A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost 23 ~ Ruth 1:1-18
We’re going to be spending this week and next pondering the book in the Hebrew Scriptures called Ruth. It’s quite a remarkable book – primarily because it’s called Ruth! It’s the only book in the whole bible that bears a woman’s name, and features female characters as the primary focus. It’s an ever so brief opportunity to peer behind the curtain of womanhood in ancient times. It’s a book ‘about’ women, but it’s certainly not just a book ‘for’ women. The themes are deep, and rich, and wonderful – and we get to think about them through a lens that the bible doesn’t offer to us very often – and that gives us an opportunity for a fresh perspective.
It’s quite a short book so I hope you’ll take a few minutes and read it through on your own. I’m going to summarize most of the arc of the story today and next week, but it’s well worth reading through it yourself.
It is set in the time of the Judges – which was a few generations before the time of the kings of Israel. In fact, spoiler alert, at the end of the book of Ruth we get the birth of King David’s grandfather. But the book doesn’t begin in celebratory birth and renewal – it begins in famine and death.
Naomi is actually the main character in the book. Because of a famine in Israel, she and her husband and two sons have to leave Bethlehem to go to nearby Moab. If we spoke Hebrew we’d hear some irony here. It’s a famine – but Bethlehem translates as ‘house of bread’. Anyway, Moab and Israel had, shall we say, a complicated history, so going there was risky for this Jewish family.
The overall story is pretty straightforward, but there are many nuances and cultural subtleties that we should note – not the least of which is the interculturalism of the book. While in Moab, the foreign land, Naomi’s Jewish sons marry Moabite women. It’s not taboo, but it would certainly be eyebrow-raising. There’s 10 years of relative stability, and then more hardship befalls Naomi. Her husband and her two sons all die. Being a foreigner was challenging enough, now Naomi is a foreigner with no men in her family. Women in that ancient culture had few rights, and being a widow increased one’s precariousness.
In short, Naomi was in danger. And she was feeling that God had turned against her. Enduring a famine, residing in a foreign land, losing her husband and sons, and no children being born (barrenness was another supposed consequence of God’s disfavour – we know that’s wrong, but that was the operative theology at the time) – it all heaped up on her.
In Ruth 1:14 Naomi says that it is bitter for her “because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” In verses 20-21 (which aren’t part of our reading today) she says, “Call me no longer Naomi (which means ‘sweet’), call me Mara (which means ‘bitter’), for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
Again, we know that’s not the way God works – but clearly that’s how it felt to her.
Naomi hears that the famine is over and decides to return to Bethlehem. It would have been an arduous 7-10 days trek over rugged terrain – a very dangerous journey for a woman with no men to offer protection. At first she has her two daughters-in-law with her. Three women, alone on the road. Then, part-way along the path, apparently in mid-sentence (according to the way the Hebrew is written), she changes her mind and urges Orpah and Ruth to go back to their families.
(Trivia Time! – Yes, it’s Orpah, not Oprah, that we’re more familiar with. But actually Oprah was originally named Orpah, but apparently it was hard to say so she got called Oprah all the time, so she formally had it changed.)
In verse 10 the women protest being sent home. In verse 11 Naomi insists, arguing that she’s too old to produce any more sons for them to marry. It’s complicated. It’s called “levirate law” and it means that if a woman is widowed that her brother-in-law was required to marry her so she’d have protection and heirs. So it’s actually kind of comical imagining that the much older Naomi might have sons and then these women would wait until they could marry them.
Orpah gives in and agrees to leave. Ruth clings to Naomi. Naomi tries again to get Ruth to go, but Ruth will not leave, and she delivers one of the most beautiful declarations of loyalty and kinship in the whole bible. Ruth 1:16-17 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. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
And in that speech, while she didn’t yet realize it, Naomi’s famine was over. It was the beginning of a whole series of blessings of ‘bread’ for her. What bread? There’s no bread mentioned. Here’s where the theology stuff kicks in.
In this moment the relationship between Ruth and Naomi transcends their cultural barriers and differences in age, nationality, and religion. And it even transcends their familial obligations as Naomi had released Ruth, and with no husbands there was no legal bond between them. But Ruth chose to bond with Naomi. In love, we assume, Naomi let Ruth go – but Ruth stayed. Ruth chose supporting Naomi over the comfort and safety of returning to her family. You have to read between the lines to discern that Ruth and Naomi must have forged a deep friendship – a kinship – as they spent time together over the years. And now, when given the choice to go, Ruth stays. She chooses to be Naomi’s companion.
