Saturday, September 29, 2018

“The Cliffhanger” - August 12, 2018

Text: Ruth 4

It is called a cliffhanger.  A to-be-continued episode that leaves the audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what is to come.  A cliffhanger insures that there will be a committed audience for the next part of the story.

In the 1800’s, this was a very common plot device in serialized fiction.  Fictional stories by writers like Charles Dickens were published one chapter at a time in various magazines.  In 1841, a magazine was publishing in serial form Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop.  Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum reported that “Dickens fanboys rioted on the dock of New York Harbor, as they waited for a British ship carrying the next installment, screaming, ‘Is little Nell dead?’”

They couldn’t wait to find out.  The term “cliffhanger” itself comes from Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, published in serial format in Tinsley’s Magazine in the early 1870’s.  In one monthly installment, the protagonist Henry Knight is left literally hanging off a cliff.  

In more modern times, the season finale of many TV shows will involve a cliffhanger.  Maybe the most famous was from the show Dallas.  The 1980 season finale was “Who Shot J.R.?”  From March until the new TV season in October, there was wild speculation over who had shot oil tycoon J.R. Ewing, which insured a massive audience for the next season.

Last Sunday, we were left hanging.  We have been making our way through the book of Ruth and last week we were in the third chapter, in many ways the pivotal act of this great drama.  Ruth and her daughter-in-law Naomi, who is not an Israelite but a native of Moab, are widows and they are vulnerable.  Working to gain security, Naomi hatches this plan wherein Ruth, in the middle of the harvest season, gets all dressed up and goes down to the threshing floor and waits until Boaz has fallen asleep.  It is such an exhausting day that he sleeps right there on the floor.

Ruth pulls back the blanket and lies beside Boaz.  He wakes up in the middle of the night, understandably startled.  He is freaked out that this woman is lying beside him.  This wasn’t exactly the way Naomi had planned it, but Ruth is steady under pressure.  She says, “I am your servant Ruth.  Spread your cloak over me for you are next of kin.”  This referred to a cloak of care and protection – it was an expression for marriage.  Ruth was proposing to Boaz on the threshing floor.

It appears that there had been some attraction between the two before this, and after he woke up and realized what was happening, Boaz was all in.  Now, Ruth had said that Boaz was next of kin.  The word is goel – it means a kinsman-redeemer, one who would act in place of a deceased relative.  The goel would look out for and provide for widows and orphans and would purchase the land in order to keep the land in the family, in the clan. 

Ruth had combined with responsibility of the goel the idea of Levirate marriage.  The obligation was that the brother of a man who had died would marry the widow.  It is not clear how often this was actually practiced, but the obligation certainly did not extend to more distant relatives.  Boaz is a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, and of his son Mahlon, Ruth’s husband, but it is not clear what that relationship was.

At any rate, Boaz accepts the proposal, the whole thing, but there is a small detail.  Actually is it not a small detail.  Boaz is a close kinsman but there is one closer than him.  If that man will not act as goel, then Boaz will.  He is enthusiastic about the prospect and praises Ruth for her loyalty to Naomi, but something like this needs to be done by the book.  Boaz promises to take care of the matter in the morning.

So we have all waited this past week - maybe not quite “Who Shot JR” hysteria, but we have been anxiously waiting to find out: will Ruth marry Boaz, this kind and compassionate man that we have come to love, or will she wind up with some other relative of her husband Mahlon that we don’t know a thing about?  I mean, this other kinsman could be a complete jerk.  We are bothered by the thought.  We are rooting for Boaz.

Well, the next morning Boaz heads into town, and just as he gets to the city gate, here is this very man.  Excavations in the Middle East have found benches and a gathering area around ancient city gates.  The custom was that this is where business and legal matters were conducted.  Boaz quickly gathers ten elders of the city who are hanging out around the gate to serve as witnesses and says to his close kinsman, “Come over here, friend, and sit down.”

What is interesting is that while a lot of translations have this as friend – come over here, friend, and sit down – the phrase is literally a certain someone.  A better translation is   so-and-so or What’s-his-face.  This guy isn’t even going to be named in the story.  (Which is an indication that maybe things will go Boaz’ way.)

Boaz explains the situation and asks if this man is willing to buy the field that had belonged to Elimelech.   If Mr. What’s-his-name will redeem the land, then fine, but if not, Boaz will.

Now, another thing to point out here.  As a close kinsman, Boaz had taken an interest in and helped to provide for Naomi and Ruth.  He had encouraged Ruth to glean from his field, he had made sure that the system was rigged, so to speak, so that she would gather much more grain than might be expected, and he had made sure that it would be a safe and welcoming environment.

