Once upon a time there was a BOOK…
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Well, we’ve come pretty far in eleven short podcasts, and today we’re looking at a unique and beloved bible text called “Ruth.” The scroll of Joshua resolved the storyline of the Torah, but introduced new issues and tensions which grew into full-blown civil war in the book of Judges. The situation at the end of Judges could not be more bleak, as the ancient nation of Israel sank deeper and deeper into chaos. That book made a sharp argument that Israel needed a king, but offered no specific plan of action.
The scroll of Ruth couldn’t be more different from Judges in tone, scope, and content, but it does pick up the same argument and follows it to some shocking conclusions. Ruth is a fan favorite bible book, celebrate as a tale of romance and redemption. We’ll discover that Ruth is a downright scandalous story, the story of Israel’s greatest king, by way of a pushy pagan woman who saved Israel when it couldn’t save itself.
Here are the first five verses of Ruth Chapter 1:
[1:1] In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.  The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.  But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.  These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years,  and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
There so much going on in these few verses, we need to make sure we keep track of all the threads. First, we have an explicit connection with Judges, so we immediately know the climate in Israel at this time: chaos, war, and – most important to the author of Ruth – no king. There is a famine, and a man from Bethlehem (a small town in the tribal territory of Judah) moves his family to Moab. Like many bible characters before him, this man is leaving the land of Israel in a time of trouble to find sustenance elsewhere. His name, Elimelech, is Hebrew for “God is King,” and his wife’s name Naomi means “sweetie.” Their sons’ names, Mahlon and Chilion, mean “sickness” and “failure,” which seem like highly unusual names, but may have been reflections of the troubled times into which they were born. Elimelech died, the boys married Moabite women, and then they died, leaving Naomi alone with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. So once again, we’re reading a story about LAND and OFFSPRING, or FOOD and FAMILY, or rather, the lack of BOTH.
In one sense this makes Ruth as familiar a story as anything in the Torah or the rest of the Hebrew Bible. But in the details we discover what an unexpected and subversive book this is. Not only are our main characters women, but the protagonist is a “Moabitess,” as the author repeatedly calls Ruth. Let’s refresh our memory about Moab, a most undesirable place and people in the eyes of Israel. Remember in Genesis, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex with him in a cave? Moab was one of the children conceived on that magical night. And that fat king killed by Ehud in the book of Judges? He was the king of Moab. The Moabites were known as antagonists to Israel, and in particular their women were known as temptresses who lured Israel’s men into apostasy. Ruth isn’t just a woman, she isn’t just a foreigner, she’s an enemy and a whore (at least in the eyes of a good, mainline conservative Israelite).
So we have a problem: NO FOOD, NO FAMILY. Naomi and her daughters-in-law are starving, and now there are no men to navigate the ancient patriarchal world on their behalf. Naomi decides she should head back to Judah, to find Elimelech’s family and take her place as a needy widow in the covenant society of Israel. She assumes that Orpah and Ruth will simply return to their own Moabite families and remarry. Orpah takes off, but Ruth insists on accompanying Naomi on her return to Judah. Ruth’s persistence is remarkable, and her relationship with Naomi is celebrated as one of deep dedication and affection. In fact, Ruth’s declaration of her intention to follow Naomi back to Israel is very often read at Christian weddings as an example of biblical love and commitment. No doubt the words are beautiful, but I’m always a little weirded out when I remember that this is a young woman talking to her mother-in-law. Here’s the passage in question:
 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”  But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”  And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
Ruth’s words are lovely and inspiring, and they’re also kind of crazy. Her adamant determination to wedge herself into Naomi’s world, Naomi’s homeland, and Naomi’s religion is remarkable. On one level, Ruth is the “persistent widow,” a character type in Hebrew literature which illustrates the tenacity of the oppressed and disenfranchised in the face of an uncaring society which should be going out of its way to take care them. This is Ruth to a T as we’ll see, but it’s even more peculiar for the fact that Ruth is not an Israelite. It’s one thing to see someone fight for their place within the Sinai Covenant, it’s quite another to see a powerless foreign widow trying to force her way into it. Traditional readings of this chapter usually just accept the fact of Ruth’s “conversion” to Israel’s faith and move on. But the fact of Ruth’s status as a pagan daughter of Israel’s enemies is the key to the book’s scathing message.
Anyway, moving on… The key word in Ruth chapter one is “return,” shuv in Hebrew. The verb is repeated twelve times, culminating in the return of Naomi – with Ruth the “Moabitess” in tow – to Bethlehem in Judah. Naomi announces to the townsfolk that she is no longer to be called by that name – “Call me Mara,” she says, “for Shaddai has dealt bitterly with me.” (Mara means “bitter”.) Now that they have a new home, Ruth and Naomi can set about solving their problems – the loss of FOOD and FAMILY. Solutions to both problems are in view in the first three verses of chapter two:
[2:1] Now Naomi had a relative of her husband, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.  And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.”  So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.
The covenant law of Israel made provisions for the needy and disenfranchised, and here is where two of those provisions intersect. On the one hand, Ruth is destitute and hungry, and as such has the right under the Law to “glean among the ears,” collecting grain that has been intentionally left behind by the field workers as a donation to the poor. At the same time, Ruth is also a young widow from the family of Elimelech, and as such was in a position to be “redeemed” – that is, bought out of her poverty, married, and restored to her place within the family – by a close male relative with means and property. Naomi identifies such a man, named Boaz, and Ruth decides to show up at his field and glean. She is claiming the first provision, that of a starving citizen, but hoping to make herself visible and invite the second provision, redemption by Boaz. The text is coy about it, “she happened upon the field belonging to Boaz…” But this is not just happenstance. This Ruth being persistent again, sticking her foot in the door, trying to kickstart her own rescue.
And this raises the central question of the book of Ruth: are the Israelites so numb and self-interested that a powerless pagan widow has to kick the door down and demand justice? If the covenant makes clear provision for women in their circumstances, why do Ruth and Naomi need to plot and scheme to take advantage of it? This is the scandal at the heart of the book that modern interpretations often miss. If the people of Israel won’t keep the law, a female enemy will step in and keep it for them. The details of the story are about Ruth and Boaz, but ultimately – we will see – the story’s invective has a much broader target. Disconnecting Ruth from Judges is the first step in missing that.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Ruth gleans in Boaz’ field and makes herself known to his staff. When he arrives to oversee his workers, they introduce him to the girl who showed up to glean and hung around all day. Here’s their conversation, starting in verse 8:
 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women.  Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.”  Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?”  But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.  The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”  Then she said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.”
Boaz is gracious, generous and protective toward Ruth, and this encounter is traditionally read as the flirtatious prologue to their romance. But given Ruth’s circumstances and her intentions in coming to the field this day, we can imagine that she is somewhat disappointed. Boaz gives her unlimited access to his fields, and even lets her eat a meal with him and his men. But at the end of this day, Ruth remains a destitute widow. Boaz’ kindness is palpable, but his intentions are somewhat sketchy. He tells Ruth that he’s heard about her plight. If that’s true, and if he is one of the designated family “redeemers,” then why did she have to finagle her way into a meeting with him? He’s not completely unsympathetic – Ruth’s Moabite heritage may be the reason for his hesitation – but to turn him into a romantic hero is simply to ignore the loud tension in the text.
