Ruth Uncovered

When we made our move to Trussville we decided to exchange the name “Sunday School”, which generally implies Christian education classes that meet on Sunday, for CLG, or Christian Life Group, a term we felt better reflected our purpose for Christian education and the fact that not all of our groups meet on Sunday. Most of us, including myself, steeped in SBC tradition still slip up and use the term Sunday School. So yesterday, when confronted several times with the question, “Have you read today’s Sunday School lesson,” I knew something was stirring in our CLG’s.

The ruckus is over Ruth. In Lifeway’s Masterwork series Ralph Douglas West has written a provocative account of the biblical narrative found in Ruth 3. In short, West portrays Ruth and Naomi as two women of great faith who tiptoed and toyed with sexual scandal. In Ruth 3 the biblical writer shares an account of how Naomi and Ruth scheme to secure the favor of Boaz as Ruth’s kinsman redeemer. To do so, Naomi instructs Ruth to visit Boaz at the threshing floor, in the middle of the night, “uncover his feet, and lie down.” West does not paint them innocent and makes some shocking statements about their character. “Naomi sometimes seems like a saint and sometimes like a hussy. Her advice borders on the worldly, but it also borders on the godly (p. 61).”

The nuances of this story West exposes make for fun debates in Seminaries, but not in Sunday Schools. In his writing West is very forthright and leaves very little to the imagination. For laymen who are accustomed to a less descript interpretation of Ruth, West’s portrayal of the incident was shocking. So shocking that I am not sure any of our CLG’s were able to concentrate on the ultimate teaching of West from Ruth 3. The intended message of Ruth 3 and West is that God is working in love to redeem a sometimes troubling and puzzling world. I’m not sure any of our CLG students were as concerned about what God was trying to do through Ruth as they were about West and what was, in their minds, a scandalous portrayal of Ruth.

So where do I land on this?

1. There is nothing that West writes in his interpretation of Ruth that I have not read or heard before. West has said nothing new. I think on his behalf, that is a very important point. There is no denying that there is a sexual nuance to Ruth and Naomi’s plot that is not well conveyed in the English interpretation of the text. There is no doubt that in the original language the phrase rendered “uncover his feet” can be taken as an idiom to suggest that Ruth should expose Boaz’s genitalia. I think West is right in acknowledging that the Bible is not quite as white washed as we would like to think. The Bible is at times an ugly story and within that ugliness God is working to redeem His people. As is certainly the case in the chronological context of Ruth as it falls “In the days when the judges ruled (1:1).” At times the Biblical text is scandalous, sexual, devious, and disturbing. Yet our God is good. He is able to redeem a very troubling world.

2. Even if one did not dig into the Hebrew, the English in Ruth 3 is sufficient enough to suggest there is a sexual risk to the plot. In that way I guess we could say it is risqué. Noami states that Boaz is around young women during this time of the year (v. 2) and there is a danger of being assaulted (2:22). It is true that during the time of threshing men would sleep near their harvest. It was not uncommon for women to visit them in the night and the threshing floors look more like Bourbon Street. While this may be true, we cannot say that in the way Ruth 3 is written, that this cultural nuance plays a major role in the plot of the story.

3. Most commentators agree that Naomi was taking a big risk with Ruth’s reputation and her life. He could have taken advantage of her sexually. He could have labeled her a whore. Or he could have done as he did, which was to initiate steps necessary to redeeming Ruth and making her his bride. While most readers can easily discern the risk, we should not allow our imaginations to overshadow the story. The Biblical narrator goes to great lengths to establish the reputations of Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth. We cannot ignore Naomi’s confidence that things would turn out in their favor. She tells Ruth, “Go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.” That is exactly what Boaz did. We should not make this story as much of a sexual gamble. Naomi and Ruth were not gambling on sex, they were banking on virtue. Naomi was a righteous woman who knew how to secure a virtuous future for her widowed daughter-in-law. Ruth was a woman with a virtuous reputation which Boaz recognized immediately (3:11). Boaz was a man of great virtue (2:1). Naomi knew Boaz’s character. Boaz knew the character of Ruth. Virtue prevailed, and in Naomi’s eyes there was no surprise as to the outcome. Therefore there is no need for West to portray this as “Naomi’s racy experiment (p. 63).”

