Chapter OneRuth walked down the narrow, crowded streets of Kir-hareseth, her mind and heart in turmoil. Her beloved husband, Mahlon, was dying of a lingering illness that had come upon him months earlier. She fought the sorrow and fear stirring in her. How would she live without Mahlon? She'd dreamed of living a long life with the man she loved, bearing his children, growing old with him. And now, she suffered watching him suffer. She grieved that there would never be children to carry on his name.
But it was the new moon, and her mother was expecting her for her monthly visit. They would drink tea, eat the delicacies of her father's table, and talk about family matters. Ruth dreaded this visit. She couldn't keep her mind from her troubles. And she didn't want to hear what her mother thought was the cause of them.
Poor Naomi! How could her mother-in-law bear another loss? Ten years ago, she'd lost her husband, Elimelech; and her younger son, Kilion, had died last spring. Would Naomi's faith in the God of Israel continue to give her peace, or would she finally crumble beneath the crushing grief of losing her last son?
Oh, Lord God of Israel, hear our cry!
From the time Naomi had told her about the true God, she had believed because she saw such peace in her mother-in-law. It was a peace that defied circumstances. Ruth had never seen such peace, certainly not in the house of her mother and father. She and Naomi had spoken often of God, especially when questions had arisen in Ruth's heart. And the answers had always come down to trusting God, obeying Him, accepting His will, knowing there was a purpose in what was happening even if they couldn't see it. But sometimes the pain seemed unbearable.
And Ruth was afraid.
Would she be inconsolable like her sister-in-law, Orpah, had been when Kilion died last year, wailing and rocking and refusing to eat until Ruth and Naomi were afraid for her health?
Oh, Lord God, don't let me be a burden to Naomi. Give me the strength to help her.
When she reached her father's house, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and knocked. A servant opened the door and smiled brightly. "Ruth! Come," she beckoned eagerly. "Come."
It was difficult to enter her father's grand house with its expensive furnishings and not make comparisons to the humble abode of her husband. Here, everywhere she looked was the conspicuous evidence of wealth-fine urns, rugs, beautifully colored linen curtains, low tables inlaid with ivory. She had grown up in this house and taken her father's wealth for granted. Then she met, fell in love with, and married a young Hebrew merchant who was having difficulty keeping the family business going and, sometimes, keeping food on the table.
Her father and mother took great pride in their possessions, but over the years of living with Naomi, Ruth had come to recognize her own parents' poverty of spirit. There was a richness in Naomi's life that had nothing to do with the house she lived in or the material possessions she had.
"Ah, my beautiful daughter." Ruth's mother entered the room and embraced her. They exchanged kisses. "Sit, my love." She clapped her hands, gave quick orders to a maiden, and sat on one of the plump scarlet-and-blue cushions. "Do you notice anything new?"
Ruth glanced around. Was there a new table or wall hanging or rug? When she looked back at her mother, she saw her fingering a gold necklace.
"What do you think? It's beautiful, isn't it? A gift from your father. It's from Egypt."
"He's always been generous," Ruth said, her mind drifting back to Mahlon. He'd insisted she come today, insisted she leave him for a while. His mother was with him. Everything was fine. Go. Go and enjoy yourself. But how could she? All she could think about was Mahlon and how quickly she could leave this place and go home to him, where she belonged.
A servant entered with a tray laden with fruit, bread, two goblets, and an urn of wine. A second servant set down a platter of cooked grain with bits of roasted lamb. Ruth's stomach cramped at the tantalizing aroma of the well-seasoned food, but she didn't extend her hand, even when her mother pressed her. How could she take a bite when Mahlon was too ill to eat anything at all? How could she enjoy the delicacies her mother spread out on the table before her when her mother-in-law had nothing in the house but bread, olive oil, and sour wine?
"You must keep up your strength, Ruth," her mother said softly. "You're so thin."
"Perhaps in a while, Mother."
"Orpah's mother spoke with me in the marketplace yesterday. Has everything been done that can be done?"
Unable to speak, Ruth nodded. Naomi, insisting there was always hope, continued to pray and beseech God. She and Ruth both prayed. Prayer had become an unceasing habit.
