The Mensch: The Character of Christ in the Book of Ruth

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.

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10 responses to “The Mensch: The Character of Christ in the Book of Ruth

  1. You’ve inspired me to read up on the date of Ruth based upon linguistic criteria. I just had the librarian pull Frederic Bush’s commentary on the matter. So thank you!

  2. In this lovely meditation, I’m struck by your typological reading. I did not come across such an approach until I was in college and read Auerbach’s great essay on Dante’s understanding of Scripture as figural. Vast landscapes seemed to open before me…

  3. I finished reading up on Ruth’s Hebrew. It does seem to be from the late Pre-exilic period or later (pace the ever-generous Ed Cambell). It is located in an in-between land where so-called Standard Biblical Hebrew gives way to Late Biblical Hebrew (the heuristic periodization of language into two sets is undoubtedly simplistic & yet one becomes accustomed to being prodded–sometimes poked–by the constraints of the evidence which render our most careful speech inadequate). If your Hebrew, Susannah, is even mildly functional & it matters sufficiently to you (which it need not), Frederic Bush’s commentary is highly accessible. For me, a tale written 400 years after the events need not be historically accurate. So I find it unnecessary to psychologize the characters of Boaz to see, again, the beauty of gender relations which Christ undoubtedly can bring.

    I have been wondering when the reappropriation of the hermeneutics of a Post-Hasmonean Judaism become a replica of a by-gone day & cease to speak? They need not always be mute. Perhaps I should read the essay cited above. I visited a replica of the Holy Land in DC created by Franciscan monks this weekend. The Franciscans have certainly surpassed my beloved Holy Land in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in tastefulness, though I suspect their devotion to a living God might be equal to the saints of Arkansas. Yet as I stood with the youthful confirmands next to the replica of the replica of the supposed stone slab adjacent to the supposed tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepluchre, I had to laugh. At what point do our replicas–whether a recreation of Byzantine naves or Hasmonean-period hermeneutics–become fanciful invitations to laugh at our own need to hold tightly to the Divine? They tend to succeed only when they cease to be a referent to another hermeneutical technique & live vibrantly on their own. Perhaps they live when they cease to be a ‘biblical’ hermeneutic.

  4. Again, I should have edited my remarks. Incorrect punctuation. The Franciscan replica was not created this weekend & the temporal phrase should have been placed adjacent to the primary verb. Oh well. Please read generously.

  5. Hah, those Franciscans sure were busy this weekend…

    Couple of thoughts: well, first of all, my Hebrew is nonexistent. You will always be able to snow me on linguistics, although I suspect– knowing how these things tend to go– that there are scholars out there who would place the writing of the text a lot closer to the events it talks about.

    (I would be super annoyed if anyone else did what I just did: not addressing the specific point, just making a general “I bet I could find conservatives who’d say differently” statement. Please forgive and bear in mind that my background is in 19th century English lit and 18th century British political culture.)

    You wrote:
    “For me, a tale written 400 years after the events need not be historically accurate. So I find it unnecessary to psychologize the characters of Boaz…”

    I guess my version of the infallibility of Scripture is that, leaving aside translation issues, everything about the Bible as we have it (and let’s just be talking about the books in the canon common to Cath, Prot and Ortho) is how He wants it to be, and is true, if we read it in the way it’s meant to be read. So I can imagine an inspired writer 400 years later getting Boaz’ psychology right, although that does seem like a more “supernatural” way of operating than God tends to use in inspiring text: He seems to be fond of eyewitnesses and research. But I can easily imagine a supernatually-protected oral tradition preserving elements of character, which are accurately expressed when they’re finally written down.

    You wrote: “They tend to succeed only when they cease to be a referent to another hermeneutical technique & live vibrantly on their own.”

    Not quite sure what you mean, but if you’re saying that in order to allow the texts to live as spiritually-effective poetry we need to not expect them to be history (unless of course they’re written as spiritually-effective poetry rather than history, i.e. the psalms)… I don’t agree. It’s the whole vine/branches thing: our spiritual experience has to be rooted in the actual events of history; we are creatures who live in time and in bodies, and we depend on a God who doesn’t deceive us when He’s trying to communicate.