4. I think where West may have become most offensive is in his very cavalier manner of retelling the story. I have noticed this trend in preachers and in writing, that we feel the need to “Americanize” a Biblical account, making it more like a Hollywood script than a sacred text. When it comes to the Biblical text we should recognize it as Holy and reverence the fact that it says what it says the way it says it. We should not say what it says the way we want to say it. There are several instances in which West runs roughshod over the Biblical text and injects his own interpretation. What may be even more of a mistake is that West makes no indication that his quotations are more of his own summation than what the Bible actually says. It takes little discernment to see that this is the case, but as a pastor who spends a great deal of time studying the text, even I am left throwing up my hands at West and asking, “Where in the world did you get this?” For instance:

a. Page 62, “Boaz will have been working hard all day, and his muscles will be wearied by the stress of harvest. Go out and work near where Boaz works. Here’s what I want you to do while he is working. Go in and bathe yourself, make yourself presentable. Daughter, I know the aloes that you normally bathe with would be odorous enough, but do a little extra-go a little further. Put on your best perfume. Yeah! Put it on, girl. Let down your hair. Get rid of that hideous bun you usually wear when you’re working in the fields. Remember that peignoir you used to wear when you were married? Dig it out! Put it on! Don’t be too forward, but don’t be afraid to be enticing. Tempt him . . . keep your chastity . . . but tempt him!”

b. Page 62, “She moved in compliance. Naomi had told her, ‘What I want you to do is walk down to where Boaz will be resting for the night. Now, Ruth, it can become rather tricky, because as you know the field hands often bring their prostitutes to the threshing floor. Be careful that you don’t let Boaz be overly driven, sexually. Be sure he desires you but doesn’t violate you. Be careful. If I know Boaz’s men like I think I do, they’ll be eating and drinking. Boaz will be right there with them. Wait until Boaz has drunk his fill and overeaten. When his heart is merry, when he gets slightly tipsy, find out exactly where he’s going to lie down. Mark the spot. Once he’s sound asleep go in and lift the skirt of his tunic an snuggle in with him. Lift his kilt all the way up to his waist until the lower half of his body is exposed. And then I want you to lie down. Now, this is dangerous business Ruth, because if it’s handled wrong, if either of you become so aroused you lose your self-control, you might destroy a glorious future!”

c. Page 63, “This fear of the obscene played out into the thinking of Ruth when she said, ‘is this thing as scandalous as the ancestors and ancestresses [sic] in my past?”

I am not sure our sexually loose American worldview is an appropriate lens with which to read this story. West makes it look more pornographic than redemptive. Furthermore, the statement of Ruth on page 63 may be an expansion from a Targum (I think that may be the source), but it is not canonized Biblical text and should not be portrayed as such. Preachers take liberty in preaching. I am guilty as well. But we should not take so much liberty as to change the tone of a text and as a result change the intended message of a text.

5. In writing literature intended to guide teachers and students in a Christian education context, West would have better served his readers by at least acknowledging the alternative, far less seedy and more common, interpretations of this text. There are good arguments on both sides, share them. In Dr. Daniel Block’s commentary on Judges and Ruth from the New American Commentary series, Block offers a balanced approach, giving face time to both arguments. He then offers evidences to support his position in the debate. For instance, according to Block, Ruth’s dress in one manner could be interpreted as that of a prostitute. But it just as well can be interpreted as a common covering for a peasant. Her act of “perfuming” herself may not be as much of a sexual proposal as it is a declaration she is finished mourning her dead husband. In doing so she is sending a clear message to Boaz, I am ready to be redeemed, take me as your own. Furthermore we should acknowledge that the phrase interpreted “uncover his feet” is ambiguous and the customs surrounding it are VERY unclear. It could accurately be said, they are virtually unkown. In literature intended for teachers and students, these are nuances of the text that should be readily acknowledged.

As a pastor I am disappointed not only in West’s portrayal of this magnificent story, but I am also disappointed in Lifeway’s seeming carelessness in releasing this chapter to the churches that patronize its business in good faith. If West wants to write a book about Ruth and sell it on the open market, do so. Yet, to include what I consider to be a gross misrepresentation in a subscription based Christian education quarterly is a foul. West is accountable for the way he teaches his people. I am not appreciative of the way Lifeway has welcomed him, in this particular instance of Ruth 3, to teach mine. When pastors approve a subscription to an educational series, again, it is in good faith that it will sustain a certain general course that is safe for their people. Sure, there will be variances and controversies from time to time, but Lifeway should be more careful not to deviate from the chosen path so far that the only result is that it disturbs laymen rather than edifies them.

