Readings: Ruth 1:1-22, Secrets of Heaven 1038 (see below)
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The book of Ruth is a powerful and emotional story. Even though it is told with relative economy, the text is filled with wordplay and callbacks that are often lost in English translations. It explores themes of lovingkindness, community, immigration, loyalty, responsibility and redemption. And it is by no means straightforward; interpreters continue to argue about what the book is trying to say, even today. It is a story grounded in an ancient context, many details of which are lost to us now, but it also functions as an extended parable, one in which we can see even our modern selves reflected.
We will be spending three weeks looking at the book of Ruth together, and today we start at the beginning of the story. We are introduced to the main characters: Naomi, and her daughter in law for whom the book is named - Ruth. We are told that the story takes place during the times of the judges, the period that followed the leadership of Moses and Joshua, but before Saul is established as the King of Israel.
The narrative for Naomi starts out with difficulty: she and her family need to travel to Moab due to a famine in the land of Israel, but, even in this time of famine, Naomi’s personal life is full. She has a husband and two fine sons. And while her husband dies, in short order, her sons find wives in Moab and it seems that all is good. But then suddenly, Naomi is beset by further tragedy. Both her sons die, without heirs. This is a very challenging situation for a women in ancient times, particularly for a widow. Naomi would have depended on her husband and sons for survival. So, she plays the only card she has left, to return home to Israel, her homeland, where thankfully, the famine was now over.
These are the first few instances of a running theme of the book: reversals and returns. Naomi’s life went from full in a time of emptiness to empty in a time of fullness; an enormous upheaval. And in times of such upheaval, we search for solid ground, we think about what we can and should return to, in order to make sense of our lives. And so this first chapter is full of the notion of returning. Naomi makes plans to return to her homeland, and she urges her daughters in law to return to their mother’s houses.
The implication is, of course, that they are still young enough to marry again. If Naomi had more sons, Israelite law would have required them to marry their brother’s widows, but as Naomi colorfully explains, she has no more sons and certainly will not bare any more. Orpah and Ruth should go home and begin their lives again.
Neither want to. It is a testament to the life they all must have had as a family together that they resist. Eventually though, Orpah is persuaded. But not Ruth. Ruth makes a stand for her relationship with Naomi and refuses to leave her.
This speaks to another theme in the story: hesed. Hesed is an extremely important spiritual principle in the Hebrew scriptures. It is often translated as lovingkindness, but that word really only gets to about half of the meaning. Yes, it is about lovingkingness, but specifically the kind of lovingkindness that draws people into relationship with each other, that binds them together as kin and community, that speaks to their responsibility to each other. It is sometimes described as covenantal love, in that it is not pure sentiment, but rather a love that understands that it is enacted again and again over time. For this reason, it is sometimes translated as steadfast love, and is often used in describing God’s steadfast love to us. The idea being that as we experience God’s steadfast love, we are called to model and embody that love in our relationships with others.
Naomi had already spoken of hesed in verse 8, that the Lord might treat Orpah and Ruth as kindly as they had treated her and her sons. She was invoking this notion of lovingkindness and connectedness within relationship as something that should happen to them over there, back in their mother’s houses, where in her mind they would clearly be back in the proper care of God. Naomi, it seems had exempted herself from hesed. And of course, why wouldn’t she? She had lost so very much, and she was bitter and empty. She felt like the Lord had forsaken her. She states: “the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” And so she drew herself outside of the reach of hesed, outside of the reach of God’s lovingkindness, outside of the reach of anyone’s lovingkindness.
But Ruth disagreed. She was under no obligation stay, not by her society’s expectations, but still she re-drew the circle of hesed around Naomi. We hear Ruth not only say “Where you go I will go….” but also “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” She is speaking not only of physical presence but also of identity. She weaves the two of them into relationship at a deep level, and in that moment, creates a community of two. She speaks into being an ongoing covenant between them. She speaks the language of our Swedenborg reading, whereby we are told that union with God comes from our willing reciprocation of love, the return of love to the Lord and the expansion of love towards others.
Naomi won’t really be able to hear or feel the fullness of that gift of hesed for a while. At first, Naomi is so fully within her own bitterness that she basically ignores Ruth when they arrive back in Israel. But we cannot be too harsh with her, for that is just the way grief works sometimes. “The Almighty has made my life very bitter,” she laments. Our reversals of fortune, our losses in this life, are sometimes so very hard to take. They hollow us out, and it is hard to believe that we might ever experience fullness and meaning again. But as you might have already guessed, the story of Ruth will have something to say about that, and we will hear more as go.
But for now, there is one more theme that is being introduced in this first chapter. As beautiful as Ruth’s sentiments are, this is not just simple story of kindness between two people. The context of the story speaks powerfully about insiders and outsiders and the purposes of God. This is a thread that runs throughout the entire Hebrew scriptures. Again and again, outsiders to the people of Israel are woven into the fabric of Israel’s story in important ways.
Ruth was a Moabite, a people despised by Israel for generations. Perhaps this is a part of the kindness that Naomi offered in advocating for their separation. Surely, they both knew the difficulty that Ruth would have being a Moabite in Israel. We can now even more fully appreciate the act of courage that Ruth offers; in drawing the circle of hesed around Naomi, she placed herself in an uncertain position. As I preached two weeks ago, Israel’s God and Israel’s laws consistently advocated for the ethical treatment of foreigners, but as we all know even now, the distance between the ideal and the practice; that is where the hard work is. As the story progresses, this sense of Ruth being an outsider to Israel hovers over everything.
I hope this doesn’t spoil things too much, but by the end of the book we will come to understand that this is not just a story about two random women. This is the story of King David’s ancestors, about how “King David’s family tree [is] rooted in the loyal behavior of a foreigner…”(1) and about how the purity of bloodline is much less important than loving, ethical and courageous behavior. And so the story begins with a reversal of the readers expectations: that someone designated an “outsider” would model hesed so touchingly.
Now, at the end of the first chapter, with the characters and the stakes setup as they are, it might be fruitful to to ask: where do we see ourselves reflected? This need not be prescription, only observation. Which parts of ourselves are Naomi right now, emptied out? Which parts of ourselves believe we have somehow been placed outside the circle of hesed, or that we don’t deserve to be included? Which parts of ourselves feel like an outsider, or conversely wish to despise an outsider? Which parts of ourselves are willing to fight for relationship and community? This is the power of ancient story; that we might see ourselves looking back at us through the millennia, and we might know that God journeys with us both then and now.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible, pg263
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. 3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. 8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!” 14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. 19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” 22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
Secrets of Heaven 1038
The fact that a pact [or a covenant] is the presence of the Lord in love and charity is evident from the nature of a pact. Every covenant exists to tie people together; that is, the goal is for people to live in mutual friendship, or in a state of love. This is why marriage too is called a compact or covenant.
The Lord cannot unite with us except in love and charity, because the Lord is love itself and mercy; he wants to save us all and draw us to heaven — that is, to himself — with a powerful force. So we can all see and conclude that no one could ever be united to the Lord except through that which is the Lord, or in other words, without doing as he does, or making common cause with him. To do this is to love the Lord in return and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the only means of union. This is the most essential element of a compact. When union does grow out of it, then the Lord, of course, is present.