[K:NWTS 13/2 (Sep 1998) 3-11]
Our story! Yes, notice the possessive plural pronoun "our"for this is indeed our story. A story about the people of God; a story to and for the people of God . . . for the church. Although admired throughout the ages by both saint and worldling, the book of Ruth is above all things a redemptive-historical story. A love story full of drama, compassion and tenderness? Yes. An idyll complete with all the warmth and charm of pastoral scenes? Yes. An artistic masterpiece comprised of all types of literary devices such as chiasm, inclusios, irony, foreshadowing and wordplays? Yes, the book of Ruth is all of these. And like all stories, the book has a beginning, a middle and an end. The book moves from conflict to resolution, from tension to relaxation, from emptiness to fullness.1 It is a wonderful story. But rather than dealing with an overview of the whole book, I have limited myself to the first chapterto the beginning of the story.
In chapter one, the narrator positions the historical setting of the book of Ruth in the time of the Judges. This is significant. The period of the Judges was a very dark hour in the history of Israel. For approximately 330 years, Israel repeatedly fell into an ever downward spiraling pattern of disobedience, oppression, repentance and deliverance. Each increasing apostasy is a heightening of intensity and moral degradation. With the bleak and often times horrific disobedience of Israel as its background, the book of Ruthwith its themes of faith, hope and God's covenantal and providential dealings with his peoplestands out even brighter.
There was a famine in the land. In the land of Bethlehem, in the house of bread, there was no bread to be found. The skies that once brought clouds full of rain and shade have now turned to iron. The ground once rich and fertile is now as hard and unyielding as bronze (this is the language of Leviticus 26, language of the covenantal curse). The fields that once produced wheat, barley, olives, almonds and grapes are now barren, fruitlessempty.
So Elimelech (whose name means "God is my King") takes his family and leaves. He leaves the domain of the King. He leaves the realm of the King. He leaves the promised land, the kingdom of God on earth and goes to Moab, that land of incestuous roots. Don't think that Elimelech's sojourn to Moab is merely the innocent migration of an Israelite family in search of food, following in the pattern of their patriarch Abraham. It can't be! Redemptive-history has progressed; Israel is in the land of promise. But Elimelech is a man of his times. And as the last verse in the book of Judges tells us, they were times when there was no king in the land and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
But the book of Ruth is not about Elimelech. Elimelech passes from the scene and Naomi becomes a widowleft with two sons. Though absent a husband, she remains half-full.
The narrative quickly moves to the marriage of her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, suggesting (possibly) that the loss of her husband will quickly be forgotten and replaced with the new joys of an extended family. But as the meaning of their names suggests (Mahlon, "weakly"; and Chilion, "pining away") that hope is short lived. And they, like their father, disappear from the narrative.
Although accompanied by her daughters-in-law of ten years, Orpah and Ruth, Naomi now mirrors the land she left. She, like the land of Bethlehem, the land of Judah, is now barren and fruitless. She has become empty. With the absence of Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi becomes the subject of the action verbs, intimating the main role she will play in the ensuing dialogue.
She is bereaved of her two sons.
She has lost her husband
She has heard that the Lord has revisited his people in giving them food.
She departs with her daughters-in-law to return to Judah.
Thus the author, in describing the events that take place before the main action, has taken us full circle. We began with a family, complete with father, mother and children. A full and fruitful family leaving an empty, vacant land. But there has been a reversala reversal that has changed a once barren and desolate land back into a fruitful oasis. A land that once languished under the judgment and frowning providence of God has now been revisited by God. Judgment has been lifted, the curse removed and life is once again restored. The fields are replenished bringing forth the abundance of the earth. The blessing of God has returned.
But that is only one side of the reversal. Coming back to this fruitful land of plenty is one who, like the land, has been stricken. Naomi returns in the condition of the land she leftempty.
The stage has been set. The characters are in place and that which has been implicit now becomes explicit. Naomi speaks. In verses 8 and following, the pain that was abstractly and almost impersonally described in the introduction, now becomes internalized and expressed as Naomi vents the latent anguish of her soul. She says to her daughters-in-law:
Go, return each of you to her mother's house
May the Lord deal kindly with you
as you have dealt with the dead and with me
May the Lord grant that you may find rest
Each in the house of her husband.
