Not long after Marci and I were married we moved to a little town in northeastern Saskatchewan, where I worked as parish assistant in three little Anglican congregations – Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake, one white community and two Cree reserves. In the little town in Ontario where I’d been living and working before we were married, we’d come across a little Gospel Hall with Sunday evening services, and since I didn’t work Sunday evenings and we liked to try different things, we went along to their services. We found them to be a warm and friendly little church and we went back to worship with them several times. So when we moved to Arborfield, we were pleased to discover that there was a Gospel Hall there too, and we looked forward to joining them from time to time.
That’s when we found out that not all Gospel Halls are the same! We went to a Wednesday evening prayer meeting that we saw advertised on their notice board, but we quickly discovered that they weren’t really expecting visitors from another church. At the front of their meeting hall the chairs were set around in a square, facing each other, and then the rest of the chairs at the back of the room were in rows facing the front like an ordinary church. When we walked in, the regulars were all sitting in the square at the front; they were surprised to see us, and when we told them who we were, we were quickly ushered into a seat in one of the rows, outside the square. We got the message loud and clear: we were outsiders, and they were suspicious of outsiders. Not surprisingly, we never went back.
I suspect that if you were a foreigner, moving to Israel in ancient times was a bit like us going to that Gospel Hall. Israel saw itself as a distinct society, worshipping the one true God while all its neighbours worshipped idols. And in the law of Israel there were strong statements about not marrying outsiders and keeping pure from their idolatry and sin. But in the story of Ruth we read about someone who bucked that trend, and, possibly to her surprise, she found a community that was willing to welcome her.
Historically this little story is set ‘In the days when the judges ruled’. In other words, we’re taking about the time after Moses and Joshua led the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, but before the days when there were kings like Saul and David to rule over them. The story starts in Bethlehem in Judea, with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. There was a famine in the land, so Elimelech took his family to the neighbouring country of Moab to live. This would be rather adventurous for an Israelite, as the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel. Elimelech died soon after the family arrived in Moab, but the two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth – another unusual thing for an Israelite family. They stayed in Moab for about ten years, and then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi all alone with her foreign daughters-in-law.
Naomi heard that the famine was over in Bethlehem, so she decided to go home to her own country, and her daughters-in-law began to go with her. But she tried to discourage them from doing so: ‘Go back to your own mothers’ houses’, she said, ‘and may the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt kindly with me. There’s no point in you coming along with me; even if I were to marry again and have sons, would you wait ‘til they were grown and marry them?’ This refers to a custom in ancient Israel: when a man died without children, his brother was to marry his widow and raise up children, who would then be counted as the dead man’s children so that his family line would continue. From this we can infer that both Mahlon and Chilion had died without producing heirs.
So Orpah turned back and returned to her own land, but Ruth would not. ‘Where you go, I will go’, she said to Naomi. ‘I’ll live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I’ll be buried with you’. And so Naomi accepted her company, and the two returned to Bethlehem together.
Of course in those days, two women living alone without a man to support them would have been in a vulnerable position. How would they earn a living? There was a requirement in the law of Moses that at the harvest time farmers should leave the wheat standing on the edges of their fields so that the poor and needy could ‘glean’ it, and workers who accidentally dropped stalks of wheat were not to pick them up again but leave them for the poor. So Naomi sent her daughter in law to glean in a nearby field; it happened to belong to a man named Boaz. When he heard who Ruth was – apparently her reputation of caring for her mother-in-law had gotten around - he instructed his workers to make it easy for her by intentionally dropping some wheat behind them, and he also invited her to eat with his workers when they took their lunch break. So Ruth did quite well that day, and at Boaz’ invitation she stayed in his fields and gleaned behind his workers all through harvest time.
We need a little background in Jewish law to understand what happened next. As we’ve already seen, there was a lot of concern for the continuation of family lines and family property. If a man died leaving a widow, the law required that a near relative should marry the widow, so that the man’s land would not pass outside the clan or tribe. The nearest relative, the one who had the obligation to marry the widow, was called in Hebrew the ‘goel’, which we could translate ‘kinsman-redeemer’; it was his job to ‘redeem’ the land if it was to be sold to support the widow, and to marry her as well.
It turned out that Boaz was a very close relative to Naomi’s late husband, and so Naomi’s next plan was to try to set him up with Ruth. She sent Ruth to the place where Boaz and his workers were winnowing barley at their threshing floor. ‘He’s going to sleep there tonight’, she said; ‘When he’s fallen asleep, lie down at his feet, and when he wakes, he’ll know what to do”.
Sure enough, Boaz woke up during the night and saw Ruth lying there. When he asked what she wanted, she replied, ‘Spread your cloak over your servant, because you are the goel’. Boaz was very pleased; apparently he was an older man, and she was a younger woman, and he was flattered that she had gone to him rather than someone younger. ‘I’ll do what you ask’, he said, ‘but we’ve got to do this right. It’s true that I’m a close relative, but there is someone who’s closer still, and he actually has the right to redeem your father-in-law’s land. If he’ll do it, fair enough; if not, I will’.
