Beginning with Ruth the Moabitess

January 1st 2021

“The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”

Genesis 3:20 ESV In a footnote we are told that Eve sounds like the Hebrew for life-giver and resembles the word for living.

Is our direction in life determined by a significant choice or particular pivotal events? One of my leaders once observed, giving credit to a certain author, that a destiny is actually forged through daily choices- repeated, persistent, consistent day-after-day choices with determination. Another brother taught me to say, ‘Its not what happens but how you respond!’

Its not so much the first choice that we make that is the crucial one, although we must determine to set off in a particular direction. Rather, its in the follow-up steps that we find the real tests. This is the trade off between the radical new and the traditional old. On New Year’s Day we toy with the radically New, but any such new will not come about unless it is absorbed into our habits- which are then, by definition, old! “I did this yesterday, and I’m going to keep doing it tomorrow. And the Day after that.” This is the lesson of both pregnancy and nurturing. It only takes one Day and one Act to conceive a child, but then that unformed Thing must be constantly nourished through continuous dynamic interconnection. If this relationship breaks down from either side, then what was potential will be stillborn. Such is the fate of so many resolutions for change, missions aborted at any time before the ideal has become independently real. It takes more than a vision and passion to bring a new life into full becoming. I try to communicate something of this to my young students in classroom lessons on reproduction, as so much lies beyond the bare objective facts of biology. There’s being a parent, and then there’s becoming a Parent. Not the same thing at all! When God seeks to co-create family with us, this is not in the same order of instinctive collecting together as we find in a shoal of fish, a brood of chicks or a herd of goats. Both are indeed the results of the blessing expressed in ‘Go forth and multiply and fill the earth!’ Though the divine blessings pronounced on animals and people sound so similar, God’s humans are not mere brutes, however blessed our neighbour creatures are in God’s economy. There is an enduring quality of love that is required to bring a child once born to full Life, and so also our dreams and visions require a sustaining diet beyond the basic categories of sufficient energy and ‘five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.’

Ruth 1 ESV

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them.

For Elimelech and his wife Naomi, the signposts at the fork in the road seemed clear enough. In order to survive, they chose to leave the land of promise fulfilled on a temporary basis- for a sojourn, our text says. They fully intend to return, once the famine passes. This is a constructive response to an acute challenge of circumstances. It was a choice made by the family of Abraham several times in Genesis, fleeing from famine to various destinations. This narrator makes no comment about the moral status of Moab as a suitable stop over for God’s covenant people. Its where there is food, and so its a suitable place to form a family. Two families, in fact: each of the sons marries a girl from the local population, and everything seems to be going along just fine.

What are the circumstances of the death of Elimelech, and then of his two sons? We are not told. We are simply alerted to the simple fact that Naomi was ‘in the field,’ and left to surmise that she was scratching around for grains or whatever else there could be to eat. News has reached Naomi that there is now fruitfulness in the land of Judah again, which is the result of the particular blessing of God, we are told. The question as to why a famine happened in the first place is not addressed. Our attention is drawn to Naomi’s decision. Now its time to return to my homeland. And her thinking is not a chain of reasoning reduced to simplistic survival. In her conversation with her daughters-in-law, as the narration makes plain, the collective concerns of ancestry, land, community and the Transcendent are all in consideration- explicitly and actively so in Naomi’s mind and words. She is not acting as an animal but as an imager of YHWH. To Orpah and Ruth she says that their bonds to their own mothers can still be real; the ‘house’ they came from continues to have significance. They have a ‘people’ of which they can still be part, though it is quietly acknowledged that the gods of that community are not the same as Naomi’s covenant God. Naomi continues to address these young [childless?] widows as her ‘daughters-in-law’ despite the fact that their menfolk are no more. Orpah is still Ruth’s sister-in-law, says Naomi, though they have no remaining blood ties. By such threads the life bonds of these women are all interlinked and intertwined, and not thoughtlessly broken. Everything is connected, which is what the tripartite model of the biblical worldview really demonstrates. And this is not all: in Naomi’s thinking as an imager of God, even death does not lie beyond the proper boundaries of godly thinking. Though she states that her two sons are dead, Naomi refers (v8) to the love each wife showed to her passed sons and in the same breath as their continuing love for her. This is the mindset that Ruth embraces in v17: ‘I will die in the same place as you; I will be buried in the ground in the same place as you, and I will only part from you under the eyes of your God through human death.’ In these profound words the scripture holds death within this present worldview and yet bracketed, with a question mark. Just as Genesis closes with a hint at a question: why tell us that Joseph was buried in a box1 in Egypt in its very last sentence? In God’s economy, however mysterious it may seem, we are invited to embrace the hope than endings may not be so final after all.

