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Photograph courtesy of Kathryn Zucker Johnston

Scripture can be found here

Kathryn Schifferdecker’s commentary at WorkingPreacher.org can be found here

In last week’s reading (Ruth 2:1-22) a corner was turned in this tale of loss turned to gain and emptiness turned to fullness. In an act of desperation, Ruth the Moabite and her Judean mother-in-law Naomi returned to Bethlehem. Ruth found both grain and favor in the fields of Boaz, a prominent man of Bethlehem who also happens to be a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Boaz offered Ruth protection in his fields and food during her gleaning hours; as a result, Naomi and Ruth no longer live in imminent threat of starvation and disaster.

This week Naomi takes the lead. Explicitly stating that the goal for Ruth must now be marriage, she sends her daughter-in-law, washed and anointed, to the end-of-harvest celebration, with kinsman Boaz as the object of Naomi’s strategies. Naomi instructs Ruth,

“… go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” [3:3b-4].

Ruth agrees to the plan.

In God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Phyllis Trible contrasts this encounter with Boaz and the one that took place in the previous chapter:

“The first was a meeting by chance; the second by choice. The first was in the fields; the second at the threshing floor. The first was public; the second private. The first was work; the second play. The first by day; the second by night. Yet both of them hold the potential for life and death.” [“A Human Comedy,” p. 183]

And now, a word about feet. Many of us are aware that the Hebrew word can be a euphemism for genitals. In our congregations, it’s possible that folks who are part of a regular Bible study have learned about this particular usage, but it’s not likely to have spread throughout the congregation unless the preacher has brought it into a sermon. And, indeed, as Schifferdecker reminds us, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a foot is just a foot. In either case, the use of the word adds to the sexual tension present in the scene. So does the fact that the encounter takes place at night, not to mention the presence of “all that seed and all that thrashing about ” [Noam Zion in “Megillat RUTH“, p. 64].

On a far more serious note: There is another way of understanding Ruth’s approach to Boaz. In the world of the story, women alone (i.e., without the protection/ patronage of male relatives) had very few options. One of these was prostitution, a fact that would have been well understood by the original hearers and readers of the story. Ruth’s actions of lying down quietly at the feet of a man who had been drinking and celebrating could easily have been understood by both parties as a solicitation. What occurs when Boaz awakens makes it clear that neither party understands it that way. But the specter of that other reality lies over the scene as well.

He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” [3:9]

Ruth makes a bold request of Boaz: by asking him to “spread his cloak” (or wings) over her, she is asking him to marry her. And she is explicitly invoking the law of Leviticus, which requires the nearest male relative to redeem an Israelite who has fallen on hard times (Schifferdecker, Leviticus 25:25, 35-38, 47-49). Ruth asks Boaz to step up.

Boaz agrees to the plan.

He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. [3:10-12]

Because the author of Ruth is a brilliant storyteller, the happy ending- the fullness and healing the reader is longing for- is not so quickly or easily accomplished. There is another who is a closer relative; this must be dealt with. Still, the atmosphere is light and the symbolism heavy: Boaz loads Ruth down with grain to take home to Naomi. Seed and fertility- fullness of every kind- is promised.

Naomi’s question to Ruth upon her return home is translated “How did things go with you, my daughter?” but the Hebrew is  a much more spare and enigmatic, “Who are you, my daughter?” Has Ruth returned home a woman promised marriage or not? Ruth’s response, if the text actually reports it in total, is equally enigmatic: “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” [3:17] If Naomi’s question (and ours) is, “What happened, exactly?” it goes unanswered.

Preaching thoughts:

1. The radical nature of Ruth’s character and actions- the selfless love with which she acts- continue to be revealed in this chapter. After binding herself in covenant commitment to another woman (against her own self-interest and outside her religious and ethnic group), Ruth provides for both their well-being and takes the initiative in securing herself a promise of marriage (going beyond Naomi’s instructions to her).

2. The opportunity arises for the preacher to talk about sex, within and outside the covenant of marriage. This chapter also provides the opportunity to speak of how scripture portrays marriage, and what values are upheld in its portrayal.

3. The story turns on the laws for caring for those who are in dire straits. Ruth gleans, a right established in scripture for the poor, the immigrant, the widow and the orphan. In an era in which the poor are so often demonized and blamed for their circumstances, the story offers a window on an attitude of communal responsibility for one another.

How about you? Where is your in-depth reading/ preaching on this tiny but wonderful book leading you this week? I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

 

~~~~

This week I’ve found two poems I’d like to offer. Both can be found in Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story, eds. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).

 

“Awakening Ruth” by Barbara Helfgott Hyett

 

Who can understand why a woman would

lie awake all night at the feet of a stranger?

She rests on her shoulder, all tide and riptide,

not floating, not drowning in dreams.

 

Boaz flexes his nostrils. He groans

like a thirsty orchard; his windpipe

opens for air. His old feet are barely

grazing the fields of her loosened hair.

Ruth studies the bony equipoise of arches,

his vulnerable heels. The half-moons

of his toenails gleam. In daylight, she will

meet the beast in the caves of his eyes.

 

She lifts her cheek from the pillow

of his hem, flexing her neck

like a scythe from side to side.

She rearranges shadows: each corn stalk

flattens into dark geometry; beetles

glean dust and silk from the sheaves.

 

The threshing floor grows warm. Her hunger

ripens. She draws the back of her hand

across her teeth. The story proceeds.

A kingdom begins at the delta of her thighs.

Behind the tongue of every language, she

is psalm and exaltation. She is the restless harp.

 

Ruth to Naomi: After the Threshing (~ Ruth 3:6-15) by Kathryn Hellerstein

 

And she went down unto the threshing floor, and did according to all that her mother-in-law bade her.

 

Without understanding them, I followed your words,

hiding in shadows of the granary

while threshers– men and boys– ate well and drank.

They fell asleep on bales of hay, their sieves

scattered across the piles of winnowed grain

 

as careless as the bawdy jokes and songs

they left off, mid-verse, slipping into dreams.

Stone walls absorbed their even breathing and

fresh dust from beaten husks. I held my breath

as Boaz, laughing, a little drunk, yawned, belched,

 

then lay down by a heap of corn, and slept.

As you instructed, I came softly to

that spot, uncovered his feet– their calloused heels,

worn arches in repose– and curled up there.

At midnight, he turned over, brushed his foot

 

against my scarf, and suddenly sat up.

“Who are you?” his words probed into the dark.

To him, the rough-edged shadow, darkness on

pure dark, not knowing why, I answered, “Ruth,

your handmaid. Spread your skirt upon me– you

 

are a near kinsman.” His reply blessed me

as “daughter.” He praised me for kindness shown

to you, Naomi, and to him, old man

whose grace you ask through me. I never thought

to follow after young men, rich or poor,

 

or any man, since Mahlon, for when

I followed you, I found my way through grief.

He called me “daughter” again, and “virtuous.” His beard

tickled my ear. I shivered in the warmth

of this man’s breath, as he explained y0ur laws

 

that let the nearer kinsman of the dead

be first to choose the widow and the land.

I started to stand up. He told me, “Sleep,”

and just before the dawn broke, helped me leave,

unnoticed, as the moon slipped from a sky–

 

indigo turned to violet– and the sun

inched up to gild the rooftops brilliant as

the barley he poured in my heavy cape.

You ask me, “Daughter, who are you?” I’m filled

with dreams. The chaff of widow falls away.

3 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary- “Oh What a Night” Edition

  1. I’m not preaching this series with the Narrative Lectionary folk, but I decided to do summer Bible study on the book for 4 weeks. Thanks for this treatment. It is masterful!

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