The Word in the Wings
The Word in the Wings > From the study: from risk to redemption
From the study: from risk to redemption
By: KAYA WEAVER
Glorify Dance Theatre has begun work on a new ballet, Chesed, that will premiere this March (tickets available here!). The ballet explores different facets of the meaning of “chesed” to explore how humans relate to God and to each other through generous, loyal love. For the next few weeks on The Word in the Wings, we’re looking closely at a few passages of Scripture where the word “chesed” occurs to learn about how this kind of love works and what God intends it to accomplish.
As we’ve explored ḥesed so far, we’ve observed that ḥesed begins when one person takes a risk to voluntarily extend kindness and the other party responds with faithfulness. God unfailingly extends kindness to human partners who continually neglect to honor God and uphold ḥesed, but God’s enduring ḥesed is great enough to cover the distance and reach the people who have rejected God.
If so much of ḥesed consists of risk, vulnerability, rejection, and imbalance, why is ḥesed the way God chooses to love humanity, and why is ḥesed the way God calls humanity to love one another? The book of Ruth, set in the era of Israel’s judges, shows how ḥesed drives the plight of two refugee women to redemption. The transformation that loyal love brings to their lives points to the way that God’s ḥesed works to redeem all people.
The book of Ruth opens by summarizing the experience of an Israelite family who relocates to the land of Moab to escape famine in Bethlehem. While the woman Naomi is living in Moab with her husband and two sons, the three men all die, leaving behind Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, whom her sons had married while in Moab. Then, hearing that God has provided food once more in Bethlehem, the three women set out to return there (see Ruth 1:1-7).
Thus far, Naomi’s story has been driven by survival. She leaves Bethlehem with her family when faced with starvation in their homeland. When only death finds them in Moab, Naomi looks back toward home, hoping at least to preserve her own life.
Ruth 1:8 And Naomi said to both her daughters-in-law, “Go, each woman to her mother’s house. May Yahweh do with you ḥesed as you’ve done with the dead and with me.
9 May Yahweh grant that you find security, each woman in her house.” So they kissed her, and they raised their voices and wept.
Biblical scholar Katharine Doob Sakenfeld identifies Naomi’s words here as a benedictory use of ḥesed, “associated with the ending of human relationships” and the accompanying responsibilities (p. 111). Though the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law denotes a certain level of mutual obligation, Naomi indicates that she has exhausted her capacity to fulfill her obligations to Ruth and Orpah and therefore releases them into Yahweh’s care (Sakenfeld, p. 109). As Naomi’s speech goes on, it becomes clear that though she goes to Bethlehem in order to survive, she holds out little hope of opportunities there to thrive. For her daughters-in-law, she hopes instead that they may find greater “security” apart from her.
10 And they said to her, “We will return with you to your people.”
11 And Naomi said, “Return, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Do I have more sons in my inward parts that they would become husbands for you?
12 Return, my daughters; go, for I’m too old for a husband. Even if I said there was hope for me, even if I spent a night with a man, and even if I bore sons,
13 would you therefore wait until they grew, would you therefore shut yourselves off from having a husband?
14 No, my daughters, for it is more bitter for me than you because Yahweh’s hand has gone out against me.”
In a succession of emphatically conditional phrases, Naomi highlights the improbability that Ruth and Orpah could find security by remaining with her as daughters-in-law (Schipper, pp. 95, 104). She asks rhetorically, “Why would you go with me?” to underscore her bitter expectation that the younger women have nothing to gain by binding themselves to her. In verses 10-13, Naomi explains concretely what she indicates earlier (see v. 8): she has no more ability to fulfill a mother-in-law’s obligation to provide them the security of a husband.
When she says, “…it is more bitter for me than you,” Naomi contrasts her resignation to the loneliness and poverty of widowhood with Ruth and Orpah’s option to seek security elsewhere. Naomi feels exposed and vulnerable, as if even the God providing a chance for her survival (see Ruth 1:6) is set against her. Robert Alter comments, “The wording [of verse 14] suggests something close to an attack” (p. 626). Even as she invokes Yahweh’s ḥesed for Ruth and Orpah, Naomi’s own perception of God’s disposition toward her is anything but kindness. On the whole, Naomi’s words to her two daughters-in-law express a sense of isolation from her family and from God that she reinforces by insisting that Ruth and Orpah leave and seek Yahweh’s blessing apart from her.
14 And they raised their voices and wept again, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 And she said, “Look, your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods; go after your sister-in-law.”
Orpah acquiesces to Naomi’s insistence, but Ruth remains determined not to leave Naomi alone in her exposure and hopelessness. Naomi makes one further nudge, pointing to the identity and belonging that Ruth has in Moab. Naomi supposes that Ruth could return to the people among whom she was born and the gods they worship and identify with. Though their separation means isolation for Naomi, at least while she journeys back to Bethlehem and insofar as her household is deceased, Ruth won’t be alone when Naomi departs but should quickly be embraced by her original, Moabite community and might even have family to return to in “her mother’s house” (see v. 8).
16 And Ruth said, “Don’t entreat me to abandon you, to return from following you. For where you go I’ll go and where you lodge I’ll lodge. Your people is my people and your God my God.
17 Where you die I’ll die, and I’ll be buried there. May Yahweh do thus to me, and add to this, if even death should separate me from you.”
