“Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, And there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, If anything but death parts you and me.”
We are at that point in the lectionary where the Evening Prayer readings are from one of my favourite books of the Bible, and having written a lot about some quite difficult concepts in some very difficult poems, I wanted to take some time with the Book of Ruth – hence starting with those wonderful words of Ruth to her desolate mother-in-law Naomi – or “Mara”(bitter).
The story will be familiar, but bears repeating. Ruth is a Moabite woman. Descended from a son of Lot, the Moabites moved into a hostile relationship with the Israelites after their women seduced Israelites into worshipping Baal (Num 25.1-3, 9; 31.16) God had commanded that no Moabite should enter his Assembly and decreed that Israelites should not help Moabites. It would, given this, have been quite understandable if, after Naomi had lost her husband and sons, and thus Ruth and Orpha had lost their husbands, both daughters-in-law had stayed in their own land and let Naomi go back to ther land of Judah, where, to put it mildly, nothing awaited them. Widows were among the most vulnerable members of society, but at least Orpha and Ruth were young enought to be marriagable, and as neither had children, they would have a chance of finding a husband. They both offer to go with Naomi, but when she discourages them, Orpha kisses her and leaves. Ruth does not – instead she gives the impassioned speech quoted above.
For all she knows, Ruth is condemning herself to permanent widowhood with a mother-in-law who lacks any means of sustaining herself, let along Ruth. But Ruth is loyal to her beloved mother-in-law and swears an unbreakable vow to go with her and share her fate.
I love my mother-in-law, and whenever I read those words of Ruth’s, I know they apply to me. She has been so good to me that I feel I owe her my loyalty, not because I do, but because I love her, and if you love someone you go with them on their road, however hard that road might be. I am delighted that my mother-in-law had agreed to come to live with us, it keeps her much safer than being in London would, and she adds so much to my life that she has become the mother I never had. So it is with real feeling I read Ruth.
Gleaning the barley was a recognised “thing” for the poor – it was one of the obligations placed on landowners to let those who had nothing glean what they could. Ruth swallowed any pride and did that for the two of them. Boaz, the landowner, is impressed with the fact that, unlike many gleaners, Ruth has been hard at it all day. It says something about what unprotected women in such circumstances could expect that Boaz issued orders for young men to leave her alone – her vulnerability to abuse was extreme, with no protector. Boaz makes himself that protector.
In Jewish Law the nearest male relative had a responsibility for vulnerable female relatives, and it would often, as we see with the Samaritan woman at the well who follows Jesus, be the case that an unmarried brother would marry his brother’s widow. In that event, any child of the marriage would be recognised as a legitimate heir. Naomi realises before Ruth the potential benefits of winning the favour of Boaz, but Ruth presumes nothing. In a foretaste of the words of Our Lady, Ruth is content to be a “handmaid”. Naomi is wiser in the ways of the world and tells Ruth to smarten herself up and get herself down to the threshing floor and be there for Boaz so he can’t avoid noticing her.
Boaz, like Joseph, is a righteous man. There is a closer male relative, and Boaz gives him the chance to buy back the land sold by Naomi, which will bring with it responsibility for Naomi and Ruth; he refuses. Boaz is therefore within his rights to buy it and what comes with it. The one possible obstacle, the prohibition on marriage to a Moabite, is overcome by Ruth’s loyalty in making the God of Naomi her God – in that she reverses the older pattern of Moabite women seducing men from the God of Israel. Her virtues, loyalty, humility and dedication, win for her the hand of Boaz – and her son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, the father of the great King David. Thus it was that, tucked away in those genealogies which we so often pass over during Advent, that a Moabitess becomes a key figure in the ancestry of David and part of the genealogy of Our Lord.
It is a story which never ceases to move me. Ruth’s loyalty, in the most desolating of circumstances, was rewarded by God in a way she could never have known. But she did not do what she did for any reward, she did it for love.