Formations 11.18.2018: Unconventional Courage

Ruth 3:1-13

Kristen Visbal, Fearless Girl, 2017

I would never tell my daughter to do what Naomi told Ruth to do.

Naomi tells Ruth to bathe, put on perfume, put on her best dress, and sneak to the threshing floor under cover of night so she can lie down beside Boaz where he sleeps. If that seems to you like a sketchy way to get a husband, then congratulations: you’re paying attention!

Isn’t Naomi aware of all the ways that plan could end in catastrophe? What if Ruth runs into a bunch of field hands who’ve had too much to drink? What if Boaz isn’t the gentleman everyone assumes he is? What if Boaz is a perfect gentleman, but Ruth is discovered anyway, and her reputation is ruined?

This is a shocking, even scandalous course of action in any culture, and certainly in ancient Israel. I can’t imagine ever sending my daughter into a situation like that.

Then again, I can’t imagine I would ever have to. After all, in Ruth’s culture, the only real source of security available to a woman was her relationship to a man—her father, her brother, her husband, her son, her uncle. Ruth can’t just apply for a job as one of Boaz’s hired workers, after all. No carpenter or blacksmith will ever take her on as an apprentice and teach her a trade. But she needs to eat. She needs to take care of her mother-in-law. What can she do?

When we consider Ruth’s actions, let’s keep these factors in mind. Because as foolhardy as it seems, there’s a kind of desperate logic to Naomi’s plan. When conventional wisdom takes away our options, our only resort may be unconventional courage.

People can be amazingly creative problem-solvers when playing it safe is no longer an option. Conventional wisdom would never cast seed willy-nilly to the four winds in hopes that some will take root and produce a thirty, sixty, or hundredfold increase. But unconventional courage would—as surely as it would sell everything for a pearl of great price or buy a field in hopes of hidden treasure.

Conventional wisdom would never condone a sinful woman washing a respectable rabbi’s feet with her tears. Only unconventional courage can do that: the kind of courage that embraces the reputation of “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 7:34), or that stands up to powerful religious bullies even when they hold all the cards. It’s the kind of courage that will risk something big for something good.

Do bold strategies like that always work? No, of course not. But maybe the story of Ruth—and her many times great-grandson Jesus—should encourage us to be bold anyway.

Discussion

• When have you admired someone’s boldness?
• When is it appropriate to act boldly in pursuit of something good?
• When have you taken such a risk? What happened?
• What would you say to Ruth about this plan? What would you say to Naomi?

Reference Shelf

Boaz

Naomi belonged to a household in which all the males had died: her husband, Elimelech; and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. The family holdings were in danger of being lost. Elimelech and a man named Boaz belonged to the same association of house holds (mispaha). They were Ephrathites from the town of Bethlehem. The association of households provided for the saving of a family inheritance if a man (go’el) from the association were to many the widow. If they should have a son, the inheritance would pass to the son, thereby rescuing the family name.

Ruth, a Moabite, had returned with Naomi to Bethlehem after her first husband, a son of Elimelech, had died . Ruth was, therefore, a member of Naomi’s household. Ruth met Boaz after gleaning in his field. The closest in kinship (go’el) to the household of Elimelech chose not to buy land from Naomi or many Ruth because it put his own inheritance in jeopardy. He thus yielded his right to Boaz.

William R. Millar, “Boaz,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 119.

Asking the Woman’s Name

“And behold, a woman lying at his feet!” This is the third interjection in the book (cf. 2:4, 3:2). Coupled this time with the participle form of šakab, the interjection and the participle take the reader to the moment of Boaz’s awakening and surprise discovery. We may know what is going on, but the story’s teller wants us to be as startled as Boaz is!

For Boaz to ask the question “Who are you?” in 3:9 seems more than logical under the circumstances. He worked hard, enjoyed himself after his labor, and middle of the night to discover a woman was jolted awake in the middle of the night to discover a woman 
beside him. The text gives no indication of how he knew the person beside him was female. Physical contact is thus assumed to have played a part and may be indicated in the twisting/grasping motion of verse 8. It speaks well of a man, in this case Boaz, when he discovers a woman on the floor with him in what is if anything a compromising situation and asks her name.

Not all men ask such questions. Not all men want to know. Judah arranged to have sex with a woman hidden behind a veil. She, of course, turned out to be Tamar, his daughter-in-law (Gen 38). So many women passed through the bedchamber of King Ahasuerus in the scroll of Esther that the only way one of them got to return was if he remembered her name. The emphasis is on “if.” Yet Boaz asks, “Who are you?” This is the second time that Boaz has inquired about Ruth’s identity. Out in the fields he posed the question, “To whom does this worker-girl (belong)?” upon seeing her for the first time. She was identified to him as the foreigner, the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi (2:5-6). On the threshing floor under the cover of darkness, he asks Ruth directly to identify herself and she does: “I am Ruth.” She gives her name and qualifies her identity with the appellation, “your handmaid.”

Kandy Queen-Sutherland, Ruth & Esther, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2016), 119–20.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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