The Hebrew heroine story of Ruth and Naomi makes us question our assumptions that the Bible was written solely by men. I suspect we’ve grown up thinking that all the writers of Scripture were men. Perhaps it was never said outright, but I think we’ve bought into the idea that it was so. The reason all of this seems pertinent to the story of Ruth is that some scholars think a woman may have written the Book of Ruth. Think of it, why else would this obscure story have been saved? Or better yet, is it even possible that a man would write a story such as this? Imagine with me what’s in this womanly tale…
First, the story revolves around a family. But it’s not a story about the men in the family; it’s about the women and what happens to them. There are men in the story, but recognize the place the story gives them. They’re just window dressing. They have names but we know nothing about them. Besides, in the prologue, the men all die leaving the story to describe what happens to the women. Let’s be historically honest: When women are mentioned in the Bible, most often it’s because of their role and relationship with men as mothers, lovers, or wives. There are some notable exceptions, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Would this be the focus of a story a man living in patriarchal times would have bothered to tell?
One commentator describes this story in terms of the passage of time. In the first half of the first chapter, time sweeps by quickly. Large events take place with little detail about how the characters in the story are feeling or thinking. But as soon as the men clear the stage, the pace of the story comes to a creeping halt and the women are the main actors on the stage for the remainder of the story until its conclusion. As the narrative pace slows down, the story becomes more and more relational. So after noting all this, could it be possible that this story came from some wonderfully gifted woman Jewish storyteller?
Second, this is a refugee story. Subsequently, the women are on the verge of starvation and annihilation. They are like the refugees in Victor Hugo’s masterful epic story of destitution, Les Misérables. Naomi and Ruth are “the miserable ones” who have little hope of surviving. When you visualize these women, don’t let your mind’s eye put any additional flesh on their scraggly bodies for they are starving. The hair on their heads is falling out and their ribs are protruding from their formless chests. They are gaunt and on the verge of starvation as a result of their malnutrition. They more resemble the victims of the Holocaust than the well-fed images of the Sunday School pictures we were shown as children.
Naomi bravely leads them on the first steps of a long and possibly impossible trip back to Bethlehem where, when they finally succumb to death, they can at least be buried among her own kinsmen and not dumped in some meaningless grave in a foreign land. But on the first day of the journey, she recognizes they will probably die before they ever get back and so she tries to run them off, hoping to send them back to their families. Perhaps if they go home they will have a chance of marrying again and therefore surviving. Orpah, perhaps the more practical of the two, accepts her offer and leaves but Ruth refuses to leave. What is it in Ruth that prevents her from leaving this hopeless cause to do something to save her? All we know about her inner thoughts come from what she says to Naomi:
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.
Where you die, I will die…
There I will be buried,
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!
(Ruth 1:16-17, NRSV)
They are surely some of the most beautiful words written in the Bible. They are achingly beautiful words of fidelity and the truest feelings of one suffering soul for another. What more can we say this morning? What else can we add to the deep emotions expressed by this foreign daughter-in-law to her destitute and hopeless mother-in-law?
The Bible makes it clear there is more to this story because they do not die together. They survive. They make it back to Naomi’s homeland. Surely it’s Ruth’s strong commitment to Naomi that saves them. Surely it’s what Ruth loaned to Naomi that allowed them both to survive. Out of the resources of this Moabite woman, both of them cross the desert and return to the tiny village of Bethlehem where they find their salvation.
Out of the despair of their story, can we find the words of hope for our own salvation? Robert Capon reminds us that the formula for redemption comes in small, obscure ways and not in the dramatic, sensational ways that we expect. Capon says that salvation throughout the Bible comes to those who are least or little. It comes to those who are lost or last. Salvation ultimately comes to all “the miserable ones” who look to God alone for salvation. And redemption comes whenever we recognize that we are powerless to bring about our own salvation. In other words, we must become like Ruth and Naomi. We must come to our wit’s end and have only one place to look for the strength to continue.
Ruth, a stranger, a woman, a foreigner, becomes our model for faith in her willingness to take what strength of character she has and to join it with Naomi’s need. Ruth, the outsider – Ruth, the Moabite woman – Ruth, the foreign wife of one of Naomi’s sons … Imagine that! Ruth became the salvation-bearer for all of God’s chosen ones! Maybe this is a story only a woman would be brave enough to suggest. Maybe a woman who had nothing to lose but to tell a tale of salvation could suggest an ending as heart warming as this one.