First Reading of Ruth: 1, This is What Love Looks Like

Ruth Whither Thou Goest Gagon sized
This gorgeous painting is entitled, “Whither Thou Goest,” and it is the work of artist Sandy Freckleton Gagon, a 21st-century American Realist in Utah.  You can visit her website and view her other works HERE.

As I approached writing a First Reading post on Ruth, I believed it would be easy.  The book of Ruth is very short, tells only one story, and contains nothing that will upset or frustrate the reader.  Unlike literally every other book of the Old Testament before it, Ruth gives us only good examples.  The people in this story demonstrate moral behavior, abiding love, true compassion, sincere loyalty, and godly honor.  At no point in my reading of Ruth’s 4 chapters did my heart drop into upset, confusion, or anger.  I didn’t have to wrestle with Ruth, so I thought I could just come here and write a short, sweet summary; something I could simply hammer out in an hour and then set aside for bigger, meatier, tougher books in our Bible.

But that would be a huge mistake.  Paul tells us that all scripture is God-breathed (2Tim 3:16).  I believe him.  Because I believe him, I also believe that Ruth demands as much of my emotional, spiritual, and intellectual effort as the “difficult” books.

Reading Ruth is a joy and a relief after the violence and failure and depravity and dense law of the Torah, Joshua, and Judges, but we shouldn’t take that to mean that Ruth is supposed to be light, less important, or easy.

The book of Ruth is a gift, so let’s take the time to really appreciate it together for awhile.

Ruth Map
This map shows the route from Bethlehem to Moab that Elimelech and his family would have traveled while fleeing the famine in Judah.  In reverse, it is the journey that Ruth and Naomi would have taken together on their return to Bethlehem.

As we start this new “First Reading” series, I find it necessary to go over the basics of why I’m here and what these series of posts are meant to accomplish.  Remember that the purpose of these posts is to share my thoughts, questions, and perspectives as a first-time reader in this book of holy Scripture.

  • This is not a scholarly commentary. 
  • This is not a study guide.
  • I have exactly zero authority in the realm of biblical exegesis.

This is only a peek at my margin notes, a journal of my initial thoughts, a first confrontation of difficult passages, and any questions or conclusions I have drawn as a layperson in solitary study.

Get out your Bible and study the book of Ruth with me.  Feel free to comment, share questions, or tell me stories about your own experiences as you read.  As ever, by sharing this publicly, there is an implicit request for scholarly correction if and when I get things wrong.

Authorship:  Ruth, like so many books of the Bible, is anonymous.  All this means is that no author is declared in the writing.  Tradition holds that the prophet Samuel was the author, and evidence in the text suggests an author contemporary to King David rather than someone from a time before or long after his rise and reign.  The prophet Nathan, therefore, is another reasonable candidate.

Date of Writing/Date of Events: The events in Ruth take place during the time of the judges (Ruth 1:1).  Due to the prominence of Moab in the story, most scholars believe the time of Ehud most credible.  This would place the events in the story at c.1250 BC, which I personally think a bit early* given the narrative context.  The date of authorship is most likely c.1000 BC/BCE.  Because there is no mention of Solomon in Ruth, arguments for a later date of authorship are less credible.

*Amy’s Personal Opinion: One of the biggest problems that Old Testament chronologies run into is their insistence on placing the judges of Israel in a linear, one after another timeline.  I see no reason for that after reading Judges.  It makes far more sense to me, given the diversity of tribes from which the judges came and the different areas over which they had control, to ascribe significant overlap to the leadership of each judge.

The Western need to nail down exact timelines (which I most definitely share…oh, do I ever love precision dating, quantifiable data, and peer review) is uniquely post-Enlightenment thinking, and it’s a little ridiculous to burden Ancient Near Eastern literature, which had no such concerns, with our rigid and alien requirements.

Narrative Context:  Ruth introduces the direct ancestry of King David (Ruth and Boaz are his great-grandparents).  The story comes during a famine in Judah, during which a man and his family flee to Moab for better odds at finding food and a way to make a living.  It is a time when Israel is fluctuating between obedience to God and disobedience, and this story takes place before the fall of Israel into total chaos and lawlessness.  The time of Ehud or just afterward, when Moab and Israel are at peace makes sense.  Ruth is the origin story of Judah’s rise and David’s rise, which will lead Israel into the time of Kings.

The Big Picture: Ruth is about love, loyalty, family honor, and the elevation of the tribe of Judah as the house of King David.

IMG_2234
In this series on Ruth, you will notice a smaller than usual number of my margin notes.  This is because my Bible’s publisher has chosen to put line art for coloring on every margin in the short book of Ruth.  There was no room for me to write!  Grrr.  I managed to get a few written in the blank spaces, however, during later chapters.  I colored this title page over the weekend, and I’m quite pleased with it.  Consider it my margin note for chapter one.  I consider this verse as the most beautiful expression of human love in the entire Bible.

Chapter 1:  This is What Love Looks Like

Verses 1-5 introduce us to the family of an Ephrathite named Elimelech.  They have left their home in the land surrounding Bethlehem to find relief from a famine and come to settle in the land of Moab.

