By Zac Koons
A few years ago there was a cover story in The Atlantic titled “The End of Men.” It was written by Hannah Rosin to celebrate the tipping of the scale in the American work force from majority male to, now, for the first time in history, majority female. The question she poses, with a smirk, is this: Given not only the progress made in women’s rights, but especially given the nature of the changes in society and culture over the last century, are we witnessing the beginnings of the end for male dominance? That is, given the characteristics now generally required to be successful in the world — that communication skills and emotional intelligence are now valued over strength and stamina, for example — is it possible that our modern, post-industrial society is simply better suited to women than it is to men?
Women live longer than men now. Most managers are women. For every two men that graduate from college this year, three women will do the same. It is now basically a universally acknowledged dogma of international development that, with very few exceptions, the greater economic and political power given to women in any given country, the greater the country’s economic success and stability will be.
Whether or not we are witnessing the beginnings of the “end of men” remains to be seen. Of course, men are still paid more than women, and still retain an overwhelming majority of executive level jobs in both public and private sectors. But the fate of men isn’t really the main point of the article. The bigger point is, in our current cultural moment, there’s lots to celebrate with respect to the accomplishments of women in our midst.
Today’s reading gives us two stories of women who lived in a world very much the opposite of the one we live in today. They are people for whom, specifically because of their gender, not only were their opportunities for public positions of leadership non-existent, not only were their roles in society limited to the household, not only were they considered the property of husbands they didn’t choose, but even their basic avenues for economic security, even their basic rights to survive in the ancient world, were dependent on their willingness to abide by the rules of men.
They are also people who, despite their deep disadvantages, each became heroes in the story of God. So I want to spend a minute simply retelling their stories.
The main story for today is that of Ruth. Her story, and her heroism, emanate out from two key decisions she made, two giant risks that she takes over the course of her story. We read about the second in our lesson today. But out of context it doesn’t really read as anything that monumental. In order to understand what exactly is at stake in our reading, we need to go back and look at the first decision, made at the beginning of the story.
In the beginning of the story, there is no Ruth, but there is only Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons — a model Jewish family from Bethlehem. The presenting crisis is that a famine has come to the land of Israel and they have thereby been forced to flee to a neighboring country called Moab, a country that, up to this point, had been a perpetual enemy of Israel. While living in Moab, Naomi and Elimelech’s two sons make the somewhat scandalous decision to take foreign wives, Moabite wives, named Orpah and Ruth. But then, out of nowhere, and in quick succession, all the men in the story die — Elimelech and then both of their sons.
This bad luck is extremely bad for these three women. Economic security for women in ancient Israel was inextricably linked to their being linked to men. Wealth, land, possessions were passed down the generations through the male line only. This being the case, there were certain laws in place meant to protect and provide for women whose husbands died. The best-case scenario is that you’ve already had a son, and therefore you come under the care of his household. This was obviously not the case for Ruth or Orpah. The next option is that you fall under the protection of your father-in-law’s household, and this, of course, is not an option for them either, as Elimelech had also died.
The third option in Israelite law is called levirate marriage, which stipulates that if you’re widowed without having a son, your husband’s closest-in-age, unmarried brother is required to marry you, and the first male child you have will bear the name of your first husband, so that their line can continue. Again, with no more brothers to speak of, and with no possibility of Naomi having any more children, this isn’t an option either. So in every direction, provision and protection are cut off from these three abandoned women. According to the law, providing for widows in such circumstances therefore fell on the whole of Israelite society — hence the oft-repeated instructions littered throughout the Old Testament for Israel to care for the widow, the alien, and the poor through means such as leaving the corners of your fields unreaped so the marginalized could get what they needed. This is the ancient Israelite welfare system, essentially. And this is now all these women have to fall back on. They will return to Israel to become beggars.
Except that actually, this only needs to be the fate of Naomi. Ruth and Orpah being Moabites, they are not subject to the same laws and cultural expectations. Which means that rather than traveling with Naomi back to Israel to beg, they have the option to stay in Moab and get remarried there and be just fine. Actually, this is what Naomi encourages both Ruth and Orpah to do. Naomi is old. She is beyond child-bearing years and therefore beyond marrying again. So even though her husband still owns land back in Israel, she has no access to it. She is beyond hope.
But that doesn’t mean they also have to be beyond hope. In a tender, excruciating scene, Orpah reluctantly agrees to follow Naomi’s advice and takes the road back to Moab. Every incentive is stacked for Ruth to follow her sister-in-law, but, in one of the most beautiful verses in Scripture, she refuses to abandon Naomi to her fate: “Don’t press me to leave you,” she says. “For where you go, I will go. And where you stay the night, I will stay. Your people are my people and your God is my God.” This is the first great and heroic risk in the story of Ruth. The Hebrew says Ruth “cleaved” to Naomi. They will be beggars, yes. But they will not be alone.
