Friday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ruth 1:1, 3-6, 14-16, 22

We move on today to a very different piece of Scripture, the short book of Ruth, which consists of just four chapters (the only other biblical book bearing the name of a woman is Esther). We will just have two readings from this lovely work which follows immediately on the readings from Judges.

Introducing the book the Jerusalem Bible says in part:

Although its action is placed in the period of the Judges (Ruth 1:1) the book does not form part of the deuteronomic corpus which runs from Joshua to the end of Kings…The main purpose of the book is to show (2:12), how trust in God is rewarded and how God’s goodness is not restricted by frontiers. That a woman of Moab should be privileged to become the great-grandmother of David gives a particular value to this narrative; nor is there any reason to doubt its historical foundation.

The New International Version Study Bible makes this comment:

The story is set in the time of the Judges, a time characterised in the book of Judges as a period of religious and moral degeneracy, national disunity and general foreign oppression. The book of Ruth reflects a temporary time of peace between Israel and Moab (contrast Judges 3:12-30). Like 1 Sam 1-2, it gives a series of intimate glimpses in the private lives of the members of an Israelite family. It also presents a delightful account of the remnant of true faith and piety in the period of the Judges, relieving an otherwise wholly dark picture of that era.

The book (and our reading today) tells the sad story of Elimelech, a man from Bethlehem in Judah. It was the days of the Judges, and the area was hit by a famine. Because of this, he had to move to Moab with his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, and there they settled. Bethlehem lies south of Jerusalem, while Moab was a tribal region on the east side of the Dead Sea and hence Gentile territory.

The time of the Judges was probably from around 1380 BC to about 1050 BC. By setting such an edifying story in this period, the author calls to mind a time in Israel’s history noted for its apostasy, moral degradation and oppression. The famine mentioned here is not recorded in Judges. Bethlehem, in Judah, will be David’s hometown and, as descendants of David, Joseph and Mary will go to Bethlehem to be registered (see Luke 2:4). Bethlehem means the ‘house of bread’ but right now there is no bread there.

The names are not those of real people and have been chosen mainly for their meaning. Emilech means ‘my God is king’, while Naomi is ‘my fair one’. The two sons, who die relatively young, are called Mahlon (‘sickness’) and Chilion (‘pining away’). Their two wives are called Orpah (‘she who turns away’) and Ruth (‘the beloved’). Naomi and Ruth are the two ‘lovely’ people in the story. Their names are a literary device to describe their characters, similar to the names given in John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. Ruth is one of the four women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. The others are Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba (Matt 1:3,5-6).

After they moved to Moab, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow with her two sons. This is the first blow. Each of her sons married local Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, and the prospect of continuing the family line remained.

The Moabites were descended from Moab, who was the son of a liaison between Lot and one of his daughters (Gen 19:36-37; as the story from Genesis tells us, both of Lot’s daughters slept with him while he was too drunk to know what was happening). Marriage with Moabite women was not forbidden to Hebrews, though no Moabite – or his sons to the 10th generation – was allowed to “enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deut 23:3).

Then, after about 10 years, both Naomi’s sons died and she was now left without her husband or her sons. Nor did her daughters-in-law have any sons to support them. Namoi’s emptiness is complete. Without her husband and now her sons, she has only two young daughters-in-law, both of them foreigners, and both childless.

It was a complete kenosis or ‘emptying’. In those times, the lot of the widow could be a very sad one with no means of support and little chance of remarriage. All three women had become outsiders and rejects. They were of no more interest to their husband’s family, and a disappointment to their own.

Naomi then decided to leave the Plains of Moab and return to Bethlehem with her two daughters-in-law, having heard that God had visited his people and the famine was over. The ‘visit’ here is a way of expressing God’s blessing and favour on the place. It is just one point in the story where God’s control of events is recognised. Bethlehem, “the house of bread”, now has bread once more. There seems to be a mutual echoing between the famine in Bethlehem and the emptiness of Naomi and her daughters-in-law. The end of the famine foreshadows the end of the emptiness.

So, together they all set out for Judah, Naomi’s homeland. However, on the way, she urged the two daughters-in-law to go back to their homeland. They had a better chance of finding husbands there than in Judah, but they were reluctant to leave her. Then, with many tears, Orpah agreed to go back to her native place, but Ruth insisted on staying with Naomi, one outsider offering to take care of another. While Orpah left reluctantly and only after the urging of Naomi, her departure highlights the loyalty and selfless devotion of Ruth to her desolate mother-in-law.

Naomi still urged Ruth to go back with her sister to her own people and her gods (the chief god of the Moabites was Chemosh). But Ruth asked Naomi not to force her to leave or to prevent her staying with Naomi. She will accompany her mother-in-law into a future that shows no promise for either of them.

She expresses her feelings beautifully, in poetic form:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people
and your God my God.

Whereas Orpah returns to Moab and its god Chemosh, Ruth chooses Yahweh’s territory and his people; in doing so she will have no other God but him.

Ruth is now doubly an outsider: she does not belong to the family of Naomi’s husband and she is a Gentile Moabite who has left her native land. Hetr loyalty to her husband’s mother – a loyalty that was not expected and which transcended tribal and religious boundaries – is one of the qualities for which Ruth is admired as an especially good woman. Indeed, very much a person for our time. Ruth also anticipates the gospel teaching that, before God, there are no outsiders.

And so, the author tells us, that was how Naomi returned home to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabitess from the Plains of Moab. The author keeps reminding the reader that Ruth is a foreigner from a despised people:

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

The arrival in Bethlehem, just as the renewed fullness of the land is beginning to be harvested, is an early hint that Naomi’s emptiness will be ended and she will be filled with joy again. The reference to the barley harvest also prepares the reader for the next major scene in the harvest fields.

This commentary from the NIV tells us that:

“Harvesting grain in ancient Canaan took place in April and May (barley first, wheat a few weeks later). It involved the following steps:

  1. Cutting the ripened standing grain with hand sickles – usually done by men;
  2. Binding the grain into sheaves – usually done by women;
  3. Gleaning, i.e. gathering stalks of grain left behind;
  4. Transporting the sheaves to the threshing floor – often by donkey, sometimes by cart;
  5. Threshing, i.e. loosening the grain from the straw – usually done by the treading of cattle, but sometimes by toothed threshing sledges or the wheels of carts;
  6. Winnowing – done by tossing the grain into the air with winnowing forks so that the wind, which usually came up for a few hours in the afternoon, blew away the straw and chaff, leaving the grain at the winnower’s feet;
  7. Sifting the grain to remove any residual foreign matter;
  8. Bagging for transportation and storage. Threshing floors, where both threshing and winnowing occurred, were hard, smooth, open places, prepared on either rock or clay and carefully chosen for favourable exposure to the prevailing winds. They were usually on the east side – i.e. downwind – of the village.”

As mentioned, one of the special significances of this story for us is that Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David, who was from Bethlehem, and hence also an ancestor of Jesus and one of the four women mentioned by Matthew in the family tree of Jesus.

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