1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
“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.
17 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!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
The story of Ruth and Naomi is powerful. Here are two women, left adrift by the deaths of their husbands. One is from the Hebrew people and the other a Moabite. We shouldn’t overlook a third woman, Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter-in-law. Orpah chose to return home at the urging of Naomi, who was concerned about what the future held. Orpah is sometimes vilified for her choice, but it was probably a good decision, especially considering where the story leads. While we can’t forget Orpah, this is the story of Naomi and Ruth
The story of Ruth begins with an act of migration. A famine has hit the land of Judah, forcing Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and two sons to seek a more secure life in the neighboring land of Moab. Historically Moabites and Israelites were enemies, so this was a difficult decision. But they immigrated to Moab and apparently found enough welcome to make their home in this foreign land. Their story is a story that has been told and retold down through the millennia. As for the family, the two sons took wives from among the Moabites, an act that might have gotten them in trouble back home. But, it appears they were planning on staying put for the long term. Then tragedy strikes. The three men die suddenly, leaving three women without any support. Ruth and Orpah probably made a difficult decision to marry outside the community, and probably cut themselves off from family (just speculating). As for Naomi, she had family back home in Judah, and so she decides to return. But what about the two daughters-in-law?
We see in the text that there is deep affection among the three women. They want to go with Naomi. Naomi is gratified by this show of affection, but she’s not sure that she can provide for them back in Judah. It would be best if they returned home, made amends if necessary, and hopefully find new husbands who could provide for them. At least they would be with their own people. Orpah, tearfully decides to follow this path. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to return home. She is ready to share Naomi’s fate, come what may.
The reading for this week is the first of two drawn from Ruth. The story might be brief, but it does a message that resonates with our time for it speaks of immigrants and the challenges they face. People migrate for various reasons, but most are hoping to find something better than what was left behind. It might be economic, or it might be fear of violence and persecution. There might be salvation in the foreign land, but one might not find a welcome there. Migrants might contribute to the community, but they might also soil it.
As we hear the story of Ruth, perhaps the stories of modern migrants and refugees come to mind. We know people are on the move. There is that caravan moving across Mexico, composed of men, women, and children who have left Central America seeking safety and perhaps a better life in the north. There are the refugees fleeing wars in Iraq and Syria and Yemen. Even people in our own country have been moving from one region to another hoping to find a better life. It’s easy to vilify migrants. It’s commonplace to fear the stranger. Yet, if we look back through our own histories we will probably see evidence of migration. My ancestors came here from various places in Europe. Most came before there were immigration offices and quotas. Did they come legally? In answer, I would say, there was no policy on legal or illegal. They came, they settled, and became part of the fabric of society. If we’re to understand Ruth, we need to keep this in mind.
Naomi was insistent that the two women return to their families. She makes it clear that she couldn’t provide them the security of a husband. Without a husband they would be without stability. The future was uncertain for Naomi, who wasn’t marriage material. All she could hope for was the mercy of her family, whom she and her husband had left behind years before. She might not receive a warm welcome, and the daughters-in-law even less of one. After all, they were foreigners, about whom they had been warned. Ruth, however, won’t go back. She insists on following her mother-in-law, no matter what happened. She was all in!
Ruth’s response is expressed through song. She sings: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.” Whatever the future holds for you, she tells Naomi, I am willing to share it. Not only that, but “your people will be my people.” And where you’re buried, I’ll be buried. Ruth is so committed, she’s willing to sacrifice everything. This is love, that is expressed in spite of the challenges, but also because of her love of her mother-in-law, so she’s willing to come alongside here and share her future. The remainder of the book tells that story.
There are several ways of engaging this passage. We could speak of the relationship between family. Sometimes we make light of in-law relationships, but this one is stronger than most “blood” relations. Considering the times, I hear in it a word about migration and welcoming strangers, who make choices they hope will better their lives. My ancestors did this. They came from Europe, mostly the British Isles, hoping to find a better life. Those who migrate today do so for the same reasons, only we have made the process more difficult (and costlier). The story of Ruth and Naomi might offer us a path forward, so that we might welcome the strangers in our midst. When we hear immigration stories, may we hear with hearts informed by God’s love and grace the difficult choices made along the way. When Ruth tells Naomi “your people will be my people” may we hear in these words a commitment not to assimilate so as to lose one’s identity, but to come a contributing member of the community, as Ruth will do. Of course, this has important implications for the stories that follow, for Ruth is counted among the ancestors of David and of Jesus. You never know who is in your family tree! They too may have once been strangers in a strange land.
Picture attribution: Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Ruth and Naomi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55328 [retrieved October 29, 2018]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/clicks2006/4150846200/.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.