Notice the chiastic arrangement of v. 8 and the first part of v. 9. At the beginning of v. 8 and the beginning of v. 9, you have the statements about "her mother's house"; then in v. 9, you have the statement about the "house of her husband." Moving toward the center, you have the parallel lines, "May the Lord deal kindly with you;" and "May the Lord grant that you may find rest." In these two lines, there is the subtle suggestion, a subtle hint, that reveals Naomi's heart. "May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and me." In other words, it is not the Lord who has dealt kindly with Naomi, but her daughters-in-law. Naomi's attitude toward God, which is somewhat cloaked in this verse, later becomes plain in vv. 13, 20, 21. But these two lines bring us to the center of the chiasmto the heart of what the author wants to communicate to us about Naomi.
Why does Naomi want her daughters to leave? Why does she want to be left alone? Why does she tell them to go? Because though she lives, she considers herself to be dead. Naomi identifies herself with the dead! "As you have dealt with the dead and with me." As a woman in the Near Eastern culture, to be widowed, much less to be childless and without a male relative, is to be in the most dire of situations. In Naomi's mind, even the warm sincere embraces and affections of her daughters-in-law cannot restore, cannot replenish what has been lost.
But her daughters-in-law persist. "No, but we will surely return with you to your people" (v. 10). But they don't understand. They don't realize what Naomi knows full well. "Return my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?" (v. 11). Naomi understands the Levirate institution. She understands the custom that God established on the occasion when a man dies without leaving behind an heir. The nearest brother becomes obligated to see that his family line continues by having relations with his deceased brother's wife. And if there is no brother, it becomes the obligation of the nearest relative. The irony in Naomi's words is that this is the very means that God uses to restore the family line of Elimelech, the family of Naomi. For in the shadows of this story stands Boaz.
Naomi persists in her desire for them to leave her and return to their land, their people, their families. She explains to them the futility of thinking that they will have any type of future if they follow her. Notice the progression of improbability as Naomi attempts to reason with her daughters-in-law in explaining to them her inability to provide them with husbands again. "For I am too old to have a husband. Even if I had hope and imagined that I could have a husband tonight and conceive, even then, my daughters, would you wait until they were grown? Would you refrain from marrying and wait for them?" (vv. 12, 13). Of course not! This is an impossibility to Naomi because ultimately behind all of the pain, behind all of the loss, she blames God"the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me!" (v. 13).
Up to this point Naomi has dominated the story. Her thoughts, her words, her actions, reactions and decisions have been at the center. But now the story takes a change in direction. With incredible brevity and economy of words, the author describes the acitons of Orpah and Ruth, "Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her" (v. 14).
Throughout the story Orpah and Ruth have been characterized in the same manner. They both have become widows. They both have expressed loyalty and devotion to their mother-in-law. But now, once the reality of Naomi's words have settled in, once they both realize the bleak and unpromising future that is theirs if they remain with Naomi, now they make their decision. Orpah does the expected; Ruth the unexpected. At first responding identically, they have at last chosen differently.2
Orpah's decision is praised by Naomi and she urges Ruth to emulate it. "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law" (v. 15). Return, back to your gods? Is this the wise covenantal counsel that we should expect from an aged Ephrathite of Bethlehem? Indeed, the ten years in Moab had taken their toll on Naomi!
Nevertheless, Naomi holds up Orpah as the example, the paradigm, of that which is sane and reasonable. Orpah acts according to the structure and customs of her society. She acts according to the culture around her. Her decision is by all appearances sound, sensible and secure. She does what is expected and consequently disappears from the story.
But Ruth, in her response to Naomi's persistence, utters those most famous words in vv. 16 and 17: "Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me."
From a cultural perspective, from an earthly perspective, Ruth has chosen death over life. She has disavowed the solidarity of family; she has abandoned her national identity; she has renounced her religious connections to the god of Moab, Chemosh. She has forsaken the security of her mother's house, the possibility of remarriage and fullness in Moab for what appears to be certain insecurity and emptiness in the land of Judah.
And why? Why should she abandon her family, land and faith? What is the difference between Ruth and Orpah? Is Ruth simply more altruistic? Is it that she is simply more devoted to Naomi than Orpah? Is Ruth simply functioning in this story as an example of loyalty and devotion to family?
No! A thousand times no! Ruth clings to Naomi, Ruth vows to go where Naomi goes, to lodge where Naomi lodges because in clinging to Naomi, in embracing Naomi, in holding fast to Naomi, Ruth is clinging to God! She is clinging to the Kingdom of God. She is clinging to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She can do no other. She has been apprehended by the grace of God. She, like her forefather Abraham, is now looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. She takes her place among the Old Testament people of faith in Hebrews 11:13-16: "All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he has prepared a city for them." Ruth had opportunity to return. But Ruth had taken hold of the substance of things hoped for. She herself had been captivated, she had been apprehended by the evidence of things not seen.
Ruth clings to Naomi out of hesedout of the lovingkindness, the hesed that the Lord has poured out in her own heart. Yes, the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings she has found refuge (so beautifully described by Boaz in chapter 2)the Lord has found Ruth. Ruth has come into the covenant and has become a partaker in the rich covenantal relationship with Yahweh and his people. This relationship of refuge and intimacy is so beautifully described in the Psalms:
How precious is Thy lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Thy wings (Ps. 36:7).
Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in Thee; And in the shadow of Thy wings I will take refuge, until destruction passes by (Ps. 57:1).
Let me dwell in Thy tent forever; Let me take refuge in the shelter of Thy wings (Ps. 61:4).
For Thou hast been my help, And in the shadow of Thy wings I sing for joy (Ps. 63:7).
He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark (Ps. 91:4).
Yes, Ruth, a wild olive branch, has already been engrafted into the covenantal tree of God's people. By the end of the book, Ruth takes her place among the branches of the patriarchal tree; the branches of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Ruth stands before us like Rahab, foreshadowing the inclusion of the Gentiles, the glory of the New Covenant, wherein there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but one new humanity, one new man in Christ Jesus.
So we identify with Ruth. Our hearts resonant with the faith of Ruth. We too, in having been made alive in Christ Jesus, do embrace him, cling to him. And in clinging to him, we confess that we are strangersaliens, yes foreigners here on earth. We confess that our citizenship rests in heaven not on this earth. But how much more real and satisfying is this to us. We who have already "tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5). We who now already have been "sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit of promise who is given as a pledge of our heavenly inheritance" (Eph. 1:13, 14). We who now know the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the sweet communion of the Father and the Son. The promises that were far off for Ruth have been brought near in Christ Jesus in whom all the promises of God are Yes and Amen.
But we have to come down. We have to leave these heights of faith and confession. We have yet to finish the chapter. The beginning of the story is not yet over.
What about Naomi? When she recognizes Ruth's resolveher determination and vow to stay with hershe says nothing else to her. They go to Bethlehem in silence. And as they approach the gates of Bethlehem, the women of the city come out to greet them; and then come Naomi's poignant words, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?" (vv. 20, 21).
Look and listen to Naomi's confession. What a contrast to Ruth! But what of Ruth? Did not Ruth have as much reason or cause to sink into hopelessness and despondency? Did not Ruth also lose a husband? Did not Ruth live in Moab with Mahlon for ten years only to have him die, leaving behind no seed, no offspring, only barrenness, only emptiness? Did not Ruth, in following Naomi, virtually relinquish the possibility of remarriage and children?
No, we can't follow Naomi. We identify with her sorrows, but our sorrows, like Ruth's, have been transformed by the grace of God. Ruth and Naomi stand before us as a contrasta contrast between the two ages, between the old and the new. Ruth's faith is a proleptic anticipation of the depth and profundity of New Testament faith. Her faith is like the faith of her father Abraham when Jesus said, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (Jn. 8:56).
Listen to the nature, reality and power of saving faith as it is described in the context of suffering by the apostle Paul: "For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort tis abundant through Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body" (2 Cor. 1:5; 4:7-10). And the apostle Peter: "and though you have not seen him, you love him, and though you do not see him now, but believe in him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Pet. 1:8). Did not Paul say "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18)?
The reversal from emptiness to fullness comes in Naomi's life when the son of Ruth, the son of Boaz, is laid in her lap. But how much more for youyou who embrace Ruth's greater son, David's greater sonyes, the Son of David, the Lord of David, the Son of God. Christian, you are not barren! You are not fruitless! You are not empty! For in Christ, you are complete. In him, you are full! For in possessing Christ, you possess all things. Thus the apostle Paul can say "whether . . . the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God" (1 Cor. 3:22, 23). Christian, you are not empty, but you are fullin him!
1 Cf. D. F. Rauber, "The Book of Ruth," Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (March 1970): 27-37.
2 I have borrowed some of Phyllis Trible's analysis of the contrast between Orpah and Ruth from her article, "A Human Comedy: The Book of Ruth," in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, ed. Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982) 161-190.