Ruth would be better named Three Women of Moab. Naomi, Ruth and Orpah intrigue us as they reimagine how they fit together in their patriarchal society. Building on the suggestion that Ruth is a story of exile and return, I will explore the contours of their experience of impasse and chronicle their paths to a new stability. Beginning with Naomi and Ruth, I will later focus on Orpah, inviting her character to resurface in the life of a new friend. Continuing in the contemporary setting, I conclude with my personal connections to Ruth. I believe all five of us chose a distinct and valid way to reconnect to supportive social structures when the primary elements of our relationships to community vanished.
I created the second half of this study with Nancy, who returned to her “mother’s house” after a profound awareness of the cost of fraudulent choices in her life. As I interweave her voice into my interpretation, I trust we will be able to speak to women who have had destabilizing experiences and are repositioning themselves, whether within the family they married into or within their family of origin. I hope that our reflections on our lives will yield a supportive environment for other women who find themselves in impasse, craving truth and hope.
Naomi, Ruth and Orpah in Ruth
Ruth is considered pre-exilic, dating from the tenth to the ninth centuries B.C.E. Norman K. Gottwald tells us that biblical short stories probably existed in an oral form or other preceding written form (552). He believes there were professional story tellers, earlier versions of Alice Walker or Anne Lamott, who performed when the community gathered. There is evidence that Ruth was read at the Feast of Weeks. Gottwald links Ruth with two other biblical short stories that form single books, Jonah and Esther. There are many examples of short stories included in other books in the canon, but only these three stand alone (551). A short storyincludes several episodes within a limited time sequence, has a dignified style, with skillful development of character and an engaging plot realistic enough to capture the reader’s interest. It mixes elements from myth with history. As I read Ruth, it is not difficult for me to sense it is not literally true and yet something like it happened a thousand times. Good fiction is created out of a multitude of historic events.
Ruth is a literary comedy, which means that the tensions within the plot resolve, bringing the reader to believe the future is bright. Suspense within the story simply adds to the impact of the happy resolution (Smith). When Ruth begins, three women are surrounded by death. Together they grieve. Then Orpah returns to her family and we see Naomi and Ruth move step by step from abandonment to abundance. Gottwald has created a chart showing the six episodes that are constructed in nearly a chiastic pattern (556). The story begins with exile in Moab and returning to Bethlehem, then concludes at the city gates of Bethlehem and the birth of a son. The two middle scenes in the field and on the threshing floor tell us how Naomi and Ruth acted in specific ways to reverse their circumstance from desperate loss to profitable gain.
A famine has forced Naomi and Elimelech into exile, having left Bethlehem in Judah to resettle in Moab with their sons. Elimelech has died. The two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, have each married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Within ten years, both sons also die.Hearing that the Lord has given his people food in Judah, Naomi begins her return trip, bringing the two young women. En route, Naomi, for a reason the text does not reveal, instructs Orpah and Ruth to return to their “mother’s houses” with a blessing, similar to what we have already read at the death beds of patriarchs. She, as the surviving elder, is the one to speak ceremonial words of departure. They both protest, leading Naomi to counter their ridiculous loyalty, for she cannot bear more sons in her old age. So what would be the point? How choosing to stay with Naomi could possibly make sense is beyond logic. No, Naomi reasons with them. They are still young enough to find husbands in their native land. Naomi pleads for them to go home with her blessing. Orpah does.
Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi. The narrator does not reveal her motivations. “Mythic ideas had to be accepted as not only appropriate to the self-understanding of the group but plausible” (Mack 71). How could Ruth’s choice make sense? Can we imagine Ruth had alienated her mother when she married out of her tribe, or that she sensed her family of origin would further wound her, or that she simply loves Naomi and worries about Naomi’s future? We can imagine many possible catalysts for her choice and so trust that the original hearers could also.
What we are told is that Ruth boldly declares an unequivocal allegiance to Naomi, a widow. She is going with Naomi, fully committed. Without the men, is Naomi still her mother-in-law? So what is their relationship now? What holds them together? Could a future yet be pregnant with possibilities?
Moab is east of the Dead Sea. Bethlehem is five miles south of Jerusalem. It would take some days to walk that hill country surrounding the Dead Sea. Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, attracting the attention of the whole town. In her grief Naomi is nearly unrecognizable and declares that she no longer is Naomi, the pleasant woman who left ten years earlier. She is now Mara, the bitter one. The Almighty has brought calamity upon her, leaving her bereaved. Naomi has come home at the beginning of harvest, a time of abundance. A season of fullness awaits her that is beyond her imagination.
It is the “assertive deeds” of the two that move the plot forward (Gottwald 555). Though Naomi has returned grieving, she is not paralyzed by her feelings, but is able to offer wise counsel. Ruth, who is also grieving, has come with Naomi fully intending to work for her place in her new community, which she does admirably in the field with many young women and men. The community responds graciously to the widows’ best efforts.
