The Submissive / Obedient Woman

Lectionary Readings (November 11, 2012):

Our lectionary readings, both last week and this week, include the story of Ruth, King David’s great-grandmother.  We didn’t touch on this last week, so this week I thought I would go ahead and give you a short look at the story of Ruth.

We may ask ourselves, as we might with the story of Esther, “Why was Ruth included in the Bible at all?” Where is God mentioned in this book – apart from Naomi’s grieving comment “the hand of the Lord has gone out against me?

Scholars find that the book of Ruth was written as a historical novelette (theological and didactic historiography – in that it reconstructs historical events to some degree, but it tells the history by means of imaginative literary devices for the purpose of religious instruction and inspiration), and so it is both entertaining and instructive, and composed either during or shortly after the reign of King David.[1]

But the actual story which is told takes place during the time of Judges, in the final decades of that turbulent age, while there was yet “no king in Israel”, in the middle of a famine.  In stark contrast to the book of Judges, with scenes of crimes against God and man: treachery, brutal wars, massacres, cities in ruins – Ruth sheds a ray of light, piety, fidelity, social responsibility and rural tranquility.  It’s the story of a normal person, facing everyday domestic crises which frequently arise in the everyday life of an ordinary person.

And so

  • Elimelech (meaning, interestingly enough, “my God is King”),
  • his wife Naomi (whose name means “favour, delight, loveliness, beauty, and is regarded as having favour with God and man”),
  • and their two sons (Mahlon and Chilion) emigrate to the nearby country of Moab.  Clearly these two names are simply metaphors – Mahlon means “sick” and Chilion means “weakening or pining”.  Would you really name your children “sickness” and “wasting”.

They settle there, Elimelech dies, and the sons marry two Moabite women.  Mahlon marries Ruth and Chilion marries Orpah.

Little is known of the Moabite language, and so it is difficult to determine the precise meaning of the names Ruth and Orpah.  And yet, Orpah is related to the Hebrew word for neck, as used figuratively in the phrase “stiff necked or stubborn”; while Ruth, on the other hand, appears to be a contracted form of a noun, which in Hebrew means “companionship, friendship, fellowship”.

Unfortunately, in a tragic series of events, Mahlon and Chilion both die, leaving Naomi without her sons or husband.  Naomi’s pain is evident when she tells her daughter-in-law: “it is exceedingly bitter to me… that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”  There will be times in our lives, like Naomi, when the hardest four words for us to pray will be from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.”

And so Naomi decides to return to Israel, and she tells her daughter-in-laws to return to their own families and remarry.  Under their mother’s case and direction, the two young widows would have assumed their premarital status, making them eligible to remarry.

Orpah reluctantly agrees, while Ruth begs Naomi to allow her to stay and to return to Israel with her.  In a passionate declaration, Ruth says to Naomi:

For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.2

Naomi, who had left Bethlehem with the name “my gracious one”, returns and asks to be call Mara “the bitter one”, in sorrow for all she had lost, perhaps too caught up in her sorrow to realise that she had brought her blessing back with her (as we will see later).

And so we find Ruth, gleaning in the fields, after the reapers.  Under the law, the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow were allowed to gather the stalks of grain which the reapers had missed or dropped – it was a simple part of the everyday life, which ensured that the poor were cared for out of the abundance of the nation’s wealth.

But Ruth was given a special treatment.  Boaz, the land owner, asked about her, and then came and said to her:

Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women.  Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them.  Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.[3]

When Ruth asks why he is being so kind, she receives a very simple reply:

All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me… the Lord repay you for what you have done, and full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge![4]

And Boaz goes further than this – he even instructs the reapers to intentionally drop more sheaves for Ruth to pick up, letting her work among the sheaves, not behind his maidens, and ensures that she is given bread and wine during the lunch.

