On Sunday we returned to the Hamesh Megillot and the story of Ruth. We have encountered Ruth’s story a couple of times over the past year - as part of our look at the women of Jesus' genealogy last Advent, and as part of our service marking refugee week in June - so I wanted to take a different approach on Sunday, offering an imaginative retelling of the story from Ruth's perspective as a way of expanding and entering the story. Before you get to that however, here is an overview of the story, if you want to refresh your memory.
They tell my story as a romance, I know they do. And they’re not completely wrong. Mine is a love story, just not the one they tell. They imagine mine and Boaz’s eyes meeting across a field of wheat, and they talk as if my creeping into his barn in the middle of the night was a daring ploy to win his love. Don’t misunderstand me, Boaz is a good and kind man, and we do love one another, after a fashion. We will make good companions for one another in our old age, even if he’s not the man I would have chosen. But then I didn’t have much choice, and the man I did choose was already dead.
Now that was a real romance. Chilion was such a beautiful man. Quicker of temper than Boaz, but never mean, and so clever at making things. I first saw him not long after he arrived in Moab with his family. He was tired from the journey, and thinner than he should have been because of the famine in his homeland, but even then there was a light in his eyes.
I knew there would be gossip, but I felt as though my heart was about to leap out of my chest, and I knew I simply had to speak to him. I can’t remember what silly pretence we came up with, but my friend Orpah and I managed to introduce ourselves to him and his brother, and it wasn’t long before the four of us were meeting every day at the village well. Fortunately our families approved the matches, in spite of a few raised eyebrows from those still rather suspicious of the Israelites, with their devotion to their one God. I married Chilion and Orpah married Mahlon, and all was well for a time.
Or at least as well as it could be in a family already struck by tragedy. Chilion and Mahlon’s father Elimelech barely survived the long journey, and died within a month of reaching Moab, before Chilion and I were married. I’m sorry he was never my father-in-law, because he was a true gentleman. But if I lost out on a father-in-law, I was doubly blessed when it came to my mother-in-law.
Naomi is the most beautiful woman I have ever met. The lines on her face ran deep even on my wedding day, and there were threads of silver in her hair, but her eyes shone just as her son’s did. It takes a woman of stern stuff to seek refuge in a foreign land, and to enter her widowhood there, but that sternness never hardened her, never made her cold. She was as wise as any serpent and as gentle as any lamb, and I adored her from the moment I met her.
I understand it is the custom in Judah for the husband to leave his family and become a part of his wife’s family, but we did not not insist on such a practice in Moab, and the boys could not leave Naomi alone, and so Orpah and I became a part of her household. We perhaps made a strange family, ruled by a foreign matriarch, but we were happy nonetheless.
The absence of Elimelech and the childlessness of his sons and their wives cast their shadows, but there was love and life enough between the five of us, at least until tragedy struck again. First Mahlon and then Chilion died, taken by some plague that spared the women of the house alone. Grief descended on our home like a blanket that covered everything, like a ragged stitch that shot through every moment.
It was around that time that Naomi received word that the famine had ended in Judah, and she decided to return to the land of her birth. She had lost everything in Moab, and I think she needed to regain something. Orpah and I reminded her that while she had lost much she had also gained two daughters, and while the comfort that brought her was evident, it was not enough to keep her in Moab.
Orpah and I declared that we would travel to Bethlehem with her, and she accepted us graciously, clearly relieved not to have to make the long journey alone. We made our preparations and said our goodbyes, but we had not long been on the road when Naomi stopped and told the two of us to return to our families. She blessed us in the name of her God, asking that he may grant us rest us in the home of another husband.
Orpah turned and looked back to where her parents’ house was still visible, and I knew her decision was made. But mine had been made a long time before. When I first entered Naomi’s home I knew that was where I would live out my days, and if that home was to move to another land, then I would simply have to move with it.
Orpah kissed us both goodbye, and turned back, her steps quickening. I think her speed was less an eagerness to be away from us, and more a desire that we should not have to watch her go. I don’t blame or fault her for leaving. We had seen the suspicion with which our Israelite family had been treated in Moab, and we knew that same suspicion may greet us if we were to become the foreigners in a strange land. I was sorry to lose my sister though.
