Traveling through the fields of her own country in the midst of a great famine, a young woman named Ruth became a widow. Yet though her family would have been nearby to help, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to another land. And thus, to her already diminished role as widow, she added the disparaging status of “foreigner.”
I have not spent much of my life as a foreigner, though my short bouts with being a cultural outsider remind me of the difficulty and frustration of always feeling on the outside of the circle. Just as the distance between outside and inside seems to be closing, something happens or something is said and you are reminded again that you don’t really belong. It can be both humbling and humiliating to always carry with you the sober thought: I am out of place.
This story from the book of Ruth scarcely neglects an opportunity to point out this reality for Ruth. Long after hearers of the story are well acquainted with who Ruth is and where she is from, long after she is living in the land of Judah, she is still referred to as “Ruth the Moabite” or even merely “the Moabite woman.” Her perpetual status as an outsider brings to mind the vision of Keats, and the “song that found a path/ through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” She stood in strange and foreign fields and was forever being reminded that no, she was the stranger.
And yet, while she was undoubtedly as aware of being a foreigner as much as those around her were aware of it, Ruth did nothing to suggest a longing to return to Moab. Her words and actions in Judah are as steadfast as her initial vow to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “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.”(1)
It is a daring risk and declaration, for in these early pages of the story, little is known about Naomi’s God or her people. The brief mention of both comes as a distant report: “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food.”(2) Moreover, Naomi’s own first mention of the God of her people holds a similar sense of detachment. Though she recognizes God’s sovereignty over her situation, it is blurred with bitterness: “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. For I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.”(3) Her description was hardly a compelling one for the outsider looking in.
And yet, Ruth clearly embraces all of Naomi. She embraces the people who would only see her as a foreigner and the God who was not her own. Adding to this determined embrace, it is Ruth the Moabite, whose voice is the first in the story to call on the divine name. After her resolute declaration of loyalty to her mother-in-law, Ruth adds the plea, May this LORD of yours deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.(4) Furthering the irony of Naomi’s own distant words, it is the foreigner who has taken Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be her God and she calls on this God accordingly.
It is often in the moments when I am feeling most isolated, displaced with pain or burdened with the reminder that I am out of place, that somehow, ironically, I find myself most aware of belonging. The psalmist cries with the identity of one who senses intuitively that he belongs elsewhere: “Hear my prayer, O LORD, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping. For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were.” The remarkable number of stories and songs in the scriptures that give voice to this nagging sense of homelessness raises the question in both comfort and pain: What if we are all strangers in a country not our own? What if we are men and women estranged and intended for another kingdom? Notably, it is this faithful foreigner named Ruth whose adoption into God’s presence can be traced in bloodline to the throne of King David and the reign of Christ. It is in the life of a foreigner named Ruth through which God illustrates his longing to see each one know that none are meant to remain strangers or estranged.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Ruth 1:16-17a.
(2) Ruth 1:6.
(3) Ruth 1:20-21.
(4) Ruth 1:17b.