Borders & Belonging, part 2

The book of Ruth is short -- just four chapters – a drama in four acts.

Act 1. It’s the time of the judges. A famine comes to Judah. Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion cross borders and go to Moab. Elimelech dies. The two sons marry Moabite women, but then, after about 10 years, the sons also both die. Naomi packs up to return to Bethlehem. Her two daughters-in-law expect to go with her, but she tells them to return to their own mothers and remarry. One of them, Orpah, reluctantly does so. But the other, Ruth, pleads:
“Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”
So Naomi and Ruth cross the border and return to Bethlehem, and arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Act 2. Word gets around Bethlehem of Ruth’s remarkable loyalty and devotion to Naomi. To support her mother-in-law and herself, Ruth goes to the fields to glean. As it happened, the field she goes to belongs to a man named Boaz, who, impressed by what he’s heard of the young woman’s devotion to her mother-in-law, is kind to Ruth. Ruth tells Naomi of Boaz's kindness, and Ruth continues to glean in his field through the remainder of barley and wheat harvest.

Act 3. Boaz, being a close relative of Naomi's husband's family, is therefore obliged by the levirate law (or may feel obligated by the spirit of that law) to marry Ruth to carry on his family's inheritance. Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor at night where Boaz slept, telling Ruth to "uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do." Ruth does so. Boaz awakes and asks her who she is.
She answers, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
Boaz tells her there is a closer male relative. In the morning, Boaz sends Ruth home with six measures of barley, then he goes into the city.

Act 4. Boaz meets with the unnamed closer male relative whom he had mentioned. Boaz says, “Naomi is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimilech. As the closest male relative, you have first shot at redeeming it if you want it.”
The relative says, “I will redeem it.”
Boaz says, “You will also be acquiring Ruth to maintain her dead husband’s name on his inheritance.”
Then the relative says, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself.”
So Boaz redeems the property, and Ruth. Ruth and Boaz marry. They have a son named Obed. We are told Obed will become the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.

To understand what this story is doing in the Hebrew Bible, first we need to understand what Moab means to the Israelites. Moabites are despised. As Glenn Jordan explains:
“In Hebrew folklore Moab was stereotyped as a place lacking in hospitality, and with some justification. There is a memory preserved in the words ot the Torah from another time of hunger and distress. In Numbers 22, the Israelites, recently freed from Egypt, are travelling through the wilderness on the way to the land of promise and they camp in the land of Moab. There is a reference in Deuteronomy 23:4 to a request made by the people to the Moabites for bread and water. The king of the Moabites, Balak, terrified by the number of people he would be required to supply… refuses their request for aid and shelter. Balak even hires a man to pronounce curses on them as he expels them from his land.” (27)
So, the Israelites do not like Moabites. They despise them with a special vigor beyond their general distrust of foreigners. The sentiment is codified in Deuteronomy 23:3:
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
And Ruth is a Moabite, as the text continually emphasizes. Hardly does the text ever say “Ruth,” without saying “Ruth the Moabite.” At one point, Boaz's fieldhand even describes her as, “Ruth the Moabite,...from Moab” --just to emphasize that her country of origin is not to be overlooked.

Yet Ruth’s devotion, her lovingkindness to Naomi, is clear. She declares: "your people will be my people." When they get to Bethlehem, Ruth takes the initiative in providing for them, saying, “let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain.” And, the story tells us, Ruth ends up the great-grandmother of King David, Israel’s greatest ruler. She makes a big contribution to Israelite history.

But does the Hebrew Bible really need this story illustrating that foreigners can be decent people who make a positive contribution so we shouldn’t be hostile toward them? The admonitions were already in Exodus:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (22:21)
And in Leviticus:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (19:33)
Evidently that was not enough, and to see why, we need to look back to what was going on in Judah around the time when the Hebrew Bible was taking its form.

By about 601 BCE, the kingdom of Judah was a vassal state paying tribute to Babylonia. Judah made a series of attempts to escape Babylonian dominance. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia laid siege to Jerusalem in 597, and again, 10 years later, in 587. He razed the city, destroyed the walls, demolished Solomon’s temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylonia. About 50 years later, Persia conquered Babylon, and Cyrus, King of Persia, decreed that the Jewish people return to Jerusalem.

During the period of Babylonian captivity, the Hebrew Bible began to form as various oral and written traditions were brought together. Just after the exile, further writings were added – in particular the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor were the two best-known leaders of the Jewish community in the years just after the return to Jerusalem. In the books for which they are named, we read that Ezra insists on obedience to the Mosaic law’s separation from non-Jews, and that Nehemiah encloses Jerusalem with a wall and purges the community from all things foreign in order to build a distinctive Jewish identity.

It's in that context that this little story of Ruth, which had probably been a part of the oral tradition for a couple of centuries, got written down and emphasized, so much so that it became scripture. I’m saying maybe the Book of Ruth is in the Hebrew Bible specifically to push back against the rather xenophobic outlook of Ezra and Nehemiah. As Glenn Jordan writes, there may be
“occasions in history when the proper response to the times is not another war or new legislation, not even an election, but a work of art. In this case, the process of gathering an oral account and committing it to writing stands in front of the juggernaut of history in an attempt to divert the hearts of people towards some lasting values, and to remind them of their better selves.” (47)
So maybe that’s why this story is there: to address a felt need to counterbalance Ezra-Nehemiah. In the face of the insularity and division and the border-enforcing of Ezra and Nehemiah, we needed Ruth, the Moabite, the immigrant, the border-crosser, to call us back to our better selves.

There’s Nehemiah proclaiming, “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons” (10:30), but a few books away there’s Ruth the Moabite standing before us to say, “Excuse me?”

And while Deuteronomy had said, no Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation, the Book of Ruth tells us that the great King David was just three generations down from a Moabite.

So if you're asking, "What can I do about divisions all around us, and the mistreatment of people on the the wrong sides of those divides?" and what you mean is, "What can I do to change those other people who are so foolish and pigheaded as to disagree with me?" then my answer is: I don't know if that can be done.

But if you're asking, "What can I do to commit myself to the open-hearted devotion and loving-kindness across borders that Ruth exemplified?" that is the much better question. And if that's your question, let me turn it back to you: What can you do? You yourself can best answer that -- if you set your mind to answering it. May that question, and not our fears, command our attention.

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