Last week we began our study of the book of Ruth. We saw a man named Elimelech from Bethlehem lead his family to the land of Moab because of a famine. The story indicates the famine is a punishment from God. According to Deuteronomy, there was a solution to the problem of famine and that was repentance. Elimelech devises his own solution by going to Moab.
The problem is Elimelech is an Israelite and the Moabites were historical and bitter enemies of the Israelites. Further Elimelech was from the tribe of Judah, the tribe that the future king of Israel would come from who would eventually bring peace and prosperity to the earth. Elimelech shows his contempt for the promises of God and for the land God had given his family by leaving.
When we arrive at our text today the situation has changed. Elimelech and his two sons are dead leaving only Elimelech’s wife Naomi and the wives of his sons Ruth and Orpah. The story will now shift focus away from Elimelech and to Naomi. From now on what we have is the story of the redemption of Naomi.
Our passage today starts with a gift to Naomi and her family from God. Here God provides news to Naomi from Israel - God has acted to relieve His people from the famine. Verse 6 says that the Lord has visited His people and given them bread. So, not only has God provided for them the basic necessity of food, but God has given them bread. Most importantly verse 6 has God call Israel His people. By using the term His people, the text lets us know that God has not abandoned His relationship with Israel. Over and over again the Old Testament repeats the refrain, “I will be your God and you will be my people” to summarize God’s goal in His relationship with Israel. Despite the famine, God still considers Israel His people. The relationship has been restored.
Despite this evidence of God’s blessing, Naomi’s situation is perilous. First, she is a widow which was not a good situation for those in the ancient near east. Women had few independent means available to provide for themselves. It is true that the torah commanded the Israelites to care for the widows and for this very reason that they were at a severe economic disadvantage. Remember that this is the time of the Judges and if the book of Judges teaches us anything it is that the most vulnerable in Israelite society and especially women were taken advantage of, exploited, and oppressed. Women were looked at property to be exploited for their sexuality and disposed of as the men around them saw fit. The record of Judges is the record of men with power murdering innocent young women. This is the world Naomi is returning to and for Naomi who is old, without a husband, and who has spent the last ten years in the country of the enemy and could potentially be viewed as a traitor, return is dangerous.
On top of this, Naomi has lost her husband and her two sons and has no prospect of carrying on her family name. There is only one conclusion that her fellow Israelites would draw from these occurrences. They would not see this as a series of unfortunate events, but evidence that Naomi has been cursed by God Himself. If Namoi would return, it is probable the Bethlehem community would view her as a under God’s curse and worthy of abuse.
As precarious as return is for Naomi, the situation for Ruth and Orpah was worse. Ruth and Orpah were actual Moabites and their connection with Naomi was a result of the sin of intermarriage by their dead ex husbands. Ruth and Orpah were foreigners and refugees and though the torah commanded that foreigners and refugees be taken care of, Israel is not likely in a hospitable mood. Ruth and Orpah are not going to Canada where Pierre Trudeau and a group of children are waiting to meet them. They are going to a country that is hostile and understandably so since the Moabites had a history of opposing and oppressing the Israelites.
So Naomi’s plea to Ruth and Orpah to release them from any obligation to remain with Naomi as she returns to Israel should be seen as a kindness on Naomi’s part. Naomi asks that they return to the house of their mothers. This is an odd expression, you would typically expect to hear house of your fathers. However, from other uses of this phrase it seems to have to do with marriage. Naomi is releasing her daughters-in-law to remarry and move on with their lives. She even offers a blessing on them from the God of Israel.
It is significant that Naomi offers this blessing on Ruth and Orpah in the name of YHWH because YHWH is the covenant name of God that is used by His people. However, Naomi does not stop there. Naomi asks that YHWH demonstrate the kindness that Ruth and Orpah have demonstrated. YHWH is being asked to model His kindness after the kindness of these two Moabite women. What is even more remarkable is the Hebrew word translated here as kindness is hesed.
I have talked about hesed before and I will do so again. It is really one of the few Hebrew words you really need to know. The reason you need to know hesed is because no one English word is really adequate to communicate the concept of hesed. So to understand what is being communicated we cannot rely on our translations. Typical translations of hesed include kindness, mercy, faithfulness, love, lovingkindness. The word hesed is most commonly used an attribute for God. In fact when God reveals Himself to Moses, what is proclaimed is a God abounding in hesed.
Hesed is always used in a context of a relationship as it is used here describing the relationship between Naomi and her daughters-in-law. I like to think of hesed in terms of loyalty and this makes since because it is always used in the context of a relationship like that of a subject to a king or among members of a clan or family. It is a deep devotion resulting in action. These actions go beyond requirements or duty. So the love, mercy, and grace God shows to His people because of His relationship with them is all bound together in this concept of hesed.
