I’m so excited to start this book, because as we all know by now, my favorite ones are usually narrative stories (check!) and don’t go on for too long (check plus!). So let’s dive right in to the book of Ruth. It starts with the backstory, which comes before the main heroine gets introduced.
“Now it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land, and a man went from Bethlehem of Judah to sojourn in the fields of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons (Ruth 1:1).” We learn that the man is Elimelech, his wife is Naomi, and their sons are Mahlon and Chilion. They’re in Moab long enough that Elimelech dies, both sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, and then they die as well. It’s all a tragic buildup, particularly for poor Naomi who is now away from her home and bereft of her whole family. But she must be a pretty good mother-in-law, because when she decides to go back home, both daughters decide to go with her. She blesses them and tells them to go home, and protests a bit, but ultimately listens. “And they raised their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth cleaved to her (Ruth 1:14).”
Ruth refuses to leave, and clings to Ruth with the iconic words wherever you to, I will go, your people shall be my people and your God my God. This is when Ruth becomes the first official convert, someone who had another viable option, in this case her home country and family, but actively chose a different life. We honor Ruth for this, which seems very timely today in particular, because today I went with a group of fellow Jewish educators to the newly opened Museum of the Bible for the first time. There’s a lot to reflect on about the experience as a whole, but one thing that particularly interested me in this context is the emphasis on Ruth in the exhibit about Tanakh. One can read a lot into it – she’s the ancestress of David, who Christians believe is the ancestor of Jesus, so of course she’s an important character to highlight. But I like the story of Ruth because it’s ultimately about the power of female relationships, loyalty, and choice. We don’t get a lot of choice in Tanakh. People are often born into their roles, or are obligated in some way. But Ruth’s magic is that she created her own destiny, making her an awesome female biblical role model to boot.