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In the midst of this purification of the tribe, someone whose name is long forgotten remembered a story. It went back hundreds of years to the days of the judges, back even before the establishment of the monarchy under King Saul. There was a man named Elimelech (which means "My God is King") and his wife, Naomi (which means, as the storyteller later reminds us, "pleasant") from Bethlehem in Judah. They had two sons: Mahlon and Kilion (meaning "sick" and "failing"). There was a famine across that part of the country - ironic, since that name Bethlehem means "House of Bread" - and this family left their homeland to move to Moab.
Why they would choose to live among a God-forsaken people no one knows. Moab was opposite Judah on the east side of the Dead Sea, and one of Israel's historic enemies, not unlike Israel and the Palestinians today. As a territory it was not held in high regard. It had a reputation for idolatry, apostasy, and sexual immorality. But when you are hungry, you will do unusual things. In Moab, there was food. You do what you have to do.
So they pull up stakes and resettle. The story does not give many details here, just that Elimelech dies leaving Naomi as a single mom to raise two boys. Somehow she manages to get them to adulthood, they marry two Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. They apparently lived contentedly in Moab for another ten years but neither had any children, a not very subtle slap in a culture that considered childlessness a curse, and then both boys die. Again, no details in the text, just the facts, ma'am, just the facts. Three widows.
Poor Naomi. In a foreign country with no husband or sons. Instead she was stuck with two Moabite daughters-in-law.
By now the famine in Israel was over and word had come that things were back to normal in the home country. Under the circumstances, the smartest thing for Naomi was to return to the land of her people. At least in Bethlehem there would be extended family to provide support. So she did the reasonable thing - she packed and made ready to return. Would the girls come too? Of course, so they made ready as well, and the three started on the road that would take them back to Judah.
A thought must have come to Naomi as they traveled. What would happen when the three arrived back in Bethlehem? She thought of Orpah and Ruth as family; the folks back home would think of them as Moabites. What would that mean? Nothing particularly good, Naomi realized. So she thought better of this journey. "Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband."
The girls would have none of it. There were tears and kisses and protests: "We will go back with you to your people."
But Naomi persisted that the future in Bethlehem would be bleak for them. Naomi knew, if they did not, that Torah said clearly that, while Egyptians and Edomites could become a part of the community in three generations, no Moabite could enter the household of faith even after ten generations.(1) So she tried again to dissuade them. "At my age, will I give birth to sons whom you could marry and with whom you could have children? Even if I could, would you wait for them to grow to manhood before starting your families? No, you must stay here and marry one of your own kind." Naomi made sense.
Orpah saw the wisdom in Naomi's words, kissed her mother-in-law, and reluctantly returned to her home. But Ruth would have none of it. "Look," said Naomi, "your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her."
Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me."
Okay. So the journey continued, and soon they arrived in Bethlehem. It had been many years, of course. The kinfolk were still there, but they hardly recognized their relative. "Naomi? Is that you?"
"Don't call me Naomi," she told them [remember Naomi means 'pleasant']. "Call me Mara [which means 'bitter'], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." She did not mention it, but everyone could see she was not QUITE empty - there was this Moabite daughter-in-law in tow. Hmm.
The story tells us that their arrival in Bethlehem coincided with the beginning of the barley harvest. An auspicious time, as it happened, since harvest time was, not only the basis of the agricultural economy, but also an opportunity for the less fortunate of society to provide something for themselves, an early Israelite welfare system. The process was called gleaning. Israelite farmers were forbidden to go back over a harvested field to gather what grain that might have fallen. They were also forbidden from harvesting right to the very edge of their fields. Rather, what fell in the field and what was left at the edges was to be gathered, or "gleaned," by the poor. Gleaning was hard work - the grain was not simply a handout. It could be a dangerous business too, as is often the case in the lives of the poor, especially women, since there were those who would happily hit them in the head, or worse, to get what they wanted.
For Ruth it turned out not too bad. After all, it just so happened that Naomi's late husband Elimelech had a relative named Boaz who happened to own a field, so that is where Ruth went to glean. When he noticed the foreign woman, Boaz asked who she was and was told of her relationship with Naomi and how hard she had worked during the day. He went to her and said, "My daughter, listen to me. Don't go and glean in another field and don't go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the girls. I have told the men not to touch you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled."
When Ruth asked why he would show such kindness to a foreigner, Boaz replied, "I've been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." Then he asked her to eat her meal with him and his people, and he instructed his workers to drop extra grain for her to pick up.
When Ruth returned home that night she showed Naomi the rather generous portion of grain she had gleaned and noted that she had met a really nice man by the name of Boaz. Bingo. A light went on in Naomi's head and she began to develop a plan. (My mother told me women are devious.) Naomi said, "Tonight Boaz will be down at the threshing floor winnowing the barley. Put on your prettiest dress and your most alluring perfume and get yourself down there. When you arrive he will be sleeping, so uncover his feet" - at these words she gave Ruth a knowing wink - "and then do whatever he tells you when he wakes up." Hmm.
So Ruth did as her mother-in-law had instructed. She went to the threshing floor and uncovered Boaz's feet. When he awoke, Boaz was startled to find her there but then he was pleased and told her, "What a wise young woman you are. You didn't run after one of these young men. Rather, you came to a man with a little gray in his beard. Leave while it is still dark, taking this basket of barley with you along with my best wishes to sister Naomi, and leave the rest to me." So she did.
The next day, Boaz went to the city gate where the men gathered to discuss important matters of the day and approached a closer kinsman to Naomi's late husband. Boaz asked him, "Since Naomi has come home, somebody needs to do something about that piece of property that belonged to Elimelech. Are you interested? You are first in line to say so, if you are." The man allowed as how he could use a few more fields of barley. Then Boaz added, almost as an aside, "Of course, you know if you take the property, you have to take the Moabite woman who came home with Naomi as well."
"Well...in that case," the man replied, "I think I will take a pass on this one. It's yours...if you are crazy enough to take it. A Moabite in the family? You have got to be kidding!"
"Fine," was Boaz's reply. He married Ruth, and before long they had a son they named Obed. All the women came to Naomi and told her, "You have a daughter-in-law who is better than seven sons." That was one high compliment. In the terms of that day, it meant they thought she was better than just about anything anybody could imagine. Great story. Talk about your happy endings.
And just in case Ezra and Nehemiah and the purification party missed the message, the storyteller added that Obed was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David, Israel's greatest king. Ethnic cleansing, indeed. The great-grandmother of the nation's single most honored hero was...a Moabite.
The sad story that began this adventure is certainly not unique. As the book of Job has it, "man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward."(2) Jobs are lost, marriages break apart, there are debilitating addictions and dependencies, there is illness and even death. In Paul Simon's "American Tune" there are these haunting words:
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to it's knees.(3)
But you have heard it before: "Tough times never last, tough people do." Ruth would say Amen to that. In the words of the psalmist, "Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning."(4) When life begins to get you down, really down, so far down that you can hardly remember up, remember the story of Ruth. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that Ruth's God is YOUR God, the God who can turn despair into delight, the same God who generations later turned the tragedy of Calvary into the triumph of Easter. Ruth's God. Your God. The God of happy endings.
1. Deuteronomy 23:3
2. Job 5:7
3. © Paul Simon, 1973
4. Psalm 30:5