Sunday, May 16, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #20 "All the City...Doth Know Thou Art a Virtuous Woman"

Ruth; 1 Samuel 1

The scriptures are full of treasure hunts and mysteries.  If we hunt through the genealogy of Christ as recorded by Matthew, we find an odd collection of women mentioned:  Tamar (Thamar), Rahab (Rachab), Ruth, and Bathsheba ("her that had been the wife of Urias") (Matthew 1:1-17).  Matthew's purpose in writing his gospel was to convert the Jews to Christ, and so he specifically chose to mention those ancestors who had significance to the Jews.  It's unusual that women would be mentioned at all--Luke's genealogy of Christ contains only the men (Luke 3:23-38)--but we find amazing treasures and mysteries in those particular women mentioned by Matthew.  Not one of them had a perfect, traditional family situation.  Each was faced with trying circumstances specifically relating to motherhood.  Bathsheba had an extramarital affair with a king who then arranged the death of her husband so that he could marry her; Tamar was the twice widowed abandoned unwed mother of twins; Rahab was a converted Canaanite harlot, who endured the destruction of her entire city, integrated into a different culture, and raised a son whom we will see was a type of Christ; and that son's wife, Ruth, was a converted Moabite, a widowed pauper, who proposed her own marriage to a man much older than herself, and was undoubtedly not the first wife.  It is Ruth's story that we tell today.

THE LETTER OF THE LAW

In the Old Testament, and up until the time of Christ, many of the Jews became obsessed with "the letter of the law," completely missing "the spirit of the law."  What is really the difference between the two?  One word:  Love.  The spirit of the law is found in the shema:  "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (Deut. 6:4-5).  (See "Prayers" in a previous post.)  The Book of Ruth is a beautiful story, tucked amid many bizarre and brutal accounts of justice twisted into vengeance, a perfect example of a family who lived the whole law, letter and spirit.

CHAPTER ONE: THE JOURNEYS

The levirate law is found in Deut. 25:5-10, the first part of which is: "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her."  If the brother refuses, the woman has the right to confront him in front of the city elders, who then defend her case, and if he still refuses, he is shamed, but the woman is left destitute.  Tamar was one who was dealt a terrible injustice when this law was not administered to her.  (See Gen. 38, and "Opposites" in a previous entry.)

In the first chapter of Ruth, we find a family of three women who all have been widowed: Naomi and her two daughters-in-law.  Naomi was an Israelite living in the land of the Moabites, about 30-40 miles from her homeland (Old Testament Institute Manual, p. 262).  The Moabite god was Chemosh or Molech, and his worship was the cruelest idolatry known, involving horrific child sacrifice (Institute Manual, p. 247).  Clearly, Naomi's daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, were converts to the gospel, or she would have been appalled at her sons' marriages.

At the deaths of her sons and the end of the famine that had brought her to Moab, Naomi decided to return to her kinsmen where she hoped to be cared for by family as tradition dictated.  She sent her daughters-in-law back to their families for their own welfare, since she had no other son for them to marry (vs. 11-13).  Orpah went back to her family, but Ruth "clave" unto Naomi, with the beautiful words, "Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me" (vs. 16-17).  By staying with her mother-in-law, Ruth knew that she may be condemning herself to death by poverty, but she wanted to watch over her mother-in-law.   In addition, she was true to the gospel and likely wanted to live among the believers.  And so together they traveled back to Bethlehem.

Ruth ignored the letter of the law, and kept the spirit of the law, loving the Lord her God, and her mother-in-law as herself.

CHAPTER TWO: THE GLEANERS

The law of welfare practiced by the Israelites is stated in Lev. 19:9-10:  "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.  And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger:  I am the Lord your God."

Ruth and Naomi were "welfare cases" and therefore Ruth went to glean in the fields.  Providently, she happened to glean in the fields of a near kinsman to her father-in-law named Boaz.  Boaz asked his servant who she was, and the servant answered that she was the Moabite who had come back with Naomi.  Boaz treated Ruth with great kindness, calling her "daughter," telling her to glean only in his fields, commanding his reapers to leave extra for her.  In one day, she gleaned an ephah of barley, or 2/3rds of a bushel (Bible Dictionary).  Stunned at Boaz's generosity, she asked his reason.  Boaz replied that her reputation had preceded her, since she had been so unusually kind as to leave her ethnic homeland and care for her mother-in-law.

