The Resurrection of Ruth
Given how difficult it was last week to try to sum up and characterize the life of a major biblical figure, you would think I should have learned my lesson. As usual, I didn’t. Once again this week, I am going to look into the life of someone from the bible with the intent of summarizing their life into a small, bit sized, simplified, digestible chunk and hopefully be out of the way enough for the Holy Spirit to unpack that in your heart and mind and spirit. Last week, we talked about how Moses went through a series of identities as God worked in and through him over the course of his life and how those identities changed the character of the great leader of the Exodus. We looked at how he started as a slave and became a prince to become a shepherd to become the leader and prophet of a soon to be nation. In all these things, God worked to shape the identity of Moses to the task and calling of his life. This week, we look a small little book with a familiar story that has some not so familiar things floating beneath the surface, the story of Ruth.
This story begins in a specific time and place and with a specific circumstance: During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. Another way of saying that might be, “During a time of upheaval and chaos.” The reason is that if you look at the end of Judges – chapter 17 to 21 – you will find a phrase that keeps coming up. The phrase is “there is no king in Israel.” There were bad things happening – people starting their own versions of the Levirate priesthood, people attacking people in the streets, people looking to have priests bless the killing of their families – all because, according to the author of Judges, there was no king, no one to enforce the laws of God and man. It is in this chaos, this trying time, that many scholars think the story of Ruth takes place. This story is a story of circumstance and providence, how the people walk through certain difficult, often heart wrenching circumstances and find the providence of God working along side of that.
The story, as we have said, begins during the time of the Judges and during a famine no less. The famine is ironic for this family because it is in Judah, specifically Bethlehem which in Hebrew means, house of bread. So, the house of bread has no bread. Because of this, the family of Elimelech, which consisted of his wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilion, left the land of Judah for the land of their enemies, the land of Moab. Moab was a land often at war with Israel over territory and resources as well as cultures and ideologies. But famine is famine and food is food, so when there is no bread in the house of bread you have to find some bread. And for Elimelech’s family, that bread was in Moab.
When they come to Moab, tragedy strikes: Elimelech dies and Naomi is left in a foreign land with her sons. It is not complete tragedy however, because both sons marry Moabite women. The two women, Orpah and Ruth, are favorable enough women that even though they are not Hebrew, Naomi gives her blessing for the sons to marry. Interesting side note: in many stories in the Hebrew bible or Old Testament, the names have important meanings. Of course, we have already mentioned the irony of Bethlehem and its meaning of “house of bread.” Elimelech means “my God is king” and Naomi means “sweet, pleasant.” The two sons’ names Mahlon and Chilion mean “sickness” and “failing,” which sounds promising if you read this in Hebrew, right? The women they marry are named Orpah meaning neck as in stiff-necked and Ruth meaning restore or replenish. Suffice it to say, the names here are not chosen accidentally.
In time, the two sons, as their names might suggest, die and Naomi is left a woman in a foreign land with no protection, no family, no one to look out for her. In the days of ancient patriarchy, a woman’s security was in being part of a family group and having either a father, brother, or son to take care of you. With no one to look out for her, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, where the famine had apparently ended. At first, both daughters begin the journey but then Naomi tries to send them back. Eventually, Orpah decides to go home to her family in Moab but Ruth stays, and we get the oft quoted at weddings, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” Naomi relents. The women return and Naomi claims to have changed her name to Mara, which means bitter in Hebrew, because she sees God as having “dealt bitterly with her.”
