Tag: Relationships

That It May Be Well with You – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 25B (Ruth 3-4)

The Story of Ruth by John August Swanson
3:1 Naomi, her mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
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                When Naomi decided to return home from Moab after the death of her husband and sons, Ruth the Moabite wife of one of her two sons decided to follow Naomi to Judah, making Naomi’s people her people, and Naomi’s God her God. Making this choice wasn’t easy, as the two women had no guarantee of support. Naomi might find some support as she was older and might find family who would take her in. Ruth, however, presented a problem. Not only was she as a Moabite a foreigner, she was a much younger woman. In other words, she might live on for some time after Naomi. Why might this be a problem? Remember there wasn’t any form of Social Security or Medicare. The only safety net was the family, and if the family couldn’t provide you were on your own. Ruth’s only hope was marriage, but who would be willing to marry her? After all, she was a foreigner. Naomi had one possibility up her sleeve. There was a custom, even a law, which said that one’s nearest kinsman had a responsibility to marry a woman who had lost her husband and produce an heir for that person. It’s called Levirate marriage.  It may be a foreign practice to us, much like arranged marriages are in the West. We prefer to make our own matches (with the help of computers or not). For Naomi, however, this seemed to be the only way of providing for Ruth and herself. So, she began plotting a strategy for Ruth. That strategy is in play in this reading that excerpts parts of chapters 3 and 4 of Ruth.
                In this story, we learn that Naomi has a relative named Boaz. He seems to be wealthy. He’s not married. He doesn’t have children. He’s a close relative. In other words, he’s available, and fits the criteria. By the time we get to chapter 3, Boaz already seems interested in the welfare of Ruth and Naomi, allowing Ruth the opportunity to glean from within the fields and not just the edges. He makes sure the other men do not bother Ruth when she comes to the fields. Remember a lone woman would be vulnerable (chapter 2). It would seem odd that he didn’t know Naomi and Ruth’s story, since Bethlehem is not a large town. He may have already known that he was among the nearest kinsmen, if not the closest. And, perhaps he was interested in settling down and found Ruth a possible mate. That’s just reading between the lines, but it’s possible.
                The first excerpt, from chapter 3, finds Naomi directing Ruth to prepare herself to go a-courting. She has Ruth wash up, put on her best clothes, and then go out to the threshing floor and wait until Boaz goes to sleep. Then, while sleeping, she is to uncover his feet and then lie down next to him. Boaz will then tell her what to do next. I should note that uncovering feet is a euphemism. Naomi has a different body part in mind, but by doing this, Ruth will signal to Boaz that she is willing to be his wife (if he’s willing). Naomi is putting Ruth in a vulnerable position but seems to know what she’s doing. All of this seems well choreographed, as if this is a normal form of courtship. As for modern day application, I wouldn’t recommend it. Apparently, as we see in chapter 4, it works. Boaz marries Ruth. They have a son, named Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. The Gospels pick this up, of course, in the genealogies of Jesus, though only Matthew mentions Ruth, along with Rahab and Tamar (Matt. 1:1-17). This final piece isn’t in the book of Ruth, of course, but it’s worth mentioning, because Matthew thinks it’s important information.
 
                All of this is a rather nice story about the deliverance of two women in difficult circumstances. As the women of the village declared to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.

All’s well that ends well!  But is there more to this than meets the eye?
                Ron Allen and Clark Williamson remind us that the Book of Ruth, though the story takes place during the time of the Judges, was postexilic. It would have appeared at a time when the Jewish community was having serious conversations about marrying Gentiles. Both Ezra and Nehemiah, which focus on the period of rebuilding Judah after the return to Jerusalem by the exiles, call for Jews to divorce their non-Jewish spouses. While it may seem harsh to us, these calls for separation emerged at a time when the Jewish people were reforming their community. Allen and Williamson write: “In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jewish leaders sought to restore the vitality of the community. Intermarriage may have led some Jewish people to bring foreign gods and practices into Jewish homes, and some in the community sought to rid the community of such compromises with the culture and thereby to invoke God’s blessing on the restoration of the land” [Preaching theOld Testament, pp. 200-201]. Contextually, it’s understandable. But not all were of the same opinion. Ruth offers an alternative viewpoint and connects Ruth and Naomi to Israel’s greatest king.
                Allen and Williamson suggest that Ruth offers a challenge to this restriction on intermarriage in two ways. First, we’re told that Ruth demonstrated covenant loyalty (hesed) to Naomi, and thus to Israel. You might say she converted. Secondly, Boaz is an exemplary Israelite. Besides, “how could the community forbid relationship with the people of David’s grandparent” (Preaching the Old Testament, p. 201). As we consider this passage today, we might think here in terms of the challenges and possibilities of intermarriage. On the racial/ethnic side, the challenges are different than the religious ones. In one sense the religious challenge was resolved here by conversion—Ruth committed herself to Naomi’s God and to her people. To do so meant that she would have put aside her former religious beliefs. Granted, in the ancient world this worked much differently than it does today in a pluralistic culture like ours.
While Ruth does offer an opportunity for intermarriage, it is in the context of conversion. Marvin Sweeney offers some clarity here:

Although Ezra– Nehemiah stipulates no procedure for conversion of a foreigner to Judaism, there is no indication in the book that foreigners who adhere to YHWH were an issue. Again, the book of Ruth steps in to fill the gap by specifying how a foreigner would become a part of Israel, specifically by swearing adherence to YHWH and living as part of the nation of Israel as Ruth does in Ruth 1: 16– 18. Furthermore, Ruth is also in dialog with Num 25: 1– 9, which portrays the apostasy of the men of Israel with the women of Moab. Rather than viewing Moabite women monolithically as a source of apostasy, Ruth counters the image of Num 25: 1– 9 by stipulating that Moabite women can adhere to YHWH. [Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 11955-11960). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]

I believe that Allen and Williamson would concur with Sweeney on this, that Ruth isn’t offering a blanket response on intermarriage, but might be filling in a gap in the Ezra-Nehemiah trajectory.
                Whenever we engage conversations like this, it is always important that we do not fall into anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish paradigms, which paint Judaism in negative light to paint our own faith in better light. Intermarriage without conversion is always a challenging idea. Yes, it’s becoming common in our day, but it is not without its problems, especially when it comes to the children. Living in pluralistic America offers the opportunity, but we should beware of offering a cafeteria form of religion, that doesn’t affirm the integrity of religious traditions. Christians, Muslims, and Jews share certain features, but they also have significant differences that can’t be easily washed away.
                What Ruth can do, however, is open a conversation about the role of religion in family and community life. To be uncomfortable with religious intermarriage doesn’t make one a bigot. At the same time, our views shouldn’t be left unexamined. What is the issue? Is it spiritual or is it something else? Remember that Ruth was a “foreigner,” but she became a full member of the community and that is what was deemed most important. In the end, everyone was blessed!

Picture attribution: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561 [retrieved November 5, 2018]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 1991 by John August Swanson.

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.

Your People Are My People – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24B (Ruth 1)

Your People Are My People – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24B (Ruth 1)

Ruth 1:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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. 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 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, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
 
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. 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. 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. 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.
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                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/.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert 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.