Ruth, the Moabite
With famine in the land- barren olive trees, rows of barley slung low with thirst, weeds unable to root between the cracks, a plow forgotten midfield- Naomi must choose: abandon town or starve. Leaving the empty plates of Bethlehem, she migrates east to the far side of the Dead Sea with her husband and two sons, a family crossing the border into enemy territory for a future beyond chasing crumbs.
A decade in, Mom and Dad picked up the Canaanite language, acclimated to the high plateau altitude, learned to haggle with the dusty merchants, and blessed their sons’ marriages to local women from Moab. Memories of piercing hunger pangs had all but disappeared until tragedy returned. Elimelich, Mahlon, and Chilion all died, leaving Naomi, Orpha, and Ruth widowed.
Without men in a society organized around men, the three women are destitute. Convinced God was plotting against her, that her station and situation would only worsen, Naomi, clinching with resentment, departs for Judah. On the way, with her daughters-in-law at either side, she stops in the road to beg them, “Turn around. Forget me. Survival means finding a younger man, not following an old woman.” Orpah obeys, departing with a final kiss.
But not Ruth. Fiercely loyal and wildly unreasonable, she disobeys, saying, “No, I won’t.” Despite having no cultural or legal obligation to stay, Ruth clings to Naomi and pledges an oath. In today’s text, unlike any covenant between two women in scripture, what makes Ruth’s vow so faithful?
Ruth 1:12-18 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 goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “Look, 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, 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, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus 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 puts Naomi’s welfare above her own.
She will not be dissuaded.
She abandons everything familiar for life unknown
The commercial was deemed too controversial to air on CBS or NBC. With the Bush Administration lobbying for a constitutional amendment to codify traditional marriage and American Christianity evangelizing identity politics, the United Church of Christ countered with a 30-second television spot. It begins with church bells ringing on Sunday morning. Members and visitors hurry up the steps for the start of worship. Rather than hospitable greeters, two nightclub bouncers block the entrance with intimidating stares and velvet stanchions. A gay couple, hands clasped, are rejected outright. Steps behind, an affluent white family- husband, wife, and two blond children- is admitted without delay. Then, a teenager wearing gold chains, with bronze skin and expectant eyes, followed by an African girl and a man seated in a wheelchair. All three are denied and told, “No way, not you.” The advertisement ends with these words: “Jesus didn’t turn people away, neither do we.”1
Regrettably, sanctuary security guards have long worked the door as zealots of rejection, barring entry to the last group excommunicated- the uncircumcised, the defiled, the menstruating, the pagan, and especially the foreigner. The Judean people detested the Samaritans and Egyptians, but they considered the Moabites most inferior of all ethnicities, the group to shun. A holiness code in Deuteronomy records the law saying, “No Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”2 for four hundred years.
Because the Moabites descended from Lot and his child of incest, declined to offer assistance during the exodus, and worshipped multiple deities, Ruth and her kind will never be considered chosen people. Still, she raises her hand to make a promise anyway. Insisting on going where she’s not wanted, Ruth converts to a community that refuses to accept her. What makes Ruth’s vow so faithful is her unyielding commitment, for better or worse, to Naomi and Naomi’s religion.
By swearing on her life, Ruth provokes a theological crisis among the Israelites. “How,” arguing behind the altar, “do we treat our enemies? Are we a fellowship organized around who we leave out? Do we believe in rules more than relationships? How do we handle a dismissed interloper who won’t dismiss us? Is the redemption of our nation bound up in someone unlike us?”
Even though Ruth the stranger went on to remarry and birth Obed, the father of Jesse and grandfather of King David, the Hebrew Bible excludes her from the royal bloodline. But her witness must have swayed someone. Later, when Matthew began penning his Gospel, he started with a family tree, tracing the fourteen generations through the virgin birth. Included in her rightful place as a corrective is Ruth the Moabite.3
Despite the othering, Ruth didn’t confuse God with the Institution bearing God’s name. And when her distant grandson incarnated, he didn’t either, taking his steadfast faith to the cross where he opened his arms wide to the resident aliens of every land. As the reformation of denominational decline continues, as people spend their Sundays elsewhere, God’s primary place of manifesting welcome in the world is shuttering.
At its missional best, the local church gathers a disparate blend of people who would otherwise have nothing to do with each another. Like Ruth and Jesus, please don’t give up on what is happening here and instead repeat after me, “Do not press me to leave… to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go… your people shall be my people.”
1 The United Church of Christ. (2004). “The Bouncer” [Television commercial], Cleveland, OH.
2 Deuteronomy 23:3
3 Helen Brunch Pearson, Mother Roots: the Female Ancestors of Jesus (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 105-152.