Formations 11.25.2018: You are Witnesses

Ruth 4:1, 3-6, 9-12

A stained-glass window from All Saints Church in Allesley, showing the stories of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz. The panel in the lower right-hand corner depicts this week’s story. (Photo by Amanda Slater.)

So far, Ruth and Naomi and Boaz and their commitments to family have anchored this story. This week we remember that their stories, like all of ours, take place within a community. This last chapter expands the scope of that community.

Boaz, after the events of the last three chapters, waits at the city gate. This is the place to go to gain from the nearest kin the right to purchase Naomi’s land and to marry Ruth. Legal and financial requirements remind us that even the most personal stories occur in time and a place. Settings limit them. Still, Ruth and Boaz suggest they can be transcended.

So while Boaz must meet his kin, he also demands witnesses. Boaz obliges them to see what has taken place. And seeing makes two demands: blessing and accounting.

Boaz’s demand draws us into this same dynamic of seeing and blessing, seeing and taking account. It is an obligation being in community, of recognizing our relations.

In fact, Boaz and Ruth carry out this obligation. Think through the full story. Ruth, having seen Naomi’s suffering and her own, stays with Naomi on the road. Feeling their hunger, she goes to the field for food. At Naomi’s request, she goes to the threshing-room floor. These are all blessings of care and labor and risk. Boaz, too, comes to see his field, notices Ruth, and blesses her with food and provisions. When he sees that Elimelech’s nearest-kinsman has not redeemed Naomi’s land, he holds him to account.

In part, this has been a story about witnessing, and at the last moment, the storyteller allows us to see the work of witnessing as belonging to all of us. In communities of promise and injustice, suffering and joy, greed and generosity, we bless and take account.

And it is the case that our collective witness will fall short. At times, it may become oppressive, and at other times it may grow nonexistent. For times such as these, Boaz and Ruth remind us that our witness is personal, taking us beyond our collective shortcomings just as our community’s witness raises us beyond our own.

Discussion

• What suffering and what joy have you seen in your community within the past month?
• What promises have we made as a community in these past year? Which have we kept? Which have we broken?
• In light of these things you’ve seen, how can you offer blessing in word and deed?
• As witnesses to these things, how might we hold ourselves and others to account?

Reference Shelf

The Nearest Kinsman

The distribution of rights, position, and property at the death of an individual to appropriate heirs. Inheritance was of great concern in the biblical world. Specific laws and customs governing inheritance are set forth in the Bible and documents from neighboring contemporary cultures. In the Bible, the term is used to describe the passing of an estate of material value (land and other property) from parent to child or some other heir.

[…]

In the OT law property was to remain among the blood-kin. Inheritance passed to sons, with the eldest receiving a double portion. If there were no songs, daughters could inherit the estate, but in this case they were forbidden to marry outside the clan or tribe of the father. If there were no children the property was passed to the father’s brothers; if note of these, then to his paternal uncles. In case none of these existed, then title was passed to “his kinsman who is next to him of his family” (Num 27:8-11).

Bruce C. Cresson, “Inheritance in the Old Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990) 406–7.

Witness and Bless

The people, in witnessing Boaz’s words, speak of not one but two realities. The first is standard fare. They give a blessing to the marriage that praises the ability and willingness of women, the examples being Rachel and Leah, to use their uteruses as well as the uteruses of their handmaids as incubators for one man’s sperm and produce for him twelve sons and one daughter (Gen 29:31–30:24; 35:16-21). To traditionalists, they represent the pinnacle of womanhood. They are the birthmothers of Israel. Two women, indeed sisters, compete with each other to give birth to a nation, and the witnesses at the gate in the book of Ruth laud them, praying that the woman who will enter Boaz’s house will be like them.

The social location of the text admits to male bias, which cannot be overcome. The worldview reflected in the biblical text of Ruth relegated women to two primary purposes: to be a wife and to give her husband children, more specifically sons. That is what Rachel and Leah did, and that is what is wished for Ruth as she becomes the wife of Boaz.

The two women had tried to make it on their own. They had challenged the conventions of their day, but in the end Naomi caved. She knew that real security would only be found with a man, and Boaz, as a wealthy relative, was the suitable choice. She devised a plan that Ruth agreed to which led to the proceedings at the gate, the passing of the shoe, and Ruth’s entry to the house of Boaz. The main part of the blessing is “may you produce children!” For the witnesses, that is what this marriage is about. This is status-quo thinking that affirms the norms of society.

There is, however, an alternative view that comes through the second part of the blessing: “And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, from the seed that Yhwh will give to you from this worker-girl” (4:12). Although the text speaks of the house of Perez, affirming male cultural dominance, the teller of the story of Ruth names Perez’s mother Tamar in the text before naming Judah, his biological father. In the remembered traditions of Israel, the actions of Tamar are first affirmed by Judah in his statement, “she is more in the right than I” (Gen 38:26), and now at the gate by the witnesses. This is another view of reality, and it affirms the action of females in the face of male failure. Just as important, it affirms the acceptance of strangers.

Judah did not live up to the standards of a society that require just treatment of widows or the preservation of his son’s name through levirate marriage. Judah, simply put, dropped the ball, and if not for the bold sexual actions of Tamar there would be no “house of Perez.” P’loni Almoni, the nearer redeemer, likewise failed in his obligations to protect a poor female relative. If not for the clever planning of Naomi, the sexual boldness of Ruth—like Tamar a foreign woman widowed by a man of Judah—and the openness of Boaz to see beyond the norm, there would be no blessing. Ruth and Naomi may be absent from the gate, but their actions occasion all that is happening and all that is hoped for in the blessing by the witnesses. The future remains open because two women loved each other, and each sought the welfare of the other. Their actions were unconventional, but as the end of the story will show, they were salvific—for their family and for the nation of Israel.

Kandy Queen-Sutherland, Ruth & Esther, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2016), 174–77.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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