"Oh, my darling. I'm so sorry you're going through this." Her mother reached out and placed her hand over Ruth's. For a moment, she was silent. "What will you do when he dies?"
Ruth's eyes filled with tears at the blunt question. "I will grieve. I will comfort Naomi. Beyond that, I don't know. And I can't think about it now."
"But you must."
"Mother," Ruth said softly in protest and then drew in a sobbing breath as she covered her face.
Her mother rushed on. "I didn't ask you here to cause you more pain. I know how much you love Mahlon. If your father didn't love you so much, he would have insisted you marry Kasim, and you wouldn't be facing such anguish now. Your father wants you to know that you're welcome to come home. And you know how much I'd love to have you here with me again, even if only for a little while. You needn't stay with Naomi if Mahlon dies. Come back to us."
Ruth dropped her hands into her lap and stared at her mother through her tears. "After all Naomi has been through, could I leave her? My duty is to my husband's household, Mother. You know that."
"Naomi would be the first to tell you to return to us. Do you think she'll want to stay here when her last son dies? She will go home to her own people where she belongs."
The words cut into Ruth's heart. Her mother spoke as though Mahlon was already dead and Naomi best forgotten. "I must go, Mother." She started to rise.
Her mother caught her hand. "No, please, listen to me. Naomi's husband was eager to adopt our customs and become one of us, but your mother-in-law has always held herself aloof. She still dresses like a Hebrew. She's never set foot in one of our temples nor given a single offering to any one of our gods. Perhaps that's why she suffers so. Our gods are angry with her."
"She has a God of her own."
"Oh yes, and what good is he? What has he given her but poverty and grief?" She made a sweeping gesture. "Look around you, Daughter. See how the gods of Moab bless us. Look at what we have to show for our faith."
"But you're never satisfied, Mother."
Her eyes darkened. "I'm satisfied."
"Then why do you always want more? Possessions don't matter to Naomi."
Her mother released her hand angrily. "Of course not. Why would possessions matter to someone who will never have them?"
"You don't understand, Mother."
"I understand that you've turned away from the gods of your own people to worship hers. And what good has come from it? You're being punished for it. Turn back to the gods of our people, Ruth. Leave that house of sorrow and come home."
Home to what? Her father and mother had never been content. The more wealth her father accumulated, the more he wanted. Their appetites were ever whetted for increase. Nothing satisfied. In a few days, her mother would tire of the gold necklace she wore, and she would hunger for something new, something about which to boast.
Naomi boasted in nothing but the God of Israel. And she found peace even in the midst of chaos when she went to Him in prayer.
God, oh God, help me! There are so many things I don't understand. I have no answers for my mother. Can you hear the voice of a frightened Moabitess? I don't want my faith to die if You choose to take Mahlon from me. My mother's words are like spears in my heart. Shield me.
"We know you must stay with Mahlon to the end, Ruth. And we understand that you'll want to stay for a few weeks after that and comfort Naomi. Fulfill your duty to her. Then come home to us, my love. Come home where you belong and where life will be so much easier for you. Everyone will understand. Naomi loves you. She'll want the best for you, just as we do. There's no need for you to live in poverty. You're young and beautiful. You have your whole life ahead of you."
But Ruth couldn't imagine her life without the man she loved or the mother-in-law who had opened her heart to her. How could staying a few weeks fulfill her obligation to Naomi? Duty was not the only bond between them. There was also love. Not just love for one another but love for the God they both believed in.
"I can't leave her, Mother."
"But what about your own family? What about your father? What about me? Come home, Ruth. Please come home to us. How can I bear to see you live in such poor circumstances when ..."
Ruth felt torn between her love for her mother and father and her love for Naomi and Orpah. If Mahlon did die, could she turn her back on them and walk away? Could she go back to living the way she had before, bowing down to the statues representing the gods of her mother and father, gods she no longer believed even existed? The bond she had with Naomi was deeper than a relationship by marriage. Ruth had come to embrace her mother-in-law's beliefs in an unseen God. She had explained her new beliefs to her mother and father, and heard them laugh and shake their heads. "How can you believe such nonsense? An unseen god?" She loved her mother and father deeply, but she wouldn't turn her back on Naomi or the truth she had come to realize through her.
