One of the several possible readings from the Hebrew Bible for today is Ruth. And in some ways, grounding ourselves in this Iron Age story may be useful as we think about All Saints.
A long time ago, a man from Israel and his wife Naomi, moved to Moab, probably for economic reasons. They were successful in Moab. They had two sons who grew up and married local girls, Moabites. But the man and the sons all died in quick succession, and the mother and daughters-in-law were left in a vulnerable financial position.
Suddenly there was a famine in Moab. The three women became desperate. So Naomi, and one of her daughter-in-laws named Ruth, decided to return to Israel where there were rumors of good harvest, and where Naomi’s dead husband’s still held title to some land.
Naomi and Ruth pledge faithfulness to each other. Ruth adopts the traditions and beliefs of Israel. The two women arrive in the Bethlehem area of Israel at the time of the barley harvest, penniless and starving.
Naomi quickly instructs her daughter-in-law Ruth in the ways of Israel. Harvest time is a good time for the hungry anywhere. At harvest, everyone is in the fields. Those who are poor glean the fields, following up after the harvesters. In the harvesting process it is the custom that some grain is left for the gleaners. This way the poor will have food through the winter. Naomi instructs Ruth to glean in the field of one of her kinfolk, in the field of a man named Boaz.
Boaz has done well and has substantial resources. He notices the stranger in the field gleaning, following the harvesters. He inquires, and discovers that this is the Moabite woman, Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi who accompanied her back to Israel. Everybody talks about everybody in the village of Bethlehem. Boaz knows their story. Ruth and Naomi are his kinfolk. As kin, he has responsibility to care for these people in times of need. He makes sure that there is plenty for Ruth to glean from the fields. He meets her and they talk of family and how things are going with Naomi.
Ruth’s successful gleaning and encounter with Boaz sparks Naomi’s imagination. It is a custom in the Israelite villages, that when a man dies living a widow, his brother is to care for her by marrying her so that she and her children are provided for. Kin care for their own. Even though Boaz might already be married, and even though Ruth is not his sister-in-law, the responsibilities of kinship may apply. In Naomi’s plan, if Ruth can be seen as a second wife, then the field owned by Ruth’s dead father would become a dowry, redeemed by Boaz through marriage to Ruth. That marriage alliance would insure the security of both Ruth and Naomi by adding to Boaz’s considerable holdings rather than the two women trying to make a go of it alone with their smaller field. And it would strengthen Boaz and the extended family’s position and legacy as well.
Naomi suggests a night time encounter between Boaz and Ruth at a threshing station during the harvest. There are sexual implications to this encounter. But it is not clear that Boaz and Ruth become lovers. The encounter, however, awakens in Boaz the idea that he could fulfill his kinship responsibilities by marrying Ruth and then the field of her dead father would become the dowry for the wedding.
He senses in this night encounter that Naomi, Ruth’s guardian, is actually making an offer of such an engagement. He accepts the offer with the customary engagement surety or gift: a very large amount of grain. Today we would call it earnest money. Today, we would use an engagement ring. Ruth takes the gift of grain back to Naomi and Naomi now realizes that a marriage contract between Ruth and Boaz is on the horizon.
The one difficulty is that there is another kinsman in town who is closer to Ruth by blood relation. He is entitled to the marriage and the dowry if he is wants to do that. But he has another engagement (with probably a larger dowry) in the works, and Ruth would complicate that. So he declines.
So Boaz presents his plan to the village council. The village council decides that Ruth and Boaz can be married and the field of her father is declared Ruth’s dowry. Boaz seals the contract by taking off a sandal, a sign of agreement for economic contracts in the Iron Age. The village accepts the marriage, understanding the responsibilities of kinship. The villagers use the example of Leah and Rachel, the two wives of Jacob, to explain this marriage of Ruth and Boaz. Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth all prosper as part of a larger strong extended family or kinship group. Eventually Ruth and Boaz have a son together. The son is cared for by his grandmother, Naomi. The son’s name is Obed. He becomes the grandfather of the great King David.
So what do we make of this Iron Age story of village life in ancient Israel? Sometimes we like to lift up the story because one of the passages seems to romantically work at weddings. But those verses are an exchange between Ruth and her mother-in-law, not between Ruth and Boaz. We are never sure in the story, if Ruth and Boaz feel romantic toward each other. There is as much business as romance in the story. Their relationship is complicated.
