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Sarah: Life with Abraham 1

A familiar example

The name Sarah resonates with Bible readers, women of faith, feminists, and historians. More space is devoted to her than any other woman in the Bible. One of the most quoted passages concerning Sarah, and one which ultimately defines her, is 1 Peter 3:1-6:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel — rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.

Since Sarah is generally regarded in her role as Abraham’s wife (and eventually Isaac’s mother), in order to understand her more fully, it is necessary explore the world and the person of the man who enjoyed her honor, respect, and submission. The purpose of this series is to pull back the curtains of history and travel alongside them on their lifelong journey of faith.

Starting with the basics

Genealogy was of prime importance anciently, and it holds significance for us as well to note that their lineage stems from Shem, Noah’s oldest son (Genesis 10:10-26). Their father Terah and his clan lived in Ur of the Chaldees,[1] the dominant Mesopotamian city-state during his time, established by the Sumerians and located near the banks of the Euphrates River.

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in t...

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no hard fact concerning the family’s occupation at Ur. There are, however, opinions—one being they were semi-nomads who largely tended their herds and flocks on the outskirts of the city,[2] and another, citing a Jewish tradition[3] which casts Terah as an idolatrous priest who manufactured and sold idols.[4] The latter found inspiration from Joshua 24:1-5 where God through Joshua states that “your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.”

Manufacturing and selling idols would have been a lucrative trade since Ur was a major center for worshiping the moon goddess, Nanna, divine patron of the city-state. The huge ziggurat built in her honor still exists at the site of the ancient city. “The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and, like the spire of a medieval cathedral, would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike. As the Ziggurat [sic] supported the temple of the patron god of the city of Ur, it is likely that it was the place where the citizens of Ur would bring agricultural surplus and where they would go to receive their regular food allotments. In antiquity, to visit the ziggurat at Ur was to seek both spiritual and physical nourishment.”[5]

Dwellings

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español...

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español: Ruinas de la ciuad de Ur con el Zigurat de Ur-Nammu al fondo a las afueras de Nasiriyah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If indeed Terah’s sons were semi-nomadic herdsmen, they lived in tents near the great city, using it as their home base. If city dwellers, then they lived in houses. Excavations of ancient Ur have unearthed many such structures, the average being small, of one-story, made of mud brick. Its rooms were grouped around a courtyard. The wealthy lived in two-story, fired-brick homes, plastered and whitewashed inside and out, containing about a dozen rooms. There is one such building alleged by some to be Abraham’s house. It is huge—containing some twenty-seven rooms and five courtyards!

Cultural underpinnings

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Anti...

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Antiguas ciudades de Sumeria Magyar: Ókori sumer városok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since environment plays a pivotal part in life, shaping intellect and world view, Terah’s family was influenced by living in Mesopotamia, and Ur specifically. The Sumerians were an accomplished people, credited with impressive innovations and accomplishments over their approximate 1000-year span of influence.

Writing and order

They devised a system of writing on clay (cuneiform), which was borrowed and used all over the Near East for some two thousand years.[6] They compiled the first known dictionary, and are recognized as being among the first to formulate and record laws and law codes in order to avoid misunderstandings, misrepresentation, and arbitrariness.

Focus on education

Sumerians valued education and had scribal schools throughout their territory. If Abram came from a wealthier family, he and his brothers probably attended one of these. While there is a record of one woman listed as a scribe, Sarai would not have attended classes with her male siblings. Women enjoyed almost equal rights, “but they were still not considered intelligent enough to be able to master literacy.”[7] [8]

Numerous tablets of school texts have been found containing tables (tabulations of reciprocals, multiplications, square roots, etc.) and problems (addressing such practical matters as excavating or enlarging canals, counting bricks, etc.), evidence of an advanced system of mathematics thought to have begun in ancient Sumer.

Science and industry

The oldest collection to date of pharmacopoeia in the form of fifteen prescriptions inscribed on clay tablets is attributed to the Sumerians. Women were the first doctors and dentists in ancient Mesopotamia until, some suppose, these occupations proved lucrative and were taken over by men.

Sumerian beer brewing has been confirmed going back to 3500-3100 BC. They loved beer so much they ascribed its creation to the gods. Knowledge of brewing went to the Babylonians who commercialized it and passed laws regulating it. The first brewers and tavern keepers were women.[9]

Sumerians invented a brick mold for shaping and baking river clay, thus creating more durable building materials and a system for manufacturing them. Archeologists have uncovered numbers of Sumerian bricks still intact.

The arts

Recovered Sumerian sculpture (a skill for which they are particularly noted) depicts ancient Sumerians, their appearance and their dress. No doubt writers, poets, actors, artists, fashion designers, jewelers, perfumers, and musicians found a niche among the artistic community of Ur as well.

Leaving

Abram, city dweller or not, could have interacted with merchants, laborers, shepherds, students, teachers, city administrators and workers, professionals, intellectuals and artisans, all busily going about the affairs of the day. His would have been a vibrant world, much like any modern urban center. With this brief exploration into the dynamics shaping a city-state such as Ur, it becomes clear that when Abram received God’s memorable instruction to “get out of your country,” it contained monumental implications. Leaving the comfort and security of the familiar. Leaving family property. Leaving the center of power, commerce, and influence for parts unknown. And ultimately, it meant trusting and yielding to his God’s direction implicitly.

