One of the greatest stories of friendship in the Old Testament, a story of choosing God through friendship, comes to us in the Book of Ruth. It is the story of a pagan from Moab who decides to join her life to the people of Israel.
Without Ruth’s decision, we, the church, would not be here. Without Ruth there would be no David. Without the line of David there would be no Messiah, no Jesus.
The circumstances of Ruth’s joining to Israel are fascinating. Her decision to leave home, family and gods is nonsensical. Ruth chooses to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, to go back to Judah after the deaths of both of their husbands. Ruth leaves everything she has and binds her life to an old woman with no future. There is no calculation of goods, nothing to be gained. We can see no benefit for Ruth.
Even more striking, Ruth chooses this life with Naomi not at a moment of hope, not after Naomi has begged Ruth for help or tried to lure her in with promises. Instead, Ruth chooses Naomi at her most raw, when she is torn open, her grief fully on display. Naomi turns Ruth away three times. She tells her there is nothing for her, no future in Judea.
Yet Ruth and Naomi leave Moab together, toward the land, people and God of Judea. Archaeologists tell us that Moab, Ruth’s homeland, was kept in check by a cruel god called Chamosh, a stone idol who was appeased by child sacrifice.
Ruth lived her life among the Moabite gods of strength, stone and fury. And now, in the face of disaster, she chooses to follow after a God she cannot see, one with no physical presence, a God she only knows reflected in the grief of a friend.
For Ruth, God takes the form of another life, a vulnerable life, someone who has come to the end of all things, someone undone. Ruth chooses Naomi and this grieving woman’s God.
The covenant Ruth makes to Naomi — “your God will be my God” — sticks out to me. We don’t usually articulate faith in this way.
And yet, Ruth’s choice for the God of Israel is bound up in her love for Naomi. Ruth doesn’t experience a miracle that pulls her out of her pagan worship. She isn’t convinced by propositions or arguments. She doesn’t choose the God of Israel because she sees this is a God who conquers in strength. Ruth chooses for love, and it is in this love that she meets the living God.
The pronouns in Ruth’s pledge emphasize that the young Moabite woman chooses her friend rather than following the duty of her husband’s family.
“You,” the verses repeat over and over. “Do not ask me to leave you, or to return from following after you. For where you go I will go. Where you stay I will stay. The people of you will be the people of me. The God of you will be the God of me.”
You. You. You. I am choosing you.
There’s been an interesting movement of people toward our church in the past two years. People are coming who have no previous upbringing in church or who left the church years ago. When asked what drew them here, they say the same thing — the people. They found God present in the community of those who gather to lift our prayers to God, who work toward justice, who share bread and cup.
These beloved church people are not always able to articulate doctrine or provide a rational explanation for belief. But they say God is at work among us. They have met Jesus in friendships and belonging and in the common work of liberation.
If I were to explain the kind of believers they are, I would call them Ruths, those who find Jesus welling up in the spaces between shared lives.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church and the author of Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament (Herald Press, 2019).