The torrent of sexual misconduct allegations that have overwhelmed us these past few weeks were a long time coming. This type of sin has existed in every culture and at every point in history. The gender revolution of the past few decades allowed us to believe that we as a society had put such things behind us: that women would be treated as equals, child abuse was no longer acceptable, and people would show each other a certain amount of respect. After all, we thought, we’re not barbarians.
I am sorry to inform you that we are, in fact, barbarians. There is no getting around the fact that powerful men still abuse less powerful women. In fact, it would be far more accurate to say that powerful people abuse less powerful people, because we see males abused by males, males abused by females, and females abused by females. While the greater number of complaints fit the standard powerful male/less powerful female model, I do not wish to minimize anyone’s suffering by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Perhaps you are beginning to feel that when the man who’s been reading you the news for years, the beloved college football coach, the kindly priest, the president of the United States, and the actor waxing eloquently about social justice all have dirty hands, there is no one left for you to trust. Perhaps you are tempted to think that sexual harassment and abuse are simply par for the course, and those with power will always abuse it. You do not reach this conclusion because you believe it is morally right, but as a way of protecting yourself from further disappointment.
There is some truth in the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which was first coined by John Dalberg-Acton but had been expressed in slightly different ways much earlier. Power does not actually make us sinful, but it allows sin to become much more damaging…and excusable. Therefore, we might begin to assume that there is a kind of inevitability to this all: men with power will always take advantage of that power. They cannot do otherwise. They’re only human.
The church of Jesus Christ ought to reject this kind of thinking. While it is certainly inevitable that sinners will sin—particularly if they have not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit—those who harass and assault do so by choice. It will not do to suggest that they were simply slaves to their hormones, didn’t know any better, were too severely tempted, etc. You can’t always choose what is placed in front of your face, but you can choose how you respond to it. (I am, of course, assuming that the offender in question does not have some kind of serious psychological disorder.)
I know this because scripture says so, not only in its moral imperatives, but also in the narratives it relates. We certainly find awful examples of sexual violence, such as the rape of Dina by Shechem (Genesis 34), the rape of Tamar by Amnon (2 Samuel 13), and the rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19). We find situations that apparently stop short of rape but are nevertheless highly problematic, such as Judah’s relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38) and David’s relationship with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). However, we also see examples of people who resisted temptation, such as Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) and another Joseph not having sex with his own wife before she gave birth to Jesus Christ (Matthew 1).
There is one particularly shining example of a man who had a considerable amount of power over a woman, yet treated her in an entirely proper manner. His conduct was such that he is sometimes considered a type of Christ, and indeed he was an ancestor of Christ. His name was Boaz, and he is a hero for our time.
Boaz’s story occurs in the Book of Ruth. The title character was a recently widowed foreigner who accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi (also a widow) back to the family hometown in Israel. Ruth was at the bottom of the societal heap in multiple ways. First, she was an ethnic outsider, coming from a pagan nation that Israelites preferred to avoid. Second, she was a widow, and thus had no means of financial support. Third, she had not produced any children in her marriage, which was a great source of shame in that society. Fourth, she was living with an even older widow, for whom she had become the main provider despite possessing next to nothing herself.
Ruth was exceedingly powerless. Without the kind of social safety net we enjoy today, she had to rely on the protections of the Mosaic Law. One such protection was the right to glean from other Israelite fields. The text tells us “she happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:3b). Elimelech was Naomi’s deceased husband, so this meant that Boaz was a relative-in-law of Ruth. However, neither Ruth nor Boaz knew that initially.
Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” The servant in charge of the reapers replied, “She is the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi from the land of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ Thus she came and has remained from the morning until now; she has been sitting in the house for a little while.”
Boaz seems to have been fairly wealthy and important. He had a farm with many employees, and later verses suggest he was well respected among the elders of the town. Ruth was probably not the first woman who had ever come to his field to glean. However, she may have been notable for three reasons. First, she was rather young for a widow; hence, Boaz’s comment that she was a “young woman”. (Most of the women who had to glean were likely widows.) Second, it is entirely possible that she looked rather foreign, not being an Israelite. Third, she might have been rather good looking. We cannot know for sure, but some combination of these three things likely provoked his question.
Boaz’s reaper explains that Ruth is the young widow who accompanied Naomi back from Moab. Thus, Boaz would have known that she was a relative through marriage. He also would have known that she was vulnerable and powerless on a level beyond the average Israelite woman who came to glean. This essentially left him with three choices: 1) Acknowledge the information and move on, leaving her to her fate, 2) Exploit her for his own purposes, or 3) Take steps to protect her, even sacrificially. Boaz elected to go with choice #3.