I want to add one more paragraph to say that I know pastors, people, and the blogosphere. As a fellow servant of God I respect Ralph Douglas West as such. I DO NOT THINK HE IS A BAD MAN, PASTOR, OR PERSON. Honestly, I know little to nothing about him and as such cannot judge his character. At the same time, I have written this article only to judge something he has written. He and LIfeway have chosen to publish it. I have simply responded to what has been commonly published. I am, in posting to my blog, publishing as well and realizing that people have every right to respond just as I have responded to Ralph Douglas West’s interpretation of Ruth 3 and Lifeway’s choice to distribute it in education literature for church laymen. All I ask is that when you respond to this article, please refrain from name calling, personal attack, or undue criticism of any party involved. Sometimes people mistake negative emotion for scholarship. Let’s not kindle those flames and make the same mistake.


Anonymous said…
Hey Brian. Thanks for addressing this issue. I too disagree with Wests position on chap. 3 and view it as an opportunity to challenge the class to dig further in scripture and other study guides to come their own conclusion on controversal issues and bring their findings to the next class. The message of the book of Ruth is redemption and that theme must be our foundation in our study. Thanks, Scott
AP Mattox said…
Your response was quite a lesson in itself. Thank you, Pastor.
Anonymous said…
Hey Bro.Brian, I agree with your comments completely. Our world today is build on so much sensationalism and Hollywood minded people, that it is easy to juice up the truth to catch the attention of the audience and possibly cloud over the simplicity and clarity of the Truth of the Word of God. We are encouraged in the Scriptures in the book of Ezekiel and Revelation, not to add to or take away from the Words of this book. Interpretation of these verses in such a way draws the reader away from the real focus and interprets in such a way to bring attention to a subject that makes every body sit up and take note of that which may taint the real focus of the book of Ruth; which is the story of redemption, very clearly the central theme. We should be careful in these things not to go beyond what is clear into a fog of uncertainty. Thanks, Jim Jackson
Ross McLaren said…
Thank you for commenting on LifeWay’s January 3, 2010 lesson by Ralph Douglas West in MasterWork that was condensed from the B&H book Finding Fullness Again.

We received a number of comments and questions from readers and want to assure you that we appreciate them and take them seriously. We learned a number of lessons in the process, among them:

First, we learned that what often works great in a sermon does not work so well when transferred directly into print. In a sermon, a pastor can creatively “read between the lines” and fill in dialogue with expanded and graphic paraphrase that is earthy and very human. Tone and trust between pastor and parishioner are apparent in such contexts. However, when such expanded and creative paraphrases are transferred into print and put into quotation marks as dialogue in the same way Scripture is quoted, it leaves people asking, “Where is that stated in the Bible?” or saying, “I don’t see that in the Bible.”

Second, we learned that in studying books of the Bible some learners prefer a commentary approach that presents various possible interpretations and not an approach that only offers the interpretation the writer accepted. This also means that sometimes more direct explanation is needed to justify the interpretation the writer holds. We encourage those who are interested in various interpretation or who are not familiar with that taken by Dr. West to read Daniel Block, “Judges, Ruth,” in The New American Commentary, vol. 6 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999, 2002) for explanations of the various interpretation of the episodes in the Book of Ruth.

Third, we learned that sometimes more background information is needed, especially to explain cultural practices and customs. Again, Daniel Block’s NAC on “Ruth” is helpful on this.

Fourth, disagreement with one lesson may cast doubt on an entire study. One reason LifeWay selected Finding Fullness Again for inclusion in MasterWork was because at this New Year’s time many people are focused on new beginnings and making New Year’s resolutions. In the story of Ruth, both Ruth and Naomi go from fullness to emptiness and back to fullness again. Today a lot of people have gone from fullness to emptiness, for a variety of reasons. And they are looking for hope and blessing again. They desire to return to fullness. We felt this study would minister to this need. And thus we still hope that negative reaction to one lesson in that study will not undermine the value of the whole study.

Fifth, we learned that when users disagree with a lesson or author, it can drive them deeper into their study of the Word of God—and for this we are grateful. I assure you and your readers that our goal is to hold our authors and their lessons to the highest faithfulness of God’s Word.

May the Lord bless you and Bible study teachers as they continue to study His Word, teach it to others, and follow Him faithfully in their understanding of the Scripture.

