Ruth 1-4, Psalm 79, John 14
The Bible’s best short story
Ruth 1 – 4
You will not find a better short story in the entire Bible than the story of Ruth, which bears the name of the protagonist, who is not even a Hebrew woman. This short story is full of suspense and surprise and is masterfully told. No one is certain when, where and why it was told. It was said to have taken place during the period of the Judges (Ruth 1:1), but it was probably told in oral form possibly for several centuries before being written down in the tenth century as a way of tracing the lineage of King David.
The Bible is full of all sorts of genres of literature – legends, myths, history, biography, autobiography, genealogies, dietary codes, legal codes, letters, theophany, poetry, parables, hymns, songs, sermons, teachings, wisdom and apocalyptic writings. To this selection of literature we now add short stories.
What is significant is the Ruth was the great grandmother of King David. Despite being an indigent widower and a foreigner, she gave birth to a family of kings. A thousand years later, Jesus, a descendent of Obed, the son of Ruth and Boaz, was born in Bethlehem, the town where the story of Ruth began. The genealogy of Jesus as noted in Matthew 1 lists only four women – and Ruth is one of them.
If you are looking for a book of the Bible to use for a short Bible study, look no further. This story offers a great deal to discuss. Ruth teaches lessons about family, loyalty, duty, commitment, compassion, protection, security, honor, sex, survival, kinship, calamity, marriage, abiding by the law and economics. You will not lack for conversation if you study this book and discuss it with others.
In a nation that prided itself as being the Chosen People, the heroine of this story is not an Israelite, but a Moabite. It says something about the Jewish people that they included this text and many other nations might have omitted in order to make their family history seem more glorious. This four-chapter book is one of the best-crafted pieces of literature ever written in Hebrew or any other language.
The story began in Bethlehem, which means house of bread “in the days when the judges ruled,” and there was a famine in the land. Elimelech, whose name means “El (God) is king,” took his wife, Naomi and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion to Moab. Moab was part of the Promised Land allocated to the tribe of Reuben. It was Israel’s neighbor just east of the Dead Sea in a region stretching about 60 miles north to south and 30 miles east to west. The journey from Bethlehem to Moab was between 70 and 100 miles – roughly a week’s journey. Mahlon and Chilion took Moabite wives, Orpah, which means “neck” or “cloud,” and Ruth, signifying “companion,” “friend” or “satisfied.”
Within ten years, Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving Naomi with neither a husband nor sons and no male protector. Widows in the ancient Near East lost all of their social, political and economic status. They were like today’s homeless population. With few options left, Naomi decided to return to her kin in Bethlehem, who might take pity and provide for her, but it was unreasonable to expect them also to support her daughters-in-law.
Hence, she released her daughters-in-law to find new husbands among their Moabite tribesmen. After some hesitation and debate, Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and turned back to her people, showing her “neck” to her Naomi, which may be the reason she is called “Orpah.” Ruth, however, refused to leave her mother-in-law and give up her kinship. She uttered some of the Bible’s best-loved words,
Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do this and so to me, and more as well? If even death parts me from you! (Ruth 1:16-17)
Ruth offered Naomi full protection and security. Her daughter-in-law pledged to provide for her mother-in-law into her old age and to insure the protection of her burial site, which was believed to insure the safe transition into an afterlife for someone who died.
Because her plight was bad, Naomi, whose name means “pleasant,” insisted on being called Mara, which means “bitterness.” It is the same name borne by Jesus’s mother – Mary. Naomi said, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty…” (Ruth 2:21) There but by the grace of God goes each of us.
Ruth was a self-starter. Once she heard that Naomi had a rich relative named Boaz, she turned to her mother-in-law and asked to be allowed to glean in his fields. Jewish law mandated that the corners of fields must be left harvested so that the poor could find some food for survival. This was not welfare, but hard work. The poor had to earn their living, which also insured that they maintained self-esteem.
Boaz, whose name meant “valiant warrior,” “man of stature,” “strength” or “might,” had heard of Ruth’s fidelity to her mother-in-law and took her under his wing. The metaphor of seeking refuge under the wings of the deity is found frequently in the Psalter. (See Ps. 36:7, 57:1, 61:4; 91:4) Boaz ordered the young men not to bother her. Naomi then instructed her daughter-in-law to bathe, dress nicely and apply lots of perfume and then go down to the threshing floor at night when Boaz would be working. After he had eaten and drunk, Naomi told Ruth to lie down beside Boaz and “uncover his feet.” The term “feet” was used several times in the Old Testament as a euphemism for the sexual organs. “He will then tell you what to do,” Naomi assured Ruth. (Ruth 3:4)
Ruth was a quick learner, but even more enterprising than Naomi. She asked Boaz to marry her. “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” (Ruth 3:9) This expression also conveyed sexual overtones in a betrothal context. (See Ezekiel 16:8) The text of Ruth is not explicitly sexual, but it hints at this and remains ambiguous.
What is clear is that Ruth asked Boaz to marry her, which is more than Naomi had instructed her to do. It would have been a reasonable and honorable thing for Boaz to provide for Ruth as a kinswoman, despite the fact that she came from a different tribe. Boaz, however, informed Ruth that another man was actually next-of-kin to and therefore had a closer in relationship to Ruth. He therefore he had first right of refusal to take Ruth as his wife. This, however, was more complicated than one might think.
