Moab is not where you want to go.
Not if you’re an Israelite, that is. In Genesis 19 we’re told that the genealogy of the Moabites starts with Lot and his daughter having a son. You heard that right: incest between dad and daughter. Not something anyone would brag about in their family tree.
Later, after they left Egypt, the Israelites would cross paths with the Moabites repeatedly. In Numbers 22 the Moabite king wants Balaam to curse the Israelites. In Numbers 25 the Israelite men begin worshipping other gods at the invitation of the Moabite women. In Judges 3, God uses Moab to conquer the unfaithful Israelites, and Moab rules over them for eighteen years. If that doesn’t convince you of the grudge the Israelites had against Moab, then read the law laid out in Deuteronomy 23:3-5:
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the LORD for ever; because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia… You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days for ever.”*
Moab was not Israel’s Canada, their friendly neighboring country. Israelites would not go borrow a cup of sugar from the Moabites; they would avoid them at all costs. Merely the name “Moab” would bring up connotations of bad morals and bad blood.
This is where our story begins, with Naomi and her family turning to Moab for help.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how our prejudices can become less significant when our problems become more significant? In Bethlehem there’s a famine. In Moab there’s not. So Elimelech and his family leave Bethlehem – leave Israel – and go to the dreaded neighbors in order to survive. Ironically, in their search for survival they find death; Elimelech and his two sons die, leaving three widows considering a return to Bethlehem.
That word – return – is significant. In Hebrew it’s shuwb (“schoove”); it can be translated “turn” or “return” or “go back.” Because it’s translated various ways we might not notice its frequency in our English Bibles, but it’s there TWELVE TIMES in this first chapter of Ruth. So notice the dizzying chain of events that happens from here:
Naomi TURNS to Bethlehem with Ruth and Orpah
They TURN toward Judah (where Bethlehem is located)
Naomi tells Ruth and Orpah to TURN back
They say, “No, we are TURNING with you to Bethlehem!”
Naomi says, “TURN back, I’m not going to have sons you can marry! TURN back!”
Ruth clings to Naomi…
Naomi says again, “Your sister-in-law TURNed back, now you TURN back!”
Ruth says, “I won’t TURN from you!”
“I went away full, and God has reTURNed me empty,” Naomi says.
So Naomi reTURNed to Bethlehem, and Ruth TURNed there with her.
There’s enough turning going on for a good case of motion sickness.
Turn, turn, turn. The Byrds wrote their song about Ecclesiastes, but it almost applies better here. Turn to Moab. Turn to Israel. Turn to a mother-in-law. Turn away from her.
We don’t have to be three widows in a foreign country to related to this rapid-fire turning, because it can happen to us, too.
There are times where we aren’t sure what to do, so we bounce from one idea to another, one place to another, one person to another. We try anything and anyone and anywhere in the hopes of making a decision and finding the path out.
There are also times of life that bounce us around like this. We’re trying to make a decision, but every door we choose shuts in our face. So we go from person to idea to place and back around again, but they’re all dead ends.
Turn, turn, turn.
Ruth can teach us how to stop all that turning and find a direction.
Before we lift up Ruth as our heroine, we should pause to give Orpah some praise.
She shows up briefly in the story, the daughter-in-law who decided to stay in Moab with her people. Her decision is not a bad one; Orpah is not the villain here. Cultural tradition told her to go back to her people in a situation like this one, where her husband was dead and she had no foreseeable future with her mother-in-law. She cared enough about Naomi to pause and consider going with her; when she turns back, it’s only with Naomi’s encouragement. On top of all that, the text says nary a bad word about Orpah. No, she’s not a bad guy. She’s just the other guy, the one who made a perfectly acceptable choice that most everyone would make.
Except Ruth. Ruth made a different choice, which is why her decision stands out.
In the midst of all this turning, Ruth decided to stay with her mother-in-law.
This defies logic, as Naomi makes very clear. A woman needed a man to survive – to provide food and clothing and shelter. As a child, this man was a father. As an adult, this man was a husband. Widowed women were in a dangerous position; that’s why Old Testament law (see Exodus 22:22) specifically provided for their care. So here’s three widows, three women in a very scary position.
So Orpah turns back to her people, her father – nothing wrong with that. It’s what Naomi encourages her to do. Ruth, however, turns toward something different. She doesn’t just turn toward her mother-in-law – that path is an essential dead end. Ruth turns toward something different, something better, something we all must turn toward:
Hesed is a Hebrew concept that could be simply put as “kindness,” but it’s much more than that. Hesed is “showing love and loyalty over and beyond what is considered normal or expected” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). So hear Ruth’s declaration to Naomi and judge for yourself whether this is an act of kindness, or something more, a hesed:
“Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!”
This is hesed, above-and-beyond love for another. It’s also what the Jews considered to be an essential part of God; God is often described as having hesed. When Psalm 13:5 tells God, “I trusted in your steadfast love,” that’s hesed.
This is what orients Ruth. Hesed, an above-and-beyond loving kindness that resembles God’s love for us. This is what she turns toward.
She doesn’t turn toward home or some far away country;
She doesn’t turn toward family or those who used to be her enemies;
She doesn’t turn toward cultural etiquette or “what everyone else does”;
She doesn’t turn toward self-preservation or fear.
All of those are on the table in this story. All of those are options in this chapter of turn, turn, turning. Ruth sets her course by turning, instead, to hesed.
Hesed – loving kindness – is our navigational course, as well. Or, at least it should be. When Jesus was asked what’s most important (what the greatest commandment is), Jesus said to (1) love God and (2) love our neighbor as ourselves. After washing the disciples’ feet Jesus told them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
In the moments when we aren’t sure where to turn or what to do; in the time when we find ourselves turn, turn, turning from one thing to another; we must turn toward hesed. If we are determined to choose radical loving kindness, our options will narrow down. If we are looking for the best chance to love like our God loves, some options will look better than others. And in the end, if we’re still left with more than one way to turn – if two paths are both toward this radical loving kindness – then I would say, God will be with us whichever way we go.
But the only way we can turn is toward hesed.