Ruth the Pagan Who Joins God’s People – Ruth 1:1-18
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 one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or 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 had consideration for 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. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ 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? 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, 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.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 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. 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!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Ruth is one of the four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17), and one of only two books which are named after women (the other is Esther). It is a short book – four chapters – and over half is dialogue. In Christian Bibles, it is found between the great history books Judges and 1-2 Samuel. The book has many layers: historically, it explains Israel’s great King David’s ancestry. Ruth was David’s great-grandmother. Matthew cites Ruth to illustrate Jesus’ link with David.
The book is also an account of a family affected by tragedy. Through famine and death, Naomi and her foreign daughter-in-law Ruth rebuild their lives in a male-dominated world. The Old Testament scholar Bernard Levinson considers the book to have deeper significance as inner-Biblical exegesis, meaning it is commenting on other parts of the Bible. Which parts?
In chapter 2, Naomi sends Ruth to glean in the barley fields. In Leviticus 23:22, God commands that the crops at the field’s edge should be left for “the poor and the foreigner”.
In chapters 3 and 4, Naomi plans a ‘Levirate marriage’ for Ruth to their kinsman Boaz to bring security and continue the family line (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). This book is a counterargument to the exclusivist stance against intermarriage in Ezra. The controversy comes with Ruth’s Moabite ethnicity. In Deuteronomy 23:3, we find Moabites were expressly excluded. But, we see Ruth accepted not only by Naomi, but also as a wife for Boaz and welcomed by the townspeople, and forever remembered as David’s great-grandmother. This seems to contradict the Deuteronomic Law. Levinson calls it “the single explicit acknowledgement in the Bible of a legal modification”. In Judaism, this is known as halakhah (‘the way’). We might understand it as ‘case law’.
How do Jewish Rabbinical commentaries explain this? Ruth is a woman who converted to Judaism: her complete devotion to Naomi, her people and the same God whom we love. In this book, we find welcome and affirmation: and that above all else, it’s our heart that matters to God.
Loving God, we thank you that you reach out to every person: for you are God, who creates us in amazing diversity. We remember those who feel excluded because of their ethnicity, gender, orientation, age, abilities or socio-economic circumstances. We ask forgiveness for our conscious and unconscious biases; we pray for hearts that welcome. May we see others evermore clearly, as you see them – your beloved creation. Amen.
Reference Levinson, B.M., (2008). Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.
Walt Johnson, Ordinand at Northern College; Member at Wilbraham St Ninian’s URC, Chorlton, Manchester.