“There was a famine in the land, and a certain family from Bethlehem crossed the border to live in Moab.” They were strangers in a strange land, Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons, migrating to a foreign country, most likely with scores of other Judeans. No doubt the Moabites were concerned with this influx of migrants, perhaps there was anger and violence, and some might have called it an invasion, but Naomi and Elimelech were just trying to survive. In Moab, they found a home, a life, and the two boys married Moabite girls. Their Moabite neighbors eventually accepted them as fellow citizens despite their strange ways, immigrant status and ethnicity.
A few years pass, the famine is over, and like most immigrants they want to go home. But, life has changed, by the time they hoped to set out, all three males have died, leaving three widows to fend for themselves with no resources or social safety net. Orpah returns to her parents’ home, but Ruth travels with Naomi – perhaps her parents and have died, perhaps they are without resources for another mouth to feed, perhaps in marrying a foreigner, she was disinherited.
Despite Naomi’s objection – and perhaps she knew how most Judeans felt about Moabites – Ruth joins her mother-in-law on what was most likely a caravan of Judeans returning home. Ruth is close to her mother-in-law – they are two women, who respect each other, love each other, and need each other to survive.
But, will Ruth survive? Historically, immigrants – whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Mexican, Chinese, Honduran, or German – have been maligned by those who got there before them. Historically these immigrants were described as immoral and dangerous and so it was with Moabites – they were considered lowlifes, cheats, drains on the economy, and Moabite women were viewed as particularly promiscuous.
As the story goes, Ruth catches the eye of a wealthy and well-respected landowner. He becomes her protector from the advances of unwanted males and the source of extra rations from his field. Naomi arranged for a romantic tryst during the harvest celebration when Boaz is likely in celebrative and alcohol-enhanced mood. Boaz is ensnared willingly by Ruth, seeks to marry her, arranges for nuptials, and out of their union comes a son, Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of the shepherd king, the greatest king of Israel, David of Bethlehem. Imagine that, the greatest king of Israel, mixed-raced, the great grandchild of a Moabitess.
Many scholars believe that like Job which challenges simplistic understandings of reward and punishment and suffering and success, Ruth was written to challenge the ethics and religion of the Jewish people, including their established scriptures, most particular the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, who required Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives and prohibited intermarriage with Canaanite pagans. Ruth challenged the edicts from Deuteronomy which banned meetings with Moabites and other foreigners.
Ruth is more than a love story – it is a story of immigration, women becoming agents of their destiny, and the gentle providence and expansive revelation of God. Ruth and Naomi, at different times, are immigrants and strangers in a strange land– they are siblings and forerunners of the 67 million refugees and displaced persons, most of whom have fled violence, poverty, and starvation, whether in Syria, Honduras, or Yemen. Ruth’s and Naomi’s lives are at risk in their homeland and so they venture to a strange land for survival and the hope of a better life.
The story of Ruth and Naomi remind us to follow the counsel of the author of Hebrews, “be hospitable to strangers because you may be entertaining angels unaware.”
Ruth is the story of two women of agency and adventure, who take their destinies in their own hands, setting out from Moab to Bethlehem and then securing a husband and economic well-being in a new land. They don’t wait for things to happen. They press forward, trusting that a way will be made, despite the odds against their survival. They pray, but they also act to secure their well-being.
Ruth is also a story of God’s gentle but persistent providence. God is quietly at work, guiding Naomi across the desert to Moab and then Naomi and Ruth back to Bethlehem. God is gently inspiring Naomi’s and Ruth’s plans and schemes, and urging Boaz onward toward marriage. God’s revelation is to Judea and Israel but also to the foreigner and the stranger. In welcoming strangers, we may be welcoming the parents and grandparents of a future leader, physician, inventor, poet, or scientists. In turning our backs on strangers, we may be turning our backs on God. In refusing hospitality to strangers, we are choosing to be inhospitable to God.
This past week, we remembered All Saints Day and Ruth is certainly a member of the communion of saints – in fact, she is one of only five women listed as ancestors of Jesus. If Ruth had not be welcomed in Bethlehem, would King David have been born and the nation flourish? If Ruth had been prevented from coming to Judea, would Jesus have been born as a child of Bethlehem? Who might we be welcoming or denying today? What great blessing lies hidden in the stranger and the foreigner?
Today, the Book of Ruth challenges us to welcome strangers, to ensure the survival of pilgrims, and honor the holiness of everyone we meet. Ruth reminds us that in God’s realm, regardless of how far you travel you are accompanied by God and God bids us to help create a world where all our pilgrims but none are strangers.