1 During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. 2 The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.
3 But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. 4 They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.
5 But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.
6 Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. 7 She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.
8 Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. 9 May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
10 But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”
11 Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? 12 Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”
14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. 15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it. (Ruth 1:1-18 Common English Bible (CEB)Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible)
It was the worst of times.
No food. Famine in the land. They watched friends and family starve to death. Living in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, was no longer possible. They learned that the country of Moab was doing well. Refugees were headed that way, crossing difficult territory to arrive.
They had to think twice about this. Moab was a sworn, longtime enemy of Israel. In the end, their hungry bellies drove them to pack up and leave.
We can only imagine life in Moab for them. It would have been difficult because of both their immigrant status and they were sworn enemies. However, it appears they were at least minimally welcomed. They settled in and made a life for themselves. Their sons found Moabite wives and, for a time, there was peace in their lives.
Then the worst of the worst of times. Naomi’s husband died. Widows don’t fare well in the time of the judges. At least she has her sons to rely on. Then they die. We don’t know if it was illness, or the result of a hate crimes. Naomi won’t survive long.
Word arrives that the famine in Israel has passed. It won’t be an easy trip, and life in Israel will be difficult, but she wants to be home. She stands a better chance of surviving in Bethlehem than in Moab.
She talks Orpah into staying in Moab. There’s nothing more Naomi can do for her daughters-in-law. They stand a better chance in their mother’s homes where they might be able to marry again.
She didn’t reckon on Ruth’s tenacity.
“I refuse to abandon you. I’m going with you. I’ll live with you, I’ll die with you and be buried in your land.”
There’s more to this vow. She turns to the God of Israel and denounces her former religious faith. Naomi’s God is Ruth’s God. She leaves behind her Moabite culture and applies for citizenship in Israel.
This vow is rich with the Hebrew “hesed.” In a few words, it means loyalty, faithfulness and loving-kindness. These words only begin to describe true hesed.
Hesed is a result of a bonding moment. Ruth has tied herself to Naomi and to Naomi’s land and culture and religion. Ruth vows to never dessert her, never forget her.
“Ruth” means “friend.” This foreign, widowed, enemy woman, stays with Naomi as death pursues the women. There are no sons to care for them, so Ruth will step in and care for them both.
Hesed. It’s a unique concern for someone you know well: a family member, a close friend. It’s an action that rescues the other from a desperate situation. Hesed is performed by a person uniquely qualified to do what is needed.
God shows us hesed often. God is in a unique relationship with us and knows us better than we know ourselves. God rescues and cares for us in desperate times. God is uniquely qualified to provide for our needs.
God shows hesed by acting through an outsider. Ruth responds with amazing fidelity to both God and Naomi.
God isn’t mentioned much in the book of Ruth, but God is definitely active. God acts in terms of reversals: an outsider caring for Naomi; a husband to redeem them and provide a child to inherit Elemilich’s estate; this child will be the father of David, ancestor of Jesus.
Strange, isn’t it? Of all the people in all the land, God calls an outsider, lowly, widowed, stranger and enemy to bring about redemption. God chooses the outsider to model for us loyalty and devotion. And Jesus’ family tree has a mixed race branch.
Strange, isn’t it? That God calls on the outsider, the enemy, the excluded to bring about God’s redemption.
I love the story of Ruth. The two women make their way through life, securing redemption. Ruth’s barrenness will end. Death leads to rebirth.
I can’t help but wonder. Who are the Boaz’s today? Where are the Ruth’s and Naomi’s? Perhaps walking toward the U.S. seeking asylum.
If so, what do we do? How can we respond responsibly and faithfully?
What does hesed look like today?
All glory and honor be to God.