Where has this closer kinsman been?  He has not shown his face before now.  He has not offered to assist Naomi and Ruth in any way.  Now, maybe he was a decent guy, maybe he was busy with his own life and his own problems, but in a culture where the impulse to take care of family was especially strong, Mr. What’s-his-name had been completely absent.

Well, he tells Boaz yes, he would redeem the field that legally belonged to Elimelech’s and now Mahlon’s heirs.  Of which at the moment, it might be noted, there were none.  Which made this an appealing investment – it would look like he was helping a relative when he was mainly helping himself.

But then Boaz adds a detail to the transaction, an amendment or codicil.  With the land would also come Ruth, Mahlon’s widow, so that the dead man’s name and inheritance might be maintained.  So he could buy the land, but it was a package deal in which he would get Ruth as a wife, and the inheritance would go to their children as Mahlon’s inheritance to Mahlon’s descendants.

Upon hearing this, Mr. What’s-his-name says, “Oh wait a minute, I can’t – I forgot that my CPA advised against acquiring this property – estate tax and whatnot.  You can have it.”  And in an absolutely awesome method of formalizing a legal transaction, Mr. What’s-his-name takes off his sandal and gives it to Boaz before the ten witnesses.  The text explains this to the reader as though by the time this was written down, many years later, the practice had ceased.  Which is a shame.  It would be great if when you buy a house or a new car or make some business deal – maybe even sign a lease – the other party would take off their shoe and hand it to you.  Wouldn’t that be great?

The witnesses – who knew well both Boaz and Mr. What’s-his-name – seem especially pleased by this transaction.  All the people at the gate, including the elders who acted as witnesses, said “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Leah and Rachel, who built up the house of Israel.  May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem.  And through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”

This community traced its lineage to Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, or Israel, through Judah’s son Perez.  And the community blesses this marriage.  Boaz and Ruth are married and God gives Ruth a son.  Interestingly, this is the only time that we are told directly that God acts in the whole book. 

All of this has restored the fortunes of Naomi.  She left Bethlehem full.  She returned empty, having lost both her husband and two sons in Moab.  Her spirit was crushed, but her daughter-in-law Ruth stood beside her through it all and now her fortunes are restored, now she is again full.  At the birth of her grandson, legally considered Mahlon’s heir, the women of the village say to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord who has not left you without next of kin, and may his name be renowned in Israel.  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 borne him.”

Through the story, Ruth and Naomi have looked for a man to provide security, to provide an income, to provide legal title, to provide stability.  But with Naomi’s help, Ruth is really the one who makes this happen.  And the women of the community have this wonderfully subversive message to share – “your daughter-in-law Ruth is better than seven sons – she’s better than seven stinkin’ men, all put together.”

Naomi becomes the child’s nurse – in fact, in Hebrew it actually means wet nurse, which some of the rabbis claimed was a miracle of God.  And the women of the neighborhood name the child.  He is named Obed.

Obed becomes the father of Jesse, and Jesse is the father of David.  Did you catch that?  Ruth, this Moabite widow woman, is King David’s great-grandmother.
Now ending a story with a genealogy is generally not recommended, but then there are several things in this book that are not generally recommended.  But that is the way it ends, tracing the lineage from Judah’s son Perez to David. 

Ruth was likely written after the Israelites had returned from captivity in Babylon.  They returned to Jerusalem and found descendants of the people who had been left behind, who had not been taken to Babylon.  They had intermarried with other groups and nations and religions.  Those who had returned did not tolerate this.  There was a very strong anti-immigrant and anti-intermarriage sentiment.

It was in that atmosphere that the story of Ruth, long remembered, was written down.  The hero is a foreign woman.  Boaz is the kinsman redeemer, but in the end, it is Ruth - a foreigner, a Moabite widow, who really saves the day.  If not for Ruth, there would have been no King David.  And she is not only a grandma of David, she is a great-great-great grandma of Jesus.

It is not just that the outsider is to be welcomed.  But the outsider, the immigrant, the new person, the person on the margins, the one who is different than we are – they have gifts to share, gifts that we need, and they may actually be the one to save the day. 

This story speaks to us in another way.  At their very lowest, there seemed to be no future for Naomi.  She had lost her husband and her sons.  She went back home to Bethlehem a broken woman.  There seemed to be no hope, no way forward.

It wasn’t easy, but despite all of that, in time she found hope and she found a future and she again found joy.

Our circumstances are different from Naomi’s, but we can all face that loss of hope, that feeling of emptiness.  We can face trying situations and suffer loses of all kinds that can knock the wind out of us and sap our strength.  God’s word for us is that there is always hope, that help can arrive when we least expect it, and that beyond our pain there is the possibility of joy again.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

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