Nehemiah 13:1-3, 23-31
We are continuing a study of Ruth. This is our seventh week in Ruth and we I will most likely conclude our series next week. When we last left Ruth, Ruth at the urging of her mother-in-law had approached Boaz on the threshing floor and asked him to marry her. Ruth had asked Boaz to marry her as a redeemer. A redeemer was a legal term for a relative who was charged with ensuring that property did pass out of a family because of debt, also to purchase the freedom of a family member sold into slavery, and to ensure justice was served in legal matter involving a family member. He had agreed but there is an obstacle in the way, because though Boaz was a redeemer there was another relative of Naomi’s who was a more immediate redeemer.
What follows in chapter 4 is an account of a legal preceding in which the more immediate redeemer allows his rights to pass to Boaz. It is interesting that we find that Namoi owns a plot of land that probably belonged to her husband Elimelech. This land is probably in some sort of state of legal limbo because it was abandoned by Elimelech when he moved the family to Moab. Naomi would have been to old to work the land and so it it would lie unused. Ordinarily, the land would become the inheritance of a son, but since Elimelech’s line has seemingly come to end the land is up for grabs. It was the responsibility of the redeemer to buy the land so it remains in possession of the clan.
I have discussed this previously, but the way land worked in the Old Testament was different than the way we think of it. The land of Canaan was given by God to the Israelites for their use. Ultimately, God owned the land but the Israelites were allowed to benefit from its produce. When the Israelites took possession of Canaan specific families were given specific parcels of the land as their inheritance. The land was to remain attached to the families. The office of redeemer was created to ensure that the land did not pass out of the hand of its allowed family for long. As a result a family would have been a deep attachment to a specific piece of land.
In order to fully redeem the line of Elimelech, it was not only necessary to marry Ruth it was also necessary to redeem his land. Here is the tricky part and where the obstacle comes in. The immediate redeemer whose name is given in the Hebrew text as Peloni Alomoni which is probably best translated as the equivalent of Mr. So-So or Joe Schmo, wants to buy the land. At this point Boaz ties the purchase of the land with the marriage of Naomi. It is difficult to understand exactly what is going on here why the land and the marriage are tied together- commentators are very divided as to why this is the case. Probably the answer is that though we have the Torah there was probably a body of case law that was derived from the Torah that we don’t have access to. In any event, Mr. So and So decided to back out perhaps realizing the land would not produce enough to enable him to support Naomi and Ruth from its proceeds.
This was Boaz’s plan all along since it is Ruth that Boaz is primarily interested in. In fact, I suspect that the text suddenly brings the land up now to deflect any idea that the land is what Boaz wants. However, because of the connection with the land and the family, it is important because the full restoration of Elimelech’s family depends on the land and children. Here Boaz hopes to restore not just the family line in terms of children, but also in terms of the lawful inheritance. Interestingly, we see this real estate transaction performed in the presence of the witnesses is secured by the exchange of Mr. So and So’s sandal which functions as a sign that he is abdicating his responsibility as redeemer.
However, as interesting as ancient Israelite case law and the legal court procedures involved is, I want to focus on another issue. Throughout this series I have emphasized repeatedly Ruth’s status. She is a Moabite and I know you are tired of me hitting you over the head with this, but remember the Moabites were a despised people because of their scandalous origins, their pagan practices, and the fact that they repeatedly opposed the Israelites on multiple occasions including the hiring of the free lance sorcerer, Balaam who was to curse the Israelites. Throughout the Old Testament, these facts about Moab are repeated and Deuteronomy 23 states that no Moabite or Ammonite may enter the assembly of the Lord forever. In the passage from Nehemiah that we read earlier, the ban against Moab is recalled. This is significant because Nehemiah lived about 1000 years after Deuteronomy was written and about 800 years after the events of Ruth. The Israelites could hold a grudge.
The reason I keep bringing the fact that Ruth is a Moabite to your attention, I think I have mentioned in it in every single sermon in this series, the reason is - because the book of Ruth keeps bringing it up. Almost every time Ruth is mentioned the text reminds us that she is a Moabite. Even during the legal preceding we just read, Boaz makes note of it in verse 5. One of the rules when we read a Biblical text is to pay attention to repetition. When something is repeated its done so for a reason.