In all these things we see that Naomi, her own heart heavy and still with great empathy with others, reasons with and cajoles her two widowed daughters-in-law to return to their home land and find new husbands, to restart their lives and perhaps enjoy better fortunes. Difficult questions could be asked of God. ‘Why did you allow these things to happen to us?!’ But what is thought is left unspoken or implicit. God is hidden in mystery behind these happenings. Naomi cannot see sense in them. Neither would we. Such is our collective life. Yet as Naomi opens possible futures before them, only one of the women chooses to turn back. While Naomi has firmly resolved on her own path, she sees alternative options for Orpah and Ruth. Twice she remonstrates with them: how much persuading did Orpah endure before she changed her mind? Make no mistake, this tale is not the simple trope of two contrasted individuals, one faithful and one unfaithful. I sense in this testimony a deep friendship and understanding between these three women; Orpah was fully committed to accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem to start a new life. I think it would be wrong to assert that Orpah gives up when she finally heeds her mother-in-law’s advice: Naomi has offered her a vision of new possibilities, along with a mindset to equip her to grasp it positively. This is life, and she says ‘Yes’ to it.

If Orpah’s decision is a positive one, on which she can build on hope for the rest of her days, how much more so is Ruth’s resolution (v14). Ruth clings to Naomi, and therefore to all that Naomi embodies in her life and faith. Naomi represented YHWH in Moab, whether she realised it or not, and now Ruth maintains her commitment to this woman who has opened her eyes to a quality of life that she will not give up. We see the unexpected consequences of this in the following chapters. Ruth cannot know that her sticking at it in her relationship with Naomi and her home community will lead to a part in the ancestry of the kings David and Solomon, and then Jesus the Christ. Nor will she know that we can appreciate her example in the life of discipleship that will lead Simon Peter to say to his Lord, ‘To whom shall we go?’ when he was asked if he wanted to leave. (Luke 6:68) Sticking with God’s people implies sticking with God, and having a part in shaping the eternal future before which various circumstances vanish as the morning mist.

This is a man’s world
This is a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing
Nothing without a woman or a girl

It’s Man’s Man’s World by James Brown and the Famous Flames.

So what might be said about the current big social issues discussion about gender and equality in regard to this chapter? I have discovered that a high temperature debate can be generated around particular bible passages that may be thought to lend themselves to a topical feminist treatment. Is this a fruitful text over which to proclaim, “Down with the patriarchy!”?

I think I have learned that it is a grave error to try to impose modern cultural categories onto the biblical texts. If you are following my other writings in this blog, you will detect that I got burned doing just that with questions of science and the doctrine of Creation. One of my reasons for writing this blog is to explore in public what better reading and thinking strategies might be, to save others from falling into the same holes. I hope I now have at least one good eye to qualify as a guide.

So first of all- its not a man’s man’s world; this world is God’s God’s World. That’s the biblical worldview, which Genesis for starters and the whole scripture makes plain, though we may not have been listening carefully enough. God determined to make the World as Godself willed it and spoke it into being. Once made, Genesis tells us, God then determined to gift it over to God’s human creatures, to God’s ‘adamah God’s personally and intimately formed humanity, male and female as one. That is what the ‘adamah is- collective, not the singular personal man ‘Adam’ who emerges gradually throughout the opening verses. No one owns the world, because it already has a Sovereign Owner and God is keeping the gift-deeds. If we choose to argue, then we must argue with the Creator2 who made it and keeps it. It is true that we do argue, but that does not make such a view a biblical one. Its merely a hijacking.

It is further evident, following Genesis 3, that the nature of the relationship between men and women is spoilt by human sinfulness. God is spoken of in mysterious ways as reshaping this relationship as a result, and/or redescribing it, but it is unclear where the boundary lines are between formation and description. What are we to make of ‘rule over’ in this context- is that description or decree? Whatever the answer we give, it is plain that God, on God’s own account, does treat men and women far more equally than has often been the case in human society, (which all too often has meant the people in church, and their leaders.) I have discussed examples of this in my blog, and there is more to come. Let’s round off this point by recalling that Paul commends husbands to imitate Christ’s example in serving their wives in love. This is what the imaging YHWH, ruling-as-God-rules thing should look like, and this is just one of the social paradigm-shifting keys that the book of Ephesians opens to us all.

The critique of James Brown’s lyric must not be allowed to stand as a straw man argument against a well rounded biblical worldview. We must work harder for a holistic appraisal of the multifaceted relationships between the genders, within and beyond the biblical accounts. Just because such-and-such a thing is in the bible does not mean God approves of it. That should be a truism, but sadly its not. Surely there are some challenging examples that could be mentioned, but Jesus’ relationships with women throughout the gospels are attested in sufficient detail to show us what sorts of changes God expects God’s people to make in their behaviours and attitudes.

