[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The Bible is chock filled with stories of people in desperate situations. This tendency is so pervasive that one of the most prominent theories of canon formation in the last century was Gerhard von Rad’s formulation that the Bible started out as a collection of “the mighty acts of God,” first expressed in basic credal statements, but then further fleshed out into supporting narratives and other genres. The basic storyline that unites the disparate tales is that the people would find themselves (or get themselves) in a difficult spot, which would eventually require them to cry out to Yahweh, who would then miraculously intervene and save the people from their distress.
A number of such stories have as a chief characteristic the theme of displacement and dislocation from what had previously been, at least implicitly, a settled existence. This is the case for Adam and Eve being forced from the garden (Gen. 3). It’s true for Noah and his family after the great flood (Gen. 6-9) and the patriarch Abram is called by God from Mesopotamia to Canaan (Gen. 12). But the story most reminiscent of what we will read about in the book of Ruth is the tale of how Jacob and his family made the trek down into Egypt in order to avoid famine (Gen. 37-50).
The book of Ruth follows this theme of displacement. An Israelite, Elimelech, like the family of Jacob before him, is forced out of desperation, to seek food wherever he can find it, even if it is with a traditional enemy of his people. In much the same way as immigrants come to the USA in search of relief from poverty, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons made their way to Moab in search of a better life. Instead of living a long time like Joseph and the children of Israel did while in Egypt, however, first Elimelech and then his two sons die within ten years of their arrival in Moab. Elimelech’s wife and the mother of his two sons, is ready to turn around and head back to Israel. Before they died, however, the two sons managed to take local women as their brides, Orpah and Ruth. The deaths of these younger men pose the same kind of existential dilemma for them as for Naomi. In a foreign country without family, it is perfectly understandable why Naomi would want to return home. For the same reason, it is easy to understand why Orpah would want to remain in Moab, so that she could rely on HER family, at a time when the family was the only social safety net. What is truly remarkable, however, is the decision by daughter-in-law Ruth, to leave behind her social safety net, leave behind the land of plenty, and to depart with Naomi to a place with no support for her, as well a place that had not been able to support Naomi before, which is why the elder woman had left in the first place. It is a very risky venture, one rooted in loyalty and not in self-interest, and it is this odd, but moving choice that has captivated readers for generations with this character.
It is well-known that Ruth is used proleptically in the canon as part of the back story, first for David and then later for Jesus. Elimelech et al are originally from Bethlehem, the narrator informs us, which is like mentioning Plains, Georgia to modern readers–everybody knows who comes from there. Moreover, Like Rahab the harlot (Joshua 2; 6)) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-1 Kings 2), Ruth will wind up being one of the unlikeliest of the putative ancestors of the two most famous royal personages in scripture.
This makes the book of Ruth a deeply political subject, which is very different from much of the popular appropriation of the book, which emphasizes the relationships first between Ruth and Naomi, and then Ruth and Boaz. These are important pastorally, but there is still much left to learn from the book that goes beyond these narrow concerns. Like Jesus’ construal of the good Samaritan in the New Testament, there is not supposed to be any such thing as a “Good Moabite.” Moab and Israel have a long history of enmity in the narrative, stemming from the impregnation by the patriarch Lot of his two daughters-in-law, into which he was tricked due to their desperation at his failure to provide for them each a husband (Gen. 19). Since that inauspicious beginning there has been nothing but trouble between the two groups (see especially Num. 13-Josh. 3). So the last thing that we would expect is the story of a woman from that country behaving with affection toward an Israelite, much less behaving with a level of loyalty and goodness that was thought to be the sole province of the Israelites alone.
The story gets even stranger, as the foreigner Ruth, moves back to Judah with Naomi. This takes us beyond the parameters of the lectionary for this week, but it is in keeping with the uprising nature of the story, which inverts so much of what is traditional, and thus what a reader expects. Indeed, the whole story is about salvation and grace coming by non-traditional and thus unexpected sources and ways.
The message that God is at work in unlikely places with unlikely people is a very sharp counterpoint to our political and religious assumptions in the West. We are still treated regularly to essays and perches and sometimes even books about American and Christian exceptionalism, as if we were, literally, God’s gift to civilization, without which he would be sorely hampered. The story of Ruth reminds us that virtue can be found anywhere and that God can and does use the unlikely as a core element in the unfolding of his work in the world.
Often this kind of observation gets translated into a hackneyed, secular speech about how nice diversity is, but the careful pastor will avoid taking this route. The church isn’t promoting multiculturalism the way that businesses do, that is, as a means of avoiding legal action for discrimination. Rather, the church raises up Ruth and many others like her in order to erode our smugness and satisfaction about our own sense of blessedness. I’m imagining the likes of the brothers James and John in Mark 10, who fantasize about the place at hand of Jesus in glory. Ruth brings us down to earth, because we can’t imagine God giving her a special place in preferment to us, given who she is and where is from. But God does precisely this with Ruth, thus teaching us that we both be humble in our own presumptions, but also teaching us to be watchful and expectant of what God will do next.