Today is the eight and final sermon in our series of Ruth. Ruth exhibits many of the traits of a good story. It has a hero from a spurious background facing a crisis with limited resources but who is able to overcome the crisis using unconventional means. Like all good stories Ruth has a beginning, middle, and end. Boaz’ purchase of Naomi’s field and his marriage to Ruth has resolved the crisis but we still have the ending.
As we have reflected on Ruth we have seen that this story of a hungry, poor foreign woman marrying a wealthy noble Israelite has pointed to a bigger world outside of itself. Ruth has borrowed imagery and language to consciously point the hearer back to the book of Genesis. As I have preached through Ruth, I have pointed out some of the places where the story referred to events from the Genesis story.
For example the story of Ruth starts with a famine. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all involve famines. Ruth leaves her family and her land to go to Israel using language similar to God’s command to Abraham to leave his family and his land and go to the land that will become Israel. Like Tamar and Jacob, Ruth uses precarious means to obtain an inheritance. In Ruth, the social order is subverted when a Moabite woman becomes the hero just as Jacob, the second son receives the inheritance, Jacob’s blessing is pronounced on the younger Ephraim rather than the older Mannaseh, the younger Judah is to receive the kingship of Israel, Perez becomes the first born over Zerah, and Joseph rises above all his older brothers to become second in command of Egypt. In Ruth the crisis is the end of Elimelech’s line because of the death of his children before they have sons. In Genesis infertility constantly threatens to end the family line. The book of Genesis is the story of outsiders who because of their fidelity to God are able to overcome famine and infertility and the story of Ruth largely parallels this story.
What I want to do is look at another example where Ruth parallels Genesis. I think this is the most important parallel with Genesis and is the key to understanding why the author is using all these images and language from Genesis. First, though let us try to think about what Genesis as a complete work is trying to tell us. Genesis is actually a fairly organized book. It is broken up into ten sections that all start with the phrase, “these are the generations of” which is followed by a genealogy. If you are in the biz you call these the toledot section because the word toledot is Hebrew for generation. Second, the word offspring which in Hebrew is the word zera is used a stunning 49 times. My point is that children and the family line is a major theme of Genesis. Starting with chapter 12, Genesis is a essentially the Abraham family saga.
Now here is the reason family lines and repetition of the word offspring is important. It is important because it is the answer to the great crisis of Genesis. The unresolved tragedy at the beginning of Genesis is that Adam and Eve listen to the words of the serpent rather than God. Adam and Eve choose to believe that they themselves are the best people to decide whether or not they should eat the the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In judgment of Adam and Eve, God is withholding a great benefit from them out of jealousy. The result is Adam and Eve are exiled from God’s presence and the project God had started for humanity to fill and multiply the earth and thus expand God’s kingdom is in danger.
God’s solution to this problem is found in Genesis 3:15, the passage we read earlier. God will not abandon humanity to the alliance it has made with the serpent. Instead He will fight the serpent by creating enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent. Notice there is that word zera in Hebrew or offspring. The verse goes on to say that a specific offspring of the woman will suffer the bruise of the serpent but will ultimately prevail by crushing the serpent’s head. So because of this verse the offspring of Eve becomes important because it will lead to a specific, particular offspring that will at last defeat the serpent.
So the genealogies and the repeated use of offspring are both used for a reason - their use signals the advancement to the solution to that will resolve the crisis of the exile of humanity and the potential end of God’s project. So while we have this family drama that could almost be a made for TV miniseries, it is imbued with cosmic significance. By adopting the language of Genesis, Ruth is signaling to the reader that this story is another part of this drama advancing the story toward the offspring who will defeat the serpent, return humanity from its exile, and completing the projecting of at least expanding God’s kingdom over the whole earth.
The book of Revelation graphically illustrates this drama using imagery from the Old Testament to picture this war between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun with the moon under feet and on her head a crown of twelve starts. (All of these terms are used in the Old Testament to describe Israel) She was pregnant and crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.”
