Friday, June 11, 2010

Rescued From Foreign Subjugation (part 16)

It would appear that the plan had been for Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to return to the land of Judah. To that end, we read “Now as she and her two daughters-in-law began to leave the place where she had been living to return to the land of Judah” (Ruth 1:7). This would indicate that all three were leaving their land of exile, and that all three were about to experience an exodus to the land of the covenant promise, even though both Ruth and Orpah were Moabites and had not previously left the region of Israel, and were not a part of God’s covenant people. Of course, in the Egyptian exodus, there were non-Israelites that went out of Egypt with Israel, so we are seeing a bit of a re-playing of this as Naomi and the two women leave Moab.

For some reason there is a change of heart on Naomi’s behalf, as she “said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Listen to me! Each of you should return to your mother’s home! May the Lord show you the same kind of devotion that you have shown to your deceased husbands and to me! May the Lord enable each of you to find security in the home of a new husband!’” (1:8-9a) Clearly, making this statement was difficult for Naomi, as she then “kissed them goodbye and they wept loudly” (1:9b). However, both were determined to return with Naomi, saying “No! We will return with you to your people” (1:10). Naomi speaks again, and this time is far more persistent, causing Orpah to accede to her wishes and demands, as she kissed her goodbye, presumably returning to her mother’s home as directed. However, as we know, “Ruth clung tightly to her” (1:14b). Naomi protested Ruth’s actions, but upon her doing so, Ruth famously and stubbornly declared “Stop urging me to abandon you! For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God” (1:16). Ruth’s dogged determination to be a part of the exodus people won out and Naomi relented, so they returned together to Judah, and more specifically, to Bethlehem.

When they did return, Naomi uses the language of exile and exodus, but seemingly in reverse, as she says, “I left here full, but the Lord has caused me to return empty-handed” (1:21a). It is possible that her bitterness (thus, the name change to Mara, or “bitter”) here had overwhelmed her, as she adds that “the Lord has opposed me, and the Sovereign One has caused me to suffer” (1:21b). Apparently, she has forgotten that she left with her husband and children in a time of famine, and at a time that we can presume that Israel was in subjugation. It is possible that she saw their departure to Moab as an exodus, and had begun to think of Moab as home. This might very well be the reason why she was so insistent that Orpah and Ruth stay in Moab, which in her own mind, had become a place of fullness. Based on Ruth’s response to Naomi’s land and Naomi’s God, it seems reasonable to believe that Naomi attempted to paint a not-so-flattering picture of that land and of the Lord, with tales of famine and oppression and death and judgment, in an attempt to convince Orpah and Ruth of the futility of going with her, and the benefits of staying there in Moab. Correspondingly, if her departure was an exodus, then she is now viewing her return home to Bethlehem in Judah as exile. If so, this makes Orpah’s departure understandable. If so, this makes Ruth’s clinging to Naomi even more remarkable, while giving us a glimpse into what lay behind the language of the rest of her statement to Naomi, in which she says, “Wherever you die, I will die---and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I do not keep my promise! Only death will be able to separate me from you!” (1:17) So against all probability, while Naomi thinks of the return to the promised land as an exile, Ruth looks forward to the end of exile, and a joining together with the people of exodus, in the land of the Lord’s promise.

With all of this under consideration---Naomi’s trepidation in returning to the land, combined with the knowledge of the famine and subjugation that was in effect when she left with her husband, it is with a touch of apparent irony that “they arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22b). Immediately, in her land of exodus---which is the place of God’s mission for her---“Ruth went and gathered grain in the fields behind the harvesters” (2:3a). This gathering, as we come to find out, took place in “the field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech” (2:3c). When Boaz speaks to Ruth, he treats her quite well, embodying the grace and kindness to resident foreigners that was demanded of Israel in the law of their God---because they too had been foreigners in Egypt. Though the author does not speak of this, it underlies the story and the treatment, and we are reminded of the constant overt and subtle recalling of exodus by the Biblical authors.

Soon after, as Ruth gives Naomi a report of the day’s activities, as well as the favorable treatment from Boaz, “Naomi said to her, ‘This man is a close relative of ours; he is our guardian’.” (2:20b) Later on, Ruth goes back to Boaz, proposing marriage and reminding him that he is “a guardian of the family’s interests” (3:9b). The Hebrew word used here for “guardian” is “go’el,” which is used as both “kinsman” and “redeemer.” This means that this is “deliverer” language, thus presenting Boaz in the mold of Moses, which places the story squarely in the center of the exile, exodus, and rescuing motif that is much of the sum and substance of the Scriptural message. As a guardian, or a redeemer, or a deliverer, Boaz agrees to Ruth’s proposal, and tells her that he will do what it necessary to become her and the family’s redeemer. Before sending her away so that he can go and attend to this business, “he measured out about sixty pounds of barley into the shawl and put it on her shoulders” (3:15). In this additional, favorable treatment by this redeemer (the one that was going to complete Ruth’s exodus and bring the family’s exile to an end), it could be said that Boaz went far beyond what either Ruth or Naomi would have asked or thought (Ephesians 3:20).

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