This year, as we have since 1927, Centre Street Baptist Church is worshipping in the summer with Knox Church. In July, services are lead by Centre Street at Knox’s location. And in August we swap places. Knox Church does not make audio recordings (they do video the entire service for shut ins). So we don’t have audio of the sermons for July. So, I have gone back to my older method here by sharing my sermon notes, adapted. The following is the first of our summer sermon series on the book of Ruth.
We love a story with a happy ending. We love stories where people get what they’re after, and conflicts are resolved and people find peace and happiness. Unfortunately, the bible has few of those. Most of the stories have loose ends, questions, and unresolved conflicts. They so often give us tough things to deal with. Life doesn’t always work out like a fairy tale with a “happily ever after”, so why do we expect the stories of God’s people to do so?
We’ve been dealing with some of those difficult and challenging texts lately; texts which raise tough questions, challenge our assumptions, and push us to think outside our boxes. And in the fall, we’ll be looking at the Epistle of James, which is a very challenging text in the call to examine how we live. So for this month we’re going to have a little breather. A story which follows a happier path- which ends with celebration and joy and harmony. A story which begins with conflict and misery, but finds resolution.
This morning, we’re looking at the beginning of this story of Ruth and Naomi. We are introduced to two of the main characters in a somewhat strange way. We are introduced to Elimelech first. But this is not a story about Elimelech. This introduction has similarities to the opening of 1 Samuel where we meet Elkanah. But of course, 1 Samuel is not about Elkanah or even his wife Hannah or their son Samuel. It’s really about David. It’s a bit of a literary trick.
Elimelech and his wife Naomi and two sons leave their home in Bethlehem because of a famine, and head to Moab. Seems straightforward enough. In an agrarian society if there’s no food, you go where there is. But there are questions to ask here. There is a delightful irony, in that Bethlehem means “house of bread”. Why is Bethlehem without food? There is no explanation. Is this a God-ordained famine or just a coincidence? Also, why does Elimelech leave, but we don’t have mention of other families going with him. Other residents of Bethlehem stay, and stick it out. In chapter 2 we meet Boaz, who comes out of a time of famine with wealth. Boaz and Elimelech are from the same family. So why is Boaz thriving, and Elimelech leaving? We’ll come back to that in just a second.
We should also ask why head to Moab and not somewhere else? In Moab, the sons reach marrying age, and are wed to young Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. So we have a bit of problem here. Israelite men aren’t really supposed to marry Moabite women. It’s taboo. In Numbers 25 we read of Israelites marrying Moabite women, and being lead astray into idolatry. And before this family can grow any further, Elimelech and his two sons die (no explanation given, but the original hearers might ask if God struck these men down for their relations with Moabite women), leaving Naomi, Ruth and Orpah as widows.
This brings us to the first of 4 themes in Ruth.
This one is only present in chapter 1, so we won’t see it repeated in the coming weeks. But here in chapter 1 we see this biblical theme of lament. Oddly, Christianity (especially in 20th/21st century western Christianity) has not really made much room for lament. But when we look at the Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament we see it regularly. There’s even an entire book devoted to the lament… you know Lamentations. The Psalms are full of Lament Psalms. We see Lament in the Prophets and in Job. It’s a part of the theological practice of the people of God.
Lament is the crying out to God, or the expression of immense grief. Lament is suffering put into words. It is what we do when grief or pain come. We may initially experience a time of silence, or inability to articulate anything with words. But once we’ve moved through the initial shock, we seek to describe and put words around our suffering; to “name” it (see Zylla, 71-90). Lament is the cry that “life sucks” right now. And it’s a legitimate, and I would agree with Zylla, important or even essential aspect to our theological and spiritual practice. We try to soften funerals. Or make pain, suffering, grief, feel a little more manageable. We drown our sorrows in platitudes hoping to avoid public outpouring of emotion. We feel like we as Christians are supposed to be happy and joyous at all times. But is that authentic? Naomi cries out “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” (v. 13) and again after returning to Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara [a play on words- Mara means bitter, whereas Naomi can be translated as sweet, or beautiful/pleasant],because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflictedme; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (vv. 20-21)
The Lord has afflicted me.
God did this.
God killed (or allowed the death of) my husband and sons. Remember of course that a childless widow in the ancient world is basically destitute. Can’t inherit land, can’t provide. She becomes vulnerable, and dependent on the kindness of someone else.
Did God afflict Naomi? Is she wrong in accusing God? God remains silent here (although we see God faithful to Naomi later on). Jewish Midrash is a set of texts which “fill in the blanks” in the Hebrew scriptures. The Midrashic text Ruth Rabbah concludes that Elimelech and his sons are struck down and punished. They are punished because Elimelech was a man from a well-to-do family who abandoned his community in a time of need. He refused to help the poor and vulnerable in Bethlehem. But whether or not that’s the case (the text of Ruth provides no explanations), Ruth’s lament is that she feels like God has afflicted her. It is the honest statement of how Ruth feels. And this lament is not contradicted by God or the narrator.
2. The outsider
Ruth is a Moabite. But we see as the story unfolds that she receives the favour of God. She becomes a woman through whom important thing happen in the story of God’s people. Four women pop up in the genealogy recorded in Matthew 1. Ruth is one of them. Tamar, Rahab, and “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” are the others. Four women who are “outsiders” in the descendents of Abraham. It is through these “outsiders” that God’s plan for his people unfolds. God uses the “outsider”. The assumed source of Israelites being led astray becomes the means through which God will draw his people back. In this case, not only is Ruth not an Israelite, she’s a woman, and a widow, but still a vital part and active participant of what God is up to. God works in and through the humble, meek, and lowly in the eyes of the world. The powerless and vulnerable in society become the building blocks of the work of God. “God is presented as being on the side of the marginalized” (Nielsen, 32).
