Monday, April 6, 2015

Ruth: The Cycle of Kindness

The Book of Ruth is a fascinating and stirring novella about a young, childless widower named Ruth meeting and marrying a gentleman named Boaz. It was truly a match made in heaven (pun intended!) and an absolutely beautiful story.

In the story of Ruth, God, through ordinary and everyday means, works mightily to accomplish his Jesus Mission; and the story reminds us that the darkest and loneliest times in life are not times to give up or to stop doing what is right. No, quite the opposite. It's in those dark and lonely times that we must trust in God all the more. For it is in the It is in those dark and lonely times that God often does his most loving and powerful work!

The Book of Ruth - General Info about Date, Authorship, and Original Audience: 
The story of Ruth is placed by the narrator in the time of the judges, but no indication is given as to when in this several-century period it took place. If the genealogy at the end of the book has no gaps, the events would best be placed in the second half of the twelfth century, roughly contemporary to Jephthah and Samson. [1]

The book is named for its main character, Ruth, a Moabite widow who married the Bethlehemite Boaz. She became an ancestor of King David (4:17, 22) and thus an ancestor of the Messiah (Matt. 1:1, 5–6). The author of Ruth is never named in the Bible. According to rabbinic tradition (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14a–15b), Samuel is the author. However, some say this is unlikely, since Samuel died before David actually became king, and it seems that Ruth 4:17–22 implies that David's kingship was an established fact at the time of writing.

In the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth finds itself placed in The Writings, the third and final portion of their canon. Traditionally, the five shortest books in The Writings – Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation, Ecclesiastes, and Esther – were/are referred to as “The Scrolls” and were/are read during the five major festivals – Passover (Song of Songs), the Feast of Weeks (Ruth), the Ninth of Ab (Lamentations), the Feast of Tabernacles (Ecclesiastes), and the Festival of Purim (Esther).

The Story:
Ruth is placed during the dark and tumultuous times of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). In Judges, people did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25) which lead to “the cycle of sin” which was repeated throughout the book:
18 Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways. ~ Judges 2:18-19
There’s also a cycle in the book of Ruth – a cycle of kindness/mercy (hesed) is displayed throughout the book by Ruth, Boaz and YHWH. A simple thematic division of the book of Ruth could quite possibly be – The kindness of Ruth (ch. 1), the kindness of Boaz (ch. 2), the kindness of Boaz and Ruth collide (ch. 3), and the kindness of God (ch. 4).

The story sets out in the period of the judges, Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons leave Bethlehem because of a famine to Naomi and her daughters-in-lawsojourn in Moab. Naomi's husband, Elimelech, dies there. Mahlon and Chilion, the sons, marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Ten years later the sons die too, leaving no children. Naomi has lost her family and devastated (1:1–5). Learning that the famine in Israel is over, she decides to return to Bethlehem; Orpah stays behind, but Ruth, after expressing her love and loyalty to Naomi, accompanies Naomi back to Bethlehem (1:6–22). At harvest time, Ruth goes to glean in a field that happens to belong to Elimelech's relative, Boaz (2:1–23). Naomi knows he is an eligible kinsman-redeemer. Following Naomi's daring plan, in a midnight encounter at the threshing floor, Ruth, at great risk to herself, boldly asks him, as a redeemer, to marry her (3:1–18). After a closer kinsman refuses to take Ruth, Boaz redeems all the property of the deceased and marries Ruth (4:1–12). They have a son, Obed, who becomes the grandfather of King David (4:13–22). Ruth is no longer a childless widower and Naomi has a family again. 

The Jesus Mission in Ruth:
The Jesus Mission is what the message of Old Testament points to. Typically, the pointing is subtle; but nonetheless, it's the underpinning theme and purpose throughout it. Simply stated, The Jesus Mission is the plan of God to make right and correct the wayward world. Throughout the writings of the Old Testament we can begin to see the hope of Christ, the One appointed by God to crush evil and sufferings, take shape. And coming Christ/Messiah is coming to put an end to sin and all its horrible ramifications. This plan is first revealed in Genesis 3:15 where God promises to put an end to the rebellion and perverted-nature of sin by crushing the serpent's head through the seed of the woman. And thus begins the line of Christ, “the seed of promise.” This line (Gen. 11) can be traced to Abraham when God makes a covenant promising that through Abraham “all the peoples on the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 11:3). Ruth & Boaz are two of the many individuals included in God’s Jesus Mission (Matthew 1:1-6).