Countering the distance and differentiation that Naomi insists on, Ruth declares a congruence between Naomi’s fate and allegiances and Ruth’s own. Ellen Davis suggests translating the clause “Your people (is) my people,” which has no verb in Hebrew, in the present tense to indicate that Ruth and Naomi “already share two things–a people and a God” and that this “is the basis for sharing all the contingencies in the near and far future,” which are indicated by the other, future tense verbs in Ruth’s oath (p. 27). Ruth rejects Naomi’s claim that “it is more bitter for me than for you” by vowing to share in Naomi’s future, whatever bitterness or pleasantness it brings. Ruth is driven to share even hardship with Naomi because she finds belonging in Naomi’s family and identity with Naomi’s people and their God.
Further pushing back against Naomi’s efforts to free her for her own future, Ruth vows commitment to Naomi even beyond death (v. 17). For Naomi, the death of her sons and her inability to subsequently provide for Ruth as a mother-in-law is sufficient to release Ruth from her obligation to Naomi as daughter-in-law (see v. 8). Typically, the permanent separation of death would also mark the end of an obligation of ḥesed (Sakenfeld, p. 108), but Ruth makes a new, voluntary commitment to Naomi that even death won’t terminate. By discounting any possible release from her vow, Ruth marks her loyalty to Naomi as unconditional. Regardless of Naomi’s capacity to provide security for her, even knowing that no reciprocity is offered, Ruth promises never to forsake Naomi.
Biblical scholar Phylis Trible writes, “If Naomi stands alone by the force of circumstances, Ruth stands alone by the force of decision…the two women begin their lives together in separation” (p. 172). Famine and bereavement have left Naomi isolated, feeling exposed to “the hand of Yahweh” that she feels is against her. Ruth could choose to leave Naomi in her bitterness and seek security elsewhere, but instead she decides to make Naomi’s vulnerability her own. By vowing commitment to Naomi and turning aside from the possibility of remarriage among her own people, Ruth takes on the insecurity of widowhood in a foreign land. At this point, Ruth lacks even a reassurance of mutual support from Naomi, who feels utterly without recourse for herself, let alone for her daughter-in-law. Ruth chooses to cling to a woman who is pushing her away and calls on Yahweh to hold her accountable, exposing herself to Naomi’s silence and to the justice of God if she reneges. Ruth also voluntarily exposes herself to Naomi’s bitter experience of “the hand of Yahweh.” As moving as her intentions are, it looks as though Ruth’s ḥesed leads her into a desolate wilderness.
RUTH’S EXPOSURE BECOMES NAOMI’S ENCLOSURE
Ruth 2:1 Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.
2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.”
3 So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.
17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley.
18 She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. (NRSV)
Once Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth sets out to provide for Naomi’s physical security by gathering food from the fields. Gleaning is an ancient Israelite practice whereby the poor and vulnerable of society collect grain that the harvesters intentionally leave behind (Davis, p. 43). Ruth works all day and brings home enough grain to feed herself and Naomi for weeks (Davis, p. 59).
19 Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.”
20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose ḥesed has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” (NRSV)
The events of the day, from Ruth’s hard work and successful harvest to Naomi’s realization that they are not entirely without family connections in Bethlehem, leave Naomi with a refreshed perspective on God’s attitude toward her. Where before Naomi says, “Yahweh’s hand has gone out against me,” she now sees that Yahweh’s kindness toward her persists. Because of Ruth’s actions to support her, Naomi feels more secure and hopeful than she does in her isolation.
The self-giving love of Jesus provides a powerful lens for understanding how vulnerable love like Ruth’s almost paradoxically generates security. Julian of Norwich envisions Christ’s passion as an outpouring, both physically in the blood poured out on the cross and symbolically in the visible revelation of God’s love and mercy. In her vision, she sees in Christ crucified “a self-emptying love, and emptying of all that is human in Christ so that nothing remains hidden” (Lamm, p. 100). On the cross, Christ is exposed in the sense of being vulnerable to pain and death, and he is exposed in the sense that the love that motivates his suffering is revealed.
As Julian sees it, this self-emptying love constitutes an “exteriorization” of the divine self and “creates a new, generative, interior space in God” (Lamm, p. 103). The internal realities of God’s character are exposed, moved to the outside where humanity can observe and understand them. Julian also envisions the wound in Christ’s side as a space of safety and enclosure as well as further revelation of Christ’s love (Lamm, p. 104). When Christ chooses to be vulnerable and pour out love through the resulting wounds, the mark of Christ’s vulnerability becomes the place where a person may seek refuge in his love.
Reading Ruth through the lens of Julian’s vision of Christ’s self-emptying love, a similar dynamic appears between Ruth and Naomi. By making herself vulnerable, Ruth opens up a space within herself where Naomi can take refuge. As Christ chooses the passion of the cross in order to reveal the extent of God’s loyal love to humanity, Ruth chooses the desolation of widowhood in a foreign land to reveal her loyal love to Naomi. By exposing herself to the vulnerability of sharing Naomi’s circumstances, Ruth encloses Naomi in the secure embrace of a daughter-in-law who will work to provide for her life.
There’s more to the story of Ruth’s ḥesed for Naomi. The enclosure created for Naomi’s security is not a barrier of exclusion that keeps out danger through defensiveness. Rather, as the story continues to unfold, Ruth’s exposure generates further opportunity for kindness and provision, enlarging the sense of ḥesed as a dynamic, expansive love.
Scripture quotations are my own translation except where otherwise noted.
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