The Tree of Ruth

This article is from Issue 45 of “On The Move,” a publication of new learning possibilities for churches, at one time published by The Joint Board of Christian Education of Australia and New Zealand.
Although some ideas and liturgies may appear somewhat “dated” in style, concept, imagery or language, they may nevertheless offer a spring-board for new ideas among people who find themselves leading worship, perhaps in a new context, and with some trepidation.
Reproduced by permission. May be reprinted for use in local congregations only.

by Coralie Ling
When Matthew began his Gospel with a genealogy or family tree of Jesus, contrary to Luke and many of the genealogies in the Old Testament, he included four women.

Through the centuries scholars have been fascinated with the question of why these women were induded and what they have in common— though, to be realistic, no family tree is possible without women! But, as women have mainly been on the ‘underside’ of history, there must have been something exceptional about these four: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

St. Jerome argued that all four were ‘sinners’, and certainly their sexual behaviour would make an interesting case study for situation ethics. As ‘sinners’ Jerome argued that they highlighted the need fbr Jesus, the saviour from sin. But in Jewish tradition and in the Scriptures as well, these women are referred to as heroines of the faith. Each of them, through initiative, heroism and determination, contributed to the messianic line, and set the pattern for Jesus’ family tree. Tamar, at risk of death, ensured the messianic line through her sons; through Rabab’s courage Israel entered the promised land; through Ruth’s unflinching loyalty to Naomi she and Boaz became great grandparents of David the king; through Bathsheba’s courageous intervention the Davidic throne passed to Solomon. These women’s stories call for study and celebration.

One way to prepare for Advent is to study their stories. Very briefly, they are as follows.

TAMAR (Genesis 38; Ruth 4:12)
lamar was the wife of Er, son of Judah whose father was Jacob. Unfortunately for Tamar her husband died through his misdeeds and she was left childless. By the law of the time Er’s brother Onan should have married her then, so that the line could continue, but Onan refused to have a child by her. Judah then promised Tamar to his young son Shelah when he was old enough, but Judah did not act on his promise when the time came. lamar then decided to act on her own. Dressed as a prostitute she seduced Judah, and demanded as a pledge for payment Judah’s signet ring, staff and cord.
Three months later when Judah was told that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, he demanded that she be brought out and burned at the stake. But lamar said she was pregnant by the man who owned the signet ring, staff and cord. Judah then acknowledged that he had sinned by not keeping his promise, and called lamar a righteous woman, for by her determination and initiative she would bear children in the name of Judah — twins Perez and Zerah.

RAHAB (Joshua 2:1-21; 6:17-25)
When Joshua sent two spies into the city of Jericho, Rahab, a prostitute, gave them shelter. When the king of Jericho sought their lives she hid them on her roof, and afterwards helped them escape. They promised her that if she tied red cord to her window when the Hebrew people invaded Jericho, she and all her household would be saved.

They kept their promise, and when Jericho was taken, she and her household escaped. Rahab is unusual in that she recognised the action of God, and put her faith in him while the rest of Jericho followed the Canaanite religion. She is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the heroines of the faith.

RUTH (the book of Ruth)
Ruth, as a young Moabite widow, made a radical recision to commit her life to her mother-in-law Naomi, and to Naomi’s God. They travelled together from Moab Bethlehem where Ruth worked in fields belonging to Boaz, as it was harvest time. Together Naomi and Ruth plotted a dangerous mission whereby, in middle of the night, Ruth would approach Boaz with a view to marriage. He agreed to make arrangements and Ruth, after their marriage, bore a son Obed, the father of Jesse, father of David. The women of Bethlehem blesssed this child born to Naomi and Ruth, and put him in the line of Tamar and Rahab.

BATHSHEBA (2 Samuel 11-12; 1 Kings1:11-37; 2:12-25)
Bathsheba was seen by David as she bathed on her rooftop and he, as king, seduced her and arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle. Her first son died, but her second son Solomon lived. When the kingdom was in chaos she interceded to David on Solomon’s behalf so that he became king.

Members of the study group may enter into dialogue with these women’s stories by asking such questions as:
Which of these women would I like to meet?
What would I ask her?
What would she ask me?

An Advent celebration
Last year a group of us met together in a home for an Advent worship celebration of these women. We gathered in a semicircle around a large purple and gold banner of the Ruth tree.

In front of the banner was a bare, gold-frosted tree on which we hung symbols of these women for each of the Sundays of Advent: signet rings for Tamar; red cords for Rahab; bundles of wheat for Ruth; gold crowns for Bathsheba; plus roses for Mary and a star for the Messiah.

On a separate table we had six purple candles, a loaf of bread and a chalice of wine. One by one, different women told the stories of the women of the Ruth tree and lit a candle for each of them. We then prayed a prayer of affirmation together (adapted from a prayer in No Longer Strangers, page 41). We reflected on the story of Mary— how she had been open to receive the gift of the Spirit, and how she had given of herself in the Messiah’s story, and lit her candle. We shared our own experiences of receiving in the past year, and affirmed for each other what we had to offer to the world in the new advent, and lit our own (sixth) candle. We then broke bread and shared wine together, and passed the peace. The whole evening concluded with a celebratory supper.

The Ruth tree could also be used in a week-by-week celebration during Advent. Each week the story of one of the women could be told, her symbol added to the tree and her candle lit. Mary would be added during Christmas week. Thus the place of these women in the line of the Messiah would be no longer hidden or regarded as a curiosity, but open and celebrated.

To pursue the argument about why Matthew included four women in the genealogy, read Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, and for a marvellous account of Ruth’s story and a womens perspective on the Old Testament, see Phyllis Trible, God, and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. For some excellent prayers and other worship resources see No Longer Strangers, published jointly by the World Council of Churches, Y.W.C.A., Lutheran World Federation and World Student Christian Federation.

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