Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close to my workers until all my harvest is finished.’” Ruth 2:21 JPS
Workers – Phyllis Trible observes that Ruth must work within the culture and against the culture in order to transform the culture. This verse captures Ruth’s daring enterprise with typical Hebraic clues. Nothing is explicitly stated but a great deal is subtly included. Perhaps understanding Ruth’s actions helps us set a course for transforming the worlds we occupy.
First, notice that Ruth is still referred to as “the Moabite.” Ruth may have declared her loyalty to Naomi, Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God, but even the narrator suggests that no one but Ruth believes her. Lesson One: Don’t expect instant acceptance. As far as others are concerned, you will have to earn your new identity by the way you live, not by what you say.
Secondly, notice what Ruth says about Boaz’s request. In Hebrew, Boaz tells Ruth to stay close to his na’arot (his female workers). But Ruth deliberately misquotes Boaz by saying that she is to stay close to his ne’arim, his male workers. Custom required Ruth to stay with the women, but Ruth breaks the cultural mold by working alongside the men. She is the breadwinner. She takes the breadwinner’s role. Ruth does not allow the culture to dictate how she should act when life and death are on the line. She isn’t timid, but she isn’t pushy. She just does what must be done in order to provide for the two of them. Lesson Two: Be prepared to bend the rules if necessary. Know the difference between God’s instructions and Man’s expectations.
The rabbis noticed this misquotation of Boaz, but they provided a different explanation. They suggested that Ruth doesn’t pay attention to the strict separation of men and women because Ruth is a Moabite. They suggested that Moabites did not observe gender roles as Israel did, and they attribute this lack of propriety to the fact that Moabites come from incest, a complete lack of respect for sexual moral norms. It seems to me that the rabbis go out of there way to support gender differences and castigate anyone who challenges those differences. But I find no biblical support for this argument. It reflects the elevation of cultural tradition to the place of holy instruction. Ruth reminds us of the difference. Lesson Three: Know where your beliefs come from. Don’t allow what is customary and usual to become “God’s word” unless God says it.
In the next verse, Naomi “corrects” Ruth’s lack of gender consciousness by insisting that Ruth stick with the women. This is perhaps the last little lesson for today. Sometimes those we love still don’t see the bigger picture. Sometimes they are too much a part of the trees to see the forest. How we treat them says more about us then any stand we take principles. Sha’ul addressed this same lack of vision in his famous comments on stronger and weaker brothers. Lesson Four: Love is sometimes more important than being right.
Topical Index: workers, ne’arim, na’arot, culture, Ruth 2:21, gender roles