Delivered at Ames UCC on August 12, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Remember how Ruth used sex to trap Boaz into marrying her and redeeming Naomi’s land? The next day we see Boaz trick a kinsman, referred to either jokingly or pejoratively as So-and-So, into giving up his claim to the role of redeemer-kinsman.
Recall that being a kinsman-redeemer is an opportunity to demonstrate God’s preferences for manna and mercy over money and might. There is no profit in buying Naomi’s land because Naomi will continue to work it for her own benefit and buy it back one day. Yet the opportunity to honor covenant living is powerful enough that it will take a little doing to get it away from Mr. So-and-So.
So Boaz tells a lie: If you serve as redeemer you also have to marry Ruth.
No, he doesn’t.
The only marital law regarding widows is, as I described last week, between brothers. Mr. So-and-So is not a son of Naomi or a brother-in-law to Ruth. Nonetheless, Mr. So-and-So is duped (or possibly glad to be shut of the kinsman-redeemer burden).
And so, after a little sandal removal, the honor of being a kinsman redeemer is Boaz’s. And the sacrifice of being husband to Ruth is, as well. For when Boaz and Ruth have a son, it will count as son to her late husband.
No wonder the townspeople then begin to celebrate: Look at the good and godly choice Boaz has made. They cry out,
May the Lord make Ruth like Rachel and Leah,
may your house be like that of Tamar!
Wait, what? What kinds of blessings are these? Who would want to live like Rachel and Leah and Tamar? Are they actually offering a curse?
Rachel and Leah, in the book of Genesis, are sisters who married a man named Jacob. Jacob was a deceitful and greedy man who cheated his twin brother Esau out of an inheritance. Jacob got his comeuppance, though, when an uncle/father in law, tricked Jacob into marrying weak-eyed Leah before he would be allowed to marry shapely and beautiful Rachel. Then beautiful Rachel was stuck being barren for a very long time while her unwanted sister-wife, weak-eyed Leah, had baby after baby.
Tamar, also in Genesis, is a widow like Ruth except that she had a brother-in-law who did marry her then after failing to impregnate her, he dies, too. Tamar’s father-in-law sends her back to her own father’s house so that his third son, who should become her next husband, can grow up without risk of Tamar’s presence getting him killed.
Later, when Tamar learns that the third son has grown up and not married her per the law, Tamar tricks her father-in-law into believing she is a prostitute, gets pregnant by him, and has twins.
So what do the townspeople mean when they say, “May the Lord make Ruth like Rachel and Leah. May your house be like that of Tamar!”???
May Ruth be like sister-wives, one tolerated and one infertile? May your house be filled with desperation and more sexual deceit?
May Ruth be another mother to our nation, they are saying.
The children who formed the metaphoric twelve tribes of Israel are Rachel’s and Leah’s. One of those children is Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah. And one of Tamar’s twins is the grandfather (nine generations removed) of King David, the hero of the people.
Ruth, a widowed, foreign convert to faith in the God of Bethlehem who violated sexual norms to try to have a future for herself and her mother-in-law, is being blessed by her adopted people. Ruth is being recognized as another woman in a long line of women who have endured difficult, even degrading, marriages and losses yet uses her wits and her womb to generate hope, security, and a covenant future for a whole people.
All four of these women, one unwanted (Leah), one barren (Rachel), one deceitful (Tamar), and one bold (Ruth) are integral parts of the story of the Hebrew people.
And when a woman’s name and story have survived the highly patriarchal process of Biblical formation it means that whatever she has to tell or illustrate is powerful. In a tome and tradition of men, these compromised and complicated women, women imperfect and impure, are cherished for their part in our unfolding story with God.
They are our mothers, just as they are.
Just like Mary is.
JESUS AND MARY
Because here’s what Christians did with this Jewish scripture: We took that lineage that traces Tamar to David at the end of Ruth and, in the Gospel of Matthew, added Jesus on, 26 generations later. In an effort to legitimize Jesus’s person and legacy, early Christians placed Jesus in Bethlehem for his birth and claimed David as his forbear.
It isn’t likely true, not in a factual genetic sense. But it is speaking a truth about the kind of people Jesus came from, spiritually and morally and theologically.
Jesus came from a people beloved of God, a people who sometimes were violent and deceitful, a people who sometimes only survived because women worked around the systems of men in order to honor the ways of God.
Which often are the ways of God: To attribute Jesus’s birth to an unmarried woman who has not had sex is to remind us that holiness itself does not necessarily abide by what we deem orderly or appropriate.
The sacred will not abide by our rules if our rules do not uphold the safety and security of all people, if our rules do not secure manna and mercy for all. God will find a way, through the least legitimate of bodies, to bring forth lives of courage, compassion, and change.
Or, to take us back to the point of the book of Ruth, the least legitimate of bodies will manifest God in this world—hesed—through lives of courage, compassion, and change.
We never see or hear directly from God in the book of Ruth, yet the story resonates with holy presence because of the choices and actions of Naomi (whose name means pleasant), Ruth (whose name means companion), and Boaz (whose name means “in him is strength”).
The tricks of the outcast and ignored, and the uncompromising faith of those with little power, result in dynasties of God’s grace. God is not up on high but in the wombs of women who know they are entitled to more.
Even this day, our hope will be born of scandal. It will be born of love. And like the children of Rachel, Leah, Tamar, Ruth, and Mary, it will be born to restore.