There’s a word I love in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s chesed. Chesed is faithful love. It’s not eros– erotic love. It’s not philia- like philanthropy- love of humankind in general. No, chesed looks more like agape love, the love of God. Chesed is love in action, love not giving up, love not letting go. Chesed is downright stubborn!
The book of Ruth is all about this faithful, loyal, stubborn love. God is there in the background of the book of Ruth, but there is never a divine intervention: No Exodus when God leads God’s people in a pillar of cloud by day and a fiery pillar by night. No burning bush; no miracle. There’s just… Ruth. (who, by the way, is the only woman mentioned in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures!)A foreign woman who has married into a Jewish family when they were fleeing from starvation.
Back before Ruth, there was just Naomi, her husband Elimelech and her two sons, Chilion and Mahlon. They were natives of Bethlehem in Judea. Bethlehem has an interesting history. Its name literally means “House of Bread.” In 10 generations, it will be the home of King David; 1500 years later, it will be the birthplace of Jesus.
But right now, a great famine has come upon Bethlehem. What do you do when there is no food in the House of Bread?
You leave. You become economic refugees, and go to places you would never dream of going. You even go to places where you’re not welcome, where people curse you and bar you from entering. You go to places where they call you names, and refuse you service. Places like… Moab.
The decision to flee famine is completely understandable. The decision to seek refuge in Moab is—in the biblical context—totally shocking.
- Most of biblical tradition regards the Moabites as shameful, inhospitable, and dangerous.
- After the Exodus- after escaping slavery in Egypt- the Israelites pass through the kingdom of Moab in their final approach to Canaan. The Moabites attempt to curse them. (Numbers 22-24)
- The Book of Deuteronomy teaches:
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired the prophet Balaam … to curse you … You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live” (Deuteronomy 23:3-4, 6).
That last quote from Deuteronomy is odd, biblically, since one of King David’s (and then Jesus’) ancestors is from Moab. Cursed to even the tenth generation- that would land that curse right on David’s doorstep. Makes you wonder- why does Naomi and her family flee to Moab of all places?
Why? Because they’re starving to death. It’s amazing where people will go when their lives are in danger. “Some walk miles, take risks, and cross into unfamiliar lands, attempting to survive the dangerous present and daring to hope there might be a future. Abraham and Sarah and their household flee to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan (Genesis 12: 10-2) During a later famine in Canaan, Jacob, his wives, his children, and his grandchildren relocate to Egypt (Genesis 45:9-11; 17-20).” – Solvang And then Moses and his people flee from Egypt into… a wilderness, where there is no water, no food. Nothing but the presence of God to feed them.
Why are Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Moses, and Naomi and her family fleeing? Because it is better to flee into a dangerous unknown than to face certain death in your own homeland.
When Naomi and her family get to Moab, they seem to settle in. Like immigrants here, who begin working and thriving and making lives for themselves, even if they are not welcomed by our laws.
Naomi’s two sons marry nice Moabite women- Orpah and Ruth. Her husband, Elimelech died shortly after getting to Moab, and her two sons became her protectors in a world where women were vulnerable and voiceless. She gets her sons married and on the path to successful assimilation. And then, 10 years later… her two sons die.
And now all her men are gone. It seems like trouble just dogs some families. They try and try to make a life for themselves, and then: famine, sickness, death. One right after the other.
A scholar named John Pilch writes that the word for “widow” in Hebrew means “silent one” or “one unable to speak.” In the patriarchal Mediterranean world, men alone play a public role. With some exceptions, women do not enter into business, or have legal access, or argue for their own welfare. Women do not speak on their own behalf. It’s up to their men to do that.
But Naomi and her two daughters-in-law have no men to speak for them. What will they do? Naomi has heard that the famine has left Bethlehem. She has some male relatives there who would be obligated to take her in. And so she determines to make her way back across the wilderness- without protection- to return to Bethlehem.
She and her daughters-in-law start out, but before they get very far, Naomi realizes that she is taking them to a place where they have no one. Here in Moab they can at least return to their family’s household, and their family gods. In Bethlehem, they are related to no one, and have no god.
So she tells Orpah and Ruth to go back to their family homes. Both women love Naomi, and are loathe to leave her. But eventually Orpah obeys and returns to her family home.
Ruth, however, steadfastly refuses. She clings to Naomi, and cries out, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:17)
Chesed– God’s kind of love- is active, powerful. It is love not giving up, love not letting go. Downright stubborn! And so is Ruth, refusing to turn back, adamant about claiming Naomi as her true and only family.
What would it mean for us to turn into an uncharted future out of a stubborn, willful love? When have we left all our protections, all our security to accompany one we love into the unknown?
Some of us do it when their loved one comes home with the sentence of cancer: Entering into a fearful and unknown future, because we would never dream of letting them make this journey of 4,500 miles… alone.
Some of us do it when life in our home is no longer safe, and abuse has become the norm. And we take the children we love, and the shirts on our backs, and run for our lives.
Some of us do it when our communities are overrun by drugs, by violence, by famine, by corruption that takes the very bread out of our children’s mouths. And we gather up those we love, and start on a journey that offers nothing but the hope of our children surviving to live another day.
We understand this. We understand what it means to so stubbornly love that we will leave all that is known and dear, to journey with those we love to a place where the only promise is hope. That’s what Ruth has done: set off with the one she stubbornly loves with nothing but the promise of hope.
Ruth reads like an adult fairy tale at this point. She goes to Bethlehem with Naomi, and arranges to have Naomi’s male relative, Boaz, to become quite entranced with her (that is to say, she snuck into his bed in the middle of the night, and when he awoke saying “what are you doing here?”, she replies, “convincing you to marry me!” Which, in fact, he does, and so saves both Ruth and Naomi.)
Ruth will have a son named Obed, and 10 generations later, this Moabite woman (for whom it was said that God’s curse would stay with her for 10 generations) has a great-great-great grandson named David, who would become the beloved king of Israel. And a 1500 years after David, she will become the great-great-great grandmother of Jesus, the Messiah of God.
A gritty fairy tale. A stubborn fairy tale. But in the end all works out for good.
It doesn’t always end up like that. The refugees on our borders who have left everything they know, in order to seek a life for those they love: they tell us that. Sitting and sometimes dying in detention camps, with nothing but the promise of hope.
The abused woman whose husband or significant other gets to her before her future does.
And yet, there is that stubborn love, that not-giving-up love, that not-letting-go love that marks the presence of God. And where there is God, there is hope for a life that just might become real. Because chesed, the faithful, stubborn, not-giving-up, not-letting-go love, is what God is all about.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: workingpreacher.org, Oct. 13, 2019 Narrative lectionary, Elna K. Solvang
SCRIPTURE FOR OCT. 20, 2019 Ruth 1:1-17
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man named Elimelech of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, with his wife and two sons. His wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They left Bethlehem and 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. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
So she started to return to Judah with her daughters-in-law, for she had heard that the Lord had mercy on the Jews, and given them food. So Ruth set out from the place where she had been living with her Orpah and Ruth, and they started to return to the land of Judah.
But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your 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 security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her,
“No, we will return with you to your people.”
But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters! Why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters! Go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.
Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.