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Ruth

February 23, 2014

A tough cookie

With a whole book of the Old Testament devoted to her, and as one of the very few named female ancestors of Jesus, Ruth is important. She’s tough too. Widowed young, she not only trades her favours for a powerful man’s security, but so arranges things that she, a Gentile, retains control of her dead Jewish husband’s estate.

The story begins with a Jewish family, Naomi, her husband and two sons, moving from Bethlehem to Moab to avoid a famine. Naomi’s husband dies, the sons take Moabite wives and then they too die, leaving Naomi, Orpah and Ruth to fend for themselves.   Naomi resolves to return to Bethlehem, intending to leave her widowed Gentile daughters-in-law to find new husbands in Moab. But Ruth refuses to stay behind:

Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.

She swears this oath:

Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

The two women’s fates are bound together, and Naomi has no choice but to take her back to Bethlehem. Their return without their husbands causes a stir, which Naomi does little to calm; she’s destitute and angry. But the harvest is on, and Ruth hears about a local landowner, Boaz, related to Naomi’s ex-husband, although not so closely that he has any obligation to look after them. Ruth does not know about the relationship, but sets off to glean in his fields in the hope that he will take her under his wing. Boaz soon notices her but plays hard to get; she has to ask three times before he offers even the protection of being one of his servant girls.

So far so good. Ruth returns to Naomi with 20 kilos of corn, and explains that Boaz has befriended her. Things have clearly gone well, although at this stage no sexual favours have been exchanged.

Now Naomi has an idea.  She reveals that Boaz is a kinsman, and suggests that Ruth seduces him. Wait till the harvest ends, and Boaz is in a good mood, having eaten and drunk well. Wash and perfume yourself. Put on your finery. Wait till dark, and lie down beside him, having first uncovered his feet to ensure that he wakes from the cold. “He will tell you what to do.”  She could hardly be plainer.

But Ruth goes one better. Becoming Boaz’s mistress would get herself looked after, but the loss of respectability would preclude including Naomi into his family.  Her oath has made that unthinkable. So she asks Boaz to also become Naomi’s redeemer, i.e. to buy some land which Naomi’s husband would have bestowed up his sons.

Boaz is pleased that she has come to him in preference to all the other younger men she could have chosen, and is happy to take her as a wife rather than mistress.  However he cannot easily redeem Naomi’s land because there is another closer relative who has first refusal.  He spends the night with Ruth, although we are led to believe that they didn’t go all the way, and sends her away before first light to avoid gossip.

The next day Boaz goes to the city gate where deals are done, calls over Naomi’s closer relative, and tells him he has first refusal on the land. The man says he will buy it.  But then Boaz reminds him that there is a widow involved. When he buys the land he also has to marry Ruth to maintain the name of the dead with his property. Ruth’s first-born son will inherit the land.  Naomi’s relative suddenly becomes less keen. Not wishing to dilute his inheritance, he relinquishes his right of first refusal, leaving Boaz free to redeem the land, marry Ruth and bring Naomi into his household.

Ruth bears Boaz a son, Obed, who fathers Jesse, who fathers David, who having seen off Goliath becomes King. Twenty eight generations later, in the direct line of David’s male descendants “Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1: 16).

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