If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Ruth chapter 1, verses 6 through 18
Up to this point, Naomi’s been dragged away from the Promised Land during a famine by her good-for-nothing husband to be outcasts in a land that does not treat foreigners well. Then, her good-for-nothing husband dies. Then, Naomi’s two sons marry pagan wives from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and then they die – and now she’s left alone with her two impoverished pagan daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.
On paper, Ruth and Orpah are now her “guardians”; they’re in charge of her well-being, but in a culture like that, they’ve got no resources to make that happen in practice without husbands. She would have been better off if Elimelech had just kept them in the Promised Land and rode out the famine.
So in today’s passage, it says:
Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to leave the land of Moab, because she had heard in Moab that the Lord had paid attention to His people’s need by providing them food. 7 She left the place where she had been living, accompanied by her two daughters-in-law, and traveled along the road leading back to the land of Judah.
8 She said to them, “Each of you go back to your mother’s home. May the Lord show faithful love to you as you have shown to the dead and to me. 9 May the Lord enable each of you to find security in the house of your new husband.” She kissed them, and they wept loudly.
10 “No,” they said to her. “We will go with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi replied, “Return home, my daughters. Why do you want to go with me? Am I able to have any more sons who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters. Go on, for I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me to have a husband tonight and to bear sons, 13 would you be willing to wait for them to grow up? Would you restrain yourselves from remarrying? No, my daughters, my life is much too bitter for you to share, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me.” 14 Again they wept loudly, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law.”
16 But Ruth replied:
Do not persuade me to leave you
or go back and not follow you.
For wherever you go, I will go,
and wherever you live, I will live;
your people will be my people,
and your God will be my God.
17 Where you die, I will die,
and there I will be buried.
May Yahweh punish me,
and do so severely,
if anything but death separates you and me.
18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped trying to persuade her.
This is the word of the Lord.
So this week’s passage starts off with what ought to be a very sweet revelation, that “the Lord had paid attention to his people’s needs by providing them food,” but in Naomi’s place-in-life, it’s bound to taste bitter.
So rather than trying to bring Ruth and Orpah with her back to Bethlehem, Naomi says, “Each of you go back to your mother’s home,” find husbands for yourself, live out the rest of your life in whatever degree of relative comfort you can.
I had a youth pastor who tore into Naomi during a Bible study on Ruth back in the day. He’s not alone: A lot of commentaries read this passage as Naomi getting rid of her unwanted daughters-in-law once and for all, but that’s a very cynical way to read Naomi’s actions.
It’s important to understand that in a culture where the only way for a woman to stay out of abject poverty is to “marry up,” Naomi realizes that she’ll negatively affect the “market value” that her daughters-in-law could command: A viable husband is going to favor a potential bride with less baggage, and as far as most potential-husbands in Moab would be concerned, a widowed-Israelite is baggage – she’s another mouth to feed, she’s to old to have any more children, so she can’t augment the family workforce by producing more men to work the farm in the next generation.
And on top of that, she’s a foreigner, and almost nobody had egalitarian notions about foreigners back then. Naomi figured she was an obstacle for her daughter-in-law, so she tells them to go back to their mothers’ house and seek out another husband while she goes back to Israel to try and sort out her own affairs.
Naomi is not trying to “get rid of Ruth and Orpah.” Naomi is trying not to be “their problem” anymore. Naomi suffers under a similar delusion to the one that I think a lot of us have: She feels guilty for having needs. She feels guilty for needing her daughters in law. Having needs makes her feel like a burden. And rather than coming to terms with that – recognizing that God made us for each other kind of like he made us for himself – and then reaching out, allowing others to bear some of the burden that comes with existence alongside her, Naomi pushes them away, because she’s terrified of being “their problem.”
On top of that, she also doubts that they’d have any luck finding a husband in Israel. The Law of Moses demanded that the Israelites treat foreigners well and do everything necessary to convert them to worship of the true God and enable them to participate fully as members of the community, but during the time of the Judges, where our story takes place, everyone “did whatever was right in their own eyes” rather than “doing what was right in God’s eyes,” according to Judges chapter 17, and so the Law of God did next-to-nothing to incline them toward welcoming Moabites. As far as Naomi could see, there was no version of this where sticking with her was gonna go well for her foreign daughters-in-law, so she pushes them away.
Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and goes home to find another husband. And Naomi tries to talk Ruth into doing the same. She says, “My life is too bitter for you to share, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me.” /
Like I said, a lot of commentators really lay into Naomi, here: They point out that Naomi and Elimelech had no business leaving the Promised Land during the famine. They point out that they ought to have remembered the way that God provides for his people in the most improbable ways: He provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice when he called him up to the mountain with Isaac; He provided the “manna in the wilderness” when the Israelites were wandering outside the Promised Land after the Exodus; He provided them with one victory after another during Joshua’s lifetime as they faced off against one Canaanite tribe after another – the list goes on. But it’s unlikely that Naomi had any say in whether they stayed or went.
The Law God gave through Moses transformed Israelite women from “property” to “people,” but during the time of the Judges, they pretty much reverted back to property as God’s Law got buried by local customs. Elimelech ignored her when he decided to relocate to Moab, her sons ignored her when they married outside the faith by taking pagans for wives, and if Israel is anything like it was when they left, the local governments were going to ignore her needs in blatant disregard for God’s Law because that’s just the way things went during the time of the Judges.
As far as Naomi knew, she didn’t have much to look forward to. So, I don’t know many people who can go through what Naomi’s gone through and still come out of it singing Phillips, Craig, and Dean songs.
But Ruth refuses to let Naomi talk her into leaving. She says, “Do not persuade me to leave you or go back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May Yahweh punish me, and do so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
Orpah didn’t do anything wrong by leaving Naomi to find a husband in Moab, but Ruth goes beyond Not-Doing-Anything-Wrong. She makes a vow that’s remarkably close to the wedding vows that we make these days: I will never leave you; Wherever you go, I’ll go; Wherever you live, I’ll live; Your people will be my people; Your God will be my God; Where you die, I will die; They’ll bury me wherever they bury you.
Ruth has committed herself to one person in a way that swallows up her allegiance to Moab, it swallows up her allegiance to her family, to her friends. She has bound herself irreversibly to Naomi in a way that is significantly different from “marriage” but is exactly as demanding.
Only a few hundred years ago, it was not unheard of to pass by a church and overhear a peculiar sort of ceremony: It was a kind of marriage, not between spouses but between friends. In the ceremony, you’d declare your commitment to your friend in an indissoluble bond in which your life and theirs became one life. You’d covenant yourself to raise their children if they passed away, to pay their debts if they became insurmountable, to join them hand-in-hand as co-laborers toward the common good.
So a “covenant of friendship” was fundamentally different than a “covenant of marriage,” obviously, but it was no less demanding or joyous. What Ruth vows to Naomi is something like that.
One of the things that you’ll notice is that Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi has nothing to do with Naomi’s faithfulness to Ruth. Ruth’s vow is as one-sided as it could possibly be. And the thing it most immediately draws to mind is God’s one-sided vow to Abram in Genesis 15.
If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll remember that God comes to Abram in the night and reaffirms that his family will be the vehicle that God uses to redeem the world.
That’s a pretty heavy promise, so Abram says, “How can I know that’s true?” And so God sets up a, kind of, strange ceremony that people would often go through when they were making vows to each other.
This is about to get weird.
In the Ancient Near East, it was common to solidify your vows by bringing a heifer, a goat, and a ram, along with a dove and pigeon, and then cutting the heifer, the goat, and the lamb in two pieces each, and making a pathway that each person could walk through.
The blood would pool up along the pathway, and each person involved in the covenant would walk through the bloody pathway between the slaughtered animals, and declare their promises to each other.
What’s important to understand is that the bloody animal stuff wasn’t just for show. The Hebrew scholars tell me that that term used for “making a covenant” would translate more literally into English as “cutting a covenant.” You can guess why.
When you were “cutting a covenant,” after laying out the pieces of the dead animals, both parties would walk through the pathway and swear on their own lives that they will keep the covenant. And when I say they’d swear on their lives, it’s not metaphor. As you’re walking between the sacrificed animals, you would call on everyone present to make you like those animals if you fail to keep your end of the covenant.
You’d say, “I swear to uphold these vows we’ve made to each other, and if I don’t, I want you to gut me down the middle like I did with this livestock.” You were calling a curse onto yourself if you broke your end of the covenant. As a result, people usually kept their promises.
