I have said before that much of the story of Ruth reads like a fairy tale: Once upon a time in the days of judges when the world on the world was much like this, but completely different. And this works really well, if we just brush by some of the sections and just focus with an eye toward the romance. Every good story has something that needs to be overcome in the middle section but it will end in love, new life, and a happily ever after.
Last week we read that Boaz noticed Ruth from across the field. She was young, she was poor, and she was industrious, and she worked for Boaz who was older, rugged, and wealthy. They fell in love over bread and sour wine color, stolen glances and shy smiles. Until they meet at the threshing floor and chastely, and mostly fully clothed save his feet, plan their future together.
It’s a story of every good love song, of every country song where star-crossed lovers meet, or lives that shouldn’t connect, suddenly become entwined
But if we linger here it might start to feel a little less like a love song and a little more complicated.
We have to remember, women of the time were little or nothing without the man in their lives: her father, her husband, her son. Without sons, Naomi’s family was at end of her lineage and had no access to the resources her sons would have inherited. Naomi, and widows like her, had few means to make money or a place to stay. There had minimal hope. Sometimes women in the most precarious of situations do the things they had to do to make money to survive. You might find them begging on the streets, sometimes they stayed near the temple, sometimes they sold their bodies to make money whether was for labor or sex.
Ruth up to this point had kept them fed but Naomi knows she won’t live forever and that Ruth needs to have a husband for security and children, sons, so her future does not look like Naomi’s. And what we know of Boaz is that he has means, money, resources, and, at the very least, has been kind to Ruth. There are worse matches. We, and probably Naomi, have no reason to assume marrying Ruth and Boaz might be abusive or more dangerous than Ruth’s current way of living.
Naomi instructs Ruth put on her best clothes, look nice, wear her fancy perfume, and go to Boaz when he’s drunk and uncover his “feet”. Wink. Wink. Naomi told her that Boaz would figure out the rest.
It’s possible if we look from here, it isn’t so much a love song as it is Reba McIntyre’s Fancy: where the mother is so desperate that she buys her daughter a dress, and sends her out into the world in hope that she’ll find some man to take care of her before the mother succumbs to her poverty and death. The song tells us that Fancy sleeps and seduces her way into security and abundance. The song tells us that some people judged her and her mother for this act, but, she was not unlike Naomi and Ruth, just trying to find a way in a world that didn’t seem to care if they lived or if they died.
Ruth did as she is told but instead of waiting for Boaz to figure it out and tell her what to do, she jumps in and proposes to him. That’s what it means when she asks him to spread his cloak across her. It’s a marriage proposal or offer.
There are 2 laws that that have anything to do with this offer: 1: a Leverite Marriage where if a man dies without a son, his brother marries the first man’s wife and their first son carries on the family name of the first brother. Joe and John are brother, Joe dies, John marries Joe’s wife and their first son, is Joe Jr and would get all the inheritance of Joe.
It doesn’t seem that Elimelech has a brother. And that doesn’t extend to Ruth, her husband’s brother is also already dead.
The 2nd law allows for a close family member to buy back property that has been sold in a time of need so that it can return to the family who sold it. Land, property, and reputation were vitally important and there was shame attached to having lost of sold it. The person who does the buying back is the go’el in Hebrew, the kinsman redeemer because he redeems the family member, it always a man, back in right relationship in the family and in the community.
Ruth convinces Boaz to marry her by using the kinship redeemer laws, which don’t apply to her, not technically. Ruth’s request would not just set up her security but established Naomi says well–giving her back her family lineage and a place in community.
Our culture tends to assume that there are 2 types of women In it: One is the perfect wife the perfect homemaker, a perfect mother, the perfect woman. She is pure she is blameless she obeys if obeying is important to the culture. She is Hestia of Greek mythology. It is she who cares for the fire at the hearth. She is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is pure, she is a Virgin, and she only had one baby because purity. The other is quite the opposite. It’s Aphrodite, she is impulsive and impetuous; she is uncontrollable. She seduces the men around her and brings them to ruin. She’s the other Mary in the story of Jesus, the Magdalen who frankly never did anything wrong but had gotten to must authority in the church and clearly, she needed to be put in her place, so in the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great declared in his Easter sermon that she had been a prostitute. Women are pure and wholesome or are evil and sexually promiscuous. We still see it today when women named that they have been assaulted and we, society turn to her and try to find a reason for why it is her fault. What were you wearing did you leave him on what did you say, were you somewhere you shouldn’t have been? And who wants to go through that? A colleague mentioned that in 40 years of hearing women’s stories, only one ever went to court. It’s easier to hide any abuse to avoid the dichotomy.
And we work very hard to ensure that the story of Ruth and Boaz is one that remains pure and upright and holy and above reproach. But it turns out feet the word that we translate into feet means feet or legs or thighs or anything below the waist. We want so much this for this to be a love story that we accept the most mundane translations and have worked very hard to convince everyone else that the story happened where nothing inappropriate went on between these 2 grown adults who have clearly at some point been married 2 other people.
