Ruth and Persistent-Loving-Kindness | 15 October 2023
Text: Readings from Ruth
Speaker: Joel Miller
“In the days when the judges ruled.” That’s how the book of Ruth begins. This was after the Israelites had settled in Canaan, the promised land, but before they had kings. The leaders were tribal chieftains, judges, who would rise up during times of crisis.
If you’re tracking the flow of the Narrative Lectionary you’ll note that we have gone – last week – from the giving of the Ten Commandments in the Sinai desert, to the days when the judges ruled. We have skipped over, conveniently, the conquest stories in the book of Joshua. That’s when the new generation of Israelites, after the death of Moses, under Joshua’s leadership, emerge from the desert and take control of the land of Canaan through military conquest. All this conquesting was done in the name of their God. These stories do not fit real well into Mennonite peace theology.
If it’s any consolation, the consensus among scholars is that this didn’t actually happen the way it’s described. The leading theory, based on archeological and DNA evidence, is that the people who became the nation of Israel were mostly native Canaanites, especially the underclass, joined by other ethnic groups, during a time when Egypt’s control of the region was collapsing. The Exodus and conquest stories then become the narrative glue that holds this diverse group of peoples together as one nation.
What this suggests is the power of a common story to bind people together - more powerful than having a common blood ancestor. Stories can even be more powerful than military conquest. There’s a little sprinkling of peace theology.
And if we’re looking for a powerful story that binds people together across ethnic differences, across national boundaries, Ruth is a pretty one.
Ruth, as the book bearing her name makes clear, is not an Israelite. She’s from the land of Moab. She is Ruth the Moabite.
Moab was on the east side of the Jordan River. It was a next door neighbor, often vying for control of the same territory. During the time of the judges, there were frequent conflicts with Moab. During one stretch, Israel paid tribute to King Eglon of Moab for 18 years (Judges 3:14). The chieftain in this case was Ehud, the Benjaminite. Once you hear his story, you can’t unhear it.
Pardon this slight diversion, we will get back to Ruth. One year Ehud is charged with hand delivering the Israelite tribute to King Eglon, which he does. There in the king’s chamber in Moab, Ehud declares that he has a secret message from God for the king. This intrigues the king and he sends all of his attendants out of the room. I mean who wouldn’t want to hear a secret message from God? So it’s Ehud the Israelite and King Eglon of Moab alone behind closed doors, just the way Ehud planned it, with the added detail from the text that “Eglon (the king) was a very fat man.” Every champion has to have some kind of special power, and Ehud’s is that he is left-handed. He had fashioned a special sword to fit just so on the inside of his right thigh, under his clothes. This enabled him to get through the pat down at the Moabite security checks undetected. The guards were apparently only trained to check the left thigh for concealed weapons of all you dangerous righties of the world. So it’s Ehud, plus Eglon, plus Ehud’s concealed sword in that room. Ehud approaches the king, tells him again that he has a message from God, and promptly retrieves his sword with his left hand and thrusts it into the king’s large belly, which closes over the handle of the sword.
Ehud locks the doors on his way out. The attendants see him go, discover the locked doors, and guess that the king must be relieving himself after a long meeting. They wait until it gets embarrassing – this is all in the text – and then finally, they use the key they’ve had all along, and discover their king dead on the floor. Meanwhile, Ehud is long gone, and the Israelites are emboldened to invade and subdue Moab, killing, as the text says, 10,000 Moabites.
And the cycle of violence continues.
In the days when the judges ruled, that was the nature of the relationship between Israel and Moab. And now, should anyone ask, Yes, you have heard that story in a sermon. And again, I’m sorry, and You’re welcome.
Ruth chapter 1, verse 1: “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah (Israel) went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.”
Almost five years ago this was the story for our Coming of Age youth. As we discussed it, I wrote a little family tree on the board. We can just imagine it.
The father and mother Elimeleck and Naomi are at the top. And then below them we have the two sons Mahlon and Chilion. We can imagine this family in their hometown of Bethlehem as food supplies dwindle, desparate for survival. We can imagine them joining the caravans of neighbors leaving their homes and village, following rumors of bread and land available in Moab. When you’re hungry, you go where there’s food. People have always done this. After they arrive we are told, without further detail, that Elimeleck dies, and so we put an X through his name. The sons marry Moabite women, and so we add Orpah and Ruth alongside them on our family tree. And then the sons die. We cross them off.
Naomi is the only one left of the original family, living in a foreign land with her foreign daughers-in-law.
She has lost her past – her homeland, and in that culture, her future - these sons who would be her economic providers.
There’s nothing left for Naomi in Moab, and she intends to return home to her people in Bethlehem a desolate woman.
But… Ruth the Moabite stays with her, despite the urging of Naomi for Ruth to go back to her father and mother’s house and get a fresh start to her young life. And not just stays, but the word used here is that Ruth clung to Naomi. It’s the same word used back in Genesis that a man will leave his father and mother’s house and cling to his wife as they become one flesh in marriage.
