May Yahweh grant that the woman entering your house become like Rachel and Leah
who, between the two of them, built the house of Israel!
The book of Ruth concludes with the entire community endorsing and praising the marriage of Boaz, a man of prestige and power, to a Moabite woman – and blessing the child who is born from their union. It is a strange thing, within the context of the biblical canon, to read Israelite men equating a Moabite woman with the ancestral mothers of the nation (4:11-12) and women praising a Moabite as “worth more than seven sons” (4:15). The story that began with a “better to stay with your own kind” sentiment now concludes with resounding acclaim for the outsider who refused to do so.
The events that transpire after Boaz welcomes Ruth into the community reveal that the transformation of the community comes about as a result of unorthodox thinking and unconventional measures:
• Ruth and Naomi decide on a risky strategy when the forward momentum of Boaz’s advocacy stalls. The scene of Ruth sneaking up to Boaz in the dead of night and lying next to him, while he is sleeping off the effects of a party, parallels the story of Moab’s incestuous origins (Genesis 19:30-37) and evokes the alarming, archetypal image of the Moabite Stalker. The allusion and the archetype infuse the scene at the threshing floor with a sense that what Ruth is doing is socially unacceptable – which Boaz confirms when he tells Ruth that she must leave early so she won’t be seen (3:14).
• No known laws or protocols obligate Boaz to marry Ruth. The levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) does not apply, as it refers only to brothers living together. No law requires that a kinsman-redeemer marry the widow of a family member. Boaz makes a free decision to marry the Moabite woman.
• Boaz makes creative and innovative use of the legal system to orchestrate his marriage to Ruth – both in the way he sets up a jury and the way he draws on and applies social codes. That he does so effectively is demonstrated by the outcome, when the entire community praises what beforehand would have been considered a scandalous marriage.
• In the public forum, Boaz utilizes some sleight-of-hand to get public approval. He sets up a smoke screen by presenting the main issue to be decided as a case involving property and the continuation of an Elimelech’s family line – even though his conversation with Ruth on the threshing floor has not addressed either issue. There the two only speak only of marriage. In public, Boaz speaks primarily about property and preserving a patriarch’s lineage.
• The rationale that Boaz presents for his marriage to Ruth – that he does so to maintain Elimelech’s name in the community (through the birth of a son through Ruth) – does not actually do play out. The genealogy that concludes the book names Boaz, not Elimelech, as the father of Obed, the son who is born from the union.
Risky strategies by refugees to stay visible when advocates disengage. The prominence of stereotypes. Stepping across socially-approved ways of getting things done. Improvisational use of laws and the legal system. Selective presentation and withholding of information and plans. All arise in the messy transition from a “stay with your own kind” community to an “outsiders make us better” community.
I see all of these elements at play as our church and nation grapples with an increasingly diverse culture and the potential and actual influx of refugees. We too are a community navigating between opposing perspectives and the anxieties, changes, and new ways of relating. There is social confusion and uncertainty. The Church however possesses the vision and resources to shape the social conversation and exemplify practices that point to a hopeful and healthy transformation. In so doing, the Church bears witness, in a world in flux and uncertainty, to the presence and work of the God of Refugees.