Naomi is pleasantly surprised with the outcome, as Ruth has had a very successful day gleaning.  And upon learning of Boaz’s special interest in Ruth, Naomi then contrives to get Ruth married to Boaz by invoking her kinship with him.  She tells Ruth what to do and where to go, and Ruth follows her instructions.

Now the marriage of Ruth and Boaz was of a type known as a Levirate marriage.  Since there is no heir to inherit Elimelech’s land, levirate custom would have required her husband’s brother (but since he was dead also, then the next of kin), to marry the widow in order to continue the family line.  It was particularly important in Israel for the land to stay in the family.  If the family mortgaged the land, a kinsman was required to purchase it back into the family.  So, in this case, whoever married Ruth would pay Naomi for the property, but the property would then be inherited by Ruth’s child, in the name of her original spouse.  So there was a financial cost involved in this kinsman’s redemption.

Naomi sends Ruth to sleep at Boaz’ feet, after he’s had his wine and celebrated that the crops are in, taking a chance that Boaz may take advantage of her, but instead, Boaz helps Naomi and Ruth through the rituals of the inheritance, after which he marries Ruth.

Ruth ends with “and they lived happily ever after” –

… she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. 17 And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed… which means “servant”)

What’s interesting is that the book of Ruth is in stark contrast to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which demanded that the Jews divorce their foreign wives.  If we consider that the book of Ruth was originally placed next to Ezra and Nehemiah, we can understand how petty and short-sighted this policy of racial purity was.  More importantly, Ruth showed that not only could a foreigner be fully assimilated, but more importantly they might be God’s instrument for a higher good.

You may be wondering at this point, why did I put the title of my sermon as “the Submissive/Obedient Woman”.  All I’ve done so far is shared with you this historical novelette we find in Ruth.

Lessons:

So, let’s consider the lessons we can learn from Ruth.  I’ve grouped these into:

  1.  The general lessons applicable to all of us
  2. The lessons from Naomi’s life
  3. The lessons from Boaz; and finally
  4. The lessons from Ruth

Let’s start with the general lessons:

  • God’s love applies to everyone – there is no distinction of race, gender, marital status or religion. Ruth teaches us inclusivity, when a young woman voluntarily embraces another people, land, culture and, most importantly, God.   It is the perfect example of a true belief in the Creator God, even in the ancient world of the Israelites where separation is made obvious between the Israelites and the Gentiles.  This inclusivity transcends all cultural and racial boundaries, with the objective of unity the human race: Unity under God.
  • No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace – whenever we turn to God, we will find our Creator there, with His arms open wide to receive us.
  • God knows and provides for the needs of His people.  The book of Ruth reminds of His merciful providence for all who fear and trust in Him.  Our Creator knows who we are and where we came from.  No part of our life, however minute, escapes His notice.

How about the lessons from Naomi’s life?

  • How to relate with your daughters-in-law – there is obviously a lot of love between the three women.  When the girls had come to live with her and her sons, they were obviously welcomed into the home and became like daughters to her.  Her love for these two women is obvious in the tears cried when she decides to leave and return to Bethlehem.
  • We can’t overlook the fact that God is working in our lives, even when we are unaware of His activity.  We may choose to be miserable and feel that God has abandoned us, but even then God is working in ways that we can’t see for our benefit.
  • This story of broken hearts shows just how important the events of our lives are in God’s eyes – important enough to become a book of the Bible.
  • Even in Naomi’s grief, it’s obvious that before this she must have had an amazing testimony of belief in God – strong enough to convince Ruth to say:  “where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Even if in her grief Naomi had forgotten her faith in God, her life had been a testimony of her faith.
  • From Naomi we learn of God’s providential care: from destitute widow, to holding her foster-child in her arms.