It is Naomi’s prayer that YHWH’s hesed would result in rest. Rest is another theologically important word. The sabbath is a day of rest because it points to the goal of humanity’s work on earth. We are to model our work after God who worked creating and filling the earth and then rested when His work was completed. However, because of sin our work has been frustrated. This is the whole point of Ecclesiastes. The opposite of the habel in Ecclesiastes that we spent so much time talking about is rest. Way back in Genesis 5 a man named Lamech who called upon the name YHWH, had a son he named Noah. We are told that Lamech names him Noah in the hope that he would be the one who bring rest from the ground that YHWH had cursed. If you remember last week, I made the point that the first five verses of Ruth paint a picture of family under a curse. Naomi’s prayer for her daughters-in-law is that they will find relief.
It is no coincidence that the text is using all of these theologically charged terms. The Biblically attuned hearer would recognize echoes of God’s big plan of redemption for the cosmos and find it illustrated in this story of a woman who is under a curse and needs redemption. What we have in Ruth is a parable told in a very relatable way about our common human situation and God’s plan of salvation for humanity.
I make this point because we need to introduce another important word in this story. In Hebrew the word is shuv. Shuv means return and is used 12 times in this passage. Repetition is a key method Hebrew narrative uses to emphasize a point. So whenever you hear a word repeated like this, we should pay attention. At several points its even used in a weird way. For example, you will notice that return is used with Ruth to describe her journey with Naomi to the land of Judah. The problem is that Ruth had never been to Judah. Until this point Ruth had lived her whole life in Moab. So the question is why does the text use this specific word when others would work just fine?
The answer is found in the beautiful poem Ruth comprises to answer Naomi’s plea for her to return to Moab. “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 die I will die, and there I will be buried.” Ruth has so completely identified herself with Naomi, she has so completely subordinated her own plans and agendas to Naomi, that she and Naomi are the same.
Now here is the interesting point - the Hebrew word shuv is also the word for repent. If you remember last week, I said that the famine that afflicts the land of Judah is not an ordinary natural event. It is the result of a curse because of the disobedience of Israel. God had entered into a sort of contract with Israel and Israel had broken their part of the deal. Deuteronomy tells us there were a set of penalties if Israel failed to uphold their end of the covenant and this included famine. However, I also said that Deuteronomy also anticipated that Israel would break the covenant and provided a solution. The solution was repentance.
So what we have is a picture of what repentance looks like. Repentance is exemplified by Ruth who has completely abandoned her past, all previous connections, ties, opportunities, and plans and has reformulated her life completely to something else. Ruth has even vowed to die where Naomi dies and be buried with her. This is a stunning statement because the location of your burial was of supreme importance to those in the Ancient Near East culture.
Ruth has completely identified with her mother-in-law, a follower of YHWH, an Israelite, God’s chosen people, from the royal tribe of Judah who will produce the king who will bring peace and prosperity to the whole world. Elimelech had abandoned this plan. Here Ruth the Moabite, who in this story is used as a picture of true repentance. She has now reformulated her whole life to be a part of this plan.
This was Israel’s job, to be the people who bring YHWH’s blessing to the rest of the world. What is interesting is that we see Naomi,a true Israelite, performing this role in probably the most imperfect fashion possible. She has left the promised land and allowed her sons to marry foreigners who have no interest in the promises given to her people.
We totally miss this point because we don’t understand what a small town Bethlehem was and how it must have been a slap in the face to every other villager who remained through the famine. Then to return with a Moabite woman who had married her Israelite son something forbidden to the people of Israel. You can imagine the self righteousness of the villagers was through the roof. I can imagine when Naomi logged onto her Facebook and read the statuses from her Bethlehem friends it must have been like, “Hungry, but happy to be living in the land God gave us.” “My father and grandfather didn’t suffer fighting Canaanites so we could leave at the first sign of famine,” “How soon we forget the evil of King Eglon of Moab.”
However, when Naomi returns the community does not spurn her as a traitor. Instead the community takes pity on Naomi. Time, grief, and sorrow had taken their toll on Naomi and it was apparent to those who had known her before. Naomi means pleasant but Naomi insists that instead she be called Mara which means bitter. Naomi’s insistence on a name change is consistent with her identity. Her view of herself is so afflicted by sorrow it is too painful to hear the name pleasant. Furthermore, Naomi places the blame for her state squarely on God.
Interestingly, she uses the title Shadday twice which is translated Almighty. Shadday is not a name of God, it is an adjective describing God. The entomology of Shady is difficult and disputed, but I think the key is to see it as a reference to Genesis. Shadday occurs six times in Genesis but at every point it is used in conjunction with the covenant promise of fertility and children. Here is the root of Naomi’s bitterness. She has no children and no prospect of carrying on the family of her husband. In her culture that is pretty much her only purpose and now it has been taken from her by God Himself.
Yet, Naomi is now back in the promised land where there is bread. The townspeople do not hate her, instead they pity her. Her daughter-in-law has shown amazing devotion to her. On top of that Naomi has missed the point that Shadday the God who brings children and fertility in Genesis again and again did so despite barrenness. A recurring theme throughout Genesis is God bringing life out of lifelessness.
