Ruth 1:15-22 – Hesed
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 9, 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this Second Sunday in Advent. I hope it has been a good week for you those whom God has given you to love and care for. First of all, kudos to Coach Grobe at Wake Forest for doing what he said he would do and staying at Wake. The other big news the Atwoods put up the Christmas tree on Saturday. I remember when we were first married and had almost no ornaments for the tree. Julie hit upon the idea of baking sugar cookies and painting them with colored frosting. We hung those on the tree. The girls enjoyed it so much that we have continued the tradition even though we have collected lots of ornaments through the years. I guess a Christmas tree is an expression of who you are, and ours is filled with a variety of ornaments, some made by the children, others received as gifts or purchased on trips. It is a visual reminder of the many random acts of kindness and senseless beauty that have made our lives blessed. I’m sure that one of those decorators on TV would object to the fact that our ornaments do not go together or create a theme, but each ornament elicits memories and helps connect our children to their past. And this is what the Old Testament is like. It is filled with mementoes of Israel’s history, each of which evokes different memories and lessons learned. There is no point trying to make it all consistent or rational. We simply need to listen to what each ornament of Bible says to us. Today we are turning our attention to one of the most beautiful and revelatory passages in all of Scripture.
Chemosh Last week we watched as Orpah did as her mother-in-law commanded. She went back to her family and we hear nothing more of her. Perhaps she married and had lots of children. Perhaps she was always haunted by the memory of leaving Naomi to her fate. The storyteller does not tell us what happened to Orpah because the great stories are about people who do what is unexpected not those who conform. I was just reading about a Jewish woman who was sheltered by a Muslim family in Yugoslavia during the Holocaust. When the Muslim man was arrested by the Communists after the war, she did not go to the trial to defend him. For years she lived with the regret of having failed to stand up for the man who had saved her life. Before she died, she was forgiven by the man’s widow, and she was able to have him and his wife honored at the Yad Vashem memorial for pious Gentiles. In another war, when Christians were killing Muslims in Bosnia, that woman’s son was able to rescue the Muslim man’s children and bring them to safety in Israel. It is a story that reminds us that the great stories have many chapters, and that righteousness and courage are not the property of just one religion.
Naomi tells Ruth to follow Orpah and go back to her people and her god. Incidentally, the word translated as “gods” in most English Bibles is Elohim, which is normally translated as a singular word with a capital G. The English translators have decided for us that the Moabites were polytheists who did not worship the one true God, but the author of Ruth is not so dogmatic. He uses the same word for both gods. The god of the Moabites was named Chemosh, and he was very similar to Yahweh, the god of Israel. It is not clear if the author of Ruth believed that there were different gods for different tribes, but it is interesting that seems to be nothing wrong in Orpah and Ruth worshiping Chemosh. It is dangerous to read too much into a few verses, but this is one of the few glimpses we get in Scripture of a mixed marriage.
Family Ruth refuses to go back to Chemosh worship. The Hebrew indicates that she got angry at Naomi for insisting that she leave her. She interprets Naomi’s words as a rejection of her and a sign that Naomi does not recognize the depth of Naomi’s devotion or the breadth of her morality. Ruth replies with a speech that is one of the defining moments of Scripture. There are few verbs in the Hebrew, by the way. Literally it reads something like: “Where you go, I go; where you shelter; I shelter; your people, my people; your God, my God.” Ruth is stating facts, not her intentions. She makes it clear that this is not negotiable. She is going with Naomi.
Ruth’s speech is frequently read at weddings, often with the expectation that the place the couple will lodge in will be comfortable. Ruth’s words sound like the definition of marriage where two people leave their former lives and form a new family, but we need to remember that Ruth is not getting married to Naomi. In order to fully grasp the significance of this little book, we need to recognize that Ruth is giving herself in friendship to another woman without hoping for children or an easy life. Ruth is not simply offering to accompany Naomi on her journey to make sure she gets to Bethlehem safely. That would be kindness worthy of praise, but Ruth is heroic. She has decided to accompany Naomi all the way to the grave; to share her journey through life no matter what. This is a rare and beautiful example of a broader understanding of family and friendship. I have known friends who were this devoted to each other, and the Book of Ruth tells us that such devotion is also of God. Love and loyalty are family values, but not all families look alike.
