The Book of Ruth is more than a quaint love story. It portrays two women of agency and adventure. In fact, in these days of demonizing immigrants, attacking women who have been traumatized by male behavior, and inhospitality to diversity, Ruth may be one of the most relevant books in the Bible. Ruth is a love story, but the love portrayed in Ruth is the love of two women who need each other to survive, a romance that crosses ethnic barriers and scriptural injunctions, and a dynasty founded by mixed-race king.
Ruth is a dance of several spiritual, ethical, and theological steps, each of which challenges those who are content with things as they are and who tend look the other way at racism, sexism, and poverty.
The first step in Ruth is that of a caravan, a mob from Bethlehem, that arrives in Moab fleeing a famine in Bethlehem. Naomi, Elimelek, and their two sons leave their homeland, like thousands of Syrians and hundreds of caravanning Hondurans to ensure survival for themselves and their families. We don’t know how the Moabites responded to hordes from Canaan crossing their border, but I am sure there was mistrust, anger, and perhaps violence. Nevertheless, Naomi and Elimelek make a life in Moab; the boys marry local girls, and they begin to fit into the community.
The second step in Ruth is the return, motivated by loss, economics, and hope. Their good fortune doesn’t last forever. Elimelek and his sons die, leaving three widows – Orpah, Ruth, and Naomi. Ruth and Naomi have a special bond, it is both mother-daughter love and economic necessity. Two women, widowed, are at risk in a land with few if any economic safety nets. So, like millions of women throughout history they band together for survival as well as companionship. Ruth and Naomi are every woman, every mother or grandmother, from the inner city, the countryside of Syria, and the villages of Honduras.
The third step is the agency of women in a patriarchal society. Despite inbred sexism and inferiority, Ruth and Naomi become actors in their own destiny, whether in terms of traveling across the wilderness, returning home and reclaiming Naomi’s property, seducing Boaz, and naming the newborn child. Waiting for things to happen means certain death. Survival demands action, gentle cunning, and long-term planning.
The fourth step is risk taking and making a way in a new community. Ruth is a stranger in a strange land. She must contend with the locals’ negativity toward Moabites – they are cheats, immoral, and promiscuous, at least so say the agents of hate and fear. They collect the same stereotypes which hound immigrants and refugees to this very day. As a single woman, Ruth life is at risk, and so her hopes of a relationship with Boaz is more than romantic, it may be a matter of survival.The fifth step is the confrontation with racism. Some scholars believe that Ruth was written to combat the xenophobia and ethnic purity articulated and legalized in Ezra and Nehemiah. In hopes of a new beginning after the Exile, the religious-political leaders ban intermarriage and force Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives. Ezra and Nehemiah believe God’s demands purity and purity begins in the home with the exorcism of otherness. But, Ruth is a foreigner. She marries an upstanding child of Abraham and is a direct ancestor – the great grandmother – of the Great Kind David. Israel’s greatest king is of mixed-race heritage.
The sixth step is providential. God’s providence is gentle, inobtrusive, non-coercive, and persistent. God’s providence excludes no one. Ruth is an agent of divine providence as much as Boaz, and God’s providence embraces a relationship that leads to the birth of the greatest king of Israel. God is present in the Israelites caravanning to Moab and in the foreign Ruth’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem. God is no respecter of persons. The boundaries of space, time, and nation are porous to the God of all creation. When you insult an immigrant, you are insulting God. When you demean a refugee, you are demeaning God. Anyone can be an angel – even a foreigner and strange visitor – bringing God’s wisdom and creativity to us.
The final step in the dance of Ruth is invitational. Ruth is our story, too, regardless of where we are on the gender spectrum. We are called in our own life-situation to claim our agency as creators of a new and just world along with God. Our positive use of our freedom gives birth to God’s presence in our world. We are invited to welcome outsiders and foreigners and, if we are outsiders and foreigners, to know that God loves and guides us. We are challenged to become agents and adventures, leaving a legacy of grace and transformation wherever we are.
At the end of the day, love energizes the seven steps of Ruth. Love joins surprising couples, welcomes strangers, persists despite obstacles, gives birth to children, and challenges the barriers of xenophobia and race. Love, embodied in divine providence, gives life and love to all creation and awakens us to a world where all are pilgrims and none are strangers.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 45 books, including “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”