Commentary on Ruth 1:1-18
The book of Ruth is beloved by many, and preachers have a wonderful opportunity over the next two weeks to explore this little book of the Old Testament. Reappropriating a quote from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one might say this about the book of Ruth: “though she be but little, she is fierce.”
While the book is only four chapters long—approximately 80 verses—the book is packed with important avenues to explore, from sociocultural and justice-oriented issues like women’s rights and the rights and treatment of foreigners to theological considerations, such as how God is perceived and how divine providence might be operative in this text.
Previous Working Preacher contributors have attended to some of these issues in past entries, and I would commend them to you. In hopes of adding to these various avenues of exploration, this week’s and next week’s commentaries will offer insight into the figure and role of Naomi in the narrative.
The book may be called Ruth, and she is undoubtedly an important figure in the narrative, but the story is Naomi’s.
Supporting this, there are several key points:
- Following the introduction of the family of Elimelech in verses 1–2, the point-of-view shifts to Naomi in verse 3: “But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons.”1 Her point-of-view remains prominent throughout chapter 1. Verse 22 reads, “Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her….”
- Throughout chapters 2 and 3, much of the action belongs to Ruth. However, each chapter begins and ends with Naomi. The end of the book also maintains Naomi’s point-of-view as central. After Ruth has given birth to Obed, the women of the neighborhood say, “A son has been born to Naomi” (4:17; emphasis added).
- Naomi speaks more than Ruth in the narrative, occupying 19 verses to Ruth’s 12 verses of speech. More notably, Naomi speaks about God more than anyone else in the narrative (1:8, 9, 13, 20–21; 2:20).
- Ruth’s declaration of commitment at the end of chapter 1 is more a commitment to Naomi than to anything else, and should not be read as a conversion experience. The Hebrew text highlights this by placing the 2nd person forms before the 1st person forms in all cases: “Where you go, I will go…” (v. 16; emphasis added). The statement at the end of verse 16—“your people will be my people, and your God will be my God”—certainly has similarities to the covenantal statements made by God throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exod 6:7; Lev 26:12; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; 31:33; 32:38; Ezek 36:28; 37:27). However, the fact that Ruth makes this statement to Naomi signals how strong a bond between two people can be.
Reading the story as Naomi’s has important implications, both pastoral and theological. Next week’s commentary will discuss in more detail the theological significance of Naomi’s story in the book of Ruth. The remainder of this article will consider pastoral implications of the book as read from Naomi’s perspective.
Lingering in grief: lessons in pastoral care
Naomi’s story is one marred by fear, displacement, struggle, and grief. To read the book of Ruth as Naomi’s story means we have to linger in her grief, to accept her anger and frustration, and to tarry with her and Ruth—silent, resigned, burdened—on the road to Bethlehem.
To read the book of Ruth as Naomi’s story is to read a story of grace that holds space for grief and doubt without condemnation, that doesn’t try to “fix” it. When we see grief and anger—particularly when that anger is directed towards God—we “cling” (Hebrew dabaq; 1:14) to the “you’ll be fine” and the “things will get better soon” dismissals. We try to extinguish the fiery rage of anger that grief brings—eager to put out the flames of the “unfairness” of it all. Naomi’s story doesn’t stifle the flame; it accepts the grief, the anger, the complaint. Naomi’s story holds those feelings even as it moves forward.
As the book progresses, Naomi’s perspective never changes. Even after Ruth’s commitment, Naomi’s silence on the road (1:18) and complaint to the women in Bethlehem (1:20–21) indicate that she still carries her grief and frustration.
Her silence at the end of the narrative is most telling. We frequently encounter stories of struggle, loss, and redemption in the Bible. Those stories often end with the main characters repenting for their doubts, giving thanks, and praising God (for example, Job 42:1–6; Psalms 6; 13; 22). At the end of this story, Naomi remains silent. Naomi’s story is one that meets people where they are—in between grief and joy.
There is much uncertainty, grief, and frustration in our world today—an ever-waxing and waning pandemic, the divisions that arise because of mask and vaccine mandates, political traumas and deep-rooted conflicts, the fears and frustrations with regard to climate change and the grief of loss due to hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters …
The blessings at the end of the narrative do not overshadow or eliminate the grief experienced earlier. The good news of the book of Ruth is that blessings can still come even when we are in the midst of grief, in the throws of anger and frustration. Naomi’s story also teaches us that if we’re not ready to acknowledge those blessings, that’s ok.
Those who are not ready to acknowledge blessing—those who are still struggling with the anger and angst of grief and struggle—can find solace these days in Naomi’s story.
- Unless otherwise noted, all English translations derive from the CEB translation.