We often look to scripture to help guide us on our life’s journey. We read the ancient stories hoping to find the way to face our world today; seeking solutions to age-old problems. Praying that the answers will be clear and obvious.
But it’s rarely that easy. Even when we want to believe that the Bible is a well-defined list of instructions for all our moments and days and remedies for every issue we’ll face, we still realize that the translation isn’t that simple. It takes time and effort to understand how stories written thousands of years ago might apply to our lives today. Unfortunately, there have been way too many examples of folks getting it wrong and using the Bible for great harm.
We discussed this during our book group on Thursday. Using the example of a more fantastic story (Elijah ascending to heaven on a chariot of fire) the author Brian McLaren suggested how we might approach biblical interpretation.
Whenever we engage with Biblical stories we become members of the interpretive community. And that’s a big responsibility, especially when we remember how stories from the Bible have been used to promote both great good and great harm. We might say that good interpretation begins with three elements: science, art, and heart. First, we need critical or scientific research into history, language, anthropology, and sociology to wisely interpret the Bible. Second, since the Bible is a literary and therefore and artistic collection, we need an artist’s eye and ear to Wiseley draw meaning from ancient stories. But at every step, we also must be guided by a humble, teachable hear that listens for the voice of the Spirit.
The story of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz is not as dramatic or fanciful as the story of Elijah’s ascension but it may seem just as foreign to us. It’s just as important to examine these stories of mundane legal and relational transactions with through science, art, and heart if we are to understand how they might impact us today.
Using the sciences of anthropology and history, we can learn more about the marriage customs of the ancient Israelites in an attempt to figure out what’s going on here. Last week, we looked at the relationship of Ruth and Naomi and we heard Ruth’s beautiful words, expressing a love of Naomi refusing to let her go, clinging to her in the same way that Adam clung to Eve. “Where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.”
As we look at Ruth’s relationship with Boaz, we don’t hear the same poetry. What exactly is happening? And why all this talk about feet?
Naomi’s love for Ruth plays out in this story through her obligation to help her son’s widow find security and stability by finding a new husband. We’re only looking at pieces of this story so we haven’t heard how Ruth and Boaz first met.
Boaz is a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband. Ruth was sent to his fields to help with the harvest and Boaz gave her a job and protected her even though she was a foreigner because he had heard of her loyalty to Naomi.
. Customs of the time said that a childless widow’s brother-in-law must marry her, and that the first son of this union would become the deceased man’s heir[i]. Even though Boaz is a relative, he is under no obligation to marry her. Even though they have met and seem to have a mutual fondness, the sparks of attraction don’t seem to have been ignited just yet.
So Naomi, in her quest to find security for Ruth instructs her on what to do next.
Bathe and perfume yourself. Put on your best dress, then go down onto the threshing floor. Be careful, though. Don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. Once he is relaxed, he will lie down to sleep. Make sure you notice where he is. Once he has lain down, go to him. Uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.
I know that some of you who have been attending MCC for many years already know about the Bible and feet. But some newer folks may not have had the opportunity to learn this wonderful piece of history and translation. So, in the Bible, “feet” are often used as a euphemism for genitals. “Once he has lain down, go to him. Uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”
The folks who designed the lectionary have decided to skip the next part – but not for the reason you might think. When Boaz is awakened by Ruth, he is confused and doesn’t recognize Ruth. Startled by the woman “laying at his feet” Boaz does not take advantage of the situation, instead he chooses to keep both Ruth’s and his own integrity intact.
Ruth responds with what Patricia Tull of Working Preacher calls “probably one of the least romantic marriage proposals in human history, or at least in Scripture”: “Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin,” she says, “take me to redeem my dead husband’s inheritance.” They marry, conceive a son, and the story ends by letting us know that their family line will continue to David – a genealogy that Christians continue to include Jesus.
So, there’s some of the science behind the reading.
The art of Ruth’s story can be seen in the poetry of her words to Naomi. It’s evident in the storytelling – the plot twists and turns. The art of the story draws us in as we follow the development of the plot and identify with the characters we characters we meet.
What do we do with this? How can we use this to guide our lives today? Where does our heart enter in?
The Spirit speaks to us each individually and differently. Our hearts connect with our stories in unique ways. Maybe we are drawn to the story of Ruth as a foreigner and we identify with her feelings of loneliness and her worry about how she’ll be treated by those who view her as a stranger. Maybe we connect with Boaz and the power and privilege he has a male landowner and we admire the choices he makes to protect Ruth and not take advantage when he finds a woman in his bed in the middle of the night. Maybe we recognize Naomi’s relationship with Ruth and understand that she would do anything to find safety and security for this woman that she loves so much.
We can use science, art, and heart when we encounter all of the stories of scripture: the everyday stories of survival, the milestones of courtship and marriage, and even the more dramatic and supernatural tales.
Through the gifts of interpretation given to us by the Holy Spirit that flows through us, we can hear God’s voice in these ancient words and be inspired to do God’s work today.
Through stories of struggling immigrants, striving widows, fiery chariots, and triumph over death, we can find our voice to share the Divine messages that will help us create heaven on Earth.
As we encounter tales of Holy love, we will encounter God in our hearts and, in joyful Thanksgiving, we can offer all that we have to our God of love.