Companion is a wonderfully complex, theological word. It comes from two Latin words – ‘com’ which means ‘with’ – and ‘panis’ which means ‘bread’! Com+panis – with bread. There’s the bread! There’s the beginning of the end of Naomi’s famine. She has been given heavenly, spiritual bread. She has received the gift of companionship. I find the etymology of that word fascinating. Companionship, a person who is a friend, is one who brings bread to your relationship. On the surface that’s a nice image. A friend is one who shares their bread with you. But take it deeper. Bread was (and is) a staple food. Bread was the difference between surviving or starving. But so too is friendship – spiritual bread – the sustenance and nurture that comes in mutual support, mutual care, mutual love. Naomi was still feeling pretty bitter – but she was starting to be fed by the bread of companionship, and it saved her.
But that bread was just the beginning. The whole rest of the book is reference after reference to bread – grain, seed, barley. Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest. Obviously, the famine is ended. But Ruth and Naomi have no claim to land or wealth, so they have to find a way to live.
The book of Leviticus gave laws about a practice called gleaning. Leviticus 23:22 “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”
And also in the book of Deuteronomy 24:19-22 we read “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”
The second and third chapters of the book of Ruth are all about this ‘gleaning’ practice. Ruth asks Naomi if she can go out and glean in the fields. It basically means to trail along behind the main harvesters and pick up the scraps that they’ve missed. Only the poor or vulnerable would have to do this, so the act of gleaning was dangerous. As luck would have it (or is it something other than luck), Ruth is gleaning in the field of a man named Boaz. Boaz arrives on the scene, sees Ruth, learns that she’s been working very hard all day long, and goes over to talk to her. Boaz had also learned that Ruth was the young woman who was supporting Naomi – and Naomi happened to be a relative of Boaz. Not close enough that Boaz was obligated to marry Naomi, but still a relative. Boaz praises Ruth for her companionship of Naomi, and says he knows of how she left behind her own family and people to support Naomi.
We learn that Boaz is a very honourable man, and he treats Ruth very well. He gives instructions to his workers that Ruth is allowed to glean right up close with them, where she can be protected, and that they are constantly to take from their own sheaves and add to her gleanings. And then Boaz gives her some bread! (Companion.) And he invites her to keep coming back and working in his fields. Ruth takes home an entire basket full of grain (much more than one would normally expect from gleaning) and shared with Naomi her leftover bread from Boaz. Naomi is obviously overjoyed – and asks God’s blessing on Boaz. Ruth continues to work in his fields for about two months, continuing to bring home an abundance of grain. The story goes on, but we’ll wait until next week to tell more.
I think it’s safe to say that Naomi is probably not bitter anymore. Her life is still not safe, and comfortable, and easy. She is still grieving, and her future is still unknown. But she has something she lacked at the start of the story. Bread. Naomi’s original ‘house of bread’ was emptied. She risked everything and desperately sought new bread. And she found it – in the most unlikely place – in loving companionship with ‘the other’. And then she and her companion forged a life together which brought blessing after blessing of bread.
It’s a curious biblical story because it doesn’t really celebrate God very much. God is there, in the background, at first supposedly turning against Naomi (not true, but it felt that way to her), and then being asked to bless Boaz for his generosity and decency. It’s not about God – it’s about these women, and the power of companionship. The power of sharing bread – sharing their lives – overcoming differences and living in mutuality.
I wish the story didn’t begin with inferences of God’s disfavour, and I wish it didn’t end all happily ever after (wait til next week) – because I think those things make us grind our theological teeth a bit, and cause some problems in an otherwise wonderful expression of lovingkindness among humans. It’s a story about women and relationships, and how mutual support is like bread for our journey. Com-panion – with bread.
If I may take some liberties and paraphrase Jesus in John 6 – “The bread of God is that which…gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life – my way of love is the bread of life – loving companionship is the bread of life. Whoever embraces this way will never be hungry, and whoever loves in this way will never be thirsty.”