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An Unexpected Role Model

Tim Krueger is the editor of Mutuality and is CBE’s publications coordinator. He studied history and theology at Bethel University (MN), and was raised in the Philippines, where he developed a fascination with history, language, and culture. He and his wife, Naomi, live in Saint Paul, MN.

I recently heard a sermon delivered by Dr. Peter T. Vogt, a professor of Old Testament at Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. In it, he shared some insights about the story of Naomi and Ruth (Listen to the sermon here—it starts around the 40-minute mark). With his permission, I have summarized some of them here.

One of the first things we learn about Israel, God’s covenant people, is that God didn’t choose them because they were particularly special; he chose them to be his instruments to bless the world. The second thing we learn about Israel is that it repeatedly failed to be a blessing. Instead, it adopted the practices of its neighbors, always wandering away from Yahweh. Naomi, however, stands in contrast to Israel’s failure to influence its neighbors.

Most of us know the story well enough. Naomi, a Jew, moves to the foreign land of Moab along with her husband and two sons. Her sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. But in the next several years, Naomi’s husband and sons all die. In a communal, patriarchal culture, Naomi finds herself alone, a foreigner in a strange land, with no male relatives to provide stability or safety. Her only choice is to return to her relatives in Israel.

So she packs up and heads toward home. When her daughters-in-law join her, she tells them to stay in Moab and build new lives for themselves. She believes God has cursed her and there’s no reason for Orpah or Ruth to suffer as well. Orpah returns home, but Ruth stays with her, uttering the famous words, “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. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16–17).

Why did Ruth insist on going with Naomi? Why was her commitment so strong that she’d give up a life at home in Moab and instead become a foreigner—and potential outcast—in Israel, where Moabite women may have been thought to be sexually promiscuous? Was it simply because she loved Naomi and wanted to care for her? Perhaps, but Naomi would be cared for well enough by her relatives back home. Is there something more going on here?

There may be a clue in what Ruth says. The English translations we read often imply that she says, “your God will be my God,” but the original Hebrew would be better rendered “your God is my God.” Ruth probably makes the choice to stick with Naomi because of her commitment to Yahweh. That Ruth would have become a follower of Yahweh should not come as a surprise. In the patriarchal world of the Old Testament, women and children were expected to worship the deity of their patriarch. Thus, when Ruth married a Jew, she would have been expected to worship Yahweh. What is a surprise is her profound understanding of and faithfulness to Yahweh.

Were she to return home to her father’s household, as Orpah did, she would have to return to worshipping the Moabite god(s). Had she done this she most likely could’ve continued worshipping Yahweh, so long as she also worshipped the gods of her father. But Ruth would not do so. Someone had acquainted her so well with Yahweh that she understood (better than most Israelites, it would seem), that Yahweh alone was to be worshiped—not as part of a pantheon, but as the only true God.

In a society where women and men spent little time together, even in marriage, it’s unlikely that Ruth learned a great deal about Yahweh from her husband. Naomi is more likely the one who introduced her to the God of Israel and modeled faithfulness to him. She also serves as a model of a faithful Israel—an example of what God’s chosen people were meant to do.

Like Israel, Naomi sojourned in a foreign land. But unlike Israel, she was not drawn into the worship of local deities. Rather, she influenced Ruth to serve Yahweh. Naomi was so effective that Ruth would put her own well-being at risk not just to stand by Naomi but to faithfully serve Yahweh. Israel would’ve done well to learn from Naomi’s example.

Christians, too, are called to bless the world around us. But our efforts our hindered when we fail to recognize the significance of female heroes like Naomi. Through the faithfulness of Naomi, God called Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David and ancestor of Jesus, to be an integral part of his unfolding story of redemption. Let’s follow Naomi’s example. Perhaps our faithfulness to God will have a bigger impact than we’ll ever know.

