[K:NWTS 3/3 (Dec 1988) 15-20]
Sometime, probably during the reign of Solomon, the story of Ruth's marriage to Boaz was written. We remember the reign of Solomon in its negative aspect, for the marriages he contracted with foreign wives that led him into false worship. In our usual way of approaching Solomon, we see the foreign marriage as the culprit. In the story of Ruth and Boaz, there is a foreign marriage, but the blessing of Bethlehem's elders rests on this marriage. A quick reading of the book of Ruth will disclose that Ruth was not just any foreigner. Negatively, she was a product of the line of Moab which could not enter into the congregation of the Lord unto the tenth generation. Positively, she was a foreigner who embraced the God of Israel when she decided to follow her mother-in-law. We can try to explain the tension by saying her loyalty to the God of Israel cancels out her being from Moab. No doubt there is truth in such a view. Still, the curse on Moab is meaningless if all it means is that ungodly Moabites are disqualified. Better to say, all the ungodly are cut off. This is the perspective of the end of history when the sheep and goats are separated out of all nations. But the book of Ruth is not written at the end of the age. The visible church excludes Moabites. When Ruth is included in the congregation of the righteous and blessed with the blessing of verses 11 and 12 it is evidence that the end of the age is beginning to break, however slightly, into history. In Ruth and Boaz, Christ is beginning to enter the world. The genealogy at the end of this book points us in this direction. There we find David. And Jesus is the son of David.
But we anticipate our conclusion. The story of Ruth in its immediate context is a story about redemption. For the earthly minded it might seem to be merely an earthly redemption. Here is a poor woman with no life insurance and no children to care for her once she gets old. She and her mother-in-law are on welfare. The young widow must do the dangerous and tedious work of gathering small remnants of grain left in a field. Such a woman is vulnerable to attack. If only she had a man and some children as an immediate help and security in her old age.
Ruth does have a kinsman that might help. He could buy the land of Ruth which is her right by her relationship to Naomi's son. But this kinsman is not a real kinsman-redeemer. He knows that Naomi and Ruth are in no position to have children of legal standing. Naomi is too old and Ruth is unmarried and without prospects. If he buys the land, it will not revert back in the year of jubilee because the family to whom it originally belonged will be extinct. Here is a unique opportunity in Israel. A real opportunity to add to one's estate indefinitely. Boaz knows there are two laws in Israel. One law concerns the redemption of land. But there is another law–the law of the levirate marriage. This law enjoins a brother of a childless widow to raise up children by the widow. The laws of Israel are not exclusively given over to real estate. There are laws for the preservation of one's name in the community of God. Boaz is a real kinsman-redeemer. He sees the connection between the laws of Israel and knows how to relate them to a real redemption. It makes no sense to redeem somebody's land and to let their name perish from the church of the Old Testament. The land is for the sake of the church. The church is not in the land for the land's sake. When the year of jubilee came and land reverted, real people were affected. They saw from a distance the cosmic peace that the God of Israel intended for his children by letting each sit under his own vine and fig tree. The land would support the coming generations who would worship God.
Boaz steps before the court. He pleads this interpretation before the elders. They agree. The redeemer who redeems people as well as land has the prior claim. Boaz is not a brother-in-law of Ruth, but he can still redeem her. He can raise up children that will preserve her. Indeed, one of the eventual offspring will preserve and save the entire human community of God.
We see the story of Ruth from the standpoint of those who live after the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. But in the book of Ruth itself, there are allusions to another plan of redemption that is still with us. Even the blessing of Bethlehem's elders reminds us that there are those who have been redeemed in spite of their efforts to redeem themselves. Look at the women who are named in the blessing. There are Rachel, Leah and Tamar. In contrast to the punctilious manner of Boaz in fulfilling the law in its deepest significance, Rachel, Leah and Tamar are engrafted into the church by a human ingenuity that does not disdain deceit. At Laban's urging, Leah enters the tent of Jacob in the guise of Rachel. Rachel resorts to a handmaid to get children, initially. Tamar sees her hopes of personal redemption waning and so she takes matters into her own hands. She exploits the lust of her father-in-law. Both Leah and Tamar had rights that were potentially violated by the men in their lives. This is certainly true for Tamar. And yet securing those rights entailed a faith in the flesh. And this is the history of redemption!
