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The Book of Ruth is a woman's story about a woman's life. Written thousands of years ago—anywhere from 500 to 1000 B.C.E., depending on which linguistic clues we choose to follow—it is, nevertheless, a perennial. Composed, faith tells us, under the inspiration of the Divine, it calls us to reflect in every generation on what it means to be a whole woman, a spiritual woman, yet today. It models what every woman alive lives still. It is an icon of what it means to be a woman of God, to live under the impulse of the Spirit, to be a creative part of God's creative power. One moment at a time it takes us from one life moment to another to show us how God works in us all, to remind us to what God calls us all, whatever the period, whatever the place. It is a silhouette of every woman's life frozen in time and held up for reflection.
Life, it seems to me in retrospect, is only incidentally made up of chronological pieces specific to this person in this place at this time. Instead, life, its substance and meaning, is really made up of a series of defining moments—moments of loss, risk, change, transformation, relationship, and survival—that mark every woman's passage through time in a way separate from the men around her and that shape her as she goes. All of them stand stark and unadorned in Ruth, pared to the marrow and clear in their challenges. The way we deal with each of these moments determines who and what we really are, who and what we are intended to be, who and what we can become both spiritually and socially.
The Scriptures call it the Book of Ruth. I am not convinced of the full truth of the title. It is at least the Book of Ruth and Naomi, and maybe, actually, The Book of Naomi, the older, wiser woman who having lived through one kind of life wants a better one for Ruth. The younger woman, Naomi knows, looks up to her as model and mentor and friend, and will follow in her footsteps. But which footsteps and how if she is to be everything God wants her to be?
The story as it's told is a simple one: It is the story of two women—one old, one young—both childless and vulnerable, both marginal to the systems around them—who find themselves dealing with limited resources, deep pain, a hostile world, and great concern for the situation of the other. It's a familiar situation for most women yet today who find themselves left to survive in a system to which they do not have full access. Naomi's husband has died—and now ten years later, her two sons, as well. Naomi is left alone in Moab now, the foreign land to which the family, years before, had immigrated in order to escape famine at home. She has no real roots there, no longtime friends to see her through the kind of loss that turns lonely lives back upon themselves, only two Moabite daughters-in-law.
Elimelech, Naomi's deceased husband, had moved the family from Bethlehem, the city of their birth, to this other one where they were outsiders, come-latelies to the social scene, in search of the economic security that an agriculture in decline back home could not promise. It was good short-term thinking, perhaps, if you were the breadwinner in the family, but for Naomi, the now widowed wife in an alien land, it spelled long-term disaster. To leave her foreign home for the open road is risky for Naomi as a woman alone, but to stay where she is means sure destitution. An outlander in a system that made no provision for widows, Naomi decides when the last man in the family dies to return to Bethlehem, her homeland. There, she will at least have some old social ties and there may even yet be remnants of her family, however distant the relationships.
Naomi's daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, are now, like herself, single women, widows, in a world where not to be attached to a man is to be in danger, socially, economically, and physically. Ruth and Orpah are, then, faced with a major decision: to cling to what they are where they are or to become new women in a new world. Ruth and Orpah, unlike Naomi, are young enough to simply begin the old pattern all over again—to marry, settle down where they've always been, have children, go on maintaining the society around them as their mothers and grandmothers have done for centuries. Or they can seize this moment in life to become someone new, to start again alone and in a place other than their beginnings. They can take what appears as God's one and only will for them or they can stretch themselves to the limits of themselves to find the God who waits for them in what they have yet to become.
What woman has not faced the question of what it would mean to strike out on a different course than the one defined for her by time and the society in which she lives? What unmarried woman, let alone a widow, does not know the implications of the situation yet? Life for the single woman is far different than life for the single man. There are few, if any, single friends for a single woman to relate to in a social world made up of couples, and the single woman is often seen as a threat. There are sparse assets to draw on for the rest of life when a woman has no job or cannot get one that pays enough to support the present and provide for the future at the same time because she is a woman. And, as any widow—any woman—knows, there is some kind of danger, physical or material, everywhere for the unmarried woman.
