Proper 23 • Ruth 1:1–19a • October 10, 2010
by William W. Schumacher
Perhaps the first, obvious thing to say about this text from Ruth is that if we read it in its context it is not exactly a wedding text. The best known part of this peri- cope is, no doubt, the climax of the story in the beautiful words of verse 16: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” These words certainly can be used to express the deep and abiding love shared by a man and a woman in marriage, and they have a poetic beauty which is well suited to promises of complete, lifelong faithfulness between husband and wife. In fact, so many people have heard the words in that context of marriage that they are surprised and confused when they realize that they are spoken by a woman to another woman. Of course, in our culture’s contemporary climate of sexual confusion and disorder, promoters of homosexual “marriage” are happy enough to read this text as an expression of sexual love, and then point to it as biblical “proof” in support of same-sex, erotic relationships.
The text, of course, proves no such thing. As a culture, we are preoccupied with sexual love, so we read that kind of human affection into this and any text which expresses deep personal attachment to another person. Similarly, as a culture, we have become uninterested in the sharp differences between religions, preferring to see com- mon ground and converging values. In that light, we may be prone to miss the more powerful meaning of Ruth’s words to Naomi. It is more accurate, and much more pro- found, to approach this text as a religious conversion text.
Ruth and Orpah were gentile women in Moab, raised in the worship of the false god Chemosh (probably among other deities). They married two Israelite broth- ers (Naomi’s sons) who had come to Moab as what we might call economic refugees. Tragedy befell the Israelite refugee family as first, Naomi’s husband Elimelech, and then their two sons, died. The precarious situation faced by every widow in the ancient world was thus compounded as Naomi lost her sons (who would have borne the responsibility to care for the family), and found herself alone and unsupported far from her own people. After the death of her sons, no one in Moab owed any obligation to Naomi, a childless widow and a foreigner. Naturally she concluded that her only hope of survival was to return to Judah.
In the world of the Old Testament, “religion was bound up with national identity” (John R. Wilch, Ruth in the Concordia Commentary series) and vice versa. To become a worshipper of the God of Israel meant, in effect, to become an Israelite. Ruth’s commitment to stay with Naomi is thus far more than a profession of human affection; it is a confession of faith in Israel’s God. Ruth equates this confession in the most unambiguous terms by adopting her identity as an Israelite: “Your people [=] my people, your God [=] my God (Ru 1:16).” Here the contrast to Orpah is particularly sharp and striking: Orpah “turned back”—and the word can sometimes mean “apostasize”—“to her people and to her gods,” but Ruth renounces the identity of her country and its religion. The fact that Naomi, herself now destitute and vulnerable, could offer Ruth no physical or material security simply underlines the sincerity of Ruth’s religious loyalty. Incidentally, many English translations, including the NIV and the ESV, actually soften Ruth’s oath of loyalty in verse 17 by rendering the last phrase something like “if any- thing but death separates you and me.” In fact, as Wilch discusses in his commentary, the force of the oath (and the profundity of Ruth’s faith in YHWH) is better captured by a more literal translation: “if even death will separate you and me.”