Naomi speaks highly of Ruth (1:8 & 9), with confidence (2:2), with gratitude (2:19 & 20), with wisdom and patience (2:22 & 23) and care (3:1-4). After the gleaning of the harvests is completed Naomi activates the institution of levirate marriage to prompt the male relatives of Elimelech to take action. Within the patriarchal culture of tribal Israel, Naomi and Ruth work creatively and effectively, journeying out of impasse.
Ruth speaks with passion appropriate for their circumstances (1:8 & 9), with energy and vision (2:2), and with transparency (2:19). She acts with a trusting spirit (2:18 & 21 and 3:5). We observe Naomi and Ruth’s trust in the other expand as the story moves from Moab, to Bethlehem, to providing for their daily needs in Naomi’s community. They adroitly present their case to Boaz in response to his care for Ruth in his field, culminating in Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, who chose to spread his robe over Ruth. In the end, both the men and the women have great cause for celebration. Naomi and Ruth have respectfully reestablished their place at the table in the house of bread (Bethlehem), Boaz has a son, a virtuous wife, and a gracious woman fulfilling the roll of mother-in-law. I feel a sense of ease as the story concludes, knowing that the mettle of their characters has been tested and found sound. Yahweh’s presence, though only mentioned twice (1:6 and 4:14), is felt in the dignity of the story’s progression. Boaz’s blessing for Ruth seems to have been experienced by them all: “Yahweh recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by Yahweh, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (Ruth 2:12).
“To crown it all, it turns out that these women acting on their own behalf have contributed to the family line of none other than King David” (Gottwald 554). Naomi and Ruth acted on their own behalf. In their impasse, the first task was their own physical survival. They decided they were stronger together. As the story progresses and they are comfortably knitted into the Bethlehem society, they both are in a position to enhance the lives of others even before Ruth conceives and bears a son.
Nancy and Cathleen in the Present
“The text as sign points the way to meaning. But meaning as conscious, active, dynamic thinking and living happens within the subject investigating the text” (Shillington 47). With this affirmation of our subjectivity, Nancy and I begin our stories.
I am like Ruth, the one who chose when it seemed that all was taken out from under her, to reimagine a place at the table she had faithfully served. Nancy is a new friend of mine who followed in Orpah’s footprints. When her marriage broke up, she moved back to her “mother’s house.” Our choices are organic to our lives. I chose to stay with my husband as we worked to heal our relationship and probably could not have gone home. Nancy, aching for home, could not have stayed with her husband. We each faced impasse and each choose valid paths to more abundant lives than we could have imagined before acknowledging the fraudulent and confining nature of our lives and the cost we had been paying.
Constance Fitzgerald tells us that in impasse we suffer as we are plunged into “imaginative shock . . . that throws the unconscious self into gear in quest of what the possibilities really are” (3). This painful awakening is rife with potential.
[I]n genuine impasse one’s accustomed way of acting and living is brought to a standstill. The left side of the brain, with its usual application of linear, analytical, conventional thinking is ground to a halt. The impasse forces us to start all over again, driving us to contemplation. On the other hand, the impasse provides us a challenge and a concrete focus for contemplation . . . It forces the right side of brain into gear, seeking intuitive, symbolic unconventional answers, so that the action can be renewed eventually with greater purpose.(Beldon Lane qtd by Fitzgerald 3)
Holding this insight into times of crisis in the background, I reflect on Nancy and myself. I believe we will observe that in our experiences of impasse, we have extended tremendous focus on new possibilities, thus being able to value more profoundly the women represented in Ruth.
The biblical text excludes Orpah’s life after she chooses to head home with Naomi’s affirmation of her character and blessings for abundance. Along with feminist scholars who emphasize that our starting point is not some abstract theory, but the praxis of experience, I would like to explode the sense of judgment that Orpah’s exclusion from the text suggests (Shillington 273). As we release Orpah and Ruth from representing the archetypal women, helper and adulteress, or as metaphors for Israel’s relationship to God, we will be better able to appropriate wisdom for our lives (Bovell).
Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore in “Returning to the ‘Mother’s House’: a Feminist Look at Orpah,” asks the following questions: “What in one’s past does one reclaim? To what does one return? How does one return to the ‘mother’s house’ without losing the redefinition of self and society discovered in the wilderness?” Miller-McLemore relieves us of imagining that Orpah is the opposite of Ruth. “She has her own story to tell . . . She has not chosen wrongly; she has chosen differently . . . . [T]he paths of righteousness are manifold” (Miller-McLemore 430).
I am going to allow the missing text to resurface in the life of Nancy, who returned to her roots last fall. I had met Nancy at centering prayer in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill. A couple of weeks ago, I met the cohort from the prayer group at a coffee shop. As we were catching up, I told her about my idea to write about Ruth. Nancy got excited. I had seen myself in the text already—as Ruth. Listening to her talk about her transition back to Philadelphia, I realized she was also in the text—as Orpah.