In leaving during the famine, Elimelech and Naomi had left behind their land, which could now be redeemed by the next-of-kin. When Naomi died, the next-of-kin would inherit this property. But when Boaz mentioned Ruth to her next-of-kin, the next-of-kin realized that she went with the land. He had to marry her. If she had a son, her son would inherit the land and possibly some of his father’s estate. Hence, this kin would be providing for Naomi and Ruth while creating no additional equity for himself. It was less than a desirable proposition, so he offered to allow Boaz to take his place as next-of-kin.
This agreement was made before 10 witnesses or elders who formed the governing body of the city. The deal agreed upon by the exchange of a sandal. Sandals were worn when marking off land, and the exchange of a sandal symbolized one’s agreement or bond like the signing of a legal agreement today. The elders said, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; through the children that the Lord will give you through this woman…” (Ruth 4:11-12)
Ruth indeed gave birth to a son named Obed, whose name means “worshipper.” He became the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David. The women then said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life…” Indeed, Romans 5:18 describes Jesus as the one who gives “life for all men.”
The women said to Naomi that her daughter-in-law was worth more than “seven sons.” Seven was a number of perfection. Obed was viewed as Naomi’s son, and she served as his nurse. (Ruth 4:16) The story will continue in Matthew 1 with the birth of Jesus and the tracing of his genealogy to Jesse, Obed and Ruth. The book of Ruth which began with the near eradication of a family lineage, ended with the establishment of one of Israel’s great families. What is remarkable is how close the family of King David came to never existing at all.
This psalm is a plea for mercy for Jerusalem. Verse 1 tells us,
O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. (Ps. 79:1)
The only time in the Old Testament that Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was desecrated occurred in 587 B.C. This is clearly what is being addressed by the Psalmist. He goes on to write,
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire? (Ps. 79:5)
The Psalmist asks this same question, “How long?” almost 20 times in the Psalter. It is a question that we frequently find ourselves asking when we are tested by illness, financial challenges, relationship problems or stress. How long, O Lord, must I endure this?
The Psalmist cries out for Yahweh to “deliver us, forgive our sins.” (verse 9) He asks that the groans of the prisoners rise before God. May God bless those who have suffered and been mocked and derided.
Then we your people, the flock of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise. (Ps. 79:13)
At funeral after funeral that I conduct, the most commonly chosen lessons that people ask to have read are the 23rd Psalm and John 14:1-6. Both paint serene visions of the afterlife. We read,
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1-6)
Again and again, John offered spectacular, meditative discourses not found anywhere else in the Bible. At the same time, John constantly put the reader on the spot and made the reader feel uncomfortable, because the reader is constantly being asked to make a decision.
John also is not friendly to people who are spiritual, but not religious. This is a gospel for people who can make a commitment. It is sort of a spiritual antidote to much of what plagues our society today with fewer and fewer people willing to take accountability and the vast majority wanting to blame others for their problems and to muddle along without making defined commitments.
Jesus told his followers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) This is a bold defining statement. When we see Jesus, we are looking at God himself. Jesus is God with a flesh face. He is what God would look like, if God were one of us, as Joan Osborne sang in, “What if God was One of Us.”
If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with him
In all his glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
If God had a face what would it look like?
And would you wanna to see
If seeing meant that
You would have to believe
In things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints
And all the prophets
Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) He quickly turned his assertion into a question and asked, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:10) Jesus pressed those who followed him to believe, to commit and to reorient their lives. Two thousand years later, he does the same thing and it gets uncomfortable for the complacent. Jesus demanded commitment from his disciples and he wants the same from us today.
Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus said many things that are simple and true, but are hard for us to carry out. What makes them difficult is not intellectual comprehension, but rather to strive at all times and in all places to live with the same integrity that Jesus exercised. Jesus told his followers, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) This becomes one of those guiding verses from the entire Bible that you can write on the inside cover of your Bible and strive for the rest of your days to live by. It does not require great intellectual power to abide by this. What it takes is having a great heart and willing to do what we know to be honest and right at all times.
Jesus then instructed his disciples saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Fear is one of Jesus’s biggest enemies. It stifles faith and cripples trust. The key is not to let our hearts be troubled or afraid. In the ancient Near East, the “heart” was more like the brain today. It was the seat of decision-making. If someone is afraid or troubled, they will often not make good decisions.
Jesus then promised to give “peace” or “shalom” to his followers. Shalom can also be translated as “wholeness.” When we are whole, we are at peace. When we are less than whole, we are troubled, fearful or disturbed.
Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you! (Ruth 1:16-17)
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (John 14:1-2)
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
What are the ties that bind in your life that you will never walk away from? What causes you to say, “How long, O Lord?” What troubles you? What disturbs your inner peace? Do you feel closer to Jesus or to God or to the Holy Spirit? Do you believe that if you know Jesus, then you know God the Father?
Oh Holy and Awesome God, Master of the Universe, you have created us and all of creation out of nothingness and you have made us as stewards over this spectacular planet. Help us to partner with people everyone to leave behind a planet that is a safer, richer and healthier than that which was handed down to us. In Jesus’s name we prayer. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania