This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news
RUTH CHAPTER 3
Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing-Floor
3 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. 3 Now 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. 4 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.’ 5 She said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’
6 So she went down to the threshing-floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 7 When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. 8 At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! 9 He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’[b] 10 He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11 And now, my daughter, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. 12 But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. 13 Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin[c] for you, good; let him do so. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin[d] for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin[e] for you. Lie down until the morning.’
14 So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, ‘It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing-floor.’ 15 Then he said, ‘Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.’ So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. 16 She came to her mother-in-law, who said, ‘How did things go with you,[f] my daughter?’ Then she told her all that the man had done for her, 17 saying, ‘He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, “Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.”’ 18 She replied, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.’
Doubtless all of this is incomprehensible without an understanding of the Jewish custom of “levirate” marriage. As a man’s inclusion in Israel after his death depended on his children (classically Israelites did not believe in life after death), if he died before he had children he would be excluded from the holy people, unless his nearest male relative married his widow and begot children for him. This relative was called the “goel” or redeemer of his dead relative. Boaz stands second in that liner of responsibility to Ruth’s dead husband. Although this custom is fundamentally patriarchal, the story lets the reader see how women can use it to their advantage.
Naomi immediately grasps that her relative Boaz although perhaps not a first- in -line redeemer is important to her future as well as Ruth’s, and recommends that Ruth take the bull by the horns by going to Boaz’ bed. The harvest threshing floor obviously has overtones of sexual goings-on. Naomi is hopeful because Boaz has behaved honourably towards Ruth and can be considered a decent man. What exactly does Ruth do? She lies at Boaz’ feet. “Feet” can be a euphemism for male genitals, and although in this context it is ambiguous, it is deliberately suggestive: in truth, she lies beside a sleeping man, who awakes to find her beside him.
Again, in a situation where he could easily take sexual advantage, he does not do so, even when she asks him to “spread his cloak over her”, that is, take her as his wife. As an older man, he acknowledges that this is a faithful act on her part. Sexually she might have preferred a younger man, but he can be a “Goel” for her dead husband. Indeed he resolves to ensure that the first-in-line “goel” is given his chance, but not too much of a chance.
In all this narrative the foreign woman is presented a fully a person in her own right, with the skill to use the customs of Israel and her own sexuality with discretion and determination to secure her place in the community and protect her mother-in-law’s future. Boaz, the native Israelite, treats her as an equal, neither rejecting her nor taking advantage of her. The narrator is guiding the story towards an Israelite marrying a woman from Moab, a foreigner.
His story (or may it be “her” story?) makes nonsense of the “fear of foreigners” cultivated by Ezra/Nehemiah in Israel, by the leadership of Nigel Farage in the British elections today, and by many political movements in the world. Racism is not a trivial forgiveable mistake: it is a brutal attitude which all too often can lead to brutal actions. Exclusive religious communities are as bad as exclusive secular societies. Anything that divides the world into “us” and “them” is of the devil, even if it purports to come from God.