    Call me a modernist if you want, but I don’t think that’s modernism… it’s anti-gnosticism. I think Boaz and Ruth existed and ate bread made out of barley from that harvest and that Boaz did have that exchange with his laborers on that day.

    Of course, MY READING of Boaz’ character is not canonical (in case you were confused: I do not regard my blog as part of the canon of scripture.) And is influenced by my life and intense fondness for English countryside traditions and the “Revels” CDs. But… I’m a little bit Charismatic, and so I suspect that God “led me” to this reading; it at least is a reading that leads me to praise God; on a purely irritatingly-subjective level, it feels true, it feels like understanding something more about Someone whom I am getting to know.

  6. …Hm. and thinking about it, this is the method of reading you were using when you said that you didn’t need to be sure of details of Boaz’ psychology “to see, again, the beauty of gender relations which Christ undoubtedly can bring.” In other words, you too are seeing something here about Someone that matches other things that you already know about His character, and His ways of helping us love each other.

  7. First, I don’t consider being called a modernist as an insult, as is common in our current epistemological climate.

    On the issue at hand, there are others who say that the syntax & vocabulary choices of Ruth’s Hebrew does not conform to Late Biblical Hebrew. Thus, my parenthetical remark referencing the ever generous Ed Campbell with whom I’ve exchanged only a few words but who showed himself to be a truly beautiful human being in those short moments. Here is his standard work in the field (http://www.amazon.com/Ruth-The-Anchor-Bible-Volume/dp/0385053169) for which you are searching & to which you are willing to commit yourself, though you don’t know the empirical evidence.

    My own commitment is first to the text. The individual texts must tell me how God interacts with humanity. I can not tell God how he must interact & then make the text & supporting empirical evidence conform to this view. If God has chosen to allow historical inaccuracies in the text, then I must ask what that means about God’s interaction with humans. You presume it means God is untruthful. I presume that it shows his willingness not to correct our errors because God works graciously through us despite our fallibility. The character of God is not to be faulted — only humanity’s.

    I truly wish that I were still able to hold your position. I tried for many years, supposing it to be the downfall of modernity that scripture was seen as historically inaccurate. It was through learning the ceramic typology of the LB IIB/Iron I & the relative & absolute chronologies of the LB IIB & Iron I that I changed. I wish that the LB IIA could be the period of Joshua’s conquest & the appropriate sites destroyed in the LB IIA. Heck, I’d settle for them being inhabited in the LB IIB/Iron I transition. But they weren’t.

    I am grateful for having grown up in a Pentecostal environment with the assurance of the Spirit’s presence even as I found that I could not maintain this view of scripture. I could not let go of the character of the God who permitted the community to gather around & tell its story through historically inaccurate texts.

    If we let the text of Ruth stand on its own, its parable-like qualities pop out, so much so that even my keen, homeschooled nephew (homeschooling rocks & creates darn intelligent little ones!) asked, “Did those events really happen?” I had told him the story of a family’s children, Sickly & Weakling, the translation of the Hebrew names of Naomi’s sons. They left the house of bread, Bethlehem, to find food due to famine. The text itself does not resemble parallel genres from the ANE which intended to be historically accurate & should not be evaluated on these terms (e.g., an annal or a royal inscription). (The biblical texts which claim to be historically accurate must be read on the terms of their own claims as well.)

    I do suspect, however, that you will not accept my view that the text contains historical inaccuracies. I tend not to have these conversations because I remember that these conversations never changed me until I sat down with the empirical evidence firsthand & for many, many hours. Few of us have this luxury. Fortunately God’s Spirit uses us despite our errors–both yours & mine. This graciousness of God is my hope for both myself & the fallible writers of the biblical texts.

  8. Reblogged this on Eclectic Amateur and commented:
    Susanna Black, in this mediation on the book of Ruth, notes the same social welfare and mandated economic inefficiencies in the Old Testament Law that I’ve noticed myself.
    This would be one of the reasons I don’t see strict laissez-faire economics as the self-evidently “Biblical” economic system.

  9. If Boaz is like an Austen hero, he sounds more like Mr. Knightley in Emma.

    • Hmmmm. Yeah, there’s that stand-up, not-going-to-flatter-her quality. But now I’m leaning towards whoever that older man was that Marianne ended up marrying, in Sense & Sensibility. Colonel Brandon. Except that Ruth is obviously not a flake.

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