The Hebrew word hesed is vitally important for understanding the Old Testament. It is translated in various ways. Here in 1:8 we read: “Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lordshow you kindness (hesed), as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.” Ruth’s (and also Orpah’s here in v. 8) relationship to Naomi is described using this word hesed. It is usually used of the love and kindness of God towards his people. But in a few cases (eg. David and Jonathan and Mephibosheth), hesed is used of human relationships. Hesed is showing an unconstrained kindness to someone, usually someone of unequal status. It is a condescension in the positive sense; the unmerited help of one to another. Naomi blesses Ruth and Orpah saying may the Lord show hesed to you as you have to your husbands and to me (and oddly she sends them back their gods in v. 15). Then she says go home now and remarry. Ruth and Orpah, both Moabites are explicitly said to have shown hesed. We see Naomi and Boaz performing acts which certainly appear to demonstrate hesed, and in 2:20 Naomi describes Boaz as showing hesed, but the fact that the narrator uses the word to describe the way Ruth and Orpah have acted is revealing. These two Moabite women have faithfully enacted and lived out something which is to characterize the lives of the Israelites. The outsiders have taught the insiders what it means to live as insiders. This should cause us to pause an ask ourselves questions about how we can learn from those outside the church.
But Ruth then says no. I will go wherever you do. Your people are my people, your God is my God. It is interesting to note that it is out of faithfulness to Naomi that Ruth becomes converted to the God of Abraham. In ancient cultures, the deity one worships, the place where one lives and the people to whom one belongs are intertwined. But it is the love between Naomi and Ruth which leads Ruth to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. We, as God’s people are the point of contact for people, and the means by which people meet God. Our love for others draws people to our community of faith and our God.
Orpah goes home (and the Midrash suggests she gets attacked and gang raped on the way home as punishment for leaving Naomi- which is kind of odd, since the narrator of Ruth makes no criticism of her at all- she does as she is told and does as she would be expected to do). But Ruth clings to Naomi. She doesn’t just do what is expected, but then does even more. The words used here are pretty cool. We are told she clung to Naomi, and the then pleaded “do not urge me to leave”. Those verbs “leave” and “cling” are the exact same verbs from Gen. 2:24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The love between Ruth and Naomi is one of inseparability. Even in death, Ruth will remain. Where you die, I will die. Even after you die, I’m not going back. Hesed can also be translated as “faithfulness” or loyalty or “covenant love” or “faithful love”. It’s that “in it for the long haul”, not going anywhere, unshakable love. And this is the love God has for his people. It is the “more than can asked or expected”. He gives more than we’ve earned or deserve. Even in the midst of suffering, and the sense that God has abandoned me, in my lament, I can cry:
This of course doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen in life. Our world is marred by sin and death, but God is making things new. He will be faithful to his creation. He will set things to right. God will “cling” to us with covenant faithfulness and compassionate love. He will not abandon us in our time of need. He may not fix everything right away. Ruth’s presence with Naomi didn’t fix everything, but it guaranteed a presence in the midst of the struggle. God clings to us, and his presence is with us in our times of desperation and need.
Which brings us to the fourth motif of Ruth 1.
4. The subtle hand of God
When we read Ruth, how much of God do we see? He remains silent. He is referred to on a few occasions, mainly in the words of the characters (most of Ruth is in the form of dialogue between people). We have two things accredited to him; the end of the famine in Bethlehem (1:6), and the conceiving of Obed (4:13). God’s mark on the book of Ruth is this: “Yaweh provides bread and babies” (Nielsen, 30).
But we still see what I am calling the “subtle hand of God’. As we follow this story, we’ll see God moving in a way which may not seem obvious, but the narrator is crafting the narrative in such a way that we are led to the conclusion that God is guiding this thing all along. The narrator doesn’t say it, but paints this narrative picture in such a way that we can’t help but connect the dots and realizing that we are to believe that God has made these things happen. God has gently, and providentially guided events to a desired end. God is not loud, demanding, and puppeteering, but is subtle, gentle, guiding. God may not be centre stage, but is certainly the play-write. We don’t get pillars of fire or cloud. We don’t get burning bushes, or walls falling spontaneously, or seas parted, or the sun standing still in the sky. Instead we have two women, vulnerable and marginalized in the culture finding resolution and hope together. But the narrator of Ruth, I believe, wants us to conclude that God is walking with these women to move them from lament to joy.
Three of these themes we’ll see developped further, and we’ll introduce another one next week. But here in chapter 1 we are introduced to these ideas of hesed and loyalty and faithfulness. We see the vulnerable and marginalized women who embody this hesed becoming the central characters, and ultimately the means by which God acts in the history of his people. We see how God is drawing these women to each other and towards a specific purpose, which will end with vindication, celebration, hope and peace.
Michael P. Knowles. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.
Kirsten Nielsen. Ruth (Old Testament Library). Louisville: WJK, 1997.
Katherine Doob Sakenfeld. Ruth (Interpretation). Louisville: WJK, 1999.
K. Lawson Younger Jr. Judges/Ruth (NIVAC). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Phil C. Zylla. The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering. Waco: Baylor, 2012.