A reflection on the Three Journeys of Ruth 1, by Kristine Morrison
The story of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges before Israel had Kings. It begins in Bethlehem, a small village away from the seat of and therefore offers a picture of humble rural life where the people so poor that when harvest fails there is no safety margin. In contrast to the stories of the Judges there is no conflict or killing. Whilst the characters in this story follow the LORD, there are no stories that describe the sacrificial practices of that were prevalent in the religious life of Israel at this time.
It is also a women's story. In particular, as the story unfolds, it becomes a story of women's concerns. The story centres on family, courtship, children and marriage and it becomes evident that the women in this culture drive the traditions that surround these life events.
Is there anything here for us? Can we glean something from a story about some poor women who lived a long time ago and lived in traditions and circumstances that don’t match with how we live?
There are points of connection for us in this first chapter of Ruth. We find three different journeys in this passage. The first is the forced journey of a family seeking food for their children. The second is an insight into Naomi’s life as she journeys through different stages and the third is the journey home. All journeys show evidence of the presence of Yahweh.
2: A Forced Journey
Ruth 1:1 – 5
The OT abounds with stories of journeys. Abraham left his home in Ur and journeyed to Canaan at God’s command. Jacob took his family to Egypt when there was drought in Canaan. The formative story for God’s people is the Exodus from Egypt to Canaan and then there are accounts of exile and return to Canaan through the later reigns of the kings.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that there is considerable emphasis in scripture about the right way to treat the stranger or the sojourner in the land because the people of Israel had themselves been strangers in the land so often.
The instructions are ample and consistent. The widow, the stranger and the fatherless are all to be treated with compassion, fairness and kindness and there are warnings to those who exploit such defenceless people. Deuteronomy 24:17 "You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or the fatherless or take a widow’s garment in pledge" and Deuteronomy 27:19 "Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow." In fact the presence of a stranger in the midst honours the host. The stranger or the sojourner provides the host with an opportunity to share and to show loving kindness to others thus echoing the goodness and the kindness that God shows to us. The practice of hospitality is both a core ethical requirement and a sacred duty.
Think of the story of Abraham who was visited by strangers. He begged them to stay as a favour to him. He prepared the best food and waited on them himself. It would have been shameful for Abraham not to have provided for the strangers who came upon him. We have become used to a different way of practising hospitality. We think we are doing our guests an honour when we invite them but things were different in the ancient world.
The journey that Naomi and Elimelech undertake is a forced journey. It is the journey of the refugee. They see that they can no longer provide food for their sons so they travel to a place that is not experiencing famine. Moab. Suddenly this story is sounding a lot like the stories of refugees we are all too familiar with in these recent times. Some might characterise this decision as a lack of faith on Elimalech and Naomi’s part, however, as the story unfolds it is clear that Naomi walks with God. She sees God’s hand at work in the everyday aspects of her life. She has created a cohesive family despite poverty, living in a foreign land and now bereavement.
Crucial for Elimalech and Naomi would have been some version of Moabite hospitality when they found themselves amongst strangers. At the very least a lack of hostility, perhaps some kindness, acceptance and ultimately integration as evidenced by the marriage of their sons into the Moabite community. They experience the full cycle of what it is to be a refugee. They found refuge for their family in Moab.
The practice of hospitality is basic to survival in many cultures including our own. We like to think of ourselves as largely self-sufficient and independent but only a few generations back the idea of self-sufficiency was far more illusory. When we were living in Dubbo we visited an historic homestead. Wandering around we read a sign on a room placed at the end of the veranda that didn’t have a connecting door into the house. It was called the Strangers Room. The sign told us that it was common practice to build into your dwelling provision for a stranger accommodation. Isolation was extreme so that it was accepted that people who needed help or shelter or provisions would not be turned away. Implicit in this arrangement was the understanding that when you or family members were on the road they would also receive whatever they might need. It was also noted that provision of such hospitality yielded benefits. News was exchanged, networks were established.
We still have strangers amongst us. They are often very brave people. Just like Naomi and Elimilech they make a decision, a forced decision, about moving to a better place to provide safety or opportunity for their family.
Communities in vulnerable situations, including indigenous peoples, peasants, migrants, children, women, persons with disabilities and people living in small island developing States and least developed countries, are disproportionately at risk from adverse impacts of climate change. Ian Fry, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change
When we share with strangers we continue an ancient practice. It is a virtue that is central to our faith and central to the establishment of strong communities.
3: Life as a journey
In this second section we are given more information both about the strong bonds of love that exist between Naomi and her daughters in law and about how Naomi thinks of herself. It is good to remind ourselves that we are observing ancient traditional cultures. They don’t see things the way we do.
Women in that culture were nothing if they were not married and mothers. You can see the dilemma for Naomi. She is no longer married and her daughters-in-law are not only widows but childless widows. It is hard for us to imagine how keenly this absence of children to carry the family name into the future is felt. We accept that Naomi’s concern for her daughters-in-law arises out of deep love for them. In fact it is not solely concern that they won't have children because they might if they found new husbands the concern is that they won’t be able to have children that will perpetuate their dead husbands’ line.
Where we can identify with Naomi is the reality that our lives change over time. It’s obvious to us that our lives move through stages. We wax and wane. We move from dependence to independence and sometimes to dependence again. We move from innocence to wisdom. In our prime we enjoy competence and significance but as we age we move to insignificance. We have examples in the bible of other characters who view their lives in terms of a journey. Jacob describes himself to Pharaoh as a ‘sojourner of 130 years’. "Few and evil have been the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my father in the days of their sojourning" Genesis 47:9. David describes life as a sojourn with our days on earth “like a shadow, there is no abiding” 1 Chronicles 29:14. Life is understood as fleeting, transitory and often with little meaning. For a really bleak assessment of life the prophet tells us in Ecclesiastes “The wise man is remembered no longer than the fool, for, as the passing days multiply, all will be forgotten” Ecclesiastes 2:16. When we are young we create, procreate, we influence, we make the decisions. In our prime we enjoy the confidence that has us in control over the directions of our lives and sometimes of others.
Naomi is similarly unflinching in her assessment of her current stage of life. She really drills down into her biological reality. She spells out the implications to their logical full extent. If we accept that there is an imperative for both Ruth and Orpah to have children, Naomi as the matriarch can neither provide husbands for them or the means for them to find husbands. Even if Naomi could still bear children and could find a husband, any sons conceived even if she could do it that very night, would not be mature in time for Ruth an Orpah to then be able to conceive sons with him, or them. Not much is left to the imagination. Apart from any of that Naomi’s time for childbearing is finished. Naomi thinks that expressing her utter inability to do anything for her daughters-in-law will persuade them to return to their mothers and in the case of Orpah she wins the day.
We don’t necessarily identify with Naomi’s concern about lack of sons but we can identify with her sense of powerlessness or ability to influence her situation. It is bitter to her that in the past she has been able to make a contribution and influence her situation but now that is no longer the case. After sitting with Naomi’s lament it’s clear that we do have something in common with her, particularly those of us who are older.
4 The Journey Home
Naomi says she has nothing for her daughters-in-law but somehow fails to recognise the love and wisdom she possesses in abundance arising from her long walk in a loving relationship with Yahweh. It is this love that elicits Ruth’s vow to follow Naomi to adopt her home, her family and her God who Ruth now addresses in the intimate form of Yahweh. It seems that Ruth has found her true home with the LORD who Naomi knows and follows.
In contemporary culture, Ruth’s vow has become subsumed into the context of marriage and not without good reason. It is an eloquent summation of the total identification one has for the other in marriage. It is however, worth noting that it is, in the first, place a declaration of friendship. It is friendship that will help both of them to flourish in their future lives and as such ought to be valued and cultivated. Friendship like that is a human good. David and Jonathon swore oaths of love and loyalty between each other in circumstances where David’s life depended on Jonathan’s loyalty (1 Samuel 18:2, 20:7, 13 &16).
As the story of Ruth and Naomi progresses it is worth asking ourselves the extent to which the changes in circumstances has depended on the deep friendship and loyalty they have shown to each other. To put another way could they have achieved the good things they gain without the guidance and support each has provided for the other?
In the midst of Naomi’s affliction she makes a decision to go home. In this she enacts the very real human urge in all of us to have a home where we belong. That place where we are both known and accepted. As a follower of Yahweh she knew that wherever she made her home, her real home was in the land of Canaan that God gave her people. So it is with us today. We make our home. We build community and we are at rest but we also carry with us the knowledge that we are never truly at home until we come to our eternal home with God.
For Naomi her journey might be complete but the story is only in the introductory phase. Naomi’s re-entry to Bethlehem seems to go well. The village women see her and recognise her. We can relax because Naomi has arrived and the story teller has more for us. He tells us that the harvest is about to begin and we have hope for Naomi that she is about to reap a good harvest for the Godly life she has lived.