The Surprises in Jesus’ Genealogy: Ruth

Now, we reach the midpoint of the five women Matthew includes in Jesus’ ancestry.  The first, Tamar, lived during the period of the patriarchs.  The second, Rahab, in the time when Israel reconquered their land.  The third, Ruth, lived when the judges ruled.  The genealogy mentions her in this way, “Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth” (Matthew 1:5).

The book of Ruth resonates with us as a sweet, tender story with a romantic ending.  Isn’t Ruth a beautiful young woman who cares for her mother-in-law, finds a man, and lives contented ever after?  Yes, but don’t stop now, for her life is far more complex, exciting, and relevant. 

The story begins in crisis.  A husband, Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion, journey far from home.  A famine strikes and they move to Moab where food is plentiful.  Not much later, Elimelech dies, and Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women.  What does this tell us, their marriage to these women? 

In an earlier time, Abraham’s brother, Lot, committed incest with his firstborn daughter (Genesis 19:30-38).  From this cursed act, Ruth will one day descend. Long after lot, his offspring refuse to help thirsty and hungry Israelitesduring their wilderness wanderings.  Notonly do they not help, but they go out of their way to harm them, hiring apagan prophet, Balaam, pronounce a curse on them.  Well, God reverses the intended curse,blessing His people instead.  So, theylater send their women to tease and tempt the Israelites, who follow them intoidolatry, like famished dogs after food.

With the sting of hostilities fresh on their minds, we find this command in Deuteronomy 23:

No Moabite may participate in the Lord’s assembly. Not one descendant of theirs may do so for ten generations because theydid not meet you with food or water on your journey out of Egypt.  To curse you, instead, they hired Balaam, sonof Beor.  [Deuteronomy 23:3-4]

For at least 200 years, Moabites are prohibited people, if the text is literal.  “To the tenth generation,” however, is an expression, saying something is permanent (ten being the number forcompletion).  So, unless rescinded, noIsraelite may interact with another Moabite until Israel is no more.

By marrying these forbidden foreigners, these sons of Israel show they don’t planto go back home.  Of course, life doesn’t unfold as they expect.  For death comesto claim them and they leave their mother, penniless and alone.

In an era with no social security or pension checks and no way for older women to support themselves, Naomi’s sons are her source of economic stability.  Both daughters-in-law—Orpah and Ruth—alsolost their husbands and their financial support.  Still, they are young and can marry again. 

In grief, judging God based on her experiences and not what He says, Naomi assumes God is against her.  In depression, pain, and anger, she finds herself lost. Bereft and broken, she decides to return to Israel, and so do the wives of her two dead sons. 

“Find husbands, from your people,” she pleads. For Naomi is without other sons, whom they may marry, who can provide for them.  Not mentioned is they areMoabites—but this must weigh on her as Naomi plans to travel back to Bethlehem.

So, Orpah obeys Naomi.  Back to her family and people, she goes.  Not so for Ruth, who chooses to remain.  Why?  For she gains little by following Naomi.  Will she leave Ruth any inheritance?  No. Worse, Ruth is an outsider—a detested Moabite no less—in a nation, which may offer little hope of acceptance. Still, Ruth makes a clear-eyed commitment—Naomi’s people are her people, and so is her God.

In a culture where husbands are the key to survival and success, a powerless and poor younger woman promises her life to a poor, broken, and older woman.  Earlier, as a foreigner from a forbiddennation, Ruth became part of the Jewish people and trusted in their God.  No, she will not forsake her new family orGod!

Now, Naomi should be rejoicing but is, instead, silent and sullen.  No words of thanks leave her lips, nor does she acknowledge Ruth’s commitment. Perhaps, this matriarch resents Ruth for this, embarrassed to arrive in Israel with a Moabite in tow.

After they reach Bethlehem, Naomi declares she will change her name.  No longer will she be Naomi, meaning pleasant sweet.  No, she will now be Mara (orMary), the word for bitter because she blames God for her reversal of fortune.  “The Almighty made me bitter.  Though I went away full, He returned me empty” (Ruth 1:20-21). 

Such raw and honest words as everything Naomi owns is gone.  Now, she is desolate, weary, hopeless, and discouraged.  In her despondency, she cannot recognize the gift her daughter-in-law gave her when she traveled backto her hometown.

So, Naomi returns, crushed and worn down, as the barley harvest begins.  The women settle in, and Ruth takes one of the few, respectable jobs available. Each morning, she greets the sun, going into the fields, following the reapers, picking up the fallen grain. “The field she entered to glean after the harvesters happened to belong to Boaz, of the clan of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:3). 