They return to Israel to do just that: beg. They find a distant relative to Naomi’s husband Elimelech and settle on the corner of his land. This sets the stage for big risk number two. It turns out that this distant cousin, named Boaz, is unmarried. He is successful. But he has no male heir to whom he can pass the fruits of his success. Being a distant relative, he is in no way obligated, but being a relative at all, he could theoretically fulfill the stipulations of levirate marriage to Ruth. Having chosen certain poverty and likely an early and anonymous death by cleaving to Naomi, by refusing to abandon one whom society had, the tiniest light of hope begins to burn in the darkness for Ruth. Their fate is in Boaz’s hands.
The season goes by and Boaz fulfills the duties of a good citizen of Israel. That is, he allows Ruth the widow to glean from the corners of his fields. He goes so far as to instruct his servants not to bother her, but he does no more than that. Though Ruth gave him every opportunity, Boaz expresses no interest in marriage. It was a long shot anyway. Ruth, remember, had every strike against her. She was not only a widow but a childless widow. And worse, a foreigner. Worse still, an enemy foreigner.
According to the oral tradition of Israel, the origin of the Moabites can be traced to the incestuous seduction of Lot by his daughters. I don’t suspect that’s literally true, but it gives you a sense of the prejudice that was in the water. And now, a new crisis is emerging, one that is underneath the surface of where our reading for today begins: the harvest is coming to a close, meaning there will soon be no more barley to beg, and so the flicker of hope is all but extinguished, again, for Ruth and Naomi.
This sets the context for the second major decision of Ruth’s life. The second major risk. Backed into yet another corner of desperation, Ruth does the unthinkable. She sneaks into Boaz’s bed in the middle of the night. The text says nothing about what did or did not happen between them, other than that Ruth asks him if he will “act as her redeemer,” meaning, if he will consider fulfilling the obligations of levirate marriage.
The risk she’s just taken is not obvious to us. But, much like Esther going before the King, Ruth has just risked her life. Women, remember, do not get a choice in who they will marry in this world. More, the thought that they might even attempt to initiate such a relationship was itself the height of scandal. Whatever happened or didn’t happen on the threshing floor doesn’t really matter — the mere appearance of it is enough to get her dragged into the public square and stoned before everyone. She’s played her card, and Boaz’s reaction will determine whether she gets life or death.
Her risk, her courage, is again rewarded. Boaz takes her as his wife, and they have a child, and a story that looked almost certain to end in despair, ends in life, lineage, and happiness.
One way to read this story is to say that God clearly protects and provides for the vulnerable, like Boaz protects and provides for Ruth. Ruth was on the margins, but heroically rose above cultural expectations and risked everything and God rewarded her. However, while that may be true in an ultimate, general sense — that God protects and provides for the vulnerable — those currently on the margins of our society, or those of you still feel the sting of gender discrimination acutely — would be quick to point out that it is not always true in a particular and immediate sense.
Take our Gospel reading, for example, a story about another widow suffering the manifold disadvantages of a patriarchal system. She puts the last two coins she has to rub together — “all she has to live on,” Jesus says — into the temple treasury, and Jesus sees her and calls her a hero, that she’s put in more than everyone else combined. But the story ends and we have no evidence that things actually work out for her as they did for Ruth. They probably don’t. Things don’t work out for lots of oppressed peoples in Scripture. And things don’t work out for lots of oppressed people today.
This opens the door to another — and I think better — way to read the story of Ruth. God looks at the widow and her mite and regards her as a hero regardless of whether she goes on to live a long and healthy life. It’s her courageous act, her faithful risk, that makes her a hero. Not in that it all works out in the end. So the lesson isn’t that God looks always after the vulnerable, although again in some ultimate sense surely God does. The lesson is that these vulnerable women, regardless of the outcomes of their circumstances, in their action, in their courage, in their risks, prove themselves to be more than heroes. They prove themselves to be pictures of God. That’s how we should read the story of Ruth.
You see, what Ruth does for Naomi, refusing to abandon her, cleaving to her, even though it meant almost certain death for her, is what Jesus does for all of us. Ruth’s words to Naomi are God’s words to us: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. There is nowhere God won’t follow. The Son of God took on human flesh, and in so doing cleaves to us. Again Ruth, despite there being no precedent for it, despite its meaning risking her life, choosing to seek after Boaz, is what God does for us in Christ. God pursues us. God pursues you. Even though it did, in the end, cost him everything. God, like the widow, gave us everything he had to live on. The arms of Jesus were spread wide on the cross so that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace.
Ruth shows us what God is like. Ruth leads us to Jesus. The significance of her marrying Boaz and her having a son so that the line can continue sounds like just a nice, sentimental ending. Until the very last word of the book: David. Ruth’s son was named Obed: Father to Jesse, who was the father of David, who is the 14th great-grandfather of Jesus. Ruth leads us to Jesus. Thank God for Ruth. And thank God for heroic women.
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.