Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?
And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor.
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking.
And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.
And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do.

Image result for ruth and boaz

 

Boaz of Bethlehem:  Attorney at Law

 

 

 

By its own terms, the Book of Ruth is historical.

 

The story of Ruth is about a few common people who lived in Israel during the period of the Judges, more than a thousand years before Christ.  They were common people, but not just any common people, for, as the writer tells us, they had the uncommon destiny of becoming the great-grandparents of King David and, accordingly, ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So the story of Ruth, by its own terms, is history; and account of real events that happened to real people.  But it reads like fiction – like the very best fiction.  That is to say that it is neither polemic nor explicitly didactic.  Rather, it is presented as a story that unfolds, scene by scene with a plot and character development.  We feel for the characters; we don’t see what’s coming; and we revel in the happy ending.

One of the most poignant of the scenes in this story takes place on the floor of Boaz’s threshing room.  You’ll recall that Boaz was a farmer, but not a “dirt farmer.”  He wasn’t eking out a living on a few acres with a few hogs and cows.  He was, as the King James so eloquently puts it, “a mighty man of wealth.”   I compare him to a couple of Jane Austen heroes – Messrs. Darcy and Knightly – both of whom were men of “wealth and influence” and gentlemen farmers.

Early in the story, Ruth, who is without status or income, humbles herself to take on the heavy, sweaty, labor of gleaning in Boaz’s field.  Gleaning was a task reserved for the poorest of the poor, as a kind of social welfare system, and the work was long and hard and the expectations meager.

But our heroine has the good fortune to catch Boaz’s eye on the first day in the field.  Boaz’s interest in Ruth is obvious from the very start and he soon makes his approbation known in his instructions to his own workers.  Ruth is to be unmolested in his field, and she is to be immediately given easier work and greater reward.

Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law.  Her affection for Ruth is genuine and she, being a native Israelite, is familiar with the laws and customs that affect her destiny.  Thus, when the time is ripe – and Naomi is the one who knows when that time is – she sends Ruth down to Boaz’s threshing room to, ahem, as the King James so politely puts it, seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee.

All that is true, to be sure, for if Ruth accomplishes what Naomi had in mind, then she will have rest, in the sense of security, and things will, indeed, be well with her.  But what Naomi has in mind is – dare I say the word – a kind of seduction.  What Naomi wishes for Ruth is that Boaz will marry her.  How great would that be:  Going from a penniless gleaner in the dusty field to the wife of a man of wealth and consequence?  Pretty good catch, Boaz was.

It is probably fair to say that Naomi’s scheme was in every respect a legitimate one.  The story makes it very clear that there would have been nothing wrong with Boaz marrying Ruth and that, in fact, he might have had something of a legal obligation to do so.  And nobody would be hurt.  Boaz has not hidden his affection for Ruth, and there is no evidence in the story that she would displace others in marrying him.

So it was a legitimate scheme, but it was a scheme!  The text itself tells us that Naomi told Ruth to bathe herself and put on her finest perfume and raiment.   How quaint.  Might we say that this was the tenth-century BC version of what twentieth-century AD songwriters have expressed in these lines:

Put on your red dress baby . . .

And:

Wearin’ her pearls and her diamond rings

Got bracelets on her fingers now and everything

Oh, my, my, she looks so fine

Wearin’ her perfume, Chanel number five

 

Naomi is also careful to tell Ruth not to let herself be seen Boaz until he has had his fill of drink.

One is tempted here to another comparison to a Jane Austen novel.  One thinks of Mrs. Bennet and her efforts to get her own daughters married off to rich men.  You see, it is clear from our story – as was clear in Pride and Prejudice – the mother’s (or mother-in-law’s) personal interest is tied up with the interest of the younger girl in getting a rich husband.  In both cases, the older woman will enjoy the security of the rich man’s estate and avoid the miserable prospect of a penurious old age.

All is fair in love and war, and if we read the story to say that Naomi intended that Ruth would seduce Boaz there and then on the threshing-room floor (this conclusion does not call for any stretch of the imagination, really), well then, we might say, so be it.  Boaz was a grown man; he loved Ruth; and their marriage would have, as Mr. Collins wrongly supposed about his own proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, “suited everyone.”

And it is just here that we get to the point of today’s lesson.  Although Boaz obviously welcomed the prospect of marriage to Ruth, he had a cooler head than Naomi or anyone else might have imagined.  Thus, when Boaz is awakened to find the dolled-up girl of his dreams beside him in bed, he does not do “what comes naturally.”   Not only is Boaz awake, he is aware of all of the interests that might be affected by his actions and he curbs himself and immediately embarks on a course to make everything come out right.  Sounds rather Darcy-esque, don’t you think?

We may start our analysis of Boaz here by saying that Boaz had exercised the virtue of temperance.  He had taken a drink or two that evening, but he obviously was not drunk.  Lot was drunk before he had sex with his daughters and Jacob was so drunk on his wedding night that he didn’t realize he was sleeping with big sis Leah and not his beloved Rachel.

