Review: The Gospel of Ruth


Have you ever experienced real grief? Debilitating loss? Deep pain? If you have, you know platitudes don't cut it. People's assurances that "God has a plan" are salt in the wound. 

But what if there is something that could pull you above your grief — not beyond it, but above it, if only just for a moment?

I never do this, but I'm going to blog about a book I'm reading before I've even finished it. 

This book, "The Gospel of Ruth," by theologian and writer Carolyn Custis James, had my eyes welling over today during my lunch break because it's so over offering cliched explanations for why the main character, Naomi, is angry, bitter and despairing. It's beyond judging her for what she is feeling, which sadly, is what a LOT of Christian takes on Naomi do.

First, a quick synopsis about the source material. 

The biblical Book of Ruth, which is the background for Custis James's book, is set in Israel "during the time of the judges," which was a period sometime around 1100 B.C.E. when everyone in the Ancient Near East was warring and killing and famines were happening (so basically like all other time periods ever). Many scholars believe the story was written by the Prophet Samuel, between 1011 and 931 B.C.E., so about a century after the events in the book. (Source: article, "Book of Ruth.")

The story centers on Naomi, and Ruth, her daughter-in-law. Naomi's husband and both her sons (one of which is Ruth's husband) die in a 10-year period after the family has emigrated to a neighboring territory called Moab because of the famine in Israel. 

After her losses, Naomi is angry. Justifiably so. She decides to leave Moab and go back to Israel, since there is nothing keeping her there. Ruth decides to stay with her instead of sticking around in Moab waiting for a new husband to show up. She says the famous, poetical lines to Naomi...

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

The chapter that really struck me today was Chapter 5, "The Power of Hesed."

Ruth and Naomi get to Israel and Ruth immediately heads out to work in a field, where the landowner (Boaz) extends compassion and lets Ruth glean more grain than what Israelite law requires for landowners to offer the poor/non-hired hands. She eats a full lunch of toasted grain at his picnic shelter (it was probably granola, lol) and takes the rest back to Naomi, who is waiting on tenterhooks at home with bare cupboards.

This is where it starts getting good. I was unable to keep the tears from flowing as I read about God's "hesed" for Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. 

Custis James (who has studied Ancient Near East languages) said "Hesed" is the Hebrew word for the deep, caretaking and communal love that God expected Israelites to show each other — more than kindness or hospitality, but actual responsibility for one another's wellbeing, especially whenever a power imbalance was present in that patriarchal culture. The strong care for the weak. The rich for the poor. The neighbors for the widows. Hence, the gleaning laws that required landowners to leave the margins of the field unharvested so the poor could collect the excess.

When Naomi loses Elimelek (her husband), and her sons, Mahlon and Kilion, in a decade span, she grows bitter in her deep grief because she believes God has removed his "hesed" from her life forever, and she doesn't know why.

When Ruth comes home from her first day of gleaning in Boaz's field with an "ephah" of barley — or about 29 pounds, which is 15 times the average daily harvest for the paid servants, let alone the  foreign, widow gleaners — plus she has leftover granola for Naomi to eat immediately, Naomi's epiphany is swift, startling and authentic.

"Where did you glean today? [Read in a tone of astonishment.] Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!"

When Ruth responds it was from Boaz's field, Naomi is yanked out of her debilitating grief and says...

"The Lord bless him! He has not stopped showing kindness [hesed] to the living and the dead."

Naomi sits up and takes notice of incontrovertible evidence that God's "hesed" is still at work in her life. She is still part of his love, part of his tribe.

In this moment, she doesn't start matchmaking between Boaz and Ruth like most Christian books usually assume. That's not even a thought in her mind. All she knows is God has showed up through the actions of a distant relative (Turns out Boaz is related to her btw!), when she had believed her kin (spiritual and biological) were all dead, and there was nowhere left for her.

I don't think Custis James explicitly states this, but I think this was also a lightbulb moment for Naomi that Ruth is her new family. Maybe it dawns on her that her daughter-in-law isn't just a tagalong, lost-puppy character on the periphery of her grief.

No, Ruth is a force of nature, rising above her own deep heartache to care for someone else wholeheartedly. Isn't she a woman? Stronger than anyone knows, determined to fulfill her commitment to share Naomi's travels, homeland, people and God — and be buried next to her after death.

In that brief moment, the ashes of Naomi's grief turn to disbelief, then joy, then — incredibly — plans and ideas! She once again remembers how not just to exist, but to thrive.

This is where God's "hesed" will take us, and it's the whole point of Naomi and Ruth's story. There's a place, above our grief, where we can thrive in God's "hesed."

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