Sacrifice

Reflections on Ruth

Recently, my wife and I read through the book of Ruth as part of our devotional time. It’s a beautiful little story, composed of a series of tautly narrated scenes that are all the more powerful for their understated grace. Artful and elegant, it manages to convey its message in a few, quick strokes. And, of course, I shouldn’t forget the memorable characters featured in the book – Naomi, Boaz, and above all, Ruth herself. Given its succinctness, Ruth can easily be read through in the space of about 15 minutes, and provides the reader with a satisfying and cathartic experience. There’s also much by way of rich theology that can be extracted from the book; indeed, though it is short, Ruth is far from superficial. It contains reflections on friendship, covenant, sacrifice, the scope of salvation, the power of the noble, independent woman, and the unseen hand of a providential God.

These are important themes, and I certainly want to touch upon some of them. Reading the book, however, led to me to look afresh at the character of Ruth. I must admit that I haven’t always given her the attention she deserves. When I was growing up, sermons or studies about Ruth tended to focus on Boaz and his role (from a Christian perspective) as a “type” – a prefiguring, that is – of Jesus. The main thrust of the message was that just as Boaz redeemed Ruth and Naomi from a precarious existence and an uncertain future (thus fulfilling his role as kinsmen-redeemer), so Jesus redeems us from sin and estrangement from God. This is true so far as it goes, and we should always be ready to adopt a Christological lens as we read the OT. But an all-too-hasty reliance on this sermonic trope means that not only do we fail to read Ruth on its own terms (as opposed to a mere prelude to Jesus); we tend to marginalise Ruth herself. Restricting ourselves to Boaz’s typological status, and the function he plays in the narrative, has the perverse effect of reducing Ruth to a patient – a passive recipient of another’s activity. Perhaps this reflects the male-dominated nature of theology and pastoral ministry: it’s easier to interpret the narrative from the point of view of the male protagonist than it is someone of the opposite sex. It might also have something to do with the concerns of low-church evangelicalism, which tends to read Christ into as much of the OT as possible. A figure like Boaz is certainly ripe for such an interpretation, even if that means neglecting other features of the text. But my point is that this focus drastically minimises Ruth’s central importance to the narrative. She is hardly a mere respondent to a male actor’s primary role; rather, she herself is a powerful, independent, savvy individual, whose own actions propel the narrative forward.

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In any case, it’s on Ruth that I want to concentrate my (sometimes recursive) reflections, drawing on the main elements of the book as they relate to its eponymous character. From the very beginning of the narrative, she proves her enduring worth to those around her, particularly her mother-in-law, Naomi. Just as Boaz tends to be the focus of many a sermon, to the exclusion of the story’s female characters, so is his evolving relationship with Ruth foregrounded within narrative synopses. But I’d say that the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is just as crucial. Certainly, Naomi’s shift from bitter emptiness to fulness of joy was in no small measure due to the actions of her daughter-in-law. We tend to take for granted the deep compassion Ruth extended towards Naomi, as well as the degree to which she relinquished her own rights for the sake of her mother-in-law. However, it’s precisely this familiarity that means a closer examination is warranted.

To appreciate just how radical Ruth’s actions were, some context is probably necessary. Within the first five verses of the book, Naomi is rendered widowed and childless, having witnessed the deaths of both her husband and her adult sons (1:3-5). Having moved with Elimelech to Moab to escape famine, she was now isolated in a foreign land – a stranger with no one to care for her. In the patriarchal societies of the Ancient Near East, a woman without a male relative to provide guardianship was in a very precarious position. We might recall that brief episode in Luke 7, where Jesus raises a woman’s son in the town of Nain (vv.11-17). Not only are we told that the woman was a widow; Luke also informs us (quite deliberately) that the man who had died was her “only son” (v.12). Of course, in raising a dead person to life, a great and awesome miracle had been performed. But lying behind the spectacle was Christ’s deep concern for the woman’s parlous social and economic condition, given her last male relative was dead. The evangelist’s aim is to underscore Jesus’ compassion for the vulnerable and marginalised, here rendered to a grieving widow by miraculously re-uniting her with her son (v.15). Naomi was in much the same position as that woman. For all intents and purposes, she had been left with nothing – save for the apparent knowledge that she was bound to die alone, bereft, crushed and empty (cf. Ruth 1:21).