That night Ruth returns home to Naomi with a huge quantity of grain, and their plotting resumes. Their first problem – loss of FOOD – is temporarily solved, but they’re no closer to any permanent remedies. So, in the next chapter, they turn up the heat. At Naomi’s direction Ruth bathes, anoints herself with perfumes, and heads back to Boaz’ threshing floor in the middle of the night. The “threshing floor” is a flat space adjacent to a field where grain can be processed into a usable product. Boaz and his workers are apparently working a night shift, and –
her first scheme having been only mildly successful – Naomi brings out the big guns. Here’s the text, in verse 7:
 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down.  At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet!  He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
The midnight encounter of Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor is one that religious readers of the bible have worked overtime to defang and sanitize. It’s usually presented as a romantic but sexless encounter between two righteous lovebirds. And where there’s no explicit hanky panky, there’s also no getting around the questionable nature of Naomi’s plan. She is sending Ruth to offer herself to be compromised, so that Boaz will have no choice but to redeem her or at least pay her off. And for Ruth’s part, she seems complicit, but her actions tell us that she has a plan of her own. Naomi is willing to offer Ruth up as a sexual object, but Ruth presents Boaz with a choice: take me in the easy way or be a man of Israel and redeem me. When Ruth “uncovers” his “feet,” this is very similar to a Hebrew idiom referring to a gentleman’s private parts. She’s putting two items on the menu: a fleeting sexual encounter, and a covenant-style redemption and marriage. She is subverting Naomi’s reckless plot and challenging Boaz to do the right thing. Which will he choose? Verse 10:
 And he said, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.  And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman.  And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I.  Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the LORD lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.”  So she lay at his feet until the morning, but arose before one could recognize another. And he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”
Ruth seems to have successfully embarrassed Boaz into making the noble choice. He acts flattered and makes some excuses – there’s this other guy who’s first in line to redeem you – but he ultimately commits himself to being her redeemer. After a secret night together, she returns home and waits for Boaz to make the arrangements. In chapter four, Boaz catches up with the other redeemer, and uses Ruth’s questionable status to convince him to step aside. Boaz and Ruth are to be married, and the tribe of Judah celebrates with some very interesting words. Chapter Four verse 11:
 “…May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem,  and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the LORD will give you by this young woman.”
This allusion to the Torah – “the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” – speaks volumes about both the significance of this marriage and the meaning of this book. We didn’t talk about Judah and Tamar on any previous podcast, but it’s a simple little story from Genesis 38 with some familiar themes. Tamar was a daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the sons of Jacob. When Judah’s son died, his second son refused to perform husbandly duties with her, and then he died. Worried that his other son might also die, he shut Tamar away. Alone and forsaken, she took her future and her fertility into her own hands and, disguised as a prostitute, slept with Judah. When the truth was discovered, Judah was shamed and declared, “She is more righteous than I.” Perez is one of the twins born of that union.
That’s a pretty twisted story, but it’s easy to see how it relates to the events of Ruth and how the author of Ruth invokes it to make sure we get it. Tamar was forsaken by the men in her family, and as a result the future of the family was in question. By taking matters into her own hands, indeed even by acting as a prostitute and copulating with her own father-in-law, she acted more “righteously” than anyone else around her. Perez represents the seed of the tribe of Judah – the tribe of Elimelech and the tribe of Israel’s future king (we’ll get there in a minute) – which wouldn’t exist but for a pushy female. In the same way, Ruth took her life and her fertility into her own hands, and the tribe of Judah is saved once more.
There are two endings to the book of Ruth, and neither is about Ruth. First, we see Naomi nursing Obed, the son of Ruth and Boaz, and he is called her “little boy.” This is the inclusio of Ruth, the bookend to an odd reference to Mahlon and Chilion as her “little boys” in chapter one. So this wasn’t Ruth’s story after all, it was Naomi’s. She got her FOOD, and now she’s got her OFFSPRING. But that’s not the real ending. The real ending is this, verse 18:
 Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron,  Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab,  Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon,  Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed,  Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.
And now we see the real point of the book of Ruth: David of Bethlehem in Judah is to be king of Israel. This crazy, subversive, scandalous story about a pagan widow cum Israelite, is an argument for the legitimacy of David’s candidacy for king. Remember when we talked about Judges, and suggested that the tribe of Judah was behind that book and its plea for centralized rule in Israel? That becomes exponentially more plausible now that we see a more specific, Judah-centric plotline emerging. Now, how and why would the story of a “righteous pagan,” a pushy female interloper, be an appropriate argument for David’s kingship? That will become clear to us as we move forward and learn about the next big chapter in Israel’s history. The next few books will focus on David and his adventures. But that’s another podcast.
And so, the book of Ruth. A surprising love story on the surface, a scathing polemic at its heart. Such is the impact of Ruth on the history of Israel that she – along with Rahab the prostitute from Joshua – is mentioned by name in Matthew’s biography of Jesus. Women were not typically mentioned in Jewish genealogies, much less foreign women with questionable morals. The “righteous pagan” is a recurring thread in the Hebrew Bible, one that is seldom identified much less celebrated today. It challenges and undercuts lazy notions of “good guys vs. bad guys,” of ethnic, racial, or religious superiority, and most important – it reminds Israel of who they were and who they are supposed to be.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at email@example.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.