One of my favorite things to study / read about is folklore. Whether it is from ancient sources far away or from a local storyteller down the way. I love a good tale told well, especially if there is a good laugh in it. Apparently, this is a family trait because practically everyone in our family has a fair number of stories and a willingness to share them. Many of the stories and folklore I know I have heard or seen personally since they come from my family, but there are some that I have heard from others and despite the lack of personal connection, I find myself telling them.
One of these stories involves a legendary sports figure, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, famed coach of the University of Alabama. If you know anything about sports folklore and legends, you know that the veracity or truth of the tale is not nearly as important as the story being a good one worth retelling, something true of family stories as well. This story involves a commitment that needed a bit of recommitment. In college athletics, one of the most important jobs of the coaching staff is to find recruits for their program. Like most coaches of his day, Bryant was no stranger to the highway, driving all over the southeast to watch kids play and talk to them and their families. The personal relationships a coach makes or doesn’t make usually wins or loses recruits for them. Bryant had a pretty good knack for it but occasionally things go off a bit.
One such story had a young recruit whom Bryant had spent some time and effort finally committing to Alabama. As the early summer rolled on, the Alabama staff noticed the student’s absence and when practice started he was conspicuously missing. Bryant and his staff called around to the parents and found out that the young man had changed his mind and gone to another school – without telling the staff at Alabama. Less than enthused with this turn of events, the story goes that Bryant got in his car and drove to the school where his recruit was now going.
When he got there, the coach asked around campus until he found the wayward student in a dorm room. The player looked up shocked to see Bryant standing in his doorway. “Get your stuff and get in the car,” the coach said. “You committed to playing for Alabama and you’re playing for Alabama.” Now imagine looking up and seeing a man standing in your college dorm room who you’ve made a commitment to and gone back on your word to and incidentally, imagine that this man got his nickname for supposedly wrestling a bear at a county fair.The young man gathered his things, got in the car, and as the story goes, spent his collegiate career playing football in Tuscaloosa.
There is something powerful about giving your word to someone, something binding in a way. Think about it, do you remember a time when someone told you they would do something and didn’t? Do you remember how that felt? I can think of times when that has happened to me and I have wondered why someone would go back on what they said, why would the be so unreliable? I have also had moments where I have broken my word, gone back on something I said I would do, and had to deal with facing someone who had been wronged. Either way, there is nothing about breaking this bond of the word, this commitment of loyalty, that is to be done lightly.
Our story begins with a family in migration during the time of the Judges in Israel (Ruth 1:1). Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, are living in the land of Judah when a famine comes. Having traveled with his wife and sons from Bethlehem (meaning house of bread) to Moab, Elimelech and company settle themselves into the land of Moab. This journey is reminiscent of the journey of several patriarchs: Abraham and Joseph go to Egypt, Isaac to Philistia, and later in the gospels, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt and back, all for differing reasons, but all leaving Israel for better circumstances. And to begin with, that is what Elimelech and Naomi find. The land is good, and they begin to prosper again.
Yet, the difficulties of Judah are not to be left behind so easily. Elimelech dies and the family goes on with Naomi and her two sons. Then the two sons of Elimelech and Naomi, Chilion and Mahlon, find wives among the Moabites, marrying Orpah and Ruth. Things seem to be going well, but ten years into the family sojourn, the two sons die as well. Suddenly, Naomi is left with no sons and two daughters-in-law. Naomi has lost everything for a woman of her time. With her husband and sons gone, “the household that once consisted of a woman and her three men has now become three childless widows, none of them blood relatives. In a society in which fathers, husbands, and sons provided family security, this household’s prospects have declined dangerously. Barrenness is the whole story — barrenness of land, barrenness of wombs and arms.”
It is here that Naomi, not able to take care of herself much less offer security and provision for two other women, suggests that Orpah and Ruth return to their father’s homes. For a woman in that time, this was the most realistic, most viable option. Perhaps they would both find husbands (something Naomi notes she cannot provide for them) and be happy – and safe – again. Naomi is convinced that God is displeased with her and punishing her. Maybe she thinks that God didn’t really want them to leave Bethlehem and go to foreign land? Maybe there is some unknown sin she has committed and will have to seek it out repent of it? No matter, the women are sent away, Naomi hoping they will find better lives. Orpah weeps, kisses Naomi, and tearfully leaves.
But Ruth hangs on.
We have no idea why; perhaps her home was a horrible place; perhaps she was ashamed to return to her people after having embraced a Jewish family of her own; whatever the reason, Ruth offers her reasons in the beautiful, poetic expression we read earlier and refuses to go. Naomi, seeing there is not dissuading the young woman, relents. The story reads, “When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.” Embittered, pained, and struggling to hold onto light in the darkness, the women make their way back to Bethlehem by the end of the chapter, where Naomi and Ruth find themselves at the beginning of the barley harvest.
In this first chapter, we find a cycle of hope and brokenness for Naomi: hope for a new land of plenty and the despair of loosing her husband; hope for daughters-in-law that may help to carry on the family line and the despair of those dreams going unrealized when her sons die; leaving Naomi finally with the hope that there will be something, someone in Bethlehem who can help restore a bleak present into a promising future. And in the midst of that hope and despair is a commitment, a promise that flies in the face of reason.
So, when Ruth looks over at her mother-in-law, standing along the road and says, “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!” it is not some sentimental comment on being a good daughter-in-law. It is not the idle chatter of someone who is weighing her prospects and trying to get the best deal. These words recited often at weddings are the words of someone who has committed herself to a course and has no intention of turning back.
When we look a little deeper at these words spoken in this situation, we see an act of commitment and devotion, one that speaks into our lives and the lives of those who have gone before us. Ruth is committing to being present in Naomi’s life, not as a daughter-in-law but more as a daughter. She is committing to worship the God of Naomi’s people, forsaking the god of her childhood and her family. She is making a lifelong commitment, to live and die alongside Naomi as family.
The takeaway: So, let’s ask a few questions of ourselves: whose life are we devoted to being present in? Who are we calling/considering our family? What God are we really worshiping? And what are committed to seeing through to the end no matter what? For a touchy, feely, Hallmark sounding story, we find something deeper, more weighty underneath. The question now is, what are we going to do with it.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Working Preacher: Commentary on Ruth 1:1-22. October 16, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1108 (accessed October 30, 2018).
Tull, Patricia. Working Preacher: Commentary on Ruth 1:1-18. November 4, 2012. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1335 (accessed October 30, 2018).
 (Schifferdecker 2011)
 (Tull 2012)