Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Glimmer of Hope Even In The Face of Bitter and Empty (Hope in Ruth chapter 1)

The book of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges. But as the story was completed and included with the writings of the Hebrew cannon a lot later than that there has always been speculation as to when it was written and why it was written. Some have suggested it was post exilic. That it was written or at least revived as a polemic to the exclusion of foreign wives mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah, telling as it does the story that even that most venerated of Ancestors David had a Moabite great grandmother. That God’s purposes were for inclusion not exclusion. Others have seen it as from an earlier date as an argument for the kingship of David and his descendants showing as it does how it was only through God’s grace and goodness that King David was born at all. That his line could have stopped at Naomi. In the end we don’t know when the book was written or its author or the purpose behind it. But it is a profound and wonderful story.

The book of Ruth is one of only two books in the bible named after a woman. The other book of course is... Esther. It is the story of a widow Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth. In the vast expanse of the narrative of God’s relationship with his people Israel it seems rather out of place. It doesn’t even read like biblical narrative. Unlike other biblical narratives the focus is not on telling the story but on the dialogue between the main characters. It does not speak of God’s miraculous intervention and salvation. God is very present and working his purposes but the way he works his grace is through the actions of people, through the ordinary. It does show us that in the midst of that flow of history that God cares for the individual and for the widow and that he does work out his purposes and plans through that care and through the everyday actions of people who seek to live a life that brings honour to God. It shows us something of God’s ability to bring about his good even in the midst of  tragedy and sorrow. Who would have thought that a story that starts with the decimation of Naomi’s family would finish with the blessing of a child and a genealogy that leads to the great King David? And then on to an even greater descendant. But it does.

While the book of Ruth is named after Ruth, it is her mother in law Naomi who is the central character. It is her family tragedy and situation that is the centre of the story. She is the one who gives advice to her daughter in law that leads to Boaz marrying Ruth. At its end she is the one who is said to be blessed through her daughter in law and she is the one who ends up holding the baby, a typical occurrence I hear you say in this mother in law rich environment) and the women living in Bethlehem finish by saying Naomi has a son. Ruth the other key character along with Boaz are the means God uses to restore hope and fullness to Naomi life.

So let me ask you have you ever experienced such sorrow in your life that you would want to change your name to ‘Bitter’, because that is where the book of Ruth begins. In the time of the judges there was a famine in Bethlehem and so one family goes to live in the land of the Moabites. Obviously in the hill country on the other side of the rift valley there was adequate resources and food to feed extras. So a family moves there from Bethlehem and live there as legal aliens in that land bidding their time till they are able to return.  While they are living there Naomi’s husband Elimalek dies. In the ancient near east as a patriotic society a women’s status and her well being and ability to look after herself was dependant on male family members. She was still Ok as she had two sons Mahlon and Kilion. They marry Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. However after ten years the two sons die leaving no offspring or heirs to look after Naomi. Ten years in Jewish society was the time in a marriage when you would expect children before you went and sort help for infertility. Naomi  is destitute. But at this point we see that God begins to intervene in verse 6 it says that the LORD came to the aid of his people and provided food for them. The famine is ended and Naomi decides to go home. When she gets there she is greeted by her kins women and old neighbours who say “Can this be Naomi?”Not because they do not recognise her but it’s a way of showing surprise and delight to see her return. In response to that Naomi pours out her soul.

She is so full of sorrow that she cannot even stand her own name. Naomi means pleasant one her life has been anything but pleasant. She tells the women of Bethlehem to call her a new name Mara which means bitter. Because she says the Almighty has made my life very bitter. The family had left Bethlehem because of famine and returned because they had heard God had once again provided plenty and in bitter irony Naomi says “I went away full, but the LORD has bought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me, the Almighty has bought misfortune upon me.”

In the midst of sorrow and suffering she has not lost her faith in God. She acknowledges the sovereignty of God. All that has happened does not mean that God is not in control, she does not rile against God’s goodness or grace, rather all she can see is that the LORD must have turned against her. There is no thought that this is for any reason or because of any sin, like Job there is a sense that she is the innocent party here. The psalmists often find themselves in the same situation. They find themselves wrestling and crying out to God in what are called psalms of disorientation, because they find themselves in situations that do not equate to what they know of God’s character. God may have come to the aid of his people and provided them with food, but where was that aid for her. But it is not a faith that tries to sweep this disorientation under the carpet and dismiss it, Naomi is honest in her dissatisfaction with God.  In a patriarchal society where women’s identity and meaning in life was found in her husband and in her off spring she was left with nothing without any hope. God was sovereign and God was good but she is honest about the fact that he had dealt her a tough hand. That is her complaint that is the hopeless situation she finds herself in. Will God answer her complaint? Is there hope?

The chapter finishes by saying that Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by her daughter in law, Ruth the Moabite, her daughter in law, arriving just before the barley harvest. We’ve missed an important part of the story so far haven’t we. A bit like Naomi does at this stage. AS I mentioned before one of the features of the book of Ruth is the dialogues between the main characters. And one of the key themes in the book is the idea of  faithfulness. There is hope for Naomi because of the faithfulness shown to her by her Moabite daughter in law Ruth.

AS Naomi has gone to leave Moab her daughter in laws had packed up and prepared to go with her. Over the period of three different dialogues Naomi tries to convince them to remain behind. She has nothing to offer them. At first she sends them back and prays that God would be kind to them as they had been faithful and kind to their dead and to her. She hopes God would bless them with a new life and a new husband amongst their own people. Again in the patriarchal society women found meaning in their relationships with men.

Maybe this event happened at a cross roads that lead to their home village, but Oprah and Ruth and Naomi weep together and Oprah and Naomi say they will stay with Naomi and go back to her people.

But Naomi is persistent. She has nothing to offer the women, her place in her society will be based on the kindness of others. Even if she got married again and bore some more sons, obviously beyond her at this stage, but if it happened they would still have to wait for them to grow up and what a wait. Again in Jewish society there was the concept of levite marriage that  to continue a family line a family name and to ensure that the families property stayed in the family that if there was no heir a man’s brother would marry his widow and have a child to carry on the name. Naomi is saying that even this hope is gone, is not available to her. She has nothing to offer her daughter in laws in terms of status and identity or hope. Again she says that it is more bitter for her, the LORD’s hand has turned against me.

The tears flow again, Oprah as a dutiful daughter in law kisses her mother in law and turns back to her people and walks out of our story. She is doing what Naomi tells her. But beyond that we find Ruth still clinging to her mother in law. Beyond obedience is relationship, kindness and loyalty when as Naomi has already said all she has to offer is bitterness and emptiness.  The two women continue on together.

In this final dialogue we have this wonderful poem of love and loyalty. So wonderful in fact that it is often read and used at weddings.

Where you go I will go. And where you stay I will stay
 your people will be my people and your God will be my God.
 Where you die I will die and there I will be buried.

What profound love what amazing kindness. Naomi’s relationship with her daughters in law must have been so good over the past ten years that Ruth cannot think of leaving her. She chooses to be loyal even if the situation isn’t going to be easy or have any other outcome than dying where Naomi dies.  Note also that for Ruth it’s also a conversion, an abandoning all she has, her culture her own God’s and a willingness to follow Naomi’s God, even though Naomi has said the LORD’s hand is against her. There is a real faith here as well as real love. The text tells us that Naomi gets the idea after this that Ruth won’t be persuaded so she stops urging her. I’ve Got to fit a mother in law joke in here you could say she stops nagging her.

Here is where hope enters the picture. In this faithful loyal kindness that Ruth shows Naomi. I cannot help but see that kind of loyalty and love being reflected in the one who ultimately reaches his hand out to save us and says I no longer call you servant but friend. She’s with her till the end, it’s through that loyal love that God will answer Naomi’s complaint that hope and salvation will come. I’ve said it before in the book of Ruth like in most of our lives God does not intervene in an overt and miraculous, parting the red sea kind of way rather he uses the actions and choices of people to show his kindness. Maybe if we were looking for the answers to our complaints and for God to show his hand miraculously, we may feel that his hand is against us and miss the hand that God holds out to us in the shape of a loyal friend or family member prepared to walk the dark road with us. 

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