Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 29, 2016.
Taken from Ruth 1: 11-18
Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:26, 28-29)
“Yes, Jesus,” we might very well reply, “but have you seen the bird as it pecks along over frozen ground looking for food or as it sits huddled on a branch, enduring a cold, drenching rain with no understanding that it could very well not survive?”
“You yourself, Jesus, you acknowledge that these lilies of the field have but a brief moment of glory in the sun before being mowed down and “thrown into the oven”. (Matthew 6:30). Yet, you tell us to take comfort in the lessons we learn from them? You tell us God has arranged for all to be well for them? You call on us to learn from them lessons of God meant to allay our fears and calm our anxieties?
Who is this God, then, who with such utter abandon adorns creation with beauty only to leave that same beautiful creation to ruin on the whims of nature and the foolishness of mortals? What should we say, then, about God?
These are the hard questions the Book of Ruth asks. Hard questions to which, interestingly, God never once replies. Nowhere in the Book of Ruth does God speak a word. There is no prophet to declare, “Behold! Thus sayeth the Lord”. There is no burning bush in the valley, and no theophany on the mountain top. There is no priest culling the truth of sacred text nor sage ordained to offer wisdom in God’s name. In Ruth, there are, instead, only the birds and the lilies themselves to tell their story.
We commonly call this the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman. But, it’s not just Ruth’s story. Ruth literally marries into this story, which is the story of Naomi and Naomi’s husband and their two sons. The opening verses of chapter one sets the stage for us. The time is in the ancient and early days of Israel, long before the tribes are united under king and nation.1
Hear the story:
“…there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem migrated to Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The man’s name was Elimelech and the name of his wife was Naomi…they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem.” (1:1-2)
Names are important in this story. Elimelech and Naomi are Ephrathites from Bethlehem. Ephraph is what their town used to be called before later settlers renamed it “Bethlehem”. In other words, Elimelech and Naomi were from one of the old established families there in Bethlehem. They were like the FFV here in Virginia: they were the Lees and the Byrds and the Washingtons of their time and place. They were Ephrathites, and you best not forget it!
Elimelech’s name means “God is King”. Naomi’s name means “Pleasant” or “Beautiful”. But, before this first chapter moves very far along, Naomi will have cause to wonder exactly what kind of king is this God of hers. Her own name, Naomi…Pleasant, will sound like ridicule to her own ears. Her own given name will soon be too painful to pronounce, so much so, that she rejects it!
Naomi changes her name to reflect the harsh reality life will tattoo in the deep lines furrowed across her own forehead: “Mara”, which means “Bitter”. “Call me, ‘Mara’,” she will come to say, for that is who I am. I am Bitter.” (1:20) I said, “life” will tattoo that name across her forehead; but that’s not actually what Naomi says did it to her; she says, God has done this to her.
Even the name of their village, “Bethlehem”, turns rancid in Naomi’s mouth. “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread”, but there is no bread to be found in Bethlehem nor anywhere around their beloved land. There is a long famine which compels Elimelech and Naomi and their sons to seek a better life in the neighboring country of Moab.
Think of Naomi and her family as one of the families that suffered through Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Louisiana is devastated; homes, businesses, whole communities left in ruins. So, many simply get up and leave the ruins behind. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, many families migrated over into Texas. They just end up staying in Texas. They start over. They get work in Texas, they get the kids back in school, some are even able to buy a house!
You know, 2005, 2006, 2007: anybody could get a home mortgage, couldn’t they? What collateral? What down-payment? You’ve got some kind of job, you’ve got a house! What a country! What a life! Katrina may have turned out to be the best thing to happen to a lot of people.
Picture Elimelech and Naomi that way. They’re devastated by Katrina. They leave New Orleans and migrate to Houston. Elimelech and his sons get jobs, they get a mortgage and buy a house big enough not for Mom and Dad, but even with enough room for the sons and their young wives. Sure, 2005 was bad. But, things started to turn around…2006, 2007…looks like Naomi and her family have landed on their feet.
Then, comes 2008. The economy starts tanking. Elimelech and the boys lose their jobs. The housing bubble bursts. Banks collapse. Real estate values plummet. Mortgage companies start foreclosing on houses, right and left. Families literally are thrown out on to the street.
Suicides, divorces, homelessness, wide-spread confusion that only the oldest of the old can remember living through.