Presence Ruth is not expecting a prosperous and happy life with Naomi’s people. She knows Naomi has no close relatives, and she knows that she will not be welcome as a foreigner. The word Ruth uses for shelter is intentionally vague. Ruth is saying that she will live with Naomi in a house or a tent or a shack. If she has no home, then she will wander the earth with her. Naomi cannot flee from Ruth’s love. We read of such devotion elsewhere in Scripture. Think of the Psalmist who sang to God: “You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I rise on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me; your right hand will hold me fast.” (Ps. 139:3,7,9) Ruth refuses to let Naomi flee from her presence. She will pursue her and care for her. Like God, Ruth will not leave Naomi without comfort and support. They may die on the journey. They may be destitute in Judah. They may have only a morsel to eat, but Naomi will not eat it alone. Ruth, like God, will be there. Keep in mind that the original hearers of this tale may have been critical of Ruth for abandoning her family and her religion in order to care for this old woman. Think of how you would respond if Ruth were your daughter or niece or sister or a neighbor.
Hesed The storyteller does not let us know where Ruth learned her morality and loyalty, whether from the Moabites or the people of the Covenant, but he describes her as an embodiment of the Hebrew understanding of God’s loving kindness and faithfulness. God did not abandon his children, even when they were in exile. The Hebrew word for Ruth’s actions is Hesed, a word frequently used to describe God. Hesed is love or loyalty that exceeds the requirements of justice. Orpah was righteous, but Ruth exhibited hesed. Hesed is costly and it cannot be demanded or expected of someone else. It must be freely given. In theological terms, Hesed is a type of grace that is hard to explain rationally. Hesed means doing what you believe is right even though it permanently alters your life, even if the world calls you crazy. Is it any wonder that the New Testament reminds us that Ruth was an ancestor of Jesus?
Conversion Some have proposed that the main reason Ruth accompanied Naomi was because she wanted to journey to the Promised Land and become one of the Chosen People and have sons who worshiped the one true God. For centuries, Ruth has been lifted up as the model of the convert because she chose to worship Naomi’s God. Rabbis have used her story as way to deal with Gentiles who want to become Jews. Like Naomi, the rabbi should rebuff the would-be convert three times in order to test his or her sincerity. Like Ruth, converts must turn their backs on their people. Christian missionaries have also used the Book of Ruth primarily as a text on conversion. One piece of evidence that Ruth may have already become a worshiper of Yahweh is that she makes a vow to Naomi in the name of Yahweh, the LORD. She solemnly swears that if she lets herself be separated from Naomi, then she will expect Yahweh to curse her. The details of the curse are not spelled out and aren’t really important. Ruth has bound herself to the LORD even before they leave Moab.
But if we interpret Ruth primarily as a story of conversion, we misread the story and lose its most important message. Ruth binds herself to the LORD because of her loyalty to Naomi, not the other way around. Yahweh, the LORD will be her God because he is Naomi’s God. This does not read like a conversion story. Ruth does not struggle over whether to abandon Chemosh in order to worship Yahweh; nor does she learn anything new from Naomi’s religion. Ruth displays Hesed to Naomi before she chooses Naomi’s God. It is interesting that we never see Ruth worshiping in the Temple or synagogue. Part of the message of this book of the Old Testament is that God is revealed most clearly in acts of loving kindness and yet we still look for God at shrines instead of in the world.
This is the hidden scandal in Ruth that commentators and preachers in both the synagogue and church try to obscure. Ruth could have clung to her religion and rejected Naomi, but she responded with loving kindness. Ruth, the Moabite, displays Hesed before she becomes part of the covenant, before she learns the Torah. There is an important message in this for us to consider in our world today. Just think if Naomi had treated Ruth the Moabite the way many Christians treat non-Christians or many Muslims treat non-Muslims or many Jews treat non-Jews today. I doubt Ruth would have then responded with Hesed. Just think if Ruth had not been open to Naomi’s religion. This story is the best refutation of fundamentalism in Scripture.
Silence Verse 18 is translated in different ways. It could be that Naomi stopped arguing with Ruth and urging her to go back or that she literally “said no more to her.” The basic meaning is clear. Naomi acquiesces and lets Ruth accompany her, but some interpreters think that Naomi’s silence extended to the whole trip to Bethlehem. Then the question becomes one of interpreting the silence. One commentator suggests that Naomi was angry and did not want to be burdened with this poor Moabite woman or even that she was ashamed to bring Ruth back to Judah! Let me just say that I disagree. The text does not tell us what Naomi thought, but I imagine that she smiled to herself knowing that she was loved and would not be left friendless.