Because there were laws in place that were meant to care for and protect women whose husbands died. But they all failed to protect Naomi. They didn’t go far enough, she didn’t fit into the more narrow interpretation of the law.
This is a story of women in the midst of patriarchy. Who have nothing, no resources, no hope? They were full of desperation and in need of survival. This is a story of Fancy; of sex and humanity, and the things humans do; of bodies and how resources are shared, not shared. This is a story of falling through the cracks of well-intentioned laws that sometimes fail the most vulnerable.
This is a story of the people who will law didn’t work for, and what we do for those who don’t just live on the edge but are falling off.
Each year, 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness. It’s estimated that ⅓ of females and ½ of males engage in survival sex: sex in exchange for food, clothing, a place to stay, other basic needs. This is also prevalent among refugee communities around the world. Numbers are high in among LGBT homeless youth. It puts these young people at great risk of abuse, assault, kidnapping, and being trafficked.
“In some cases, teens begin sleeping with older men in exchange for a place to stay, but over time, the man starts forcing the girl to have sex with his friends for cash. In others, young girls find themselves in self-preservation-minded sexual relationships with providers or “sugar daddies,” but are abruptly kidnapped or exploited by other predators in the same social circles.” https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/exchanging-sex-for-survival/371822/
Did you know, that there are still many states that arrest young people, under the age of 18, for prostitution, even when that person is a teenage, a child, who is before the age of consent? In Wisconsin, we legally offer an “alternative response through the juvenile justice system” which includes: diversion, discretionary referrals, or dismissals. It seems to me, it is still criminalizing the child, and not offering a way to be redeemed. https://reportcards.sharedhope.org/safeharbor/?location=wi
Chrystul Kizer is a resident of Kenosha. When she was 16 needed money for food and notebooks for school, so she did what she thought she had to do, learned from her friends, and posted her picture online. She was contacted by 34-year-old Randy Volar. The year before, Volar had been arrested for sex crimes against 15 year old. Volar kept Chrystul for over a year, abusing her, assaulting her, and selling her for his own money.
On June 5, 2018, when she was still a child at 17, she shot and killed Volar. She was held on $1 million bail, on 1st-degree intentional homicide, she was held for 2 years. Her case was stalled, meanwhile, also in Kenosha, Kyle Rittenhouse was tried and freed on self-defense. It wasn’t until July of this year that Chrystul’s defense was allowed to include the sex trafficking and self-defense argument. Even so, Chrystul could still face 60 years in prison, for saving her life. It breaks my heart and there are those who would judge her for being poor, black, and doing the things she thought she had to do to survive.
What does a go’el look like for Chrystul? Someone who looks out for a kid who needs something to eat and notebooks to go to school. Someone who takes the time to write the governor. To everyone. Advocate for the estimated 240,000 to 325,000 victims of sex trafficking in the US.
These are women, men, and children, who are in need of their go’el, their redeemer, who are going to bring them into abundance, into right relationship, into hope, into fully living.
So what happened on the Threshing floor between Ruth and Boaz? I guess the scandalous details aren’t really the point. Redemption happened there. Lives were beginning to be brought back to hope, and abundance, good news happened there.
Naomi was doing the best she could for Ruth. And Ruth was going to figure out a way to make the system work for her–to make adjustments so that both she and her mother-in-law might survive. And Boaz took that system and make it broader, not just to see what the least they could do was but to see how far it could be pushed, how expansive it might be.
The good news for Ruth was Boaz and broadening and envisioning a creator I’m visioning a creative solution to save them. And the good news for Naomi was Ruth who refused to be hampered by the rules.
“In 2016 April Bentley launched Rubies, a non-profit organization focused on education and prevention of sex trafficking through shaping character and culture.” Having been trafficked as a 14 year old in Milwaukee, she makes it her mission to keep girls safe.
Curiana: 8th Grade said about her experience with RUBIES “Everyday giving up slightly crosses my mind but it’s people like Ms. April who I know loves and cares for me, so I just try my best to put my best foot forward. I’m not easily convinced but thinking about these things such as my worth and more honestly gave me my purpose in life”.
Asyria and 11th Grader “I learned many different things in RUBIES. I learned self love and self respect. I learned that I am not for sale because I am a Rare Unique Beautiful Intelligent Excelling Sister.” https://www.rubiesmke.org/
This is spreading a cloak of protection and community over those who are out of options. This is the looking out for the last, the least, the lost, the lonely, the ones that slip through the cracks, who don’t get the community resources or spent years staying home and have no skills to work, who live on the other side of the edge of surviving. We are people who are called to see them, to believe that even as they have made choices from those places of survival, they are still deserving of love, community, and to be brought into right relationship, into abundance, into fully living. May we be go’el and offer grace, love, hope, and community to those on the farthest edge, who slip through the cracks, who too are image bearers of the divine.