Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Improbable Last-Minute Comebacks

Superbowl 51 made history. Too bad I didn’t know that in the third quarter when I turned off the game and went for a drive.

My team was the New England Patriots. I was watching the big game in the lawyer’s lounge during the last hour of a deadly quiet shift at work. Midway through the third quarter, the score was 28-3 … and not for the Pats. By all historical football metrics the game was over. Rather than sit in a funk watching the Atlanta Falcons celebrate their victory, I decided when my shift had ended to make good on an earlier promise to drive a load of boxes over to my landlady’s condo.

I’ll spare our non-football-loving readers the play-by-play, but let’s just say I was halfway home listening to the car radio when I realized the Patriots were actually making a game of it. I flipped on the screen just as overtime started. In the end, through a seemingly endless series of impossibly close plays by the Pats and inexplicably bad decisions by the opposition, the final score was 34-28 for the Patriots, the largest and most improbable comeback in Superbowl history.

God loves improbable last-minute comebacks. Sometimes he stages them, sometimes he just lets them play out without putting an obvious finger on the scales, but he loves to make the last first and the first last, he loves to display his strength through weak people, and he loves to show his hand when everyone else has given up and gone home.

Considering Boaz

Consider Boaz. People generally think the story of Ruth is about Ruth. Well, yes, it’s a nice romantic tale and it works on a number of narrative and expository levels. But the historical importance of the book of Ruth revolves around the continuance of the Messianic line against all odds, and in that aspect of the story Ruth is only a bit player; it’s Boaz who matters. Ruth was certainly blessed to become the mother of an ancestor of Messiah, but theoretically at least, literally any Israelite woman could have filled the same role and produced the desired outcome.

Except they didn’t. Until Ruth the Moabite came along, Boaz was unmarried and had no heir. Moreover, he was getting a bit long in the tooth. We know this because when Ruth discreetly makes her interest in him known, he replies, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter.” (Whew! There’s an age difference for you!) He continues, “You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” So this man, descended from Judah and of the Messianic line, as God had prophesied through Jacob, was without an heir until sometime, oh, in the middle of the third quarter of his life. If Satan has hands, we might picture him rubbing them together in glee.

But God was about to stage a highly-improbable comeback.

The Hail Mary Pass

The comeback got more unlikely still. Ruth had displayed her interest in Boaz, and he in her. But there was a major obstacle in the way: another potential kinsman redeemer. According to custom in Israel, Boaz could not have Ruth as his wife if a closer relative of her mother-in-law Naomi wished to redeem the property Naomi was obliged to sell. Ruth and the property were tied together at law. Moreover, the property was quite desirable. When approached with the offer of the land, the nearer relative immediately replied, “I will redeem it.”

So Boaz threw what we call a Hail Mary pass. He told the man he would have to marry a Moabite to do so. For whatever reason, that changed everything. The nearer relative waived his rights in favor of Boaz, Boaz married Ruth, Ruth conceived with the Lord’s help and bore a son, and the Messianic line continued against all odds. God had accomplished his purposes in overtime.

The Weird Part

Okay, now here’s the weird part. When Boaz makes his unexpected disclosure about Ruth and the nearer relative waives his rights, all the spectators cheer. They are in the city gate at the time, and we read that all the people and the elders present say this:

“We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.”

Now, that’s all well and good. Given that the witnesses appear to have all said this blessing together, it is quite likely it was a little local formula that the citizens of Bethlehem would recite in circumstances like this, rather than a spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm. Of course, we can imagine why Leah and Rachel would be referenced: between them they produced eight of Israel’s twelve tribes, including Judah, where Bethlehem was situated. Without those sisters there would not be much of an Israel to celebrate.

But Tamar? Therein lies quite the tale. I was just discussing the story with Immanuel Can a few weeks back, and he finds it as distasteful and sordid as I do. You can read it in Genesis 38 if it doesn’t sound familiar. In short, the scandal was that Judah was Tamar’s father-in-law, and she seduced him into fathering twins with her by masking up and posing as a prostitute by the side of the road.

Wait, What?

Why on earth does this incident get referenced, however subtly, in an Israelite blessing? If it happened in one of our churches today, there would hopefully be either church discipline or abject repentance — possibly both — followed by an agreement among all present to never mention the matter again. We certainly would not be inclined to allude to it in a benediction.

In answer, let’s just say that there is a whole lot more to the Tamar-and-Judah story than I can possibly unpack in a single blog post. The situation was, in a word, complicated, and Tamar (as Judah himself confessed) was more sinned-against than sinning. If you’re interested, I have tried to rehabilitate her here. Tamar was after what belonged to her by legal right as a result of having married into Judah’s family. Judah was determined not to give it to her for his own reasons. In an act of desperation, Tamar maneuvered her way back into Judah’s family and, like Ruth, into the line of Christ. The former was intentional, the latter … not likely.

It was yet another Hail Mary pass from one’s own twenty-yard line, and God chose to honor it. Tamar and Ruth both rate a mention in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ. Take Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law and her God out of the picture and the Messianic line ends at Boaz. But take Tamar’s refusal to be denied what belonged to her out of the picture and the Messianic line ends all the way back at Judah. Jacob would have had to revise his blessing. God was not having that. Once again, Satan’s plots end in failure. The next major move in his ongoing efforts to derail the Messianic train would come through a woman named Athaliah.

The Prophetic Spirit

The book of Ruth ends with a mini-genealogy that runs from Perez the son of Judah through to David, the great-grandson of Boaz and the distant ancestor of Messiah. Why is it here? Ostensibly to tie Boaz to David. But then why does it begin with Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar?

You tell me. Some commentators argue it’s because Tamar, like Ruth, was a Gentile, in this case yet another Canaanite. I think that extremely unlikely, for reasons you can find here. Certainly there is nothing in the Genesis account to enable us to affirm Tamar was a Gentile. Furthermore, given the historic virulence of Israelite racism, it seems grossly improbable the witnesses would have singled out for celebration the inclusion of not one but two Gentiles into the nation. The text of Ruth suggests their enthusiasm was primarily about the prospect of Boaz producing a child (“because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman”).

For me, it’s all about the highly improbable comeback. Sounds like the prophetic spirit fell on the crowd that day in Bethlehem in anticipation of much greater things to come.

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