We have spent the past month reading Job, a book about Job’s loss of ignorance, a book that begins and ends with Job having great wealth, and with a dramatic fall and rise in between. Ruth is a very different kind of story, but one that gets to much the same practical point.
I will start with Naomi. The book may bear the name “Ruth,” but in many ways, this is really a story about Naomi. Naomi speaks more than anyone else in the story, and each chapter opens and closes with Naomi.
Naomi is a very different character than Job. Unlike Job, whose story has a dramatic fall and then equally dramatic rise, Naomi had no great wealth to being with. Naomi is always teetering on the edge. The story opens with Naomi and her three men, her husband, Elimelech, and her sons, Mahlon and Chilion having run out of food in Bethlehem and deciding to make the dangerous journey across both desert and river, and into Moab, a country known mostly in scripture for hostility and enmity toward and from Israel. Ruth, Elimelech, and their sons must be facing deep poverty, even imminent starvation in the face of this famine for them to abandon their home and their land to seek shelter among enemies.
We do not know how it goes at first, only that they found some measure of security because their sons were able to marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth even after their father had died.
I imagine life was still hard though, as within ten years of their settling in Moab, all three men died. Once again, Naomi finds herself dangerously close to the edge. Unlike Job, who responds to his losses with protestations of innocence and theological arguments, Naomi quietly gets about the business of figuring out how to survive. Unlike Job, Naomi does not have friends to try to tell her how this is her fault, though I can certainly imagine this story’s early audience finding fault with her for abandoning the Promised Land and allowing her sons to take foreign wives, which is rarely a popular move in the Hebrew scriptures. Naomi, like Job, feels abandoned by God, but her grief is so consuming that she urges others to abandon her as she feels God already has, and so she tries to send Orpah and Ruth away.
Naomi says: “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.”
Orpah is persuaded by Naomi’s argument, that Orpah and Ruth are still young, and may find other husbands, may find security on their own more easily than three widows together. They are, after all, now looking for someone to take them in, and three mouths are a greater burden than one, and Naomi, as her grief deepens into depression, is certain that she is nothing but a burden, too old to marry again, too old to bear more children, too old to contribute to her own welfare.
How often do we act, as Naomi does? How often have you responded to your own sorrow, grief, loss, or depression by trying to push everyone and everything away? I know teachers see it, see that once a student realizes they have been labeled a problem, their behavior grows even worse. I know we see this not just with students, but with friends, children, co-workers, siblings, and parents, that when something starts to go wrong in one area of their life, it starts to come out in others.
I know that I have reacted like Naomi. In my moments of greatest depression, I know that I have responded by trying to confirm all the worst things I think about myself, by trying to prove that all the worst things about me are all anyone else can see. I know I have been in places where I have wanted that, because it would mean I could give up and stop trying.
As much as I might like the Book of Job, for all its theological arguments and debate, I have never once related to Job as a character. Naomi is a different story and a different model. Later in the story, even as Ruth as stuck with her, Naomi’s depression is still so great that she sets out to change her name. Naomi means “pleasant,” but she can no longer see herself as pleasant and so she tries to change her name to Mara, which means “bitter.”
I am thankful for the lectionary’s pairing of the Job and Ruth stories, because looking at them together shows me something I would not have otherwise seen. God sends Job’s brothers and sisters and other friends to bring Job the things he needs, a hot meal, comfort, some sympathetic ears, and the money to start to rebuild.
For Naomi, God already has put Ruth in place. The names in the Hebrew Bible often have meaning, and just as Naomi means “pleasant” and Mara means “bitter,” Ruth means “companion.” Ruth clings to Naomi like God’s own grace clings to us all, present even as we try to ignore it, deny it, hide from it, and push it away. Ruth stays with Naomi and follows her back to Bethlehem. Ruth stays with Naomi and helps Naomi find each next step forward. Ruth stays with Naomi as God stays with us, even as we try to hide, to run away, and to push it away. Even in the darkest moments when we cannot see that it is there, God’s grace, like Ruth, follows us, saying, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Thanks be to God.