Ruth the Moabite: Prelude
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 2, 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class at Home Moravian Church on this First Sunday in Advent. Tonight is the annual Moravian lovefeast and candlelight service in Wait Chapel. It is a beautiful service and the public is welcome. Today we are singing the Hosanna in worship, which is one of my favorite traditions, even though I do not sing well. My youngest daughter has been breaking into Hosanna at random times for a couple of weeks now. Of course, the big news is that it is my 47th birthday. I kept trying to have a mid-life crisis, but somehow I just couldn’t afford it, and now I’ve passed the mid-point. I do think the one thing age teaches is that you cannot undo the past or re-live it. Time is a one-way stream, but memory allows us to learn from experience.
Date and Authorship: Though Ruth is set in the time of the Judges, it is clear that it was written long after the events it describes. We know it was written later because it includes customs that the author has to explain because they are long forgotten. In fact, it is not clear that author even understands some of the customs himself. Ruth also ends with a genealogy that includes Ruth’s great-grandchild, who was born after she was dead. Since the great-grandchild was King David, we can assume that it was written after he had become famous. The fact is that the book does not pretend to be a contemporary account, far from it. But because the rabbis in the 1st century believed that all sacred books had to have been written by one of the prophets, they decided that Ruth was written by Samuel. Only traditionalists make that claim today, but a few modern scholars argue that Ruth was written in the days of David and Solomon. The general consensus among biblical scholars, though, is that it was written after the Babylonian Exile (587-540 BCE).
The vocabulary used in the Book of Ruth is similar to that of other books written after the Exile, most notably Ezra and Nehemiah. Plus, the genealogy of King David given in Ruth agrees with that of I Chronicles, which is a very late book. Had Samuel written Ruth, as tradition claims, we would expect that I Samuel would have included the same genealogy of David as that in Ruth. Another reason for dating Ruth rather late is that she is not mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament. Had her story been important for the Davidic monarchy, as some interpreters claim, we would expect some mention of her in connection to David.
Folktale The fact that the book of Ruth was probably written down in its current form by an anonymous sage in Judah after the exile does not mean that he made the story up. Ruth may have originally been a folktale that had been told for centuries before it was written down. Some of the names in the story, such as Elimelech, are very ancient. The portrayal of the period of the Judges is not dependent on other books of the Bible, and thus it may reflect ancient memories. The story has the polished feel of a folktale told repeatedly to audiences. Years of retelling leave only the best parts of a story. If it is true that this was originally a folktale, then I think we must consider the possibility that this was originally told in the women’s tents in Israel. We will see that the main actors are two women, Ruth and Naomi, and it strikes me as unlikely that a man would have told their story in this way. The sensitivity to their situation indicates that the original storyteller understood their plight and their limited options.
I think that for many years, this story was told by mothers to their sons and daughters to help them understand what it means to be righteous and faithful. Centuries later, one of those sons became a sage and scribe. He took his grandmothers’ tale and turned it into a parable for men and women. In that version, Boaz emerges as a model of wisdom and Ruth as the model of loving kindness. But the final version of this folktale was most likely produced during or shortly after the time of Nehemiah and Ezra in the 5th century. It is quite likely that one of the sages took this ancient wisdom story and used it to protest the racist policies instituted by Nehemiah and Ezra. Yes, this sweet tale of female faithfulness and wise maneuvering also makes a strong political statement that is still relevant.
Political Statement: To fully appreciate the power of Ruth, we need to look at Jewish society in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. After the Jews were allowed to return from exile in Babylon, they set out to build a new society in Judea. Many of their religious leaders had decided that the reason God let the nation be destroyed was because of the sins of the people. They collected the sayings of the prophets and wrote the history of Israel, and one theme stood out. The children of Abraham were called by God to be different than their neighbors. The Israelites were to abolish idolatry and not be corrupted by Gentiles and pagans. Many of the Jews who returned from Babylon wanted to follow the Jewish Torah as strictly as possible. They thought that if they could separate themselves from all foreign influences, they could remain pure and God would not punish them again.
