“Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law farewell but Ruth clung to her and said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go . . . . So Naomi returned from Moab . . . . Ruth bore Boaz a son, and the women said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him. Then Naomi laid the child in her bosom and became his nurse’” (from Ruth 1:14-17, 4:14-16).
The Bitter Road
You started up dry water courses, heading
For the rocky fields of Ephraim, Naomi,
Woman mourning husband and sons.
To how many griefs is the mind answerable?
You melted again
For the dear ones setting out with you,
Losing their past–
Friends and kin, village fountain, and gods of home.
‘I’ve no more sons to bind us,’ you said,
‘My daughters, let me die to you.
But Ruth put a hand to your shoulder,
Turned you half about and held your eyes with hers
Till you saw green light inside their brown.
‘My former gods I leave,’ she said,
‘Your country will be mine, I know
My Mahlon cannot come again from your womb and yet
My life and yours are one.’
Goatskins of water on your backs,
You two, walking sticks in hand,
When the flatbread was gone you trusted to gifts
Nights, you doubled your travel cloaks
And cradled together–
Two spirits’ inward parts knitted to one life
For a country to be known.
Struggling over the last hill,
Bethlehem and ripe fields in view,
Down the road you came
At evening, women’s time with water jars,
To the well.
Cries of recognition and surprise
Draft on cool draft you drank.
Anna, cousin of Elimelech,
She who best remembered you,
Took you by the hand, with Ruth behind,
And led you to her rooftop for the night.
Or, The Elder Brother Gets a Life
The barley’s good this year, tips white.
I’ll get to town at sunup,
Hire more hands.
Get grain rigs too for the asses.
Here come the gleaners,
Watching the scythes we swing.
A boy, an old man, two widows, —
Who’s the young one? scarf tied back,
Chin forward, determined she looks.
Tell the men to drop plenty.
Ah, I saw her yesterday,
Sandals in hand, feet blistered–
Not used to field work.
She sat with the water dipper by at noon
Munching her flatbread,
Slowly rubbed a heel and flexed her hands
Open and shut–
Young Mahlon’s widow, they say,
My father’s second cousin.
Where’s Aharon now with the midday baskets?–
A slacker, that boy, my Miriam’s youngest.
At least he hasn’t the fits
Like my other boy still living.
His mother dotes too much on him as well.
What can I say? It’s Leah my firstwife,
She runs the household
With a tongue and thoughts for order.
Just the one boy we’ve had.
Ah, she’s tied her sandals up the legs for gleaning.
Send a boy to put up the extra wood
From the rigs.
Just the stuff for the booths of festival next month
When we thank Adonai for harvest.
Blessing us he is,
Ruach, breath-spirit, he waves along these fields
White gold with food.
Where was I . . .
Yes, send a boy to hurry Aharon along,
And get the scout’s message to town–
Mustn’t let up posting where they are,
The raiders down valley–
A famine winter if they get our grain.
Now she’s working up this way–
A kindly girl they say,
Wouldn’t leave Naomi.
Evening at last, field greens simmering,
Good with last year’s goat cheese, toasted grain,
New wine in harvest jugs–no harm to tip a few.
Tonight we sleep out with the padded cloaks–
Best way to start the work at dawn.
Finally my aching legs can stretch,
And muscles ease.
Cool air, first flow
Of night across me–sweetness
Enfolding of grain aroma.
My thoughts drift in dozing, timbrels of the mountain shrines
Sound a rustling touch of their beat,
A dance ring circles,
Slows and brings a face around to me,
The foreigner’s, but with my mother’s eyes.
I turn and doze again.
Suddenly, a ripple crosses my feet
Under the cloak.
A lizard? field mouse? A hand and fingers.
Then I hear a quiet voice,
‘I am your servant,
The life blood saved of a kinsman lost–
I offer myself.’
My feet and legs awake at the cool hands clasping my ankles,
The grain-scented air on my face.
I gather my wits
And speak kind words,
Say that Eliezer, last son of the village elder,
Is closer kin to her Mahlon.
He must hear of her desire
The path of duty must be walked.
But Eliezer has his own new wife–he’ll say ‘no.’
We sit up.
At gray dawn I first admire
Her eyes close up, her smile.
Next week we’ll hear the wedding flutes and timbrels.
Bereavement and New Life
In England in the mid-seventeenth century, a Baptist preacher named John Bunyan was cooped in the Bedford jail, months and years, for troublemaking. He refused to conform to the Church of England, and stirred up the working people. Someone brought him paper and he wrote a story that grew and grew, about the troubles and triumphs of this mortal life, told as a journey to heaven by a brave, wayfaring ordinary Christian. The character’s name? “Christian” of course. How did he make it to heaven? By buckling on that sword and armor of the good Christian that St. Paul tells about in Ephesians and “playing the man,” whenever he faced dangers or temptations on the road. It was a fine swashbuckling story of a working man’s hero, dragon fight and all.
There were a couple of problems with it. One was that Bunyan was adamantly convinced of predestination: people didn’t choose God, he was sure. God chose them to be believers, and only His sheer grace made them able to get anywhere at all on the road to salvation. Now though, his story had made it sound like the Christian thing was to hustle your own way to heaven, sword swinging, and the devil take the hindmost.
Which brings up the other problem. Christian had left his wife Christiana behind, with their children, in their home town of Worldly Ways. Was this a good Christian thing to have done? How was she supposed to get to heaven? She couldn’t go swashbuckling along the road by herself, thumping her chest and “playing the man.” It wouldn’t do. Bunyan knew he had to write another story. So he started over with Christiana’s tale. She’d have to go in company, and trust to getting help along the way. And go slowly.
As the new story–Part II of Pilgrim’s Progress–shaped up, she went so slowly that her four boys grew up along the road. And on the way, Christiana gave order for the oldest, Matthew, to marry a lovely, cheerful young woman of their traveling company, Mercy, who had become the dearest person in this life to her. Christiana wanted to “take Mercy into a nearer relation” to herself. Matthew had no say in the matter.
When the whole company gets to Beulah, the land just on this mortal side of the “River Jordan” or Death, we expect a moving farewell scene between Christiana and Mercy. Instead, just as in the story of Naomi and Ruth, menfolks are plugged in at that point, to benefit from the bountiful love between the two women. A new character, Mr. Greatheart, appears. He is blessed by Christiana, receives her ring, hears her last words of love and encouragement, and ferries her over the River. This river of death is a very erotic and glowing body of water. We feel the joy of heaven coming on the other side.
Actually, in telling the story, Bunyan literally compared Christiana and Mercy to Naomi and Ruth, those two women in the “Book of Books” who traveled so hard a road together, to so good an end. After all, Ruth bore Boaz a child who became the grandfather of the great King David. And Naomi got the joy of nursing him, so he became the grandchild of her body that her two dead sons couldn’t give her. It was, as we like to say nowadays, a “win-win situation.”
The human and emotive bounty that made it work has received a new term from cultural theorists of our latter days: the love of the two women was a “homosocial” relation, drawing on the wellsprings of human love that are erotic and spiritual at once, but often take a form like this, rather than a sexual expression.
For Boaz, the gift of Ruth was pure grace. He probably had a younger brother that had run off with the family bronzes, squandered them, and come home sickly. But not Boaz. He’d stayed at home, always done the right thing, cared for his family, worshipped and honored his God. And then, on a humdrum busy and stressful day of fieldwork, a great joy came to him, billed as his duty. What do you know. Sometimes it happens.