"Mahlon, Naomi, and Orpah are my family, Mother, just as Father became yours when you married him."
When her mother's face crumpled in tears, Ruth embraced her. "You know I love you, Mother. I'll always love you. But I must do what's right."
"This isn't right! You're throwing away your life!"
Ruth saw that her mother refused to understand. Things could never be the same as they had been when Ruth was a child in her father's household. She was a woman now, with a husband and a mother-in-law and responsibilities toward both. Her life didn't belong to herself anymore. And even if it did, would her decision be any different?
Oh, Lord, give me strength. I feel like a broken jar with all the oil spilling out.
She had to tell her mother the truth. It wouldn't be fair to leave her with false hopes.
"I won't leave Naomi, Mother. You have Father. You have my brothers and their wives and children, and my sisters and their families. If Mahlon does die, who will Naomi have left?"
"She will have Orpah," her mother said stubbornly. "Let Orpah stay with her."
Orpah didn't believe in the God of Israel. She still worshiped idols and burned incense to Ashteroth. "Orpah is a kind and loving daughter-in-law, but she doesn't share Naomi's faith."
Her mother's eyes darkened in anger. "How can you persist in believing in this unseen god of hers after all that's happened? It's not fair that you give up your life for this ill-fated family! If Naomi decides to leave, let her go!"
Ruth refused to be drawn into another argument about whose god had grander temples or the most elaborate and pleasurable worship services. She drew back and stood. "Mahlon needs me. I must go."
Her mother rose with her, weeping again as she followed her to the door. "Please consider carefully what you're going to do, Ruth. I beg of you! Don't throw your life away!"
Ruth's emotions warred within her. Love ... grief ... impatience ... confusion. She turned and embraced her mother quickly. "I love you," she said in a choked voice. "Tell Father I love him, too." She released her hold, turned away, and hurried out the door.
As she sped along the narrow city streets, she covered her face with her shawl so those passing would not see her anguish.
* * *
Grief is deeper when the sun goes down and memories rise up with the moon and stars. The streets of Kir-hareseth were deserted now, everyone home and asleep, but Naomi's mind was whirring as she sat at the end of her pallet, her back against the cold stone wall of her small house. She felt alone, even though her two beloved daughters-in-law lay sleeping within a few feet of her. They were worn out with sorrow. Each had lost a husband, Orpah first and then Ruth. But they would never experience the deeper grief of losing their children, for they had none.
My sons are dead! My sons, oh, my sons ... Naomi wanted to scream out her pain, but for the sake of the young women sleeping nearby held it in instead.
It was dark now, so dark the night closed in around Naomi, bringing with it fear and doubt. She tried to pray, but her whispered words seemed to bounce off the ceiling and land back in her lap unheard. And she began to wonder. Had God ever heard her prayers? Had the Lord ever listened to her pleas?
Like the approach of locusts ready to feast upon her faith, the silence hummed inside her head. She pressed her hands over her ears and clenched her teeth. Why was the night like this? Sometimes the darkness was so still she could hear her own blood rushing through her veins. The sound was like a heavy rain washing open the doors of her mind, flooding her with memories she wanted to forget.
The room echoed with her dead husband's voice. "We're going to Moab whether you like it or not, Naomi! There's no famine there."
"But, Elimelech, we mustn't leave Bethlehem! It's our home."
"Our home is turning to dust!"
"If we trust and obey God, He will provide."
"Are you blind? Look around you, woman. God has abandoned us!"
"Because you and others bow down to baals!"
"I bow down to Baal because he's the lord of this land!"
"Moses told our fathers the Lord is God and there is no other!"
"And what good has God done for us lately?" Elimelech argued. "How long since rain last fell on our land? When was the last time our crops produced even a little more than what we need to fill our own stomachs?"
"But you are saying it yourself, my husband. The Lord has provided what we need to survive."
"I'm sick of hearing you say that! I'm the one taking care of us, Naomi. I'm the
one working my flesh to the bones on this rocky ground and watching my crops
die! Don't tell me God is taking care of us! Look at my hands! Look at the
calluses and tell me it's God who takes care of you and our sons. God stands far
off and watches while everything I own turns to dust. He's abandoned us! You're
just a woman.