Naomi turned to me, waiting for my farewell, but I clung to her and told her I was going nowhere. My tongue is not slow or stupid, but neither is it known for its poetry, and yet the words poured out ot me. “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
I’m not sure where the talk of God came from. I had never been particularly religious, although since my marriage I had watched the rituals of my husband and his family with keen interest. I was fascinated by their insistence that God was one, and their absolute trust in him even after tragedy. And I loved the rhythm of their weeks, punctuated as they were by a day of God-ordained rest. Perhaps I knew that leaving Moab was a kind of madness and only a God like the one Naomi prayed to would see me through it.
And so we made the long journey to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. It was a bittersweet returning for her. There was joy in seeing old friends and relations, but also a sharp reminder of all that she had lost since she last saw them. And I will forever be thankful for their kindness in welcoming me as if I truly were Naomi’s daughter. It lessened the homesickness that rose from time to time, as I remembered my other mother, the one who gave birth to me, and wondered if my little sister had become a mother herself, or if my wild cousin had yet learned a little patience.
I won’t tell all of what happened next, for that is the story that others are already telling for me. How I gleaned in the fields of Boaz and he treated me with kindness and made sure I was safe and my baskets were full. How Naomi told me that Boaz was a kinsman redeemer, one who might marry me to preserve the family line and make sure we widows were cared for. How she concocted a mad plan to win his affections and encourage him to propose marriage, and how he gracefully dealt with another who might also have claimed the family land and my hand. How we married, and how at long last I gave birth to a son.
If we were a strange household in Moab we were a stranger one yet in Bethlehem. First a widow and her foreign daughter-in-law, two women alone in a society ruled and defined by men. Then a three parent family, Naomi helping us to raise Obed as if he were her own, so that even the women of the town spoke of him as Naomi's son. We may not have been a conventional family, but how many are really? Life is complicated and family is what we make out of the love that we find.
Mine is a great story. I know that because I lived it, and I do not wonder that it has been told all around the town, but still I dislike how people tell it. There is too much of Boaz and I in it, and not enough of Naomi. There is precious little of the men we loved before and the sister and daughter we left behind, and even our son appears as but a footnote.
Mine is a love story, but not the one they tell, for it is a story of many loves. The heady love I felt for Chilion when I first met him, and the steady love we treasured together after a decade of marriage. The aching love I still feel for the family I left behind in Moab, and the grateful love I hold for the family that received me in Bethlehem. The love rooted in mutual respect and kindness that Boaz and I now share, and most surprising to me, the love I have discovered for the God under whose wings I sought refuge. But perhaps greatest of all, the deep love I have for Naomi, the woman who has been my closest companion, with whom I have weathered tragedy and celebrated joy. I want to tell the story of all those loves, for I want none of them to be forgotten.
God is acknowledged and invoked a number of times by different characters, but this is really a story of human relationships. Boaz speaks of Ruth seeking refuge under God's wings, but as is so often the case, those wings have very human form. I think it is a beautiful thing that our holy book contains such a story, because it rightly celebrates and sanctifies those relationships.
Like Ruth, we too will have a story of many loves, and I invite and encourage you to take time to reflect on and give thanks for them this week. You may find it helpful to sue the following questions and prayer as you do.
Who are the loves of your life? Not just the romantic loves but also the family and the friends who have brought joy and comfort and blessing?
In what ways has your life been changed by these relationships?
Have you ever been guilty of taking these relationships for granted? How might you celebrate them?
Can you see in these relationships the blessing of God? Have they at times been the shelter of God's wings for you?
What does family mean to you? How have you created family in your life?
Lord, we thank you for the blessing of human relationships, the many loves that enrich our lives. May we never take them for granted, but treasure and celebrate them as they deserve. May we love deeply and shelter others, as they in turn shelter us. And may we rejoice in family of every variety. But Lord, even as we give thanks, we recognise that not every relationship is a blessing, and that there is much pain when relationships end through death or parting. May we have a particular care for those for whom relationships have brought hurt instead of comfort, and those who grieve for lost or former loves. Amen