Sometimes we lift up Ruth and Naomi because we appreciate the women of the scripture. And we should do that whenever we can. But that is probably not why the story was told and retold and then finally written.
Some people see Ruth gleaning in the fields as a representative of migrant workers and see the book as a call to worker justice. That is also a good way to read the story. But there are limits to that, too. Naomi and Ruth are not really migrant workers. They are entitled to property. They simply were not present to in order to get a spring crop planted. Ruth’s gleaning may have been unusual or surprising to Boaz, the result of sudden immigration rather than a way of life. And a marriage to a landowner is not a really strong call for workers rights. There are better calls for social justice in the writings of the prophets.
Some people say that the story is there to give insight into the ancestry of King David and the monarchy. It is part of a genealogy. And that is good too. However, the genealogy seems to be something attached to the end of the story, which stands alone as a tale about village life and ways in the Iron Age.
So what is the point of the story? I think the story is about kinship, extended families, and the importance of blood relationships in the Iron Age. Why? Well because the words kin, kinship, relationship, and relatives are used over and over in the story. They are the most significant words as the story is told. The details of the story are about kinship: its complications and responsibilities. Further, kinship is what drives the plot of the story. And finally, we know that blood relationships mattered very much in Iron Age village life.
So this is a story about the importance of kin. We know from the story, that those who told it and those who heard it highly valued extended family relationships and depended on them for their well being.
But the story not only lifts up kinship as important. It shapes it as well. It instructs the ancient villages in the ways to be good kin and how kin should treat each other. That instruction is important for us as we think about our own brothers, sisters, grandparents, children, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and cousins.
And in many churches everyone is related to everybody else, so these insights apply to everyday church life. In a way, we in this building are kin, united by the blood of our brother Jesus.
In kinship, in this story we see that there is a compassionate responsibility to treat each other well, as Boaz treats Naomi and Ruth. We care for each other and do what we can to assist each other in times of need.
Part of this compassionate responsibility involves not only generosity but also working together to assemble stronger family holdings and positions. Sometimes compassionate responsibility involves mutually beneficial arrangements. Many family businesses and farms are the result of kin working together to accomplish their enterprise.
In kinship relations, there needs to be some way to commit to each other, some way to reach agreement. In the Iron Age after discussion and decision, Boaz removes his shoe. He creates a binding “sandal contract.” Kinship still involves clear commitments based on discussion and decision, so that we can move ahead.
Kinship involves intergenerational responsibility. Naomi brokers her daughter-in-law into the ways of Israel, so that the family prospers. Prosperity needs a legacy. And legacy requires one generation to teach the ways of the world to the kin who follow. This story works only because Naomi is able to teach Ruth. And many family businesses, farms, and churches can fail if they do not make that generational transition. This can be a difficult thing for families and congregations.
In kinship networks family life and households come in all shapes and sizes. Family life does not have one ideal size or shape. In the story, Naomi and Ruth build a household together. And later we do not know whether Ruth is a first or second wife. Households are all different, changing with the times and circumstances. People care for each other in a variety of ways. And all of that is good as it builds up both the individuals and the households of the village in which we find ourselves. We do not insist that all of our relatives be the same or live the same way we do. We practice tolerance among our kindred.
And finally, kinships are not closed to outsiders. Ruth is a Moabite, a foreigner, integrated into the village life through the work of Naomi and her marriage to Boaz. We welcome people not like us into our kindred groups. The quality of a kindred is often determined by the quality of its hospitality. And the quality of a kinship determines how well it will prosper in changing conditions.
So as we reflect on the importance of our kin, we give thanks to God for our families, friends, and relatives. And actually that is the point of All Saints, recalling the importance of our kin, giving thanks for our families, friends, and relatives as we remember. Since the Iron Age, blood is thicker than water.
But this story reminds us that in our kindred we have compassionate responsibilities. We work together and combine resources to strengthen our lives and security. We pass things on to the next generation: children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, and the children around us. We recognize that within our kinship, households and family life takes many different shapes. And we are hospitable to the stranger and those on the edges of our lives together.
And there is one more meaning to mine from this Iron Age story. In our age, it is time to recall that we are kin to all who inhabit a global village, that all creatures and creation itself are our brothers and sisters. And the responsibilities of kinship are important as we care for our world in this time of harvest.