So Naomi represents a return but it is not a complete return. We will have to wait for the redemption of Naomi. Naomi is still under a curse and without joy. We sense again the story shifting its focus. At first the focus is Elimelech, here it is Naomi, but we see the spotlight moving to Ruth. Listen to how this scene ends. “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter in law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”
The return of Naomi is stated briefly and succinctly almost in passing. Barley is significant because you can make beer out of it, but more likely mentioned here because it was the first crop that was harvested. The time is early spring and so the text is signaling that there is hope and renewal ahead. However, the most remarkable feature is the length devoted to the return of Ruth. Twice the verse mentions she has returned from Moab.
If you were an ancient Israelite the transition from Elimelech to Naomi to Ruth as the hero of this story is beyond shocking. Remember we said the story of the great fathers of the Israelites starts with a famine and so the reader would anticipate Elimelech following in their footsteps. However, like in so many cases, God is working to subvert the normal order and is doing something completely unexpected.
Ruth’s actions and especially her song are portrayed as unbelievably virtuous. Think of who gets to sing songs in the Old Testament. Adam after seeing Eve, Moses after the defeat of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, Hannah at the birth of Samuel, David in the Psalms. Ruth is being elevated by this story to this level and yet the text cannot stop reminding us she is a hated, despised Moabite, the enemies of God.
In fact we could rename the book of Ruth, the parable of the good Moabite. Think about the parallels between the story of Ruth and the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritans were a despised people that chose to assimilate with the Assyrians rather than fight them. They intermarried and rejected the promises of YHWH and formed their own syncretic religion rejecting Jerusalem. They were traitors and despised by the Jews. However, Jesus shows the Samaritan exemplifying the virtues of Israel in a way above and beyond any obligation and duty.
The Samaritan is a model of YHWH’s hesed as is Ruth. He takes the beaten man to an Israelite inn and pays for his care. This would be the equivalent of an Indian in the Old West showing up in a frontier town carrying a white man with two arrows in his back. Ruth abandons everything to face potential hostility with almost no chance of a meaningful and prosperous life. Notice Ruth’s poem mentions death three times. Her future is to die with Naomi. All of this because of her relationship to her mother-in-law.
So its not a stretch to see the story of Ruth as the basis for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What I think is fun about making that parallel is it is in response to a teacher of the law that Jesus tells this parable. At this time a teacher of the law would be like a Bible scholar. The story is so radical to the teacher of the law and I would imagine the rest of the audience, yet they had probably had the story of Ruth for hundreds of years. It was likely read every year during the Feast of Weeks. Ruth is a great story and no doubt the ancient Israelites enjoyed it too. Yet they probably heard the parable of the Good Samaritan and thought it came way out of left field. Jesus must have seemed like such a radical. Yet Jesus is not near the innovator He seemed.
The other interesting thing is that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is told in the context of repentance. The lawyer asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
We sort of miss the point because of the translation, but eternal life is a translation of the Greek phrase, zoe ainios. Zoe is of course life such a zoology and ainios is like our word eon in the since of an epoch or age. So a better translation might be life of the age. You see in Hebrew thought there were two ages, the olam ha zeh or this life and the olam ha ba or life to come. The olam ha ba or life to come is the time when YHWH comes to earth and establishes His rule conquering Israel’s enemies and creating peace and prosperity for His people. This is what the lawyer wants to be part of. The lawyer also knew based on the Deuteronomy passage we talked about last week that the olam ha ba would come when Israel returned to God and obeyed the torah again. The word for the returnnis of course shuv or repent.
Jesus turns the question on the lawyer and essentially asks the lawyer what repentance is all about. The lawyer says obeying the law as summed up in the two great commandments. It is one thing to give the right answer but it is another to actually do it and Jesus wants the lawyer to understand the radical nature of repentance. His story of the good Samaritan paints a vivid picture of what is involved in hesed and to add insult to injury demonstrates by using a hated Samaritan. So what Jesus’ simple story has done is subverted the lawyer’s entire worldview by showing that repentance is not about being a part of this people group and its not about simply following a few rules.
So what we have in both stories is two models of what repentance looks like. Naomi returns. She fulfills the surface meaning of repentance. The teacher of the law also fulfills the surface meaning of repentance. However, Ruth and the Samaritan demonstrate real repentance in a far more meaningful way. Repentance for the Samaritan and for Ruth means leaving it all behind, their background, their agenda, their commitments and their plans and radically reorienting them. Jesus’ words to the teacher of the law are to go and do likewise.
Ruth has demonstrated a fully fleshed out picture of what repentance looks like and I think its more difficult but also a more beautiful and meaningful picture than our typical high minded abstract theological definition of repentance. For God’s people, the answer to the problem of the brokenness of the world, to the problem of the violence and oppression that surrounds us, the solution to the curse, the way we are to enter into rest, is repentance. We must return if we are to be part of God’s people and enter the age to come. It is a daunting task filled with danger and uncertainty. It is not safe and it is not achieved by our own plans and schemes. Instead we must identify with Christ to such an extent that we abandon our own identity. He will lead us to true rest where we can find more than bread and relief but a home both in this age and the age to come.