Ruth: the story of two women in a man's world
This is the slightly edited text of a sermon I gave on the book of Ruth on Sunday 9th July 2023. Click here for an amusing three-and-a-half minute summary of the story of Ruth. The title of this blog post is taken from a brilliant commentary on Ruth by the Old Testament scholar, Phyllis Trible.
Series three of the police drama Happy Valley was broadcast in January this year. My husband and I were somewhat late to the party with Happy Valley, bingeing all three series in a row a few months ago. [Spoiler alert]: Catherine is a police officer in her late 40s who is on the trail of a very violent man. In series one, she finds and rescues Anne, who’s been kidnapped. But during the rescue, Catherine herself is badly beaten up. Anne manages to hit Catherine’s attacker, temporarily putting him out of action, and then Anne drags Catherine up the cellar steps to safety. A little later there’s a scene where both women are sitting on some other steps talking about all they’ve been through. This scene felt really fresh and new to me, and after some reflection I realised why. These are women with agency. They’re not victims, although they’ve been badly hurt. Normally a woman who’s kidnapped in a police drama is rescued by a man, then we hear no more from her. In Happy Valley, two women rescue one another. Then after the rescue we continue to see more of Anne, as she rebuilds her life following the trauma she’s been through. Happy Valley is about two women who save each other and themselves.
Or let’s consider a different genre: the Disney cartoon Frozen. Loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen, in Frozen, Elsa accidentally puts a spell on her sister Anna. They learn that the spell can only be broken by ‘an act of true love’. They assume that Anna needs true love’s kiss, so they race to find the man Anna loves. On the way, however, Elsa is attacked and Anna steps in to protect her. The spell is broken. The act of love that saves Anna is self-sacrificing love: one sister putting herself in danger to protect the other. And it’s not something done to Anna, it’s something she does herself. Frozen is about two women who save each other and themselves.
Women have become used to stories in which we a) don’t appear b) are someone’s wife, daughter, mother, love interest and c) are saved by a man. (Look back at films you enjoyed in the 80s and 90s and you’ll see what I mean). Both Happy Valley, broadcast between 2014 and 2023, and Frozen, which came out in 2013, show us something different. And when we read the Hebrew Bible, again we find that women are usually secondary characters defined as someone’s wife, mother, sister. And much violence is done to them. If you’re feeling uncomfortable right now, yes, it is uncomfortable. The Old Testament is hard to read at times - really really hard. I’m guessing that any of us who have seriously attempted to engage with it have come across passages we’ve found deeply troubling. The men are the heroes. The women and children are their property. But it’s not the whole story. Like Happy Valley and Frozen, there are shining examples of something different. Ruth is a story of two grieving women, and how they save each other and themselves. Ruth shows us that women are not marginal to God. It shows us that grieving people are not marginal to God. It shows us that non-nuclear families are not marginal to God. It shows us that economic refugees are not marginal to God. In Ruth, marginalised people take the spotlight.
Company in bitterness
People who are deeply sad sometimes feel they have to stay away from church; they may want to stay away from other people altogether. “Don’t call me Naomi” says Naomi (the name Naomi means pleasant/sweet). “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1.20). Naomi has had the agony of burying her husband and her two children. She is deeply bitter. Anyone would be. But bitterness is hard to be around: it’s depressing, it’s ugly. We may feel the need to cheer up a person who’s bitter, helping them see the good in their life. But Naomi’s bitterness seems to be accepted. Ruth chooses to stay with her. She doesn’t walk away from her mother in law at her lowest point - even though it would clearly be in her best interests to do so. Ruth could have gone back to the protection of her mother’s house and looked for a new husband. But instead she chooses to stay with this woman in deep grief, whom she loves. (In the first draft of this sermon I wrote that Ruth could have gone back to her ‘father’s house.’ I simply assumed the text said ‘father’. But I was wrong! See Ruth 1.8).
Perhaps there’s company here for those of us for whom life is bitter. Here’s a God-fearing woman who is not condemned in the text for her cold, weary anger at the hand life has dealt her. She seems to blame God - God has made her life bitter - and she isn’t contradicted, scolded or hushed up. She is bitter. Ruth stays with her in her bitterness. The biblical writers stay with her in her bitterness. Her uncomfortable emotions are not cleaned up for us. She doesn’t say “but I trust that the Lord will bring me good things”. She’s simply deeply sad.
Naomi and Ruth lived at a time which - perhaps even more so than today - was deeply patriarchal. Women needed a father or husband to provide for them - this is why the Old Testament law reminds the Israelites time and time again to care for the widow and the orphan (and the foreigner; we’ll come back to that). It would have been better for Ruth if she had gone back to her mother’s house, as Naomi told her to do. But Ruth chooses to stay with her mother-in-law. This is love that goes beyond biology. Ruth and Naomi have lost the only family connection they had, Naomi’s son, but nevertheless Ruth declares: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1.16). The Old Testament scholar, Phyllis Trible, said this: ‘One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends upon men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.’ Ruth takes a leap of faith with no promise that any good will come of it.
You may have heard the phrase 'chosen family.' Your chosen family are people who are not related to you by blood, not part of your biological family, but who are so special to you that they become family. Your chosen family may be people who take the place of your biological family. The concept of chosen family is very significant in the LGBT+ community, because sometimes the families of people who are LGBT+ struggle to accept their orientation. People can become separated from their biological family – by life circumstances, by estrangement, by death. Your chosen family offer you the community, the acceptance, the companionship, the love that your biological family may not, perhaps cannot offer. They may be an adoptive or foster family. They may be simply good friends who stick by you through thick and thin. People who say, “wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”
Marginalised people centre stage
In the story of Ruth, people who are all too often pushed to the margins are brought centre stage. When I was coming to terms with my infertility, and searching the Bible for comfort, Ruth was where I ended up. One of the many painful things about involuntary childlessness is that there simply isn’t a pattern for it in the Bible. There are no faithful people without children – anyone who struggles with childlessness is rewarded with a miracle baby (always a boy). But in the story of Ruth, we find two women who are exceptions to this rule: one whose children have died, and another a childless widow, and God saves them through their love for one another. Yes, it ends with a baby, as pretty much all these stories do in the Bible. But look at the words the unnamed women speak to Naomi in Ruth 4.14-15 about baby Obed: "May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Ruth is a foreigner, not an Israelite, and not related to Naomi by blood, and a woman at that. And yet, in this deeply patriarchal society, the women say, she is more to you than seven sons.
In the UK today women have more rights and protections than they had 3,000 years ago in the time of the Judges, but it is still a man’s world. We have the Equality Act 2010 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, but people who are perceived as being “foreign” still face racism daily. There is less of a cultural necessity for people to have children to look after them in their old age, and much more tolerance of people who choose to remain childfree – and yet people who cannot or choose not to have children are seen as oddities. People who feel as Naomi felt, that their life is empty and bitter, are pushed to the margins where we don’t have to see or listen to them. And yet in Ruth, marginalised people are centre stage. A vulnerable, foreign woman chooses to stick with her mother-in-law, without any assurance from God that things will turn out well, and this female outsider proves to be more to Naomi than seven sons. Two women, in a society in which women had so little power, claim what little power they do have - and turn their lives around. This story has been such a gift to me. This story speaks so deeply to me of God’s alignment with people who are pushed to the margins.
Where is Jesus in this story?
Baby Obed turns out to be the grandfather of King David, Israel’s greatest king and an ancestor of Jesus. Obed is listed in the genealogy of Jesus found in Luke 3, and in Matthew's genealogy (Matthew 1), Ruth is listed too as being Obed's mother - one of only a handful of women mentioned.
But I hear other echoes of Jesus in this story. Consider Jesus’ famous beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
In this story, I see God’s blessing resting on these desperately poor, grieving, vulnerable women.
Agency in powerlessness
Ruth and Naomi suffer deep tragedy, but they’re not victims. Despite suffering from circumstances beyond their control, they take what control they can over their lives. They have agency. Ruth claims her agency by her choice to stay with her mother-in-law. She chooses to stick by her. Then they decide to go back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. It is Ruth’s idea that she go and glean barley in Boaz’s field. In Deuteronomy 24, the Lord commands the Israelites not to gather up every scrap of the harvest, but to leave some behind for widows, orphans and foreigners to gather. Ruth reaches out and takes the charity that is available to her. In Ruth 2.2, we read that Ruth suggests going to gather grain in someone’s field ‘in whose sight I may find favour’. In 2.10 Ruth asks Boaz why she has ‘found favour’ in his sight. This is her doing. It was Ruth's idea that she might seek the protection of a powerful man, and that's exactly what she gets. And it’s not without risk. In Ruth 2.9 Boaz says ‘I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly’ – a brief reference to the grim reality of the danger these vulnerable women are in.
It's Naomi who has the idea that Ruth can ask Boaz to be her ‘redeemer’. Boaz is related to Naomi’s late husband, and there is apparently a practice whereby when a man dies without children, a male relative can marry his widow in order to provide the heirs he was unable to provide. Boaz knows who Ruth is – that’s why he instructs his workers to leave extra grain for her, and not to mistreat her. But it’s only when Ruth goes to him on the threshing-floor (Ruth chapter 3) that he is prompted to marry her. Yes, on one level, this is a story of two women who need a man to save them. But they are not passive victims. They reach out and seize the salvation they need. Ruth asks Boaz directly to be her redeemer. He explains that there is another, nearer relative – perhaps the reason why he has not acted sooner, despite knowing exactly who Ruth is. But the women force the issue: Boaz will go to the other man, and if he will not marry Ruth, then Boaz will. And he does.
Where do you see yourself in this story?
How we read the story of Ruth and how we respond to it will be shaped by our own particular life circumstances.
Some of us will see ourselves in Boaz, failing to spot an opportunity to do good until she crawls under his blanket.
Some of us will see ourselves in Naomi: life is bitter.
Some of us have Ruths in our lives: people who say “where you go, I will go,” people who are our chosen family. Perhaps you are Ruth for someone else.
Some of us see ourselves in Ruth's identity as an outsider - a Moabite.
Whoever you are and whatever your life circumstances, ask God: what do you want to say to me through this story? And may God's blessing rest on you now and always.