As for my specific thesis, it is abundantly clear in Ruth 1 that God’s intention is to be co-creator with women as well as men, and at times to work with and through women completely independently of menfolk, in any and every nation or community of people. Such co-working stands into eternity and is not subject to revision.

But everything is connected and there cannot be any success in the attempt to draw out reductionist principles, pitching one gender against another, or dividing society into groups. This would be a misuse of the useful ideology of science and its methods. Naomi’s discourses in this passage demonstrate the great power there is- the emergent fruitfulness- in considering all factors in concert with each other. And on that basis each individual can make a decision with integrity that enhances their self esteem and as a result of which the whole community can be enriched. Our society becomes bigger as it expresses fruitfulness beyond the sum of its individual parts.

The interconnected nature of my tripartite modelling leads me to these conclusions. Naomi knows that she has freedom to choose, and meaningfully so, but not all things are available for her to choose between. You can’t argue with the past. Our husbands are all dead. “God knows why…” Second, you can’t argue with time and age- tweak them a little maybe, but only a little. ‘Even if I gave birth today, would you wait for my sons to grow up to be your new husbands?!’ Such a possibility is no longer culturally appropriate, but Naomi’s point is also- its too long to wait!

My next point, by extension, is about biology. Naomi is very clear and straightforward (v12-13). We accept that the peoples of that time had no detailed scientific understanding of the means of conception, regarding microscopic gametes and the changes in menopause, but Naomi’s account would not cause embarrassment in my classroom today. The fact is that the human race goes on because we have children, and its women who carry and give birth to them. Not men. Is it prosaic to point out that this is a useful principle to draw out of this passage? This chapter is not an account of a scientific experiment- that’s a category mistake! But there is something analogous to that going on, if we will. Here is a scenario where all the menfolk have been removed. Let’s see what happens when you do that. Does everything fall apart? No. Do the women loose their agency; their powers of reason, their ability to choose, their will to resolve in what ways they will rule themselves and their shared futures? Absolutely not. But only within limits, including limits of biology and time. Is it worth labelling these as ‘existential realities’? With our very newly found capacities in reproductive medicine, we can tweak these realities a little more, but only so far. Gender is still a meaningful category, and we must not expect science to be the arbiter of our options. We humans will do better when we decide together, and Naomi’s example leads the way in making an holistic judgement, whereas science is simply one discipline among many that are vital to our considerations.

If we keep reading, we find what happens after Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem. We are given a fascinating cultural study as Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions regarding how she might find a husband in this society that is significantly different to the one she has left behind. We discover how Boaz and the other characters explore and exercise their own agency. It might be felt that much of the focus moves to the men, onto Boaz and the kinsman redeemer, the male-dominated meeting of elders at the town gate, and so on. Or we might wonder that Ruth’s significance fades as she is absorbed into the male lineage to David and the Son of David. But these are choices of our reading and analysis. The whole comes together as more than the sum of its parts.

So finally, we should be left in no doubt that Naomi and Ruth can both grow into the vision of God for human beings which is first set out in Genesis. It is not the singular male man ‘Adam’ who is first made, but the ‘adamah. From this wonderful and mysterious beginning the humans are formed equally and severally into the imagers-of-God, which is true for women as it is for men. At the same time, Adam was right, of course. In the final act of naming in the Genesis creation account, he named ‘Eve’, confessing his realisation that his wife (alone) would become the mother- the very creative source- of all the living. As a gendered species, our roles are not equal. And because this is God’s Book about God’s peoples, we should watch out for the ways in which the eventual outcomes are more than could be humanly expected. That is because the One in whose image all the various people are made is also present, and even given the constraints and circumstances we have considered, the boundary lines turn out to have fallen in much more pleasant places than we anticipate. But the question of boundaries is one we should consider as a community, as families, as Church, not merely as individuals. As we start this next decade, we can now reflect together on how we might go forward, together, to consider the options we can exercise within the constraints we do have before us, and like Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, resolve with determination in which ways we will go, and Whom we will cling to.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

  • 1 Watch out for a future post on Joseph’s coffin!
  • 2 I will park the matter of English pronouns here for another day. Referring to God as He is an artefact of translation into the English language, so you will note that I opt for ‘Godself’ rather than ‘Himself’ to avoid this pitfall. The effects of the historical use of male pronouns for God is deeply embedded in our culture, and it will take much to rectify the fallout from this, some of which may well be a justifiable target for feminist critique.
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Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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