We tend to read over this and assign very little significance to where Ruth is from, like she is Ruth from Carrboro. Sure we know what people from Carrboro are all rich, liberal old hippies and hipsters who are always running marathons and cycling, but Moab was different. Moab was a hated, despised people. Now here is why I think the text mentions this - because the Moabites were excluded from the assembly of the Lord. Furthermore, if allowing them to hang out with you is bad, marrying them is far worse. Yet Boaz does so and there is no hint of condemnation for this action in this book. The elders even pronounce a blessing on Ruth and do not miss how extraordinary this blessing is that they pronounce. They ask the Lord to make her like Rachel and Leah, the great matriarchs of Israel. The even ask ask that Ruth bring renown to their community mentioning the founders of their tribe. Every piece of culture that is special to them and whose memory they hold dear is heaped upon Ruth.
Now let’s look back to the passage we read earlier from Nehemiah. The first few verses in the passage lead to Israelites sending into exile all those who were from Moab. The Israelites do this after reading the Deuteronomy passage I keep bringing up. Then Nehemiah confronts all those who have married women from foreign nations including Moab and rather than issuing a blessing like the elders in Ruth, Nehemiah curses them. As if this is not bad enough, Nehemiah beats them and pulls out their hair. Again there is no hint in the book of Nehemiah that Nehemiah’s actions are anything less than pious.
So what we have is a clear contradiction in scripture. Boaz takes a Moabite for a wife and is praised and the later Israelites take Moabites for wives and have their hair ripped out and are cursed. I will double down on this point and say that the whole Old Testament is in contradiction. On one hand foreigners are excluded and yet the promise to Abraham at the very start of Israel when God makes a promise to Abraham is that all nations should be blessed.
Isaiah will spend chapter after chapter issuing curses against the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Syrians, the Cushites, the Phonecians, not to mention the Moabites. Yet Isaiah will also say things like, “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations,that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.” Isaiah will also say, “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, Blessed by Egypt my people, and Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but here is what Zechariah says, “Many people and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: in those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
If you are a Star Trek fan you are no doubt familiar with the Kobayashi Maru scenario. For those of you unfamiliar, the Kobayashi Maru was a simulation that cadets in Star Fleet were put through designed to test their leadership abilities in extreme situations. The scenario is this, the starship you are Captain of receives a distress signal from the Kobayashi Maru. You have a duty to help all ships in distress. However, the Kobayashi Maru is in the Neutral Zone which is a forbidden area of space that lies on the border of your enemies, the Klingon Empire. You are required to offer assistance to a distressed ship but doing so causes you to be attacked by the Klingons and in the scenario their forces greatly outnumber you and they destroy you because you have clearly broken the law by entering the neutral zone.
So in the Kobayashi Maru scenario you have an ethical/moral obligation to aid a distressed ship that is in conflict with the legal requirement forbidding you to enter the neutral zone. Boaz and the people of Bethlehem face a similar situation. They have an ethical requirement to bring blessing to all the nations of the earth and yet they are also forbidden to accept Moabites and other nations or to marry them. How to resolve this contradiction? I am going to approach it from two directions. First, I am going to look at how Jesus interprets the law. Second, we are going are to see how this story anticipates the way God will change the rules of the game.
First, one of the issues Jesus confronts is challenges to the way he interprets the law. It is not hard to find places in the law that are disputed or unclear and Jesus enemies use this to try to discredit Jesus. Today in our political jargon we would call these wedge issues. In effect they are confronting Jesus with various versions of the Kobayashi Maru scenario.
The passage from Matthew that we read earlier takes place after several attempts by the two religious groups of the day, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, to trick Jesus using one of these no win scenarios. The Pharisees who were experts in the law try to stump Jesus by asking what was the greatest commandment? Now this was a trap because there was an internal dispute between schools of thought within the Pharisees themselves about which of the 613 commandments in the law were heavy and which were light. Now no one would have objected to the answer Jesus gives saying that love of God is the greatest commandment. Essentially Jesus restates the shema which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4&5 and every Jewish person had said these verse every day for 1500 years at this point. The first sentence you would have learned as a Hebrew child was Shema O Yitzrael Adonai Elohim Adonai ehad. V’ahavat et Adonai Elohim B’kal L’vavka V’B’Kal Nafsh’ka, V’B’Cal V’Modeka.
The second commandment is really the test because the school of Hillell said it was “love your neighbor” while the school of Shammai said it was “observe the Sabbath.” Jesus ends up siding with Hillel, but and here is where he rises above the debate, Jesus makes that statement “on these two commandment depend all the Law and the Prophets”
So Jesus is making point to the Shammai faction that all the laws they think are more important actually depend on these first two commandments. Now here is what I think Jesus is doing - He is not replacing the law and saying really all you to do is follow these two commandments. In another place, Jesus says not a jot or tittle of the law will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. What Jesus is doing is giving a grid through which the law should be interpreted and that the test of following the law is drawing a straight line from the law to the point of the law and the point of the law is loving God and loving our neighbor. When we are interpreting the law every decision should make a straight line to loving our God and loving our neighbor. The law should fulfill those goals and never be used as a way to limit those goals. If so we have missed the point. By marrying Ruth, Boaz has demonstrated love of God in working to accomplish the goal of blessing all the nations of the earth and by loving his neighbor the Moabite woman by accepting and caring for her.
