Ruth: Extending the protections of the law to everyone

The story of Ruth undermines the push for religious purity by extending the protections of the law, and the lineage of King David, to a person who was traditionally despised. (Listen.)

What a charming love story! After the loss of her husband, an attractive young widow is protected from starvation and assault, and taken under the wing of a kindly kinsman. Her barrenness is quickly remedied, and they all live happily ever after; indeed, the village women pray that she will be like Leah and Rachel, the foremothers of Israel, and lo! she becomes the great-grandmother of Israel’s most famous king. And it is indeed charming.

For the story of Ruth opens with grief and loss, but it soon moves to fullness and joy. It’s set in a fertile land amid nodding fields of ripe corn, and the characters are good and gentle folk who greet each other in God’s name. It’s easy to read, and indeed is read aloud every year at the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which celebrates the handing down of the law. So it may come as a surprise when I tell you that the contents are dynamite.

Why? Well, Ruth is indeed a deeply faithful person, and the author is careful to paint her so. When her husband dies, she pledges to leave her family and cleave to Naomi in words which echo and extend Genesis 2:24: for she commits to Naomi not just in life, but in death. Like Abraham, Ruth leaves her mother and father and the land of her birth; like so many Biblical folk, she meets her spouse near a well in a foreign land. Too, Ruth embodies three key Biblical categories of vulnerability: she is a widow, she is a foreigner, and, by leaving her family, she is effectively an orphan. In other words, in three different ways, Israel has a duty of care towards her.

And yet … Ruth is described as a Moabite from Moab: the most hated of Israel’s neighbours. In Israel’s origin stories, Moab is described as being founded by an act of incest between Lot and his daughter (Genesis 19). As any surviving Tutsi person from Rwanda can testify, the stories told about you matter: and this founding myth reveals much about Israel’s attitude towards Moab. Israel considered Moabites to be evil and polluted; no more than God’s footbath, according to one contemptuous psalmist (Psalm 60). They were strictly forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3), and banned from any form of significant interaction with Israelites. In other words, they were subhuman scum.

Yet in this story, an Israelite family migrated to Moab at a time of famine, and there received hospitality, refuge and eventually wives for their sons. When the son Kilion dies, his Moabite wife is painted in the image of a faithful Israelite and, as a widow, orphan and foreigner, as one who must be cared for by Israel. This presents a pretty conundrum for any Jewish listener: for which law takes precedence? The law banning any form of intercourse with Moabites, including marriage? Or the law which insists that the widow, the orphan and the foreigner are to be cared for and protected? Which in Ruth’s case can be achieved through marriage with a kinsman-redeemer (who marries his kinsman’s widow and provides her with sons, ensuring land is kept in the family and the bloodline continues).

What makes this question even more pointed is the dating of the story. Although it is set in the time of Israel’s judges, the language places it around the time of Nehemiah: and Nehemiah was all about ethnic cleansing. When he and Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, those Israelites who had ‘polluted’ themselves by marrying foreign wives were ordered to drive those wives and their children into the wilderness, presumably to die.

And so the story of Ruth the Moabite is dynamite: because it undermines the priestly push for purity. For as we know, the story lands not on the side of purity, but squarely on the side of hospitality and love, as Ruth finds shelter and refuge through marriage to Boaz. And as if this is not enough, it goes on to claim that Ruth the Moabite and Tamar the Canaanite are progenitors of Israel’s greatest king: and if even King David is not pure Israelite, then the idea of ethnic purity is made ridiculous.

The story of Ruth is part of a long tradition which prioritises the most vulnerable. In Judaism, the law is understood to be God’s love and justice quietly unfolding among all people, not just the privileged. And so if the interpretation of the law does not serve the most vulnerable, then it must be revisited, rethought, or pushed to a more generous interpretation. More, this process helps Israel become the compassionate community God is calling it to be. This is why Ruth is read aloud at Pentecost: because as widow, orphan and despised foreigner, she is the embodiment of vulnerability and the person through whom Israel must interpret the law. If the law doesn’t work for her, it doesn’t work at all.

As Christians, we stand in this tradition: for we follow a Jewish teacher who tested the law against its effects upon vulnerable people and in many cases found it wanting. Unlike Ruth’s happy ending, however, when Jesus challenged the purity police he was killed for his trouble: and perhaps conflict and strife is a more common outcome when the religiously powerful feel threatened.

And rumblings of strife can be heard in Victoria right now. Parliament recently heard the second reading of a bill designed to limit the ability of religious organisations and schools to discriminate against LGBTI+ people. Because although it is illegal to discriminate against such people in every other area of life, religious organisations and schools are currently exempt. And so, for example, a religious school can fire a teacher who comes out, claiming it offends their faith.

Sadly, mainstream Christian interpretation of righteousness has long excluded LGBTI+ people. The language used has often been pejorative, even violent; and as some of our precious siblings in Christ have experienced in their own lives, many churches go so far as to forbid friendship with LGBTI+ folk, ending all communication and relationship with a person who is brave enough to come out.

We see the harm done when people are rejected and ostracized by their communities; we know how important love and acceptance are for people’s health and wellbeing: and it should be to our enduring shame that a secular government has been forced to legislate to protect vulnerable people because religious folk have failed to do so.

Yet the inclusion of the story of Ruth in the Writings suggests it has always been this way. That is, there is always a tension between the quest for religious purity and the ethic of hospitality and love. On the one hand, we have the joylessly self-righteous Nehemiah, who prayerfully prides himself on beating up men who married foreign wives (Nehemiah 13:23-27). On the other, we have two gentle women who arrange the sweet seduction of Boaz, ensuring the protections of the law are extended to embrace even a traditional enemy.

So when it comes to our laws, rules, practices, attitudes and traditions regarding the most vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, yes, but also the gay, the trans, the poor and anyone else who is regularly subject to discrimination and contempt – which way do we choose? Nehemiah or Ruth? Self-righteousness or seduction? Violence or gentleness? Persecution or protection? Exclusion or embrace? How do we want our story to end: with a self-satisfied man praying alone, or with surprising relationships, new life, and a whole village celebrating?

Ruth, Jesus, my beloved LGBTI+ siblings in Christ, my membership of the village, and my love of babies all lead me to conclude: We must always choose protection and embrace. Ω

Act: If you live in Victoria and are of the same mind, please call or email your state MP no later than 12 November 2021 and let them know that, as a person of faith living in their electorate, you are in favour of the bill. You can read the bill here, and a helpful fact sheet about the bill here.

Reflect: Much has been made of the massive police hunt for young Chloe Smith these last few weeks. Sadly, when young Indigenous folk go missing, there is usually far less police response (read more here). In what other ways do you see the protections of the law failing to extend to some people? You might like to pray about it, and ask God to guide you or the church to any response.

A reflection on Ruth by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 7 November 2021 (Year B Proper 27) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash.

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