Scripture: Ruth 1:1-22
In the days following the Babylonian Exile, when the people returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city and the Temple, the scribe Ezra became very distressed that so many of his people, including religious leaders, had married foreign women and had children with them. He and several other leaders became convinced that God was angry about this, and determined that the only hope to avoid God’s punishment for this was to send these foreign wives and their children away.
The language of this section of the book of Ezra makes clear that these leaders were teaching that these mixed marriages were not actually marriages, so sending the foreign wives and their children away was not truly divorce. They believed God required them to enforce ethnic purity, lest they again be driven from the land to which they had only just been restored.
It’s been suggested that the Old Testament does not contain a single, consistent theology or understanding of how people of faith should live. Instead, we can see the Hebrew Scriptures as a series of conversations—if not outright arguments—in which multiple points of view interact with one another.
For instance, the book of Deuteronomy and much of the so-called Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings), along with the book of the prophet Jeremiah, teaches that the good things that happen to us are blessings for our faithfulness to God’s commandments, and the bad things that happen to us are God’s punishment when we are unfaithful. However, the book of Job challenges that belief.
The terrible misfortunes and losses that Job experiences cannot be seen as punishment for his wickedness; he is described as an extremely righteous man. Job’s friends, when they speak to him, give voice to the Deuteronomistic point of view, and insist over and over that Job’s predicament is the result of his sin, of which he must repent. But Job knows he has not sinned, certainly not to the extent that might justify the kind of situation he was in as punishment. He continues to protest his innocence until his friends finally just give up—and that’s when God shows up and declares the friends to be in the wrong.
The story of Job offers a countervoice to the Deuteronomistic point of view.
We don’t know when the book of Ruth came into existence. It’s set in the time of the judges—before Israel had a king—but it may or may not have originated at that time. Many scholars, and I tend to agree with them, believe the story of Ruth was told in opposition to the rigid (and, in my opinion, unjust) insistence on ethnic purity of the post-exilic period described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The religious leaders were certain that God rejected any Israelite marrying anybody of another nation or ethnic group. But, the book of Ruth says, don’t you realize that without such marriages, we would not be the people we are?
In the book of Ruth, we only see God directly acting one time, at the very end of the book, after Ruth and Boaz are married: the LORD caused Ruth to become pregnant on their wedding night. God’s Name is mentioned many times, but usually in the context of a blessing one person pronounces on another, as when Boaz returns to his land after being away for awhile, in 2:4.
One exception to this is how Naomi talks about God at the end of the first chapter, our reading for today—saying God has given her a raw deal, left her widowed and utterly alone in a foreign land, made her bitter. Naomi blames God for what has happened to her over the course of her life, after she and her husband had become refugees fleeing Bethlehem (which in Hebrew means “House of Bread”), to keep from starving in a famine.
As I mentioned, the question of why such terrible things happen is the subject of one of the arguments found in the Old Testament, and better minds than mine ever since time began have struggled with it. Whether or not God causes suffering like Naomi’s, it’s certainly clear that her circumstances are bitter, even dire.
Nowadays it’s perhaps less common for someone to find herself in the kind of desperate situation Naomi faces.
She is a foreign widow who belongs to no one, in a time and place where a person’s life—especially a woman’s life—quite literally depended upon knowing to whom she belonged. Since Naomi didn’t belong to anyone—any man—there was absolutely no one to take care of her, and women at that time and in that place had no options for working to support themselves. Naomi has two Moabite  daughters-in-law, also widows; but they have no legal or moral responsibility to stay with her, and they had no way to support themselves or her, either, if they didn’t go back to where they belonged, to their hometowns and their families.
She is bitter—even changes her name to Mara, “bitter”—and she sees no reason for Orpah and Ruth to share in her bitter fortunes; so she urges them to leave her and not to go back with her to Bethlehem, where the famine has ended, but where they will be despised foreigners. Orpah does leave, but Ruth refuses. Instead, she makes a vow—invoking God’s Name—that she will stay with Naomi, through thick and thin, until death and even beyond death.
Why would Ruth do such a thing?
It could be that her own family had cast her out when she married the Israelite Mahlon, Naomi’s son—a lot of cultures, including Israel’s, as we have seen, have strong prohibitions against marrying foreigners. Or maybe, in the time since she had left home to marry Mahlon, her own family had died.