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen carefully, my daughter. Do not go to glean in another field; furthermore, do not go on from this one, but stay here with my maids. Let your eyes be on the field which they reap, and go after them. Indeed, I have commanded the servants not to touch you. When you are thirsty, go to the water jars and drink from what the servants draw.”
We often focus on Boaz’s generosity here, but we must not miss the fact that he was attempting to protect her. The line that indicates this is “I have commanded the servants not to touch you”. Why would the servants have touched her? Because she was a vulnerable female, that’s why. Without wanting to get graphic, it was quite conceivable that one of the male reapers might have caught her alone in a far-off corner of the field and done something inappropriate. After all, Ruth had no male guardian to object and defend her.
The punishment for violating a foreign woman would have likely been minimal or non-existent in that society. I’m not saying this was a good situation or even one in line with the Mosaic Law, but it is likely the one that existed. Thus, seeing the danger, Boaz instructed Ruth to stay in his field, where he was able to act as her defender. He also commanded his servants to leave her alone, a threat they were likely to heed, as their employment depended on it.
Boaz went out of his way to help Ruth. He spent the rest of the day coming up with ways to give her more food, inviting her to join them at lunch and commanding his men to purposefully drop extra grain for her to reap. Even the way that he gave her food was designed to uphold her dignity, and he forbid his men from rebuking her. (2:14-16) Moreover, he spoke encouraging words to Ruth and honored her faith rather than judging her based on appearance or background. (Again, whether or not he personally appreciated her appearance is a matter for debate, but he didn’t say anything about it.)
Boaz’s holistic approach to protecting Ruth ought to be commended. He showed concern for her physical safety (i.e. not getting assaulted) as well as her physical needs (i.e. having something to eat). Even in providing her with charity, he treated her as a kind of equal, allowing her to come sit at the table with the men and share the same food. He told her, “May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.” (2:12) In doing all of these things, Boaz showed himself to be manly in the very best sense of the word, and we can tell that he was eager to follow God’s laws and show hospitality to the vulnerable.
However, Boaz’s response was about to be tested. Sure, he used his power correctly in one situation and chose to protect Ruth rather than exploiting her, but would he do so the next time? As it so happened, the fact that Boaz was a relative of Ruth’s deceased husband meant that she could ask him to enter into what is known as a Levirate marriage, as mandated by the Mosaic Law.
When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
In practice, it seems that this principle was extended to any other male relative when there were no remaining brothers, and that was what happened in Ruth’s case. Even if she had preferred to marry someone outside the family, it is highly unlikely that she would have been able to find a good husband, being a foreigner with nothing to recommend her. However, it was equally likely that a male relative would find marriage with her distasteful, for as you can see in the passage above, any children produced by such a union would necessarily carry the name of the deceased first husband. This had important ramifications in regard to societal honor and inheritance laws. Acting as what was known as a “kinsman redeemer” carried a very high price. Nevertheless, when she saw that Boaz treated Ruth with kindness, Naomi seized the opportunity.
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 is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maids you were? Behold, he winnows barley at the threshing floor tonight. Wash yourself therefore, and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. It shall be when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies, and you shall go and uncover his feet and lie down; then he will tell you what you shall do.”
Naomi’s choice of words is telling. She does not say, “You are lonely, and I want you to be happy.” Rather, she says “shall I not seek security for you…” Remember, Ruth was powerless and Boaz was powerful. A marriage between the two of them would not be primarily about love and companionship, though no one was dismissing those things. It was about having bread to eat and being protected from the hardships of life.
However, in an effort to gain that protection, Naomi advised Ruth to do something that made her extremely vulnerable. It was evidently the custom in that culture for a woman in this situation to propose marriage by asking the man to “cover her”—that is, take her under his protection. Perhaps in order to get an audience with him alone, or perhaps because she knew he would be in a good mood, Naomi instructed Ruth to go make this proposition to Boaz at night, after he had finished feasting.
Many different interpretations have been offered for the next passage. Some people say Ruth was acting in a seductive manner. I do not believe that is accurate. It seems whatever she was doing was an accepted cultural custom. However, there is no denying that there is sexual tension in the scene: it’s night, they’re alone, he’s been drinking, etc. Again, I’m not attempting to introduce something racy into the story, but how often in recent weeks have we heard stories about powerful men managing to get themselves alone with powerless women and all the negative things that can result from that?
