We heard, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the beginning of the Book of Ruth. The scene was set, the characters were introduced; the three women in the story lost their husbands; Naomi pleaded with her two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and find themselves new husbands in their own country while she returned to the land of her birth, Judah. The reading concluded with Ruth’s moving statement of fidelity to her mother-in-law:
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!’
Seeing such determination in Ruth to accompany Naomi, it is with no surprise we read that her mother-in-law “said no more” to try and persuade Ruth to stay.
So what is this story about?
Before addressing this question, let me summarize the rest of the Book of Ruth, because this first chapter is merely the backstory of the saga.
After the events of today’s reading, the two widows, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, make the journey from Ruth’s home – Moab – to Naomi’s country of birth, Judah, and more specifically, to a hometown you may have heard of before, Bethlehem. The reasons Naomi was heading there were two-fold.
First, in the highly patriarchal society of the day, women had very few rights of their own; it was almost impossible for a woman to survive outside of her relationship to male relatives – fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. As such, it was natural for Naomi to return to the family fold after losing not one, not two, but all three of the male relatives in her immediate family.
Second, the land of Judah had emerged from a famine into a period of bountiful harvests. It was a place of greater economic opportunity. Naomi knew there would be a demand for laborers, or at least there would be enough grain left over after harvest time to be gleaned – that is, scavenged, picked through, gathered – from the plentiful crops for Ruth and her to survive on.
One thing to keep in mind is that Judah and Moab were not exactly friendly neighbors. Judeans and Moabites viewed each other with suspicion. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes them as “frequently in conflict.” And in Deuteronomy we find the admonition that “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.” That’s pretty harsh.
International tensions notwithstanding, Naomi and Ruth make the journey from Moab to Judah. Once there, Ruth heads out into the fields in search of work to support herself and Naomi. The best she manages to do, however, is to walk behind farmworkers in a field and pick up the kernels they missed while harvesting. This particular field happens to be owned by a man named Boaz, who was related to Naomi’s late husband. Boaz notices the young widow picking up the grain missed by his laborers. He has heard about Naomi’s misfortunes and Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, and he starts asking his laborers to “accidentally” miss a greater amount of grain while harvesting. And so, Ruth finds herself bringing home to Naomi an increasing amount of barley that she has gleaned. Boaz and Ruth start spending more and more time together during the harvest season. They are obviously quite taken with each other. Naomi, conscious of the laws and customs of the times, encourages Ruth to approach Boaz and invoke extended family loyalty and the law of the day, in a bid to ask him to marry her.
You see, in that part of the world, there was the tradition of levirate marriage: An arrangement in which a widow would be reintegrated into the family by marrying a male relative of her late husband. Usually this was the late man’s brother, but if he had no living brothers, the role would pass to cousins, and so on.
It seems, however, that Naomi doesn’t need to work too hard at being matchmaker. Boaz sorts out some legal hiccups, including buying out a closer relative of Ruth’s late husband, who technically has priority over marrying Ruth, but in the end the two marry, and have a son, Obed – like our friend and fellow Epiphany parishioner Obed Kabanda – who will turn out to be the grandfather of King David.
To return to the initial question: What is this story about?
One asks this of any Biblical passage. Yes, there is a literal narrative, but we all know that there is something else going on here, as there always is. What that something is can depend on who is referencing the story, when it is being referenced, which parts are being emphasized, which parts are being left out. A passage of scripture can be paraphrased to fit the news story of the day or a hot social issue or a particular agenda of the person relating it. My own paraphrasing of the story has undoubtedly revealed the subconscious curating I have done in writing this sermon. In my research for this sermon, I found a few opinions on what the Book of Ruth means. Here are some of the ones I came across.
Some say this story is about Immigration.
One might ask what happened when Naomi showed up at the Judean border with her Moabite daughter-in-law. Were they detained while their papers were checked? Was there suspicion that Ruth may be trying to freeload off her mother-in-law’s extended family? After all, Judah had just emerged from a famine in which they were barely able to feed their own people. On the other hand, looking at the “long game”, if Ruth had not been let into the country, Judah’s greatest king, David, would have never been born. Judah, and the world, benefitted from allowing these two poor widows to immigrate.
