The book of Ruth is many things. Among them are ‘misunderstood,’ ‘underappreciated,’ ‘forgotten,’ and ‘abused.’ Also among them are ‘inspired,’ ‘powerful,’ ‘wise,’ and ‘one of my favorite books of the Bible.’
This is not the place to learn contextual insights or study deeply about what the book means. If you want to do that, I highly recommend Carolyn Custis James’ book The Gospel of Ruth.
What I invite you to do here is to experience Ruth. You may learn some things along the way, but truly, I want to allow you to live the story as fully and richly as possible.
These are not essays on Ruth, nor are they sermons. They are meditations. Orient yourself toward God and rest in the Spirit. Listen to the words as they wash over you, and allow them to reach deep into your being and form you.
Perhaps you may find God, if you listen closely.
Below is the first of four audio recordings, each focused on one of the chapters of the book of Ruth. All you have to do is rest and allow your imagination, the words, and the Spirit to do their work.
If you prefer to read and reflect, the transcript is posted below.
Ruth 1 Meditation
It is during the time after Israel has taken the Promised Land and there has never yet been a king, the time of the judges, the time when everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes rather than what is right in the eyes of Yahweh. A famine strikes the land.
One man [yes, every story worth telling is about a man, isn’t it?] leaves his family’s inheritance, the land allotted to him by divine decree in the time of Moses. [imagine the desperation, perhaps even the sense of God’s betrayal]
He leaves his home in Bethlehem [yes, that name should be significant to you], and he takes his wife and two sons to live in the land of Israel’s Baal-worshiping enemies, the spawn of Lot’s incest, Moab. [The desperation is tangible. Feel it in your body]
His name is Elimelech, which means “God is King.” [It sure doesn’t seem that way, does it?] His wife’s name is Naomi, which means, “My delight.” Elimelech’s two sons are named Mahlon, which means “Sick,” and Chilion, which means “Pining.” [Imagine a situation that might lead a mother to name her children those names.]
Elimelech and his family are from Bethlehem in Judah, and they go to Moab, and they settle there. [Going to escape a famine might be desperation, but deciding to make it your new home? Imagine feeling motivated to do that in a place like Moab.]
This is how the story starts.
Or is it? Naomi’s husband, our protagonist, dies. So this is how the story ends. [how does it feel to end at the beginning? How does it feel to continue on after the end of everything you expected?]
Naomi is left in the care of her two sons who, thank God, are here to carry on the family line. They dutifully take wives, Moabite women. One is named Orpah, which means “Gazelle,” and the second is named Ruth, which means “friendship.” [Imagine women who embody such names. What are they like?]
Now they’ve lived in Moab for 10 years. [in Moab for ten years!]
Now that we’re really getting started… no, wait. Mahlon and Chilion both die. Nevermind.
Naomi is all alone. No husband, no sons, completely forsaken.
She is alone, and destitute, and without any ability to earn an income or even own, well, anything, in this hyper-patriarchal culture that makes Mosaic laws about people buying and selling child wives seem equitable. She’s alone without a husband, without sons, and she’s in Moab.
[Feel the despair.]
She gets an idea, and she and her daughters-in-law get ready to leave Moab. She has heard a rumor that God has again provided food for his people in Judah. She and her two daughters-in-law leave where she has been living, and they travel along the long road back to the Land of Judah. [Imagine leaving in desperation to return to the place you left in desperation. You’re going home, but you’ve lost everything, with no hope of ever rebuilding a life of anything more that utter poverty, no chance of anything else.]
Knowing she can’t allow anyone else to join her fate, not with long lives ahead of them, she stops and tells them, wisely and compassionately, “Each of you go back to your mother’s home. May Yahweh, [which means “The one who is”] show faithful love [hesed] to you as you have shown faithful love to the dead and to me. May Yahweh enable each of you to find security in the house of a new husband.” She knows a new husband is the only way to secure a future for a woman in their culture. She kisses them goodbye, and they all weep uncontrollably.
They both, showing Naomi’s appraisal of their characters to be true, protest. “No!” they say, “We will go with you to your people.”
But no, “Go back home, daughters,” she says. “Why would you want to go with me? Can I have any more sons to be your husbands? I can’t provide anything for you. Go home, my daughters.” She manages to push out through tears, “Go. I’m too old. It’s too late for me to find a man. Even if I could, even if I even thought there might be any hope of finding a husband, and then manage to have more sons, at my age, what about you? Would you hang around waiting for my impossible baby boys to grow up to take care of you? Would you just stay widowed? No no no. My path is hopeless. My life is too bitter for you to share because Yahweh has turned his bitter anger against me. [Feel the thin layer between you and breaking down completely.]
The three women weep loudly beside the road. Orpah, loving her mother-in-law but knowing she’s right, kisses her goodbye, still crying, and takes the road back the way they had come, back to her own family.
But Ruth embraces her, clings to her. With the bittersweet anguish of love and despair, Naomi looks her in the eye and says, “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her god. Follow your sister-in-law.”
But Ruth is inspired, and faithful love [hesed] forms words on her lips:
“Do not persuade me to leave you / or go back and not follow you. / For wherever you go, I will go, / and where you live, I will live; / your people will be my people, /and your God will be my God. / Where you die, I will die, / and there I will be buried. / May Yahweh punish me, / and do so severely / if anything but death separates you and me.”
Naomi realizes Ruth is committed, not just to her but to Yahweh and God’s ways, and she stops trying to get her to go back to Moab.
Naomi and Ruth travel all the way to Bethlehem together. When they enter Bethlehem, the whole town is excited about them, and the local women exclaim, “Is it really you, Naomi?”
“Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara [which mean’s “bitter”] she retorts. “the All-powerful God has made me utterly bitter. Even in the middle of a famine, I was full when I left, but Yahweh has brought me back empty. Why would you call me Naomi, “my delight,” when Yahweh has judged me bitterly, the All-powerful God has punished me.”
This is how, after all this time, Naomi comes back from Moab with her daughter-in-law Ruth, the Moabitess.
They arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.