Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The Old Testament readings for this week and next come from Ruth.  The selections seem designed to evoke the whole short book.

November 4, 2012

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Commentary on Ruth 1:1-18

The Old Testament readings for this week and next come from Ruth.  The selections seem designed to evoke the whole short book.

Today’s reading encompasses most of chapter 1, up to the point that Naomi and Ruth leave Moab.  The lectionary omits their return to Bethlehem and all of chapter 2, in which Ruth goes out to glean for grain and meets Boaz.

Next week’s reading starts with Naomi telling Ruth to go to Boaz’s threshing floor by night (3:1-5).  It then skips to the end of the story, in which Boaz and Ruth marry and have a child (4:13-17).  While the prescribed readings present turning points, the preacher must fill in the gaps to make sense of the story.

Though scholars believe it was composed much later, the book is set “in the days when the judges ruled,” Israel’s early, pre-kingdom years.  It begins with several tragic losses for one Israelite family.  During a famine, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons leave their home in Bethlehem (ironically, beyt-lehem, the “house of bread”), and become refugees in Moab on the east side of the Dead Sea.

Over the course of ten years, Elimelech dies, and the sons marry Moabite women.  Then they both die childless.  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.

Naomi faces a difficult choice: continue living as a refugee in a foreign land, or return to her home town alone?  We aren’t told what factors entered into her decision, but we can imagine she would fret over how she would be received, since she left home to live in a country with close but difficult and often hostile relations with her own, and then lost everyone.  The neighbors may consider her losses predictable, even just.

In fact, much is left unsaid.  We don’t know what caused all these deaths, nor do we know why the women are childless.  We only see glimmers of the women’s mutual kindness over the years, reflected in Naomi’s gentle words and Ruth’s and Orpah’s tears.  Naomi seems to think the young widows will fare better by departing and starting over, since she has no more sons to pledge them.  (For more on levirate marriage, see next week’s commentary.)  But we don’t know what they would be going home to, if anything at all.  All we know for sure is that Ruth, at least, prefers becoming a foreigner herself to leaving Naomi.

Whatever Ruth’s circumstances may be, her clinging to her mother-in-law is a gift of grace that Naomi cannot at first see.  Naomi says God has turned against her (verse 13), and later she tells the women of Bethlehem, “The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me … brought me back empty … dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (verses 20-21).  This is Naomi’s theology, and at first it is all she can see.

But the narrator sees things differently, attributing none of Naomi’s tragedies to God, not even the famine.  Rather it is God who has given the people food (verse 6).  This point is underscored at the end of the chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (verse 22).  Near the end of the book, the Bethlehemite women will articulate to Naomi what has been evident all along, that Ruth’s love is worth more than seven sons.  Grace is walking right beside Naomi, unseen, yet refusing to leave her.

Ruth holds a thoroughly action-oriented, thoroughly pragmatic theology.  She does not argue with Naomi’s perception of events, nor does she assert her own.  She simply communicates presence.  She refuses to leave.  It’s not about God’s actions or intents, but her own.  Ruth will worship the God that Naomi believes abandoned her.  And she swears to do what four other people — Elimelech, Mahlon, Chilion, and Orpah — couldn’t do: to stay.  Not even death, the chief resident of their household, will get in her way. 

The speeches of Naomi and Ruth in this chapter are unique.  In all of Scripture, this is the only dialogue between two women that concerns not a man — a father, a husband, or a son — but one another’s welfare.  Presumably the women of ancient Israel had such conversations all the time, but Scripture, composed mostly by men, missed these occasions.  This caring moment between a woman and her daughter-in-law stands in for dozens of missing portrayals of Israelite sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.

When they return to Bethlehem, Ruth proposes to glean barley for their food.  The despairing Naomi is minimally helpful — failing to accompany her, failing even to tell her about Boaz, to whom we are introduced in 2:1.  The chain of coincidences that brings Ruth to Boaz’s field is, like the narrator’s one direct comment about God in chapter 1, the subtlest of reminders of divine favor.  Others frequently and off-puttingly call Ruth “the Moabite” (1:22; 2:2, 6, 21).  But Boaz already knows, as he says, “how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before” (2:11), telling her story as if it were Abraham’s (Genesis 12:1-2).

Throughout the second chapter, Boaz gives her seed, seed, and more seed — barley to glean, parched grain to eat, stalks lying cut on the ground, an ephah of barley to take home, along with the promise of more every day throughout the harvest season.  Life-giving seed is as plentiful now as barrenness and death had been before.

Neither Naomi nor Ruth yet sees God’s hand here.  Naomi doesn’t know where Ruth goes; Ruth doesn’t know where she is.  As readers we see all the interactions among the three characters: Naomi with Ruth, Boaz with Ruth, Ruth with both of them.  We watch in suspense.  We hear Boaz and Ruth express their mutual respect.  We hear Naomi begin to acknowledge divine kindness after all.  For two months, at least, Ruth and Naomi may eat their fill.  But this is only the story’s beginning.