Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Which Law Should I Break?
A Child Shall Lead Them, a three week sermon series on children imagined as leaders
Week 1 of 3, preached November 7, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
We have three more weeks until we end the Christian year and turn the page to Advent, the season that begins the new Christian year and anticipates the birth of a child in Bethlehem, Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace.
The story of a birth changing everything isn’t a one-time-only story of God. Moses was an amazing birth that changed everything. Isaac was a miraculous birth that extended God’s covenant.
This November, as we prepare for Advent and Christmas, we are going to hear three stories of other births that changed everything. This God often chooses an unexpected child, a child born to an unexpected couple or in an unexpected way, as God’s way of leading people toward something new and unexpected.
Our first story of a child who shall lead them is from Ruth, chapter 4. So let me tell you a bit about Ruth chapters 1 to 3. In Ruth, there’s a Jewish couple from Bethlehem, Elimilech and Naomi, with two sons, Chilion and Mahlon. They leave Judah and go across the border into Moab. The husband dies. Both sons marry Moabite girls, then both sons die. The mother, Naomi, decides to come home, and one of the daughters-in-law, Ruth, decides to leave her country, come across the border as an immigrant and foreigner, and support Naomi.
At that time, there was a strange law in Israelite culture. It was called Levirate marriage. From Deuteronomy 25:5-10:
5 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall …take her in marriage, and … the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
In this law, if all the brothers died, as happened to Naomi’s sons, the law then extended to cousins and other family members. So, when Naomi brings Ruth with her back to Judea, she realizes a man named Boaz is extended family, and attempts to connect Ruth, the Moabite immigrant widow daughter in law, to Boaz. However, there are several problems. First, Boaz is not all that interested at first. Second, Boaz is not the closest family. And last, Ruth is a Moabite. Deuteronomy 23 says this:
3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation…6 You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.
In Chapter 4, however, Boaz becomes willing to marry Ruth, and honor the Levirite law, even if it means marrying a Moabite. Let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Ruth 4:7-17
4:1 No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin,[a] of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend; sit down here.” And he went over and sat down. 2 Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down. 3 He then said to the next-of-kin,[b] “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. 4 So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” So he said, “I will redeem it.” 5 Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth[c] the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” 6 At this, the next-of-kin[d] said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”
7 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel.
8 So when the next-of-kin[e] said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal. 9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.”
11 Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; 12 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.”
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.
14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; 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 borne him.”
16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nanny. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Before we go any deeper in this, let’s be really clear about something. Way back then, men exchanged women like property. In the time and culture of the Bible, men had so much of the power and women so so little. The Levirate law, and this scripture passage treat Ruth like an object, like property to be traded, sold, bought. We don’t know whom she loved, whom she wanted to marry, if she wanted to have children, any of that, and in Bible times, none of that mattered. All we know is the cultural expectation of the men in the story to trade property and honor the lineage of other men, and the women had very little say in whether or not they participated. This is so very wrong in so many ways, and I trust we can agree this was no way to find a life partner, or to grow a family, or to honor the memory of one who had died. But this is how things were in Biblical times. It why sometimes when some Christian pastors preach about the Biblical definition of marriage, I wonder if they skipped a bunch of the bible.
Okay, with that out there, let’s try to go back in time. We won’t condone the culture or laws, but let’s go back and put ourselves in their shoes.
What does it feel like for Naomi? The men that were supposed to take care of her and provide for her all the way to her death are all gone. By herself, there is no way to maintain the family land. She needs to put all that land in the hand of another family member, and in so doing, put herself under their care.
Ruth, the immigrant Moabite widow. Why is she even here? Why did she come? It’s been so hard. Why didn’t she just stay back in Moab? Maybe she asked herself that a few times. Perhaps her family was dangerous, violent? Perhaps she truly loved Naomi and felt compelled to care for her. Surely she felt the stares. Moabites were not welcomed or trusted. Some probably felt that the men had all died BECAUSE they went to Moab. And now Naomi has come back and brought some of the curse with her in this Moabite girl Ruth? Surely Ruth felt their judgment, and heard their gossip.
And Boaz, do you feel the tension Boaz was in? He could buy the property and grow his business, but that meant he also got Ruth, the Moabite. Its almost like a scale, with the property loaded on one side, and Ruth on the other.
When the other next of kin quickly measures the value of the property, “Yes, I will buy the property.” Buying the property is a no brainer apparently. Then, on the other side of the scale, the Moabite immigrant widow. The next of kin does the math again. “Wait, what? The Moabite? No way, I’m out.”
Both of these men are under the law and culture and religion of their community. The law says two things that oppose one another. If a family member dies, you will have a child with his widow, and the first born shall extend the family of the one who died, not your own family. AND, at the same time, you will have nothing to do with those nasty Ammonites or Moabites. Which law do they choose to obey? Which law do they choose to break? Why did they decide differently? Are both decisions equally acceptable or is one more right than the other?
Maybe I’m putting a bit much onto the man who rejected the offer, but its sounds to me like he was a doing a risk/reward analysis. If he takes this risk, what is his reward? The risk of buying the property gives him, with effort, the reward of a larger crop, a larger business. But the reward of taking on the property comes with the risk of being in a relationship for the rest of his life with Ruth the Moabite. You can almost feel his gears grind to a halt instantly. Ruth, the Moabite, is too high a risk for any reward.
Some might call it racism. Moabites weren’t really a different race, but you get what I mean, I imagine. They were humans, just like the Jews, and they might have looked a little different, but the Judeans had been taught Moabites are bad. Stay away from them. If you go back far enough, they all came from the same ancestors. But one generation can turn their children against a group of people based on how they look and our human unity is broken all over again.
We could also call it xenophobia, the dislike or judgment against people from other places. Often racism and xenophobia go together, but not always. As a southerner, I have felt the judgment when my accent travels north. A southern accent is perceived as not as smart, not as open hearted or open minded in many other places in our country.
Maybe this next of kin was a racist, or xenophobic. Or, maybe, he himself didn’t feel racist or xenophobic, but he just didn’t want all the judgment and hassle that would come upon him from the rest of the community. In other words, he understand that there was some systemic racism and xenophobia all around him, and he wasn’t willing to resist it.
And here’s Boaz, knowingly entering into a relationship that will probably trigger the culture’s racism and xenophobia. The other next-of-kin is NOT willing to go through that. Boaz is. Why? What is it about Boaz that leads him to make a different decision?
I don’t know. But notice, the other guy, we don’t even learn his name. He is remembered, ominously, as the next of kin who said no because of Ruth. His name and story and family are forgotten other than this fateful moment where he was given the same choice as Boaz and said no, maybe due to his own racism and xenophobia, or maybe due to his fear of the effects of the racism and xenophobia in his community.
Boaz though, he says yes. He says yes to all of it. He gathers witnesses around and says out loud before them all what his intentions are. I don’t hear Boaz as speaking confidently and proudly. I hear him aware of possible resistance and moving forward anyway. He says his intentions out loud so it is clear, he is attempting to honor the law, honor the family, and care for these women. If there is prejudice against him for that, so be it. He will do the right thing, and he wants the community the help him do the right thing, even if it gets hard to do so later.
Their first child is not their own. They give the child to Naomi to raise, as if she is the grandmother. That child would be considered the son of Mahlon. This child is Obed, who has a child Jesse, who has a child David.
The racism and xenophobia that was in their hearts or in their system, it didn't win. It never does. The ones who chose to resist, their stories are remembered. Their descendants brithed Jesus into the world. May the church forever be a safe house to raise a sandal.
May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.