In the last chapter of Judges, Israel’s civil war turns against the one non-Benjamite community that did not supply soldiers, Jabesh-Galaad. That the ban (the death edict for idolatry and resistance) is applied against Israel itself, for the purpose of finding wives for the survivors of the decimated, nearly-extinct tribe of Benjamin, shows again how far downhill Israel is sliding. Even that stratagem is insufficient, and the remnant of Benjamin is rescued by means of what may be another uniquely women’s part of Israel’s religious life, the young women’s dancing troupe from Shiloh, where the Tabernacle was stationed. Their stratagem amounts to kidnapping; no effort is made to glamorize that. But the overall picture of chaos and conflict is one of divine judgment upon Israel, “for the Lord had made a breach among the tribes of Israel (21: 15),” exhibit A of another of Martin Luther’s maxims: “God uses fools to punish each other.” Again, however, let us marvel at the honesty with which ancient Israel tells its story, and the difference between their recorded religious history, and the usual self-aggrandizing propaganda of most other tribes and empires.
The story of Ruth also gives us a uniquely female insight into the life of ancient Israel. And it pushes forward another angle in Israel’s ongoing dialog about its relationship with its pagan neighbors. While the previous books we have read have been about Israel’s nearly merciless life and death struggle with her pagan neighbors, the vassal and client states of imperial Egypt (so that the Exodus is still, in effect, happening), in some chapters of Judges, and now in Ruth, we see that these relationship are more complex and nuanced, sometimes even gracious and reciprocal. Technically, what Naomi’s sons did, by marrying Moabite women, was against the Law. And no descendant of Moab, unto the 10th generation, was to take part in the life and worship of Israel, as a consequence of Moab’s mistreatment of Israel during the Exodus (Dt. 23:3-6). But a glimmer of hope appears in the love of Ruth for Naomi, by which Ruth declares her loyalty to Naomi’s God, as well as to Naomi herself (1:16-17). Since King David will prove to be her great-grandson (well within the 10 generations of exclusion under Mosaic law), the book of Ruth is making the case that Israelite laws around inclusion by conversion (for her vow to Naomi is also a confession of faith in Israel’s God) outweigh any laws of exclusion. In Romans and Galatians, the Apostle Paul will make a similar case, showing that Abraham was justified by faith in God even before his circumcision (but he still was eventually circumcised). So, “a person is a Jew who is one inwardly (Romans 2: 29).” Ruth, the prophets, Jesus and Paul will make clear that where we are going, in relation to God, is more important than where we have come from.
Much is made about Ruth “uncovering Boaz’ feet” the night that she slept near him in the threshing floor (ch. 3). Some say that this is a discrete phrase for having had sex with him, while he was drunk, effectively forcing him into seeking marriage with him. But Boaz’ surprise at waking to find a woman sleeping on the threshing floor by him makes this most unlikely. Its important to the story that, while Ruth did put herself in a vulnerable spot, Boaz not take advantage of her. Consistent with all his other gracious and hospitable conduct toward her, he is instead eager (as wise Naomi predicts) to do the right and legal thing by Ruth, according to all the steps of legal redemption, a levirite marriage that will sustain the name and progeny of Ruth’s first Israelite husband. Boaz and Ruth both serve as examples of ideal Israelite piety and virtue, by way of loyalty to family and God, hospitality and generosity to the poor, and by observing the moral and legal steps on the way to marriage. But Ruth is also a strong, assertive, proactive woman, a victor, not a victim, who does what she must, with the means available to her, to effect her survival, and that of her adopted family. That makes her exemplary, too. We can join her in laughing up our sleeves at the closer kinsman who cared more about not diluting his descendants’ heritage with another bloodline, than he did about this remarkable woman who had already demonstrated exemplary strength, virtue and, yes, faith. As an ancestor of King David, she is also an ancestor of Jesus, and listed as such by name in the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel (1:5).
PSALM 22 is of special note in the Bible, because of its pivotal role in both Old and New Testament. In the OT Psalter, it is a prime example of a Psalm of Lament, which makes up the majority of Psalms. Like many of them, it also ends with an affirmation of faith. This leads many to suspect that ancient Israel had community litanies of lamentation, for people as well as the nation, a spiritually and psychologically healthy practice, but one lacking in most modern worship. Of special note is verse 4b, which is often translated as “you are enthroned in the praises of Israel,” or even “you dwell in the praises of Israel.” Think of that: God is present and enthroned in our worship. Worship is a way of experiencing and manifesting the presence of God.
Gospel writers saw the sufferings and resurrection triumph of Jesus foreshadowed in this Psalm, with such details as, “All my bones are out of joint; my heart has turned to wax;…my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; a band of evil men has encircled me; the have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones…they divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing….” Jesus himself gave license to such an interpretation when he cried out the opening lines of this Psalm from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you foresaken me?” Did he do that because he truly felt abandoned by God his Father, or because he actually was abandoned by God his Father, as some explanations of the atonement require, or because he wanted his disciples to remember the entire Psalm, and trust that his sufferings would be followed by triumph and deliverance, as in the Psalm? You decide.
To you, the reader, I issue the blessing given by Boaz to Ruth (a striking thing for a Moabite at that time to hear from a Hebrew): “May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” This blessing applies to all us Gentiles who, like Ruth, have embraced the God of Israel, and have become the people of His most holy Name.