The Bible simply records that Abram obeyed, and there is no evidence that Sarai objected or resisted. Thus Abram’s life-long journey of faith began, one which would find his beautiful wife always by his side.

Next time: Introducing Sarai

 

[1] http://www.ancient.eu.com/ur/  “In the Old Babylonian Period (c. 2000-1600 BCE) Ur remained a city of importance and was considered a centre of learning and culture. . . .The city continued to be inhabited through the early part of the Achaemenid Period (550-330 BCE) but, due to climate change and an overuse of the land, more and more people migrated to the northern regions of Mesopotamia or south toward the land of Canaan (the patriarch Abraham, some claim, among them, as previously noted). Ur slowly dwindled in importance as the Persian Gulf receded further and further south from the city and eventually fell into ruin around 450 BCE.”

[2] Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, Reader’s Digest (1974), pp. 34-35.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terah

[4] Josh 24:2: “It is not stated that Abraham himself was an idolater, though his fathers were. Jewish tradition asserts that Abraham while in Ur of the Chaldees was persecuted for his abhorrence of idolatry, and hence, was called away by God from his native land. (from Barnes’ Notes, Electronic Database Copyright © 1997, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

[5] http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/ziggurat-of-ur.html

[6] Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians, Their History, Culture, and Character (1963), p.4

[7] “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/680/

[8] Kramer says students attended school daily from sunrise to sunset. They devoted years to their study, remaining students from early youth to the day they became young men. Many clay tablets illustrative of school work and compositions have been unearthed at various archaeological sites (pp. 233-236).

[9] In the article, “Ancient Egyptian Brewery and Bakery,” beer is described as being “brewed by women in the home as a supplement to meals. The beer was a thick, porridge-like drink consumed through a straw and was made from bippar (barley bread) which was baked twice and allowed to ferment in a vat. By the year 2050 BCE beer brewing had become commercialized as evidenced by the famous Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur dated to that time” (http://www.ancient.eu/Beer/).

Life as a Shepherdess 1

In ancient Israel it was not unusual for women to work outside the home, young women at least. When a girl was eight to ten years old, she began leading the family herd out to nearby pasture. At the end of the day, the shepherdess brought her sheep back home. At night the animals were “housed in stone-walled pens attached to buildings or compounds, or on the ground floor of houses in the cities,”[1] or corralled in thorny, fence-like enclosures typical of nomadic enclosures.

A shepherdess with her flock, grazing - oil on...

A shepherdess with her flock, grazing – oil on canvas, 41 x 56.5 cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tending the family herd was reserved primarily for girls, and they continued this work until married at age fifteen or sixteen.[2] As a young shepherdess, Rachel met Jacob when she came to water her sheep (Genesis 29:9). Moses’s wife Zipporah was one of seven daughters who tended their father’s sheep (Exodus 2:16-21). Some scholars speculate that Rebekah and Leah were also shepherdesses.[3] In Solomon’s ancient love poem, he refers to the Shulamite as being dark skinned from a life outdoors, tending the vineyard and caring for her flock of goats (Song of Solomon 1:5-8).

Shepherdess walking with spindle in hand.

Shepherdess walking with spindle in hand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Besides pasturing the flocks, watering and watching them, tending minor injuries and sheltering them at night, a shepherdess also had the womanly duty of spinning. Equipped with her drop spindle and a bundle of wool, she could spin yarn during her hours in the field.[4]

Seeking greener pastures

In times when local grass was insufficient, men took the herds further afield. Abraham, Lot and Isaac moved about with very large herds. Commenting on the size of nomadic herds, Borowski states, “Herds can be very large, from 150,000 to 200,000 animals, and they are comprised of one species or are mixed.[5] The young nomadic women worked close to home.

Jacob: profile of a sheepherder

After working fourteen years for Laban as a sheepherder, Jacob established his own home and engaged in semi-nomadic herding. When necessary he moved his sheep away from home base to distant fields, camping out until bad weather brought herds and shepherds home.

Technically a shepherd is different than a sheepherder, although they share some of the same duties. Rachel was a shepherdess before she married Jacob who became a sheepherder. Jacob managed large flocks that belonged to others along with his own animals. He had the knowledge and experience to build and handle herds numbering many thousands of animals.

A sheepherder decided when to move the herds and found suitable grazing. He determined which animals to slaughter and sell. He strengthened the herd through careful breeding. He treated animal diseases, located lost sheep, and protected the flocks from wolves, hyenas, lions and bears. He disciplined subordinate shepherds and dealt with thieves.

Pros and cons of life as a shepherdess

Clearly the work of a shepherdess, though less extensive than that of a sheepherder, was important. It prepared her for marriage and independence from her family. It developed her sense of purpose and responsibility. It built her strength and health. It instilled the appreciation for quiet companionship… the sheepy kind, at least. However, Bible accounts indicate the lives of some shepherdesses also had a few downsides—mostly involving men.