Until I heard this sermon, I’d never really thought of Naomi as a role model—perhaps because I’d never heard much about her at all, aside from being a character in the story of Ruth. This has me pondering a few questions. What other biblical women should I be learning from? Why do I so rarely hear sermons about biblical women (and why do I often not even notice this)? How can we encourage our church leaders and community members to learn from and share the stories of unheralded (or heralded) women of the Bible? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

We’ll explore the faith, leadership, and impact of Old Testament women in our next issue of Mutuality. If you’re a member, watch for it in your mailbox in the next couple weeks or check out the digital version on CBE’s members-only page. Non-members can pre-order the print copy today, or purchase the digital version

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11 Comments

  1. Comment #104657 posted May 31, 2013 at 7:19 am

    I just completed an overview of famous mothers of the Bible on Mother’s Day for the children at my church. It was delightful. So many women have contributed to the heritage we honor that brought Christ to earth. I included the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who were instrumental in preserving both Aaron and Moses’ lives. Isn’t it interesting that these ladies were named, but neither of Moses’ parents were? God also honored these ladies by giving them their own families. Rahab is another rich character who is one of the few from Jericho who saw who the God of the Israelites really was, believed and was delivered. Can you see Boaz as her son listening to her story of the fall of Jericho and her deliverance? Can you see how he would then have the eyes of faith and and see the same faith in Ruth? I don’t know why patriarchal societies had to exist but God has always made up for it in his kingdom. May we always be witnesses to that kingdom.

    • Comment #104659 posted May 31, 2013 at 8:24 am

      Thanks for your comment. It’s amazing to me how rarely we hold up women as models of faith. I’d never even heard of Shiphrah and Puah until I began working on this issue of Mutuality. And so often, when we do hear about women, we hear about what they did wrong, while most of the male heroes did terrible things which we excuse. The fact that so many women are noted in the Old Testament, despite having to live up to a vastly higher moral code than men, is astonishing to me. Just goes to show that women are and always have been more than capable of leading with utmost integrity.

    • bonnie k.
      Comment #104674 posted June 5, 2013 at 9:49 am

      Moses’ parents were Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20). I don’t understand your statement “Isn’t it interesting that these ladies were named, but neither of Moses’ parents were?”

      • Comment #104682 posted June 6, 2013 at 8:21 am

        Sorry, that was an oversight. I didn’t dig for it to double check to see if there was any indication in other texts. My point was that in the immediate text about the faithful midwives (Ex. 1 and 2), we are not told who Moses’ parents were. So, if in a culture women’s roles were not valued or esteemed, the author elevates Shiphrah and Puah by calling them by name. It’s an emphasis that makes good storytelling. If we can tell a story, then we can learn from it. If we learn from it, we bring honor to the people in the story and to ourselves. In this case we are invited to bring honor to these women who are worthy of it.

  2. Comment #104658 posted May 31, 2013 at 7:49 am

    I think the thief has indeed come to kill, steal and destroy. The church must learn not to ‘adopt the practices’ of our neighbours. In the South African church there is a lot of excusing regarding our ‘culture’ and our ‘neighbours’ cultures’ which has become the cover up term for racial, economic and gender prejudice. For those of us that know the truth let us stand up and speak out. Thank you CBE.

    • Comment #104660 posted May 31, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Yes! I’m not terribly familiar with the South African context, but I’m reminded of how easily we Christians in the US take pride in standing apart from cultural values, but unfortunately it tends to be values such as racial and gender reconciliation. Meanwhile we unwittingly embrace other elements of culture, such rape culture, celebrity-worship, ethnocentricity, the condoning of violence, etc. I believe that when we take more time to look at the faithful women of Scripture, we can learn to be more discerning about what faithfulness to God looks like.

  3. Trevor Trevor
    Comment #104662 posted June 1, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    Our pastor, who is himself egalitarian, serving with an all male, patriarchal board of elders, preached a great message on Naomi and Ruth. His theme was ‘Life can be Messy’. Bad things can and do happen to the good, faithful and obedient people of God.

