Women trying to survive, trying to survive in a man’s world—where men had the power, where women had nothing on their own. That’s the story of the book of Ruth—a story that, as we move through the chapters, narrows our focus onto two people, Naomi and Ruth, their commitment to each other, their love as the power for their survival. It’s a story about two women trying to make a life, together, to make something out of nothing—to make a life out of scraps, out of what’s left behind.
The story begins with famine and death. The context is a world full of desperation, a harsh world—and it’s especially harsh for Naomi and her two daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth, because all the men in their lives have died. In that society to be a woman without a man, without either as a son or a husband, left you among the most vulnerable, among the most desperate of people—without rights, without protection, without money, without a safety net. Their lives are out of their control. They have no future.
The three of them begin their journey together, from the land of Moab to the land of Judah. First there are three women, then there are only two, because Orpah turns back to Moab, to return to her people. She makes the reasonable decision. She chooses wisely.
Naomi tells Ruth to go back too. “Turn back,” Naomi says, “Turn back, go your own way” (1:11-12)—she repeats herself, Naomi pleads with her, because she knows that there is no hope for Ruth in Judah, there is no hope for either of them. But Ruth is young. There’s still a chance that she can make a life in Moab, among her own people—that’s what Naomi tells her, insisting that she stay, for Ruth to stay and to let Naomi go on alone to Judah, to return to her people.
But Ruth refuses to leave her side. She commits herself—her life, her future—to Naomi with some of the most beautiful words, words of devotion, rivaling David’s profession of love for Jonathan.
“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (1:15-17)
Christians have used these words for weddings—to borrow from Ruth’s commitment to Naomi, to let her words somehow voice their love and devotion. This passage in Ruth borrows language from the beginning of the Bible, from the first chapters of Genesis, when God creates the first human beings. Remember what it says in Genesis 2:24, after Eve and Adam first meet one another, “flesh of my flesh,” Adam says to Eve. “Therefore,” it says, “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.” That same Hebrew word—“to cleave”—appears again here in Ruth: “Ruth clung to her” (1:14). It’s the same word—to cleave, to bind one life to another, as if the same flesh. The story of Eve and Adam frames the relationship of Naomi and Ruth from the outset of the story. “Ruth clung to Naomi,” each joining to the other as if they were Adam and Eve born again—bone grafted to bone, breast knit to breast: companions.
They will need each other as they make a life together in Judah. Because all they have is their companionship, their solidarity. They possess nothing in this world. They have no one else to depend on—no one who cares if they live or die. They are worthless to the world around them, but to each other they are everything. “One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends on men.” That’s how the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible puts it, to get at the riskiness of their relationship. “These women bear their own burdens,” Trible writes, “No God promises them a blessing; no man rushes to their rescue.”[i]
There’s a lot of ways that Ruth is like Abraham, who left his people behind—he left the land of Ur, all because God told him to wander into an unknown future, to leave behind his people for the sake of a promise, a blessing. Ruth is also leaving behind her people, leaving behind the land of Moab, for a risky future, an unknown life. But the difference is that Ruth never hears from God. She receives no promise of blessing. Instead, she relinquishes her family, her nationality, and her religion for the sake of making a life with Naomi, the both of them enduring this harsh world together.
Ruth cleaves herself to Naomi without a reason, without calculation, without a promised blessing, without a vision for the future. She has no explanation for why she goes with Naomi—only that she wants to be with her, to live with her, to become her people.
“Where you go, I will go,” Ruth vows to Naomi, “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). The power of this commitment is that it goes against the assumption that our belonging is something we are born into, as if our genes determine our people group, as if our bloodline determines our social belonging, as if our biology, our sex, decides who we are allowed to love.
I think the best language we have today to talk about Naomi and Ruth is that they queer our relationships. They queer our expectations of what we thought was acceptable, of what we thought was possible, in terms of our belonging, our relationships, our sense of who are our people. Their story breaks through the borders of who we are allowed to claim as our people, the walls erected to keep one person from another, to social expectations that judge our relationships, and the nationalism that claims this country as your country to the exclusion of another.
Ruth, the Moabite, cleaves to a foreign woman, to Naomi from Judah. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth defects from her people of birth; she betrays her national identity. She rejects patriotism. She refuses the rules of their patriarchal society. With Naomi from Judah, Ruth crosses over all that divides them from each other—that’s why this is a queer story, not only because it’s about two women, but because it’s about peoplehood, about how we belong together, about who is allowed to belong to whom, and Ruth queers all those borders in our world. She redefines what counts as family. She reconfigures kinship.
This is a story about our lives, about who we are called to be, as the church, as a congregation—here, where we learn how to belong to one another, beyond genes and bloodlines, beyond the claims on our lives based on nationalism and the family. The way the church as done this from the beginning is to talk about ourselves as siblings to one another—that we are each others siblings, that we are entrusted with caring for one another, that God transfigures us into a people overflowing with life-sustaining love, that we enable each other to survive.
And not just for ourselves to survive. The power of this story is that two women form a way of life for their own survival—beyond the world of people like me. There are no religious leaders in this story, no priests in this story. There isn’t a community for them—nothing like a church or a religious institution of any kind. They are alone in the world, two women alone, yet together, and there is strength in their togetherness, resilience for the journey.
This story is a testimony. The book of Ruth bears witness to the life that happens despite borders and in spite of barriers, the life that happens between things. The story testifies that even if the whole of society is stacked against you, even if the whole world conspires against you, there are companions to bear the load: an unexpected someone, an uncommon bond.
There is a power at work in the world, a source of strength, a force of survival—there even in the most desperate circumstances, there when a person, a community, a people cleaves to another.
God doesn’t show up as a character in this story—there is no voice from heaven, no burning bush, no angels to guide them. But maybe the point of the story is that the power of God is hidden, silent, unspoken but there nonetheless—as the hidden strength shared between these two women, divine power, God born of their cleaving to one another.
Here’s the question I think this first chapter asks us, if we let Ruth and Naomi get into our lives—to let their story reach into ours. Here are my question for us: To whom must you cleave for your survival? And who must cleave to you for their survival? In whose lives do we find hope? In whom do we see a resilience that can only come from God—because that life is good news, like Naomi is good news for Ruth.
“Your people shall become my people, your God my God.” Ruth invites us to risk our belonging, to risk our home, to risk our place in the world—and instead to find our people beyond us, beyond our borders, and there to find our God beyond our God.
[i] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1978), 166. My sermon heavily relies on Trible’s insightful exegesis of the book of Ruth.