One daughter-in-law, Orpah—the sensible one, many would say—decides to stay in Moab, her homeland, where the chances of another marriage are presumably better than they would be in a strange place. Orpah will simply marry again and go on as usual. It's an honorable choice and a safe one. It clings to what is, in the hope that it can be good again.
Ruth, on the other hand, the second daughter-in-law, decides to go with Naomi to a land where she will be an eternal outsider and where the national prejudice against Moabites, let alone single Moabite women, goes deep. It is a very precarious situation for a young woman. Interracial marriages are frowned upon in early Israel, and a woman without a husband in a culture where a woman's social security depends on her being linked to a man is a sorry sight. But Ruth makes the bold choice, the one filled with faith that the God of yesterday is also the God of today, that the God who took one thing away has something else in store for her. Ruth opts to begin again somewhere else in very new ways, whatever the odds against her. She determines to follow a God who worked through Miriam, Rachel, Sarah and Leah as well as through Moses, Jacob and Abraham to save a world and lead a people.
The book of Naomi and Ruth, therefore, is the story of three women left to fend for themselves in a world geared to the autonomy and ability of men but not to the freedom and full development of women. It is the story of what it takes to discover the God within. It is a defining moment for all three.
In fact, there are delineating moments in every human life, points after which we are never quite the same again. Perhaps especially for women they are often intensely private, deeply personal ones. What these three women do in the midst of their own struggles—how they thread their way through the system as women, what qualities it takes, and what decisions it requires as they do—is model enough for anyone, but for women in a special way. Even now. Even here.
Most women live very unpretentious lives. We grow up, work hard, take care of families, stumble through relationships, endure losses, and, in the course of it, contend, too often all alone, with the complexities that come from trying to balance the values of the world around us with what our own experiences and talents and wisdom dictate. It is not an easy task, for either men or women, of course. The problem is that there is a dimension to a woman's life that is unique to being a woman. Women live in two worlds—one private, one public—but, if truth were known, are by and large considered native to only one of them. What we know in the private arena is seldom considered common coin in the other.
Women now commonly function on the edge of two systems, one public and one private. We stand with a foot in both worlds, one that promises us home and hearth for obeying the social roles of the culture, one that requires us to shoulder our private worlds and sustain our public ones at the same time but without guarantee of the means to do either. The woman called by God, either by life circumstance or by personal gift, to live in both knows the expense to the self of following the call.
Often denied equal pay and pension benefits, for instance, most women live with fewer resources than most of the men around them. Defined as the primary caretakers of humanity, they labor under more limited professional opportunities than men and so must deal with the lack of personal and financial security such restrictions imply in a highly professional world. Full of intelligence and heart and creativity, they struggle almost reflexively to become what they know themselves to be despite the odds against them. And, ironically, impelled, if for no other reason than economic ones, to function both inside and outside the home, women carry responsibilities far beyond the strength of the average person to bear. They care for small children, look after old relatives, maintain busy homes, work the eight-hour day for essential resources, manage the greater part of the housework, and all the while try to become whole persons themselves by pursuing the development of their own potential and dreaming their own dreams. All the while they look for spiritual models to show them the way.
Far too often for far too many, however, life lived on such a flimsy bridge of hope and chance, of strain and burden, begins to sway and slip. A marriage crumbles, a husband leaves, a job ends, a career vanishes, the money runs out but the costs do not. There are few role models in the history of the world for a woman to refer to when one end or the other of these very fragmented lives sags or snaps. It is precisely then that the story of Ruth and Naomi begins to matter. In the Book of Ruth, the Word of God takes a position on women that defies the social tradition, in this day as well as in that one. In the Book of Ruth, God calls us beyond the stereotypes and the social barriers to fullness of life and wholeness of being. It is a spiritual journey meant clearly for us all.
Naomi and Ruth have something to say to each of us, even yet, even now as we face loss and change and risk and the unfamiliar in our own lives and the eternal debate over God's will for women. The Book of Ruth is a treatise on the spirituality of womanhood. John August Swanson paints the scenes; you and I live them. But how? And with what effect on our hoping hearts, our seared souls, our psyches, our world?