Boaz kept both the letter and the spirit of the law, motivated by the love he saw Ruth exercising toward Naomi.

CHAPTER THREE: PROPOSAL OF MARRIAGE

The law of the Moabite in the congregation stated that "An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever: because they met you not with bread and with water in the way when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee...Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever" (Deut. 23:3-6).  (See a previous post for the story of Balaam.)

So by her birth, Ruth was not just a second-class citizen in Israel, but was not allowed at all.  The reasons were that not only did the Moabites refuse aid to Israel, they also led the Israelites into idolatry.  Ruth, however, did the opposite of both of these:  She aided Naomi at the peril of her own life, and she converted completely from idolatry.  Boaz and the community all recognized this: "The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust" (Ruth 2:12). 

Naomi counseled Ruth to propose a Levirate marriage to Boaz, and Ruth boldly followed through.  This turnabout was probably necessary, since the elderly Boaz was not the closest kinsman, and did not expect young Ruth to desire to be his wife.  Boaz said, "And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman" (Ruth 3:10).  The name Boaz meant "in him is strength, swiftness, quickness" (footnote to Ruth 2:1).  Boaz lived up to his name, as Naomi testified, "Sit still, my daughter, until thou know how the matter will fall: for the man will not be in rest, until he have finished the thing this day" (Ruth 3:18).

CHAPTER FOUR: REDEEMING

The levirate law was also called the law of the near kinsman (or go'el).  The word levirate is taken from the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother."  As stated above, the brother of a dead man was expected to marry his widow for the purposes of 1) saving her life, 2) returning her to her former status, and 3) providing seed to perpetuate her family.  If there was no brother, the next nearest kinsman was to take the role.  In the case of Boaz and Ruth, there was a closer kinsman, but Boaz emphasized that Ruth was a Moabitess (vs. 5) when approaching this man with her case, and the man rejected her, freeing Boaz to be her go'el.  This word go'el literally translates to "redeemer," and was borrowed by the later prophets to describe Jesus Christ's role (Institute Manual, p. 230, 263). 

Boaz acted as a true redeemer to Ruth and Naomi, and kept the whole law, letter and spirit, restoring to them all they had lost.

The community issued love and good wishes upon the marriage, hearkening back to their revered ancestors, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar (vs. 11-12).  They said that Ruth was better to Naomi than seven sons (vs. 15).  The number seven in Hebrew means perfection, so it really doesn't get any better than that.

The neighbors appropriately called Ruth Naomi's daughter-in-law, as did the narrator, but Naomi never did.  Six times in the story she refered to Ruth as "my daughter," evidence of her great love for Ruth.  Boaz did the same (except when downplaying her qualities in the presence of the other near kinsman).

CHRIST THE REDEEMER

The story of Boaz and Ruth is the story of Christ and us. Christ is our near kinsman, who 1) saves us from death, 2) raises us from our fallen state, and 3) gives us eternal increase.  He is the family member who redeems us, the destitute. 

Christ exercises both justice and mercy, the letter and spirit of the law.

We as Latter-day Saints have many commandments to obey.  We could write an enormous, long list.  But when Jesus was asked which of all the laws was most important, He quoted the shema: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40).  Paul explained further, "He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.  For [all the commandments are] briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:8-10).  Christ (Jehovah) taught it; Paul explained it; Naomi, Ruth and Boaz lived it.  As long as we act in love, we need not fear missing the spirit of any law.

John issued this injunction to us:  "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.  He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.  In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" (1 John 4:7-11).

Note:  I chose to focus only on Ruth and cover Hannah and 1 Samuel in the next blog entry.

4 comments:

wordy said...

Loved this entry. It sent me on a chase for Boaz's parentage- which I hadn't noticed before. Loved the insights too.

ginger said...

Just stumbled across your blog while preparing this lesson for tomorrow. You have brought up some great points. Thank you!

Heidi said...

I always check out your comments when I'm preparing my lesson. I especially appreciated this post. Thank you, and please keep posting!

Nancy W. Jensen said...

Thanks, all of you, for your feedback! Don't worry, Heidi, wild horses couldn't stop me from posting!