John is using a lot of symbolic language to show that the whole story of Israel, all the struggles with fertility and family lines are part of Satan’s war to stop the birth of the offspring that is destined to crush his head. Ruth is part of this war as Elimelech’s line moves to the point of extinction.
At several points in Genesis, mention is made of the offspring acquiring kingship. At the end of Jacob’s life, he pronounces a series of blessings on his twelve sons. These blessings take on more significance than we might think at first. Jacob starts by telling us these blessings are what will happen in the latter days. So here we can think of Jacob speaking prophetically and even crazier he is speaking of what we would call the end times. Now I want to make a few comments about this prophecy and eventually it is going to relate to the main point of the sermon. So I am going somewhere with this.
First, Jacob pronounces a blessing on each of his twelve sons in the order they were born. For our purposes we will only look at the first four: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and tJudah. Second, these prophesies have to do with which of his sons will receive the kingship. Abraham’s family was promised a great nation and that nation was also promised a kingdom and a king who would do nothing less than become king of the whole earth. What we would expect, because of the culture of the time, is the first born would naturally become the king. This is a very consistent feature of most cultures - we refer to it as primogeniture. Currently in England the kingship would pass to William because he is the eldest and not Andrew.
However, if we read the prophecy of Jacob, Reuben is passed over by the kingship because he defiled his fathers bed. Earlier in Genesis we are told that Reuben had relations with his one of his father’s servants which in that culture was a blatant attempt to take his father’s place. In other words Reuben had abused his power to try to usurp his father’s position. As a result he is disqualified from the kingship. Simeon and Levi are also passed over for the kingship because they had used their power in a violent way massacring an entire town because the of what one of the leaders of the town had done to their sister. Judah is next in line and verse 10 tells us the scepter shall not depart form Judah nor the rulers staff. In other words one of Judah’s line would hold the kingship and one of these descendants would be special. To him shall be the obedience of all people. This is a further development of the Genesis 3:15 promise giving us more detail about the one who would crush the serpent’s head.
So the tribe of Judah takes on great importance because despite being the fourth born, his line would be the one the kingship of Israel and ultimately the whole world would come from. This is significant for our story because Boaz and Naomi are from the tribe of Judah. The death of Naomi’s sons without children was a threat to this promise. The child that Ruth bears to Boaz is a restoration of this promise and we learn in the genealogy that Ruth and Boaz’s child will be the grandfather of King David. Of course that means that this child is also the ancestor of Jesus Christ, the messiah.
Jesus is the seed who was promised to Adam and Eve who would crush the serpent’s head. Jesus is the lion of the tribe of Judah. Jesus is the one to whom shall be the obedience of all the peoples. What is amazing is that this story of a rich nobleman who is kind to a poor Moabite takes on cosmic significance since the result is the preservation of the family line that leads straight to the salvation of the whole world. In the end humble, simple kindness and inclusion saves the world. However, perhaps it is not so surprising. It is also the story of a simple couple caught up in Roman imperial census taking and taxation, a story of simple shepherds, and a manger that leads to the birth of this king.
However, there is more this story has to tell us. Let us first look back at why Judah. Why is the kingship passed to Judah? Judah is certainly not a great guy, but there are two significant events in his life that answer this question. If you will recall, Judah’s father Jacob had two wives: Leah and Rachel. Leah was unattractive and was unwanted and in fact Jacob was tricked into marrying her. Rachel was the one Jacob loved, but Rachel could not have children. Leah tried to earn the love of Jacob by bearing children. Leah names her first son Reuben, she says because the Lord has looked on my affliction and now my husband will love me. She names her next son Simeon because the Lord has heard that I was hated and has given me another son. Then she names her third son Levi hoping that now my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons. When she names Judah there is a a change. Leah names her fourth son Judah because, “This time I will praise the Lord.” Leah has learned to rise above the competition and instead of seeking her husbands approval she rests in the praise of the Lord.
