Opening The Old Testament
The Power of Devotion: Reflections on Ruth 1:1-18
After ten long years, Naomi hears that the famine has finally ended in Israel, and she resolves to go home; there is finally nothing for her in this land of Moab. Surprisingly, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her. Naomi at first gently suggests to them that though they have been exemplary in their behavior during the multiple tragedies that have struck the family (1:8), there really is no future for them in Israel. "YHWH grant that you may find rest ["security" reads the NRSV], each of you in your husband's house" (1:9).
But Orpah and Ruth will have none of it. "We will return with you to your people," they both say (1:10). But Naomi is insistent that she return to Israel alone. She proceeds to spin out the law in Israel of Levirate marriage, the details of which may be found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. In short, this law stipulates that when a married man dies, a close relative, usually a brother, but a cousin if no brother is available, is to marry the widow in order to keep the male line going. It is a law both protective of a single woman and indicative of a culture steeped in male dominance; no single woman has much of a chance apart from her connection to a male.
Naomi claims to have no living male relatives (the story will later reveal that she has several), so she spins an absurd scenario wherein she tells Orpah and Ruth that even if she should meet a man on the Bethlehem road this very night, and even if they would marry, and even if she should have sons (hardly likely at her age), would the women wait for these phantom boys to grow up in order for the women to marry them? Why, the two Moabites would by that time be old themselves! Naomi concludes this ridiculous plan, clearly designed to send the women back to Moab and leave her alone, by whining, "It has been far more bitter for me than for you, because YHWH's hand has turned against me!" She fully expects for the two to get the picture and head home to Moab.
And Orpah does; she knows when she is not wanted. "But Ruth clung to her" (1:14). And this is the great and mysterious driver of the story. Why does Ruth stay with Naomi, who plainly wants nothing further to do with her? The verb "clung" is used in one of the more familiar places in the tradition: in Genesis 2, "a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife." The verb is intimately powerful. So Naomi, perhaps with Ruth physically draped about her, shouts, "Look! Orpah understood me; follow her lead!"
Not Ruth. She now utters one of the Bible's greatest speeches, a speech made famous at weddings, both spoken and sung. But because it has been so used, it threatens to be trivialized, its magnificence blunted in the shadow of wedding vows and cakes and white dresses. We must remember the exact context of this speech if we are to recover its wonder. Ruth has been dismissed by Naomi; she plainly is not in any of Naomi's future plans. Yet, she says this:
"Do not force me to abandon you, or to turn away from following you" (1:16).
For Ruth, there can be no question of leaving Naomi alone, as much as Naomi thinks she wishes to be alone. And Ruth goes on to say that she will go wherever Naomi goes, will live where Naomi lives, will accept Naomi's people as her own, will receive Naomi's God as her God, will die where Naomi dies, will be buried where Naomi is buried, and concludes these words with an oath calling on YHWH to strike her if even death were to part Naomi from her (1:16-17). After that speech, Naomi is struck mute (1:18).
And so should we be, too. It is exceedingly rare to find such radical devotion so richly displayed, and even more rare to find it displayed by a foreign widow who is not welcomed by the one to whom the devotion has been directed. In the face of rampant patriarchy and thorough rejection, Ruth still clings to Naomi and vows grandly never to leave. In short, Ruth is very like the YHWH she has chosen to embrace, a YHWH who will never depart from us and will forever offer to us a chesed, an unbreakable love, that will never leave us alone. In this wonderful story, God is a Moabite widow, which, it could be said, is a patriarchal mouthful.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.