That’s about how it goes for Naomi as, first, her husband dies, and then both of her sons die, leaving her with no money, no way to work, and two young daughters-in-law in exactly the same predicament along with her. So bad does it become for them, Naomi can come up with no solution other than to move back to New Orleans. Maybe she can move into one of those FEMA trailer camps.
Naomi simply can’t ask her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to make that trek with her, this old broken beggar woman crossing that barren desert land. It is indeed for Naomi, a terrible walk of shame.
Orpah sees the hard but necessary choice before her. With great heartbreak, Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and returns to her own family. But, the other daughter-in-law simply can’t do it. Ruth pledges herself to her mother-in-law, much in same way she had pledged herself to Naomi’s son:
“Entreat me not to leave you or to return 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 will I be buried.” (1:16-17)
Ruth’s pledge of fidelity to Naomi and to Naomi’s God is all the more daring when you consider what Naomi has to say about God. Naomi has just then told Ruth and Orpah, “my life is bitter, terribly bitter, because God…Yahweh…has gone against me for some reason…God has slapped me down hard! Go! Get far away from me and save yourselves!” (1:13, paraphrased). But, Ruth persists, and so these two destitute widows make their way back to Bethlehem.
When Naomi and Ruth show up in Bethlehem, verses 19-21 of chapter 1 tell us that it causes quite a stir. The women of the town see Naomi, and they whisper and they talk and they question, “Is this Naomi? Is this Miss Pleasant, Miss FFV Beautiful-Fancy Pants?” Well, Naomi puts a stop to that right away. “Do not ever again utter that name to my face! My name from now on is Mara, ‘Bitter’, because the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, but Yahweh has brought me back empty….Yahweh has afflicted me and the Almighty has brought me to ruin.”
Again, names tell the story in this little book. Mara not only renames herself, she begins addressing God by a different name, too. Up until now, Naomi has addressed God as a daughter of the covenant, so she uses God’s covenant name, “Yahweh”. But, now, she starts calling God by the name, “Shaddai”. We most often translate the name, “Shaddai”, as “Almighty”. But the name can as easily be read, “the Destroyer”.2 This is how Mara means it: “God has destroyed my life, and I am bitter!”
Why has God done this to me? I don’t know…I don’t know anything my husband and I have done other than try to make the best decisions we could make in the face of the natural disaster of that famine back those many years ago. Why has God done this to me? I can only answer with the absolute truth: my arms are too short to box with God, and God has beat the daylights out of me. Am I bitter about it? You bet I am!
Well, Ruth knows, even bitter people have to eat. Her mother-in-law is a broken woman. It will fall to Ruth to support them, so Ruth offers to do the only thing she knows to do. She and Naomi have just happened to come back to Bethlehem during the harvest season, so Ruth asks Naomi’s permission to go to the fields and glean. Gleaning was not day work done to earn hourly wages you collect at the end of the day. Gleaning was going on the public dole; it was ancient welfare.
The law required that landowners leave some of their crops unharvested at the edges of their fields. The destitute could come and pick over the remains in order to feed themselves. It was a flat-out tax on the productive citizens, taking money out of their pockets in order to feed those who produced nothing, for whatever reason.
As you can imagine, the landowners did not like it one bit. Whatever they left unharvested would be the poorest of the crop. They would not provide water nor shade nor food nor any other accommodation that might encourage beggars to come work their fields. They turned a blind eye to how their own men would molest the women who gleaned. (see Boaz’s own admission to this, in 2:9, 15-16)
Now, even though I know better, I always picture Ruth on this romantic outing into the countryside, pretty much like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”. It’s a bright Fall day. Ruth has her hair tied up in kerchief; she’s dressed in peasant’s dress, carrying a basket on her hip, a smile on her face, and a song in her heart. Of course, that is utter nonsense. Ruth went out early each morning knowing she was putting herself in a hard and dangerous predicament just hoping to get enough for her and Naomi to eat one more day.
As it so happens, Ruth stumbles into the field of a man named Boaz. It turns out that Boaz actually is a rich relative of Naomi’s. We also learn in chapter 2, verse 11, that Boaz already knows about Naomi and her daughter-in-law returning to Bethlehem. Apparently, though, Boaz had felt no pangs of conscience about ignoring his destitute relative and her foreign daughter-in-law. Until, that is, Boaz gets a look at this foreign born young woman who’s attached herself to Naomi.
