In many ways, The Book of Ruth is a gentle echo of The Book of Job. In Job, we witness a righteous man destroyed for a wager who remains unwavering in his faith right up until he asks, “But why?”
(They patch things up in the end, God and Job, and he gets a new family with new children. What’s interesting — and I wish I had thought to write about this when I wrote about Job earlier — is that we don’t know anything about Job’s wife. She has one line: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” And after her big speech, that’s the last we see/hear of her. Is she the mother of the new family? Why was she — or, even better, was she — saved from the wager? Did she die too? Did she leave Job? Ocean so full of questions.)
The Book of Ruth is also about a life interrupted by Divine Intervention. It’s Job with a happier ending, but the same unsettling questions about how we interact with God, and how God can interact with us.
(It’s also often used by feminist, queer, and queer-friendly theologians as an example of a loving same-sex relationship, or, at least, Women Getting Strength from Women. I am not going to focus so much on the lesbianism in this story, if there is any, which I’m not entirely sold on, but boy do I recognize and feel deeply that hunger for representation, especially in a text that is so often used to call me, and people like me, an abomination worthy of destruction. Your reading of Ruth as a queer text is valid. Your reading of Ruth as a feminist text is valid. I see you and love you. Misquoting Jesus: “We were not made for the Bible, but the Bible was made for us.” Do with it whatever brings you comfort, including ignoring it.)
(My theology is best represented by this piece attributed to the Sufi mystic Rumi:
Come, come, whoever you are.
lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come yet again.
Ruth is a Jewish text. Written for Jews, by Jews. At its heart, one of its central questions is: who gets to be a Jew, and how? (Christians are interested in the Book of Ruth because it’s used as proof of Jesus’s lineage through King David. In general, Christians are only interested in the parts of the Hebrew Bible that confirm the Jesus Event. That’s also a gross overstatement on my part and I will no doubt be taken to task for that position but heavy is the head that speaks the truth.)
Ruth 1:1 starts out with, “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.”
Two questions immediately sprang up for rabbis in the first millennium CE:
1) Why would God strike the Jews with a famine?
2) Why would “a certain man” (who we’ll later learn is named Elimelech) flee to live in Moab?
The Ruth Rabbah (רות רבה) is a midrashic interpretation of the events of the Book of Ruth. And for midrash, we can essentially think of it as a way of filling in the gaps. Rabbis would read the Tanakh, and when they came to a “why” question not answered in the text, they would reason themselves to an answer. (It’s how any of us tell a story, anyway, isn’t it? When we get to a why we can’t answer, we will sometimes just make shit up. We’re a storytelling people, more than a logical people.)
The Ruth Rabbah tells us this quick story to answer Question 1: “At that time God said: ‘My children are stubborn. To destroy them is impossible. To return them to Egypt is impossible. I cannot exchange them for another nation. What, then can I do? I must make them suffer and cleanse them with famine.'”
It’s the astonishingly frank reasoning of a sociopath. “I can’t kill them all. I can’t give them back. I didn’t keep the receipt, and it’s not like I can get a new people. I’ll starve them.”
The Ruth Rabbah also tells us why “a certain man” (Elimelech) would flee: “Elimelech was among the great scholars and patrons of the nation, and when the years of famine came, he said: ‘Now all of Israel will come to my door, each with his box (to collect money).’ He stood up and ran away from them.”
So, Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, go to Moab.
Moab is an interesting place for these Jews to go. From yesterday, when we talked about Lot and his daughters, we learned that the eldest daughter bore her father, Lot, a son named Moab, who founds the city of Moab. The younger daughter bore her father a son named Amon. And if we jump to Deuteronomy 23:4-5 for a sec, we learn this: “They should not come into the congregation of God, neither Moabite nor Amonite, even the tenth generation should not enter into the congregation of God, forever, because they did not greet you with bread and water on the way when you left Egypt.”
Once upon a time, Moses and God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. They wandered in the desert for 40 years. They didn’t make a lot of friends. (They did make a golden calf and boy did that really chap God’s hide but I digress.) And it’s a lovely bit of irony that the Moabites and Amonites would be inhospitable to the Israelites. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, in part, because of the cries to heaven of a young woman burned to death (or stung to death — the stories vary) for feeding a starving man. Moab and Amon are born because Lot and his daughters flee Sodom. Time is a flat circle.
Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion, are now in Moab, and Elimelech promptly dies, leaving Ruth with the kids. The boys took Moabite wives, Mahlon marrying a woman named Ruth; Chilion marrying a woman, Ruth’s sister, Orpah. (By the way, you guys know that Oprah’s actual given first name is Orpah? But so many people pronounced it wrong that she just decided, “Fuck it, I’m Oprah now.”)
The boys then die, too. So Naomi is left a widow with no children, and her daughters-in-law are left widowed, also with no children.
In Job, Job is punished as part of a wager. He has done nothing wrong. In the Ruth story, Elimelech dies probably as punishment for abandoning his people in their time of need. And the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, died because they took Moabite women as wives. (By the way, Ruth and Orpah aren’t just any Moabite women; they’re the daughters of Eglon, king of Moab.) But death isn’t much of a punishment for the dead person. They’re dead. (Oh boy, is someone going to ask me about death and resurrection?) Naomi seems to be the one suffering the brunt here. She is alone, unprotected in a strange and hostile city, with two daughters, now, to care for.
Naomi learns that the famine in Judah has passed. She wants to go home. She tells her daughters-in-law to return to their own homes, and wishes them new husbands and children, adding, “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Naomi says that “the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
And still, in one of the most beautiful passages in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth says:
“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 converts, in that moment, if not ceremonially, and not ritualistically, (God spends a LOT of time with the Israelites explaining exactly how everything needs to be done, like a fussy gay wedding planner*) at least emotionally, to Judaism, and to Naomi. She will worship Naomi’s God. She will be of Naomi’s people.
(* Like, for serious, God gets in the weeds about incense in the Book of Exodus. “I like this smell, and this smell, and I will smite you dead if you even think about bringing in THIS smell.” And as a lover of candles and incense, I’m #TeamGod on this.)
It’s curious/interesting that Ruth’s husband, Mahlon, didn’t seek to convert his wife. As a Moabite, Ruth would not have worship YHWH, the God of the Israelites; her chief diety would be Chemosh*, possibly a fish god. (There are a LOT of fish gods in the ancient past.) While YHWH claims to be the only god, there were p l e n t y of Mesopotamian deities with cults and followers. And in this moment of love, and maybe desperation, Ruth says, “I choose your life.”
(* One of the things we know about King Solomon, world’s biggest non-genius — splitting a baby in half? That’s your solution? — is he had MANY wives. Many wives from many regions who all brought their own religious traditions with them, and their own gods and rituals and rites. The worship of Chemosh was part of Solomon’s kingdom until Josiah comes along and abolishes this religious plurality.)
And this conversion is, for me, the heart of this story. It’s a suggestion of acceptance at a time when the Jews were still very insular. And, read from a Christian point of view, it also speaks to the universal nature of God — that anyone, even a Moabite, can be welcomed.
But a question for me, also at the heart of this story, is about Naomi, who feels that God has turned against her. Who will later change her name to Mara, which means “bitter” (Naomi, by the way, means “pleasant”). Who will tell others that “the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” Did God actually turn his hand against her, or does she feel, in the middle of all this tragedy and chaos, as if that is what is happening? Is she blaming herself for something that is not her fault, which is something women have been taught to do since literally the invention of humans.
It’s the same question we leave with after the Book of Job, too: has God forsaken me, or am I only a pawn? (A rabbi I talked to about Naomi said, “G-d does not forsake anyone.” Which is comforting, if untrue, because we see in Deuteronomy 31:17 that God actually does forsake people because he tells us he will forsake them: “My anger will be kindled against them in that day. I will forsake them and hide my face from them; they will become easy prey, and many terrible troubles will come upon them. In that day they will say, ‘Have not these troubles come upon us because our God is not in our midst?'” When people tell you who they are, believe them. FROM OPRAH. Everything is connected.)
What’s powerful in this story is that even though Naomi is forsaken by God, Ruth does not leave her side. “Where you go, I will go.”