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. And they came and drew water, and they filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock (Exodus 2:16-17).

I wonder how often Jethro’s daughters endured the scenario of laboriously filling the watering troughs from the well, pitcher-full by pitcher-full, only to have their flocks pushed aside by surly shepherds, too lazy to draw their own water. It must have been often because Jethro asked them why they were back home so soon.

An Egyptian delivered us from the hand of the shepherds, and he also drew enough water for us and watered the flock (Exodus 2:18-19).

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father's Herds

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Access to water was a source of contention (Genesis 26:12-33). Because of the scarcity of water, communal wells were often protected. When Jacob met Rachel at the well, he questioned why all the sheep were laying around rather than being watered. Rachel pointed to the great stone that covered the well.

We cannot [water the sheep] until all the flocks are gathered together, and they have rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, then we water the sheep…[so] Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother (Genesis 29:8-10).

Regular or occasional unmannerly treatment of young women at the wells, and the heavy stone barricades sealing off some of the water sources certainly presented major difficulties for the shepherdess.

A Awassi ram in Kuwait.

A Awassi ram in Kuwait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Part 2 to follow

As mentioned before, the Awassi sheep are excellent milk producers. In Part 2 we’ll note that Rebekah’s name relates to milking and consider what might have been done with the milk her sheep produced.—Mary Hendren

 

 

[1] Oded Borowski, Every Living Thing (1998), p. 45.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Her fat-tailed Awassi sheep were raised primarily for milk and meat. These hardy sheep were good grazers, but the quality of their wool is inferior by today’s standard. Awassi sheep are double-coated with only a thin layer of fleece under an outer coat of coarse hair. The wool of double-coated sheep is known as “carpet wool” in contrast to the fine wool of Merino sheep used in today’s expensive clothing. Happily, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Zipporah and other ladies who spun the Awassi fleece had nothing to compare it with. Their wool well spun and woven was fine wool.

[5] Borowski, p. 43.

Solomon’s Feminine Metaphor for Wisdom

When Solomon succeeded David as king of Israel, he asked God for wisdom to rule the nation. Solomon’s humility pleased God, and by God’s beneficent endowment his request was granted.

  And God said unto him, Because you have asked this thing [for wisdom] and have not asked for yourself long life; neither have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies; but have asked for yourself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to your words: I have given you a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like you before, neither after you shall any arise like you (I Kings 3:11-12).

Solomon’s stunning wisdom, stirred within him a “consuming passion” for knowledge, and “he became the literary prodigy of the world of his day.”[1] He is credited with composing three thousand proverbs (I Kings 4:32) and being the principal writer of the book of Proverbs.

Wisdom literature

Solomon wrote three of the five books of biblical wisdom literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. The authors of wisdom literature write about how life works: how to tell good from evil, how to know God, how to live harmoniously with others, how to choose a right path, and how to recover from mistakes, along with many other human interest topics.

In writing Proverbs, Solomon started with a purpose: “to know…to perceive…and to receive the instruction of wisdom” (1:2-3) in order to live righteously, securely and free from fear (1:33). He arranged his sayings in the form of guidance for his son. Was he thinking of his son Rehoboam at the time? Or did he intend a larger audience when he began? I don’t know. Either way, his theme of fatherly advice is appropriate for imparting wisdom.

One study Bible notes that “Proverbs is probably the most down-to-earth book in the Bible. Its education prepares you for the street and the marketplace… it offers the warm advice you get by growing up in a good family: practical guidance for successfully making your way in the world.”[2]

I do wonder about the commentator’s statement “it offers the warm advice you get by growing up in a good family.” In my mind, warm advice involves conversation, questions, give-and-take discussion, and that is not the style Solomon chose for Proverbs. Each generation is taxed with teaching proverbs as warm advice, contemporary and engaging.

Mother and three children, oil on wood, 38.5 x...Feminine Metaphor

In the first nine chapters of Proverbs, Solomon stressed the importance of his own words and that his son would do well to heed them (5:1). Then moving away from himself, Solomon personified Wisdom using the feminine pronouns “she” and “her.” He likened Wisdom to a feminine presence that existed from creation, a mysterious “woman” who possesses the qualities of care, concern, love, and benevolence, and who appears and disappears in the narrative—as it suited him.

Ancient Wisdom

Solomon pictured Wisdom as having lived from ancient times.

  The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth (8:22-23).

Solomon depicted Wisdom as having an interest in mankind since the time God populated the earth …rejoicing in His inhabited world, and my delight was with the sons of men (8:31).

Solomon represented Wisdom as worthy to heed: Now therefore, listen to me, my children, for blessed are those who keep my ways (8:32).

 Caring Wisdom

 Mom, you’ve got to come…I’m…

How many times have I been there for him? Have I gone when he was in trouble? He’s so edgy, with the wrong crowd, drifting, not hearing what I say. I’ve told him to break with those friends, but he hates to hear the truth. So brash and naïve, he’s ruining his life and doesn’t see the consequences. He thinks I’ll always be there to bail him out. Sometime I won’t be there…I’ll be gone…gone from him (1:20-33; 8:1-11).