If we read past the text today, we would find that the story is not as dire a story as it seems it might be. Ruth and Naomi find a place to stay and Ruth goes to the fields to find grain that she might pick up after the main harvest has passed. Unknown to Ruth, there is a divine law that the Israelites must leave a portion of the field to be available for widows, orphans, the poor, and the sojourner. As a foreigner or sojourner, Ruth can glean from the grain left. When she does, she is noticed by Boaz the owner of the field. Breaktime rolls around, Boaz meets her and is impressed enough to invite her to eat their midday meal, a gesture of familiar recognition. The gesture is a little shocking considering that she is from Moab and throughout the story is referred to as Ruth the Moabite. Nonetheless, she goes home with arm loads of grain and Naomi is shocked, even more so when she finds out that the field where Ruth was belonged to a kinsman, someone who could potentially be asked to honor the Levirate laws of marriage and marry Ruth so that his kinsman’s family line of descendants would continue.
We of course know the story from here, even if we do not always get the nuance. Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions on what is essentially the Israelite way to propose a marriage contract to Boaz. He accepts here daring offer and we get a lot of rituals involving kinsman redeemers and witnesses and giving you shoes to your cousin a few times removed. Boaz and Ruth marry. Naomi becomes a grandmother of sorts and according to the writer of the story, the family line of Ruth and Boaz connects to that of David. Ruth goes from foreigner to family and the story is held up for many reasons not the least of which is the idea of a redeemer that gets quite often tied in with theology about Jesus.
Resurrecting our Circumstances
There is so much going on in this story, so much more that we could dig into. The big things, though, are about how God works through the circumstances of the lives involved and how we can connect to that by seeing this as our story as well. Some theologians say the main idea in this story is the idea of chesed, a Hebrew word that get translated as faithfulness or loving-kindness but means much more. The meaning is more of several ideas connected: faithfulness, grace-filled love, loving kindness, all within a relational context that is like an ongoing conversation. It has some similarities to the Greek word agape in that the relationship is one of self-sacrifice but in chesed, the parties involved don’t necessarily agree all the time and work through the relationship while growing together.
If you look at the story in Ruth, you can see this in how Naomi goes from being sweet and pleasant to bitter to joyous in her relationship with God. In chapter one, she is convinced God has abandoned her. By the end of chapter two, she has begun to hope again. By chapter three, Naomi is excited for the future and by the final chapter, she is at peace. Ruth, in similar fashion goes from a woman with a potential in a future family, to a woman giving up her family and country for what might be nothing to a woman who not only has a new family but ends up being the ancestor of a king. Throughout this story the circumstances change and at each change the people involved are seeing their connections to God and one another change in response to their faith actions. Throughout the circumstances, the providential Spirit of God guides and encourages so that each person in the story can grow in the way they best need to.
What does this say about our life, our faith actions in relation to the world we live in? Quite a bit actually. Right now, we live in our own world of upheaval. And the story of Ruth is a human story, so it is relatable to our time and place, our own humanity. We have faced catastrophes. We have all felt betrayed at times by God or someone else. We have all dealt with personal reversals of some kind. We have all felt desperate over circumstances and situations. We have been Naomi or Elimelech or Ruth or Boaz to someone and have had people who those characters to us.
It is a story about walking into the unknown. In the long tradition of Abram, Moses, the Exodus, the disciples, and many or most other characters from the bible, the people in Ruth are walking on faith into a circumstance that is limited in vision. All these stories from the bible, Ruth included, are stories about how people lived into faith action, not just thinking things about God but doing things with/for/in response to God. They are true sojourners answering the call to walk to new places, see new things, and live into new lives of service, love, and sacrifice.
Finally, it calls to that part of us that may have gotten tired, gotten distracted, or just stopped walking in our faith. It calls us to rise from the circumstance we are in, good or bad, and continue in the journey. It says that the next bend may lead up to a mountain, down to a valley, off in green pastures, or out into a desert. No matter where it leads, no matter the circumstance, we walk with God in our ongoing relationship of chesed, experiencing the ongoing faithfulness, grace-filled love, loving kindness conversation within the relationship we have with God.
So, whether you are on your way to the house of bread or the land of the enemy you do not go alone. You go with the Spirit of God leading your providentially to the circumstance that will help you grow into maturity in Jesus and the Way.