Some say this story is about Homelessness.
Naomi hadn’t lived in Judah for decades. Sure, she had relatives there, but no real home to return to. And Ruth didn’t even have relatives, except for her mother-in-law. Were they simply going to join the ranks of those who were no doubt rendered homeless from the recent famine, perhaps squatting in some shanty town on the Western shore of the Dead Sea? Maybe those in charge in Judah had some economic recovery plan to help distribute some of the wealth from the newly bountiful harvests to those who had suffered during the years of failed crops. Or perhaps they were going to sweep away the squatters, not caring where they end up, as long as it’s not here – perhaps hoping they’ll go to Moab, for instance. But Judah accepted these poor, homeless women…and their economy did not collapse.
Which leads to another, related, possibility: Perhaps this story is about attitudes of scarcity vs attitudes of abundance.
In a land so recently concerned about whether there was enough to go around, Judeans might have been hesitant to share newfound bounty with the less fortunate, especially if they’re foreigners. The famine may have entrenched a culture of scarcity, leading to the fear that helping the poor risks bringing down the whole system. Was Judah willing to celebrate God’s bounty of the plentiful harvests and share that bounty, making the leap of faith into a culture of abundance?
Some say this is a story about female empowerment and friendship.
Naomi and Ruth, as lone widows, each had nothing. But together they had the possibility of moving up in the world, using Naomi’s family connections and Ruth’s youth and beauty. They were practical, smart and they had each other.
Maybe this is a story about Chosen Families.
Ruth chose Naomi as her family and vice versa. Ruth had the choice to stay in Moab. Naomi had the choice to put her foot down and say “No. You are not coming with me to Judah.” But that’s not what happened. When Ruth and Naomi seemingly had lost everything, they still had each other. The idea of a chosen family has emerged in our time as an important component of a world which is very different from that of our parents and grandparents. Family members are scattered far from their hometowns. These geographic divisions, as well as deep divisions around politics, gender, race, and religion, have, sometimes permanently, broken many of the bonds of the birth family. Chosen Families have become increasingly important.
So what is this story about?
You could say any one of these. Or all of them. Or many more. Whatever metaphor resonates with you, you will probably find something in here to agree with or disagree with. But is there a common thread amongst all these theories and constructs? Yes: Love.
Ruth is sacrificing the world she knew and following Naomi into the unknown out of love for her mother-in-law. Naomi is going against accepted tribal prejudices and effectively adopting Ruth, a foreigner, out of love. So we see these two widowed women enter into a bond of fidelity and trust, in the face of the prevailing wisdom that they should each instead part from the other and snap back into their respective patriarchal clans. Once in Judah, Ruth scavenges in the fields under the hot sun to support her mother-in-law out of love. Boaz, the wealthy landowner, is moved by this love — by the two women’s dedication to each other — to the extent that he first discreetly supports them, then, as those feelings blossom into his own love for Ruth, he works through the rules of the tribal system to ensure that he can marry Ruth and take her – and Naomi – under his protection.
And what are the fruits of this love? Of accepting this impoverished foreigner into Boaz’s family, of this grafting-on of the stranger to a Judean household? Boaz and Ruth have a son Obed, who becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes the father of King David. And, as both the gospels of Matthew and Luke attest, from David’s line comes Jesus, the human personification of God’s love.
This gives us an important insight into the nature of God’s love. God’s love is not a conditional, exclusive, tribally and socially acceptable love. It is a radical love. It is a love that transcends boundaries of clan and nation, that transcends economic strata, that transcends tribal and societal conventions.
What is the Book of Ruth about?
It’s about love. Because in the kingdom of God, it’s always about love. I challenge all of us, when encountering a stranger, or reading a news story, or walking past a homeless person or pondering any decision we care to make regarding our work life or our family life – how is that interaction about love? And if we can’t find love playing a role in that experience, we should ask ourselves why not? How can we as children of God, make it about love? That’s a thought. Perhaps even a radical one