This post-exilic Jewish attitude has a long history in Western religion. It remains a point of controversy between Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic Jews. The Pilgrims we remember at Thanksgiving were also called Puritans because they wanted to create a pure and perfect Christian society. We see this concern for purity in Christianity most clearly in certain sects, such as the Amish, who intentionally separate themselves from the rest of society. It figured in Moravian history in the desire to purchase 100,000 acres in North Carolina so we could set up a colony without the bad influence of outsiders. The post-exilic Jewish notion that God will punish the nation if the people are impure continues to influence politics in our day as we debate civil rights for homosexuals and foreign workers.
In order to understand the book of Ruth fully, we need to recognize that one way that the Jewish leaders hoped to purify the nation was to forbid Jews to marry Gentiles. Stories were told about how Solomon’s foreign wives had led him into idolatry and foolishness, and the Phoenician Queen Jezebel was turned into one of the great villains of Israelite history. Foreigners, especially women, were blamed for the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersal of the Israelites. In the 5th century BC, the Jewish governor Nehemiah and the lawyer Ezra went so far as to demand that Jewish men divorce their Gentile wives. We do not know how many women and children were abandoned and left destitute by this policy of ethnic cleansing, but we can imagine the heartbreak caused by this law.
It is quite likely that the Book of Ruth was written and circulated in the post-exilic period as a form of protest against this inhumane policy. At a time when there was a strong desire for a descendent of King David to reclaim the throne of his ancestors, someone took an old folk tale about the great-grandmother of David and turned it into a subversive text calling the nation to a higher morality. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that it was a foreigner, a woman from hated Moab, who was righteous and faithful. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that the line of David depended on the love and devotion of a foreigner whom Boaz loved and married. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that morality does not depend on the purity of our blood or separation from foreigners; morality depends on the depth of our love and our willingness to sacrifice for others. Ruth is a rejection of notions of racial purity and racial superiority. With that in mind, let’s look closer at the opening verses of chapter 1.
In the days of the Judges Ruth begins with a statement that this story took place in the days of the Judges, which was the period in Israel’s history before there was a king. Interpreters disagree over the significance of this setting for Ruth. Some think that that book was written intentionally as a bridge between the book of Judges and I Samuel, perhaps by the author of I Samuel, but that seems unlikely to me. Ruth gives a different picture of the period of Judges, and it does not connect well to I Samuel, which begins with the prophet Samuel and the anointing of Saul. Some commentators think that the author of Ruth was highlighting that this story takes place during a time of social chaos before the coming of the king, but there is nothing in the book to indicate that. In fact, the society depicted in Ruth seems remarkably peaceful. I think this opening sentence has nothing to do with actual history. “In the time of the Judges” is the equivalent of our phrase “once upon a time” or “in the days of yore.” Ruth is set in the most distant past of the Israelites as a nation in order to make it a timeless tale.
Like many good folktales, Ruth begins with disaster. There is a famine in the land of Israel and a family has to flee to find food. It is curious that the text does not say that God sent the famine, but the characters in the story will interpret the famine as God’s work. This statement about the famine does not have the same impact on modern Americans as it would have on most people who have lived on this planet. There was a famine in the land. The author did not need to give the details about the crops failing, about the rationing and the slow death of the animals. The author did not need to tell about the fear that stalked the people and what hungry humans do to survive. There is irony in Ruth. Elimelech came from Bethlehem, which means House of Bread, and he was of the clan of Ephrathah, which means fruitful. The story begins with the statement that there was no bread in the House of Bread and no fruit for the people of Fruitfulness.
Elimelech took his family to a land where there was food. When we read Genesis, we saw several times that the patriarchs had to leave the Promised Land because they were hungry. The original hearers of Ruth’s story would connect it to older stories about how their ancestors depended on the kindness of strangers to survive. Elimelech took his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to a foreign land, hoping to save their lives. If you ever have the opportunity to name a son, do not name him Mahlon or Chilion. Mahlon recalls one of the plagues on the Egyptians and can be translated as weak or puny. Chilion means perish or perhaps pining away. The Talmud says the names mean blot out and perish, and scholars have long speculated that the boys were always unhealthy, perhaps because of malnourishment. I doubt these are historical names at all. This is an historical novel about Ruth and Naomi. The story-teller is simply letting us know right away that these boys are not going to live long.