Let us compare the history of redemption to the history of judgment. Ruth, we have already noted is from Moab. Moab is the seed-line that resulted from efforts very similar to Tamar's. Lot's daughters got him drunk so they could have children by him lest their place in history come to an abrupt end. The curse on Moab did not come directly because of this act. It is related to Balaam and Moab's hostility to the people of God. But the effort to preserve a seed resulted in a cursed seed-line. Lot's daughters were interested in an earthly redemption of their own doing and this time it did not have the same results as did Tamar's. Or did it?
That God can work redemption out of our foolishness is no excuse for sin, but when Ruth is redeemed by Boaz, we find that descendants of Lot and his daughters are not universally lost. This descendant will even play a central role in bringing the True Redeemer into the world. The blessing of Bethlehem's elders will be fulfilled in Ruth. Like Leah and Tamar, the outcasts of society, she shall bring Christ's coming to pass.
A shift takes place, however, with Ruth. It starts out with a plan hatched by Naomi that appears to exploit Boaz in a moment of weakness. Wait till he is well filled with wine and food and asleep. A Boaz in this condition might be more vulnerable to the overtures of Ruth. Wine was the tool of Lot's daughters to reduce their father's consciousness of the fleshly attempt at a fleshly redemption. It was the same tool David used to induce Uriah the Hittite to be a temporal redeemer to cover his sin with Bathsheba. In Uriah's case it did not work. That God eventually used a child of Bathsheba and David in his plan is another case of "in spite of" instead of a "because of". The diminished capacity approach to redemption does not appear to work for Naomi or Ruth either. Our account does not inform us that Ruth was told or sought to actually seduce Boaz. But the appearances created by her sleeping at his feet at the threshing floor would create a presumption in the minds of the people that require a secretive departure. This is one irregularity that contextualization cannot explain away. It also furnishes no moral principles for Christian courtship and dating. Whether for good or for ill, Naomi's plan threatens to force the hand of Boaz rather than make him a voluntary redeemer.
The Beginning and the End
Boaz is not the final redeemer for many obvious reasons. Most obvious, Boaz needs a redeemer himself. Matthew tells us he was the son of Rahab the harlot. Small wonder he appreciates the internal qualities of Ruth rather than looking at external factors. That does not change the fact that part of his seed-line is outside the covenant. The Canaanite city of Jericho was built by the sons of the cursed line of Ham. Ham who exploited Noah's inebriation to gaze on the shame of his nakedness! Some use wine to forget the miseries of sin. Some use wine to gain power over others in their quest for self-redemption. But the prophet, priest, and king of God must have a clear eye, a strong consciousness of God and his will, and use the obedience of faith to accomplish real redemption. Jesus hangs naked before a gazing multitude of Jews and Gentiles. He despises the shame. Still, he refuses to lose any degree of consciousness of that shame by accepting a cup that will weaken his consciousness of pain or shame. That cup was offered by the devil.
A redeemer who enjoys shame is twisted and no redeemer. A redeemer who is unaware of shame offers nothing of himself and is no redeemer. A redeemer who has his own shame that needs removal is no redeemer. But Jesus the Redeemer joins himself in union with the children of Ham and Moab and Jacob. He takes their shame on himself. He even atones for the dirty tricks they played in seeking self-redemption. He does this for those prepared to forsake self-redemption. He does this for those who will share his shame outside the gates of the city and bear his cross. Not as deeds of self-justification, but as acts of faith that the resurrection will and has already produced–a better covering for our shame than fig leaves or animal hides. Ham gazed at his father and was cursed. We may only gaze at the cross and escape cursing if we see our own nakedness and shame there. For those with eyes of faith, even sons of Ham can find blessing. Uriah the Hittite is no more humiliated as a servant of servants for the real servant has taken his shame away. The perfection of our Redeemer has given us garments of white. Christ and not our excuses, lies, and cover ups is the covering for our shame. By him, our estrangement from the only community that matters, the community of God, has been removed. We sing his praises with the Ruths and Rahabs and Uriahs who like us, have been redeemed by Christ.
First Orthodox Presbyterian Church