“Power and Influence”
My present interest in Ruth’s story arises in part from a hypothetical interest in what it would take to truly integrate a refugee into a foreign community. But I am also intrigued by the possibility that simple relational strategies enabled a relatively small social success that contributed directly to the rise of a great nation. In the modern era I fear that we have relegated social or spiritual change to great men who exert great power through great events. Many of us common folk may be asking ourselves: What do my daily actions and relationships have to do with God’s great purposes in the world? What can I possibly contribute to the big picture from way down here in the trenches?
Ruth’s answer to that question will involve demonstrating positions of influence that function alongside social power structures and illustrating relational patterns that make effective use that influence. What does all that mean? It means that no matter who you are or how much power you hold, you can make deliberate daily choices that will significantly change the way your community functions. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty encouraging to me.
What’s the problem?
Before we look at the alternate sources of influence in this story, let’s take a moment to clarify the problem that needs to be solved. As we saw in the previous post, this story is book ended by the failure or potential failure of two men’s family lines.
Elimelech’s family falls apart when he and his sons die in a foreign land, leaving their widows to fend for themselves. His family is divested of its men and any social power they might have held abroad or at home. So Naomi and Ruth set out toward Bethlehem with no social capital save for their friendship and their relational savvy.
Boaz’ family failure initially doesn’t appear that way at all. His seems to be only a tale of twilight romance between a lonely old business man and an industrious young immigrant widow. Only after the story has reached its resolution and Boaz and Ruth’s son Obed has been born does the narrator reveal what might have happened had Boaz’ line stopped with him. We discover that Israel’s famed King David is Boaz’ great grandson, a fact Boaz would never know but which, had he known, would certainly have motivated him to ensure success with Ruth.
So the problem in Bethlehem is this: If the immigrant widow Ruth is unable to secure a place in Boaz’ social order, not only will Elimelech’s and Boaz’ names fade from history, but the Davidic dynasty will never come to pass. For this to happen, three separate communities must somehow integrate: Elimelech’s scattered family system, Boaz’ fruitless family line, and the town of Bethlehem including its women, laborers and power brokers.
Who is in a position to effect these kinds of changes?
Boaz and Social Prestige
There is no doubt that Boaz is central to this story. He maintains a position of power within the culture, he is never far from the narrative spotlight and he is one of the central players in David’s royal family line. We can begin our discussion of influence and power with Boaz because he clearly holds the strongest position in the local culture of Bethlehem. But from a system perspective, the question is not only what position a person holds within the network but how that position relates to the potential of the rest of the network. As the story unfolds, we realize that Boaz is not simply in possession of power but is actively expressing himself in that role and using it to develop the network even beyond his own reach.
Traditional Bible study approaches reveal that Boaz goes above and beyond what the law requires of him in order to extend hospitality and generosity to others. In the next post, we will see one of the wonderful ways that he does the same through relational patterns. But for now, let me put a finer point on Boaz’ influence. Of all the interactions that together compose the structure of this narrative, Boaz is involved in over 50%. He is the initiator of 30% of all interactions and is the object of almost 20%. This makes Boaz both the largest contributor of relationships and also the most prestigious actor in the narrative network. That he is both contributing and receiving relationships is a strong sign that he is not only powerful but also valued in his network.
But another way of talking about Boaz’ influence is to ask how close he is to everyone else in the story. If we imagine that every direct relationship is 1 meter long then we could find the average shortest distance from Boaz to anyone else. The shorter the path between Boaz and myself, the more likely that I will come under Boaz’ influence. Let’s give this a try:
From the point of view of the Narrator and given our 1m relationship length, Bethlehem is a town 2 meters wide at almost all points with Boaz living in the center. But it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, we can see that the only path from Boaz to the town’s women will have to be provided by Naomi, who serves as cultural navigator for the couple. For another thing, Boaz is often interacting with groups of people (town, elders, young women, reapers) rather than individuals. So we can assume that the relational distance in Bethlehem has been simplified for the sake of the story and that Boaz’ influence may not be quite so dominant as it seems under this narrative lens.
Perhaps you can see from this that one way of describing the progress toward resolution in this story is to track the average distance from a character to all others. Boaz’ average distance will change somewhat over the course of the story because Naomi and Ruth are coming closer to him. But it would be even more interesting to look closely at Ruth’s distance to others over the course of the story, especially in comparison to Naomi. Ruth starts quite distant from all others and through the combination of Boaz, Naomi and her actions arrives finally at a point far superior to even the elders or the kinsman redeemer.
Naomi and Network Brokerage
I may be quite close on average to everyone in my network, but what if I don’t have direct access to more than a handful of people? To put the question in Boaz’ terms, what if Ruth was located on the far side of the “women” with whom he had no connection? Or perhaps a little more hopeful situation, what if she lived on the other side of the “town” that he was connected to only generally?
Naomi’s influence in the network arises from the fact that she is the central person connected all the networks that need to be integrated. She is not as connected as Boaz, but she is well connected because it is highly likely that a message moving from point A (the elders) to point B (the women) across the network will have to pass through her hands.
Just as the network crumbles if you remove Boaz, the same is true if you remove the widow Naomi who has significantly less power and far fewer direct connections than Boaz. In fact, the combination of Naomi’s role of broker in the narrative combined with her forward thinking relational patterns are critical to effecting Ruth’s introduction to Boaz and integration into the town.
These are only two examples of the way that network positions differ in their influence from social power. The real magic comes into play when we see how our main characters leverage their positions by Christ-like behavior in order accomplish God’s goals. More on that in the next installment: “Winning Strategies”.