A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Ruth and Naomi – Workers of Salvation
November 12, 2006
Pentecost 23 The Book of Ruth
The Book of Ruth is a story of women in a men's world. It is a well-crafted, subtle story where literary form and content combine in order to affirm the clever strategies and courage of women.
God doesn't make an appearance. Ruth and Naomi know hardship, danger, and death. No omnipotent God promises them blessing. No man rushes to their rescue. They themselves risk bold decisions and shocking acts in the midst of the alien and hostile. They are working out their own salvation.
There are four distinct Acts in this drama. Act I concerns the tragic plight of Naomi. She is a Jewess who with her husband, Elimelech, and two sons fled from a famine in Judah to neighbouring Moab. There the boys marry local girls. Then disaster strikes. Her husband dies. Her two sons die. The famine also comes to town.
In a patriarchal world the security and survival of women depends on male patronage. Naomi's cultural worth, without husband or sons, is negligible. She is now reliant on the goodwill of kinsmen in the extended whanau. Naomi therefore decides to leave Moab, return to Bethlehem, and seek out such goodwill.
Her two widowed daughter-in-laws want to come too. Naomi is touched. Indeed she sees in their gracious loyalty the graciousness of God. Note the power of this: the author is proclaiming the presence of the Jewish God in pagan female foreigners!!
Naomi, however, orders her daughters-in-law to turn back. She tells them that she is past marrying age, and therefore cannot attract a man to shelter them. She tells them that being a foreigner without resources in Judah is no picnic. She tells them their chances of re-marriage [the path out of poverty] are better in Moab. One of the daughters-in-law reluctantly agrees.
Ruth, however, does not. “Where you go, I will go,” she says to Naomi.
I smile when I hear this read at weddings. Not many, if any, of the wedding guests realize that these words of fidelity are spoken between two women, and between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law!
Ruth's choice however makes no sense. She is forsaking the security of her own kin and her own gods. In the entire epic of Israel only Abraham matches this radicalism, but then he had a call from God. No God has called Ruth or promised her blessing.
Further, Ruth has reversed sexual allegiance. A young woman has committed herself to an old woman rather than to search for a new husband. One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel. 
Act II. They have now arrived in Bethlehem, and we are told about a wealthy kinsman of Naomi's called Boaz. Ruth went out to collect grain, as the poor were permitted to do, behind the reapers in a field belonging to Boaz. As chance would have it, he happened to pass by.
Chance, fate, luck, whatever you call it, in this story is the silent handiwork of God. Yet fate, as Naomi and Ruth, well knew can be a fickle thing, raining both curse and blessing where it wills. In order for fortune to smile fate needs courage and daring deeds.
Boaz asks, in classic patriarchal prose, “Whose maiden is this?” Who owns her? The question might fit the culture, but it doesn't fit the woman. The servant says she came with Naomi from Moab. Boaz then graciously directs her and protects her. Concern from this foreigner marks Boaz as a true child of Israel.
Ruth's response is deferential: “Why have I found favour in your eyes, that you should take notice of me?” It is also ironically subtle. This inferior foreigner by choice and by chance created this situation. Her deference results from her daring.
At evening Ruth returns to her mother-in-law with food and relays the day's events. Naomi is delighted that a kinsman has been so kind and they will not starve. Ruth is pleased that she can provide for the two of them. There is no inference that Ruth is sexually attracted to Boaz.
Act III. Naomi takes over. Aware of the kindness of Boaz, she begins to act upon it. She does not wait for matters to take their course or for God to intervene with a miracle. She plans an outrageous scheme, dangerous and delicate.
Ruth is to dress in her finest clothes and go alone at night to the threshing floor where the men are drinking and eating in celebration of the harvest. After Boaz has lain down to sleep Ruth will approach him, uncover the lower part of his body - euphemistically called “his feet” - and lie down. Just how much of the lower part of his body she is to uncover remains tantalizingly uncertain. Naomi concludes, “Then Boaz himself will tell you what to do”.
Ruth agrees. In Act I Ruth's allegiance to Naomi superseded any desire for a husband. In Act II her struggle for physical survival submerged any desire for a husband. Now, in Act III Ruth's allegiance to Naomi accords with that desire.
The suspense-filled question is: how will a patriarch of Israel respond to this bold action by a foreign woman?
All went according to plan. At midnight Boaz stirs and sees Ruth. “Who are you?” “I am Ruth, your maidservant,” she replies. Up to this point Naomi's script has been followed. However instead of Boaz telling Ruth what to do, now Ruth tells Boaz. “Spread your wing over your servant.” The wing refers to marital and physical security. Yes, she is proposing to him!!
Consistently throughout this book we have a portrayal of Ruth as the defier of custom, the maker of decisions, and the worker of salvation.
Boaz's response is characteristically gracious. He calls her a woman of worth. The story's audience breathes a contented sigh. It looks like Boaz and Ruth are going to get it together.
Yet there is a hitch. Legally the closest kin to Naomi's dead husband has the right and obligation to take Naomi, and therefore Ruth, under his wing. Boaz is second in line. He must go and see if the matter can be resolved.
Act IV begins with the elders conferring. No women are present. The unnamed nearest relative is happy to take Naomi under his wing when he learns that Naomi has a little parcel of land. But when the unnamed relative learns that with Naomi comes a foreign widow, Ruth, another mouth to feed, he wants to renege. The inference is that he is greedy – wanting the rights without the obligations.
Ruth and Naomi are now within Boaz's household, and the men see Boaz as having achieved this. The patriarchal concern for seeing the name of Elimelech, Naomi's dead husband, continue has also been achieved.
The story however does not end in the male court. It returns to the women. This is a women's tale, about women's achievements. Ruth has now conceived and borne a son. The women of Bethlehem rejoice. Rather than identifying the child as the son of Elimelech they see him as the son of Naomi. They speak of Ruth the bearer rather than Boaz the begetter.
The Book of Ruth can be read as a tribute to patriarchy: 'Women's worth is to be found in getting married and producing sons.' Yet to read the Book in this way is to miss the tremendous hope and courage of the women involved. This is a tale about moving from death to life. It is about surviving poverty and vulnerability. It is about surviving in a climate of prejudice and patriarchy. It is a man's culture, where wealth is blessing and poverty is curse. Where God favours Israelites and men. Yet within that cultural world, by daring deeds and a sprinkle of fate, by fidelity to each other, and struggling forward, Ruth and Naomi have triumphed.
Ruth appears in the genealogy of her great, and many times great, grandchild, Jesus. She appears there along with three other unexpected women, all bold and brave, in stark contrast to the usual men only genealogies. Her name is included in order that we might not forget. I think she would have been proud of her far distant mokopuna, Jesus. And he of his ancestral granny.
 Trible, Phyllis God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, p.173.