Calling the Kinsman: Radical Community in Ruth 4

Read Ruth 4

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God wrote it. I believe it. That settles it.

I first saw this hanging from the keychain of a community relations manager trainer. Before I had a slip and fall that led to four months of disability as I dealt with herniated discs and an impinged sciatic nerve, I was 29 and working retail. I knew I couldn’t go back to food service, so retail it was. I had my MA in Theology and had studied for a year at Claremont Graduate School for a PhD in New Testament. A falling apart marriage and a realization that I am not strong with languages other than English led me to conclude, after divorce was requested, that I needed a new plan. I had landed a job as a book seller at a well-known national chain, and the manager took a liking to me. Within three months I was made a manager.

And I had to tell everyone I had an MA in Theology when I was the lead of the religion book section. I was trying to convince myself that I was okay where I had landed. I wasn’t. The people were awesome, but after I recovered from the fall I left, began teaching at two universities, and enrolled in an English graduate program from which I would earn my second graduate degree.

When in doubt, I go to school. Except this time. This time I have no doubt.

I imagine I would have run into the statement somewhere, given that I was determined to study religion. But this was after my conversion and before my becoming serious about my faith. The slip and fall did it. I began to realize that I needed to give more to God than I was giving. That’s another story, though.

Literal interpretations of the Bible make no sense. For a lot of reasons. And this is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the fourth chapter of the Book of Ruth.

We return to the story with Boaz seeking out the man who has a more immediate levitical claim to Ruth. They gather at the gates of the village. Archaeology shows that many communities had parks with benches next to the gates; villagers would gather and serve as juries and witnesses to grievances or legal matters that needed to be settled. But scholars are not certain about what exactly went on, and the story itself seems to explain customs (such as the sandal) that had fallen out of practice at the time the Book of Ruth was written down, not mentioning the ones of Ruth’s contemporaries that are lost to us today. 

God wrote it. I believe it. That settles it.

But what is it?

The Hebrew in chapter four is filled with double entendres, just like with the third chapter. Boaz never refers to the kinsman by name. In fact, the word used is most accurately translated as “so and so,” like many of us might do when we are telling a story in which we forget the name of one of the players, but it makes little difference because the story is not about them. Right? Remember that time when we were, oh, what’s his name, that so and so who worked at the pizza place. 

And Boaz calls the kinsman over for a purpose. English translations lose the sting. What is rendered “So I thought I would tell you of it”falls short. The author uses the same word we encountered in Ruth 3 in relationship to her “uncovering” Boaz’s “feet.” What Boaz is doing, some scholars argue, is uncovering a situation to which the so and so must respond.

Again, as was the case in Ruth 3, there are plays on words regarding redeeming; this time it is in relationship to both the land of Elimelech and to Naomi. What exactly happens in this ancient legal transaction remains a matter of dispute. Some interpreters says that what Boaz is saying is this: “Elimelech had some land in the past, but he left for 10 years. Someone else claimed it, but it rightfully belongs to Elimilech’s heirs. You are first, I am second. Are you interested in purchasing it?” Here redeem is used like one would redeem a coupon.

Others say, no. That’s not it. Boaz is saying this: “Elimelech has passed away and his ancestral lines have been broken; it falls upon one of us to redeem it.” Here redeem is used in the sense of restoring honor and pride.

But the transaction gets more complicated. When so and so says, “Yeah, I’ll redeem it” (and, again, we’re not sure what exactly that means), Boaz says “Acha! Acha!”

“It is not that simple. With the land comes Naomi and Ruth.” We might ask why. Why is this the case? Are the women slaves? Chattel?

Not exactly. And I’m not saying it is ideal. But it might be a good thing for them, given their predicament. Some scholars think that the levitical responsibility that would fall upon whoever purchases the land would include fathering a child that would not be considered of one’s own line. In other words, so and so would have to impregnate Ruth and then raise the child as Elimelech’s. So and so does not want to do this because, in essence, it means that he has to pay the purchase price, and then produce an heir who would, upon becoming of age, have right and title to the land. So and so is in a lose-lose situation.He recognizes that this could impact the inheritance rights of his own children and descendants, and smartly decides to pass.

So the deal is sealed with a sandal and the reader is left…celebrating?

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Scholars believe that this story was written during the time of the return under Cyrus the Persian. Many Jewish men had married foreign wives. There were clashes over what it meant to be Jewish and how. Much like now, there were varying views on the merits of immigration and integration. Of syncretism.

Recall that Ruth is a Moabite, the tribe that emerged from Lot being raped by one of his daughters. A similar story is linked to the Bethlehemites. They are related to Judah through Perez, who is one of the twins that is born after Tamar tricks Judah into sleeping with her. In fact, all of the women named as matriarchs are wily tricksters.

The return to the land was accompanied by the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, who wanted to cleanse the land of any foreigners or foreign elements. It is possible that the Book of Ruth was written in order for people to see that God often works with those we least expect, and for Jews of the time the idea that they might interfere with God sending another King David would have been enough to make them pause.

For Christians historically, Ruth is necessary for Christ, given the lineages described in Matthew.

For Christians now, the message seems clear. We are once again asking questions about what it means to be part of a covenant community. Our national covenant is the Constitution. The Bill of Rights. The inscription upon Lady Liberty. The words of Woody Guthrie. This land is our land.

We leave Ruth as she has worked the system to protect her and Naomi. They fought for radical community. For inclusion. For a grander sweep in how we view one another. May the ingenuity and pushing of the system help us to think about policies and attitudes in our own surroundings that marginalize people because of their ancestry. Because of our presumptions or assumptions. Because of a hijab. Let the story help us think about the ways God might be working in our own lives, and where we might not be paying enough attention.

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