I recently heard a sermon delivered by Dr. Peter T. Vogt, a professor of Old Testament at Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. In it, he shared some insights about the story of Naomi and Ruth (Listen to the sermon here—it starts around the 40-minute mark). With his permission, I have summarized some of them here.
One of the first things we learn about Israel, God’s covenant people, is that God didn’t choose them because they were particularly special; he chose them to be his instruments to bless the world. The second thing we learn about Israel is that it repeatedly failed to be a blessing. Instead, it adopted the practices of its neighbors, always wandering away from Yahweh. Naomi, however, stands in contrast to Israel’s failure to influence its neighbors.
Most of us know the story well enough. Naomi, a Jew, moves to the foreign land of Moab along with her husband and two sons. Her sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. But in the next several years, Naomi’s husband and sons all die. In a communal, patriarchal culture, Naomi finds herself alone, a foreigner in a strange land, with no male relatives to provide stability or safety. Her only choice is to return to her relatives in Israel.
So she packs up and heads toward home. When her daughters-in-law join her, she tells them to stay in Moab and build new lives for themselves. She believes God has cursed her and there’s no reason for Orpah or Ruth to suffer as well. Orpah returns home, but Ruth stays with her, uttering the famous words, “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” (Ruth 1:16–17).
Why did Ruth insist on going with Naomi? Why was her commitment so strong that she’d give up a life at home in Moab and instead become a foreigner—and potential outcast—in Israel, where Moabite women may have been thought to be sexually promiscuous? Was it simply because she loved Naomi and wanted to care for her? Perhaps, but Naomi would be cared for well enough by her relatives back home. Is there something more going on here?
There may be a clue in what Ruth says. The English translations we read often imply that she says, “your God will be my God,” but the original Hebrew would be better rendered “your God is my God.” Ruth probably makes the choice to stick with Naomi because of her commitment to Yahweh. That Ruth would have become a follower of Yahweh should not come as a surprise. In the patriarchal world of the Old Testament, women and children were expected to worship the deity of their patriarch. Thus, when Ruth married a Jew, she would have been expected to worship Yahweh. What is a surprise is her profound understanding of and faithfulness to Yahweh.
Were she to return home to her father’s household, as Orpah did, she would have to return to worshipping the Moabite god(s). Had she done this she most likely could’ve continued worshipping Yahweh, so long as she also worshipped the gods of her father. But Ruth would not do so. Someone had acquainted her so well with Yahweh that she understood (better than most Israelites, it would seem), that Yahweh alone was to be worshiped—not as part of a pantheon, but as the only true God.
In a society where women and men spent little time together, even in marriage, it’s unlikely that Ruth learned a great deal about Yahweh from her husband. Naomi is more likely the one who introduced her to the God of Israel and modeled faithfulness to him. She also serves as a model of a faithful Israel—an example of what God’s chosen people were meant to do.
Like Israel, Naomi sojourned in a foreign land. But unlike Israel, she was not drawn into the worship of local deities. Rather, she influenced Ruth to serve Yahweh. Naomi was so effective that Ruth would put her own well-being at risk not just to stand by Naomi but to faithfully serve Yahweh. Israel would’ve done well to learn from Naomi’s example.
Christians, too, are called to bless the world around us. But our efforts our hindered when we fail to recognize the significance of female heroes like Naomi. Through the faithfulness of Naomi, God called Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David and ancestor of Jesus, to be an integral part of his unfolding story of redemption. Let’s follow Naomi’s example. Perhaps our faithfulness to God will have a bigger impact than we’ll ever know.
Until I heard this sermon, I’d never really thought of Naomi as a role model—perhaps because I’d never heard much about her at all, aside from being a character in the story of Ruth. This has me pondering a few questions. What other biblical women should I be learning from? Why do I so rarely hear sermons about biblical women (and why do I often not even notice this)? How can we encourage our church leaders and community members to learn from and share the stories of unheralded (or heralded) women of the Bible?