It could be, however, that Ruth simply knew if she walked away, Naomi would have to make the dangerous journey back to Bethlehem by herself, vulnerable to all sorts of predators, with the human kind the worst of all. Maybe she thought that since she, unlike Naomi, was young and strong, even though she was a woman and had no way to work for a living, she would have a better chance to scrounge up food and shelter than Naomi would by herself. But she was leaving behind everything that was familiar to her, binding herself in covenant—for that is what her vow to Naomi meant—to stay by Naomi’s side, whatever the future might bring.
This was not a covenant between equals: Naomi had absolutely nothing to bring to the table. She was alone, penniless and hopeless, her heart as empty as her pocketbook. Her circumstances had made her bitter—and a bitter person, even when that bitterness is completely justified, as Naomi’s was, is not all that enjoyable to be around. But Ruth stuck with her anyway, even though Naomi had to have been very hard to love, at least as the story starts. (That sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?)
Ruth made a promise to go with Naomi back to Bethlehem, even though Naomi, whose name means “pleasant,” can’t have been terribly pleasant after all that had befallen her, and even though as a foreigner she had no idea what kind of welcome she would find there. And somehow, as a result of her willingness to make a covenant with Naomi and be faithful to that covenant, even when Naomi was hard to love, Ruth caused something to change in Naomi’s heart. (That just might sound familiar, too, I think.)
Back in Bethlehem, Naomi sends Ruth out to glean in the fields—a practice commanded in the Law of Moses whereby farmers were to leave some produce behind when they gathered their crops, so that poor people with no way to grow or buy their own food could gather the leavings and thus have something to eat. When Ruth comes home and tells Naomi, “Oh, I met a relative of yours today—his name is Boaz,” Naomi begins to form a plan. Her bitterness starts to slip away, replaced by the possibility that there was hope for her and Ruth yet. Her empty life suddenly has purpose again.
And at Naomi’s urging, Ruth goes and meets with Boaz, in the middle of the night, as he settles in to sleep on his threshing floor.
Before much time at all has passed, Ruth and Boaz are married, and both Ruth and Naomi come to belong to him, so they are no longer alone and hopeless. Before too long, Naomi becomes a grandmother figure to Boaz’ and Ruth’s son, Obed.
God mostly works behind the scenes in the book of Ruth. God made a way out of no way for Naomi and Ruth, and gave Naomi an antidote to her bitterness and hopelessness, first through Ruth’s covenant loyalty—which in Hebrew is described by the lovely word hesed, and rendered in the New Testament as grace—and then by making her part of the new family formed when Boaz made Ruth.
Ruth made a promise to Naomi at Naomi’s lowest point, when she was bitter and hopeless and hard to love, just as once upon a time God had made a promise to Israel at their lowest point, when they were enslaved and bitter and could not envision any other possibility for their lives. And like God was to his promise to Israel, Ruth remained faithful to that covenant she had made with Naomi. Ruth walked with her from hopelessness to new life, from emptiness to fullness, from bitterness to joy.
Ruth’s faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi made all the difference in the world for Naomi. It changed her life.
When the lovely story of Ruth and Naomi was told in the days of Ezra and his order for all the foreign wives to be sent away, with their children, it reminded the people that maybe God could be at work even in a mixed family. It was an alternative voice to the one that required cruelty and injustice in the name of ethnic purity. And that voice told the people that they would not be who they were if not for Ruth, the Moabite who, out of loyalty to her Israelite mother-in-law, immigrated to Bethlehem and ultimately married Naomi’s relative Boaz.
Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi changed more than just Naomi’s life; it changed the world. For Boaz’ and Ruth’s son Obed grew up to have a son of his own, named Jesse. And Jesse had eight sons, the youngest of which was a handsome redhead named David. David became king of Israel, and was described as a man after God’s own heart.
And many, many years later, a descendant of King David’s was born in that same city, the city of David, Bethlehem, the House of Bread, who would one day call himself the Bread of Life: our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Ruth, of course, had no idea where her act of radical, audacious faithfulness to her bitter mother-in-law would lead; but she bound herself in covenant to Naomi anyway. Her faithfulness gave Naomi a new hope—and it changed the world.
I wonder if it’s possible that when we choose to be faithful to another person, even when we don’t have to be, that faithfulness could also change the course of the world.
 Ezra 9—10. See also Nehemiah 13:23-31; Nehemiah, unlike Ezra, contains no call for foreign wives to be sent away, only the injunction against any such marriages going forward.
 Ruth 4:13
 Two modern books on the subject that are worth looking at are Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? and Where is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey.
 Moab and Israel were bitter enemies; see, for instance, 2 Samuel 8:2. The Moabites were descended from the incestuous union between Lot and his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:30-38).
 Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-22.