The process is simpler today. We just sign contracts, now. Less blood. Good change. But what we see in Genesis 15 is God making a promise with Abram, that he will “multiply his offspring,” that he will “bring them to the Promised Land and give it to them,” that they will be his people, and he will be their God.
But when the time comes to formalize the agreement, God causes Abram to “fall into a deep sleep,” and God walks through the bloody pathway between the sacrificed animals instead of him.
Instead of waking up and walking between the slaughtered animals after God finished, Genesis 15 says that Abram stayed sound asleep and “When the sun had set and the darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.”
And that’s a strange image, but it’s simple enough: After Abram made the sacrifice to bind their vows to each other, God walks through the pathway on Abram’s behalf.
Now, think about that. God has vowed himself to Abram and the church he builds out of Abram’s descendants – that’s us; and we’ve vowed ourselves to this God who called Abram to “Go out from [his] land” and follow him. But instead of letting Abram walk through the slaughtered animals and call down curses on himself if he breaks God’s covenant, God walks through for him. God is assuming all of the curses that would fall on Abram and his people if they break their covenant with him.
God is substituting himself for us, calling down the curses that belong to us onto himself. God puts Abram to sleep and walks through the slaughtered animals for Abram, saying, “I will uphold the vows that my people have made to me. I will uphold their covenant with me. And if they break my commands, I will call their curses down onto myself.”
If all of this seems too abstract to get your hands around, that’s okay. Fast-forward back to Ruth. Naomi’s done her best to talk Ruth into abandoning her and heading out to find a husband who can protect her, but instead Ruth essentially adopts Naomi.
She says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” “I will follow you to Bethlehem and take care of you for as long as you live, so help me God.” In verse 17, she says, “May God punish me severely if anything but death separates us.” Other translations are a bit more literal – she makes some sort of “cutting motion” across her neck, or down her torso, and says, “May God do this much, or worse, to me if anything but death separates me from you.”
Ruth doesn’t have a heifer, a goat, or a ram, but she makes a covenant with Naomi that echoes the covenant God has made with us in Abram. She says “Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” She promises to be more faithful to Naomi than Naomi is to herself.
Naomi thinks “The Lord’s hand has turned against her,” but nothing could be further from the truth. God’s been walking alongside her since her husband dragged her from the Promised Land and brought her into Moab. He’s been walking alongside her as one man after another let her down and then keeled over. Every step of the way, wherever Naomi has gone, God has gone with her.
David could’ve had Naomi in mind when he wrote Psalm 139, where he says, quote, “Where can I hide from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” There is nowhere we can escape God’s love.
There are no depths we can plunge ourselves into that can talk God out of keeping his covenant with us. We see God’s insatiable capacity for faithfulness in Ruth’s promise to Naomi. We can’t outrun God’s mercy; we can’t out-sin God’s patience. Because God purchased his own faithfulness to us in the cross.
The same God who walked between the slaughtered animals for Abram, and called all the curses that come with breaking our covenant onto himself has made good on that promise by nailing those curses to the cross in Jesus Christ. Instead of slaughtering us like you slaughter the animals at the covenant ceremony, he came to earth as a human, lived a life of perfect obedience to the covenant he’s made with us, and then laid down his own life to be slaughtered by the masses on our behalf.
Jesus takes the curse we’ve earned for breaking God’s covenant. Jesus has upheld our end of our covenant with God, so today it’s just as if we’d always obeyed; just as though we were always faithful; just as though we’d kept the covenant from our first breath to our last. God’s covenant with us is as one-sided as Ruth’s covenant with Naomi: Even as we’ve failed and brought God’s just curses onto ourselves, God has kept our side of the covenant for us. And in doing that, Jesus has purchased God’s faithfulness to us.
Because Jesus went to the cross, God will never leave us or forsake us. God will never abandon us to our brokenness. God will never give us over to our sin and abandon us in the pit. He will follow us to the ends of the earth, and “come and get us,” like he promised to in Genesis 3:15.
We would very much like for you to join us, to rest in the faithfulness of this God alongside us. So the altar will be open as we sing. If you would like to throw yourself on the mercy of the God that we’ve been worshipping this morning, I’d love to pray with you, or talk you through it, or even just sit in silence as the folks around us sing.