Nancy had been in a romantic relationship with a man since she was15 years old. Most recently she had found a man named Nathan and attempted to find shelter with him in the married, middle class. Yet it increasingly felt like a period of exile. Finally, as she describes it, she felt like she split in two, as she acknowledged that her relationship with her husband of twelve years was unworkable. Ready to journey on alone, she reached out to her family, friends, and her own energy for truth, and returned home. Nancy’s experiences of grief have taught her things she could not have known apart from those losses. She feels humbled. Home again, Nancy has found the fertile soil of gratitude as she explores the person she is becoming.
Her mother is not in good health, so she speaks of being here, reestablishing herself, at least until her mother dies. In the meantime, she is making connections. For example, only a few gather to sit together in silent prayer on Wednesday mornings, three men and Nancy. She describes the dynamics of her relationships with them like this: “I am making multiple male friendships, and I get to be in control of this.” Her exploration of her ability to form friendships with men is no longer about finding another partner; rather it is about exploring new ways of being.
Nancy has found work in her field of cartography. Having spent much time learning about other places, she is now learning about her childhood home, Philadelphia. She is not spending energy regretting her choices in the past, rather she is able to honor her choices as the best she could do then. When I talk with her she is animated about what she is doing now, her connections to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, how she found her apartment under its wing, and her relationships with people of the parish. She talks happily and confidently about her future, which includes collaboration with another friend on a book, requiring maps of Philadelphia.
Nancy expresses an awareness of being full. She talks in terms of being a daughter, sister, aunt, friend and no one’s partner. Having returned home, she is free to recreate her life and care for her mother with a sense that this is also a time of preparation for the next phase of her own life.
I have already mentioned that I feel like Ruth. Recently, I acknowledged the growing fissures in my marriage. It was then that I began accurately to describe the contours of the pain. I also realized my family of origin had lived in a constant state of overwhelm, fostering my response of dissociation and weakness. Living in that compromised way, I had been unable to conceive of strong and respectful ways of relating to wounded family members.
Having recently returned to worshipping in the Episcopal Church, my husband, Jonathan, and I would pray “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom” (Book of Common Prayer 363). The words “unity, constancy and peace” echoed in my mind. I chose that mantra to be my plum line and told my husband that what we spoke to each other at home would now need to align itself to the standard of unity, constancy and peace. If the death of Jesus meant anything, it could mean something here. If he could not join me in creating a relationship in private that adhered to our public personas, I would be alright without him.
Over time I began to know myself as a person of dignity and worth. Our home is now a peaceful place. Our son and daughter easily bears witness to our lack of absolute harmony. But the discords are minor in comparison to the aching tension of his expressed contempt and my responsive rage that surfaced willy nilly.
Experiences of abandonment and fear deform personality. The backbone of my personality had been twisted, distorting my vision, bruising my heart. My emotional and social exile lasted nearly fifty years. Though I had not been myself in either my family of origin nor as a wife and mother, I see myself now standing to my full stature beside the Risen Lord. I have returned home to unswerving loyalty to God. From that commitment I am now in organic and dynamic relationships. I have a growing sense of competency. Not long ago I heard the Lord say to me,
Rejoice, O weary one. Rest your head here—lay yourself down in the bed of hope remade, dreams come true. You’ve skillfully woven a bright and deep tapestry of knowledge, hope and love. You’ve completed a great task. Now enter this season of rest. Your studies will become a light and joyful thing . . . Let your daily task be finding the riches to strengthen you each day . . . Find the joy given, the forgiveness desired, the threads of new life present.
Tying the texts together
Naomi, Ruth, Orpah, Nancy and I all moved beyond believing a set of propositions to living a story (Smith). This movement is seen in our exile and return. The paths we traveled required, that we grieve our losses and release them, in order to free up the needed energy to discern the most viable course of action we could imagine. This is not to say we knew it would all work out. No, at first it felt like standing up in the dark, not knowing if one is standing on a cliff’s edge or in a breezy meadow. In this act of imagination, we stood in and yet beyond our grief. We exerted a trust in ourselves and the love of God only to be found in lived experience. We have come to realize we were made for this and with the coaching that reality relentlessly offers, we are daily lead, informed, and corrected. We are writing human comedies with our lives.
My reflections on Ruth have not come to an end. As I conclude this paper, I am wondering, “Who has been Naomi for me?” And Nancy called last night to say she has met the “real Orpah.” The dynamic relationships within our stories continue as we read the text and welcome its reading of our lives.
Book of Common Prayer. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.
Bovell, Carlos. “Symmetry, Ruth and Canon” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 ( 2003) : 175-191.
Fitzgerald, Constance, O.C.D. “Impasse and Dark Night.” www.geocities.com/baltimorecarmel/johnson/impasse.html?20062 February 2006
Gottwald, Norman K. The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995.
Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J. “Returning to the ‘Mother’s House: A Feminist Look at Orpah.” The Christian Century 108 (17 April 1991): 428-430.
Neusner, Jacob. The Emergence of Judaism. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Ed. Bruce C Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Shillington, V. George. Reading the Sacred Text: An Introduction to Biblical Studies. New York: T & T Clark, 2002.
Smith, Samuel. In conversation on Tumbling Run Trail, and on the telephone, May 2006.