As a foreigner and ancestor of David (4:17, 22), Ruth is a forerunner of the universal blessing and supreme act of kindness/mercy that Christ's redemptive work has ushered in. Many Old Testament prophecies anticipate a new King David (e.g., Jer. 33:15, 17; Ezek. 37:24; Hos. 3:5; Zech. 12:7–10) reigning over Israel and incorporating the Gentiles into his benevolent empire (e.g., Isa. 55:3–5; Amos 9:11–12). This expectation is fulfilled in David's “son,” Jesus the Christ or Messiah (cf. Matt. 1:1–6; Luke 3:31–33; Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3–5).

In him, the “gospel” preached beforehand to Abraham (Gen. 12:3; Rom. 15:8–12; Gal. 3:8), that all nations will be blessed, is fully realized (Rom. 4:9–12; Gal. 3:7–9, 14).

Through Christ, David's throne is reestablished forever (Acts 15:16; Rev. 3:7; 5:5; 22:16) and his reign is universal (Matt. 28:18–20; Rom. 1:5; 15:8–12). In him, people from all nations and the entire cosmos become redeemed from the corruption of sin and death – which is the ultimate of merciful redemption!

The Controversy: 
The book of Ruth is not without controversy though. There are apparent sexual connotations in the “threshing floor” scene in 3:1-15. Our English translations have a difficult time articulating some of the phrases – and for good reason! The phrase “uncover his feet (NIV)” in vs. 4 and 7 in Hebrew is an euphemism for the male genitalia. (For example, the same Hebrew wordings appear in 1 Sam. 24:3 which is translated “to relieve himself” – referring to King Saul going pee in cave.)

In addition, the Hebrew wordings which are translated “lie down (NIV)” in vs.4 and “lay down (NIV)” in vs.7 are almost always used to denote sexual relations.

This is not the only controversy or apparent breaking of God’s law in the book of Ruth. There’s the issue of Ruth being a Moabite, which is not even addressed in the book! In Deut. 23:3-6, the people of Israel are prohibited from welcoming the Ammonites and Moabites into the assembly of God. Elimech and Naomi’s move to Moab, their allowance of the sons to marry Moabite women, Bethlehem’s welcoming of Ruth, and Boaz’s marriage to Ruth (a Moabite) isn’t even addressed in the slightest!

Also, the outworking of the laws concerning re-marriage, levirate marriage and kinsman redeemer seem to be very loosely adhered to.

Interesting….what are we to make of these apparent violations of God’s Law?

Mercy/Kindness as "The Heart of the Law":
Barry Webb, in Five Festal Garments, gives us some insight into these apparent violations of God’s law and a little background in the purpose of the book of Ruth helps. Traditionally, the book of Ruth is/was viewed as one of the 5 Old Testament books (known as “The Writings”) which were liturgically read during the 5 festival Hebrew seasons. Ruth was read during the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) which was the time of harvest and a time commemorating the giving of the law to the Israelites. Webb writes:
“Life is always more complex than law alone can handle, and what we see in Ruth is custom that reflects the spirit if not the letter of the law, and in doing so distinguishes between its lesser and weightier matters. Ruth is a Moabitess, but she is also a widow and a landless alien who has taken refuge under YHWH’s wings. And the author of Ruth apparently takes the view that, in such a case, it would be inappropriate to invoke the ban on Moabites. This ban on Moabites was no more intended to exclude someone like Ruth than the ban on the Canaanites (i.e. Ammonites) was to exclude someone like Rahab, and, if we are to take the book as a guide [to live out the law of God], Boaz is a model of law-keeping rather than law-breaking. In other words, the book identifies the spirit of the law as kindness [Hebrew - “hesed” which is also translated as “mercy”], or more specifically, loving-kindness.
So, the reading of Ruth during the Feast of Weeks would have been a tremendous way to remember the importance of not legalistically (and therefore, improperly) living out the law of God, but rather living out the spirit of the law. And the spirit of the law is and always has been love – particularly, loving-kindness which always displays itself in acts of mercy to those around us!
…but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Leviticus 19:18
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8
Here are some great resources to help you better understand the Book of Ruth:

[1] Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary : Old Testament