READ: Ruth 1-2
BACKGROUND: The book of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges, which isn’t just an afterthought. It is an important cultural setting because this era in Israel’s history is one of great darkness and rebellion. Ruth stands in stark contrast as it depicts the story of Naomi, an Israelite woman, and how God uses her to reveal himself to her daughter-in-law, Ruth, and how God is kind and loving and faithful to redeem her despite her bitter circumstances.
THINK: When Naomi tells Orpah and Ruth to turn back from her she does this out of a deep sense of love and affection for them. I realize that sounds strange to say because generally speaking, “Hey, go away from me. Don’t come with me” is not a term of endearment. But, culturally in the Ancient Near East, in both Israel and Moab, widows had almost no rights. They couldn’t own property or make a living to support themselves and so their only chance for survival was to go to their families who had an obligation to take care of them. This is why Naomi is going back to Israel. Nobody in Moab has any obligation whatsoever to feed her, clothe her, or keep her alive and so her only real hope for survival is to head back to where her family is in the hope that they’ll take care of her. Similarly, that is the only hope for Ruth and Orpah. Even if Naomi finds a family member to help her out, that person has absolutely no obligation whatsoever to care for her daughters-in-law. They are not only not blood relatives but they are foreigners from Moab – a nation that Israel regularly was at war with. And so, out of concern for their very lives, Naomi pleads with them to return to the homes of their families. And they refuse and then they all cry.
But after the little cry-fest, Naomi again, out of love, urges them to go back. And it’s important to remember here that going back to the homes of their families meant returning to their family’s customs – both cultural and religious. And in Moab this meant going back to the Moabite pantheon of gods, the chief of whom was Chemosh – a god who required, among other things, human sacrifice. Ultimately Orpah goes back. Ruth, shockingly, stunningly, does not! Knowing that accompanying Naomi means putting her life on the line she risks death and refuses to go back and her response to Naomi is, I think, one of the most beautiful and poetic and powerful pieces of dialogue in the entire Bible. She says, “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 are my people and your God is 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 even death separates you and me.”
Ruth puts it all on the line here. And this statement is not only an amazing display of faithfulness to Naomi but also an amazing display of faithfulness to GOD! You may have noticed that your Bible translation reads a little bit different than what I said – most of them say “your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” And that’s a very poetic version of the statement that has been carried over from the King James Version, but here I think it can be a bit confusing. In Ruth’s statement there are a bunch of future verbs – go/go, stay/stay, die/die, be buried/be buried – but the middle part where she talks about your people and your God, is a nonverbal clause. It is literally, tersely, like Tarzan speech: “people of you, people of me. God of you, God of me.” And what that indicates in Hebrew grammar is not only that this is the APEX of Ruth’s response, but that it has already come to be. All the verbs anticipate future action, but a nonverbal clause describes a present reality! So all of that mumbo-jumbo is to say: when Ruth makes this amazing statement to Naomi, Naomi’s people are already Ruth’s people and Naomi’s God is already Ruth’s God! And there are some really important implications there for us:
First, Ruth puts “your people” before “your God.” This is not insignificant. It means that Ruth came to know God after she came to know God’s people. More specifically, it means that Ruth came to know God through his people! Through the lives and the love and the faith of Naomi and her family. And this is God’s paradigm for saving the world! This is exactly what God desired for the entire nation of Israel on a communal scale when he said that Abraham would be a nation through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed and when he said he would make his people a light for the nations so that his salvation could reach to the ends of the earth. And here we have – during the time of the judges when the nation of Israel was decidedly not doing this – an incredible example in the person of Naomi of someone who did…and of the impact that made.
The second implication is that our God is awesome and he is way better than any alternative that’s out there! Through Naomi and her family Ruth came to know God and follow him. And she wasn’t going back! There was no way; it was unthinkable to her. In fact, this is such a powerful statement by Ruth – a powerful statement of faith in God and rejection of Chemosh and any other gods – that Rabbis in the Old Testament times used it in the ceremony of accepting new converts. If foreigners – Moabites or other – wanted to join Israel and worship God they recited this as a confession of faith in him and him alone. Ruth knew that going with Naomi and following God meant risking her life. But she had met the one true God so she also knew that she would rather die with the real thing than live with a copy.
That’s our God! And we have the privilege of bringing him to our world. Will you do it?
ASK: If God’s plan to reveal himself to the world is through his people then that means his plan to reveal himself to my friends and my teammates and my classmates and my coworkers and my neighbors is through me. How am I showing God to those around me? How can I do it better?