Recently I re-watched the movie “Apocalypse Now”. It starts with Willard the CIA assassin, mumbling importantly to himself - as only a white male CIA assassin who treasures his own guilty conscience can mumble; “I wanted a mission - and for my sins they gave me one.”
First thing that came to my mind when Jennifer and Meg asked if I would preach today… “I wanted a mission – and for my sins they gave me one.”
Who We Welcome is Who We Are:
I have liked the Old Testament story of Ruth ever since I was a kid. But in seminary, when I learned it is not an “Aww Shucks, Ma’am” cowboy romance, I started liking it even more. The story of Ruth is not the particular romance of Ruth and Boaz. It IS a story of dangerous poverty, racism, and sexism – and what happened when good adults welcomed each other in an unsafe place and time.
In case you were not raised drenched in Hebrew or Christian stories (I can’t riff on Star Wars…) – let me retell the tale of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.
The year being described was about 1100 BCE, although this story is written down and collated into Hebrew Torah between 550-400BCE. This 500-year discrepancy is important and we will talk about it later.
The Hebrews, only a couple hundred years past Moses leading them out of Egypt, were developing into a fairly cohesive culture of monotheistic Yahweh worshippers. But of course there were other nations and religions around them – the Hebrews were not the only culture in town. One of the other nations was Moab.
Because geography is a bit important here – let’s do some palm geography. Palm geography (I made up the phrase) is part of my Michigan heritage. I grew up observing Michigan adults, when they would meet each other, showing each other where they lived by pointing to some part of the mitten of their hand.
So, this is the Mediterranean. Down here at the curve of my hand was a skinny strip of land where the Philistines lived. About a hundred years down the road from our Ruth story – little David will sling-shot his smooth little stones -- and kill the Philistine giant Goliath.
Next to Philistia is Judah. Judah is the mothership of modern Israel. In Judah is Bethlehem, the hometown of Naomi.
Next to Judah is the skinny Sea of Galilee. The Jordan River starts north of it, runs through this Sea of Galilee and then south out of it where is dead-ends in the Dead Sea. On the other side of the Galilean Sea is Moab. Moab is a Semitic tribe of people that is in almost all other mentions in the Bible, is regarded as inferior people and culture. Hebrews did NOT esteem Moabite people at all.
About 10 years before our story begins there was a famine in Judah. Naomi and her husband - Elimelech - both Hebrew - leave Judah to move to Moab where conditions are better. They have two sons who will grow up and marry local Moabite girls – Ruth and Orpah. (By the way our American icon Oprah - was named for Orpah, except her mom misspelled it.)
After ten years in Moab, illness comes to the men in this family. Naomi’s husband dies. Later the married sons die. This leaves three vulnerable women in a dangerously patriarchal society (are there any other kind of patriarchal societies?) They don’t have property or money; they are in danger of abject poverty – and as unprotected females – probably worse. Some things don’t change much.
Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law to go back to their Moabite birth families, back to the protection of their fathers and brothers. Orpah feels bad about this, but she leaves.
Ruth says no, she’s not going back. Her poetical lines are, “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
People through the centuries have interpreted this plea and promise in many different ways.
• Maybe Ruth was raised in an abusive family and it isn’t safe to go.
• Maybe her family was so desperately poor she doesn’t want to burden them with her own hunger and needs.
• Maybe she and Naomi have developed a mother-daughter relationship.
• Or they have become close, close friends.
• Maybe Ruth and Naomi have become lovers and partners.
• Maybe Naomi’s Hebrew faith appeals to Ruth. No one is certain of the religion in Moab, probably they made sacrifices to the god Chemosh; there are rumors of occasional human sacrifice. And there were probably also ‘exploitive to women sexual practices’ that were part of the Semitic religion in Moab. So Hebrew culture may have seemed more respectful of life and Ruth was perceptive enough to want that.
• Maybe the Hebrew father-in-law and sons were wonderful husbands who opened Ruth’s eyes to better companions than she had ever known.
All we know is that Ruth told Naomi she wasn’t going back home and Naomi assented to this. They are two women with few resources other than mutual respect, love, and desperation – kind of an ancient Thelma and Louise - only it’s going to end better.
They go back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem.
