. Like many of our own stories, it is not at all apparent where Ruth’s will go from the beginning of the book.
Here’s the story: Ruth marries into an unlucky family whose men keep dying off. When finally there are no men left and her mother-in-law, the matriarch Naomi, is old and widowed herself, Naomi tells Ruth and her sister-in-law, Orpah, to go on back to their own families. Both Orpah and Ruth were Moabites who had married into Naomi’s Hebrew family while the family was living in Moab. Once all the men die off Naomi decides to head back to Judah and she tells her daughters-in-law to go on home to their birth families.
Hebrew custom at the time was that when a man died the nearest kinsman had the option of taking the deceased man’s wife as his own. If any children came from such a union they were seen as the children of the dead man (www.gbod/worship). None of the women in this story has any children, there are no men left in the immediate family to help carry on the line, and they are in a land foreign to Naomi. No men, no property, no money, and very few options.
So in this situation, Orpah opts to go on back to her father’s house but Ruth refuses to leave her mother-in-law, even though she has no remaining legal obligations to her. Naomi tries repeatedly to get Ruth to go home but Ruth emphatically says that her home is wherever Naomi is, and this is the passage that’s often read at weddings and that you might recognize from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1: 16).
Ruth and Naomi travel back to Judah, to Bethlehem, and when the neighborhood women see Naomi again they say “Is this Naomi?” Naomi snaps back, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (1: 19-20). She’s so bitter about how her life has turned out that she names herself Mara, which means “bitter.” She’s not in a good place.
On top of this, she’s shown up back in her hometown with no family and some strange Moabite woman. It’s hard to emphasize enough how detested the Moabites were by the Hebrew people. You might remember the story of Lot and his daughters from Genesis chapter 19… Lot and his wife and daughter were fleeing the town of Sodom as God was destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. This was the day after Lot offered these same daughters up to an angry mob beating on his door looking for some strangers to whom Lot was offering hospitality. Lot was shocked by their request and offered up his daughters instead. You can see this was already a great relationship. So the next day, they flee into the hills and the angels tell them whatever they do not to look back at the city as they flee. So of course Lot’s wife – who doesn’t even get here own name – just has to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and the daughters leave her there and flee up to the hills to a cave. The daughters start worrying that with all the destruction happening back home there may not be any men left on earth to marry or have children with and they decide it’s up to them to secure that kind of future for themselves. So they get their father drunk and the oldest daughter goes in and has sex with him, somehow without his knowledge. And the next night they do the same thing for the younger daughter. Both of them get pregnant in this way and it was the older daughter who gave birth to a son whom she named Moab…from whom the Moabites began and got their name.
This devious and incestuous beginning stayed with the Moabites and kept the Hebrews from having much to do with them. Naomi and her family had gone to Moab in the first place only out of desperation – there was a famine in Judah – and now after living in that despicable place, she comes back with no family and a Moabite woman in tow. And changes her name to Bitter.
When they get back to town, Ruth asks Naomi’s permission to go out into the nearby fields and try to glean behind the field workers, to find some food to eat. Some of you have been gleaners with the Society of St. Andrew, picking up potatoes or apples for food banks after the harvesters have been through the field or orchard. This biblical practice was to leave food unharvested at the corners of the fields and to allow those in need to come gather – glean – what they needed to survive. With no other options, Ruth heads out to scavenge at the edges of someone’s field, hoping that will be enough to keep Naomi and herself fed.
As it turns out, the field she finds belongs to a relative of Naomi’s late husband. The field owner’s name is Boaz and when he hears Ruth’s story and all that she has done for Naomi he goes out into the field to speak to her. He tells her that she doesn’t need to look for other fields, that she’s welcome to glean on his property all the time. He tells her to follow right behind the harvesters so she can get as much as possible, and then he orders his male workers to leave her alone and not bother her. He even tells her that whenever she’s thirsty she can drink the water the men haul in for themselves.
Later on in the day Boaz invites Ruth to eat a meal with the workers and himself and when she goes back out to work again, he tells his workers to let her glean even in the areas they haven’t harvested yet. Then he instructs them to pull out some of the sheaves they have harvested and leave them lying out for her to pick up. Ruth works like this through the barley and wheat harvests and Naomi’s spirits rise a little.
After the harvest Naomi decides to take matters into her own hands, in order to secure a future for Ruth, who has done so much for her. And maybe a future for herself, too. You’ll notice that our lectionary reading for today skips most of chapter three, which one of my colleagues calls “the racy threshing floor scene.” Indeed. And since we’ve already revisited Lot’s unsavory family, we certainly aren’t skipping over this important part of Ruth’s story.
Naomi tells Ruth to go to the threshing floor that night, where Boaz and the others will be winnowing barley. She instructs Ruth to “wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking” (3: 3). Besides being racy, this chapter is intentionally humorous. It’s strewn with double-entendre and suggestion. As you may know, “lying down with” and “making yourself known” are euphemisms for sex. “Feet” is often a euphemism for genitals. So when Naomi gives Ruth these instructions, it is like saying, “Go on down to the threshing floor but don’t have sex with the man until he has finished eating and drinking.” She continues, “When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (3: 4). You get the picture.
