The term mother has always been in flux and is always being redefined
Occasion: Mother’s Day 2017
Text: Ruth 4:13-22
Topic: Redefining Motherhood
The book of Ruth ends with a scene which seems familiar and typical. Like any grandmother, Naomi picks up her grandchild, while her friends make a fuzz. However, there is much more to this scene than meets the eye. Naomi puts the child ceremoniously onto her lap. This was a ritual to indicate that she adopted the baby as her own, as if she had given birth to it herself. The response of the women of the neighbourhood is also telling. They say,
“A son has been born to Naomi!”
“congratulations with your grandchild.”
The book ends with the classic scene of the mother and child.
This, of course, does not fit in with the standard dictionary definition of a mother: a female who gave birth to an infant. What happens here redefines motherhood. It extends its boundaries. It forces us to develop a new perspective on all the issues surrounding motherhood.
For Naomi is not the biological mother of little Obed; neither is he from her direct bloodline. To be honest, his biological bloodline was not regarded as very kosher. Obed’s natural mother was Ruth, a Moabite woman. The Israelites had their own Mixed Marriages act. According to Deuteronomy 7:3-4, they were not allowed to intermarry with them. Then there was the biological father, Boaz. He was much older than Ruth—so old in fact that, before he got interested in her, he called her “My daughter!”
He was only remotely related to Naomi, something like her uncle’s second wife’s niece’s, sister in law’s, half-brother. According to at least one tradition, found in Matthew 1:5, his mother was Rahab, the prostitute. This makes the adoption of their son by Naomi something extraordinary, a story about the redefinition of motherhood and family.
To really understand what is happening here, we have to look at the larger picture. Although the book is called Ruth, the story is more about her mother in law. It starts with a famine in a small town in Israel, ironically called Bethlehem, or “House of Bread.” Naomi her husband, and two sons, leave their country for Moab, to seek bread, to search for life. She is a refugee mother. In Moab her two sons marry two local women. In stead of finding new life, Naomi finds only death, her husband and her sons die. To make matters worse, the two sons were childless.
At that time, for a woman to be widowed without children, was a fate worse than death. This is why Naomi changed her name to Mara, meaning, bitter. A woman could not own or inherit property. For this reason, the so-called levirate marriage, or remarrying within the family, was instituted. A childless widow had to marry her husband’s closest relative in order to produce an heir for her husband. Should she be past child-bearing age, like Naomi, begging was the only way to survive. Leviticus 23:22 made provision for such widows. They had the right, during harvest time, to pick up ears of grain behind the reapers. It was called, ‘gleaning’. Nonetheless, they always had to be on the lookout, for they were easy prey for molesters. When Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, she prudently advised Ruth to stay behind with her family, for life would not be easy for these two childless women. But Ruth decided to follow her to Judah.
So it happened that the two widows arrived back in Bethlehem. It was not long before Ruth chose the fields of a wealthy, elderly single relative of Naomi, to glean. Boaz, for this was his name, notices her very soon and asks the foreman in charge of the reapers,
“To whom does this young woman belong?” (2:5).
When he learns about her circumstances, he feels pity for her, and treats her with respect and compassion. He orders his servants not to molest her. He made sure that she could glean enough for both herself and her mother in law. The relationship does not develop any further.
At the end of the harvest, during the harvest festival, the really fascinating part of the story kicks in. Fempower takes over. Men: you don’t stand a chance!
Naomi gives Ruth the following advice:
- She has to take a bath containing oils and fragrances.
- Then she has to perfume herself and
- dress up in her best party clothes, the clothes one would wear to a harvest festival.
- She had to wait for Boaz to finish his meal, to drink his wine, and go to sleep. Then she had to uncover his feet and lie down there. “Feet” here is an euphemism like elsewhere in the Bible. I leave it to your imagination.
- Boaz will then tell Ruth what to do.
Ruth did exactly as she was told. Boaz awakens because of the activity around his “feet.” Startled, he questions her identity. Ruth says in her alluring foreigh accent, “I am Ruth, your servant…Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”
This spreading of the cloak is again an euphemism. Again, I leave it to your imagination.
The Bible does not tell us exactly what happened that night. The only information we can glean is that the body of this young widow felt good next to Boaz—so good in fact that he asks her to cuddle up until the morning. What we do know, is that he is now a changed man. Immediately he negotiates with the officials of the town to gain permission to marry Ruth. Finally it is granted. What they did or didn’t do is now legal.
Naomi and Ruth changed the tables on the system: it was Naomi who decided whom Ruth should marry, (as the proverb goes, better to be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave). And it was Ruth who chased Boaz, until he caught her. It was she who made the marriage proposal. Ruth risked her future and reputation. This resembles what the theologian, Paul Tillich called, the courage to be, the audacity to forge your own destiny amidst oppressive social structures.
Yes, they did get married, and Ruth bore a child, Obed, which she gave to Naomi as son and provider and heir. And so the harlot and the holy, the outsider and the insider, the blue collar and the white collar come together as the family of God. Naomi became mother again, not only of Obed, but she also appears as a maternal ancestor of King David, and, yes, Jesus.
My dictionary has an extended definition of a mother as “Someone who watches over, who nourishes, who protect, who nurtures.”
This is what Naomi’s story is all about. A few years ago, I was asked to baptise the child of a female couple. One of their male gay friends supplied the necessaries for an artificial insemination. It was done on the understanding that later they would do the same for the male gay couple—that is carry a child for them. They did it. Isn’t this exactly what Ruth did? Motherhood is redefined.
In Mark 3 that famous son of Naomi and Ruth, Jesus, asked the following question:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” He supplied the answer himself “34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
In a sense then, as we grow in love for this whole troubled world, we all are mothers. This is why we reach out to all types of mothers: refugee mothers, stand-in mothers, spiritual mothers, single mothers, struggling mothers, or grieving mothers.
Jesus calls us to understand that all humankind are our children even as we are their children and as they also are ours.