The most misused wedding text in the bible is 1 Corinthians 13, but Ruth’s speech to Naomi from this morning’s reading has to be a close second. Perhaps you know the song based on this speech, Entreat Me Not To Leave You, which has been sung at many weddings.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these words are moving expressions of love and commitment, and maybe even what we hope couples mean when they make vows to each other publicly. But the fact remains that Ruth’s words are not for her husband but for her mother-in-law, and the situation in which they are spoken is the farthest from romantic.
The passage begins with disaster—there is a famine in the land—leading to dislocation as “a certain man … and his wife and two sons” leave their home in Bethlehem, cross a river and a border, and seek refuge in a foreign country. The decision to flee famine is completely understandable. The decision to seek refuge in Moab, however, is totally shocking. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Moabites are portrayed shameful, inhospitable, and dangerous.
Previous scriptures lead us to expect the worst for God’s people in Moab, and the worst is exactly what happens. Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow, dependent on her sons to provide for her. So they do what the law would normally have prohibited and marry Moabite women. Then a decade later, these sons die too, leaving three widows without children.
It’s no surprise then that Naomi, having heard that the famine was over in her homeland, would decide to return to Bethlehem. The scriptures don’t tell us how far the three women traveled together toward the land of Judah before Naomi directs her daughters-in-law to “Go back … to your mother’s house.” Naomi knows she cannot provide “security” for herself, let alone for two foreign daughters in law. So she does the only thing she can: Naomi releases them from their obligations to her and prays that these two Moabite women will be treated by the LORD with the same loyalty and devotion that they have extended to “the dead” and to her. Like the Good Samaritan, these Moabite women have already exceeded all expectations of compassion and mercy.
Orpah goes, but Ruth refuses to do what is practical, instead making this stunning pledge to link her life to Naomi, to Naomi’s homeland, her people, and her God. Her speech is reminiscent of so many other speeches in the scriptures before this, which alone is remarkable for a woman not raised as a worshipper of the LORD. But what’s even more amazing is that the speeches like hers that have come before this came not from Israelites mouths, nor even from human mouths. Ruth’s words to Naomi sound like the words of God to God’s people.
“Where you go, I will go” Ruth says to Naomi.
“I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” God says to Jacob in his dream at Beth-el.
“Your people shall be my people and your God my God,” Ruth promises, echoing God’s promise to the Israelites after the Exodus, “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.”
“May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if I don’t keep my promise” Ruth swears, just as God swore to Abraham in Genesis 15 when God passed as a flaming torch between the cloven halves of sacrificed animals in the darkness.
Ruth the Moabite, a foreigner from whom we could reasonably have expected nothing good, makes a covenant promise to a woman she’s only obligated to help if she’s following God’s law. And she makes that covenant using the words of God’s own self. Her faithfulness to Naomi is far beyond what two people romantically in love might promise to each other. Ruth’s faithfulness is much more like God’s, which I think is the whole point of the story.
The faithfulness of God shown to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses is also shown by unexpected people like a Moabite woman, who turns out to be the great-grandmother of God’s most beloved king, King David. Through Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi, we are able to better understand God’s faithfulness to us.
While I’ve loved this story for a long time, reading it as a widow makes it that much more poignant. And it’s not just Ruth’s fidelity to her mother-in-law that gets me, but the fact that God chooses to show up in Ruth, rather than appear in person. In her grief, I’m certain Naomi cried out to her God, to show up, to save her. But nowhere in this story does God speak, or show up. At least not in a form we’d readily recognize as God.
And yet, as becomes clear in the other chapters of this book, God is deeply invested in this story. God is present, just not as God. Instead, God speaks to Naomi through the mouth of her foreign daughter-in-law. God speaks to Ruth through the mouth of her mother-in-law when she hatches a plan to get Ruth a new husband. And God delivers them both through an old man, already established in the community who goes against his own self-interest to be their redeemer. In the book of Ruth, God is known only through God’s people, whose faithfulness and compassion do more to teach us about our God than any grand theophany.
And I wonder if Naomi could’ve heard God anyway, in the depths of her grief, if God had spoken directly to her? Perhaps God knew that the most effective way to show up was through a person Naomi already trusted.
My recent experience, no, my whole life’s experience, tells me that is most often the case. While God certain does show up in person to some people at some times, most of us know God through God’s people. Yes, I’ve learned who God is by reading Scripture and in my own divine encounters, but I’ve learned so much more from my parents, my children, my closest friends, and my late husband. I’ve learned about who God is from God’s people in all the congregations I’ve served. I’ve learned about who God is from the guests of Connections Shelter.
The story of Ruth is a reminder that the bearers of God’s presence are all around us. In the people who already love us, in the people who go against our wishes to do what they know is best for us, in the people we forget to listen to because their voices are so familiar. If you are bitter or grieving like Naomi today, God has already sent you at least one Ruth. If you know someone who is bitter or grieving, perhaps their Ruth is you.
If you are looking for God today, chances are God is right beside you already. God is there in the ones who have committed to love you, who are faithful in their care for you, who show up in your most desperate moments. Entreat them not to leave you, but instead open your ears and your heart and let them show you who God is.