I recently had to do an academic exegesis from Ruth, which reminded me of the understated witness of Naomi.
I’m sure you are familiar with the story, but to review the beginning and set the scene, very briefly:
The family flees a famine by going to Moab. The boys marry Moabite girls, then all the men die, leaving the three women in penury. The famine has passed, and Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem to her own people.
Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law what she is going to do, and for their sake advises them to stay in Moab among their own people; their prospects (humanly speaking) are far better there. At least, they will have some prospect of a future, while in Canaan where Naomi is going they will have nothing. Orpah is reluctantly convinced, and, weeping, kisses Naomi goodbye.
Ruth, in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, will not be parted from Naomi, her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law! One of the most clichéd unhappy relationships around!
“but Ruth clung to her.
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
16 But Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; 17 where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.””
How was it that Moabite Orpah wept in parting, and that Moabite Ruth refused to be parted from Israelite Naomi at all – their mother-in-law?
Clearly, Naomi loved her daughters by marriage and wished the best for them. Equally clearly, they had both come to love her. In Ruth, however, the bond was too firm to be broken. Not only would Ruth go into exile (from her point of view) with Naomi, but she would abandon her people and the faith she was raised in, to convert to Naomi’s faith.
To Ruth and Orpah in Moab, Naomi was the only remaining witness to Israelite faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only through Naomi could they have had such a witness of the love of God that Ruth would come to the point of being willing – even eager! – to surrender everything to stay with the witness of His love. What love must Naomi have shown to her girls!
This heart-winning love is what draws Moabites to God. Not foreign religious rituals and church services. Not the laws of a foreign religion. Just love.