Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
The Dutch writer Ellen van Wolde once described the Book of Ruth as a story of headscarves. These are migrant women, largely invisible – the kind of women who today might take the night bus into the city centre for their cleaning jobs, or might appear at the back of the corner shop as the nameless relations of the shopkeeper. They all have their stories, but we’re largely oblivious to them.
If these three women do make it all the way to Judah, at the best they are going meet with indifference. Naomi (meaning “Pleasant” – there’s irony) has such a chip on her shoulder that no one would want to go near her. What kind of woman tells her bereaved daughter-in-law that her own sense of loss is the greater? Orpah (spell that one right!) now sees sense and realises that she will never make a home in a new country: better to go back and make a new life in Moab. But her sister-in-law Ruth clings to this difficult and demanding woman.
In many families the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law turns out to be the most contentious. And it looks as if this will be no exception. Ruth is by no means the quiet submissive creature we may have thought her to be. Instead, she shows she has a mind of her own, and is ready to go directly against Naomi’s wishes. She is not afraid to take a risk. Life is going to be hard as a migrant and a widow in a strange land, especially as the one person who might have protected her now seems to want to be rid of her. But still she journeys on, all the way to Bethlehem. She may be as good as invisible: but there will be a story to tell!
God of all our journeyings – Your eyes are upon us all and you know the stories of the people we ignore and overlook. Broaden our vision and deepen our compassion that your love may support and encourage all who today travel on to new beginnings.
The Rev’d John Durell is a retired minister and member of Waddington Street URC, Durham