Let’s explore the book of Ruth, in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s too bad, but this short book right after Judges and before I Samuel, is often overlooked. Megilath Ruth [Biblical Hebrew meaning the scroll of Ruth], is only one of two Bible books named after a woman. The other, of course, is Esther. No one knows for sure who actually wrote Ruth. There is some speculation that it could have been a woman or a group of women, in fact. The often-promoted idea that this book was written by the prophet Samuel is very problematic, considering that Samuel died before David became king and the book of Ruth actually mentions David as king. So, it’s safe to assume that we do not know who wrote Ruth. Also, we can only speculate as to when Ruth was written, though most scholars these days believe that Ruth was composed post-exile, or in other words, around 500 BCE when the Israelites were exiled from Israel. There are still some who believe that Ruth was written much earlier, perhaps around the 10th century BCE after the time of King David. But the argument for a post-exile date is more intriguing.
The reason why is because of an historical interfaith marriage, as we would call it today. Ruth, a Moabite woman, marries Boaz, an Israelite man. As a Moabite, Ruth practiced another religion opposed to the monotheistic belief system of the ancient Israelites. This kind of partnership completely contradicted the law of Deuteronomy and the procedural teachings of Ezra and Nehemiah, which strictly prohibited Israelites to marry foreigners. From the get-go Ruth’s story has an attitude. And that’s what makes Ruth so interesting, even today. Just consider that this story focuses on two women and seems to be written from their perspective. How rare is that to see in a male-dominated, patriarchal society? And keep in mind where Ruth is in the canon of scripture. It follows Judges, a really crazy book of the Bible full of murder, betrayal, sex, and rulers. But Ruth isn’t violent. Instead of beginning with killing or power struggles, Ruth begins with a famine. People need to find food. Four Israelites have to leave their homeland and move to Moab, a place east of Bethlehem across from the Dead Sea.
And as if not having food were not enough, this family is dealt a severe blow—the husband and dad of the family, Elimelech, dies. Naomi, the widow, is left alone. But at least she still has her two sons, right? They marry Moabite women and for ten years it seems to be fine. But then, these two sons of Naomi die, too. So right at the beginning of the story, we find our main characters, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth, alone.
And yet, there is apparent good news, finally. Naomi hears that the famine in Israel has passed. Logically, she knew it was time for her to go home; back to Judah. But Naomi didn’t expect that Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law but also Moabites, would go with her. After all, Moab was their home. Go back to your mother’s house, Naomi said. May the Lord be kind to you just as you have been kind to me. May you find security and perhaps new husbands! She kissed them, they all cried and shared a nice moment. But Orpah and Ruth weren’t so eager to have Naomi leave them behind. No, we’ll go with you to be with your people, they said. Naomi was insistent, though: Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? I cannot give you husbands. And I’m too old to have a husband of my own. The hand of the Lord is against me. Obviously, Naomi was greatly saddened over her losses and misfortunes. She felt that she had nothing to offer to anyone.
The women cried together once again—their sadness was evident. Orpah then kissed Naomi and was resigned to stay in Moab, saying goodbye to her mother-in-law, this time for good. But Ruth stayed put. Ruth clung to Naomi. This verb in Hebrew for cling to also appears in Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. This verb is intimate. It denotes a special kind of care and devotion. And to make this a feel-good story, you would think that Naomi would be so moved by this that she would say, Yes, Ruth, of course I want you to come with me! But she didn’t. Naomi’s response to Ruth’s “clinging” was a brush-off: Orpah went back to her people and her religion, Ruth, why don’t you? And then, the oft-quoted speech from Ruth, in response:
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!”
And this time, Naomi was speechless. She didn’t insist that Ruth stay in Moab. She saw Ruth’s determination. And the adventure for these two women was just beginning. They were about to embark on a journey from famine to food, isolation to connection, and death to life. Phyllis Trible, author of God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, puts it this way:
A man’s world tells a woman’s story…The aged Naomi and the youthful Ruth struggle for survival in a patriarchal environment. Those women bear their own burdens….No God promises them blessing; no man rushes to their rescue. They themselves risk bold decisions and shocking acts to work out their own salvation in the midst of the alien, the hostile and the unknown. One female has chosen another female in a world whose life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.
