Opening The Old Testament
The Power of Devotion: Reflections on Ruth 1:1-18
November 4, 2012
When I was in graduate school, a hundred years ago or so, a Hebrew class I took focused some of its attention on the book of Ruth. It is a short book, written in very clear and relatively simple Hebrew, just perfect for those of us who had moved beyond the beginning stage of reading the language, but not as difficult as pieces like the Psalms or Job. It made us feel proud that in the main we could read the book.
And it was a rather good read, like an afternoon soap opera, we men all thought (the class and its teacher were all male), describing the love story between the foreign widow Ruth and her Israelite admirer Boaz. I read it and promptly forgot it, moving on to hardier fare like Job. Looking back on those days, I now wonder at just how clueless I was about this astonishing story.
Some years later, Phyllis Trible published a book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. In that book was an article on Ruth, an article that opened my male eyes in ways I hardly can enumerate. I learned from Trible that the book I thought I had read in that graduate class was something altogether different and more wonderful than I had imagined. It was a book about a woman and women, a book quite explosive in its claims, promulgated in the midst of a thoroughly patriarchal culture. As a result of Trible's reading of Ruth, the book has become for me one of the greatest of biblical works. During my early pastoral ministry, I do not think I used Ruth as a source for a single sermon. I am very sorry for that omission now, because the book has wonders that need hearing in every age and time.
It begins simply enough. "In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land" (1:1). The canonical scripture has just concluded the book of the Judges with this terrible sentence: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Jdg. 21:25). Anarchy reigned; life was cheap. The book of Judges is characterized by horrific acts of kingly murder (so Ehud's grisly killing of Eglon in Jdg. 3); of the brutal slaughter of a would-be king by a well-aimed millstone, hurled by a furious woman (so the death of Abimelech in Jdg. 9); of the wanton assaults of Samson on his own people and on the Philistines, culminated by his complete obliteration of the enemy and himself under the ruins of Dagon's temple (Jdg. 16); and finally of the barbarous abuse of a lone woman by a host of bestial Israelites, resulting in the near extinction of one of the tribes of YHWH (Jdg. 19). The book of Judges could be summarized in the phrase "crazy, murderous, and lusty!" And in that cauldron of horror the story of Ruth is found. It makes a reader wonder when the next corpse is to appear.
But that reader would be wrong. The tragedy here is a famine, a not uncommon occurrence in the southern deserts of Israel. As a result of the famine, a typical Israelite family of four is forced to leave their home and move to Moab, a tiny place east of Bethlehem, across the Dead Sea, and higher in the mountains. But the tragedy of a lack of food is soon matched by a more familial tragedy. The husband and father of the tiny band, Elimelech by name, dies, and the woman, Naomi, is left a widow, a fearsome thing to be in a patriarchal world. Still, she has her two sons and thus is somewhat protected by their male presence. They soon marry Moabite women. But after some further time, both sons die, and what remains are three widows, two of whom are foreigners. Here is a famine indeed in a place where men call the tune.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.