Second, if you remember the Joseph story, Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery but becomes second in command of Egypt. Many years later a famine forces Jacob’s sons to go to Egypt to buy grain. To test their loyalty, Joseph threatens to imprison Rachel’s other son Benjamin. Judah, knowing that with the absence of Joseph, Benjamin was his father’s favorite, begs Joseph to imprison him instead. Judah sacrifices his freedom because of his love for his father.
So Judah is characterized by resting in the praise of God and by offering himself as a substitute because of his love for another. This then gives us a clue as to the features about the character of the king who is to come. Judah is an imperfect representation of the kingdom, but his story gives us glimpses of what is to come just as Boaz and Ruth give us a picture of hesed the radical loyalty and devotion the characterizes God’s love for His people.
Now just as we have gleaned a bit of knowledge of this coming king from the story of Judah, we can gain some further knowledge from the genealogy that ends the book of Ruth. Remember this is the line of the offspring of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head. He will end the battle that has been raging between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent. Notice the name of Boaz and Ruth’s child - it is Obed. The name Obed means servant. The offspring will be characterized by service to others. In Phillipians, Paul tells us that Jesus though he was in the form of God, emptied Himself by taking the form of the servant. Jesus entire ministry is devoted to service .
This idea of service tells us something about power and the kingdom of God. Our general view of a king is a negative one. When we think of kings, we generally think of despots. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you think of King Goffrey. The king is someone removed from power who uses his power for his own gain rather than the welfare of his subjects. There is good reason for this - most kings do behave this way. Power corrupts and that is a fact that we have a large body of empirical evidence to support. This is the kind of power we see manifested by Reuben or the violence demonstrated by Levi and Simeon. There rejection by God, is the rejection of the tyrannical exercise of power.
Power and authority in the kingdom of God is quite different. Most Israelites were expecting the messiah to come and kick the Romans out and then to rule in a similar manner to an earthly king. Sure they probably thought the king would be much nicer to them than other kings, but they were not expecting the radically different idea of kingship that Jesus presents them. This is why Jesus spends so much time teaching the people and the disciples what the kingdom of God will look like.
At one point some of the disciples get in a fight over their position when Jesus imposes the kingdom they have been waiting for. However, they are thinking in terms of the kingdoms they are used to and Jesus clearly denounces their idea and challenges them with His conception of kingship. Here is what Jesus says, “You know those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
For Jesus and for His kingdom, power does not take the form by manipulation in search of advantage like Reuben. Power does not take the form of violence like Simeon and Levi. Power takes the form of self sacrifice like Judah. The line of the messiah is saved in the story of Ruth by a baby named servant.
We in the church need to adopt a similar attitude to power. How often does the church seek to advance its mission by attaching itself to celebrity or through the political process? Yet this is just the church making the same error as His disciples. We understand power as no different than the rest of the world. Yet we are called to advance the kingdom through sacrifice and service.
Here is other the lesson for us in the church, with the exception of King David, we know nothing about any of these people named in the genealogy. All of them derive their significance by their relation to the king. Even king David was originally passed over because his father thought him of no significance - certainly not of kingly material. Yet God builds His kingdom through the neglected, the ordinary, the overlooked. God uses the son of a Canaanite prostitute who marries a poor, Moabite woman.
The great acts of Boaz and Naomi in this story are simple kindness. Nothing in this story is heroic in the normal sense that we think of the world. Instead it is concern for the other, sharing, and devotion. Yet it is precisely these that lead to the defeat of the serpent and the salvation of humanity. We in Resurrection Church do not need to be famous, or rich, or powerful, or articulate, or wise, or any other measure of greatness to advance the kingdom. The war of the offspring and the defeat of the serpent is won, not by the great men of history, but those whose names are listed in a genealogy in passing. People like us. People who are not heroes, but people who are simply kind to others. Let us abandon any other notion of what constitutes greatness and instead follow the example of Jesus.