So Ruth stayed the rest of the night, and in the morning Boaz gave her a sack of barley to take home for her and her mother. Then he went into town and took his seat at the gate, which was where business deals and legal matters were transacted in those days. Pretty soon the other man, the closer relative of whom Boaz had spoken, came by, and Boaz invited him to sit down. He then asked for ten elders of the town to sit there as witnesses, and they did so.
Boaz then said to the other man: ‘Our relative Naomi is going to sell the land that belonged to her late husband Elimelech. You’re the goel; you’ve got the right to redeem it. I need to know if you’re going to do so, because if not, I’m the next in line’. The man replied, ‘I’ll redeem it’. Boaz said, ‘The day you buy the field you also acquire the hand of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite, to continue the dead man’s name on his inheritance’. The other man replied, ‘Then I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to damage my own inheritance’. So Boaz said to the people sitting around, ‘You are witnesses that I’ve acquired Elimelech’s land, and also the hand of his daughter-in-law Ruth’, and they agreed, ‘We’re witnesses’.
So Boaz married Ruth, and they had a son who they called Obed. What follows is remarkable: Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. So David’s great-grandma was a foreigner, a Moabite woman, an outsider. And not only that, but Jesus was a descendant of David, so Ruth took her place in the family tree of the Messiah.
On one level this becomes a lovely romantic story, a strong contrast to all the savagery and killing going on in the book of Judges which is set in the same time period in Israel’s history. But on another level there’s a lot going on theologically in this story.
In the Old Testament we see a discussion going on about what it means to be God’s faithful people. The Israelites saw idolatry as the basic sin. If you worship something that is not God, then you’ve taken the one true God and replaced him with a lie. And worshipping a lie, you then come to believe all sorts of other lies about the sort of life you ought to live. That’s why the Ten Commandments lay such strong emphasis on not worshipping false gods. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image’.
Most of the Old Testament authors believed that if you want to keep yourself free from idolatry, the best thing to do is to avoid idolaters. So keep strict boundaries for the people of Israel; don’t allow foreigners in, don’t trust them, and certainly don’t intermarry with them. We see this line taken in two books that were probably written at about the same time as Ruth – Ezra and Nehemiah. In those books, Israelites who have married outside of the ethnic boundaries of Israel have committed a grave sin; they’ve brought Israel into the danger of being tempted toward idolatry again. Ezra and Nehemiah and people like them could point to all sorts of evidence, too: ‘Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon? He started out good, but then he married a bunch of foreign women who worshipped false gods, and the next thing you know, he was worshipping their gods too!’
This disapproving stance toward outsiders is the dominant view in the Old Testament. But it’s not the only view. There’s another strand with a more positive attitude toward foreigners, and the story of Ruth is part of this strand. Here we don’t see any disapproval of Ruth’s status as a foreigner. No one accuses her of being an idol-worshipper who was trying to lead Israel astray. In fact, we’re told explicitly at the beginning of the story that she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, ‘Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God’. In other words, this foreigner, who had been raised to worship the Moabite gods, decided to become a worshipper of Yahweh, the God of Israel – and no one questioned that this was a perfectly right and proper thing for her to do.
But she needed someone to bring her into the family, and in the ancient world the only way this could happen would be if someone in the family married her. A woman couldn’t just up and change her religion without consulting her husband! And so Boaz acted as her goel, her kinsman-redeemer, marrying her and bringing her into the family of God’s people – and into a very privileged place in the family history, as the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king.
In New Testament terms, we Canadian Christians are like Ruth. In the Old Testament we would have been seen as Gentile outsiders; the Jews were in, but we were not. But we have a redeemer, a goel, who has brought us into the family. In the Bible the relationship between Jesus and his Church is often seen as a betrothal or a marriage: the Church is ‘the Bride of Christ’. He has extended the borders of the family of God’s people, and now we’re inside.
But you can get too comfortable inside, and forget what it’s like for people who are still on the outside. That’s not a good place to be for followers of Jesus, who was constantly on the lookout for outsiders who he could bring in. And like ancient Israel, we have a choice about this. We live in a culture that is becoming less and less friendly to organized religion. Our society used to be thought of as Christian, but now it definitely isn’t. So what are we going to do? Are we going to circle the wagons, concentrate on our own little religious club, and assume that everyone out there has no interest in God and Christ at all? Or are we going to go out confidently into a world that belongs to God, whether it acknowledges the fact or not, with the message that Jesus gave us: that everyone who is carrying a heavy load is invited to come to him and find rest, that all people are invited to become his disciples?
This, of course, is a very important thing for us to keep in mind as we observe Remembrance Day this week. One of the insidious things about war is that it divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘us’, who are on the inside, the good people, and ‘them’, the outsiders, the evil people. So the foreigner, the person who is different, becomes an object of fear, and we circle the wagons to keep them out. We might even demonize them, see them as somehow less than human, to make it easier for us to kill them. The tragic story of the twentieth century should have given us an object lesson into where that attitude leads.