Boaz comes out to inspect his fields and to see how the harvest is going. He looks out and sees Ruth gleaning among the other poor folk. Suddenly, Boaz finds—shall we say—a sudden infusion of kindness welling up in his old bachelor’s heart. Which, is where our little story suddenly takes a romantic turn.
Ruth runs home that evening to Naomi. Her hands are full of grain, and her heart is full of good news. “Naomi! You won’t believe who I met today. It was the owner of the field, Boaz, and he and I really seemed to get along just great!”
I can picture Naomi smacking herself in the forehead as she realizes, of course, Boaz! My long lost, rich cousin Boaz! This is very good news to Naomi, because Naomi also knows about a certain law that says, if a man dies without a male heir, then the dead man’s male next of kin is obligated to marry her and to try and sire a male descendent for his dead relative.
Naomi realizes that this all more than just good luck. Ruth choosing to stay with her; them coming back to Bethlehem just in time for the harvest, Ruth happening upon Boaz’s field? Naomi hears herself uttering a prayer she never ever expected to pray again, in chapter 2, verse 20, “Blessed be he by the Lord, Yahweh, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi jumps into action: she preps Ruth, dressing her up, coaching her what to do and what to say in order to activate that particular law. There are rituals to go through to get this sort of arrangement settled. You can read all about them in chapters 3 and 4
Just to quickly summarize, Boaz rolls over in the middle of the night and awakens to discover lovely Ruth there with him. Ruth tells him, it’s time to do your duty and I’m ready and willing. Boaz, never the fool, and at least this time, not slow on the uptake, takes up Ruth on her offer. That’s chapter three. There’s some legal haggling with another male relative who has to relinquish his first dibs on Ruth. That gets settled in the first part of chapter 4.
All of which is to say, Boaz gets it done. He and Ruth are married. Then, we’re told in chapter 4, verse 13, “the Lord, Yahweh, gave her conception, and she bore a son.” But, that’s not the end of the story. There is one more scene, the final scene, to be played out before this story is finished. And it is not Ruth’s scene at all. It is Naomi’s.
The scene opens in chapter 4, verse 14. The curtain pulls back with Naomi holding her newborn grandson, who at this point remains unnamed. The women of Bethlehem once again surround this grandmother, who at this point, you’ll recall, still is renamed “Mara”. But, no more. In verse 17, the women proclaim, “A son has been born to Naomi”. No longer is she to be called “Mara”—the Bitter One—but she is once again “Naomi”—the Pleasant, Beautiful One.
The baby whom the women proclaim as Naomi’s son, they now give the name “Obed”, which means “worshipper”. Our story concludes with the narrator telling us that Obed will be the grandfather of David. Which means, of course, that Naomi will become the great, great grandmother of the greatest king over God’s people.
And many, many generations later, another descendent of Naomi’s will enter into the streets of Bethlehem, poor and very tired. There will be an older man with his young betrothed wife, where they too will experience the birth of their son. In Bethlehem, the “House of Bread”, will born a child who will later be called, the “Bread of Life”, but who for the moment will simply be named, “Jesus”, meaning, “he will save”.
Naomi’s story presents the very same God who is with us, the God Who Saves, not the God Who Destroys. Although, that is what Naomi had come to believe. Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons had made their own decisions in the face of harsh, trying circumstances. There seems to have been a brief reprieve, when things went well, and it seemed well for the sons to marry and to begin their own families.
But, then, it got worse. Naomi’s life turned hellish and destructive and despairing. Did God do that to Naomi? She thought so at the time, and she complained quite plainly about God’s treatment as she saw it. But, God did not strike her down, nor curse her. Famine, dislocations, and death struck her down and left her bitter, but not God.
In her bitterness, Naomi could not see that already God was working to restore her and to rescue her from bitterness. Much as a mother bird might shelter her young, God embraced this very hurt and damaged daughter of the covenant. God restored Naomi and gave her a new life and a place in God’s saving work for others.
This is God, as we have come to know God through that much later offspring of Naomi, who is Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, the Bread of Life meant to feed us all. Where ever we have traveled, what ever harshness has left us embittered, God is with us though we do not know it, laying before us a path to new life through God’s gracious gift of the child of salvation for us, too. Jesus is also our Bread of Life, for the journey.
1All exegetical notes are from Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris, Judges and Ruth, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968) pp. 217 ff.
2Brown, Driver, Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979) shadat p. 994a