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Ruth 1:1-18

There are a lot of things going on in this passage. Of particular note is that this Old Testament reading has been selected as an alternative to using the readings for All Saints Day, but it seems to fit the occasion very well, nevertheless. On a personal note, when I signed up to write the commentary for this passage nearly a year ago, I had no idea the tragedy that would come upon my own family just as my submission to A Plain Account was due. A narrative of grief hits differently than ever before, having just lost my own son.

Naomi’s family was already living in unusual circumstances before their great personal tragedy. At the onset of this passage, we learn that they were far from home, having moved to escape famine, but it was not as if they had merely taken a vacation. Ten years passed, during which they made a life for themselves in this new place – in Moab. This new life extended beyond the death of Naomi’s husband, but when her sons died there was nothing left for her in Moab… well, except her daughters-in -law… but at this period in history, what could three widowed women do to survive in a place that was not their home? Having heard that the famine was over, Naomi made the decision to return to Bethlehem, and initially it looks as if she intends to take Orpah and Ruth with her, but she has a change of heart as they set out.

Maybe Naomi is considering how difficult it has been for her to make a home in a place that was not her home. Maybe she is wondering how she will provide for these daughters-in-law, even once she arrives home. We don’t know. But whatever the reason, Naomi makes the decision to release Orpah and Ruth from any obligation or responsibility they might feel toward her. She urges them to return to their people and to create new lives for themselves, much like she created a new life a decade before. It seems like the compassionate choice, but then there’s a plot twist. As it turns out, not everyone feels the same way about life after grief, and it’s interesting how we sometimes interpret the remaining verses in this passage.

Orpah goes home to her family of origin, and we tend to be pretty hard on her for making this decision. Jewish sages indicate that she becomes the mother of giants, public enemy number one (Goliath) among them in the biblical narrative. Her return marks not only a break from her new family but also from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This one decision charts the course of her life, and we don’t like the direction.

Ruth, the Scriptures tell us, is determined to stay with her mother-in-law. Rather than return to her family, she wholeheartedly embraces both the new life she entered into with Naomi’s son and also the new life she will have to create in yet another changing circumstance. She clings to Naomi, to this life, and to God, and this one decision also charts a new course for her. We affirm this choice.

Polar opposite stories emerge from one circumstance, and to be honest it is difficult to understand how this could possibly have taken place. In some ways, I am tempted to blame Naomi, because she did, after all, encourage both her daughters-in-law to leave her more than once! We have no indication that the decision to go or to stay was easy for either Orpah or Ruth. They both wept, and the word used in both instances, וַתִּבְכֶּֽינָה׃ (vat·tiv·kei·nah), can be translated as bewailed. They did not shed just a few tears. They wept bitterly, with regret. I have to imagine that they wept with regret for the present and also with regret for the future. They both wept, knowing that their choice would eliminate a vast number of possibilities moving forward and that no choice would be what they had ultimately hoped for before death came. Maybe they even both made the best decision they could given the impossible circumstances in which they found themselves. Ruth’s decision seems brave, but it’s difficult to fault Orpah for doing what Naomi told her to do.

Yet there is something intriguing about Ruth’s proclamation that even death will not separate her from Naomi. Certainly, in this case it appears that she is referring to her own death, somewhere out in the future, but there is also something of a double entendre, because it is already death, itself, that is threatening their relationship. Ruth stands firm against this. In fact, she stands so firmly that Naomi basically just gives up. Sure, she stops urging her, but this might also be interpreted simply, she stops talking. In grief, Orpah disengages, Naomi goes silent, and Ruth presses on, and this is not all that different than the many ways in which grief manifests itself in even a single person, over time.

All of the typical preaching possibilities for this passage remain open. We could talk about family values or the risks of making the wrong choices. But I challenge you, this All Saints Day, to also consider the potential for using this passage to talk about grief and the ways in which we might support one another through trauma and tragedy instead of sending one another away, in order to shape narratives that don’t end quite so catastrophically for some.