November 1, 2018
Why is the lectionary (assigned readings for Eucharist) covering the book of Ruth before covering the history of the Kings of early Israel beginning next week?
The Book of Ruth is the story of King David's great grandmother, a Moabite woman who attaches herself to the people and god of her in-laws rather than her own. It is a somewhat complicated story, which is included in the histories of the Hebrew Bible when it is in a Christian Bibles but among the other writings in the Tanakh. It is a wonderful story and Ruth is considered part of the family tree of the King of Israel from David onward, which in and of itself is interesting.
First the story part. The Book of Ruth is set in between the time of the Judges and the time of the Kings of Israel. Samuel the last of the judges may be in place, but it is likely the story occurs before his judgeship. A famine occurs in Judah and a Bethlehemite named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, and his two sons, Mahon and Chilion, move to Moab to survive. There they remained. Then, Elimelech died, so Naomi was supported by their sons. Because they were now resident aliens in Moab, Mohan, and Chilion married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then, the sons died. Here they were, three women in a rural environment in ancient Moab with no male support or protector. What to do?
Naomi leaves for her people, but not before encouraging her daughters-in law to return to their people. It took some convincing, but Orpah finally resolves to go home to her parents. Ruth, on the other hand, insists on staying with Naomi and asserts her loyalty and faith: "Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you will lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God!" This is truly a love story, a different one. Here the focus is on a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law and God and the love they bear for each other. In the King James version, this was one of its most quoted passages because of its beauty and its subject matter.
There is a man in the story. His name is Boaz, the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, future King of Israel. He is a relative of Naomi on Elimelech's side and he becomes the protector and husband of Ruth, an act of love, if not romance (though it could be romantic too), after meeting Ruth while she is gleaning wheat (the leavings of the harvest which God assigns to the poor) and takes her to himself on the threshing floor (read chapter 3).
It is too bad this reading is often passed over now, primarily because it is assigned to the Sunday when all Saints Day is observed when November 1 does not fall on a Sunday. As a story Ruth is packed with interesting details: the fragile nature of rural existence, especially for women; the reality that in its formative years, the people of God were less racially focused than they would become after the Babylonian exile; how important family ties were in survival, how grace is part of the Old Testament as well as the New; how we in the Church set up the story of 1&2 Samuel to emphasize further, the importance of David. The Book of Ruth is four chapters long and well worth the read.