“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah” by William Blake

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.

Sermon ponderings:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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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13 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Lovingkindness Personified (Ruth 1:1-17)

  1. Avery creative as always! The defenceless widow in chapter 1 becomes a very happy grandmother in ch 4. What i also find so amazing about this story is that Boas’ mom was Rahab, the prostitute (Matt 1:5). Amazing what God can do thru a Moabite and a prostitute!
    Blessings

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    1. Kobus, I think that given Ruth and Rahab are both in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1), I wonder whether God isn’t telling us that our preconceived ideas about people who are “other” need to be challenged. Thank you so much for joining the conversation!

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  2. Never thought I’d want to preach on Ruth as I had my fill in Hebrew exegesis and writing a small bible study for the women of the Moravian Church in North America. I swore after that, that the Book of Ruth should be taken out of the Bible – but ended up reading a portion of it at my at my BFF’s ordination. What is remember about Hebrew exegesis is hesed and that I got engaged. But after reading your post I wish I could change the focus of worship to focus on this story (we follow the RCL).

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    1. Kelly, I understand how we can grow weary of certain texts! I’m really happy to hear you have new energy around this wonderful little gem! Thanks so much for commenting.

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  3. I love this story on so many levels
    I am going with a theme roughly on the lines of stepping out in faith – this week is communion; additionally I have a young man joining the church – he is profoundly disabled – doesn’t speak, is partially sighted; confined to a wheelchair, tube fed… he is a miracle on so many levels.
    Although he doesn’t speak – he does communicate – and responds in worship in ways that are immensely profound – with his mother I have written a special liturgy, vows which reflect where he is and what he can do… we are stepping out in faith, into the unknown

    The story of Ruth – a foreigner, entering a foreign land, and dedicating her life to an unknown God seems just perfect

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  4. Julie, I love the direction you are taking. Wow. What a profound insight, and so close to your own situation. Blessings on your new member! God does indeed call each of us by name. Thank you for sharing your story here.

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  5. PReaching this NEXT week (I am a week behind right now but will catch up when I skip over David becoming king) and the sermon title in my planner is Family Support. I am also using a snippet from chapter 4 where Boaz takes Ruth as spouse…..might have to fill in some of the story in the sermon.

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  6. I think I’m going to talk about how Ruth is the first convert (I think? I read it somewhere and now I can’t remember where), and that she converts because of Naomi’s kindness to her and their relationship, not out of the great theology or nice building or whatever. We had a cool act of evangelism that happened during our yearly Oktoberfest and I’m going to highlight that it’s our relationships that draw people to faith and change their lives.

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  7. I’m not a pastor, of course, but I did have a mother-in-law I adored, and who was very good to me. Ruth has always resonated with me because of her. But also, I was the secretary for all the Assistant Principals on a large high school campus, and thus saw all the discipline-issue kids. The ones so easy to dismiss as “other.” What I saw was that they were not “other,” and they were always the ones who would hug me when I needed a hug, who saw when I was struggling. They were often kinder to me than my colleagues or certainly, they “superiors.”

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  8. First time poster here….

    I was really struck by one of the comments on the Luther podcast. I think it was Koester who spoke about the question of “Who am I now?” in light of Ruth’s sense of loss and change of circumstances. She and her daughters all had to ask that question, as the identity and the home they had known was now changing due to the loss of husband/sons. He talked about how people in our pews would identify with that. Specifically, in my congregation, we have many aging folks who have recently lost spouses, or who have had to leave long time homes for senior living options. Some have gone willingly, but many have had no choice due to health issues. For many, the congregation has been a huge part of their support system and “family.” So I’m pretty sure that’s where I’m going to be connecting with this text. Not sure exactly how yet, but hey, it’s only Friday night!

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