Lessons we can learn from Boaz:

  • Boaz ensured that his fields were available to the sojourner, the widows and the fatherless – he was his brother’s keeper in the widest sense of the word.  He didn’t know who was gleaning his fields after the reapers went through, but he accepted that this was his responsibility and charity.
  • Boaz is a model of altruism – as Christians we usually use the term “loving-kindness”.  He promoted the well-being of others.
  • We also learn from Boaz integrity – his high stature is not only based on his wealth, but also on his benevolence.  While having the opportunity to take advantage of Ruth, he treats her with respect and sends her home knowing that he will deal with the issue formally with his kinsman.  He acts with authority at the town gate, providing his kinsman with the opportunity to purchase the family land.

Lessons we can learn from Ruth:

  • There is value in unselfish virtue in times of trial – we don’t know Naomi’s physical condition or what made Ruth decide to go with her. But there was obviously a feeling of needing to protect and take care of Naomi, and accompany her and ensure that she was going to be alright.
  • Ruth also teaches us the dignity and sacredness of what we may view as secular and commonplace in life – working in the fields… bringing home the bread or the bacon… All of this is an integral part of our spiritual lives.
  • We learn from Ruth that God commends the power of love to overcome alienation, hostility and prejudice.  I wonder how the people of Bethlehem first treated Ruth when she arrived back with Naomi.  And yet, when Boaz speaks with her, he has already heard, because it was the talk of the town: All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me… the Lord repay you for what you have done, and full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!

The submissive, obedient woman:

This is where I want to talk about the submissive, obedient woman, and what it means to me.  Many of us baulk at the words today “obedience” and “submission”.  When we read in Ephesians 5: 21-32:

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife, ….   But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

This is repeated again in Colossians 3:18:

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord

For many of us, as one author states:

Submissive” now has a negative ring, causing women to cringe and run the opposite direction.  Most people picture a submissive wife as a woman with a soft, frail voice who runs around at her husband’s beck and call while he plops down in the recliner and hollers for another drink.[5]

But from the example we find in Ruth, I would say this is not so.  This submissive, obedient woman is strong, intelligent, hard-working and caring.  She is decisive, as Ruth was, DECIDING for herself, that she chooses to follow.  Her promise to Naomi: where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people and your God my God – this was a voluntary choice. She wasn’t blindly going to be at Naomi’s beck and call.  She was consciously making a choice to follow.
I am sure, some days when Ruth first arrived in Bethlehem and was discriminated against or when she was out there gleaning in the fields, with her back and arms and legs aching from the toil, that she had thoughts running through her head:

  • “Why did I choose to come back here with Naomi?”
  • “Why didn’t I stay back in Moab and marry that nice young man that my parents had lined up for me?”
  •  “Why did I follow Naomi, when she’s always so bitter and feeling sorry for herself; what happened to that gracious woman that used to be my mother-in-law?”
  • “What more can I do for Naomi, to bring back the joy and laughter in her life?”

But I’m also sure that there was a sense of satisfaction in Ruth’s life – she CHOSE this.  She wasn’t a victim.  Being submissive, choosing to follow Naomi’s advice was a voluntary status of behaviour – it’s not forced upon Ruth.

Women are not meant to be controlled by force of strength or economic hardship or guilt.  But rather, we are told to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to treat them as we would want to be treated.

To be submissive is not a FEMALE ONLY trait but should be the attitude of all Christians. We learn and grow from talking to each other and are told to keep a humble and contrite heart.

We are to develop relationships of trust and confidence and respect with all men so there is an element of submission in everything we do.

To understand the meaning of being submissive from God’s perspective we must first of all submit to God and do as he has instructed; even when we can’t see that “happily ever after”.

Our greatest example of this is Jesus, who submitted to the Father’s will until death, trusting fully that there was an ultimate reward for this sacrifice.

Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the LORD, she is to be praised.  Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.[6] 

[1] http://bible.org/article/introduction-book-ruth

[2] Ruth 1:16-17

[3] Ruth 2: 8-9

[4] Ruth 2: 11-12

[5] http://www.everydaychristian.com/blogs/post/modern_submissive_woman_series_part_one/

[6] Proverbs 31: 30-31

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