    He highlighted Naomi’s evangelical zeal in modelling her beliefs in such a way that Ruth, her pagan daughter-in-law, wanted to follow Naomi’s Yahweh and be identified with God’s people Israel. It’s a beautiful account of honesty in the midst of adversity and the determination of these women to honour God and be obedient to him despite their unpleasant circumstances.

    It is also a story with a happy ending because their faithfulness led to a change of fortunes in Ruth meeting Boaz, an honourable male relative who treated her with respect and dignity, acknowledging both her obedience to God and devotion to Naomi. Finally, in the economy of God, Ruth is now in the ancestral line of the Messiah. Awesome!

  4. Comment #104679 posted June 5, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Another woman I’d like to see a CBE article on is Jephthah’s daughter (unless there is already some CBE resources or literature on her!??) . She is quite controversial since some interpretations I have been told emphasize how she was treated like an object or animal when she was sacrificed because of her father’s hasty vow. But when I read the story I see her conscious and Christ-like choice to be a sacrifice, joyfully fulfilling her father’s vow because it resulted in the victory she was celebrating when she walked through that gate… and the old testament says she was honored by the Jewish community, though I don’t know how many years or centuries they continued to honor her. And apparently her sacrifice was not so horrible an act because her father Jephthah is honored by name in Hebrews 11.

    • bonnie k.
      Comment #104683 posted June 6, 2013 at 9:30 am

      The people mentioned in Hebrews 11 were notable for their faith. That does not mean that they did not also do some bad things at times. To sacrifice a child was indeed horrible. It was an abominable practice of the heathen nations, something forbidden in Israel.

    • Trevor Trevor
      Comment #104685 posted June 7, 2013 at 1:47 am

      Hi Tania, Your request is a challenging one. I did a search on previous blog posts and only found one that specifically mentioned Jephthah’s daughter. That was on March 9th, 2011, titled, “Ahead of the Culture”, by Marjorie and only alludes to Jephthah’s daughter as being somewhat overlooked in Biblical commentary. As far as CBE resources go the only mention that I found was an obscure reference in an Arise E Newsletter of 11/4/2010, or is that 4/11/2010? So there’s a challenge for someone to take up.

      In response to you bonnie k. That section of Judges (chapter 11) is all about the Israelites being a long way from the purposes of God and steeped in idolatry. God had given up on them and that is why they were threatened by the Ammonites. I’ve always considered that Jephthah made a rash vow because of having been influenced by his syncretistic worship practises. His daughter became an innocent victim, and in the light of a resounding victory, innocently and bravely accepted her fate. Like Tania I’d love to see more mention made of that ‘Christlike’ sacrifice.

  5. Comment #104730 posted June 27, 2013 at 8:36 am

    The writer places the setting of the story during a time in the past identified as the “Age of the Judges.” It was a time in Israel’s history that fell between the death of Joshua and the coronation of Israel’s first king, Saul, c. 1200-1020 BC. Joshua succeeded Moses as the political leader of the children of Israel ( Dt 31:1-3 ; Josh 1:1-5 ). After Joshua’s death, there was no central political authority. Each of the tribes settled on the lands allotted to them on both sides of the Jordan River, and the civil affairs of each tribe were handled by the various tribal chieftains and elders ( Judg 2:6 ). In time of war, a tribal chieftain from one of the tribes would arise to respond to the danger (see the chart on the Judges of Israel). The histories of these chieftains, referred to as “judges,” are recorded in the Book of Judges. The only central unifying force for the twelve tribes of Israel during the period of the Judges of Israel was Yahweh’s Sanctuary and the anointed High Priest (a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron, the first high priest) who officiated at Yahweh’s one sacrificial altar and served as God’s representative to the people. It was a time of political and religious chaos-violent invasions by pagan armies, lawlessness, tribal civil wars and an apostate Israelite population drawn to worshiping the false gods of their pagan neighbors.

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