“Stop fighting!” I shout at my children over the din of some injustice being done. They are fighting for the umpteenth time over something trivial. As they retreat to their respective corners protesting their own innocence, I have momentary misgivings if they will ever learn the concept of what it means to be family. Doubting my own understanding of what that means, I tell them, “You are family. We are all we’ve got. It’s our job to take care of each other.” Certain my words have fallen on deaf ears, I tell them to be quiet and sit there while Mommy takes her own time out. It’s difficult to explain what family means to children if you aren’t truly sure what that means for yourself. Part of the trouble of raising our young ones in the Christian faith is that oftentimes parents can feel like there is no reference. I have complained before that I wished there were more Orthodox resources telling me what to do as a parent. Yet we have literature—the Bible is full of examples. If we study it as literature, we can find answers, though we may not like them. As I studied the book of Ruth for this particular post, the picture of what it means to be family not only clarified, it changed.
Consider the bond between Ruth and Naomi. After the death of her husband Elimelech and her sons, Naomi is left alone in the land of Moab with her Moabite daughters-in-law. Years ago, Elimelech had left Judah and gone to Moab, despite the strict instructions of the Torah to avoid the Moabites. The fear was that the Moabites might lead the Israelites to false gods. So it comes as something of a surprise when Naomi decides to return to Judah, Ruth rejects her people and her gods for Naomi’s people and gods. “Your God shall be my God and your people shall be my people.” Naomi encourages Ruth to return to her family’s house so that she can have a future and re-marry. But Ruth is choosing a people who openly hate the Moabites in order to stay and care for her mother-in-law. Ruth is throwing her fate in with her mother-in-law but not for her own gain. There is no benefit for her whatsoever. She is choosing the possibility of abandonment and homelessness over whatever future she may have had in Moab.
While I’m very fond of my mothers-in-law (yes, I have two for the price of one), I can’t honestly see myself pulling a Ruth and tossing my future to the wind for their sake. Just being honest (sorry). This is the world I’ve grown up in. There is no system in place to care for the widow and the orphan through family—there are nursing homes and foster care. We here in the modern West have not been trained to depend on the family unit; we are bred to take care of ourselves. When we are called upon to care for another family member, the common worry is that there will not be enough for ourselves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 the national poverty rate was 14.8%. 10% of the elderly population lives in poverty and 5% live in nursing homes. 21% of children under the age of 18 live in poverty. We are the wealthiest nation in the world, yet we have constant anxiety that there will not be enough to go around. Therefore we feel justified in setting “boundaries”, which often means that family goes uncared for—particularly in old age.
To be fair, family means something different in the ancient Middle East than it does here in America. In Biblical terms, family is very well connected and it’s socially expected that relatives will share wealth. There are Biblical laws set in place to care for the widow and the orphan—including laws about allowing the poor to glean leftover grains after the harvest. “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 23:22) Ruth is both poor and a stranger in Naomi’s homeland, so she meets the criteria.
After returning to Judah, Ruth goes out to find food and finds it in Boaz’s fields as per the law. This is a risk on Ruth’s part because she is a female foreigner alone in a field where men are working. When Boaz comes up from Bethlehem, he asks his servants who Ruth is and they inform him that she is “the Moabitess maiden who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab” (Ruth 2:6). Upon learning that Ruth is the daughter-in-law of his kinswoman, Boaz does not send her away, but rather tells her to stay in his fields close to his maidens so no one will bother her. He is taking her under his protection. When they are finished gleaning for the day, he feeds her until she is satisfied and there is enough left over for her to bring back and share with Naomi. Boaz has stepped forward to care for family and not only was there enough to share, there was extra. When God is providing, there is always extra.
When Ruth returns to Naomi and tells her that Boaz is helping them, Naomi is pleased to discover that her kinsman has stepped up. She decides to play matchmaker—in the interest of finding her daughter-in-law a new husband and also in the interest of redeeming the inheritance left by her deceased husband and sons. In those days, women were not allowed to inherit property—it would go to the sons. If there were no sons, the closest relative would receive the property and the wife if there was one to go along with it. Naomi is hoping that Boaz, who has already shown interest in caring for them, will take it a step further and marry Ruth and inherit the property. She tells Ruth to “wash…and anoint [her]self, and put on [her] best clothes and go down to the threshing floor” to find Boaz and “uncover his feet” (3:3-4). But Naomi also emphasizes that Ruth do so secretly, so as not to put her reputation in jeopardy.