The field’s owner, Boaz, spots Ruth working, and asks to whom she belongs.  In other words, if she is married.  Aware she is a widow, with no husband protecting her, he provides her with extra food and encourages her to continue to work in his fields. 

Curious, Ruth asks why he is so gracious to her. Well, she understands why.  For rare is the woman ignorant in the meanderings of social interaction.  In most cases, women are more astute in this arena than men.  Well, Boaz doesn’t tell her he’s attracted to her.  No, he says because she is kind to Naomi, which also happens to be true. 

Ready to leave, Boaz gives her a blessing. “The Lord reward you for what you are doing.  May you be rewarded in full by the God of Israel, under whose wings you came for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12). 

With provisions and words aplenty about a generous Boaz, Ruth returns home.  Excited, Naomi begins to generate all sort of schemes, because he is a relative—and single! Somehow, Ruth being a Moabite doesn’t matter to Boaz, which means she may well be a stunning beauty.  For a beautiful woman can sometimes bring men to forsake both God and country. 

A month earlier, Naomi cursed God as the cause of her calamity.  After she learns about Boaz, she praises God for His kindness.  For God doesn’t abandon either the living (Ruth) or the dead (Naomi), as she calls herself. 

With the harvest complete, the workers now thresh the grain, the first step of processing for its storage and later use. Though Ruth’s beauty may capture Boaz, he’s older and still a bachelor.  An upright man, but not soskilled with women.  Is not this wealthy man still single?  So, he is an oddity inIsraelite culture, which Naomi hopes to remedy. 

With all her experience in the ways of men, she tells Ruth to dress up.  “Dab on some perfume and go to the threshing floor,” she directs.  The men work late into the night and sleep on site.  “Afterhe goes to sleep,” Naomi instructs, “uncover his feet, lie down next to him,and wait for him to tell you what to do.” 

Again, we find today’s reading using a Hebrew expression, which will leave the first hearers red-faced in embarrassment.  For Naomi uses “feet” as a euphemism for Boaz’s “private parts.”  Now we all realize what “private parts” means, though several, different areas of someone’s body aren’t for public consumption.  Ah, the sneakiness of language, all so we needn’t always be blunt or crude. 

Now, Boaz wakes up.  Stirred to life, he is surprised to find Ruth sidled up to him. Oh, this can backfire, for he is a pious man.  Faster at the draw, but sincere in her every word, Ruth now speaks.  “Spread yourcloak over me, for you are a family redeemer” (Ruth 3:9).  The Hebrew word translated as “cloak” is thesame in Hebrew as “wing.”

Oh, Ruth is craftier than Naomi!  Beside Boaz, she repeats the word “wing,” which he earlier spoke to bless her.  A daft and dense man will not miss her implication, “Boaz, God wants to use you to be my divine wings of refuge—to be my husband.”  To be Ruth’s redeemer means He will need to fulfill the legal responsibility of marrying her, to provide and care for her.

Astounded by everything taking place, Boaz will marry her.  Another relative, however, is responsible for redeeming Ruth, to unite with her in marriage, before Boaz.  Until this sorts out, he may not join her in holy matrimony.  Of course, the other man isn’t wealthy and doesn’t want to shoulder the financial responsibility.  So, Boaz and Ruth will make their weddingvows.

The community celebrate their marriage and wish them a house with many children.  A son is born, named Obed, and Naomi is no longer bereft.  In time, this son will become the ancestor of David, Israel’s greatest king. 

Embittered, at the beginning of the story, Naomi considered Ruth a burden.  Now, she becomes a supply of new life and hope for the future.  How can she not be?  In Ruth 4:13, we discover God enabled Ruth to conceive. 

Why make a point of this?  Here’s why—because God did more than work through the seductive allurements of Ruth.  Unlike her ancestors, she did not tempt Boaz toward idolatry.  No, God worked through her to help lead him toward more faithfulness. 

Reflect on God commanding His people not to intermingle with the Moabites.  In Ruth, God begins to rescind this prohibition.  An ancestor of Jesus, reveals His Father will bust open salvation for everyone, including His adversaries. 

Several hundred years later, Isaiah describes this. “No foreigner who joins himself to God should complain, ‘The Lord will exclude me from his people’” (Isaiah 56:3). The Father will bring them to His sacred mountain, allowing them to rejoice in His House, accepting their burnt offerings and sacrifices.  Yes, His House will be a place for Gentiles(Isaiah 56:7). 

In the New Covenant, this will all become clear. The Apostle Paul will later write, “The death of his Son reconciled us with God while still his enemies.  So, how much more, once reconciled, will He save us by his life” (Romans5:10).  Thank God, who can turn seduction and deceit to His saving purposes, and revoke a curse into a blessing.  Amen.

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