Themes of emptiness and fullness abound in this little book: famine turning to abundant food, loss turning to love, bitterness turning to joy, barrenness giving way to birth. And the improbable catalysts for all this Naomi and Ruth, widows and a foreigner. This little domestic tale is a story of God’s hesed, God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant love, lived out in the lives of everyday, ordinary human beings, much like you and me.
The first chapter of Ruth sets up the story that follows. “In the days when the judges ruled” (1:1) refers back to the time of the judges, a time of chaos and disobedience in Israel. In fact, the verse just previous to this (the last verse of the book of Judges) reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel.
Set against this backdrop of national calamity, a more personal calamity comes upon Naomi and her family. Famine sets the stage for difficulties encountered even before the story begins. If you read the text carefully, it sounds like Namoi and her husband, and their two sons, had a home. But then there was a famine in Bethlehem, which forces Naomi, her husband, and their sons to immigrate to Moab in search of food. How ironic, considering the meaning of Bethlehem – literally “house of bread.”
After they moved to Moab, Naomi’s husband died, leaving her to rely upon her two sons. Her sons married local women from Moab, which was a violation of Mosaic law – they were not Jewish women - and also probably made it more complicated if the men wanted to go back to their roots and the country they originally came from.
There is also another layer around how the women became wives. Dr. Wil Gafney reminds us that “the taking of the women in Ruth 1:4 is done with the same verb that describes the abduction and rape of the young girls in Shiloh in Judges 21:23”3 and “is a particular problem for English readers because it masks sexual and domestic violence.”4 Despite these circumstances – because I am sure that Naomi knew what was going on and how her sons acquired their wives - Naomi found enough healing to forge a genuine friendship with her sons’ wives.
But then about ten years after Naomi’s husband died, both of her sons died, leaving behind Naomi and her two daughters in law. The losses were devastating. For Naomi, it meant not only grieving the death of her husband, but also feeling the loss of her sons. No parent expects to bury their children. Perhaps, an unanswerable “Why God, why?” question lingered in her soul compounding her bitterness. 2
[Three examples of parents who have lost adult children. They all acknowledged that they knew God did not cause those deaths, and that God has been with them in their grief.]
Their basic security was at risk, even as the women all grieved. No possibility of work, food, or home. History is not kind to women left alone. The news that there was bread in Judah must have been music to Naomi’s ears. She decides to go home, taking her daughters-in-law with her. Having started the journey together, it must have seemed odd to Orpah and Ruth that Naomi attempts to persuade them to return to home. Having experienced what it means to be an outsider/refugee/immigrant in Moab, perhaps Naomi wants to spare Orpah and Ruth a similar experience in Judah where they would be “too distant from her own kin to receive care and sustenance.”1 Persuaded, Orpah decides to return to Moab.
But Ruth could only see a meaningless future without the presence of her mother-by-marriage. In that moment, Ruth made the choice to go with her mother-in-law assuming that wherever Naomi was going was better than staying where she was. She begged to go with Naomi saying:
Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.(v. 16) Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me. (v.17)
Rudy Rasmus, a modern day prophet and lead pastor at St. Johns United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, explains that Ruth did as so many of us have and continue to do; refashion family as required. Ruth was not Jewish, but she had come to trust in Naomi’s God, surely due to the model that Naomi had presented through her life. Ruth is redefining the definition of family and faith for us. We live in an age where faith is not necessarily passed down by families. Our spiritual fathers and mothers are not necessarily our fathers and mothers. We live in an age afflicted by death, divorce, and distance. The people with whom we break bread, share our lives, and spend our holidays become family without the bloodline – our family of faith.
Trust is another word for faith, and faith is often the by-product of meaningful relationships, like the one between Naomi and Ruth. When Ruth left Moab, she left the other gods behind, because she had seen something in her new mother, Naomi, that made her declare that nothing mattered more than that relationship. 3
Trust is important. On Friday I spent the day at West Ohio licensing school -where people who are preparing to become licensed local pastors go. The school takes place once a year and includes topics such as mission, ministry, funerals and weddings, sexual ethics, pastoral boundaries, and biblical reflection. I co-presented with a friend about ministry and diversity. One of the exercises we asked the students to do was to pair up and do some role play. One person played the role of someone who was not religious and thought of church as an example of hypocrisy. The other person was a Christian. The two met at the county fair, they find out that their kids are friends in the same classroom, and they begin to talk. We asked the Christian to talk to the non-Christian about the importance of church without using churchy language.
The students LOVED the role play. After they did the role play, students reported back about their experiences. For a lot of them, the people playing the Christian knew that they could not argue or convince the non-Christian into coming to church. But what they could do was build a relationship – and a relationship takes time, and trust. Trust is another word for faith. Ruth chose to take the path toward redemption without knowing how the ultimate process would work its way through her life to the ultimate end.
The two women made the journey back home to Bethlehem where they were greeted by family and friends. (v. 19) All the city was excited because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” (v. 20). But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” In spite of bitter experiences, Naomi knew that if she could get home to her family, her problems would give way to provision and all would be well.
In Bethlehem, acting on the instructions of Naomi, Ruth begins to toil and glean the left over grain from Boaz’s fields. One of the challenges we often face is giving up before God can show up. Ruth continued to toil. Ruth trusted the instruction of an elder family member who was close to God.
In the critical next step of Ruth’s journey, she meets Boaz who falls for her. We will talk about this more next week, but be sure to remember that Boaz, before falling for her, protected her from assault and starvation, even though she was a foreigner, an immigrant, someone who came to a new country because she had nothing left where she came from. So, the last verse in this chapter of Ruth tells us that Boaz showed kindness to Ruth, an immigrant, and she became his wife. 4
(example of campus ministry with two main groups – very churchy students and those who have no deep roots in church but are searching for God – the challenge is to help them trust each other and build relationship.) It is as though the two groups came from different countries into a new place, and they were learning how to live out their faith together.
I believe that even in the midst of all that she had lost, Ruth saw something hopeful in staying with Naomi. Trust and relationship matter.. However, remember that Naomi blessed both of her daughters in law before continuing on to Judah – she blessed Orpah, the daughter in law who went back to Moab, and she blessed Ruth, who continued on the journey into a strange land.
Kimberly Knight reminds us: Blessed be those who choose a life with us AND those who choose a life outside of us. Blessed be the ears who hear the Word in new ways AND those who cannot let go of previous understandings to traverse into the unknown.
This story from ancient Hebrew scripture reveals at least two key attributes of God. This narrative tells us that the God of all creation is concerned with the mundane affairs of humankind, with everyday life, the inconsolable grief of an older widow who has now buried her sons plus the broken heart of a young woman.
In addition, this story affirms that our hope in God is well placed. May the examples of Naomi – the widow who blessed both those who decided not to follow her and the one who came with her – and the example of Ruth – the one who trusted that the God of Judah had a better future in store for her – may we cherish these examples and consider how we are called to respond to God in our own lives.