What does one do when all chaos breaks out, when everything collapses to hell, when all hope and joy is yanked low and hanged?
Where can Haitians in the midst of over 200,000 dead and a million homeless find hope and joy? Where can the wife who just lost her husband in a terrible wreck or to cancer ever find meaning and hope?
The Book of Ruth starts out in such deep tragedy. The story is set at the time of the judges (probably a better translation of that for contemporary understanding is "chieftains") when as Scripture says, everyone "did what was right in his own eyes." Judges 17:6 That phrase says so much of the evil that was in the land. When everyone lives by subjectivism, not transcendent values, but only by their own culture's mores or their own wants or ideas, look out.
Furthermore, "there was a famine in the land." Elimelech and Naomi leave their country for Moab--the despised enemy country across the river. And then it gets much worse for the couple, Elimelech dies--doesn't say how. And then Naomi's young sons die too.
The story-teller is setting us up for truth she wants to share. Notice (as I mentioned last week) that the author of the book has given allegorical/parabolic names to the characters and places. Her home where the famine comes is Bethelehem which in Hebrew means "house of bread." How ironic!
Naomi's two sons who die are Mahlon ("illness") and Chilion ("cessation").* Naomi means "sweetness," before the tragedies. When she returns home bereft and hopeless, she says call me "Mara" ("bitter"). So not only has she suffered greatly, but she is bitter about her lot in life. And she, like so many humans past and present, blames God.
In our own time countless famous American leaders have given God the credit for everything from war to disease to catastrophe, as do even insurance documents: This policy insures you except for acts of God--meaning flood, earthquake, etc. God is left holding the bag of wind, is caught opening Pandora's box, is the destroyer, the master puppeteer who majors in destruction. So the story goes, in the Book of Ruth and for countless religious people even to this day.
But that's the bad news.
What about the good news?
Enter Ruth and Orpah. They plan to return with Naomi/Mara to the House of Bread. But then Naomi/Mara tells them her life is over and that they should stay in Moab and make new lives for themselves. Both Orpah and Ruth genuinely care for Naomi/Mara, but finally Orpah goes back (her name literally means "back of the neck," meaning "back-turner."*
In contrast, Ruth clings to Naomi/Mara and refuses to leave.
Let's cut to the end quickly--ie give you the short version (what my wife's always asks of me when I start talking;-)
It is intriguing and refreshing that in the Jewish Bible, which usually focuses on men's exploits and faith journeys, that the book of Ruth was included: a story where at this point, no men are involved; they're dead. This instead is a story of women, about a woman's initiative, a woman's commitment, a woman's loyalty, a woman's humbleness, a woman's hard work , a woman's ingenuity, a woman's...well, you get the point. Too bad that Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and other religious groups which still deny women equality with men don't.
While there has been much questionable allegorizing of Scripture since St. Paul and Origen, the book of Ruth does appear to be an allegorical story.
Ruth represents the true follower of truth, the friend who sticks closer than a sister. Indeed, her name "Ruth" probably, etymologically, means "companion, friend." It's not that Orpah isn't a nice person; she isn't a dabbler or fair-weather friend; but when all goes to Hell, she is the one who finally leaves, looking for a better life.
In contrast, Ruth's commitment is to death, loyalty without end: "for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die..."
One point: in relationships with others, and, of course, ultimately in following God, we should give our whole heart and commit totally--no matter how terrible the circumstances.
In the Light,
*Quoted again from Brettler