Ruth is a radical character in the midst of a radical story. She is an immigrant, a foreigner, an outsider, of a different religion, and also a woman without a husband. In her time and culture, these characteristics were hard to overcome. I would argue that they still are today. And so the fact that our hero character is Ruth should impact us. Let’s focus on Ruth’s clinging to Naomi and devotion to her that goes far beyond obligation or societal expectations. There is a Hebrew word that is more a concept than just a word that I have mentioned before: hesed. Hesed is not adequately translated in the English language. It can mean love, mercy, grace, kindness.
Hesed can describe God’s love for God’s covenant people. It is faithful, it is promised, it is loyal, and it is part of God’s obligation to humankind. God promises to be faithful, merciful, loving, etc. and likewise expects people to be faithful, merciful, loving, etc. Hesed appears in various Psalms, including Psalm 23: surely goodness and [mercy/faithful love/hesed] will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the lord forever. But hesed could also be expressed between people. Someone could promise hesed to another, based on a mutual exchange of affection and loyalty, i.e. in a life partnership or marriage.
So in the Ruth story, we discover a hesed expressed on different levels—Yahweh [God] shows loving kindness/mercy to Moabite women outside of the covenant; Ruth shows Naomi love and commitment; later on, we’ll see Boaz showing hesed to Ruth. Focusing on Ruth, though, we see in her a hesed that is unbreakable. Regardless of the circumstances, no matter the obstacles, even though Naomi does not return the same devotion—Ruth doesn’t waver in her love. In Ruth’s expression of hesed and in her story we indeed see an incarnation of God. Ruth’s love for Naomi is not based on culture, race, or religious sameness. The moment Ruth’s husband died, she had no required ties to Naomi. But Ruth transcended society’s expectations to love in a greater way. Ruth acted selflessly and added much joy and fulfillment to Naomi’s life which seemed to be headed for despair and emptiness.
Yes, Ruth models the kind of lovingkindness we associate with God, a God who chooses to be stubborn and stick with us even though we often don’t love back; a God who doesn’t choose certain nations to favor or even religions. Ruth models the behavior of a God who doesn’t consider anything but love an option, choosing to be present in our lives, wherever we go. God becomes the widow Ruth from Moab—the one who leaves her religion and homeland behind in order to show great affection for another woman, breaking all sorts of boundaries and challenging stereotypes to the extent that like Naomi, we’re all left…speechless. Ruth and God challenge our tendencies to stay with those who look like us, talk like us, pray like us, and eat like us. This type of hesed pushes us to recognize that we are far too loyal to the established categories of family, friends, and tribe. Who is family? asks Ruth. Who is foreign? Who is an outsider? Who deserves our love and mercy?
I hope the parallels are obvious in our story today. We don’t have to be in an election year to realize how issues of immigration, religion, gender, and loyalty continue to be important around the world. Honestly, it’s really easy to say we love our blood-tied families, our country, those of our religion, or those friends of ours who are just like us. But is that really the type of hesed love that we’re called to? How do you define a friend? Is a friend someone who shares your interests? Is a friend someone convenient for us to care for? Or, as in Ruth’s case, is a friend someone who doesn’t give up on us and pushes us to new, challenging, and special places; a person who clings to us even when we’re empty and lost; a person who scoffs at the racial, cultural, religious, sexual, and national categories we give to each other? Friends, our relationships with other people reflect our relationship with God. We’re called to be like Ruth. We’re meant to build bridges where no one else will. We’re made to love the so-called foreigners, outcasts, and strangers as if they were our own family. Truly, we are. Why? Because if we claim this Yahweh, this great God of unbreakable love, then we ought to be moved and inspired to love in such a way. Don’t be distracted by the categories we have created for each other. Instead, show all people hesed. Follow Ruth’s heroic example. Amen.