The Politics of Famine—Ruth 1:1-22 (Amy Allen)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

Perhaps part of the reason why disparities in food distribution continue to exist is that, when those of us who have food enough on our tables try to respond to disasters such as famine, without connection with the people who suffer them, both they and us are likely to come away empty. The ironic use of famine in Naomi’s story is able to suggest to us another way, an approach to famine that sees first the emptiness in relationships when kin from the ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ worlds find ourselves absent from one another.

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “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. 17 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!” 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 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?” 22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Irony abounds in the book of Ruth. We find it in the untimely—but to the Hebrew scholar, not unexpected—end of Naomi’s sons, whose names mean—as my Hebrew professor once loosely but memorably translated them—“Sickly” and “Caput”. We see it in the fact that Elimelech’s family is forced to leave Bethlehem (translated “House of Bread”) because there was no bread for him and his family—there was a famine in the land.

The linguist in me could carry on with these observations, but congruent with the political theology theme of this blog, one irony stands out above the others: the reversal of the theme of famine. Famine, commonly known as an intense lack of food, has been the harsh reality for too many in our world, both in ancient times and in our own day. And yet, today, as I cleared my dinner table, there was excess, which I was forced to throw away. The inequity of food distribution is perhaps one of the greatest barriers between peoples, symptomatic of so many other inequalities in our world. However, despite the prominence with which this disparity is featured at the beginning of Ruth’s story, Naomi herself paints a different picture, when she finally addresses her people at the end of our text.

In the first verse we already learn that “there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1). This is the instigating force behind Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons, packing up and leaving Bethlehem for Moab. In verse 6 we hear rumor that this famine has been reversed because “the Lord had considered his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6). And, indeed, this is confirmed in the last verse of today’s reading, when we learn that Ruth and Naomi “came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the Barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22). However, when Naomi addresses her people—the Judeans in Bethlehem—she does not cite her family’s misfortune as a result of lack of food (which they had all suffered), nor does she acknowledge her reason for returning home in connection with Bethlehem’s increased harvests (into which she is now entering).

Naomi does not beseech food from her relatives or implore upon their good fortunes. She does not celebrate with them the renewed harvests in their land. Instead, she does quite the opposite. She declares that when she left Bethlehem—in the middle of a famine—she “went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty”(Ruth 1:21). Indeed, as the story continues, Naomi at first does not even seem motivated to seek out food. Her concern, it becomes apparent, has less to do with prosperity of the harvest, and more to do with the proximity of her kin. She went away full because she was accompanied by a husband and two sons. She returns empty because she is accompanied only by a daughter-in-law, whose worth to her and loyalty she seems at this point in the story to misjudge.

While I in no way mean to suggest that Naomi’s story downplays the harsh realities of famine (from which three members of her immediate family die), I do think that the story seems to point to something deeper than disparities in the distribution of food or even wealth. At the end of the story, of course, Ruth and Naomi both are well fed. However, this, too, takes second stage to the proximity of family—in this case, the birth of a new grandson to Naomi through Ruth.

The cliché is tired: people are more important than things. However, there is truth in it nonetheless. But more importantly than this, I would suggest, when it comes to disparities of wealth and resources, we see that people and things are intricately connected. When Naomi returns to Bethlehem as ‘Mara’ (Ruth 1:20), she is lacking both in kinship connections (having lost both through the death of her immediate family and her material absence from her more distant kin) and in food to eat. When she celebrates later her renewed fullness at the birth of her grandson, both of these gaps in Naomi’s life have been filled.

Perhaps part of the reason why such disparities in food distribution continue to exist is that, when those of us who have food enough on our tables try to respond to disasters such as famine, without connection with the people who suffer them, both they and us are likely to come away empty. Perhaps the ironic use of famine in Naomi’s story is able to suggest to us another way—an approach to famine that sees first the emptiness in relationships when kin (as we all are as children of the same heavenly maker) from the ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ worlds find ourselves absent from one another. Perhaps such an approach, grounded in renewed relationship and understanding, might fill brothers and sisters on both sides of the gulch in ways we might never have imagined—including, but far from limited to, a more equitable distribution of food.

And, perhaps, the loyalty and persistence of Ruth in the midst of Naomi’s story might re-vision for us as faithful communities where kinship really lies.

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