So Boaz said to Ruth... Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you.
Last week, as we began to look at the story of Ruth and Naomi, I suggested that Ruth was accepting great risk in leaving her land, people and family, to remain faithful to Naomi. Today’s verse reveals in a bit more detail, the risk. Ruth goes to work following the harvesters in the barley fields. According to Deuteronomy 24 farmers were to instruct their harvesters to leave the edges of fields unharvested and the forgotten sheaf of grain behind in order to provide for the economically vulnerable. This was the social safety net according to God’s law. This is why Ruth follows behind, picking up what is left over and left behind in the fields.
The words of Boaz reveal that in practice, widows were not always safe in the fields. ‘I have told the men not to lay a hand on you,’ he says. What other way is there to interpret this than that it was not uncommon for male harvesters to take advantage of the vulnerability of women who came to the fields to glean by perpetrating sexual aggression. Let’s not forget that Ruth is a Moabite woman, and so, according to the religious tradition recorded in Deuteronomy 23, not worthy of dignity or compassion. Moabites were the ‘other,’ outside of God’s family and so outside of the circle of care. Add to this, she is a widow without family and so she does not ‘belong’ to a man. It is apparent that both her status as foreign and as widow, would mean for some, for many, that Ruth was not a person worthy of respect, but instead without value to society except as an object of desire.
Oxfam UK recently posted some interesting facts on their Facebook page. Worldwide, 32 million girls will not go to school, 39,000 will become child brides in one day, 1-3 women will be beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime, 875 million women never learn to read or write, and they earn only 10% of the worlds income.
Even a simple search of the word widow in the bible reveals that the community God was creating in Israel was a community in which the vulnerable were not devalued and dehumanized, but honored and cared for. Look at Exodus 22.22, Deuteronomy 10:17-19, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Deut 24:7, Deut 27:19, Isaiah 1.17, just to list a few. Against a culture that demonized the foreign and took advantage of the vulnerable, the story of Ruth reveals, a key aspect of the human community that God is creating is treating the foreign with dignity and the vulnerable with compassion,