Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ruth: A Love Story?

When I first heard sermons on Ruth as a teenager, the book was called a love story. But I didn't get it. I would re-read the few pages looking for romance, passion, even a little affection--and find little to speak of (speaking of Cupid). Where were the passionate verses like in the Song of Songs?

And what was this? Ruth obeys her mother-in-law to go see an old man named Boaz rather than meet a young guy? Lastly, near the end of the story instead of a marriage celebration, the verses focus on Boaz being involved in a complicated legal land deal related to Ruth. Where's the details of their relationship after the meeting night and their wedding?

So why am I, then, writing this blog on Valentine's Day weekend?

Because, later when I studied the story academically, I discovered the nuances and euphemisms, and the transcendent themes in the book. Consider the pivotal scene of the story: Ruth 3:3-7 Ruth washes herself, anoints her body, puts on her best clothes and then goes down to a dusty farm workplace in the middle of the night to secretly sleep next to Boaz, a rich man. Sounds rather suggestive does it not?

But the literal Hebrew is even stranger, more provocative. After Ruth sneaks into the workplace, she is to "uncover his feet and lie down" next to where Boaz is sleeping. In Hebrew, "the feet" often refer to human private parts. For instance, angels are said to cover their feet with their wings; the text isn't talking about their toes.

Furthermore, the words "lie down" are often a euphemism in Hebrew for sexual intercourse. Notice in verse 4, that "lies down" is referred to three times and then again in verses 7, 8,13, 14. Also, Boaz who was eating and drinking until merry is sleeping near a heap of grain. And he later gives Ruth much grain. These images "eating and drinking" and "grain" are images used for sexual lovemaking in the Song of Songs--probably so here too. And there are more such implications in the verses, but this probably suffices for the plot line.

By now, you probably, also, are beginning to notice some intriguing comparisons and contrasts between the books of Esther and Ruth. In both a foreign young woman marries an old leader; in both people are eating and drinking. But in the former the leader is lazy, superficial, and selfish while in the latter, he is hard working, deep, and generous. In the former, Jewish separate identity is the focus, in the latter individual choice is emphasized, not ethnic background, nationality, or bloodline. In the former, it ends with a slaughter of one's enemies (probably including women and children); in the latter the story ends with love of opposites, the marital joining of two opposing human groups in the conceiving of a baby. Sound familiar? Hold on.

One of the central themes of this love story is openness to others, even enemies and an ethical polemic against ethnocentrism and religious exclusivism seen elsewhere in the Jewish Bible. For example, Deuteronomy 23:3-6 says "No...Moabite shall enter the assembly of Yahweh; none of their shall never seek their peace or their prosperity..." and Ezra 9: 1-2, 10:2 ..."The people of Israel...have not separated themselves from the...Moabites,,,for they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves...And Shecaniah..said to Ezra, We have been unfaithful to our God, and have married foreign now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children..."

Instead, at the end of Ruth, the text says "Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And Yahweh gave her conception, and she gave birth to a son...Blessed is Yahweh who has not left you without a redeemer."

Without necessarily arguing that the story of Ruth was originally intended as a messianic promise, one can see how followers of Jesus the Redeemer saw in all of this an allegory. Jesus was a descendent of Ruth, a Moabitess, a hated enemy of the Jews, and allegedly the Moabites were a despised result of incest. Yet from this union of Moabitess and Jewish leader came a child. And so in the case of Jesus, Ruth's descendent, another child born of a foreign woman under questionable circumstances which would reconcile enemies, and bring love to all humankind.

What if instead of emphasizing ethnic identity, nationality, religious differences, and bloodline, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs would fall in love at the "threshing floor"? What if they would join together, not separate or battle one another? What if they would marry, become one in love?

There is truly good news--the true meaning of Valentine's Day, not heart-shaped cards, but open hearts of love for others.

Don't be ruthless;-) like most humans, playing to divisive religious texts or nature's lowest denominator. Instead, become like Ruth and Boaz--be passionate and generous and loyal, live for others, and love your enemy.

To be continued

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox


Hystery said...

I really enjoyed this. It was a new twist on the story for me. I'd never thought much about the male figures in the story before. I was surprised when I realized that the love story you identify is that between Ruth and Boaz. In reading the title, I immediately thought of the love between Ruth and Naomi. Their faith in each other in the midst of their sorrow was a story of redemptive love on the margins of society.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Yeah, the relationship between Naomi and Ruth is so important--probably center most. After all Ruth didn't leave Moab to meet Boaz but because of her deep love for her mother-in-law.

The themes inherent in Ruth and Naomi's relationship and the focus on their initiative--ancient women's lib?-- is one of the themes I already planned to deal with...

And there is the complex difficult theme of Naomi's and Ruth's suffering and God.

But me being a guy, you didn't think I was going to do ancient chick lit themes first did you;-)?

In the Light,