Lesson 4: Ruth
Soldiers descend from the hills into a village, randomly killing and raping, taking goods and weapons. The soldiers leave behind burning houses and broken people. This scene is as current and as old as the Bible.
The book of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges. The book of Judges, which directly precedes Ruth, ends with a horrific tale of the brutal treatment of a woman by a gang of men and the resulting massive retaliation. Tribe is set against tribe, gang against gang, neighbor against neighbor. Judges is not the kind of book that we want to read to our children or read ourselves. It ends with the chilling line, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
In the horror of violence, in the disturbance of chaotic times, we may ask: “Where is God?”
In striking counterpoint to the ghastly stories that end the book of Judges, we are offered the story of Ruth. It is as if a symphony with crashing drums, trumpet blasts and loud screeching violins gives way to the sound of a single flute. The writers of the Bible seem to be saying, “This is not the way it should be or can be. There is another way to live that brings life out of death, fullness out of famine, and joy out of bitterness.”
This alternative way to live is summed up in the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is often translated as “kindness,” which lacks the power of the Hebrew word. Hesed is God’s steadfast, faithful love for us. The steadfast love of hesed goes way beyond what is expected and hangs in there when most people would have quit. Hesed is also demonstrated in an existing relationship where one person rescues another person from desperate need.
Driven by famine, Naomi and her husband move to Moab from Bethlehem. Their sons marry two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. But Naomi’s husband and sons all die. Now the three women are without sons or husbands and thus without protection, food security or jobs. A widow could not retool at Bedouin University or get a job at the local Zippy Camel Mart.
Naomi is pragmatic and kind and wants security for Ruth and Orpah, with whom she has lived and worked for 10 years. Unable to provide for her daughters-in-law, Naomi urges them to return to their families and commits them to God’s hesed: “May the Lord deal with you [with steadfast love]. … The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband” (Ruth 1:8-9).
Orpah does what is reasonable and leaves, but Ruth makes a stunning promise. Ruth commits herself to go with Naomi and never leave her, to devote herself to God and even be buried with Naomi. Ruth becomes the vehicle of God’s steadfast love in Naomi’s desperate need. Ruth will walk the miles with Naomi and do the back-breaking work of gleaning grain after the harvesters have gone through a field.
Where is God in a turbulent, chaotic or violent time? Wherever people enact hesed, where people maintain relationships and minster to a desperate need.
I have seen that steadfast love: A younger woman with a full-time job and a family who lived many miles away, regularly picked up prescriptions or brought a meal for my aunt in declining health. A wife tenderly cared for her husband long after his dementia had robbed his memory of their life together. A retired social worker made monthly visits to a prison for more than 10 years to encourage a young man and let him know that he was not forgotten. Parents drastically reduced their retirement savings to pay for treatment for their addicted adult child. Several CEOs of companies took drastic salary cuts to prevent layoffs in 2020.
In an L.L. Bean catalog many years ago, I read the account of a December 11, 1995, boiler explosion at Malden Mills in Methuen, Massachusetts, setting off a fire that injured 27 people and destroyed three of the factory’s buildings. Malden Mills made polartec fabric for L.L. Bean, Patagonia and Eddie Bauer. The owner, Aaron Feuerstein, arrived to see the factory burning down.
Feuerstein was a devout Jew who read Hebrew Scriptures every night. From Scripture, he knew that he had a moral responsibility to his workers. Feuerstein pledged to rebuild and paid the full salary of his 2,400 employees for 30 days at a cost of $1.5 million weekly from the insurance payments coupled with his own funds. He further pledged that they would restart operations in less than a month. By January 8, they were up to 80 percent of their former production. Feuerstein understood hesed, staying faithful to his employees and providing for them in their desperate need.
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