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The People of Salvation: Ruth and Naomi

The Power of Sacrificial Love

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ Isaiah 6:8

This week we continue our series exploring God’s agents in the plan of salvation. We have learned of Sarah and Abraham, whom God chose to be the progenitors of the people who would become Israel, and to whom a Promised Land was given. Despite their personal faults and failures, God remained steadfast, and the plan progressed. Last week we discovered the plan was threatened. A famine in the land exposed Israel, but Joseph, who endured slavery and prison, rose to a place of prominence in Pharaoh's house, enabling them to obtain the food they needed, and Israel was saved.

This week we find ourselves in Moab, a neighboring kingdom to the east of Israel. Three women have become widows. One, Orpah, quickly falls away from the story and it turns out this book of Ruth is actually about two women, Ruth, a Moabite widow and her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, whom she follows to Israel.

It is the only book of scripture in which the multiple central characters are women and only one other Biblical book bears a woman’s name, Esther.

Phyliss Trible, prominent feminist scholar who has taught at various universities and seminaries around the country including Union in New York, has several key observations:

Though the story takes its name from the younger woman, the older is the dominant character. Naomi’s plight shapes the narrative, and her plan brings it to resolution… Scene one (1:1–22) opens with a famine that sends a Judean family across the Jordan to Moab, a foreign land. In introducing the family, the storyteller subordinates Naomi to the man Elimelech. She is “his wife,” and their children are “his sons” (1:1–2) (emphasis added). But his death changes the situation. He becomes “the husband of Naomi,” and she is “left with her two sons” (1:3) (emphasis added). They marry Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth, but die without progeny. So, Naomi shrinks again. From wife to widow, from mother to no-mother, this woman is stripped of all identity.

​But though Naomi is stripped of purpose and identity does not mean she will become a passive player in this ancient land of patriarchy, as Trible pointed out, the resolution of the story and the next step in God’s plan of salvation comes because of Naomi’s moxie, which both flouts and conforms to the societal norms of the time.

​But Naomi will need Ruth; a humble younger woman with a profound sense of devotion to her mother-in-law; she gives up her whole life for her. This story is incredibly tender and one of the most existentially poignant in all scripture. Ruth can sense the utter desolation of Naomidue to her devastating losses of two sons and a husband.

​In fact, Naomi makes her plight painfully clear. Upon returning to Israel, Naomi’s friends barely recognize her. No, it's not her appearance but her demeanor. “Naomi” means pleasant, but her tragedies have made her name a farce. So, she tells them, Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, (which means bitter) for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

​A few decades ago, another woman not well situated in power or prestige used moxie and fortitude to bring about hope, Erin Brockovich-Ellis. Not without faults like the rest of us and the Biblical heroes, she came to be known around the country after Julia Roberts played her in the Academy Award-winning movie that bore her name.

A twice divorced mother of three with no money, no job, not much education as she recalls, “There were many days when I didn’t think I would make it.” But she was not without valuable resources. Her tenacious spirit landed her a job at an attorney’s office whom apparently,she simply badgered into hiring her.

Like Naomi, Brockovich both cared less about being acceptable and being liked than the passion of her convictions, for Brokich it meant saving people’s lives and finding justice in the town of Hinkley, CA. Pacific Gas & Electric had used a toxic chemical that eventually seeped into Hinkley’s water supply.

Everywhere I was going in this little community, somebody had asthma, a complaint of a chronic cough, recurring bronchitis, recurring rashes, unusual joint aches, nosebleeds”,Brockovich told “20/20” in an interview. She convinced her boss to allow her to investigate; he finally agreed simply to get some peace and quiet in the office. “It didn't make sense, and so the more I ask questions... the more I started to piece the puzzle together.” In 1996, the case was settled for $333 million -- the largest ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit at the time.

When asked in an interview, “How does it feel to be a hero?” She replied, “I would say I have a hard time seeing myself as a hero. I was appalled at what happened to those people and had compassion…

And it was also compassion that led to the reversal of Naomi’s bitterness.

Ruth’s compassion to follow her mother-in-law to Israel opened an opportunity for both to find a future.

Naomi is a bold courageous woman who will not meekly accept the fate that either the patriarchy or even God will give her; she acts to save herself and Ruth proving the adage, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.

In fact, it seems Naomi uses her bitterness; it goads her into bold action to secure progeny for Ruth and by extension herself. Sometimes old age has stripped us of so much that all that is left is moxie and defiance. Listen again to Trible:

Not waiting for matters to take their course or for God to intervene, she plans to secure Boaz as husband for Ruth. In seeking security through marriage, her plan fits the strictures of patriarchy, but it departs from them in proposing a dangerous scheme. Naomi tells her “daughter” to dress in fine clothes and visit Boaz in secret at the threshing floor. There she will ask him to make good on his prayer for her blessing (3:3–5). The plan succeeds.

While the story is powerful at first glance it is hard to discern why it is a part of our canon. But on this All Saints’ Sunday, in which we give thanks for our ancestors, we discover in the last few verses of this book, almost as a throw away, that these women’s courage and faithfulness leads to the birth of King David, the preeminent king in Israel’s history and the ancestor of our Lord Jesus.

God indeed has a plan – the salvation and restoration of the world. And today’s story invites a challenging question for us all – did God intend all along for Ruth, a Moabite woman,to be the ancestor of the key king in Israel’s history? Or did God pivot, seeing the courage and moxie of Naomi and the sacrifice and humility of Ruth to form an alternate path? Perhaps the same way God used Erin Brockovich to bring justice.

Like Jacob, who wrestled with God and received a new name, Naomi wrestled with the circumstances handed to her and turned it into something personally healing for herself and her daughter-in-law, and eventually the salvation of the world.

When we act in loving, sacrificial ways God can use that in amazing ways to further the plan of salvation. And even so, in the end, the blessings return back to those who gave so much. Listen to the joyous resolution of the story.

For Mara, the bitter one, has found wholeness as her friends proclaim, “And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” (Ruth 4:15). Amen.

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