Tucked between a narrative telling of descent into chaos, and another telling of the rise of kings, we find Ruth (at least, that’s where we find her in the Christian bible). “In the days when judges ruled,” the story begins, and so it follows the book of Judges. But it tells the story of an unlikely ancestor of the greatest and most beloved of Israel’s kings, King David, and so it forms the perfect bridge to 1 Samuel: a little jewel, just four chapters, containing an unexpected love story that serves to undermine nationalism while simultaneously lifting up the utter determination and resourcefulness of two women. (Scripture and Working Preacher commentary by Vanessa Lovelace can be found here.)
Because there is a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech, along with their sons, relocate from Bethlehem (in Hebrew, the “House of Bread”) to Moab, (a land that scripture generally describes in negative terms–for example, God trash-talks Moab by calling it “my washbasin” in Psalm 60). Their sons have names that tip us off as to their fates: Mahlon (= “Sickly”) and Chilion (= “Wasting away”). All three men die, leaving Naomi as well as her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, widows.
To be women alone in the Old Testament era is to be understood as completely vulnerable, and therefore in need of protection and care (aliens, orphans, and widows; see, for example, Deuteronomy 27:19). Naomi describes herself in terms that indicate she has lost all hope. She is as good as dead: “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me” (Ruth 1:8). When they protest, she conjures up the absurd notion of having them wait around for her to give birth to two more sons for them to marry. Finally, Orpah gets the message and leaves. Ruth does not. Instead, she utters words that describe a covenant-faithfulness so powerful they have been used as wedding vows (despite the fact that they describe a commitment from a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law):
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” ~ Ruth 1:16-17
The “covenant” is revealed by the language “May the Lord do thus and so…”, most likely accompanied by a gesture such as drawing the hand across the neck (to indicate cutting the throat). Ruth is deadly serious in making her vow. Her commitment to Naomi is complete. It is from this commitment that Ruth’s reputation for “hesed” (“lovingkindness,” a word most often found in scripture to describe God) takes root. In English, the meaning of “Ruth” can be inferred from the word indicating the opposite quality, “ruthless,” i.e. “without mercy.” Ruth is mercy-full.
- The genre of the Book of Ruth is described by some as “novella,” strongly suggesting that this is, above all, a good story. It can be fun to allow a sermon to take on the genre of the text: how might the preacher simply tell a good story here?
- Speaking of good stories, don’t you wonder what happened to Orpah? And is the lesson here really, as friend and colleague Jeff Kellam wondered aloud to me this week, “Don’t do as you are told?” After all, Orpah listens to her elder, and does the reasonable, safer thing–as opposed to Ruth, who takes on the role of… what? Unwelcome reminder of loss?
- In her Working Preacher commentary, Vanessa Lovelace states that the date of the book of Ruth is in dispute among scholars. I’m going to weigh in with a strong vote for post-exilic. Why? Because the story is about a hated foreigner (a Moabite) who is also a woman acting outside both ethno-religious and gender norms in order to accomplish God’s desired outcome: King David, born a couple of generations later. After the exile, there was a strong move to blame all Israel’s woes on intermarriage (see Ezra and Nehemiah). The book of Ruth makes a gentle and persuasive case for judging people on the content of their character, rather than their religious or ethnic identities. In the US our national conversations right now range from immigration to the #BlackLivesMatter movement to what may be our national original sin, the displacement and genocide of native peoples. How might Ruth speak to any or all of these?
- Etymologies! Language nerds can have a field day with all the on-the-nose naming that goes on in this story. What does this lead us to understand about the way we are called by name by God?
Where will you go with Ruth and Orpah and Naomi? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments! Blessings on the study and the writing and the preaching of this beautiful text.
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