Sunday, February 20, 2011
Scripture Sunday: The Book of Ruth
After reading the horrors of Judges, Ruth is an incredibly welcome break. It's just four chapters long, but it shows part of the life of one of the strongest, most wondeful women in the Bible.
Chapter 1 starts off by telling about a guy from the Israelite tribe of Judah. His name is Elimelech, and when a famine strikes his city of Bethlehem, he takes his family to the idolatrous country of Moab to live. A famine in Bethlehem is really ironic because the town's name means "House of Bread," and the cruel ironies just keep coming. Elimelech and his wife Naomi have two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, and the boys marry women from Moab. Elimelech dies, and before long the sons die, too. Again, the names seem to be significant--Mahlon means "sickly" in Hebrew and Chilion means something like "pining" or "wasting away". It's like their very names were prophetic.
Naomi is almost more like the protagonist of the book of Ruth, and now she's left in a desperate fix. She's in a foreign country and her protector/providers are all dead. She tells her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth to go back to their parents' homes, but while Orpah eventually relents, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. Ruth is so intent on staying with Naomi that she delivers this speech, which is such a strong promise that it is now often used in wedding vows:
"Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me." (Ruth 1: 16-17)
Ruth is deathly serious about her duty to Naomi. So they travel to Bethlehem, and now the tables are sort of turned--Naomi's the one who's on her home turf, and Ruth is a stranger in a foreign land. But just because she has come home, it doesn't mean that life has improved for Naomi. She tells the people who welcome her back not to call her Naomi which means "pleasant" but Mara which means "bitter," because she feels like she's been cursed by God. However, no one actually calls her this, perhaps because her life is about to get pleasant again.
Ruth and Naomi don't have a ready means of supporting themselves, and it's implied that Naomi is too old to work. So Ruth goes into the fields of Naomi's relative Boaz, and she picks up the leftover barley that the harvesters drop. Boaz treats her kindly, although most Israelites would be cruel to a Moabite woman, and he gives her food and instructs his workers to leave behind extra barley for her. Ruth and Naomi now have a temporary source of food, but Naomi lights upon an idea to make sure that Ruth has more permanent security. As a relative, Boaz has the right to marry his kinsman's widow and thus keep the family strong while inheriting the kinsman's land. Boaz agrees to marry Ruth, and it doesn't seem to be just out of obligation--he remarks on how virtuous and dedicated she is, and it's clear that he doesn't look down on her for being a Moabite, and actually thinks he's getting a pretty good deal. Really, they both are. Ruth and Boaz are both generous, hard-working people who care for those less fortunate than themselves and it's wonderful that they end up together.
In the latter part of chapter 4, Boaz and Ruth have a baby boy named Obed and Naomi is thrilled. She becomes the baby's nurse and her bitterness is erased. Besides being the crowning touch on the story's happy ending, Obed is important for other reasons, too. Obed later has a son named Jesse and Jesse has a son named David, who becomes the king of all Israel. So Ruth, a foreigner, is the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king. Which is just so cool.