The first few verses of Ruth open up like the beginning of a fairy tale. Readers are automatically transported to a faraway place (“the country of Moab”) and a distant time (“in the days when the judges ruled”). Much like other fairy tales, conflict is introduced early on in the story with the death of Elimelech and then the deaths of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion ten years later. In the wake of their deaths, we find three newly-widowed women: the Israelite Naomi, and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.
In that day and society, widowed women (particularly those without a living male relative) were left with very few options. If they were young enough, such as was the case for Orpah and Ruth, they could return to their father’s house and hope to remarry again some day. But for an elderly widow like Naomi, she was completely dependent on her surrounding community to provide and care for her. Her best chance for survival was to return to her hometown of Bethlehem. Thus, the two other widows, Ruth and Orpah, faced a decision: stay in the land of Moab or return to Israel with Naomi.
By mentioning the town of Bethlehem early on in the passage (verses 1 and 2), the author of Ruth is foreshadowing that something special is going to happen in this story. Astute readers will note that Bethlehem is known as the town of David and that it is the city in which Jesus was later born. Even just hearing the word “Bethlehem” conjures up images of shepherds watching their fields in the night and recalls the tunes of Christmas carols sung since our youth. While we may not know much about the characters in the book of Ruth at this point, the town of Bethlehem provides us with an early clue that God’s providential hand is going to be at work throughout the narrative.
The women do not get far on their journey to Bethlehem when Naomi speaks for the first time. She encourages Ruth and Orpah to return to their homes. She gives them her blessing to find other husbands and remarry. After some initial hesitation from the younger women, Naomi again urges them to turn back. After Naomi’s second admonition and a tear-filled embrace, Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye and returned to her mother’s home.
We should not fault Orpah for making the decision to stay in her own land. By all accounts, this was the decision that made the most sense; it was the path she was expected to take. It is Ruth that makes the unexpected move; instead of turning around, she clings to Naomi. Ruth then makes a bold and extraordinary statement, words that have since become iconic in Christian and Jewish traditions:
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
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!” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Following Ruth’s resolute proclamation, she and Naomi continue on their journey toward Bethlehem. While this is where the lectionary reading ends for this week, it is just the beginning of Ruth’s epic tale.
There are few theological and ecclesial directions in which to take this passage:
First, we cannot ignore the great loss and tragedy that sets the story of Ruth into motion. While the biblical narrative seems to gloss over the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, their passing obviously brought great grief upon the women in the story. Naomi in particular is wracked by sorrow, as she expresses in 1:20-21: “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara [meaning, “bitter”], for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
In spite of Naomi’s suggestion that God brought about the great tragedies in her life, as Wesleyans, we believe that God does not necessarily cause the bad things that happen to us. Through our own human free will or through the larger workings of a broken world, sometimes bad things just happen. People get sick and die. Natural disasters and weather patterns cause famines and droughts. Wars destroy families and leave broken nations in their wakes. The sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls upon the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45).
But, while we believe that God does not cause the tragedies in our lives, we also affirm that God is with us in the midst of our pain. Moreover, God is constantly at work redeeming negative situations, bringing goodness and renewal out of pain and death. God takes horrible situations and transforms them to be used for God’s purposes. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven time and time again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.”
As we will later see in the story of Ruth, without the loss of her first husband, she would have never met and married Boaz. Through her second marriage to Boaz, Ruth bears a child that would become the grandfather to King David (Ruth 4:22). God redeems the tragedy of Ruth’s story and through God’s marvelous redemption, she even becomes an ancestor to Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5).
Second, one of the most compelling themes throughout the book of Ruth is the full inclusion of the marginalized into the community of God. Boaz—who is clearly a leader in Bethlehem—reaches out to the margins to embrace Ruth and to bring her alongside himself. Ruth, an outsider and a foreigner, is brought into the center of the community. Here we find the people of God fulfilling their mandate to be a blessing to the world. Through Ruth’s story, we see a portrait of the kingdom of God on earth.
Finally, one interesting note about this week’s Old Testament passage is that it is paired with two other readings that both include the Jewish shema (Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Mark 12:28-34), which begins with the words, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD Our God, the LORD is One.” The shema is the most essential prayer for Jewish people and a central statement of belief in the Jewish faith. While Ruth, as a Moabite, may not have been familiar with the shema, she made her own powerful statement of faith when she proclaimed, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth’s confession of loyalty was fulfilled as she ultimately lived out her commitment to Naomi and to Naomi’s people faithfully until her own death.
Because of this lectionary connection, it might be a good week to explore other statements of belief that we have within the Church. What are the vows that we make to God and to one another? What covenants do we strive to uphold within our worshipping community? How can we also confess our faith in God and reaffirm our commitment to the body of believers? Maybe you could take this week’s lectionary passages as an opportunity to recite the Apostles’ Creed (or the longer Nicene Creed) or your church’s purpose statement or mission in your worship gathering.