The conclusion of the book of Ruth brings the redemption and restoration of Ruth and Naomi through no less than 4 different redeemers. Or is it one redeemer working through 3 human redeemers? You be the judge. How many do you count?
We pick up the story from last week: (parents, cover your kids’ ears) because Ruth took Naomi’s advice and spent the night with Boaz on the threshing floor, Boaz has now promised to marry Ruth. There is, however, the matter of Ruth’s redemption. Apparently, only the first of kin can redeem Ruth. So, what exactly does redemption mean? We know it has to do with the family, the family name, and more.
Then in the fourth chapter – today’s lesson – we find out quite abruptly what redemption means.
Now, if after the lesson was read today, you felt confused, have no fear. Even scholars are confused about this narrative and so they debate its particulars having to do with inheritance, laws, redemption and the like. The known laws of the time are not completely adhered to and because it has been edited along the way, in some ways it doesn’t make sense.
But here’s what scholars pretty much agree on: Boaz had promised Ruth he would approach his brother (or relative) as the next in kin to ask about redeeming Ruth. The scene takes place at the city gate where the elders would meet and essentially transact legal business on behalf of the town. Boaz refers to his brother as “friend,” which comes from a Hebrew word that can mean many things, including “brother,” which is probably what he was.
So Boaz says to his brother that Naomi is selling her land and it must be offered first of all the next-of-kin, i.e., Boaz’ brother. We’ll just call him “brother.” Now we know what all this talk of redemption is about! It’s about land! Since Naomi had no heir to pass on her husband Elimilech’s land, she was forced to sell it to the next-of-kin to keep it in the family. Brother agrees to buy the land.
But then Boaz adds a twist. Purchase of the land legally entails marrying the widow, Ruth, from Moab, who had married into the family. So if you buy the land, you also buy Ruth. Brother quickly concluded that this was not in his best interest, because now that Naomi could have a grandson and heir with this new marriage, the land would eventually go back to her heir and stay under the name of Elimilech, not his own name – which we don’t know, because he’s the nameless brother. The bottom line is the land would stay in Elimilech’s name if he married Ruth and had a son.
Boaz no doubt saw this outcome ahead of time and decided he was ready to both marry and redeem Ruth. And redeem Naomi. Boaz was already rich and didn’t need the land for himself. When God gave Ruth and Boaz a son, whose name was Obed, there was now an heir to Elimilech’s and Naomi’s name, so the family name of Elimilech would not die out. And it is from this ancestral branch that we soon get King David and eventually Jesus.
There are some really interesting things about this story and its significance for the church. As you may have gathered, this was a patriarchal world where inheritance laws and legal rights were heavily tipped toward the men, so women were in a very vulnerable way, particularly if they didn’t produce a male heir. Since this story is about Ruth and Boaz finding each other and producing the ancestral line that would give us Jesus, it is worth pointing out some remarkable women in Ruth and Boaz and Jesus’ own ancestry. For instance, Ruth’s ancestry can be traced to an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. Meanwhile, Boaz is descended from an illicit relationship between Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, a Canaanite woman. In both cases, it was the women who tricked the men into sleeping with them in order to produce an heir and secure their own futures. Then you have Ruth herself who took things into her own hands, scandalously visiting Boaz in the middle of the night to orchestrate her own marriage.
What is obvious in any of these stories is that these women were self-serving and had mixed motives for what they did, but they were also trying to survive in a world where women were quickly left out in the cold. So they did what they did to survive and secure a life for themselves and their children. So these women were not exactly saints, but the Bible is full of stories like Ruth who were empowered women in a difficult period of history. And while we may not want to say that it was God who empowered them – although it might have been – it is fair to say that God was at work through such compromised women as Ruth, Tamar and Lot’s unnamed daughter. God was at work through them, redeeming human lives.
But, of course in the Bible, the men are even more famously compromised than the women. From Abraham’s selling his wife down the river to save his own skin, to Jacob’s pathological deviousness to King David’s serious moral lapses, God worked through deeply flawed men to accomplish his purposes. And the same was the case with women. God does not only work through the righteous – if they even exist – but through the broken vessels we all are. Not because we deserve it, but because God chooses work through us. Why? Simply put, because we are valued and loved and worth redeeming.
Reflect on yourself and whatever flaws you have. Likely there are flaws or inadequacies that cause you shame, perhaps some that you try to hide. I know for a fact that many, many people of faith think their faith is weak and paltry, that their lives are not very conducive to God working through them because they’re just not good enough, that they don’t really have a faith story worth telling. And then you read the Bible, and realize that God is comfortable working with the medium of the likes of Ruth and Tamar, David and Jacob. You and me. Oh, it may pain God terribly at times – especially when we’re pains in the “you-know-what” – but the God we worship is “all in” with us. The successes we have in this world and the great tales we read about in the Bible are on account of God’s faithfulness, not human goodness.
That’s why it’s so important for us at Mt Carmel to learn how to talk about our own faith stories and unfolding journeys, our questions and struggles, joys and insights. Why? Because God is there. Because we’re not just talking about our human stories. We’re talking about God who redeems us through our stories, through each other.
So let’s talk about the redeemers in this funny – and perhaps risque’ – little story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz. With all this talk of redeeming and uncovering, we realize that Ruth plays the role of redeemer for Naomi – she saves her! Even when Naomi had rejected her, Ruth persisted in her commitment to Naomi. And the women at the end of the story remind her of this, that Ruth’s love for her has redeemed Naomi. In the concluding thoughts for this story, they say, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter in law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”
What is really cool is that the women who speak here clearly mean much more than just the legal definition of redeemed, getting land back in her deceased husband’s name. No, they mean in the holistic sense of having a family born out of love and devotion – a daughter-in-law and a son who can take her of her as she grows old. Where once Naomi felt cursed by her losses and emptiness, now her blessings were bountiful. Ruth, through her unshakable faithfulness to Naomi and her bold move securing Boaz for a husband, was a redeemer. Likewise, couldn’t you say that Naomi was a redeemer for Ruth as she urged Ruth to act in chapter 3? One can also easily say that Boaz was a redeemer, for both Naomi and Ruth. And when Obed was born, he too, that little one, was a redeemer for Naomi and Ruth. Obed the redeemer. His descendent would one day be Jesus, the redeemer.
But this story, once again, is not about just Ruth, Naomi, Boaz and Obed, but about a transcendent and benevolent power at work in and through the events of broken, messy human lives. People do these things, and then there is God at work bringing wholeness and restoration to Naomi.
This is what God does. This is what God promises, to Naomi, to Ruth and to you and me. It may not be on our timeline. It may not occur just the way we would draw it up, but it is promised, nonetheless, by our loving father in heaven who came down in the Holy Spirit and in Jesus to redeem us in our folly and bring us life. And so, the bold and compromised Ruth is a redeemer, for she was also committed and faithful. She even trusted a God – the God of the Israelites – whom she did not know growing up.
Which leads us to our final thought for today, as reflect on this marvelous unfolding story in the Old Testament and we realize how often foreigners and immigrants play key roles in securing Israel’s future. Ruth was a Moabite, Tamar a Canaanite woman, Boaz’ mother Rahab was a non-Israelite woman. This is not just an incidental feature, but something more. God is at work through those we consider “other.” To insulate ourselves from those who are different is to limit the ways God is with us and tells God’s story with us. In refusing to give immigrants a chance, we block God at the very same time. Obviously we live in cultural climate where it is all too easy to demonize the foreigner, but for Christian and Jewish reasons, that point of view is fraught with peril and runs counter to this story (the Bible). Amen.