Ruth is probably best remembered for her declaration of fidelity to her mother in law, Naomi in chapter 1:16,17
“Do not press me to leave you
or 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—
there will I be buried.”
It is one of the most eloquent statements of relational fidelity you will find in the bible. It presages Jesus’ words in John 15:13—” No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
At their best, these words are inspirational. They exemplify the courage, devotion and self sacrifice of women who have had to make it in a world where being female was a liability. At their worst, they are used to create one sided expectations for the ideal woman. In the early 20th century, Senator Beveridge wrote: ‘If I could enact one statute for all the women of America, it would be that each of them should read the Book of Ruth once a month.’ (https://biblehub.com/commentaries/hastings/ruth/1-16.htm
) The sentiment persists—perhaps then, women would keep their place (sarcasm intended). This idealization of Ruth’s devotion conveniently ignores the rebellious woman who married outside of convention and almost certainly against her family’s wishes. Whenever we only see one side of a person, we fail to see that person.
However, I don’t think that the focus for the author of Ruth was gender roles. Though written as a history, this book is more of a historical parable and provides counterpoint to the conventional wisdom of the day. And in the larger picture, the book of Ruth reveals an understanding of God that was to culminate in Jesus.
Ruth was written in troubled times. Israel had been defeated and its leaders exiled. The nation was shattered and the Jewish identity was at risk. When the exiles returned, Ezra and Nehemiah sought to rally the people around their faith. From their point of view, intermarriage had diluted, if not polluted, religious allegiances and purity. They were determined to purify the people and reestablish the Jewish identity. They fiercely opposed intermarriages and sought to dissolve them.
This is not a new problem. Whenever cultures mix, whether that is in post-exilic Israel or at immigration centers in the United States, there is anxiety and fear about maintaining the ‘Jewish’ way or the ‘American’ way. Ruth is written in the midst of such fear and conflict, and reveals a recurring biblical truth—God works his purposes out outside of human convention.
The story begins with famine and a forced migration. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, must migrate to Moab in order to survive. The Moabites, however, were a disdained people. Their offenses were so grave that in Numbers 25, Moabites were banned from the assembly of the Lord. If you were a Jew, you had to be pretty hungry to migrate to Moab. These were not people good Jews consorted with much less married—yet both of Naomi’s children do so. This was exactly the kind of intermarriage that Ezra and Nehemiah feared and opposed.
Then, not only Naomi’s husband, but both her sons die—leaving Naomi, and her daughters in law, alone to face the world. Naomi laments: “my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” It is in this moment of despair that Ruth makes her famous declaration: “Where you go, I will go….your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth was in no way obligated to stay with Naomi. Her familial obligations had been met. Ruth, however, chose to stay with Naomi when she returned to her homeland. It wasn’t the law, it was the spirit of the law that Ruth aspired to.
By the human expectations of the day, neither Ruth nor Naomi had a future. Ruth is reduced to gleaning the fields—a very high risk, low reward way to survive for an unprotected woman. She meets Boaz, a distant relative to Naomi, and comes under his protection. Knowing that Boaz has no legal obligations to Ruth, Naomi advises Ruth to seduce Boaz so as to secure her future. It works. They marry and Ruth has a son, Obed who has a son, Jesse—who is the father of King David—and ultimately, according to the genealogy in Matthew 1, Jesus culminates this line.
I’m pretty sure no one saw that plot twist. Based upon the conventions of ethnic purity, Ruth is an unlikely progenitor of our faith. The greatest king of Israel, as well as Jesus himself, was the product an intermarriage, and more surprising to a Moabite. Ruth’s love transcended tribal and religious prohibitions. So much for following the rules as a condition for God’s favor. Humans simply cannot predict, much less control how God loves. Over and over again, we impose our standards upon God and then claim we are acting according to his will. The book of Ruth challenges those assumptions.
Besides representing a counterpoint to the exclusionary practices of post exilic Israel, Ruth also becomes a harbinger of what our faith was to become. Historically, belonging to the faith has had two major competing strands. Do we mark our faith by the ways we are unique (the chosen ones)—and therefore exclude others? Or, do we mark our faith by the diverse and unexpected ways that God shows up—and therefore include others? Humans usually opt for polarization and exclusion. But that simply is not how God loves. God is regularly correcting our definitions and our assumptions. God regularly includes the very people we would exclude. God cares for the alien. God cares for children. God cares for the stranger. And God expects us to do likewise.
In the book of Ruth, God is hardly mentioned but the book reveals a God who is working his purposes out. The book presents a God who is present in the most unlikely of places—in famine, desolation, unacceptable marriages and even death. And the book presents a woman, Ruth, who lives a love that transcends our human hunger for the safety of tribal and religious homogeneity. This is the love that Jesus lived and taught.
In real life, I have personally heard people say: “How can you claim to be a Christian and vote Democratic?” And I have heard the same question from the other side of the aisle: “How can you claim to be a Christian and vote for Trump?” These questions are rarely honest inquiries. They demean and stereotype others. They reveal that we make politics our personal litmus test of faith. The questions themselves assume a righteous certainty that judges and divides people—in the name of God no less. The reverse should be true. Our faith should govern our politics. The real issue is how can any of us ask questions in this way and claim to be Christian? The questions themselves are signs that we need to confess.
We believe, as difficult as it is to comprehend, that everyone of us belongs to God and we pray that each one of us is called to discern God’s will. That is a high standard but it is still the call and the standard of our faith. We have plenty of evidence that we fail. We are judging and judgmental people. But when we can recognize that God is acting in ways beyond our capacity to see, we can confess our lack of humility and our need to be right. We can confess that we demand agreement over offering respect. We can confess we judge others for being judgemental. We can confess that we often do to others what we accuse them of doing to us.
Especially in these polarized times, we need to remember who we worship. The book of Ruth speaks to devotion, self giving and sacrificial love—even when it is not expected or required—as the vehicle of God in history. It was Ruth’s line that gave us David. It was Ruth’s line that gave us Jesus. It was Jesus who reconciled an often very unsavory world to himself. By the religious standards of Ruth’s day and by the religious standards of Jesus’ day, none of this should have happened.
Even now God is acting in ways we cannot see. We need such reminders so that we can place our faith over our politics. We need such reminders so that we can confess when we don’t. And we need women like Ruth to show us that love can prevail.
Let it be so.
Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling