Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
Ruth, Naomi and Orpah, painting by Kyra Markham, 1959
Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehemjudah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there.
— Ruth 1:1-2
The book of Ruth is a story of faith, hope and charity made all the more poignant set as it is against the background of the moral collapse described in the book of Judges. A certain man, Elimelech, together with his wife Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion leave their home in Judah to sojourn in Moab, a Baal-worshipping country which had previously led Israel astray1. Some commentators see this trip as running away from God, deserting Him for a pagan lifestyle—Mahlon and Chilion both marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah—but it could equally be seen as running towards God given that God was at that time utterly neglected by Israel as the nation slid into self-centered depravity.
The symbolic nature of this book, more story than history, is immediately apparent in the choice of names. Elimelech means "My God is King", thus endorsing the view that Elimelech was heading towards, rather than away from his faith. The name Naomi means "pleasing" and the names of Mahlon and Chilion mean "sickness" and "destruction", foretelling of their untimely death. Finally, the name Ruth meaning "compassionate friend" tells us the nature of the story we are about to hear. Ruth, by loving the family she marries into comes to love their God, and in pledging herself to Naomi after the death of all three men, speaks the beautiful words:
...for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.2
While Israelites by the thousands were deserting God, here is a foreigner, a sojourner whose new-found faith is so deep she'd rather cleave to her mother-in-law and travel to an unknown land than return to her own family. The words Ruth speaks to Naomi could be interpreted as words she speaks to God, thy people shall be my people. It is this level of love and loyalty that has evaporated from the land, is absent from all the stories in the book of Judges, where God (if considered at all) is worshipped only for personal gain or glory. Ruth, moving beyond worship into the realm of love, models for a failing nation what loyalty to God really means. It means heading willingly into the unknown with nothing more than faith: Thy will, not mine be done.
1 Num 25:2, Judges 10:6
2 Ruth 1:16-17. These verses are often used today as a wedding vow for female same-sex marriages, as described, for example in Ruth and Naomi: Biblical women who loved each other by Kittredge Cherry, QSpirit 12/20/2020