Long, long ago, in a country far, far away… Israel stood on the far bank of the Jordan River and heard all that God had done, all that God expected, all that God promises to do for a people chosen to be a blessing to the nations. Across the river lies a land of milk and honey and a new chapter in the life of God’s people.
Their faithful leader, Moses has died, and a new young squadron leader – Joshua – is chosen to lead the people down from the plains of Moab, to strike and seize the city of Jericho and, from there, engage in military conquest of all the lands of Canaan. Israel, once in possession of the promised land, is charged with establishing a model theocracy – a people governed directly by their divine Lord and King. The trumpets blow, Jericho falls, bloody battles follow, and Israel begins their occupation and purge of the resident tribes.
As the years pass, jealousies and conflicts arise between the 12 tribes of Israel. The Canaanites do not relinquish their land willingly. Neighboring nations take advantage of the general unrest, and the people of promise fall into an age of darkness. Inter-tribal disputes, rivalries, military skirmishes escalate. Blood vengeance is claimed as law. The tribe of Benjamin narrowly averts genocide. During these dark days leaders arise over Israel, empowered by the spirit of God to guide, govern, and judge the people. Of the 12 judges, we might recognize a few of the names – Gideon, Deborah, Samson.
Gradually, the land of milk and honey sours. “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” These words – once bound to heart and hand and head – are all but forgotten. The chosen people abandon the covenant they had made with God. The signs of the covenant – hospitality, loving-kindness, mercy – are neglected. This proves to be a godless time among the people of God, and they hold to no king. Fighting, sinning, worshiping the gods of their neighbors, calamity, repentance, crying out to God… this is the pattern of life for generations – and God, in turn, remembers them, hears them, forgives them, raises up among them a new judge to lead them… only to have the cycle begin again.
The period of the Judges is not a high point in the history of God’s people. In fact, the closing words of the book of Judges are unflattering: “In those days there was no king over Israel, and all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
Into this tumultuous scene…. in the midst of yet another drought and famine in the land of milk and honey, a time when Bethlehem – which means the house of bread – was empty, barren of bread… the story of Ruth unfolds.
A reading from the first chapter of Ruth.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and it came to pass that a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and their two sons. The name of the man was Eli-melek and the name of his wife Naomi. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Eli-melech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. They took Moabite wives; the name of one of the wives was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both of Naomi’s sons also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.
Then she started to return to Bethlehem with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard that the Lord had had consideration for his people there and had given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, and they prepared to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “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. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of a husband.”
Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.
They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “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!”
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
The hymn response is #359 Where charity and love prevail
We’re going to pause in the lectionary flow to stay with Ruth for a few weeks.
The book of Ruth is a short one – just 4 thin chapters. It is a novella in genre, similar to Jonah, set during the time when Israel was struggling to settle the promised land. As I indicated, it was a time marred by unstable politics and environmental crisis. The actual time of its writing is unknown – possibly during the post-exilic period using a storyline and oral history from much earlier. The author is unknown, as is the motivation for telling the story. There are several ideas about this among biblical and Jewish scholars – but we’ll take it as it stands, and let the storyteller get on with it:
“There was a famine in the land, and it came to pass that a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and their two sons. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.” This would have been a clue. As a theater production, this line would be accompanied by hisses and boos.
Moab was not a kindly-thought-of, neighborly place to go. It is associated biblically with hostility and sexual perversity. In fact, in Deuteronomy, Moabites and Ammonites are excluded from the ‘assembly of the Lord’ even to the 10th generation, because “they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor of Mesopotamia to curse you. You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live,” says God.
But the “house of bread” was suffering from a famine when the story begins, motivating Eli-melech to leave the land the Israelites were meant to occupy. It seems significant that he chose Moab taking the story backward to the wilderness, back to the staging ground where, some generations earlier, Moses had reminded the people of their covenantal ties to God. Eli-melech goes back to the place not promised. This is significant in a bad way. Going backwards is rarely a good sign.
So, maybe Elimelech was being disloyal to his land and his God by moving to a forbidden place when Bethlehem was empty of bread, and maybe that is why he died and why his sons and their Moabite wives remained childless even after 10 years. Naomi believes it was the Lord’s hand that afflicted her with the deaths of her menfolk. Maybe so. We don’t tend to believe that of God in this modern era, but we know that ancient people did, and so we will hold that point without judgment and let it be possible.
However it came to pass, these three widows found themselves in the midst of sterility and death in the high fertile plains of Moab.
What a great ironic way to begin a story. Going backwards is rarely a good sign – unless the people need to start over.
Ruth’s actions, however, echo the ideal marriage. Leaving her father and mother, she clings to Naomi and vows to take her god, her people, her circumstances – for better or worse, in sickness and in health, and to stay with her even after death has parted them. Naomi has nothing to say to this, and they continue on together.
When they enter Bethlehem, Naomi tells her old friends that she comes back empty. This is not a slight of Ruth (although it sounds like it). What’s worse than being a childless widow? Two childless widows to feed and clothe and care for. Despite the famine, Naomi was full when she left because she had her husband and sons. Now she comes back to a prosperous land empty of men – her security and livelihood. She had no choice but to return, hoping for some kind of help and protection from her kinsmen. As an elderly widow, incapable of bearing children for a new husband, she has no value in a community’s eyes, she and Ruth are a burden on their limited resources, and she was literally in danger of starving to death. Naomi is not being dramatic in saying that she comes back to the house of bread bereft, empty, bitter.