The text tell us, “It happened in the middle of the night that the man was startled and bent forward; and behold, a woman was lying at his feet. He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative.’” (3:8-9) Now, what would be the reaction of many men if they woke up in the middle of the night to find a young woman lying next to them? Well, perhaps he had no time to think about it, for she immediately asked him to perform the duty of Levirate marriage.
Boaz had an important choice to make in this situation. If he desired Ruth in a physical sense, he certainly could have married her and done things the correct way. In fact, that was exactly what she was proposing. However, as I previously noted, marriage to Ruth came with a hefty price. Everything Boaz had worked to build would be passed on not in his name, but someone else’s. His reputation in society might be lessened because of his union with a rather unsuitable woman. Any plans he might have had to freely choose any woman he liked would be ruined.
There was, of course, a shortcut solution. He could have taken advantage of his power right then and there, receiving all the benefits of physical relations without any of the sacrifice of a marriage. This would have been a profoundly selfish move: a complete disregarding of Ruth’s needs in favor of his desires. However, it is likely that he could have survived with few consequences, while Ruth would have become even more of a societal pariah. Did the shortcut seem tempting to Boaz? I don’t know, but he did not pursue it. He chose to protect Ruth rather than exploiting her, and to put her welfare above his own.
Then he said, “May you be blessed of the Lord, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich. Now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you whatever you ask, for all my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence. Now it is true I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. Remain this night, and when morning comes, if he will redeem you, good; let him redeem you. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then I will redeem you, as the Lord lives. Lie down until morning.”
Boaz once again showed himself to be a man of true integrity. Rather than seeing her proposal as a burden, he treated it as an honor, thanking her for “not going after young men”. (This is one of my favorite verses in scripture, as my husband is a wee bit older than me.) He also calls her a “woman of excellence”, attempts to calm her fears, and assures her “I will do for you whatever you ask”. In everything, he upholds her dignity and seeks to protect her.
However, Boaz’s words also reveal the plot twist: there was another male more closely related to Ruth’s deceased husband. This meant that it was not actually Boaz’s duty to marry Ruth, but the other man’s. Why did Ruth not ask the other person to marry her? Probably for the same reason that this male relative did not seek her out: he had no interest in marrying her. This is confirmed by the conversation this relative had with Boaz the next day.
Then he said to the closest relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the land of Moab, has to sell the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. So I thought to inform you, saying, ‘Buy it before those who are sitting here, and before the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if not, tell me that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am after you.’” And he said, “I will redeem it.” Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the deceased, in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance.” The closest relative said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, because I would jeopardize my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself; you may have my right of redemption, for I cannot redeem it.”
The male relative, who the Hebrew text refers to ambiguously as “a certain one”, was more than happy to buy Elimelech’s land and make sure it staed in the family. However, when Boaz informed him that he would have to marry Ruth as well, he refused. Although he said, “I cannot redeem it”, it seems that the truth was that this man did not want to redeem, for doing so would “jeopardize my own inheritance”. This speaks to the very real cost of marrying Ruth. Likewise, Boaz’s manner of proceeding suggests that he did in fact want to marry Ruth. He directed the conversation in such a way as to catch the closest relative by surprise and provoke an objection. (I see your sneakiness, Boaz, and I admire you for it.)
The result of all of this was that Boaz bought the land and married Ruth. In doing so, he not only succeeded in protecting and providing for his new wife, but he also entered into the ancestral line of Jesus Christ, who was descended from their first child, Obed. Therefore, while the other relative was overly concerned with having descendants to carry on his name, Boaz managed to get his name in the greatest genealogy of all time.
The real point I want to draw out in all of this is that Boaz used his power for good. He acted to protect Ruth from those who might exploit her, and he refrained from exploiting her himself. Placed in a similar situation to what many powerful men encounter today, Boaz did not become an abuser. Rather, he became a protector. In so doing, he was honored by the Lord and is worthy of honor by all of us.
This story reminds us that bad behavior by men in power is not inevitable, nor is it excusable. Godly men will choose to protect the women around them rather than abusing them. They will choose to help the vulnerable rather than exploiting them. They will put the needs of others ahead of their own desires. There are still men today who act like Boaz and are defenders of women. They are worthy of honor. Likewise, there are women who are defenders of vulnerable children, and so on and so forth. All of these people are heroes in the manner of Boaz. Let us recognize their heroism in a world that seems increasingly dark, and let us remember the lessons of the Book of Ruth as they apply to our present situation.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.