Elimelech dies, but his wife Naomi still has her two sons to provide and care for her in Moab.  Each son marries a local Moabite woman, and the family goes on together in prosperity for ten years.  But then tragedy strikes.  The two sons of Naomi die prematurely and at the same time.  We are not told what caused their deaths, but we are given a picture of what devastation this meant for Naomi and her daughters-in-law, named Orpah and Ruth.  These three widowed women  have no male heirs among them to claim land or a means of support.  Without husbands or sons or fathers to care for them, not only must they grieve the loss of their sons and husbands, but they must also now despair over how they will continue to live.

Verses 6-14 show us a moving plea from Naomi to her daughters-in-law.  It is a picture of familial harmony and self-sacrificial love.  A mother-in-law looks at her beloved dauthers-in-law and, against her own interests, urges them to return to their families in Moab to get another chance at marriage.

Marriage means protection.  It means food, safety, support, and social position.  Being a widow in this time and place meant poverty and risk of abuse, rape, or enslavement.  It meant lack of protection, and loss of social status.  It was a miserable and desperately precarious position, and Naomi realizes that even though she is an old woman without hope of a new husband, her “daughters” are not.  Loath as she is to part from them, she urges them to leave her and go search for a new chance on their own.

Notable here is that both daughters-in-law initially say, “no,” and with a great deal of emotion.  Neither woman wishes to part from Naomi.  This is clearly a loving bond they’ve built together.  It is a lesson in imagery that just screams from the page, even for us today, about how we should love one another in our families.

Orpah is convinced when Naomi pleads with them a second time.  She weeps with Naomi and Ruth, says her farewells, and goes back to her Moabite parents.

Ruth, on the other hand, is having none of it.

Verses 15-22 show us Ruth’s response to Naomi.  Ruth is even more self-sacrificial here than Naomi was.  The stakes are higher for her.  For Naomi, sending her daughters-in-law away was a magnanimous gesture of love, but Naomi stood only to lose their company and support by letting them go.  Naomi’s future prospects are not significantly changed whether her daughters stay or leave.

Ruth, on the other hand, is still a woman of vital age with every reasonable prospect of finding a new husband and making a new family.  Seen in that light, Ruth’s loyalty to Elimelech’s widow, her own dead husband’s mother, is a very big deal.

Ruth tells her that she will not leave under any circumstance. Her famous “whither thou goest, I will go” response is in verse 16, but Ruth goes even further.  “May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us.”  This is covenant language.  We say these words when we marry, do we not?  “Until death parts us, we will be one.”  Ruth is telling her mother-in-law that love and honor and loyalty are more important than security and comfort; she is telling Naomi that she has faith that staying together will be the right course.  They will figure this out together.

Naomi has received word that the crops are coming in and the famine is over in Judah, so the two women mourn the loss of Orpah and then travel together all the way from Moab back to Bethlehem in Judah.  It is a hopeful picture of two women who have suffered tremendous loss, leaning on one another and having faith that God will show them a way out of their misery.

Thanks for reading with me!  I’ll come back next time in chapter 2.  We’ll go over the concept of a family’s “redeemer,” and what all of that meant under Mosaic Law.

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4 thoughts on “First Reading of Ruth: 1, This is What Love Looks Like

  1. Hi there – I really love Ruth and appreciate your write up.

    Unlike literally every other book of the Old Testament before it, Ruth gives us only good examples.

    Just something to consider. If we look at Ruth this way, I think we may miss a lot of the message and drama involved.

    Ruth is awesome, very much agreed. She starts off a Moabite woman and God uses her as the example of faithfulness. That had to be vexing to the Israelites.

    Elimelech and his family are Israelites in the Promise Land. The book begins with him leaving Israel, his birthright and going to Moab. While we view this as understandable – the whole point of Exodus, Joshua and Numbers is to get the faithless stiffnecked people to trust God and get into the land. Elimelech doesn’t trust God because of his circumstances and leaves the land. I think this is a big deal for God. There is no mention of prayer or God’s direction, He just leaves. It seems like this is a terrible decision on his part. Granted, Joseph’s family does the same so it is possibly not.

    His sons then marry Moabite women which they are not supposed to do and then die along with Dad. So Elimilech’s decision which looks reasonable to our eyes actually leaves his family in terrible shape. Alone in a foreign land with no help and support.

    Then when the women set out back to Israel, Naomi’s gesture seems reasonable to us again but again shows a lack of trust in God and awareness of the cost. She tells her beloved daughters in law to go back to their gods and Orpah listens. She is concerned about their future obviously, but not in the right way. Orpah leaves and presumably goes back to idol worship with her family. That is a terrible thing brought about by Naomi’s lack of faith and skipping forward her bitterness – she calls herself Mara – bitterness. Tragedy twists her view of the world and unfortunately, of God.

    Ruth becomes the contrast as even though she is not an Israelite she remains faithful regardless of what life looks like – God rewards that faithfulness with Boaz, the picture of Jesus in the OT.

    Obviously, I could be wrong about this, but man, telling Orpah to go back to her gods gets me every time. It just seems like another version of people doing what was right in their own eyes.

    Just some things to ponder in the world of Ruth:)

    1. THANK YOU!! I totally missed that. All of it. Like Esau, tossing away the birthright. I didn’t see that at all. The Orpah part, I thought about, but then I got so focused on Ruth NOT rejecting Yahweh that I sort of lost that perspective.

      This was really good. Thank you so much. It’s a lot to consider.

  2. Oh, and the whole idea of the Moabite having more faith than the Israelite Naomi. That totally whizzed by me, too! Seriously. I am so grateful for the comment.

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