The Book of Ruth begins in tragedy. It reads:
“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land; and Elimelech, a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons went to reside in the country of Moab… Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women….and then the two sons also died.”
Three women lose their husbands, and their means of support. Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, are left a vulnerable little cluster of widows living in a time when there is no such thing as life insurance, or any notion of an independent working woman. At their time and place, being a widow means being destitute. Like anyone who endures a sudden, defining loss, these women face a stark question: Who am I when I am no longer who and what I was? Naomi grieves the fact that the Lord has cursed her by taking away her only sources of security and value: marriage and sons.
Like the rest of us for whom the very foundations of our lives are given to shifting from day to day, there are no miracles in sight to save these women, no angels on the road to point the way. Nothing. Everything they have, everything they’ve ever wanted, is gone. In turn, it seems that there is no one who needs them—that the world has no use for them.
The mood of the Book of Ruth is fashioned from the start through the meanings hidden in the names of its characters. Elimelech, the patriarch, means “my God is king” foreshadowing the continuance of his line to King David and eventually to Jesus. Even the names of the two sons, Mahlon meaning “sick” and Chilion meaning “weakening” gives us hints as to their physical conditions and perhaps premature deaths.
As the story goes, Naomi, a Jew whose name means “my gracious pleasant one” but who later asks to be called Mara, “bitter one,” decides to leave the land of Moab and head back to Judah, where her family and other fellow Jews live. Naomi instructs Ruth and Orpah to remain in Moab and begin a new life among their own people. But instead of staying in Moab with their fellow Gentiles, Ruth and Orpah begin to follow Naomi toward Judah. Before they have traveled far, Naomi entreats them again, reminding them that they will face difficult times if they follow her. This time Orpah kisses Naomi and departs, returning to Moab. Her namesake is significant. Orpah, whose name means “nape or back of the neck,” turns her back on Naomi and returns to her people.
Three times Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to turn back. According to Rabbinic tradition, potential converts should be strongly discouraged three times. Those who persist after three warnings are accepted as sincere converts. Thus Ruth, whose name means “friend,” not only conveys the depth of her loyalty to Naomi, but her fidelity to Yahweh: “Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Our inclination is to interpret this passage as an instance of blind obedience, or as an instance of a woman choosing arbitrarily between two equally bad options. To stay or to go? Ruth could either stay in her homeland and start over as used goods, or leave with her mother-in-law and walk 120 miles into hostile territory with nothing but the clothes on her back. Perhaps I speak only for myself when I say I can’t even begin to fathom traveling under such conditions with my mother-in-law. But I doubt it.
To stay or go? Sometimes, we make life-changing decisions without any awareness that we’re making them. A path of less or least resistance is taken. Only much later, after flowing in this or that direction, are we moved to ask how and why. “It seemed the only thing to do,” we tell ourselves, or those who ask. But sooner or later, because we live in a time and in a country that holds up individual freedom as its highest value, we accept that who we are is the result of the decisions that we have made.
But what we Americans define as an option, other people in other times and cultures may define as a simple given. Ruth’s declaration that she will follow Naomi is so immediate, so unyielding, so matter-of-fact, so seemingly lacking in reflection. Is she making a choice? When she declares that she will go where Naomi goes, is she making a decision? Has she thought things through? Or is she merely reporting as best she can a gut-level feeling that she can’t really explain? Is this blind faith? Maybe. But here’s the more interesting question: Even if following her mother-in-law is simply “the thing to do,” an automatic thing: One still has to ask but why this path, this way? She could have stated with unthinking certainty that she would go where Orpah goes, lodge where Orpah lodges, that Orpah’s people would remain her people and Orpah’s god would still be her god. Someone or something had to point Ruth in one direction rather than another.
I believe it was the Spirit of intuition. Intuition, as in reflecting and acting upon knowledge that exists outside the realm of language; and Spirit, as a guiding presence that takes us by the hand and leads us, if we are willing, to a place of peace, safety and belonging. Being present to the Spirit means that you have to let go of the need to control and know every detail. It has been said that the opposite of faith is certainty. The example Ruth leaves for us is her strength of courage and trust in God’s providence.
But how do we learn to trust something that by definition cannot be rationally explained? With intuition there is no direct evidence. No logic. Only a conviction that something in the soul is telling us what is right and what is wrong, pointing out the path that must be taken. Sadly, fear, complacency or analyzing something to death can kill our omniscient intuition. Ruth trusted in what the life force within her told her—that her sixth sense was the Spirit of God and that even as a widowed immigrant she had access to this eternal reservoir.
There is a time and place in our spiritual journeys when we have to trust God even when we cannot track God. Stop trying to figure it out. Trust your instincts. Trust your heart to guide you. Let the Spirit have its say. She knows more than you think. She has information you need. She’s been clamoring to get your attention. She is your gift from God.
Our fidelity to trust in the Spirit of Intuition is a powerful reminder of the fidelity of a God who is stuck with us. That is why the story of Ruth—a gentile—has an honored place in the Hebrew scriptures. She reminded the Jews of something important about their God. God does not leave when the going gets tough, even when we are as destitute as a widow in Biblical times. Ruth’s honor was restored by the love of Boaz and by the gift of a newborn son. And the women of Bethlehem proclaimed to Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law loves you, who is more to you than seven sons (4:14-15). God is not committed to us because it is in God’s interest, or for any other good reason. Rather, God is committed to us because . . . well, because that’s the way God is.
In the movie, The Color Purple, two characters, Celie and Shug, discuss God. Shug says: “I believe God is everything that ever was, is, or ever will be. And that when you can feel that, and be happy that’s what you feel, then you’ve got it.” Meaning you recognize yourself as part of everything God is. Believing this, as I do, there is no resistance to the idea that what is foreign can be known, can be understood, can be held in the embrace of a love that is in fact the same Love that holds the universe. Who could ever put such a feeling, such a knowing, such a truth, into words? It is a faith defined by intuition and Spirit rather than language and intellect. Language by itself can only make a pale tracing of what it means to be a faithful human being. That feeling means that God is speaking to you and through you and prodding you to trust yourself.
I want to end with a poem written by Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple entitled, When We Let the Spirit Lead Us.
When we let Spirit
It is impossible
We are being led.
All we know
All we can believe
All we can hope
We are going