I have a hometown that is not Waukesha, as do many of you do. Mine is Ludington, Michigan. (point to where it is on my palm.) I rarely go back since my parents and siblings passed away, but I still have relatives there. I know a lot about how that town and how people are related. I recognize the interconnections of most of the roads and street; I know the sounds one would hear – the car ferry horn coming in and out of the harbor, whippoorwills at night, and the sound of Lake Michigan’s waves slapping the breakwater when one walks out to the lighthouse. Most people in my hometown are conservative, but I also know that once they know you, they are hugely generous and respectful. Knowing that gives me some clues as to how I would survive if I needed to move back.
That’s Naomi. She’s been gone a long time. She comes back poor and unprotected by a male’s name, but she’s no dummy. She knows Bethlehem and its families; who they are and how they are related.
Naomi has probably already explained local customs to Ruth. Particularly this Semitic farming tradition, which they are going to need to exploit. When farmers harvest grain – it is custom is to drop some grain on the ground so that poor people can follow the workers to pick up that fallen grain. Ancient social services …
Naomi has observed that her husband’s cousin Boaz became successful while she was gone. He owns land and has farm hands. Also, he doesn’t seem too married. Naomi tells Ruth to glean in Boaz’ fields - so Ruth does this. Boaz sees her and recognizes that she is his cousin’s wife’s foreign daughter-in-law. An undocumented field laborer, as it were – yet he tells his men, for whatever reasons we want to ascribe to him; he tells them to leave plenty of barley on the ground for the Moab gleaner.
Naomi sees how much barley Ruth is gleaning – she tells Ruth to ONLY glean in Boaz’ fields. She knows something is up.
When the barley harvest is complete and the thrashing is done, it’s finally time to party down. Partying in Judah 500 BCE means beer, food, revelry, and sleeping all night on the threshing floor - possibly because wives don’t want those stinky, drunk men coming home. Which means, where there are a bunch of drinking and celebrating men, who have probably just gotten their paychecks for the season – there will also be women who will offer sex for love, food, drink, and money. The threshing floors have this reputation. (What happens on the threshing floor stays on the threshing floor.)
Naomi tells Ruth to sneak very late in the night onto the threshing floor, find her way around sleeping men until she finds Boaz. Uncover the relevant parts of his clothing and hers. Instigate sex. Euphemisms are used, but what I said is what she did.
This is a trick to get the protection of Boaz who has money, power, and land in a place and time where women rarely have any. Where there is not equality of power and rights, there is conniving.
The women are anxious. If this ruse doesn’t work, Boaz has the power to do what he wants to an unprotected female. Ruth could be raped, strangled, and disposed of before the sun comes up. No one would ask too many questions of a landowner like Boaz.
But, the ploy works. Boaz wakes to discover he has spent the night with this woman – and he is not furious. He says OK, he will marry Ruth. But first they have to unravel the custom of the time that says if a man dies without leaving sons to carry on his name and property – then his next closest male kin is obligated to marry the widow, produce children by her, and leave his property to those sons.
Boaz knows there is a closer cousin/uncle in Bethlehem who ought to marry Ruth. After the night on the threshing floor, Boaz goes to the town center, finds that particular man, says he Boaz wants to marry Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law. That guy agrees because he doesn’t want to have or leave his property to half Moabite children.
The good news is: Ruth marries Boaz. Boaz proceeds to legally protect both Ruth and Naomi. Ruth has kids with Boaz. Their first son is Obed. When Obed grows up, he has a son named Jesse. When Jesses grows up, he will have the little boy with the slingshot - who will become King David.
That’s the story. It’s only four chapters long – you can read it in a half hour to see how much I did or didn’t make up…
What are we to make of this short tale?
First of all - This story is NOT typical Western Literature. The stories we are most used to have one predominant character with whom we will probably identify. Curiously, this doesn’t apply to most of Jesus’ parables nor does it apply to this story about Ruth.
Instead of asking you to identify with one character–ancient stories present a small assortment of likely characters – and you probably gravitate to one that resonates in you. Which character is you in the Ruth tale? Older Naomi returning to her hometown with an unexpected dependent? Young widow Ruth who knows inside herself to not walk away from a good relationship, even if it makes her vulnerable in a society that doesn’t welcome her? Boaz who likely has already has had a full life and now this younger woman shows up and he has to find within himself the grace to accept the joy and work - and babies! - of a new relationship? This story invites us all in. Do you have to make peace with your past? Do you have to believe in your own longing for relationship? Do you have to keep working and dealing when all you wanted was barley soup, a couple beers, and a long night dozing in your Barcalounger?
