It has been said that good things come in small packages. The same applies to speeches and books. Abraham Lincoln didn’t think his 272 word Gettysburg Address would be remembered, and yet we recite “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Declaration of Independence is less than 1500 words and yet after 244 years we are still trying to live up to its ideals. In the next few weeks, we will be looking at some of the Bible’s shortest and most neglected books – Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Song of Songs, Philemon, and James – and discovering that within these short books are found great messages.
Ruth is more than a love story or a feel good Hallmark movie. Within its four brief chapters and 2309 words, we can find a message for the ages. Once upon a time, there was a great famine in the lands surrounding Bethlehem, whose name translates “house of bread,” and Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons left their homeland and crossed the border into Moab. Like most immigrants, they didn’t want to go, but they wanted to survive and build a better life for their children.
The peoples of Moab and Isael didn’t like one another. They had a history of conflict, and while we don’t know what the Moabites thought of Hebrews, the Hebraic peoples saw the Moabites as dishonest and violent thugs, and their women had loose morals. Still, Naomi and Elimelech migrated to Moab and assimilated, their boys becoming “dreamers,” as we would say today, more Moabite than Hebraic. Though the parents didn’t like it at first, the boys, Mahlon and Chilion, married two Moabite girls Ruth and Orpah, and settled down to raise a family. Yet, before the patter of little feet could be heard, Elimelech and the two boys died, leaving all three women widows and childless.
Naomi has heard that the famine has finally ended in Bethlehem, and now without ties she decides to return home, with no resources, except a plot of land that had belonged to their family. She tries to send both daughters-in-law away but Ruth refuses, and states:
Where you go, I will go.
Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.
The trouble is that Ruth is a foreigner, no doubt looked down upon and judged as a sinner because she lost her husband and was childless, not to mention a threat to the economy and, as the stereotype goes, a woman of bad character from a nation of thugs and liars.
The action speeds up. Ruth gleans in the fields of a wealthy and eligible bachelor Boaz, they both like each other, Naomi schemes to deepen their relationship (it’s a matter of survival as well as love), Ruth acts, Boaz reciprocates, and eventually marries Ruth, who gives birth to a boy who is the grandfather of the great King David, and an ancestor of Jesus. Imagine that – King David is the great grandchild of a foreigner, the greatest king is of mixed race ancestry.
Scholars ponder why Ruth made it into the Bible. There’s not much theology, no ethical pronouncements, no rules, or laws. God never explicitly shows up. But the message is clear: immigrants are important to God and are essential to the wellbeing of the nation. Without Ruth there would have been no David and without David there would have been no Israel and from the perspective of the New Testament, without Ruth and David there would have been no Jesus.
We don’t know exactly when Ruth was written, but scholars suspect it was written in response to Ezra and Nehemiah. After the elite of Judah returned from Babylon, following seventy years of exile, the Jewish leaders wanted to get things right. They wanted a strong country and they believed that Israel would be strong only if it was religiously and ethnically pure. They blamed the native, non-Jewish peoples and their religion for their nation’s defeat and exile in Babylon, and enacted a law that required every Jewish man to divorce his non-Jewish wife even if she adopted his religion.
The bible is a library of books and not just one book. Even in scripture, books contradict one another. Job challenged Deuteronomy on the problem of evil and the relationship between sin and suffering. Jesus challenged Deuteronomy as well when he was asked if a man was born blind as a result of his parents’ or his own sins. And, Ruth challenged Ezra and Nehemiah and their belief that foreigners were second class citizens, a bad influence on the nation, and dangers to the one true faith.
Ruth is more than a cute love story. Ruth reminds us that immigrants and foreigners are God’s children too. That dreamers like Ruth can change the world. That everyone is first class in God’s realm. Today, in the spirit of Ruth, let us welcome the stranger. Borders are important and need to be respected but let us affirm our neighbors regardless of where they are from, and let us support and celebrate families and children of all kinds, remembering that every person can be a messenger from