< November 01, 2009 >

Commentary on Ruth 1:1-18

 

Ruth is a story of biblical proportions including everything from famine, widows, gleaning in the fields, levirate marriage, and justice at the gate to the birth of children of destiny.

Ruth is also one of the few places in the male-dominated world of Scripture where women play the major roles and are the central characters. They must make their way, of course, amidst the men and the male-dominated world of ancient Israel, but the emphasis is squarely and resolutely on the women. This is a rather remarkable situation and no small gift to us and the canon.

This Sunday's lection covers almost all of chapter one, but leaves out the scene when Naomi and Ruth arrive back in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22). Although those verses do comprise a separate unit, they nevertheless cast light on Naomi--her character and her plight. Good preachers may want to include these verses, then, if not in the lesson, at least in their consideration of the story's dynamics.

Regardless, verse 22's notice that the women returned to Bethlehem "at the beginning of the barley harvest" is not to be missed. This is fortuitous timing; in the theology of Ruth, however, the better word is providential. This is but one instance of many throughout the book that shows God active behind the scenes in the circumstances of everyday life and among everyday kind of people. In the specific case of verse 22, the action is not altogether "behind the scenes," however, insofar as this verse confirms what is indicated in verse 6: Naomi heard that "the LORD had considered his people and given them food."

The first paragraph (verses 1-5) sets the scene and introduces the characters. After a chronological note fixing the book in the time of the judges (hence its canonical placement), the book begins with the problem of famine which moves a family from Bethlehem (somewhat ironically that name means "house of bread/food") to Moab. This opening sounds familiar in many ways: the language and cadence of it, the famine that causes relocation of Israelites to foreign lands (cf. Genesis 12:10; 42:1-5; etc.), the family details and the special focus on the father, Elimelech, and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.

But quickly the focus shifts; things become unfamiliar and disoriented. Elimelech dies, and, after taking Moabite wives, the two sons do the same. These details are consistently reported with reference to Naomi: Elimelech is described as Naomi's husband (not vice versa), and the narrative twice stresses her bereft status (verses 3, 5b). It is as if the narrative is zooming in, slowly but surely, on this woman and her plight. We do not yet know much about Naomi, but her desperate circumstances are coming into tight focus.

That focus continues in the next paragraph (verses 6-14). Things seem to improve, if only for a moment. There is food back in Israel; so at least the childless widow can return to familiar surroundings. But then the narrowing in on Naomi comes back--now not a function of the narrative but of Naomi's own character. Although her daughters-in-law at first accompany her--one must remember the desperate circumstances of widows (and orphans) in the ancient world (hence the injunctions to care for them; see Deuteronomy 26:12-13; 27:19; etc.) and their need to stick together--Naomi stops them up short.

She instructs them to go home and hopes that God will deal well with them before she kisses them goodbye (Ruth 1:8-9). At first they protest, but Naomi is convinced. There is no reason whatsoever for them to continue on with her. She can have no more children that might be husbands for them a la levirate marriage practices; even if she could the age-difference would make that situation impossible (verses 11-13).

Naomi is determined to be alone in her grief. Things are far more bitter for her, she states. (Back in Bethlehem, she will even ask to be renamed: she's no longer "Sweet" [Naomi] but "Bitter" [Mara]; see verse 20). And Naomi knows who's behind all this: it is the hand of the LORD that has turned against her (verse 13); it is the Almighty who has dealt bitterly and harshly with her, who has brought calamity on her, and who has brought her back from Moab empty (verses 20-21).

Naomi is not only convinced, she is convincing. Daughter-in-law #1, Orpah, turns back. But while the narrative has wanted to focus in on Naomi to the exclusion of all others--and Naomi herself has continued the trend with good reasons and evidence to back them up--Ruth will have none of it. She emerges as an acting agent in verse 14: she clings to Naomi, a term used in contexts of profound love, inalienable possession, unshakable commitment (see, e.g., Genesis 2:24; Numbers 36:7, 9; Deuteronomy 4:4; 10:20; 11:22). As Naomi remains convinced that her bitterness is solitary, she makes another appeal, urging Ruth to follow Orpah.

At that moment, Ruth adds speech to her action. Indeed, she utters what might be a speech-act, in which she actually does something in and by saying something (cf. "I do" in weddings or "I believe" in the Creed). What she says-does is powerful and it is poetic, lining out in nicely parallel lines like the best of Hebrew poetry.

In it she promises to go with Naomi, to lodge with her, to make Naomi's people and Naomi's God her own (Moabites had other gods; see, e.g., Judges 11:24), even to die and be buried with Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17a). As if this weren't enough, Ruth then invokes a curse on herself--in Yahweh's name! (the religious transition promised in verse 16 has already taken place)--if even death parts her from Naomi (verse 17b). Ruth is in it for the long haul. And, from what has transpired already in chapter 1, it is clear that is exactly what Naomi needs.

But, despite Ruth's statement, verse 18 is enigmatic at best. Perhaps Naomi realizes she has been defeated in the quest to be alone. But it is far from clear that she is happy about it, or happy with Ruth. All we hear is that Naomi "said no more" to Ruth. Indeed, the rest of chapter one suggests that Naomi continues to take solitary refuge in her pain. Pain is not easily overcome, after all, nor is it easily shared, even by those with the best of intentions and with comparable pain (Ruth, too, is a widow who loved Naomi's son).

The rest of the book, however, will show Ruth, in both word and deed, making slow progress in living life after grief with Naomi. Ruth's clinging pays off for both of them. Naomi finds blessing from the Lord because of Ruth, who loves her, and who has proven of inestimable worth (4:14-15; contrast 1:13, 20-21). The "clinging" at the end of the story is Naomi's, as she cradles Ruth's newborn baby boy (4:16).