Horizons — What My Grandmothers Taught Me — Ruth and Redemption

Lesson 5: Ruth and Redemption

In Sunday school, my teachers never taught the sexually suggestive scripture of Ruth Chapter 3.

Consider the plan that Naomi devises. Born out of the desperation of their poverty, Naomi tells Ruth to wash, dab on perfume, put on her best dress and go to the threshing floor at the end of harvest season. A prostitute might do this but not a respectable woman. Further, Naomi tells Ruth to wait until after Boaz has had his fill of food and drink and he lies down to sleep. Naomi says, “Observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” The listeners to the story would have found this sexually titillating since “feet” was used as a euphemism for genitalia. What will Boaz do? What will Ruth do? What will they do together? The story doesn’t explicitly tell us.

Boaz wakes out of a deep, dead sleep and turns over to find a woman beside him. In the pitch black of night, he asks, “Who are you?” Ruth changes Naomi’s carefully prescribed script and answers, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” Is Ruth suggesting a romp under the covers/cloak?

Earlier in the story, Boaz is portrayed as a rich, faithful man who is a relative of Naomi’s dead husband. As Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer notes in her commentary in “The New Interpreter’s Bible,” Boaz is impressed by Ruth’s loving kindness to Naomi and instructs his male workers not to touch or humiliate her. Now, Ruth is asking Boaz to act as the kinsman-redeemer (in Hebrew, “goel”). The goel was the nearest adult male relative who married the wife of a deceased family member in order that the firstborn son might carry on the deceased man’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The goel also bought back a relative who had sold himself into slavery, restored property, assisted in lawsuits and upheld the family honor (see Leviticus 25:24-35; 47-55).

When Boaz first learns of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, he gives her a prayerful blessing: “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12). Ruth is asking Boaz to spread his protection over her, and she requests that he be the fulfillment of his own prayer-blessing.

We may be the fulfillment of the prayers that we pray on behalf of others. The Letter of James reminds us that praying for someone to be warm and well-fed is useless unless we provide for those who cannot provide for themselves (James 2:15-16). We may decry inequity, poverty and racism, and we may be the ones called to address these blights upon human society.

Years ago, I was told a story about George Washington Carver, the prominent African American agricultural scientist, inventor and advocate for interracial cooperation. He would rise early and sit on an old oak tree stump and pray, “Lord, what would you have me learn today?” Being the answer to someone’s desperate need means listening attentively to what God would have us do.

Ruth asks Boaz to be the agent of redemption for Naomi and Ruth. Redemption is a major theme in the Book of Ruth. As Roberston Farmer notes, “In its eighty-five verses, ‘redeem’ and its derivatives (‘redeemer,’ ‘redemption’) is used twenty-three times.” The focus of the Book of Ruth is on Naomi being redeemed; being brought back from emptiness to plenty, from bitterness to joy, from food insecurity to security in Ruth and Boaz’s home.

We are also people who need to be redeemed. We need release from destructive behaviors, both self-inflicted and exacted upon others. We need to be rescued from vehement dislike of other people. We need to be liberated from perpetuating gossip and hate speech. We need to be delivered from the destructive powers of racism and inequity, issues brought so starkly to light during the pandemic.

The Book of Ruth offers no prescription for our redemption. It does remind us that hesed, that loyal, self-sacrificing, steadfast love, restores life. It is true that Naomi is still a widow who has lost husband and sons, but she is rescued from deep bitterness by Ruth’s actions.

God is the ultimate redeemer. God’s tough, tender and steadfast love (hesed) is the only thing that can change hate. Receiving or remembering God’s incredible love of us can change us and strengthen us to be a redeemer to others.

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