Ross McLaren
Lead Content Editor
LifeWay Christian Resources
Anonymous said…
Bro.Brian, Thanks for taking time to address the concerns that many CLG teachers had about Mr. West's discussion/ interpretation of Ruth 3. Although authors, pastors, lay people, etc. often interpret Biblical incidents differently, I was actually disturbed and even offended by Mr. West's boldness of interpretation and expression in his writing. So, thank you for your observations and for contacting Lifeway! LSM
Anonymous said…
I am sorry, but I strongly disagree with the content of this lesson; a member of our church brought me the copy of their lesson by and I am still completely dumbounded that Lifeway would incorporate this in study that they underwrite. As far as I am concerned the interepretations are not biblical and Lifeway is responsible for their publication of a disgusting portrayal of what is a beautiful account of "yes" new beginnings, new opportunities, but Ruth and Naomi did not compromise their integrity.
Anonymous said…
Mr. McLaren,
I think you are using excuses to try and cover up bad judgement on Lifeway's part. My jaw is still on the ground. I can't believe Lifeway would allow so many liberties to be used with anything they publish much less a Sunday School lesson.
Anonymous said…
Mr. McLaren says in his comments, "I assure you and your readers that our goal is to hold our authors and their lessons to the highest faithfulness of God’s Word." Mr. McLaren - actions speak louder than words. A scene that would have been at least R rated had it been filmed, was no where near what God's word says took place. I'm not familiar with the word being shy about saying sexual misconduct occurred. When God's word gives us no reason to question the integrity of a person, why does LifeWay publish material based on an overactive imagination to create disrespect for three characters we've always looked to as good examples?
Anonymous said…
My husband and I visited your church the Sunday this lesson was taught. I have a degree in Bible and Theology and was shocked that Lifeway would include this material without further explanation on West's part. It does cast a shadow on the rest of his teaching. Enjoyed the service, though!
Anonymous said…
Dear sir, thank you very much for your fair and balanced approach to this wonderful Bible story that places God's redemption as the primary focus of Ruth. I am disturbed by Pastor West's message that seems to accommodate sexual improprieties rather than the righteous and virtuous character of Ruth and Boaz.
Anonymous said…
Ruth and Boaz' relationship was never chaste and virtuous. Boaz exemplified God's mercy, grace and favor when he hid her deed and married her. Ruth's deed was as conniving as Rebekah's with Jacob against Esau but allowed by God for his perfect will and glory. The Bible has ugly scenes because we have always been a sinful people loved by an awesome God.
From the days of Cain and Abel, we have been destructive and conniving, really Adam and Eve, but God marked cain so noone would kill him. Once again, a sinful people bent on evil, loved by a merciful God. That is our HOLY BIBLE and which has dozens of examples of a redemptive God.
It is not Hollywood sensationalism
and I've lived a relatively calm life---no drugs, smoking, crime/prison time, sex--yes I am still a virgin in my mid-40s, no booze, etc....2 Masters, travel to Israel, only colds and post nasal drip until 2008-- stage 3A breast cancer. Jesus Christ has been a merciful healer of all 7 possible side effects and yes I believe cancer also. No drama here and I am African American. Yet, trouble happens to all Saints. The Holy Bible is the uncompromising word of God.I'd like to hear what you all have to say about the book of Ruth.
Anonymous said…
I mean Song of Solomon. I'd love to hear what ya'll have to say about that for real especially about the Message translation.
Ya'll sound like the Pharisees.
I hear pastors are competitive anyway and will never forget how the fight between Jim Baker and Jim Swaggart tore up the Christian church soonafter I got saved in 1986.
Anonymous November 27, 2010
8:03 PM
Anonymous said…
Yes, Dr. West writes ....Lift his kilt all the way up to his waist until the lower half of his body is exposed.......Now this is dangerous business, Ruth, because if it's handled wrong,.............
you might destroy a glorious future.

1-Suddenly this steamy saga becomes a tale of TRUST. Not only was Naomi trusting Ruth, but Naomiwas also trusting Boaz, who was not privy to this conversation with her daughter-in-law. Ruth also had to trust herself, and she also had to TRUST the integrity of Boaz. But more than that, God stood on the balcony over Bethlehem, holding his breath, KNOWING EACH ACTOR WOULD CARRY OUT THE PLAN WITH INTEGRITY.

2-......We ought to be cautious in how we present ourselves to the God we say we love (about Ruth bathing, perfuming, and dressed).

If you think little lies are okay and you often exaggerate, OR TELL PARTIAL TRUTHS, you are lying and it is a sign of bad character.

P.S. What about Noah's sons, Lot's
daughters deeds, Peter, and many more. Why the harsh and extreme words about Lifeway allowing? Why not a more balanced approach in the comments/commentary? I've heard much, much more extreme explanations about scriptures from
a few White Pastors.