I’ve greatly paraphrased Solomon’s picture of Wisdom’s concerned efforts for her children. Chapters 1 and 8 bring to my mind a mother watching, praying and waiting as her grown child moves further from her sphere of influence. Doesn’t every mother know there will be joy and sorrow when children leave home? Solomon portrays a particular, motherly grief when a child suffers from bad decisions.

 They would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies. For the turning away of the simple will slay them (1:30-32).

Most youthful missteps are not fatal, thankfully. Many sons and daughters, momentarily errant, eventually “see the light” and return to safe ground. This is so beautifully illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son. The father rejoiced when his son returned home, a humbler, wiser man.

Lady wisdom (2)

Lady wisdom (2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wisdom Rejoices

Like the prodigal’s elated father, Wisdom’s joy overflows when children turn to her.

I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently will find me…that I may cause those who love me to inherit wealth, that I may fill their treasuries (8:17, 21).

Solomon connected wisdom with generosity, abundance and riches (9:1-6). He portrayed Wisdom welcoming her child after a troublesome absence. She’s made everything ready—the fatted calf, fine wines and bread, important guests—and everyone gathers to celebrate the one who has chosen to “forsake foolishness and live” (9:6).

Reflections

After thinking about Proverbs 1:20-33 and 8:1-11, I wonder if Solomon taught his son in a one-on-one manner? Did he have a favored son or daughter that received his personal attention? As a royal father, did he make time sit down with them and explain how life works? If tutors educated the king’s children, and mothers imparted wisdom and integrity, it might explain why Solomon pictured the sadness and the joy of Wisdom as a woman.—Mary Hendren

 

[1] Halley’s Bible Handbook, Edition 23, p. 269

[2] The New Student Bible, NIV, Zondervan (1986), p. 568

 

 

Jael: Perplexing Participant in the Dark Side of History

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel (Photo credit: cod_gabriel)

When the tribes of Israel settled in Canaan, they failed to evict the resident peoples as God had commanded. This failure was a costly mistake. From then on Israel had to deal with the greatest danger posed by the culture of Canaan: idolatry. Inevitably, the religions of Canaan undermined the faith of Israel. In turning away from God, Israel suffered inescapable consequences: the Canaanites oppressed them, nations attacked them, and they fought one another.

Dangerous co-existence

In trying to co-exist with Canaanites, the people of Israel “led dangerous yet simple lives in which warlike pursuits alternated with ordinary peacetime activities.”[1] God sent judges to deliver Israel from their Canaanite enemies, but Israel never returned to God whole-heartedly. Regional judges were unable to unite the people under one authority, so the tribes functioned in a loose confederation. Lacking a central authority, tribes took matters into their own hands. People did what they wanted without the restraining influence of God’s laws (Judges 21:25).

When Deborah ruled in northern Israel, God sent word for Barak to lead an attack on the army of King Jabin and General Sisera. For twenty years Jabin’s kingdom “had harshly oppressed the children of Israel” (Judges 4:3, 6). Because Barak was reluctant to lead the Israelite forces, Deborah prophesied “there will be no glory for you…for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).

Intervention

From the outset God said He would win the battle. Working through Israel’s forces with the addition of powerful weather, God defeated the Canaanites. Not a man was left in Jabin’s army–except General Sisera. He fled to the tent of Jael, a woman who lived peaceably with the Canaanites. Jael agreed to hide Sisera, and in her tent he slept, exhausted.

 Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him (Sisera) and drove the peg into his temple, and it went down into the ground; for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died (Judges 4:21).

 

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Victor or Villain?

Somewhere in the story Jael switched alliances and “refused to remain neutral in this crucial conflict.”[2] As a tough, pragmatic Bedouin wife, she sided with Israel. As an ally of Israel, the general was her enemy because he was Israel’s enemy. In a lengthy poem describing the battle (Judges 5:24-27), Deborah praised Jael as most blessed among women for striking the blow that killed Sisera.

Not everyone agrees that she should be remembered with honor. Author Herbert Lockyer severely criticizes Jael with the words murder, revolting cruelty, treachery, foul, reprehensible, executioner. He states, “lacking courage, she dare not attack Sisera fairly.”[3] He adds, “Had Sisera attempted to rape Jael, and in defense of her honor she had killed him, that would have been another matter, but to kill him as an assassin kills a victim was something different.”[4] His most troubling phrase suggests condemnation: “she remains forever censurable for the cruel way she killed Sisera.?[5]

In the book Women of the Bible, Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda take a light approach in discussing Jael. They avoid the details of Sisera’s death and emphasize that Jael was decisive, courageous, and she seized the opportunity to slay an enemy of God’s people.[6] The authors focus on Jael’s strong qualities that women can apply today. Women learn from Jael’s decisive courage to stand up against their enemies. Courageous women need to stay close to God “in the midst of the fray.”[7]

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary discusses Jael in the setting of despair and disorder that characterized the times. “Between the days of Joshua and Samuel, Israel plummeted to moral and spiritual disaster.”[8] When the tribes came together to fight a common enemy, they believed that their enemy was God’s enemy. “Wicked, murdering leaders deserved to die” [9] and killing them was a way to glorify God.