This is what Naomi believed – indeed, it is what she was bitterly resigned to. Even in the narrative’s initial scenes, however, there are seeds of hope, of redemptive transformation. That hope is embodied in Ruth the Moabitess. We may note in passing the interesting, perhaps deliberate, parallel between the two women: both of them travelled from one country to another, with Naomi migrating to Moab and Ruth journeying to Israel with her mother-in-law. But whereas Naomi’s time in Ruth’s homeland occasioned grief and loss, Ruth’s relocation was accompanied by – and actively presaged – the eventual transfiguration of Naomi’s present emptiness (cf. 4:14-15). That transfiguration began with Ruth’s signal decision to remain with her mother-in-law (1:16-18). She, along with her sister-in-law, Orpah, sought to go with Naomi back to her homeland. But whilst Orpah eventually returned to her own people, Ruth did not. Instead, she committed herself entirely to Naomi, renouncing her own rights – indeed, her own life – to care for her mother-in-law.

Ruth 1:16-18 is a “hinge” moment in the narrative, on which much of the rest of the story turns. Refusing Naomi’s exhortation to go home to her own family, Ruth pledged her undying loyalty. She promised to be with Naomi, and to make her mother-in-law’s people her own. Just as noteworthy, of course, was Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s – and Israel’s – God. The words of 1:16-18 bear the unmistakable marks of a covenantal promise, in what amounts to a triumph of precise narrative art. The “You/I will” (or “Your/will be my”) contrast occur no fewer than five times in this excerpt, which reflects what I have already said about Ruth’s comprehensive and unwavering commitment to bind herself to Naomi’s fate. This was solidarity in its truest sense: Ruth identified her own life trajectory so completely with her mother-in-law’s that what was true for the latter was to be true for the former. Moreover, she placed herself under the weight of divine punishment if anything but death itself separated her from Naomi (“May the Lord deal with me…”). Ruth not only promised to unite her life to Naomi’s; she also rendered herself accountable before Yahweh, thereby accepting the consequences of failing to fulfil her vow. This was no cheap boast, but rather the perfect expression of covenantal devotion, sealed with an oath before Israel’s great lawmaker and sovereign.

Talk of such friendships is somewhat foreign to our modern ears. A covenant implies a legal agreement, something that has binding force on the parties involved. It’s the very antithesis to what an “authentic” relationship should be, so one might say. It’s true that we have probably become somewhat inured to the liquidity of contemporary relationships. Many friendships (though not all) tend to be characterised by a kind of casualness – a transience that is often allied with a basic regard for one’s own convenience, preferences or interests. Call it the consequences of radical individualism, if you like, or the reification of the autonomous self. The point is that people aren’t likely to place themselves under the stringencies of what amounts to a legal obligation, where their rights may be curtailed, and they themselves may be called upon to walk the difficult road of self-abnegation; even marriage, which is probably the closest approximation we have to the idea of a bond grounded in covenant and law, is becoming far rarer – and, where it does occur, seems far more fluid and impermanent.

So, when we read something like Ruth’s vow of loyalty, we might be surprised by the self-relinquishing depth of her decision. It seems a little strange: who, after all, “forgets” themselves in such a profoundly comprehensive way for another person? Perhaps some do, but in the ordinary course of events, it’s hardly common. Ruth would seem to be something of an anomaly. But is that because she made a foolish decision to give so much of herself to Naomi, without properly thinking through the consequences of her actions? Or is it because we (and by “we”, I mean the culture at large) have drifted away from what true friendship is meant to look like – that is, the kind of self-giving friendship as the Creator designed (cf. John 15:13)? When even the ties of marriage can dissolve with the rapidity of melting snow – and often do so with the tacit approval of a permissive culture – we shouldn’t wonder why we might find a story of bold, robust, covenant-making friendship to be rather startling.

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As such, we cannot miss the radical nature of Ruth’s actions; nor should we downplay the total sacrifice she was undertaking. Think, for example, of the great cultural and geographical shift she had to undergo. Even today, migration from one country to another is no small feat, often entailing a significant amount of upheaval: an unfamiliar environment, social and cultural dislocation, possible loneliness, uncertain prospects, weak or ambiguous social networks, and so on. Imagine, then, someone making that choice without the benefits of modern telecommunications or international travel, migrating to a land where, historically, his or her people are regarded with suspicion (cf. Num 25:1ff). A sombre finality would have cast itself over Ruth’s decision, for she was not likely to see her family again (cf. 2:11). She was going to leave everything she knew – everything that anchors and grounds and stabilises a person – to take up an uncertain existence in a foreign land, with a people who considered those of her ilk to be idolaters and scoundrels. For all intents and purposes, Ruth’s decision meant permanent separation from her past. What, in turn, could she realistically (from this point in the narrative, at least) look forward to? As I have noted, Naomi was fatalistic about the loss she had experienced, and the diminishing likelihood that life would issue in anything else but gnawing emptiness. And yet, Ruth appeared to be entirely undeterred by such unwelcome prospects, so determined was she to forsake her life for her mother-in-law.