But Boaz is not overcome with drink; he keeps his head in the middle of these most seductive circumstances.  He is wise enough to know what everyone is up to.  He knows Naomi; knows her interest in this economic matrix, and he knows how the legal landscape lies, too.   You see, the one bit of wealth that Ruth retained an interest in was a plot of land that had belonged to her late father-in-law, Elimelech.   Boaz knew that and he also knew that there was another relative of his who had first dibs on that plot of land.  But with the land came Ruth.

Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, but if he had acted there on the spot it would have been, as they say in the movies, “complicated.”    The man with the prior claim on Elimelech’s land would have been given an out.  He might have argued – probably successfully – that by virtue of what had happened on the threshing-room floor, Ruth was married to Boaz, but nonetheless, by operation of law, he would have retained the right of first refusal for the plot of land.  Thus, the other kinsman might have bought the property, thereby separating the ancestral estate from Ruth and Naomi.  Although Boaz was a wealthy man, he knew such a separation would not be in Ruth’s best interest.  So, with cooled heels and a cool head, he took the matter to court.

I am a lawyer.  I spent a near forty-year career trying criminal cases, mostly in federal court.  And I have to say that when I read the account of Boaz’s practice and procedure here I smile with admiration and approval.  We don’t know everything Boaz knew at the time.  We don’t know anything about this other kinsman who had the right of first refusal on the land purchase.   For all we know, he may have been a real snake.  But we can be sure that Boaz knew, for he played the other party like a violin.  The writer is very careful to detail just how things went down in that legal proceeding.  Boaz gave the good side of the story first – hey, buddy, here’s a nice piece of real estate that you have the right to add to your portfolio . . .

The kinsman bites on that offer, but then comes the catch: there are strings attached.  You see, if you buy the land, you have to take Ruth along with it.  That means marriage and children and the diminution of your present estate that will pass to your present family.  This would not play well at the dinner table at home, so the kinsman passes on the land and Boaz, accordingly, gets exactly what he wants: what is rightly Ruth’s will stay with her and all will, as they say “live happily ever after.”

But if Boaz would have done the deed there on the threshing-room floor, he would have had, as we say in the business, “Brady material,” as he began the legal proceeding at the city gates.  That is, he would have been in the possession of information damaging to his own case that he would have been under an ethical duty to disclose to the other party.

If he had already been married to Ruth – and we are to assume that if Boaz had taken advantage of the situation that had been served up to him the night before, that would have consummated a legal marriage – Boaz would have been under a duty to disclose to the other party that the land could be his without the obligation of taking Ruth on, since Ruth would have been, as they say, already spoken for.

What is so beautiful about this from a lawyer’s point of view is that it is completely clean.  Boaz doesn’t hide anything that the other party has a right to know.  Sure, if that other guy had known that Boaz was sweet on Ruth he might have driven a harder bargain.  Might even have extorted the land away from Boaz by offering to let Ruth go and marry him.

But on the day of the proceeding, there was no legal relationship between Ruth and Boaz.  Thus, there was no legally-established fact to be disclosed.  What foresight!

Thus, Boaz is a man not only of temperance, wealth and consequence, he is a man of prudence!

Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

 

 

Hey, summer comes along and you switch gears and – in accordance with much protestant tradition – head for the Old Testament to slow things down a bit for the vacation season.  I’ve gone straight for the Book of Ruth.  I am perhaps more of a literary type than lots of Baptist Sunday School teachers.  I am a sucker for Jane Austen and I always keep one of her novels on my nightstand to dip into as I fade off into sleep mode.

You would think that after the first few ( twenty?) times through a Jane Austen novel the reading would be all relaxation and pleasure.  You know – all the real meat of the story already long understood and digested.  No surprises left.

But that’s not my experience.   To steal a phrase from John Sebastian, “the more I see, the more I see there is to see.” In just the last few evenings I’ve been reading middle chapters in Emma.  Chapters where Emma is infatuated with Frank Churchill and is weighing his every word and action as she considers whether she’s in love with him or not.  About this same time, Emma is working to bring poor old Harriet Smith back to her right mind after her ill-fated romantic attachment to the perfidious Mr. Elton.

Austen gives the reader all kinds of clues as she goes along about what’s really going on in Frank Churchill’s mind as he dallies with Emma; clues I missed in the first (and second and on and on) readings.  This book is psychologically dense and sophisticated.

But it is also shot through with standards.  You know – those things that nobody seems to agree about today and that the righteous marchers are now claiming are the remnants of patriarchal oppression, etc.

Here is what Emma finally tells her little friend Harriet to encourage her to stop moping and pining for the lost Mr. Elton who has gone his way and married another (monied) woman:

I have not said, exert yourself Harriet for my sake; think less, talk less of Mr. Elton for my sake; because for your own sake rather, I would wish it to be done, for the sake of what is more important than my comfort, a habit of self-command in you, a consideration of what is your duty, an attention to propriety, an endeavor to avoid the suspicions of others, to save your health and credit, and restore your tranquility.