Becoming a cautious observer of history

That God allowed Jael to kill the general is undeniable. Some Bible commentators question whether He approved of the way she did it? Did He favor, like, support, agree, accept, commend, esteem, endorse, back up, sanction what she did?It’s a bigger question than a tent peg execution. Hers was not the most horrific event that occurred in the time of the Judges.

Whether God approved of the way Sisera was killed, I wouldn’t want to comment. Can the word approve be applied to anything that is unlike God? At times God accomplishes His purposes through sinful humankind.

Readers may differ on how to think about the story, but scholars agree that the three centuries under the Judges was a dark time in history. Deborah, Barak and Jael figured in one of God’s merciful interventions in Israel’s past. Reading their stories reminds me to be a cautious observer of history.—Mary Hendren

 ***

( For more information concerning this time period see the dark period of the Judges.)

 ***

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 376

[2] Same source, p. 415

[3] Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible, p. 71

[4] Same source and page

[5] Same source and page

[6] Spangler and Syswerda, Women of the Bible, p. 115

[7] Same source, p. 121

[8] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 376

[9] Same source, p. 380

 

 

 

The Story of Ruth: The Kinsman Redeemer

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now Boaz, whose young women you were with, is he not our relative? In fact, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. Then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down; and he will tell you what you should do.” (Ruth 3:1-4)

Naomi knew it was just a matter of time. Once the harvest was over, their livelihood would again be in jeopardy unless…unless a kinsman redeemer[1] would step in and come to their rescue. Boaz, though not the nearest relative, would be their first resort. After all, he already knew Ruth and had shown a concern for her welfare as well as, by extension, Naomi’s own. The time had come for a bold plan.

At the threshing floor

English: Threshing place. The circle is made f...

English: Threshing place. The circle is made from concrete. Harvested straw is put on the concrete surface and a donkey is made to walk on it in circles, which causes the process of threshing. On the left (front of the picture) visible leftovers (mostly tailings and chaff). Around the perimeter there is some threshed straw. On the floor there are some threshed grains. Photo taken near Vlyhada (Santorini, Greece). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Boaz worked alongside his hired men at the threshing floor—a cleared solid surface of hard-packed dirt or rock—preparing for the final stage of the weeks-long harvest.[2] Ruth watched as this kind kinsman, or was it one of his workers, expertly urged draft animals, whether oxen or donkeys is unclear, to drag heavy threshing sledges[3] back and forth over the sheaves, breaking down the stalks into husks, straw, and grain kernels. Then experienced hands wielding wooden pitchforks lifted the straw away so the process of winnowing could begin.

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan (Photo credit: Hadi Zaher)

In the cooling evening breezes, waiting crews used winnowing forks, tossing the remaining grain into the air. Mesmerized, Ruth watched lighter stalks and husks (the chaff) be whisked away on capricious currents of wind, and the heavier kernels plummet back to the floor in a haphazard heap. Then mounds of the tawny pellets were scooped up and sifted through trays to remove any remaining dirt and debris. The clean grain was finally ready for immediate use or storage in sealed clay jars.

As the last rays of sunlight grew dusky, weary workers allowed themselves to relax, enjoying food and drink, celebrating harvest’s end. Bellies full and hearts merry, first one and then another fell silent, except for an occasional grunt and snore. Ruth’s gaze followed Boaz through the dimness as he made his way to the end of a grain pile, spread his blanket, and quickly dropped off to sleep.

Naomi’s instructions had been quite clear: Wash yourself, put on your best garment, go back to the threshing floor, and wait for the moment of opportunity. That time had come. Ruth quietly made her way to where Boaz lay, uncovered his feet, and lay down.

The Kinsman-Redeemer

Naomi’s strategy was one of enlisting the involvement of the kinsman-redeemer.[4] Now Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet, anticipating the opportunity to bring Naomi’s plan to fruition. His sleep suddenly troubled, she watched him awake with a start sensing her presence in the darkness. “Who are you?” he challenged warily. Ruth responded with her request. “I am you servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me,[5] since you are a kinsman-redeemer” (3:9 NIV).

Flattered by Ruth’s request, Boaz commended her for approaching him, since it is likely that he was considerably older than she, and she might well have chosen a younger man. Rather than interpreting her actions as wily and improper, he afforded her only kindness and respect.[6] He encouraged her to wait until morning for the sake of her reputation and for her own protection. Before first light she could safely return to Naomi, and none would be the wiser. Then he would attend to the business at hand.

Following the rules

Boaz knew there was a kinsman closer than he, and his integrity dictated that he go to him first before proceeding any further. By rights, this relative (who, though unnamed in the Bible, was obviously known to Boaz) could redeem Elimelech’s land either by buying it back, if it had indeed already been sold, or he could buy it outright.

Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz had spoken came by. So Boaz said, “Come aside, friend,[7] sit down here.” So he came aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. Then he said to the close relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, sold the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. And I thought to inform you, saying, Buy it back in the presence of the inhabitants and the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am next after you.'”

And he said, “I will redeem it.”