We ought not neglect the religious-spiritual concerns underpinning Ruth’s decision. Her choice to cleave to her mother-in-law was governed, not only by her concern for Naomi, but by the recognition that the God her mother-in-law followed was, in fact, the true Lord (cf. 2:12). Naomi even urged Ruth (implicitly, perhaps) to return to the deities of her own tribe and family (1:15). But Ruth was unswayed: she determined to follow Yahweh, as Naomi did, and in fact showed a purer faith at this point than her mother-in-law. Although she was about to embark on a journey with a woman whose own prospects were very dim indeed, Ruth seemed to understand that by doing so, she was actually joining the community of the elect, and cleaving to the world’s rightful sovereign. To anticipate some of what I want to say below, Ruth combined the basic tenets of God’s will in her person and promise: to love him, and to give of oneself to others. Ruth recognized the truth of Israel’s chosen status before a holy God, even as she recognized the consequent demands that flowed from this identity.

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Ruth’s actions have been described as an example of “excessive altruism” (Martin Luther King, jnr.). This is quite true: Ruth was driven only by a selfless, unerring concern for Naomi’s welfare. And she proved her worth, substantiating her earlier promise to bind herself to her mother-in-law. Reading through Ruth 2, for example, we find the Moabitess expending herself in service of her mother-in-law, engaging in the arduous task of gleaning grain so that they had enough to eat (vv. 3, 17-19, 23). During this time, she encountered Boaz, one of the family’s kinsmen-redeemers (vv. 8-13). The chapter ends, poignantly enough, by telling us that “[Ruth] lived with her mother-in-law” – a reminder that Naomi, despite her embittered complaint (cf. 1:21), was neither bereft nor alone. The scene is set, of course, for Ruth’s night-time rendezvous with Boaz, and their eventual union.

There is much that we ourselves may glean. We should not simply understand Ruth’s altruism in a merely secular sense. The author shared with his or her contemporaries a thoroughly spiritual worldview, where one’s moral actions were inseparable from one’s religious identity. More to the point, Ruth’s acts of compassion – expressed in the humble earthiness of her work – clearly distilled the core demands of Torah. As the biblical scholar, Isabel Docampo, has written, “From the moment she uttered her pledge to Naomi in the middle of Moab’s fields, Ruth enacted God’s love as taught by the Torah”. Her actions not only reflected concern for the needs of another; they were deeply linked, by way of obedience to the demands of holy love, to her promise to serve Yahweh. True piety so often finds its expression in charity, especially as it is directed towards the lowly and the weak (cf. Jas 1:27a). Seen in the context of her double pledge (1:16-17), Ruth’s sacrificial love beautifully embodied (prospectively, of course!) Jesus’ admonition that the whole Law is summed up in the two greatest commandments: love the Lord with all your soul, heart, mind, and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Ruth’s was a demonstration of obeisance to the deepest intentions of the Law – thus marking out this Moabitess as a true follower of Yahweh.

We would do well to appreciate this point. I have already noted that Ruth’s devotion to Naomi outweighed whatever regard she had for her own security, and that she understood Yahweh to be the One in whom she might take refuge. In all of this, Ruth completely subverted then-conventional notions concerning the identity of the righteous, and the boundaries of the covenant community. Recall that for many Israelites, Moabites – and Moabite women, in particular – were indelibly linked with that notorious incident in Numbers 25. Such “heathens” were but a snare to God’s elect, and allowing them entry to the covenant community was inviting spiritual and moral pollution. Biblical tradition holds that Moab’s kings had either waylaid or actively oppressed the Israelites (Judges 3:12-30; 11:17). More relevantly, Moab’s women were associated with harlotry in biblical imagination, having seduced God’s people to commit both sexual immorality and idolatry (Num 25:1-3). However, Ruth stood these traditions on their heads. Not only did she not undermine or sully the purity of the redeemed community; she positively enriched it with her lavish, unwavering commitment to love of God and love of neighbour. Rather than leading local Israelites astray, Ruth offered her contemporaries an unsullied distillation of what it meant to truly align oneself with the purposes and will of Yahweh.

