Reflecting on Ruth 1:1-17

Both Greek and Hebrew classes have assigned reflective interactions with the text that I translate each week. I may occasionally reflect through the blog, as now.

Thus far Hebrew has been much more difficult than Greek. I am at the point in both languages where I am supposed to be translating, albeit inaccurately, texts from Scripture. I am still heavily tied to Bible Works for help, but that is mostly because we have not learned all the tools that are required for basic reading. This is my first actual translation work in Hebrew and, despite the suffering it has caused me egotistically and emotionally, I think I am really going to love reading in Hebrew.

For one thing the Hebrew scriptures are much more poetic and subtle than the New Testament writers. The only one who comes close to the subtlety and beauty of communication in the New Testament is Jesus himself. I have to admit that sometimes he is so subtle that I don't get him. Some of the word plays that come through the Hebrew text, however, are already open to me and I can enjoy what the writer of the book was doing. In the beginning of Ruth, for example, the author explains that there was a famine in Bethlehem. We know of Bethlehem as the City of David, or the place where Christ was born, but during this time there was no David and no Christ. Bethlehem is actually two words in Hebrew, "house" and "bread". If you did not know that Bethlehem was a city the text would read, "there was a famine in the house of bread." Ironic. Later, God visits the people by giving them food. The text reads, "by giving to them food." The word "to them" is the same as the word for "bread" with the exception of a vowel sound, and vowel were not written in the original text. It looks like a repetition of the same word, but it is simply a device that adds color to the text and reminds the reader that the house of bread has been replenished by the Lord.

These are not reflections on the text, per se, but my enjoyment of the literature that I am working with. This text is actually about the woman Naomi. The story begins with a man, his wife (Naomi) and their two sons. They are forced out of the land of Judah by a famine and they go to live in Moab. While there the sons take wives, one of whom is Ruth (pronounced Root:). They are there nearly 10 years and the husband and the two sons die. Naomi speaks to her daughter's in law and tells them to go live with their families and take new husbands. They refuse. Naomi explains that she has nothing to offer them, "are there still sons in my womb for you?"

To understand what she meant by this it is important to not that in that day men were important to women. Women needed men to provide for them, protect them, and to give their life meaning by giving them someone to serve and by impregnating them. Now you may or may not be thankful that our lives are so different from theirs, but my description of that time is not inaccurate. Jobs were not open to women the way they are today so without a man they could not support themselves or their families. A woman's value was found in bearing and raising children and in seeing their children become successful enough to support them when they were old. At the beginning of this story we find Naomi in a desperate situation. All of her men have died. Her daughter's in law feel that they should stay with her but she says no. In effect she is saying, "your whole lives are ahead of you. If you stick with me you will be manless for the rest of your lives. Why live a meaningless and purposeless existence with me when you could go and marry someone else and bear children?" That is what she meant by saying, "are there still sons in my womb for you?"

Ruth's sister agrees with Naomi and they all cry and she leaves. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to leave. The rest of Ruth will be an account of her godliness and the blessings given to her by the Lord. This point cannot be missed, when Ruth stayed with her mother in law she was giving up any hope of a meaningful life. This was not an obligation on her, but she did it out of love for Naomi. "Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people, and your God my God." It may not sound "spiritual" to follow God for the sake of someone else, but that is not the point here. Ruth shows character in every way, and she fulfills the law by honoring her mother and sticking with her. No matter why she became a follower of God she was devoted to him none the less. Such nobility earned her a spot in the canon of God.

When I began to reflect on this passage I realized the terror that must have gripped Naomi when her men died. She said her life was bitter because the hand of the Lord was against her. What else is she supposed to think? All meaning, all purpose had been stripped away from her. If it had not been for Ruth she would have had nothing. It made me think of how fragile life can be. A small thing can change your life forever. She had it all one day, and the next her life, for all practical purposes, was over. She gave up hope.

How easy is it to destroy a life? I was reading a book the other day, A Tale of Two Cities in fact, and I could not understand a sentence on the page. I read it over and over again and I could not grasp any meaning from the text. I continued to read thinking it would become easier, but it didn't. I got so frustrated I set it down and found something easier to understand, Five Views on the Law and Gospel. After a few pages I comforted myself that I could still read. A few days later I resumed A Tale of Two Cities happily surprised that I could now understand it. What happened? Did I have a concentration lapse? Maybe. It got me thinking about my life. What if I could no longer read. What would become of all the work I have done, of everything I have poured myself into? I would have to pursue different ends, a different career, who knows. That might have been a little of how Naomi felt, except she was not young enough to truly start over.

How much do we need God. Such a small thing can make or break us. Without his hand to guide us where would we be, who would we be? With out his power protecting us how could we avoid disastrous calamity? And yet, how often do we thank God that he has sustained us unscathed one more day? How often do we ask for daily bread truly believing that he is the Provider and without him we could come to ruin in one day?

Lord, bless you for not turning away from us despite our thankless hearts. Thank you for not destroying us despite our pride. Thank you for taking on our weakness and sticking around.

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  • Ruth is very powerful text. It has always intrigued me…a book about a woman…a foriegn woman, in the OT no less! Amazing.

    I agree with you about the Hebrew being beautiful. Alas, I did not take Hebrew but the tiny bits I glistened really made me fall in love with the language. I love the minor prophets, and the beauty found in that poetry has often broken my heart.

  • I think that to completely trust God is one of the hardest things people have to do. For a person to “ask for daily bread” and trust God to provide it would be giving up what little control he has over life. Even though he would come to ruin without God, it is that desire to control his life that keeps him from trusting God.

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  • stephen F.

    i love you