Last week the Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer was the Book of Ruth, one of the shortest books of the Bible. Day by day the story unfolded, beginning with Elimelech leaving Bethlehem with his wife Naomi and their two sons, and travelling to the land of Moab. In time Elimelech and his sons all died, the sons first having taken Moabite wives, so grieving Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. Initially both of her sons’ wives determine to return with her, but Orpah is persuaded to return to her home country. What follows is one of the most beautiful speeches in the story, as Ruth refuses to leave her mother-in-law:
Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die –
there will I be buried.
I once heard these words read at a funeral, an expression of the love which transcends death.
In due course Ruth, gleaning in a barley field, attracts the attention of its owner, Boaz, who coincidentally happens to be kinsman to Naomi. He shows great generosity to this foreign woman – unusual in those times – and once he learns of his kinship to her mother-in-law, offers marriage, though first the opportunity must be offered to a closer kinsman. The outcome is obvious, they marry, and have a son, Obed. The women of the town rejoice with Naomi:
Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!
Throughout the story love, obedience, kindness and generosity are much in evidence, Boaz proving himself a generous master, even before he was made aware of familial links. He takes care to protect Ruth, advising her to stay with the women, and gives instructions to the reapers to leave sheaves for her to glean – this despite the fact that she is a foreigner. Ruth’s care of her mother-in-law and obedience to her suggestions reveal a warm, loving young woman.
It is a beautiful, tender story, which has as its conclusion the revelation that Ruth, the Moabite, gives birth to the grandfather of King David himself. The wish expressed to Naomi by the women at his birth is fulfilled!