How one reconciles this with the stringent demand of Deuteronomy 23:3-6, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the one tradition was intended as an abstract legal requirement, to be “relaxed” in the face of the irresistible fact of a non-Israelite’s allegiance to Yahweh. Perhaps we have here more than one tradition pertaining to the nation’s relationship to foreign peoples. Whatever the case, Ruth’s participation in the redeemed community – culminating with her marriage to Boaz – was a sign that the ever-present temptation to limit God’s covenant blessings on the basis of ethnicity was, in fact, a violation of the basic thrust of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3). One commentator has said that Ruth shows us – and, one would think, its original audience – that “true religion is supranational”, such that a “foreigner who trusted in God and wished to be identified with the people of God was worthy of full acceptance” (Charles Oxley). The reality of Ruth’s membership within the covenant community looked forward to the great vision of the prophets, who held out the eschatological hope of the universal reach of Yahweh’s blessings (e.g., Isa 2:1-5; 25:6ff; 56:3-8). With the actions of its central character, the book of Ruth functions as a rebuke to a narrow cast of mind that rigidly ties true religiosity to a person’s ethnic or cultural features (cf. John 1:12-13). At their worst, such characteristics can become pernicious idols in the life of those who are bound by them, restricting thereby the extent and scope of God’s grace. For the book of Ruth, on the other hand, ethnicity is completely de-coupled from piety; what counts is, again, obedience before God, of which charity and selfless devotion towards others is a key manifestation (cf. Micah 6:8).

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If Ruth the woman disturbs settled accounts of foreigners, then her character and actions also help to overturn other accepted notions – this time around gender, sex, and male-female relations. Her efforts, of course, were instrumental in Naomi’s own journey from emptiness and loss to redemption and fullness. I noted earlier the seeds of hope, even as Naomi resigned herself to the bitterness of death, that lie in the narrative: Ruth’s vow to remain with her mother-in-law, despite their being no obligation to do so; and the author’s subtle comment in 2:22 that Naomi returned to Israel – not alone, but “accompanied” by Ruth, at the time of harvest. Throughout the narrative, Ruth is presented as someone who takes the initiative, who does not wait to be acted upon, but engages decisively in action. It is action that is neither rash nor foolish. If wisdom could be seen in part as the artful calibration of ends with means, so that the desired result is brought about, then Ruth was very wise indeed. However, this was more than mere shrewdness. As Boaz himself remarked, Ruth was already known as a “woman of noble character” (3:11), which suggests that not only did she possess practical nous, but integrity and honour in abundance.

Far from being a mere recipient of paternalistic largesse, Ruth forged her path through adversity and loss. Instead of remaining helpless and inert before the welter of economic and social challenges she likely faced (migration, cultural dislocation, relative poverty, “outsider” status, etc.), this Moabitess laboured with tireless determination to provide for both herself and her mother-in-law. Ruth is presented as the very epitome of the savvy, independent woman, who engages with others in the open, public realm of the field and the workplace. It was her initiative that sustained Naomi upon her return to Bethlehem; and, even if we grant the necessity of Boaz’s decision to welcome both Ruth and Naomi into his household as their kinsmen-redeemer (4:9-10, 13-15), this was the direct result of Ruth’s earlier approach (3:7-13). His immediate response, we might recall, suggests that he saw her actions as a gracious gift to him (v.10). Certainly, it reverses the usual train of events, where masculinity is often associated with activity and initiative, and femininity functions as a passive, demure counterpoint. We are thus left with a narrative construction of women that would have challenged the prevailing patriarchal ethos. As the great OT scholar, Claus Westermann, perceptively argued, the book of Ruth “is one of the few [ancient] narratives in which the thoughts and actions of a woman comprise the events that to a large degree characterize the story…” He went on to observe – quite rightly – that Ruth’s actions effectively “upend the established order”, for she is neither “dependent” nor “subordinate”. Yes, Boaz is important to the story, and it would be a mistake to marginalize his role. But it is Ruth who drives the narrative forward, to such an extent that her decisions – the decisions of a poor, foreign female, no less – determine the trajectory of events. If one were wanting to use story to challenge or undercut dominant notions concerning social hierarchy and value, one would be hard pressed to do better than this subversive little romance.