So what do we do with Nehemiah ripping out the Israelite’s hair for doing the same thing? I think the key is to realize that the marriages of the Israelites was not accomplishing those goals. By telling us that the Israelites were being led to sin and being pulled away from God because of their marriages just as King Solomon had done, I think Nehemiah is making this point.
When Jesus is challenged about the legality of divorce, Jesus says the law of divorce was given because of necessary not because it was a good thing but because of the hardness of the heart of the people. The intermarriage law was given not because it was a good thing, but because of the hardness of the Israelites heart. The law was meant to protect the Israelites from the corrupting influence of foreigners because they were weak, it was not meant to banish foreigners from the love of God. Boaz on the other hand has acted with integrity as has Ruth in her desire to leave her land and identify with Naomi and her people.
So this is one answer to this question. However, there is another answer that is even more profound. Now you remember that I said that one of the keys to understanding what the author is trying to communicate in the Old Testament is to make note of repetition. In addition to being referred to as a Moabite, Ruth is 8 times referred to as “my daughter.” - five times by Naomi and three time by Boaz. This is a short book and if this phrase is used eight times it is because it is significant. What Boaz and Naomi are trying to communicate by using this phrase is that Ruth is not an outsider instead she has been adopted in their family. Ruth is not a foreigner rather she has been fully accepted and her identity has changed.
This is God’s answer to the Kobayashi Maru scenario. The way God solves the problem of creating a separate people to Himself and also blessing people outside of this group is by adoption. This is why adoption becomes such a strong metaphor in the New Testament. It is the explanation for how those who outside are brought in as full members of the family of God. They receive the full status as sons and also the inheritance of the family.
Many have read the book “Blindside” by Michael Lewis or have seen the movie. If you have not it is the story of a poor, black child named Michael Ohr who is adopted by a rich, white couple in Memphis. The family had earned their wealth by owning a chain of Taco Bells. One of my favorite scenes is one in which Michael goes in one of the Taco Bells and orders some food and instead of paying tells them his dad owns the place. Of course the person at the counter is like, “yeah right” Michael calls his adopted father and rather than speaking directly to the employee, his father tells Michael to go up to the counter and demand his meal. The reason the father does that is that he wants Michael to understand that he has the right to demand what he wants and even to get angry and yell because Michael needs to understand that he is considered fully his son. He wants him to know that he has been fully adopted and embraced by the family and he wants him to fully absorb and understand that right.
Now here is the thing about adoption. We tend to focus on the part where the child is taken in by the family and receives the rights and privileges and is fully identified with the family. However, there is another side to adoption that I think we need to remember to fully grasp the concept. Many of you know the Crabtrees and know they are are actively working to adopt a child from China. Holly has a blog that she updates about the experience and she made a very profound point. Adoption is a happy thing in which a child experiences the safety and love of a family. However, adoption always has a sad part because a family has been broken.
In this story Ruth’s family is broken. She has no husband, no children, no hope of inheritance, no real future. Ruth’s only companion is her mother-in-law Naomi who wants to change her name to reflect the fact that she only feels bitterness. However, because of the love of Boaz, Ruth will receive a husband, a child, an inheritance, and a future. She will have hope and Naomi will be restored. All of this because Boaz looks at her and does not see a poor, Moabite refugee but someone he protects and loves as a father loves his daughter.
In her blog Holly goes on to say that adoption is what Jesus does - bringing good things from the broken. Adoption is what the gospel is about. It is why the gospel is good news. It is an analogy that Paul latches on to and uses in Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans. What Paul wants us to understand is that because of Christ we are considered sons and heirs fully members of the family of God. Full inheritors or God’s kingdom. Like Michael Oher we have the right to walk into God’s kingdom and demand it as his children.
Let me close with the words of Paul in Galatians. Notice that this passage starts talking about redemption. Just as Ruth acts as a redeemer to bring her a future, Jesus acts as our redeemer. “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His son, born of woman, born under the law to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoptions as son. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His son into our heart crying Abba Father, so you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” This is the power and the glory of adoption. It is Jesus taking the brokenness of the world and bringing good things.