Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem.
He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.”
They answered, “The Lord bless you.”
(Ruth 2:4 NRSV)
Had Boaz and the reapers come from Ireland, rather than from Bethlehem, they might have said, “God bless the work!”, “God bless you kindly!” Friendly greetings are a sign of better times, as when Ruth, the girl from Moab, came to glean in the fields of Boaz, and harvested for herself the man who would be her husband. (Ruth 2-4)
Psalm 129 is one of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). Even as they go there the pilgrims grieve for the condition of Jerusalem, as had the prophet Micah before them:
Zion shall be ploughed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height. (Micah 3:12)
The pilgrims borrow the prophet’s strong agricultural imagery; they sense the sufferings of the city as their own, slicing into the soil of their own flesh:
They have pressed me hard from my youth
but could never destroy me.
They ploughed my back like ploughmen,
drawing long furrows. (Psalm 129:2-3 Grail)
The journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of promise has been hard; a battle all the way. Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. (WB Yeats, Easter 1916) The pilgrims’ tenderness towards Jerusalem becomes a curse against her enemies –May they be a failed crop, with neither a harvest nor a blessing for the reapers:
Let them be like grass on the roof
that withers before it flowers.
With this no reaper fills his arms,
no binder makes his sheaves.
And those passing by will not say:
‘On you the Lord’s blessing!’
‘We bless you in the name of the Lord!’
In Psalm 129, the pilgrims curse, with brutal honesty, those who hate Sion. As I write this, the old quarrels are raging again in Jerusalem between peoples who love the City and claim it as their home but are unable to share it. Pray a blessing on the reapers, lest the harvest fail!
The story of Ruth begins with a famine in the land of Judah, and a family fleeing from Bethlehem in search of food. The land of Moab was known as hostile to the people of Israel, but these refugees find a welcome there. When the famine is over Naomi, the last surviving member of the family, comes home to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law, Ruth the Moabite.
The book of Ruth is a short story, with lessons on living with enemies and welcoming strangers. But there is a twist in the tale, and you must read right to its finish. As happens in some films, its full significance is revealed only as the credits scroll at the end of the movie. (If I say any more I may have to issue a SPOILER ALERT!).