In cleaving to her, does Ruth know what she’s getting into? In her mind, is it simply accompanying, supporting, a mother-in-law of whom she has grown fond? Is she is out for a little adventure or thinking the grass might be greener in Bethlehem – wanting to see the sights, get a new starting place? Does Ruth realize that she puts her life on the line for the sake of this other woman who has nothing to offer, who’s got no ground for promise in the promised land? Ruth sets her stakes, sight unseen, on a people and land and God she knows only through the relationship she has with her mother-in-law (who feels personally afflicted by God). She had a real choice to turn back, to go home, and it seems that Orpah made the wiser decision. Is Ruth simply more baggage for Naomi? Why does she feel this sense of loyalty and love? Is it pity? Is it fear of the unknown – this at least being a known relationship? Was it a choice made out of strength or weakness on her part? We don’t know yet.
Which choice would you have made?
The issue of belonging is integral to this story. Where does Naomi belong now without one to whom she belongs? Where do the widowed daughters belong? They’ve been out of their mother’s homes for 10 years. They married out of their culture. How welcome are they now among their kinsmen, within the old traditions in Moab?
Is place, land, location where one belongs? The story seems to say yes – especially knowing the prohibition of moving to Moab in the first place.
But Ruth gives it a twist. She belongs – through the irrational law of love – to/with a person, and only through a person to a community and place and God. Her place is with Naomi, but she is out of place.
‘Belonging’ is a deeply rooted theme of the biblical narrative and, I think, a deeply rooted issue with each of us. We want – more than just about anything – to belong. We seek safe places, lives that open to us. We want that Cheers experience of walking in and hearing them call our name.”Norm!”
That is part of the draw of church, of this gathering of community. On a higher level, if you belong to God and feel that, then you can go anywhere, find yourself anywhere, it doesn’t really matter, because you carry that ultimate sense of belonging with you. That kind of belonging is greater than geography. It lies in the heart of God. It is the chief characteristic of God’s relationship, God’s concern, God’s way of dealing with humanity. “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” It’s a mobile promise.
On the other hand, we worship God in a place. We wouldn’t be this community if we didn’t have this place. We wouldn’t gather in this grouping anywhere else. Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. We don’t have those kind relationships anymore. And these Israelites were promised a land through Abraham. They have finally arrived, and so they belong to the land.
Belonging in relation to a person and belonging in relation to a place are in play in this story. What/where/to whom is your primary sense of belonging? Which one of those?
Why do you live where you do? What would it take to motivate you to move?
Why do you come to this church? There are those who come for belief; there are those who come for belonging – ideally it would be both. But I don’t think we can downplay the importance of belonging, of that sense of community that we find and try to build here.
God is in the background of the story of Ruth – Naomi feeling afflicted or cursed in her grief blames God; her idea to move back to Bethlehem because God has looked favorably again in bringing good crop yields is another mention. But it is a time when religion was not particularly practiced. There isn’t mention of prayer, no one is invoking God’s name. Religion and a relationship to God is not explicit in the book of Ruth. It was a time when the people, culturally, had forgotten God.
We know better as readers, and so we’re set to look for signs, for indications that God is working in the background. And, honestly, that’s where we like God to be in our lives, too. It’s easier to trust God in the background than it is to put a present expectation on God… or to have God be right here – that would be pretty uncomfortable. So Ruth is our kind of story.
I also think we can identify with Naomi’s grief when we look out at the world. The news is a constant source of crises and endless needs. It’s easy to feel powerless, numb, hopeless, frightened; to become passive believing nothing we can do will make any possible difference in nations at war, in politics gone topsy turvy, in the environmental crisis. Naomi is too old, she says, too powerless, too diminished to do anything. We probably feel that way several days of the week.
Our on-going updates of Sami, Jafra and Tamal offer us a face and a person for just a couple of these crises. Somehow knowing one person makes a difference. We are jostled awake. We know a name. We worried about Jafra traveling to see her father. We care about Tamal’s progress and movements. One human out of place hoping for a home and belonging is a drop in the bucket, but the biblical narrative keeps reminding us that one is all it takes. It’s what Tamal needs. One unlikely person showing compassion. One safe stowage to a safe harbor.
It’s what we need – one family, one pairing, one step outside of our door – and we find meaning and purpose and hope. “Your people will be my people” would be a great mission statement for a church – it is radical; it’s re-defining what it means to belong, redefining what it means to live the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It is accompanying our neighbors on their terms instead of hoping they’ll become like us. This chapter of Ruth – with her risky undertaking, might be a good guide.
Like Jonah, I think we’ll find that Ruth is a story for our time….and a challenge to us as we both seek and select belonging.
At the time of the judges, when governance was shaky, when the nations were in turmoil, when all the people did what was right in their own eyes, an outsider, a Moabite, a woman, a widowed daughter-in-law, in her own quiet, steadfast, understated way exhibits loving kindness to her widowed mother-in-law.
In so doing, as we will see, she unknowingly keeps Naomi, the community, and the genealogy of this adopted people moving forward. It is Ruth. And in her, God is seen as by reflection.
“They came into Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”
It’s an evocative, hopeful ending for chapter one.