The Bible holds within it stories of holiness elongated into a sustained encounter with another. We call that friendship. The story of Naomi and Ruth tells us how women’s friendship is sustenance through times of adversity and peril.
This is a chronicle of survival and difference. At the beginning of the book of Ruth, two paths form along a common intimacy of tragedy. Ruth’s story centers on two choices. One is a return to biological family—to stability and familiarity. The other is the creation of home outside of the bonds of kinship. This second story is one of friendship.
The husbands of Ruth, Naomi, and Naomi’s other daughter- in-law, Orpah, are picked off by disease, one by one. The book of Ruth spares no feeling on the death of Ruth and Naomi’s family. First Naomi’s husband dies; then, like vapor, the children are dead. The unimaginable takes place in two verses. The two sons die. In a matter-of-fact way, the Hebrew reports, “the two of them, both.” Gone.
With her daughters-in-law left to fend for themselves as vulnerable widows, Naomi entreats them to return to their homes, to their mothers, and to new marriages. Orpah returns to the Moabites, presumably to the boundaries of married life, repeating the pattern of marriage as self-protection. The rabbis explain that this is how Orpah gets her name, a derivative of the verb “to return.”
By contrast, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. She clings. She clings, we read, in the same way that Adam and Eve cling to one another, the phrase lifted up from Genesis where we read that a man leaves his mother and father, and clings now to his wife. Ruth pleads with her mother-in-law after being told twice to return to the Moabites, her people of origin:
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you! (Ruth 1:16-17)
Some of us have heard these verses read at weddings. They are a type of vow, like the promises between partners at a marriage. Yet these are words of friendship, between two women binding their lives together—words that name the condition of lives already bound together by grief and longing. They are also words that mark instability, the homes made by refugees, by beggars, foreigners, and victims. They are words spoken by the bearer of a crushed life, women holding on to one another, where friendship is survival.
Because of this, Ruth is a story that complicates our sense of being at home. It is a story that confounds where home happens and between whom, where intimacy happens, within what boundaries, and how those boundaries are blurred between peoples and borders and families.
The author sets Orpah over against Ruth. Orpah is the one who chooses the stable world of biological family; Ruth chooses outside kin- ship by binding herself to Naomi, her companion and friend.
This commitment to extending the boundaries of belonging reaches back to Ruth from the New Testament, where Jesus shows little interest in biological family. In the New Testament Jesus tells an astonished crowd that his mother and brothers are those who do the will of God, not those who share his biology or household of origin.
Whoever leaves mother, father, brother, or sister for Jesus’ sake will receive a reward. Jesus will divide houses, rip apart husbands and wives, mothers and daughters (Matthew 19:29).
As I hear the words of Jesus, I cannot forget that Ruth’s story is one of death. It is about death along the way, about the death that happens when grief gives way for the space of another, when we clear out the closet of our life and let someone move in. I remember this when I hear her vow to Naomi, not as triumphant, but as aching.
Reading Ruth in this way changes the way I hear Jesus’ call to disassociate from family. What if instead of rejection, we are meant to hear a call to the expansiveness of friendship: opening up our lives to others, some of whom we may not have expected, being surprised by friendships that find their way to us?
What if friendship opens up a different kind of fertility, one that is nonprocreative, one that yields only flowers that never turn to fruit—beauty without production, without possession?
For this reason, more than any other story in the Bible, the friendship of Ruth and Naomi is the cipher through which I understand the church, what Peter Dula describes as a fugitive ecclesia.
As the church we are offered an elusive interconnectedness as an earthly body of Christ, not a constant and fixed institution. The church is rare, writes Dula, found “in the occasional intimacy of two or three.” Ruth and Naomi remind us, as does Jesus, that the space where God’s life occurs isn’t necessarily in church programs or Sunday school classes but in companionship, a spark of God’s life—unexpected, unplanned, and uncalculated.
Church is often trust in that which I cannot control, the shared life of another without institutionally mandated promises or production. The book of Ruth invites us to consider an ecclesiology of occasion, the church as boundedness to another.
We grapple with the fragility of what is possible, that we will come in and out of each other’s lives, that we will find ourselves failing at overcoming our otherness and, perhaps, trying again. Along the way we may come to discover that this love grows and extends outward, beyond our biological kinship into a beloved who is strange and similar, all at the same time.