The story of Ruth is a beautiful story of love and commitment. We are only going to look at the first part of the story, but you may want to read the entire book. It is short. The story is well written and quite encouraging.
The story is about a Jewish family that moved to Moab, a pagan country next door to Judea, because of famine in Bethlehem. Like many immigrants they moved in hope of finding a better life. There was Naomi, her husband, and their two sons.
The sons married two pagan women, Orpah and Ruth. If we assume that the two women were from the majority in Moab, they would have been polytheists whose chief god was Chemosh which is mentioned adversely in a number of passages in the bible. We do not know how Naomi and her husband accepted these two pagan women. But at least for Naomi it seemed acceptable for her sons to have married them. After all they had moved to Moab, a pagan land, and they would expect their sons to marry.
However from the response of the daughters-in-law to leaving Naomi, we can presume that they were taken into the family with open arms and given good support and love. It is likely that Naomi and her husband began to teach them about their religion. Indeed, Naomi must have been like a mother to them. When the sons died (and it seems they died about the same time since both women were left bereft of their husbands), both daughters-in-law wept with the idea of leaving Naomi and returning to their own mothers.
When Orpah and Ruth hesitated to leave her, Naomi was honest with them. She felt there was no future for them if they stayed with her and went to a strange land with her. She was bitter and angry at God for taking all the men of her household. She was destitute as in the ancient culture women were dependent on men for identity and survival. She saw her return to Bethlehem as just a place to live out the rest of her life until she died.
So Orpah made the most reasonable and logical decision that Naomi encouraged them both to take. Reluctantly she left Naomi and returned to her mother. We do not know what became of her, but it is probably reasonable to believe that she married and had children. Descendants of these children very likely fought the descendants of Ruth after friendly relations dissolved during King David’s reign.
But Ruth stayed with Naomi. She didn’t go back to her own mother. In some way, she had come to love Naomi even more than her own mother. We don’t know what had transpired between the two women before their husbands had died. But between them had developed hesed… the Hebrew term for loyalty and commitment that goes beyond duty and the law.
Despite their different religions and upbringings, Naomi and Ruth had suffered together the loss of their husbands and the loss of their identities and futures. Ruth may have been sad and sorry that Naomi had no hope for a future, whereas; Ruth could have a future. But that future means marriage. And just as Naomi’s family moved to Moab and married among the locals, why could not Ruth reverse that and have a future in Bethlehem and still be loyal and committed to Naomi? And so she went with Naomi to a strange land.
In the Book of Ruth God is mentioned much like we do in our prayers: God do this or God did this or I will do as God says. But God is not a speaker in the story. God is not an active player, if you will, in the story. If you left references to God out of the story you would still have a lovely story of commitment and love.
But maybe God is more of an active player than the few references to God would imply. It is hard to understand why Ruth would go with Naomi rather than follow Orpah’s logic. We can speculate all sorts of dysfunctional behavior in Ruth’s birth family and she found a better family in Naomi. But that’s a stretch. There’s no indication in the story of anything of that nature. Indeed, the story in many ways is about ordinary people making the best of a bad situation and ultimately overcoming their hardship to make a better life.
And maybe that’s where God is in this story. In so much of the Bible God is very active: speaking to prophets and kings, or acting directly to achieve some need. But in the Book of Ruth this never happens. God is as ordinary then as God is now: invisible, unnoticed unless we look, quiet and more in our minds than in the world. Even so, God is still an active participant in our lives if we will let God be so.
Is it not possible that not even Ruth understood why she made the choice to stay with Naomi and migrant to Bethlehem? And yet by the end of the story she is married with a son who would be an ancestor of King David.
Did she hear God speak to her? Or did she just have an intuition that her desire to stay with Naomi was more important than staying in a known land… not knowing that that intuition was planted by God?
The 23rd Psalm tells us that God is our shepherd. And for Ruth and Naomi, God quietly almost invisibly shepherd them to a better life. Likewise God continues to do so in our lives. Psalm 146 says to us, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals…” Rather the Psalmist tells us that “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…” and “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down… The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
All of our human skills and logic can only go so far. Ultimately it is God alone whom we can thoroughly trust. Ruth realized this when she said to Naomi, “Your God will be my God.” And with that faith, she heard that still voice that said not to follow Orpah but to follow Naomi.
She was carried through the hardship of leaving the land she knew and the poverty of living in Bethlehem and by God’s grace came to a better and loving life.
It is that still – sometimes almost silent – voice that we need to listen to. God speaks to each and every one of us. But our worries, our busy-ness, and our misplace sense of being able to control our future drowns out that voice. We need to step back from our mortal frailness and listen to God … to really believe that God is there.
But we need to listen without expectation and without preconceptions of what God will do. Often these expectations and preconceptions are really ours, not God’s. And in a way they are unfaithful. When we listen for the voice with all the noise of our own expectations and preconceptions, we still block God. We are still trying to control what happens. There comes a time when we have to let go and let God. That’s what Ruth did as frightening as that may be.
In all fairness it was probably easier for Ruth to move given the times where people were less anchored and committed to their material lives. We are deeply ruled by our material lives from our income to our homes to our plans for the future. It is harder for us to let go. We can see so many possibilities within the material world to solve our problems and worries. But when we come up against an event that will not yield to all of this, then we are trapped in that material world.
Each morning I read a lesson from my Celtic Prayer book. There is a scripture and a reading for each day of the year. The weekend before Sandy came through New Jersey the readings were about letting go and letting God. Indeed the readings both in the scripture and the lesson were about relying on God to get us through horrid storms!
It is hard, but each day try to listen to God speaking to you. It is most likely won’t be in verbal words. It may be in the turn of events. It may be just a thought that comes to mind. It may require frequent checking in. Pray daily. Ask for help. Listen closely. God is speaking to you. Just listen.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …