The Book of Ruth: Loyalty

Wednesday 2nd June 2021
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Midweek Service

Today and for the next two weeks we are reading and reflecting upon the Book of Ruth, a young woman who came from a strange land to marry into what became the royal house of Israel; it was almost certainly written at the beginning of the 5th Century BCE as a refutation of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah which had forbidden the marriage of Jews to Gentiles.

The book of Ruth deals with three themes: loyalty, generosity, and legality and today we will think about loyalty.

The primary expectation of all the characters was that first loyalty was to your tribe and country. Ruth from Moab had married into a Bethlehem family fleeing from famine but when Naomi and her two daughters-in-law all lost their husbands, Naomi naturally wanted to seek refuge in her homeland rather than in a foreign land; but instead of staying in Moab and getting a husband, which was her best course of action, Ruth decided to stick with Naomi as she returned home to Bethlehem.

What we see here is the strong personal loyalty of a young woman to her mother-in-law which she ranks higher than both her personal interest and her patriotism. Contrary to the custom of her times, she rejects the priority of clan loyalty and even family loyalty - for surely her extended family in Moab would have found her a husband - and instead, she opts for what looks very modern, the ranking of a personal commitment over a public commitment.

But although Ruth's actions look very familiar to us, the matter is not so simple. Our default position may be to put the nuclear family first, there are times when we depart from the default. During the last Century, before conscription was declared, millions of families sent their young men into the trenches in the belief that the national interest had to take priority over the family, emphasising that the nation does not survive by honouring all our priorities but requires sacrifice, as we see every day as millions of key workers not only put their lives at risk for the common good but they also work millions of hours of unpaid overtime without which, for example, the NHS could not survive.

Ruth has to make a decision, as we do, about priorities and, if we are honest with ourselves, personal preference has to be at least suspended. Most of us are not called upon to live a life of unremitting sacrifice but few of us will be fortunate enough to get through life without sacrifice. The point is that whatever we choose must be governed by prayer and thought, there is no such thing as an easy answer, particularly when we are tugged by patriotic or family passion. Ruth was lucky, as we will see, that her sacrifice turned out for the good; but that is far from always being the case.

The Old Testament, in its repeated genealogical tables, is fascinated, some would say obsessed, by dynasty. To illustrate this, we need go no further than the Book of Genesis. Taking incidents in chronological rather than morally reprehensible order: Abraham has a child by a servant as he is frightened of being left heirless; Sarah, Abraham's formerly barren wife, manipulates the succession in favour of Jacob over Esau; the creation of the twelve tribes of Israel from Jacob requires complex marital politics with Leah and Rachel; Onan is punished for not begetting successors; the daughters of Lot get him drunk and sleep with him when they fear he will have no heirs; and Jacob then replicates the device from which he benefited by favouring the younger of his grandsons, Ephraim, over the elder Manasseh in spite of the protests of their father Joseph. Such incidents cannot be reckoned moral in our terms, but they underline the importance of a sound succession over all other considerations, a priority we recognise in the marital affairs of the kings and nobles of the Middle Ages, best represented by the colourful and murderous conduct of king Henry VIII.

Such dynastic considerations related to the inheritance of land as well as titles and we see the same trend in the novels of Jane Austen and the Victorian novelists where dynasty, marriage and property are a central feature. In our own day that interest has waned with the fall in infant mortality and the increase in economic security, but we need to understand the survival imperative if we are to reach the heart of the story of Ruth.

The other critical factor lying underneath the surface of our story is the unusual space given to the role and conduct of women. Naomi begins as a prosperous woman driven from Bethlehem by drought. She secures husbands for her two daughter and then all three husbands die. Destitute    they may be but inarticulate they are not. Naomi knows what is best for her daughters and Orpah, after some resistance, goes along with her mother-in-law's advice but Ruth sticks to her resolve and articulates the reason. They are not, in our terms, liberated, but they are active and sensitive, not bound only to male property interests. We will see that the key figure in this story, after ruth, is her future protector, Boaz, but what sticks in our mind is the debate between the three women and their ability to tussle with moral issues.

All of which goes to show, I think, that it is too easy to skate over familiar stories and draw conventional conclusions about actions and motives. The Bible, as we have just seen, may be an unreliable guide to certain classes of ethical decision but its characters are not caricatures. They ask questions of us which require a respect for the text which goes beyond ready answers at which we arrive because of when we live, how we live, and who we are. Sympathies may be intuitive, but they must be overcome by a deeper understanding.