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One final comment, of a Christological nature, before drawing my reflections to a close. I said earlier that many sermons on Ruth emphasise Boaz’s role as a type of Christ: as the ageing Bethlehemite (cf. 3:10) redeemed Naomi and Ruth from a spectral existence lived on the edges of local society, so Christ redeems us from the perils of our sin-soaked alienation from God. This is true, and we ought not to dismiss the various signs the OT holds up to the final messianic revelation. But if what I have said about Ruth is true, could it not also be the case that she be seen as a kind of pre-figuring of Christ? After all, who was it that acted faithfully and compassionately, extending herself for another’s good? Who laboured and toiled and sacrificed to sustain their life? Who ensured that they would not be left alone, condemned to a life of scarcity and want? Who identified herself so radically with another’s fate? Who summed up the deepest demands of the Law in her own person? And whose actions guaranteed her mother-in-law’s transfiguration from emptiness to wholeness? In all these ways, Ruth acted out the kind of grace that Christ embodied in excelsis. Even without the obvious conceptual link of redemption (Boaz, Naomi’s and Ruth’s kinsmen-redeemer; Christ, our redeemer [cf. Mark 10:45; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 3:13; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14]), I think we’re on solid ground in seeing certain parallels between Ruth’s sacrificial efforts, and the (far greater) sacrifice undertaken by Jesus (again, see John 15:13). Not only men, but women, too, may be assured that they have the chance to reflect the gracious, self-abnegating love of the divine in their own lives – love that redeems and heals and transforms and comforts. Apart from anything else, the story of Ruth shows us, I think, that the spirit of Christ may be witnessed in even the most unlikely of individuals. The liberality of God in calling a people to himself – a people formed by his word and spirit to embody the character of his Son – knows no bounds. If we restrict it on the basis of nationality, culture, gender or social status, then we do so to our own loss.

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On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.2)

The Word Made Flesh

In my last post, I spoke of God entering into time and space in a new way through the person of Jesus, which constituted his answer to the problem of evil. Here, I want to delve into that some more. Passages such as John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, Romans 8:3 and even Hebrews 2:14, 17, all speak of Jesus coming in the flesh. Christians often emphasize Christ’s deity. And so we should. But let us not forget the remarkable message that confronts us in these verses: that the Word, the divine logos, became flesh. And this was not just some divine experiment. No; it was instead the beginning of the process by which God would defeat evil.  The Creator entered the chaotic flow of creation and history to experience it for himself – not just its highs, but its lows, it joys, and its pain. From the simplest feelings of thirst to the most agonizing cries of distress in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus underwent the full range of human emotions and appetites and experiences. As F.F. Bruce once wrote, this was “no impassable visitant from another realm, untouched by our ordinary infirmities”. The passages that I have cited all claim that God has revealed himself most completely, most supremely – most uniquely – in a fully-rounded person: Jesus Christ. The book of Hebrews is especially clear. It speaks of Jesus sharing in our nature, “being made like his brothers” (2:17). He did not just “dip his toe into the water” of humanity, so to speak. He immersed himself in it fully. Incarnation meant inhabitation, and through the person of Jesus, God himself was dwelling fully within human nature.

This in itself ought to be a comfort to those suffering, for those who are Christ’s disciples follow a god who is not absent, or whose transcendence means that he is simply removed from this world. No; we pursue a god who knows what it is to suffer. It is easy for me, in the comfort of my study, to write about evil and suffering. I can argue for the existence of God in light of the terrible, unimaginable horrors that confront people every day from a position of safety. But God himself knows first-hand what it means to be crushed under the weight of evil. In responding to the power of sin in this world, God has so radically identified with the brokenness of his creation that he became a part of it. And thus, he is able to identify with all those who have been touched by the scourge of sin and evil. It is one thing for another to come alongside a person who is grieving; quite another for the Creator God, the One who has brought this world into being to then participate (voluntarily, no less) in its pain.

And of course, the most pristine image of that participation was the cross. It was there that the worst of sin’s power was drawn to one point – the body of Jesus (Romans 8:3), and he experienced the torment of pain – physical pain, distress, and the agony of abandonment. Thus, to the person who is battling with cancer, or who has lost his or her spouse in a flood, we can truly say that God, too, has experienced suffering. To those who weep over abandonment, we can honestly say that God knows of that intimately. Jesus’ cry when he was on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) – emerged from the depths of his being. He was not simply quoting Scripture; he was undergoing the consequences of divine abandonment, and thus enduring the loneliness of a broken world (about which I will say more). The triune God elected to experience that process, in part in order to identify with his suffering creation. Indeed, Isaiah 53 – that great prophetic ode to the suffering servant, sent to deal with his people’s sins, and who was revealed as the incarnate Son, Jesus – speaks of this:

“He was despised and rejected by others,

            a man of suffering, and familiar with 

                        pain…”

“Surely he took up our pain

            and bore our suffering…”

“He was oppressed and afflicted,

            yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

            and as a sheep before its shearers is

                        silent,

so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:3,4,7).

Through the cross, God in Christ experienced sin’s consequences for himself, standing with the lowly and the burdened in the midst of the maelstrom. Indeed, the invisible God has become visible – concrete – in Jesus. His care for humanity has now become incarnate in the person of his Son. To those who, like Job, wonder where God is in the middle of their misery, we can say that he is truly there.

More must be said, but I shall leave that for the ultimate post in this series.