The family in Moab
1 During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. 2 The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.
3 But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. 4 They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.
5 But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.
6 Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. 7 She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.
8 Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. 9 May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
10 But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”
11 Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? 12 Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”
14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. 15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.
Thoughts on the passage:
“Send her back!” was the chant being echoed at a recent rally for President Trump in North Carolina. While these words were directed at Representative Omar, they would have fit just as well in our story of Ruth. While we do not know for sure when the Book of Ruth was written, it is thought to have most likely been written in a post-Exile time frame. Its own message would therefore be meant to be read in tension with the writings of Ezra and Nehemiah who called for Israelites to abandon their foreign wives, to “send her back” as it were.
Read in this context, Ruth becomes a powerful message of how an outsider, a foreigner, a Moabite is more faithful, loving, and kind then any of the Israelites she interacts with. At a time when nationalism and purity were being valued in Israel the story of Ruth challenges people to remember the contributions of outsiders. Ruth is important for what she does and her faithfulness, but for who she is related to, her great-grandson is David, the most revered leader of Israel.
In the opening passages of this story, we see this distinction that is being created between the unfaithfulness of the Israelites and Ruth’s own faithfulness. Naomi and her family live in Bethlehem, which literally translates to “house of bread.” They are a part of the clan of Ephraim, which translates to “fruitful.” They are living in the land that was given to them by God. Yet, when famine comes to the land, rather than trust in the faithfulness of God to provide, they leave this land of bread and fruitfulness and going to the live among the Moabites. What is worse, in violation of the rules of the day they take Moabite women to be their wives. Early readers would not really be surprised that this lack of faithfulness results in the death of Naomi’s husband and sons, leaving her widowed in a foreign land with her daughters-in-law in tow. Echoing her own lack of faith, Naomi, blames herself and God for what happens, feeling she now be called “Mora” for she is bitter at God.
Looking for some signs of hope, Naomi learns that the famine has lifted in Bethlehem, and that God is providing for the people. She decides to return home but first she attempts to send back her daughters-in-law. Women, especially widows, in this time period had very few rights and outside the care of their family were basically doomed to poverty and subsistence living. Despairing at her own fate, and wanting better for Orpah and Ruth, Naomi tries to send them away. Saddened, Orpah agrees to go but Ruth chooses to remain.
It is in this moment that we see the beginning of the contrast. Naomi struggles in her faithfulness to God. When times get hard, she leaves or sends others away. She does not believe that God will provide for her or others. By contrast, Ruth is willing to have faith. She pledges to be with Naomi, to follow her and to follow God. Her commitment is not a temporary thing but meant to last a lifetime. Naomi may want to give up on God, on Ruth, and on herself, but Ruth will be faithful.
Ruth’s faithfulness is transformative for Naomi but also gets noticed by others. Later in the story, when Ruth meets Boaz, he has heard of her faithfulness and is impressed by it. In the end, it is Ruth who raises his attention enough for him to seek to marry her and redeem her family. In the end, her faithfulness elevates all of them, Boaz, Naomi, and really all of the people of Bethlehem who see in the faithfulness of a Moabite the unconditional love and faithfulness of God.
I want to return to those chants at the rally in North Carolina for a moment. When I learned about them, I was saddened because this is not the United States that I know and love. We are better than this. It is too easy for all of us to resort to chants about those who are not like us. It is easy to demonize and hate those who hold different political views than us, who do not look like us or dress like us, or who even are of a different faith than us. Our desire for purity and uniformity is only natural, but I would argue it is not what God wants from us.
In the story of Ruth, we see the faithfulness of a foreigner. We see someone who is loving and kind to those who are not like her. In that acceptance we are given a model for who we are meant to be. We also are reminded who God is. God redeems Ruth and cares for Ruth just like God is ready to redeem and care for Naomi, Boaz, Israel, and all of us.
I am not asking you to agree with Representative Omar about her politics, but we need to remember that she is a child of God and the chant of “send her back” seems to reject that belief. I am also not asking you to agree with the people at the Trump rally about their politics, but we cannot chant “send them back” either. To be faithful followers of God, I believe we are called to see good in Representative Omar and in President Trump supporters. It can be easy to yearn for a kingdom, a land, a place where everyone is like us and agrees with us, but not only does no such place exist, it is not what God wants for us.
Israel was made better and stronger by the faithful example of Ruth, the Moabite, who better exemplified faith in God and others than Naomi did. We are made better by our community, those who are like us and those who are different than us. There is a dangerous undercurrent in our culture today that seeks to divide us. It seeks to divide us into red states and blues states. It seeks to divide us into urban and rural, black and white, male and female, left and right. It is seeking to divide our denomination as well into progressive and traditional. We can disagree on things and yet our disagreements do not need to divide us.
Ruth is a powerful reminder that God is always challenging our assumptions and desires. You think that nothing good can come from a foreigner who does not know God. Let me tell you the story of Ruth the Moabite, who shows a stronger faith in the God of Israel than Naomi, the Israelite does. Whenever we are tempted to think that way of others, let us remember Ruth and reach not for hatred and division, but instead for kindness and love, and the unending faithfulness that Ruth displays, to God and to each other. Amen
Questions to Ponder:
Who are the Moabites in your life that you struggle to see as faithful and loveable?
When is a time where you have been like Naomi and struggled to see how God is loving you?
What does it mean to you to commit yourself to follow God and someone else, no matter what?
God, in the brokenness of our lives you come again and again and offer us love and life. Help us to remember that even in moments of deep despair, you are with us. Help us also to see you in those people who are not like us. Help us to see the stranger not as someone who is foreign and different, but just another child of God. Give us the faith of Ruth, that we might be loving in kind and always trusting in you. Amen