There is also that historical reality I alluded to in the beginning. Scholars can tell by how the writer lays out the story, that he or she - I am fascinated that two out of three adults in this story are strong, brave women. This seems female to me – anyways the writer wants you to understand this is a story about the 11th century BCE. King David hits the scene about 1000 BCE; we are supposed to understand that Ruth is the great-grandmother of David.
Yet scholars tell us this story originates somewhere around 550 BCE.
Why is that interesting?
Nebuchadnezzar (the II but who’s counting?) was the Babylonian leader who conquered Judah about 600 BCE. He destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. He kidnapped Hebrews to export them as slaves to other lands. You may recognize this verse from Psalms or from Godspell: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Zion is a poetical name for Jerusalem.) That was written by Hebrews in exile.
Then about 50 years later, around 550 BCE, political reality mellowed out and many Hebrews were able to return to Judah. Except when they returned to their beloved land – it was different and parts of it were destroyed. They start to rebuild a temple in Jerusalem but nothing feels as “holy and inspiring” as their handed-down memories of life back when “people worked hard and lived moral and upright lives.”
Priests condemn Hebrews who are not living strictly; they blame the difficulties of the modern era on the so-called lax morals and practices of the returning Hebrews. They preach that citizens are being corrupted by the unfamiliar practices of foreigners among them. Some priests actually instruct Hebrew men who married women from other nations -- to divorce their foreign wives and get remarried to proper Hebrew women.
There is a huge and powerful message going on that says what’s wrong with society is foreign people, especially foreign women, lax morals, and lack of respect for the laws, rules, and customs of olden times.
Into this overwhelming world view – come this unexpected story of Ruth the Moabite woman who will not abandon Naomi her penniless mother-in-law. Naomi is realistically apprehensive about her own chances for a secure future, yet she allows this younger woman, against all that is common sense - to accompany her. The two women move back to the heart of the Hebrew holy land where they work hard, think harder, live as upright lives as they can manage in desperate circumstances – which in turn catches the attention of a good and decent Hebrew man who welcomes them with respect - and extra grain.
That welcoming of the powerless, of women, of the unwanted immigrant from Moab –- THIS is the tale used to launch the story of King David.
The startling message here is that golden age of Hebrew nationalism did not start in purity and rules-keeping. It started in respect, friendship, risk, and welcoming the stranger among them.
And here is another interesting thing. Hebrew law was comprehensive. There were rules for EVERYTHING people were likely to do, eat, and own. There were very clear laws about how to deal with widows who don’t have sons. Get them married off to the dead man’s brother. But even here, the story teller of Ruth is saying look – ALL your rules and you don’t know what to do with a foreign widow who is the daughter-in-law of a Hebrew woman. This situation is not covered in the bazillion rules for Hebrew conduct. So they have to make up for themselves what is the proper thing to do –Boaz negotiates with the one guy is town how is closer by blood than himself – but do you see what they are doing?
This situation is new. These two people want to get married -- and we don’t have clearly established laws about what to do. Hah, as if this is never going to come up again!
What Boaz does is portray the religious value of Hesed. Hesed is the Hebrew word for welcoming others, for living and giving generously, for treasuring the humanity in all the people we meet. Hesed is the ordinary and extraordinary moral characteristic of “loving-kindness”.
This small story of Ruth portrays a new aspect of Hebrew religion. Up until this time, people understood the presence of Yahweh in two ways. One was in miracles – such as Moses encountering the burning bush. The other place Yahweh resided was in religious rituals conducted by priests.
Ruth is one of the first stories to suggest that the Divine is present where people act with hesed, loving-kindness. Purity and spirituality grow out of living in loving-kindness in one’s family and community.
The little 4-chapter book of Ruth is squeezed into the historical books of the Hebrew story – Joshua, Judges, the Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles. Every year, seven weeks after Passover, is the 1-day festival of Shavuot (sha-vooith) where receiving the Torah is celebrated. Synagogues and temples are filled with greenery. People eat cheese and milk (Did one of the Tribes of Israel end up in Wisconsin?). During the celebration of Shavuot, the story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz is written to the assembled congregation. Hesed - the loving-kindness that is the root of Hebrew culture and law - is lifted up as the heart of Torah.
We are not the first generation to live in a powerful reign of prejudice, discrimination, hatred of the immigrant, expulsion of the non-native.
The story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz encourages us. Welcoming the stranger has always been and will continue to be the spiritual home of people seeking to live meaningful lives in unholy times.
Who we welcome becomes who we are.