What happened next affords a certain opportunity for speculation. Was Boaz disappointed when the near kinsman quickly accepted the responsibility? He obviously had more than a casual interest in Ruth and her welfare. Or had he anticipated just such a response, and, as the astute business man he undoubtedly was (Scripture describes him as a mighty man of wealth), knew just when to bring up an additional requirement to put the negotiations in jeopardy? Note the various translations of verse 5 below:

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also buy it from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance” (NKJV).

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property” (NIV).

Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (NRSV).

Boaz had just introduced the obligation of a levirate marriage, and the kinsman, recognizing the inherent liabilities that such an arrangement could impose on his own family, quickly forfeited his right of redemption to Boaz.[8] So, in the presence of ten official witnesses and many onlookers, Mr. So and So removed his sandal, thereby signaling the transfer of the property. A communal blessing followed:

And all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the LORD will give you from this young woman” (vv. 11-12).

The rest of the story of Ruth

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi.” And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David” (vv. 13-17). 

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over p...

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over pencil on paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Summary

The book of Ruth, in its four short chapters, gives one of the few detailed glimpses into the everyday lives of Old Testament characters in the Bible, and in particular, women. The reader is exposed to the nuances of the desperate plight of three widows, two of whom found themselves displaced and in foreign lands; and marvels at their courageous efforts to survive by hard work and ingenuity. The reader senses the depth of the bond of devotion to both kin and God, and the bitter anguish of loss. The reader observes the realities and rigors of harvest and manual labor; and sits as one of the collective witnesses to the legal proceedings involving rights of inheritance and preservation of a family line. Lastly, the perceptive reader will recognize and value this book as a beautiful exemplar of kindness, the evidence of which is found on every page.

What a gift to have The Book of Ruth preserved in the pages of the Bible!

 ***

For additional reading please view Mary Hendren’s post,  Levirate Law– in Confusion.

The Writings

***

[1] A Ga’al (Strong’s 1350), or kinsman redeemer, could act in several ways. By definition according to http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/gaal.html , the kinsman redeemer could marry a brother’s widow to beget a child for him (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), redeem from slavery (Leviticus 25:47-49), redeem land (Leviticus 25:25), or exact vengeance (Numbers 35:19). In the book of Ruth, Boaz acted as a levir as well as one who preserved claim to the family property.

[2] It is possible that Boaz, and /or others, were overseeing the process. The Archaeological Study Bible, in its cultural and historical note on “The Threshing Floor” (page 608), comments that because the threshing floor was the largest open area within a village,“town elders were typically present to oversee the threshing of the year’s crops.” The threshing floor was also a suitable locale for “legal actions, criminal trials, and public decisions.” The city gate was also used for such proceedings as will later be seen.

[3] Sledges were heavy wooden slabs with teeth made of stone, metal or potsherds fastened to the underside. See Isaiah’s vivid description of the whole process in chapter 41, verses 14-16.

[4] Whether this was simply to assure that Elimelech’s landholdings would be preserved within family lines, or to ensure there would be a son to carry on the family name, or both, are topics for on-going discussion. Leon Wood, in his book, The Distressing Days of the Judges (1982), addresses both: “When an owner was forced to sell property due to poverty, it was the obligation of the nearest relative to buy this property back (thus ‘redeeming’ it), so that it could remain in the possession of the original family” (p. 261). Wood goes on to comment that “it was the obligation of the nearest kinsman, in this instance, not only to purchase the property of Naomi—which really also belonged to Ruth, because of inheritance rights through her dead husband Mahlon—but also to marry Ruth and raise up a son to Mahlon who might then inherit that property in due time” (p. 262).

[5] Scholars do not agree as to the meaning and symbolism associated with this action. Some feel it amounted to a request for protection, while others interpret it as a request for marriage. For a detailed examination of challenges present in the wording of the Hebrew text see

http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/08-ruth/texts/books/leggett-goelruth/leggett-goelruth.pdf, pp. 192-3.

[6] Some have chosen to attribute to both Ruth and Boaz activities or motives of a sexual nature, but others, such as The Expositor’s Bible Commentary in its note regarding Ruth 3:13, write to the contrary: “Both Ruth and Boaz acted virtuously in a situation they knew could have turned out otherwise. Chastity was not an unknown virtue in the ancient world.”

[7] The word friend (NKJV) and kinsman (KJV) in this verse is taken from a Hebrew idiom best translated “Mr. So and So.” It is translated as such in the Tanakh. This idiom is said to have been used when it was not deemed essential to use the person’s actual name. Some think they detect a certain disdain attached to its usage here, since the relative declined to step in to help. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Ruth 4:1-3.

[8] Expositors comments concerning 4:6:”Most scholars interpret the kinsman’s refusal as an awareness that he would be paying part of what should be his own children’s inheritance to buy land that would revert to Ruth’s son as a legal heir of Elimelech.” Others posit he was reluctant to intermarry with a Moabite woman (cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-4).

Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament comments on verse 6: “The redemption would cost money, since the yearly produce of the field would have to be paid for up to the year of jubilee. Now, if he acquired the field by redemption as his own permanent property, he would have increased by so much his own possessions in land. But if he should marry Ruth, the field so redeemed would belong to the son whom he would beget through her, and he would therefore have parted with the money that he had paid for the redemption merely for the son of Ruth, so that he would have withdrawn a certain amount of capital from his own possession, and to that extent have detracted from its worth. ‘Redeem thou for thyself my redemption,’ i.e., the field which I have the first right to redeem.”(Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1996 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.)

 

The Story of Ruth: New Beginnings

But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever 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. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Coming home

The small town of Bethlehem was abuzz—Naomi was back after more than ten years! But where was Elimelech? And Mahlon and Chilion? Who was the young foreigner walking beside her? Why did Naomi look so sad?

From the time she entered the gate[1] undoubtedly town elders and townspeople alike plied Naomi with questions. One can only imagine what went through Ruth’s mind, as she, too, encountered first one person and then another, aware of scrutinizing, and sometimes suspicious, eyes. While Israel was enjoying a period of detente with Moab, Ruth was most likely aware of the checkered relationship of their shared past[2] and all that entailed. Now, unfaltering in her pledge of undying devotion to Naomi, she was more resolved than ever to make a new life for herself—Moab, along with its gods and culture, was going to become a thing of the past.

She listened as her mother-in-law told and retold the pitiful story of her plight, lamenting, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me” (vv 20-21)? For reasons unstated in scripture, she believed her misfortunes were somehow punishments from her LORD. For that, Ruth could offer no solace.

New beginnings

The rules of hospitality[3] ensured that the two weary women had a place to stay at least temporarily until permanent arrangements could be made, so they probably found lodging with some of Naomi’s relatives or friends. It is assumed, though, that she quickly returned to her husband’s property, possibly a house that had been rented in the family’s absence or guarded by relatives who remained in the land. At least they would have shelter. Their means of support and sustenance was quite another matter.

They had arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth soon learned that Israel had provisions in place to care for the poor including widows, orphans and foreigners: the right to follow behind the reapers and glean the fields. It was hard work for all concerned, and for gleaners it likely represented a tenuous hold on survival. “Since prudent workers worked carefully, the gleaning of the fallen grain was mere subsistence living, much like trying to eke out survival today by recycling aluminum cans” (The Book of Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard, 1988, Google Books, p. 138). She wasted no time in gaining permission to work one of the fields, the owner of which, she learned, was a man named Boaz.

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: ...

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: Руфь и Вооз (Руфь 2:2-20) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A day’s work

 At first light Ruth watched as reapers, men who were either hired laborers or slaves, established a time-worn rhythm, grasping the mature stalks with one hand, and using a sickle to cut off the grain with the other. When an armload of ear-laden stalks became unmanageable, the reaper laid them in rows by standing stalls where women waited to tie them into bundles eventually to be transported to the threshing floor. There threshers separated the grain from the chaff, and sealed it in jars for later use.

Ruth swiftly moved in behind the laborers, scooping up the precious grist as it fell, and before other gleaners, or avaricious birds could claim the prize. It was backbreaking work, and she did it willingly. Naomi was depending on her. What she did not know is that someone was observing her with keen interest.

  ***

 “Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers,‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered him,‘The LORD bless you!’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers,‘Whose young woman is this?’ So the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered and said, ‘It is the young Moabite woman who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ So she came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house” (Ruth 2:4-7).  

A man views his fields

Boaz[4] had come from Bethlehem to oversee his fields, already alive with harvest activity. He saw the usual familiar crews, but one stranger stood out among them—according to his foreman, she was Ruth, a Moabitess, the widow of Naomi’s son, Mahlon. Curious, he studied her as she swiftly cleaned between the rows, back and forth in the warm springtime sun. He had already heard of her widowhood, and her devotion to Naomi—it was the talk of Bethlehem. Now, seeing her in person, something about Ruth touched him, and he ordered his crew to see to it that she had plenty to glean by purposely dropping stalks along her way.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while Boaz sent for her; she came obediently, bowing her face to the ground, struck by the fact that he would take the time to speak to her, a lowly reaper, and a foreign woman at that. After his assurances for her safety, Ruth found herself invited to share the noon meal with the reapers under the shade of a make-shift shelter. She watched as the laborers deftly roasted ears of freshly harvested barley over a ready fire. Boaz himself quickly removed charred husks, and passed parched kernels to Ruth to eat her fill.[5] She must have marveled at his kindness—a man of such wealth and stature.

Ruth gleaned until evening, and had still more work to do—separating the grain from the chaff. By the time she finally returned to Naomi, she had enough barley to last them for several weeks.[6] Her mother-in-law was amazed, and upon further inquiry, learned that Ruth was gleaning in the field of a near kinsman of her husband’s.

Though Boaz’s benevolence continued to meet the widows’ short-term needs, Naomi knew it simply forestalled the inevitable. Unless something was done to ensure their future survival, very difficult times lay ahead. What they needed was a plan.

To be continued….