Tell the whole truth, and nothing but! Marilyne
Rev. Brian Branam of Ridgecrest Baptist Church of Trussville Alabama--you tried to be fair but went a little too far with telling Lifeway what to do. Alabama will always be something else as well historically!I have family there and they stay amazed at race relations.
Brian Branam said…
Marilyne, thank you for reading and responding. However, if I could ask you to help me out so that I can better respond to you, could you please explain to me why you think I "went too far in telling Lifeway what to do" and how my critique of the lesson relates to racial problems in the state of Alabama?
Anonymous said…
I believe he was describing the culture of the day, however unimportant to some, and not adding words to the BIBLE like some would say. At this age, and for the past 5 years, since 40, I have learned the breadth, height, and scope of the demonic culture of the nation I was born into but lefy at age 2. I was not raised there nor have I ever liked, seen, or read fantasy, occult, vampire books, films or movies... I've never seen Sybil etc...
For years I was told by AA friends that they don't trust the people from my country and I would ask "WHY?" and I never understood until now.

I try not to speak for God but as it says in Jonah and elsewhere...perhaps the earthquake
and cholera is the stench of wickedness reaching heaven's nostrils and maybe God will cleanse, and save them if they repent. I wish someone had warned me about that nation years ago is all I can say. I've avoided some unkosher relatives for years but would have stayed away from 1 friend.

I say all this to say that cultural knowledge is important.
It is very easy for any of the commentators to google him. It was hard to find you and your church.
That is all I want to say. You were balanced and mostly fair.
Others may not have been as fair.I am from NY and saved over 20 years
after Roman Catholicism---95% of my pastors have been White. One of them is also a Pentecostal traveling evangelist and I cannot leave without laughing three times heavily. He is a riot but truly a gifted man of God. Somehow, he incorporates 70s or 80s music by singing a few lines into every sermon. Yet, we are taught scripture, exhorted, rebuked... and application well. My kind of town NY, NY!

Take Care I am done! Marilyne
Brian Branam said…
Marilyne, because the comment allowances are so limited, I want to succinctly respond to what I understand you to be saying:

1) I understand that Dr. West is far more prominent of a pastor than I. He has been used greatly by God. However, I do not think that because I am “lesser known” that I forfeit the right to respond, especially when I see someone doing something I feel is dishonest with the Biblical text.

2) I feel that my arguments in the post are sufficient and I do not want to restate them. I would encourage you to read them again, I fear you have not carefully followed my thoughts. Yet I would say that even though Dr. West is right in the cultural background, the Biblical writer chose not to make these elements prominent in the story – I would say this is true even in the original Hebrew. Though Dr. West’s interpretation of the singular phrase is definitely accurate, it is not necessary in context, and many commentators make good arguments that Dr. West’s interpretation is probably not the primary one. Dr. West’s interpretation is a possibility, yet he writes it in a style that would misrepresent it to laymen as if it is within the Biblical text. That is my primary concern here.

3) My criticism of Dr. West is his portrayal of Ruth and Naomi’s motives. The Biblical text portrays them as virtuous, Dr. West does not.

4) Theologically I think Dr. West crosses some very serious lines in how he portrays God’s relationship to sin.

5) Honestly, I am frustrated that you surmise my criticisms of Dr. West to be racially motivated. If Dr. West were burgundy, purple, or white, my feelings about his interpretation of Ruth 3 would not change. Frankly, if I can speak openly here, I think you unjustly criticize the racial climate in Alabama. While certainly our history is well documented, I think our present and future are gravely misunderstood. There are problems within the white community, especially within the older generation. However I think one of the hindrances to reconciliation lies squarely within the black community as well – it is an inherent distrust and skepticism that any comment or criticism of a black leader is racism. Until we can dialogue on the level of ideas and not skin tones, much of the racial tension will not be resolved. I think your criticisms of my article, by not engaging the content, but jumping to the conclusion that what I have said has more to do with the fact that I am white and Dr. West is black than Biblical scholarship, demonstrates my point.

If I have misunderstood your point, please clarify it for me.
Brian Branam said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Branam said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
"You were mostly fair---
Any of your COMMENTATORS could have googled him"
You are not listening.
I will unsuscribe soon.
I was googling for Masterwork by mistake it is Masterlife I was told about. I confused the 2 names and found this stuff...

Dr. Stanley on tv, and 4 others in friends NYC churches I listen to since the mid 80s when I became Born Again

NYC is very prejudiced and racist
but Blacks & Whites are not the fixation---Muslims, Asians, Mexicans,Columbians,Guyanese and almost every culture has at least one enemy. it is not unusual to have a Polish and a Ukranian telling each other off on the train...

Good Bye

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