Oh, yeah.  All of that stuff.  Who can doubt the importance of any of it?  And is this not what the rising generation ought to learn?  A bit of an aside here, but how much of the world’s problems are due in the final analysis to a failure to mature sexually?  I am out of school here, I know, but it sure looks to me like a lot of this terrorist business is fomented among men who, you know, can’t make it work with a woman.  This guy Q’tub or whatever his name was – the guy who was the philosophical inspiration for Bin Laden, et al – his life story (as told in the great book, The Looming Tower) shows that the turning point in his life , the beginning of his radicalization, was when he was rejected by the young woman who was his childhood infatuation.  In popular American culture, we would think of Teen Angel, the black-jacketed, duck-tailed youngster who rebels (motorcycle and all) because “Betty Lou done me wrong. . . .”

Teen Angel ends up with an arrest record or dies one midnight in a railroad crossing accident.  But in the case of the Islamists, all that frustration and rage fits rather squarely into their religion and the result is something like this:  If I have failed to get what I wanted and if I am unhappy, it can’t be my fault.  It must be the world!  It must be that the prevailing system gives women too much freedom – freedom to tempt and to reject men, for example.  Better start blowing stuff up until we can put them all under burkas, where they belong, so we can be pure and happy as men.

Okay, that’s off of my chest.  Now back to Jane Austen.  Look at how Emma considers the action of Frank Churchill in deciding to travel some thirty miles round trip to get his haircut.  Doesn’t really sound like something anyone should get their noses out of joint about, even though thirty miles (by horseback at that time) was much more of an extravagance then than it is now.  But look at the complexity and subtlety of Emma’s analysis:

It [the journey for the haircut] did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart, which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday.  Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent to how his conduct might appear in general . . . .

In the story, of course, the trip for a haircut was really a cover for Frank’s trip to London to buy a piano for his secret love, Jane Fairfax.  So, his real motives were more complex than Emma knew or could judge.   But that takes nothing away from the validity and perspicuity of Emma’s initial reactions based on what she then believed.

Given such sensibilities, such standards, who among us can stand?   Who could please and satisfy such a woman?  Well, someone who is educated, maybe.  Someone who has learned (been taught) a thing or two about selfishness and the fall of man.  Someone who has read Jane Austen, even.

And all of that points to just those things that the righteous marchers now tell us are the problem.  The education that Frank Churchill – and every man – ought to have is right there in the books and culture that it is now vogue to reject.  The Bible.  The church.  The classics.  In the extended and natural family.  And nowhere else.

And, speaking of the Bible, back to the Book of Ruth in the next post – coming soon.

Waiting For The Lord

Psalm 130:6
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

Waiting implies a relationship with a person.

If we are dealing with the internet – with robots and artificial intelligence – we – if things are working right – don’t have to wait.  We ask Siri how many years Babe Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox and the answer is instantaneous  – six.

But dealing with a human being is not like that.  And dealing with God is even less like that.  It’s true that God loves us, but He knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows what we need and even what we desire better than we know ourselves.  We lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, for many reasons: to cover up for wrongs and failures we don’t want to face up to; to keep up appearances, even to ourselves.  Our self-deceptions are epic in both width and breadth.  It takes work to undo them.  It takes effort to see these deceptions or what they are – to remember why we concocted them in the first place and to at least get to the point where we might honestly assess what the truth might actually have been.

Donald Miller, who makes his living giving counsel to writers, says that everyone has a story and it is not the story that they are telling.  When we talk with another – even with our closest confidant and even in the strictest confidence and even about the matters that our deepest in our soul – we don’t tell the whole truth.  God wants the whole truth.  Not because He wants to embarrass or punish us or to prove to us that, in spite of our protests, life was fair; He wants the truth – wants us to get to the bottom of things and tell ourselves the truth about ourselves – because this is the only way to get the ship righted.  He doesn’t want to let us go on wandering down this dead-end road we’ve created for ourselves.

Jane Austen gives us a dramatic example of this process of “coming clean” in her great novel, Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth Bennett receives a letter from Mr. Darcy that contains enough information to convince her that the “reality” or “truth” that she has constructed for herself – that she made her decisions, big decisions, based on – was completely, utterly false.  Here is Elizabeth’s confession:

How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

If that is our natural tendency and bent – and it is – then our relationship with God won’t be one of instant gratification, but, rather, one of long and deep searching and confession.  Thus, “waiting on the Lord” as we hear about it in the Bible and as we think about it may really be more God waiting on us!  That is, waiting on us to “come clean” so that the conversation will be meaningful and not just some feel-good rambling about the person we pretend to be and the wants and needs that we have half-convinced ourselves that we have.

I am not for a minute saying that God will have no help for us until we’ve gotten it all together.  Nope.  I am right there with the Reformers and Protestant tradition in saying and believing that God initiates.  That is, He comes to us – saves us, accepts us – “just as we are,” self-deceptions and all.  What I am trying to say is that the relationship that follows is one that depends on honesty and, given the fact that this is such a task for us – letting go of our precious smoke screens and delusions – there is some waiting involved; maybe a lot.