So, tonight we get to the racy bit. The good part of Ruth, the part that, if the bible was being passed around a fifth grade classroom would be all dog eared and underlined.
Last week we saw Ruth and Boaz meet one another, and Boaz showed quite a bit of interest in Ruth, and sees how loyal she’s been to her mother in law. He was very generous toward her, making sure that she could glean from his field, and even sharing a meal with her and sending her home with extra food. This all takes place during the barley harvest, which happens in April or May, and the story tells us that Ruth gleans through the wheat harvest, which takes place in June. Now that the harvest is coming to an end, Ruth and Naomi have to figure out what to do next in order to feed and sustain themselves. Remember that they're living on the brink of poverty.
I want to read the passage one more time, but first, here's a little more context for this story.
First, as you’ve already guessed, when Naomi talks about uncovering Boaz’s feet, it’s not actually his feet that she’s talking about. In ancient Israel, feet was a very clear euphemism for genitals, and that's absolutely the meaning here.
Second, the threshing floor. This was the place where, after the harvest, the grain was separated from the chaff so that it was edible. It was usually a stone or dirt floor on the top of a hill. The workers, all men, would pull a sledge over the grain to separate the grain from the stalk. Then they would toss the broken stalks in the air to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The threshing floor was also the place where the men celebrated after a long day of work,
and there would be food and drink and there would probably also be prostitutes hanging around to see what kind of business they could pick up. So the threshing floor is a really sexually charged and loaded place in Israelite culture.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like you to see if you can transport yourself to a world where religious people actually have fewer hang-ups about sex then we do. It’s probable that for the Israelite audience who listened to this story, Ruth uncovering Boaz’s feet wasn't as big a deal as it is to us. This story (and many others in the Old Testament) are candid and up front about sex. It happens. It can be used as a tool to gain power or as an expression of loyalty and devotion or, most often, as the means to bear children, and children mean financial security. It was a pragmatic culture, and most often, women, sex, and children had more to do with property and ownership than anything else.
So, with all that in mind, let’s read the chapter one more time, and see if we can imagine ourselves in Ruth’s shoes.
Here’s what doesn’t happen in the book of Ruth:
Naomi never says,
Oh Ruth, does he give you butterflies?
Ruth never says,
I feel like I could gaze into his eyes forever.
Boaz never presents Ruth with flowers,
and Ruth never waits three rings to pick up the phone.
No one dances cheek to cheek.
No one writes love letters.
Instead, this story, a story we might call a love story, has a two main ingredients:
food and sex.
The bottom line is that Ruth and Naomi need to eat.
As I was reading this chapter of Ruth this week, I kept on trying to make it a love story. I kept on trying to make it fit into this sort of rom com formula that I have in my head. And then I’d go back to the text and take a closer look. And what I saw could not be called romance. It was food and sex, loyalty and security.
Romance is a fairly recent invention.
Up until the medieval period, when this idea of romance begins to blossom, (knights catching handkerchiefs and all that) marriages were business contracts: ways to form connections between families, secure property, and produce heirs. The Israelites in Ruth’s time would have had a similar view. In the Old Testament, we certainly read of attraction in courtship, of caring and companionship in marriage, but also of pragmatism.
There are researchers out there who take a look at the divorce rates in our country and make claims that romance is to blame. We want too much from one person, they say.
We want romance:
the butterflies and the love letters,
and we want passion:
amazing sex and magnetic attraction,
and we want emotional support:
someone we can share everything with,
and a life companion:
someone to do fun things with, build a home with,
and, oh yes, someone to raise children with too!
It’s a lot to ask from one person.
Ruth and Naomi, on the other hand, just need to eat.
They’re focused on staying alive.
And there is this wonderful presence of life in its most basic form that exists in this story. Food and sex: the two things in the world that give life. The two are entangled in this sort of primal way.
When Ruth catches Boaz’ eye, what he does is feed her. He makes sure she can glean from his field, and then at mealtime he shares bread with her, shares grain with her, and then sends her home with more food. He literally gives her life.
And when Ruth spends the night with Boaz on the threshing floor, joins her body with his, in the morning, what does he do? He loads her up with grain to take home. Boaz won’t send Ruth home empty handed. She goes back to Naomi, who earlier in the story bemoaned her emptiness. But Ruth comes back full. Filled with life.
Later in the story, Ruth will bear Boaz a child. He gives her life and she gives it back to him. Food and sex: signs of life.
Our courtships may be more concerned with butterflies and waiting for the phone to ring than Ruth and Boaz’s, but at their very best, our relationships and partnerships give us life.
Someone who will feed us until we are satisfied.
Someone who will offer their body,
And receive our body as well.
Someone who will make us full
and not send us away empty.
These things give us life.
There’s a lot of talk these days, especially in the church, about love and sex and relationships and who should get to do what with whom.
But the only question I care about is: is your love making you more alive?
Are you offering one another life?
Relationships that give life,
no matter who they’re between,
are filled to the brim,
overflowing with God,
overflowing with the holy,
feeding us from within.
Where life is, God is,
and that is sacred ground.
We share the sermon at St. Lydia’s, and so I invite you to share a story that’s be brought up by the text or my words.