Ruth does all this and Boaz wakes up in the middle of the night to see Ruth lying at his, eh hem, “feet.” She asks him to spread his cloak over her (another euphemism for sex) and is flattered that she has put the moves on him rather than some younger man. He wants to take her up on her offer but explains that there is one kinsman slightly closer than him and that this man has the right of first refusal. Boaz invites Ruth to stay the night, but tells her to leave before anyone can see her there in the morning.
The next day he informs the other kinsman of some property – including Ruth – available to him as the next-of-kin. But this man isn’t interested in the Moabite woman, saying he can’t take on that role without damaging his own inheritance (4:6). The fact that Ruth is a Moabite is a deal breaker for him. So he gives Boaz the go-ahead and Boaz steps up as the new next-of-kin.
Interestingly, there was a crowd nearby witnessing this conversation and transaction and here’s what they said when the deal was done (4: 11-12): “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children…and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”
Well that’s interesting because Boaz is, in fact, already part of the house of Perez. The last few verses of the whole book make sure to list the family line from Perez, who was Boaz’s great-great-great-great grandfather. It’s also interesting because Perez’s family history is almost as unsavory as the Moabites’ through Lot’s family. The story is in Genesis 38 and bears some similarity to the Naomi-Ruth story. Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah is the widow of his first-born son. So it falls to his second-born son, Onan, to help Tamar have children in his brother’s name. Onan doesn’t really like this system and doesn’t want to have children that are considered his brother’s so, the story says, “he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother” (Genesis 38: 9). This is where we get the term “onanism.” God doesn’t appreciate this and kills Onan. At this point Judah only had one son left, Shelah, and he was getting suspicious of Tamar since her husbands kept dying. So he tells her to wait for Shelah to grow up and then she can have him. And he tells her to wait it out back in her own father’s house.
But a lot of time passes and Tamar doesn’t hear back from Judah. Then one day she hears that he and his son are going to a nearby place to shear sheep. Tamar puts on her widow’s clothes and sits out near the entrance to the town to watch. She sees her husband’s family coming and notices that Shelah is all grown up. She’s still sitting there when Judah comes up and mistakes her for a prostitute. He offers her as payment a kid from his flock and Tamar says that’s fine but she wants something to hold onto until the sheep arrives. Judah gives her his signet, cord, and staff, specific personal items that everyone would know were his.
Shortly after this Judah hears the gossip that his daughter-in-law is pregnant and he demands that she be killed for this disgrace. When they come to get her Tamar tells the men to take the signet, cord, and staff to Judah and inform him that the owner of those items is the one who made her pregnant. The moment Judah sees them his says, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah” (Genesis 38: 26).
When she gives birth it is to twins. The one who was to be the first born, Zerah, stuck his hand out during the delivery and the midwife tied a crimson thread around his hand so they’d remember which was firstborn. But just as quickly he pulled his hand back in and out came the other baby, named Perez, which means “breach.” The midwife exclaimed, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” (v. 29). Another crafty story of family lines, sexual misconduct, and the blessing of children through irregular means. Breach of conduct, you might say.
When Ruth and Boaz get together they come from two families where the women went to unusual measures to conceive children. And when Boaz and Ruth married, God “made her conceive” (4:13) and her son was named Obed (4:17). The women of the neighborhood came to celebrate and they proclaimed how good God was to Naomi. Moreover, they pronounced that Ruth “is more to you than seven sons” (4:15). Imagine that. Imagine women in a society like that, dependent on men for status, title, name, family, wealth, and even food, proclaiming that Naomi the family-less old widow was lucky to have a Moabite daughter-in-law like Ruth – luckier than if she’d had seven sons.
This is how the book of Ruth ends. The women are restored to family and blessed with a boy child. The community recognizes their family and even manages to praise a Moabite in the process. At the beginning of the story there is no way for Naomi to conceive of the good in her situation, even when Ruth clings to her and follows her home. At the end of the book, the final paragraph is a listing of the descendants of Perez, ending with Obed fathering Jesse who fathers David, the eventual king. It’s a signal to the listeners and readers that the end of the story will be even better. There is no way Ruth and Naomi know this then. In fact, even the blessing of Ruth is not fully imaginable until much later.
If you flip to the start of the New Testament you get a clearer picture. The book of Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, starts with 17 verses of genealogy which lead from Abraham all the way through King David and then on all the way to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. So-and-so begat so-and-so who begat….and so on. In that long, long list of father to son, there are only four women named: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary. We’ll leave the prostitute Rahab for another day, but that description gives you a little to go on. And you know Mary, mother of Jesus, who found herself pregnant in an unusual fashion. What a family tree! What remarkable, conniving, scandalous, wily, faithful, blessed women!
What neither Naomi nor Ruth could imagine in their time – even when making plans for the threshing floor encounter – was where the story would end up. They could not imagine how the simple and extravagant and irregular blessing of a baby would, in time, turn into the irregular, extravagant blessing of another baby who would save not just one family but the whole world. Ruth’s racy, somewhat questionable actions are the very actions that contribute to the family tree which bears fruit in Jesus. This is not the apparent end of the story when you’re reading Ruth.
But we are not always the best at knowing what God will do with our mixed up methods and faltering attempts to make our lives right, are we? Sometimes our best plans lead nowhere. And sometimes our worst moments end up transformed by the grace of God in ways we never could have imagined.
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis