This week we are beginning a new sermon series and this one in particular gets me excited, because it is one of my favorite Hebrew Bible texts. Over the next four weeks we are going to be exploring the book of Ruth and the richness and fullness that are held, even within its few pages. The Book of Ruth was the first book I ever translated completely when I was taking Biblical Hebrew in undergrad and I see within it simplicity of message and understanding. In it you have the story of these two women who over come societal status and cultural status to lay the foundation of a lineage that would lead to the greatest king of Israel and eventually to Jesus Christ who is the King of Kings. But we will unpack that as we move forth in this book, because it is important to get the whole. So lets start at the beginning of this story…with chapter 1.
This book in historical context and in terms of the order of books in our contemporary bibles occurs after the book of Judges. The writer of this story recounts, “In the days when the judges ruled…” (Ruth 1:1a) The time of the judges in the Hebrew Scriptures is marred by a time of chaos. One commentary I read put it this way,
“The canonical scripture has just concluded the book of the Judges with this terrible sentence: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes’ (Jdg. 21:25). Anarchy reigned; life was cheap.” (http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/power-devotion-john-holbert-10-29-2012?p=2#HLUFZVowTpbuMEqJ.99)
This backdrop plays into the beginning of this book as we dive into the story because right off the bat we are told that there is famine in the land of Bethlehem that has driven this man, Elimelech, and his wife, Naomi, out of their native land of Bethlehem, and to Moab. Now Moab, for the Israelites, has a very counter-cultural existence. In that they were not viewed very favorably by the Israelites and this caused the Israelites to view them in a less than kind of way. This theme is on full display through the book because we will see that one of the main characters we will met in a moment, Ruth, is a Moabite woman and her heritage is part of the heritage of King David. Moab is located East of the Dead Sea from Jerusalem. Therefore, Naomi and Elimelech traveled from Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, and across the Dead Sea to this land of Moab. Then to make these matters worse that they have had to leave their own land for this foreign land Elimelech dies and leaves Naomi widowed with two children. Now luckily they were male and both children Mahlon and Chilion took wives. This is where we meet Ruth and Orpah. However, the fortunes for this family takes another turn and Mahlon and Chilion die now widowing Ruth and Orpah and leaving Naomi essentially all alone.
Now this may not sound like a big deal for us because of the time we live in, but because of the patriarchal nature of society in these times a woman was determined in life baby her male counterpart, whether that be father, husband, or sons. To lose all these avenues essentially made a woman disposable in society. However, the story of Ruth as we will find out shows us how much power women actually have and how God calls and works through all of us no matter gender to bring about God’s Kingdom.
Today however, I want to focus on this interaction between Ruth and Naomi. Because in the midst of this great loss for Naomi she is clearly grieving the loss of her family, but in Ruth’s reaction we learn something about God. This in fact was a story told to help convey God’s work in the world, and therefore we see God present in characters in the story. Ruth provides this insight for us today.
Naomi begins by telling her two daughter-in-laws,
“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…” (Ruth 1:8)
It is this word kindly that I want to tune in on the word in Hebrew here is Khesedh. It is a word translated most often as steadfast love, but this word has even greater undertones in meaning loyalty…specifically a loyalty in love. (Strongs Exhaustive Concordance, Hebrew pg. 93) So here we have a woman who is grieving, clearly, telling these two Moabite woman to go home and pray the Lord would deal kindly or in a steadfastly love manner with them. Basically praying that the Lord would be loyal to them because of the loyalty they showed Naomi in her time of despair.
While we see both women argue about whether to leave with her we see that eventually Orpah leaves, and departs our story for good, but Ruth provides a liturgy that can be used for generations to truly express checed beyond the simple nature of what Naomi is offering to them for their departure from her.
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!” (Ruth 1:16-17)
This moment defines the rest of the story that lays ahead of us, because of Ruth’s willingness to look after Naomi. What Ruth is saying here is that she is willing to abandon her own people and her own God’s to follow Naomi back to her land and to her God. Naomi’s grief continues to play a central role, as it will through the whole story, to Ruth’s commitment and loyalty in love to help Naomi get through this time.
This example showing us today as we read a quality not just of this amazingly brave and wonderful woman of the Bible, but can show us the manner in which God expresses. Just like Ruth would not leave Naomi in her darkest time God says that he will be with us in our darkest days as well. Ruth’s charge to Naomi is more than just a statement meant for one daughter-in-law to her mother but contains within it the promises of our God as well. Where we go God goes, where we stay God stays, when we grieve God grieves along side of us and helps us through. God has promised to make us his people if we simply allow him to do so.
As we find out Naomi’s grief does not stop here, but she allows Ruth to join her on this journey. Naomi’s grief is on display in verses 20 and 21, and she makes no mention of this woman she has brought back or the uplifting spirit she has already given her. However, we will encounter that overtime the wounds heal, but first Naomi must grieve. She must wallow in her despair and Ruth, being the loyal and loving women she is comes along side her to help her through this time.
You may be going through a difficult time in your life where life just sucks and so many bad things have happened to you. I hope that you hear these words of Ruth and know that while they are her words spoken to Naomi that they are the words of our God to. They are not words to immediately heal all wounds, but they are words to begin the process of healing. Let God in and let God do God’s work, and as we will see in reading the rest of this fruitful book that God continues working in our life even when we think despair is all that is left.