Moab Elimelech and his family settled down in the land of Moab. That statement does not send a shutter through us like it would have when someone first told this tale around the campfire in Israel over two thousand years ago. Moab was the neighbor of Israel, but it was a hostile neighbor. The book of Genesis claims that the Moabites were descended from the daughters of Lot who slept with their father. The author could have just as well said, and that Elimelech’s family dwelled in the land of their enemies. Just to add to the disaster, Elimelech died.
Again, it would be bad today if your husband took you to live in a foreign land and died, but think what this meant for Naomi thousands of years ago. Elimelech was the one who could protect her in that strange land. He was the one who could provide for her. She has no support except for her two sons, puny and perishing. One boy marries a woman named Orpah and the other Ruth. It is interesting that the word used for taking wives here is the word used in the later books of the Old Testament that forbid the practice of taking foreign wives. Not only does this help date Ruth to the period after the exile, this statement about taking Moabite wives would have set up certain expectations in the original listeners. Not only had Mahlon and Chilion left the Promised Land, they took foreign wives. We are being set up for bad things to happen. Nothing good can come of marrying a foreigner, especially one of the daughters of your enemy. And indeed, the young men soon die, leaving Naomi without a husband or sons. Her tragedy is nearly complete. In just five verses, the storyteller has left her almost bereft of hope. All she has to look forward to now is death.
Go back! We need to pause for a moment and consider Naomi. It is rare that ancient literature makes a woman like Naomi the focus of a story. Who is she? A sojourner in a foreign land without a male to protect her and provide for her. She has lost everything that would normally identify her as a woman in society. She is too old to hope for marriage; she has no grandchildren to care for or to care for her. There is no retirement community for her; no social services; no meals on wheels or medicare. She knows her fate, or at least she thinks she does. She decides to return to the home of her ancestors, to Bethlehem, the house of bread, because she heard that the famine was over. She is going there, hoping to live a few more years before death claims her. She is not looking for a joyous homecoming.
The brides of her sons accompany her on her journey because it is not safe for a woman to travel alone. Clearly, these young women love Naomi beyond the love common for a mother-in-law. The word mother-in-law occurs several times in Ruth, but the only other time it appears in the OT is in Micha 7:6 (Farmer, 905). This was apparently not a social category in ancient Israel. Once Mahlon and Chilion died, Orpah and Ruth had no legal or moral relationship to Naomi, but they still considered her their mother-in-law. Thus the storyteller gives a glimpse into what a wonderful woman Naomi must have been. She is brave enough to journey back home rather than simply curling up and dying in Moab, but she inspired devotion from both her daughters-in-law. The sign that she loved them was that she refused their sacrifice.
“Go back,” she told them. Go back to your real mothers who bore you and love you. One indication that this tale originated with women is that Ruth and Orpah are sent back to their mother’s house not to their fathers. The original hearers would understand what Naomi is saying. She has nothing she can do for them. She knows what it would mean for these young women to leave their country, their families, and accompany her back to Bethlehem. There are no more sons for them to marry; no hope for a future with Naomi. She tells them to fulfill their social responsibility and return to their own mothers. Go back! Do the right thing; do the expected thing; do what is best for you and your families. Go back! Let me die in peace. Don’t risk your own lives. Go back, please. You have met your obligations to your dead husbands.
After some protesting, Orpah what the audience expects a good daughter to do. This is what they would have expected their own daughters to do. Orpah is not criticized in the story, and her name is recorded in Scripture. She is not the foil to Ruth, but by doing what was expected, she highlights how unusual Ruth was. Many years ago, rabbis decided that Orpah meant “stiff-necked” because she turned away from Naomi, but in the story it is Naomi who is stubborn. Orpah reluctantly does what Naomi commands and returns to her home.
Conclusion Our time is up for this week, and we need to end with this image of Orpah returning to her people. Naomi and Elimelech journeyed to the land of their enemies and found nourishment and love there in the midst of disaster. So far, there is nothing shocking or surprising in this story. It is sad, but not surprising. The surprise comes next week.