Rather than leaving Naomi and starting over, Ruth pledges herself to Naomi. It’s such a beautiful display of covenantal love that we sometimes read Ruth’s words at weddings. “Where you go I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people. Where you die, I will die.”
This, the rabbis have noted, is the key theme of Ruth. Covenantal love. The kind of love God displays for people. A single Hebrew word which appears as three hyphenated words in the sermon title: Persistent-Loving-Kindness.” Ruth would have known how vulnerable the aging Naomi would have been, perhaps unlikely to even make it back alive to Bethlehem on her own. She knows the strength of her own body to protect and provide, and she, through her own free will, binds herself as a companion to Naomi for life, guided by the Hebrew ideal of Persistent-Loving-Kindness. Ruth, lest we forget, is one of those Moabites. Chapter 1 verse 22. “And so Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came back to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”
Out of loss and hardship, Ruth and Naomi form a mutual bond. As the story continues, they each benefit the other as they find their way through this world neither of them could have anticipated. Naomi provides a home for Ruth. Ruth provides security for Naomi through one of the social safety net practices of ancient Israel. The Torah commands the harvesters to save the edges of the field for the poor, and to leave behind what is dropped in the collection of grain. Ruth gleans the remnants of the barley harvest in the fields of Boaz, and brings the grain – food - home to Naomi. Naomi provides a partner for Ruth by helping her navigate her way into Boaz’s favor. Ruth helps her own chances with an unusually forward move of coming to Boaz at night while he’s resting on the threshing floor. The details of that encounter get a bit lost in the dark, so commentators have been using their imagination ever since. Ruth provides a descendant for Naomi through Boaz. Their child Obed becomes the father of Jesse who becomes the father of David, a beloved king of Israel.
Through the Persistent-Loving-Kindness of Ruth and Naomi, the family tree sprouts new and vital branches. Not only for that family, but for the whole family of Israel. And not only for the family of Israel, but for us who are the spiritual descendants of Ruth.
She reappears in the first chapter of the New Testament, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Ruth is an ancestor of Jesus. Jesus had some Moab flowing through his veins. Jesus was an inheritor of the Persistent-Loving-Kindness passed down through bone and story of his people. And so are we.
The book of Ruth has long been recognized as a counter story. It’s a counter to those cycles of violence detailed in the book of Judges. It was perhaps written as a direct counter to the much later story of the Priest Ezra who commanded the men of Judah who had returned from exile to divorce their foreign wives and send them away.
Remember Ruth the Moabite, this story seems to be saying. We would not be who we are without her. Remember her Pesistent-Loving-Kindness, a Divine quality that transcends location and identity. Remember her holy partnership with Naomi from Bethlehem.
This week we have been mindful that Bethlehem is a real place with real people living there. The distance is made closer when we consider our Jewish and Arab friends in the US, when we hear stories from folks in this congregation who have visited that land.
To end this violence it’s going to take some brave leadership, much more creative than left handed Ehud or King Eglon could muster. We can urge our own government in that direction. We can also tell a better story than military retaliation can ever tell. I’m not sure whether you identify more with Ruth or Naomi in this story, but whichever it is, find the other one. It will involve crossing a border of whatever kind. Find a Ruth. Find a Naomi. Bind yourself to that person in some meaningful form of lasting relationship. Practice Persistent-Loving-Kindness, which is the only way we all get through this together.
I’d like to end by reading a Facebook post from a US Mennonite pastor friend, Amy Yoder McGloughlin, who was leading a Community Peacemaker Team delegation when the violence broke out and was on lock down earlier this week with her group in Bethlehem, a Palestinian town. It’s a good example of how someone in her position of privilege is forming bonds across boundaries, and how Persistent-Loving-Kindness is being practiced by those even in a warzone.
Amy wrote this on Monday of this week, and she did arrive safely home on Friday:
Made it through West Bank checkpoints and we are in East Jerusalem now. Passport privilege is a real thing, and I feel icked out about it. My beloveds in Bethlehem and Hebron can't get out, but because I have that precious blue passport, I'm good to get out? Hardly fair.
There is not enough ink to write about all the amazing people who have helped us in the last few days. I don't deserve the extreme measures that people have taken to get me somewhere with no thought to their own needs. This morning, when I was walking through Bethlehem, strangers offered to help me with whatever I needed. Later, an entire family raced me and my delegation to checkpoints, and wouldn't leave until they knew we were in a cab on the other side (a cab they arranged, by the way).
I'm relieved to be in Jerusalem, with fewer obstacles to the airport. But, my heart is still on the other side of that checkpoint.
I believe our hearts, by the grace of Divine loving kindness, are big enough to be in our bodies and to be on the other side of check points with friends, and strangers. Ruth and Naomi remind us this is an old story, a holy story, that still persists.