As one commentator says, “The Book of Ruth begins inauspiciously, with famine and death.” It ends with birth and a tie to King David. Between these two points we are lead imaginatively and concretely through a journey between countries, a relationship between two women, and a sense that one must never let anything come between another person-- however foreign--and generosity, kindness, and commitment.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers remind us through the fact that they read the book of Ruth every year on Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, that God does radically engage us every day. Yes, complex ideals and values in our daily lives never make life simple. Nor were they simple for the characters in the Book of Ruth.
A famine in Judah during the period of the judges (prior to the monarchy of David) lead to a journey into the hostile world of Moab. We cannot say exactly what the cause of the famine was. But the famine leads Elimelech, to leave the comfort of his homeland and migrate to find food. He took his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, from Bethlehem to the foreign land of Moab which is across the Jordan River. The family finds more than food. The sons marry two fine Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.
In addition to the famine the deaths of the three males (father and sons) are reported. No explanations for the deaths are given. These deaths leave three widows. Of course the remarkable story of Ruth, the Moabitess, and Naomi, the Bethlemite, is the heart of the story. The foray in Moab given the obvious animosity between Moab and Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3-6 and Ezra and Nehemiah [especially Neh. 13:1-3]) coupled with the return to Bethlehem fill the story with tension.
The book of Ruth stands in stark contrast to these other biblical prohibitions spoken about outside of Ruth. This wider context supports the ambiguities of the story and reinforces the audacity of Ruth.
The sections of Ruth for this week point even more clearly to the audacity of Ruth, and Naomi for that matter. The instructions of Naomi to Ruth (and Boaz) drive the story forward. Ruth remains the loyal daughter-in-law in her meeting with Boaz. Our lectionary reading leaves out the earthy meeting of Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor (3:6-15) and the good report Ruth delivers upon her return to Naomi with the grain. It also leaves out the important negotiations at the city gate (4:1-12).
Our reading picks up with the betrothal, birth, and last blessing of the community of women (4:13-17). The reader has come full circle from famine and death to birth and blessing that extends into the genealogy that ties Ruth’s story to King David (4:18-22).
Ruth causes the reader to reflect on a number of things. The role of God among individuals. The role of responsibility by the stranger and foreigner in times of great stress. The frightful decisions that must be made when scarcity is the norm. The unique character of generosity, kindness, and commitment that can drive an audacious life even without the necessity of responsibility.