If my mother-in-law told me to get dressed up and go uncover a man’s genitals, I would take some serious issue with that. Obedience does not come naturally to a child of modern day America and it’s certainly not in keeping with modern day feminism. Family be damned—I don’t offer myself up to a man in hopes of being saved. Humility and obedience are not popular vocabulary today. But Ruth does what she is told without ever questioning her elder. She trusts that Naomi has her best interests at heart.
There is also an element of confidence in Boaz. When Ruth goes down to the threshing floor, Boaz is there eating and drinking. As a woman, Ruth is taking a big risk offering herself up to a man who is presumably a little bit drunk. But Boaz has been behaving correctly and following the instructions of Torah up to this point and because his actions have been that of a kind, responsible man, there is trust that he will continue to be an honorable man. This trust proves to be well founded when Boaz wakes up and discovers Ruth lying next to him. She identifies herself and asks him to “spread [his] skirt over [his] maidservant, for [he is] the next of kin” (3:9). Ruth is asking him not only to take her as a wife but to redeem the inheritance so that she and Naomi will be taken care of. Pleased that she hasn’t gone after younger men, Boaz promises to do what she has asked but first he wishes to ensure that the closer kinsman doesn’t want to redeem the inheritance himself. In the morning, he gives her six measures of barley so that she does not return to Naomi empty handed. Ruth trusted that this man, who has behaved honorably so far, would treat her as such and he did.
What a difference from today’s society where men are mocked and treated as incompetent OR as villains in power withholding rights from women. As the mother of a son, I struggle with raising him to be a good man in a world that believes there is no such thing. How do I teach him to be good to his family if women are being taught that men cannot be good? Or, gender aside, that family is not to be trusted at all? I recently watched a movie called August: Osage County about a family that had no trust and the matriarchs were so cruel to their husbands that one man killed himself and the other threatened to leave after thirty nine years of marriage if his wife didn’t stop verbally and emotionally abusing their son. The daughters ended up abandoning their cancer-ridden mother because she was too cruel to be around. Every family has its own dysfunction. It’s a given that abuse cannot and should not be tolerated. But the underlying message is present in every film or TV show I watch—characters do not trust their parents…they find solidarity with friends or within themselves. TV shows that are about positive family ties tend to not achieve the same kind of popularity. And I have yet to see a movie where the character places himself in a position of abject humility before a relative and says, “Please save me.” (If you know of such a film, let me know).
That day, Boaz gets down to business and heads to the city to work things out with the other kinsman. He gathers this man and ten elders of the city and makes his case. But he doesn’t start out with Ruth—he starts out by offering the property. “…Naomi who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land which belonged to our kinsman Elim’elech” (4:3). The kinsman says that he will redeem it and then Boaz mentions Ruth. “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also buying Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance” (4:5). Remember, if this kinsman wants to take on the land, he will have to marry Ruth and any first son she has will technically be the son of her dead husband and inherit that property. It is the second son who will inherit the kinsman’s property. It’s a gamble. Not to mention Ruth is a Moabitess and that doesn’t go over too well with the Israelites. The kinsman understandably backs up and says, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it” (4:6). He then gives Boaz his sandal as is the custom in order to seal the deal. Boaz formally declares himself the redeemer of the property and of Ruth and the people accept Ruth. “May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel” (4:11). They are essentially adopting Ruth the foreigner into their community.
While I could easily digress into a whole segment about adopting foreigners into our communities in this current climate, I won’t. But in our culture, the elderly and children of the foster system are often the “foreigners” or outsiders. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t see my grandma often enough and I couldn’t imagine taking in a foster child when I am overwhelmed by my own three kids. I tell you this so that you don’t think I’m sitting on my perfect pedestal somewhere with an elderly person in my basement and a bunch of foster kids doing Charlotte Mason style homeschooling outside. I am a Minnesotan. We are kings of not getting involved in anyone else’s problems. Before you freak out that I’m telling you to keep your Alzheimer-diagnosed parent in your house, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that it is our responsibility to ensure that our family members feel safe and loved—even at the inconvenience to ourselves. This does not include abandoning them to nursing homes—where you hand over the reins to someone else and suddenly you’re off the hook, never to see them again until their deathbed. This does not include telling your kids not to play with the foster kids next door because you suspect they might be a bad influence (without any actual evidence beyond the fact that they are foster children).
I look at my kids sitting in their corners and wonder how I can step outside of myself to show them what family means. Perhaps if I spent a little more time teaching my children that caring for those who taught you how to use a spoon is part of our sacred duty as human beings, they might start treating each other with more kindness. If Ruth cared for Naomi at great personal cost and not only managed to survive but thrive, perhaps it’s possible for me to do the same. Boaz took on a Moabitess and her mother-in-law and not only was there enough, there was extra. Trust that God will provide and there will be plenty.