Bethlehem The storyteller doesn’t give us the details of the long journey from Moab to Bethlehem. We can imagine that it was arduous and dangerous, but the women survived and arrived in safely. They caused a sensation, especially among the women of the town. Naomi had been away for over a decade. Many of the people who had known her were dead. Children she had known were now married and having children. She had left as a wife and mother, a person with status and a place in society. She returns with no one but a Moabite who had been married to her son. We can imagine how Naomi would have changed over the years, bent with the burdens of life and sorrow. The storyteller captures all of this in a single sentence: “Can this be Naomi?” It is left ambiguous whether these words were said with the joy of recognition, like old friends at a reunion or if they were said were shock and concern. Were the women welcoming Naomi back from the dead with open arms or were they embarrassed to see their friend return as a woman of sorrow who was acquainted with grief.
In her sorrow, Naomi makes a pun worthy of Shakespeare. Don’t call me Naomi; call me Mara. Naomi’s name is from the Hebrew word for pleasant or sweet. It is like our American names Sugar or Honey. Mara is more difficult for translators. It is a name, similar to Maria or Mary, and in some of the ancient Near Eastern languages it means “power” or “strength,” but it can also mean “bitter.” (Sasson, 33) The storyteller interprets the pun for us by having Naomi say, “Don’t call me Sugar; call me Bitter” because the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. Naomi’s homecoming is not a time for celebration. She is aware of what she has lost.
El Shaddai Naomi blames El Shaddai for her misery. That is one of the many names of God in the Old Testament, and it usually translated as God Almighty or simply the Almighty. The truth is that no one knows for sure what the name originally meant. It is similar to ancient words for Mountain, Breasts, and even the Destroyer. Religion scholars have long speculated that the phrase originally referred to a Canaanite deity, but that the Israelites took the name as a synonym for the LORD, Yahweh. The question is why would Naomi call God “El Shaddai” when she returned from Moab. One possibility is that El Shaddai was associated with destruction and power rather than loving kindness. Another possibility is that the storyteller is again using a pun. Shaddai sounds like Shadeh, which means a fertile field. In her bitterness, Naomi is highlighting the fertility she has lost. The fertile got left me barren. Bitterness is connected to barrenness.
We cannot know for sure what the significance of El Shaddai is here, but it seems likely that word highlights the power of God rather than his loving kindness. Naomi blames the Almighty for her sufferings and cannot see any other aspects of God. The narrator does not say that God has afflicted her, but that is how Naomi interpreted her condition. Like Job, she has been stricken through no fault and is left with nothing but her life. The word she uses to describe God’s actions is actually a legal term that means “to testify against” someone. Translators disagree on whether it has a judicial meaning here. If it does, then Naomi is saying that she has been punished by God. If not, then she is saying that God has dealt with her harshly without any explanation at all.
This is one of the basic problems in human existence. Do we suffer because a just God punishes us for bad things we have done? Or do we suffer because God does bad things to us even when we are living righteously? Unlike modern people, Naomi does not even consider the possibility that bad things are a result of natural causes and random chance. In a prescientific world people expected higher beings to provide rain and food. They gave life and took it away. El Shaddai dealt harshly with Naomi, but she does not know why. The Book of Ruth, like the Book of Job, leaves the question of tragedy open-ended. All she knows is that her life is bitter. She is lonely, grieving, hungry, frightened, and depressed. In front of the women of the town, she gives her lament, hoping that God will hear her and show some mercy.
Mercy In her bitterness, Naomi could not see that the LORD God was merciful. Naomi said that God had brought her back empty, but that was not entirely true. In verse 22 the narrator reminds us that Naomi did not return alone. Ruth, the bride of her son, was with her. She does not even mention Ruth the Moabite nor do the women of the town take any interest in her, so far as we can tell. But Ruth will be the salvation that God has prepared for Naomi. Without miracles or angels from heaven, God was merciful. Ruth fulfilled her vow to follow Naomi and now she will lodge with her in Bethlehem. And, the narrator tells us, the barley harvest was just about to begin. Naomi will be rescued by the hand of Ruth, but it will not come easy. Next week we’ll walk with Ruth in the fields, gleaning crops.