[1] Obed Borowski, Daily Life in Bible Times, p. 21: “In settlements with no inns, local people were expected to invite out-of-towners into their homes. To be invited, out-of-towners would sit in the street or town square …and wait for an invitation by one of the locals (Judges 19:13). This was done probably by the entrance to the village, where people used to pass (Ruth 4:1)….Houses were so close to each other that people could tell when guests were visiting (v22). Further, the village population was small enough that the arrival of an outsider was noticed and quickly broadcast (Ruth 2:11).”

[2] See Numbers 22 and 25, and Deuteronomy 23:3-6 for the historical backdrop.

[3] The Woman’s Study Bible, Topic, “Hospitality: The Gift of Welcome,” p. 2071, comments, “For the people of the Bible, hospitality was not merely a matter of good manners but a necessity in the harsh desert regions. Hospitality was openly rewarded…(Joshua 2:12-14). Lack of hospitality was punished…(1 Samuel 25:2-39).”

See other posts relating to hospitality on this blog: http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/27/a-point-of-focus/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/hospitalityor-else-abigails-dilemma/;

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/29/the-hospitality-of-two-widows/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/pattern-for-hospitality-in-the-old-testament/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2013/07/21/a-hospitality-of-believers/

[4] Watching her was Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, probably a widower or perhaps one who never married—the Bible doesn’t say. There is no record of any children prior to his marriage to Ruth. Chances are he was older than Ruth—perhaps even by quite a bit—and the record indicates that he was successful—“a mighty man of wealth” of Elimelech’s clan (Ruth 2:1 KJV), making him related to Naomi by marriage.

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, comment on Ruth 2:14.

[6] Expositor’s estimates her gleanings measured about an ephah of barley—approximately one-half to two-thirds of a bushel, estimated to be from 29 to 50 pounds. (See comment on verse 17.)

 

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The Story of Ruth: Choices

Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband (Ruth 1:3-5).

Naomi had arrived in Moab never suspecting the twists and turns her life would take during the next ten years. Now she found herself robbed of the emotional and physical support of not only her husband, but her two sons as well. In her homeland this would have been difficult enough, but finding herself bereft in a foreign land left her vulnerable, facing a uncertain future. It was only natural that she should think of home—Bethlehem in Judah.

She was not entirely alone—her daughters-in-law were quite devoted to her, and she still had her God, although Naomi agonized that perhaps she had fallen from His favor in light of her sad circumstances. Ruth and Orpah were well aware of her dedication to Israel’s God, as they must have seen it demonstrated numerous times over their years together as a family.

Weighing her options

By her own admission, Naomi was past the time of child-bearing. She knew that chances of remarriage, especially in Moab (and likely in her country as well), had she been so inclined, were virtually non-existent. If she went back to Judah, her husband had extended family there, so potentially she could have emotional support and even, perhaps, some rights of inheritance; she would be back in the land of her God; and if worse came to worse, there were provisions in Israel’s law to take care of widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:19-21).

Decisions. How to close down her home, and arrange for travel. Then there was the matter of Ruth and Orpah, both of whom felt a responsibility for her welfare, and she, for theirs. What should she do? What should they do?

A parting of the ways

News from home gave her the answer. By God’s grace, the famine had finally ended, and there was no real reason to remain in Moab. Informing Orpah and Ruth of her decision was no doubt emotional, but still they insisted on going with her. And so it was that the three widows found themselves on the road to Bethlehem, embarking on a journey not only fraught with potential dangers from roving bandits and miscreants along the way, but one which also posed many unknowns concerning what lay ahead.

That, however, is not what troubled Naomi most. She was quite concerned for the futures of her daughters-in-law. They would be foreigners in Judah, widows without any means of support or probable prospects for marriage—the plight she herself was fleeing.

She pleaded with them, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. The Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband…” (1:8-9).

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to t...

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She kissed them and wept.

They cried in protest.

She reasoned, “Turn back…are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?”

Naomi cherished them both—they were like her very own daughters (1:11-13). They loved her in return, each in her own way.

Eventually a tearful Orpah[1] conceded, kissed Naomi one last time, and  returned to the sanctuary of her parents’ home.

Ruth, however, was another matter.

To be continued….

[1] Orpah, Chilion’s wife, is only mentioned in a few verses in Ruth 1, and then she disappears from the pages of the Bible. People have tried to “flesh” her out, but there is little to go on. The Woman’s Study Bible, in its Topic titled “Orpah, the Daughter-in-Law with a Wavering Faith,” says her name has several meanings: fawn, double-minded, nape of the neck (interpreted to indicate stubbornness or being self-willed). Hence, to some, her actions reflected the negatives attached to her name—she left Naomi for entirely selfish reasons. Even the title of the Topic on Orpah presents a definite bias with regard to her actions. However, as mentioned in the introductory post on The Story of Ruth, depending on names and their meanings is quite subjective.

Some draw attention to the statement that Orpah kissed Naomi, whereas Ruth clung to her, inferring a difference of the depth of attachment. The manner in which Orpah returned is in itself viewed subjectively: She was either obediently complying with Naomi’s urging, or she was selfishly looking out for her own future, as well as returning to the religion of her people.

Since there is no definitive statement as to her motive, people continue to construct arguments supporting their particular interpretation.

 

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