What does the Old Testament book of Ruth have to say about the coronavirus lockdown? Dr Alison Gray, Tutor in Old Testament Language, Literature and Theology at Westminster College, Cambridge, explains in Reform magazine’s latest edition.
I wonder if there are certain biblical passages or stories that have struck you in a new way during this period of lockdown? I know it shouldn’t still surprise me, but I am constantly amazed at Scripture’s power to speak afresh into our lives at different times and in various places. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can sometimes read biblical texts with sharper vision because of what is going on around us, or Scripture might suddenly help us to “read” the situation around us in a different light. That’s one of the things I hear in the famous verse from the letter to the Hebrews: “The Word of God is alive and active, sharper than any two-edged sword … it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ (Hebrews 4:12) Here are some reflections on the book of Ruth, from the perspective of lockdown, which have come to mind over the past few weeks.
In the first week of lockdown, I suddenly found that I was short of any fresh vegetables that my son would actually eat. As we were shielding, I plucked up the courage to text my newly formed neighbourhood WhatsApp group, to ask if anyone would mind dropping off a cucumber for us. I felt rather silly and vulnerable in an unfamiliar way, and was aware that I didn’t want to ask for too much. Within minutes, someone had responded.
A few hours later, there was not one but two cucumbers on my doorstep, and with them a large bar of chocolate! It made me smile at the kindness of a stranger, giving more than twice what I had asked for. I felt blessed. It helped to overcome my initial fears of being a burden on my neighbours because I could no longer go out and shop for myself, and my anxiety about not being able to source food. It spoke powerfully to me of God’s love and provision.
This little example, and numerous others since, have reminded me of the story of Ruth. At different points in this novella, the main characters, Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, pray for one another and for God’s provision and blessing. If you look carefully at how the story unfolds, they end up providing the answers to their own and each other’s prayers. They bless one another by their actions of kindness and generosity and thus show God’s love in action.
One of the striking things about this book is precisely the absence of God’s direct actions. (It’s only four chapters long, so you might like to have a quick read of it now!) God is silent: there are no divine appearances, no dreams, no angels. God’s name appears numerous times, but (apart from one verse in the first and last chapters), God’s blessings are bestowed and experienced powerfully through the faithful actions of humans.
It is significant that the story of Ruth is set in the period of the judges, a time of moral, social and religious decline. In our Bibles, Ruth follows the book of Judges as a witness to an alternative way of living: not a way of living in which each person does “what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) but where each person shows what it means to be faithful to God and to one another. We are given a glimpse of what it would be like to live in a “peaceable kingdom” in which God’s faithfulness and redemption are enacted through the faithfulness of those who follow God’s ways. It makes me wonder what was going on when this story was originally written down, possibly not until the fifth century BC (although it may well have existed as an oral story earlier.) Was the community then experiencing an absence of God and needing to find signs of God’s presence in different ways? Was this story intended as a celebration of human faithfulness and a witness to the power of blessing one another?
Some of the particular ways in which God blesses Naomi, Ruth and Boaz through each other can be missed unless you look for them! Here are some examples:
- Naomi prays for Ruth and Orpah (1:8-9), specifically that God would grant them “security”. Then in chapter three, Naomi tells Ruth of her need to find “security” for Ruth and they hatch a plan. Naomi is instrumental in providing the resting place that she prayed for Ruth.
- Boaz prays blessings for Ruth (2:12), specifically that she would receive a reward from the Lord, “under whose wings you have come for refuge”. In the next chapter, Boaz finds himself spreading the corners (“wings” – same word in Hebrew) of his cloak over Ruth (3:9), providing her the refuge and security that she needs.
- In chapter one, Naomi weeps bitterly over all that she has lost, lamenting that the Lord has brought her back “empty-handed” (1:21). When Boaz promises that he will act as next of kin (“redeemer”) to Ruth, he sends her back to Naomi with abundant provisions: “Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed!” God answers Naomi’s anxiety about provisions through Boaz’s generosity.
Significantly, the final prayer in the book is the women of the community blessing the Lord (4:14). All of our thanks and praise go to our Creator of all, our Lord and Saviour, the source of all blessing, grace and redemption.
This story of Ruth, then, can give us comfort and reassurance that God is at work in and through his people, even when things seem dark and uncertain. Sometimes, we might need to look for God at work in unexpected places. But the story can also challenge us when we pray, to stop and ask whether we can be an answer to our own prayers or those of another. Can we be a blessing of faithfulness and grace to someone else? Can we show someone God’s unconditional, self-sacrificial love in whatever small and imperfect way?
Images: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN
Published 12 June 2020