Last Thursday the Bible study I go to– chez John and Judith Mason, through Christ Church, my wonderful Anglican congregation– took a look at the OT book of Ruth, and I ended up figuring out a little more about why I’ve always loved this short, quiet narrative about friendship between women, loyalty, seemingly impossible hopes fulfilled in unexpected ways, and unexpected romance.
On one level it’s a Cinderella story. Ruth, the Moabitess, the foreigner, supporting herself and her mother-in-law after the death of all the men in their family by gleaning: picking up the sheaves of wheat left behind by harvesters in someone else’s field. This was put into place under God’s law as one of three levels of provision for social welfare in Israel (the other two, per my brilliant friend Kristen Filipic, are tithing, where a tenth of everybody’s income ends up in a central fund used for, among other purposes, welfare payments to those who really can’t support themselves; and jubilee, where every fifty years everyone’s debts are cancelled, along with any land sales that have alienated a family’s home farm.)
Gleaning is cool as follows: basically, God tells farmers to build in deliberate inefficiencies to their operation in order to allow others to make a living. You’re not supposed to reap to the edges of the field, and you’re not supposed to pick up the grain that you might accidentally drop in the process of harvesting, so that there’ll be plenty of leftovers for the gleaners. It’s almost like a portion of all privately owned land is actually commons, but commons that exist in the same physical space as the private property.
Anyway, Ruth is gleaning, and Boaz, the wealthy landowner who turns out to be her dead husband’s cousin, sees her diligence and asks about her; yep, they end up married.
The writer of Ruth sketches personalities with just a few deft strokes, but manages to convey quite a lot about these two people. There is about Boaz a kind of prosaic decency and good-naturedness, a canniness combined with a willingness to be pleased with people and with life, that are striking. You grope for a phrase to describe this and come up with something along the lines of “he’s an all-around good fellow.” You can see this in his interactions with his workers just before he sees Ruth. I’d always sort of thought of the book of Ruth as the Jane Austenyest of all the Biblical books, and so I’d seen him as Mr. Darcy, the landowner whose good treatment of his workers is what finally recommends him to the heroine. But that’s not quite right: he has none of Darcy’s pride, as Ruth has none of Elizabeth’s prejudice. Rather what he has is precisely humility, a word that we’ve heard so often that we can’t hear it properly any more.
When we first meet Boaz, he’s out in the fields– supervising his men, yes, but also working alongside them. And when Boaz and Ruth finally get together, far from lording his higher economic and social status over her, he is touched that she’s chosen him– an older man, not particularly good-looking– over the young hotties of Israel that, he thinks, she might have had.
I realized that, while there definitely is an English domestic novel quality to the book of Ruth, Jane Austen isn’t quite right– she’s too genteel, somehow; not quite grounded enough. Dickens may be closer, but closer still might be something like a non-skeevy version of Tom Jones (OK, I haven’t read it, but I’m going by the Albert Finney movie, and if you can’t trust an Albert Finney movie, what can you trust?) Or Pamela. There is in Ruth the same quality of earthiness that you get in those very early novels: the harvest festival; the benevolently scheming, slightly pushy mother-in-law; the squire working alongside his men to get the barley in.
You can picture the girls of Jerusalem, at Boaz and Ruth’s marriage, weaving them crowns out of that same barley, and singing them into their marriage-bed with a harvest carol of thanksgiving and celebration. This is the thing which pagan rituals parody, but this is the real version, the deeply good and blessed version, with no reservations. Reading Ruth, you realize that paganism has literally nothing on us; the tinpot pagan gods have nothing extra to offer those who worship the God of Israel who is, among so many other things, the Lord of the Harvest.
As with many people in the Hebrew Bible, Boaz can be seen as a type– a prefigurement– of Christ. Christ is our kinsman redeemer as Boaz was Ruth’s. And of all the many thousands of ways that we have to hear the Gospel, this may be one of my favorites: we see the gentleness, the groundedness, the sanity of Christ’s humility in Boaz; we see the celebratory harvest-joy of the marriage supper of the lamb in the wedding of Boaz and Ruth.
One other aspect of this that we talked about last week was the fact that the two women who are mentioned in the genealogies of Christ are Boaz’ mother– Rahab, a gentile prostitute (and was that why he was still unmarried, though older and well-to-do?)– and Ruth, the gentile who threw her lot in with Israel and with this man. I can’t help but think, when I read about Boaz’ concern for Ruth’s reputation after she comes to “uncover his feet” in the winnowing shed, that he must have been particularly sensitive to the value of women’s reputations precisely because of his mother’s presumed post-prostitution struggles to get her life back together and establish a place for herself. And I can’t help but think also about Mary, whose reputation was more or less shot after she was known to be pregnant outside of wedlock. Boaz is caring for all aspects of Ruth’s experience, here: their relationship basically defines the opposite of exploitation.
I don’t know quite how to wrap this up except to say that the pumpkins and gourds and Indian corn that are everywhere these days– the greenery and grains that decorated the sukkot scattered around the city a couple of weeks ago– will look different to me from now on, I think. I think I know a little bit more about harvest.