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A Mother-Daughter Covenant
Summer Quarter: Living in Covenant
Unit 3: Covenant: A Personal Perspective
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 11, 2019
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: Ruth 1:6-11, 14-18
Key Verse: Ruth 1:16
: To reflect on how vows inspire us to love and commit to others
“My ancestor was a wandering Aramean”
Of all the people featured in scripture, there are very few who live their lives without finding themselves displaced at some point. Consider the first couple, Adam and Eve. God provides them the perfect place to reside, but they break the one rule the landlord gives them and they are banished from the garden. Please note that God does provide clothes for them before he sends them out into the world.
Their kids don’t do much better. In a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother. As punishment, God makes him a wanderer on the earth. Once again, before sending him away, God puts a mark of protection on Cain so that anyone who recognizes him as a criminal would not will kill him.
Noah and his family are displaced by extreme weather. Once their boat comes to rest, God renews the covenant with Noah, his sons and their wives, and all living creatures. God commands them to multiply and fill the earth. And so “from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth” (Genesis 9:19b).
More scattering with the debacle of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), before we are introduced to Abram. Abram’s life starts with a move initiated by his father from Ur to Haran – even though Terah, Abram’s father, had intended to move the family to Canaan. In Haran, Abram hears the call from God, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). God shows him Canaan. “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘I give this land to your descendants’” (Genesis 12:7a).
Abram doesn’t stay long, though. “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land” (Genesis 12:10). Indeed, even after God makes a covenant with him and changes his name, the rest of Abraham’s story is filled with one instance of being displaced after another – sometimes because of conflicts with his own family, sometimes because of war in the region, sometimes just because. When Abraham’s wife dies, he insists on purchasing a burial place for her because “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you” (Genesis 23:4a).
Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac, each continue the story of moving from place to place. The rivalry between Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob, leads each of them on far-ranging journeys. The family rivalry persists. Jacob’s son, Joseph is sold into slavery – a victim of human trafficking – by his own brothers. Eventually Jacob moves his family to Egypt to escape famine and to reunite with Joseph.
Jacob’s family thrives in Egypt. When a new ruler ascends to the throne – one who does not recall the contribution Joseph had made to the preservation of the nation, he stirs up fear among his subjects and initiates a program of oppression against “these foreigners.” Moses emerges in the midst of this situation, first in a position of unexpected privilege, then as a fugitive, next as an advocate for the oppressed, then as the leader of a wandering company of people, and finally as the one responsible for instructing the covenant people of God on how they should live in the land God was about to give them. Repeatedly Moses told the people, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21; see also Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19; 16:12; 24:18). And this command is particularly relevant as we consider the story of Ruth: “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:21-22).
The story of uprooted people continues as the Hebrews claim the Promised Land, establish a nation, and are eventually sent into exile and later return. This pattern can be followed in Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos.
Almost everyone was on the move, and most went into exile at some point. This includes the privileged, the prophets, the priests, and the people.
Rev. Joan M. Maruskin, National Administrator of the Church World Service Religious Services Program, summarizes the biblical witness like this:
“We are all part of God’s great plan of migration. The great majority of people have either lived out the migration story or can trace their roots back to ancestors traveling from one land to another. In fact, if we embrace Adam and
Eve as our original ancestors, we are all migrants in a strange land and very far from home.”
Take a moment to consider your personal migration. Do you currently live in the city, state, or nation where you were born? Have you moved, and, if so, for what reasons?
Everything That Can Go Wrong
The story of Ruth begins with the family of Elimelech. They live in Bethlehem in Judah. He is married and has two sons. There is a famine in the land, and he decides to immigrate to Moab. Just to be clear, he leaves his home in “the house of bread” in the “Promised Land” to go and live among the Moabites.
The relationship between Moabites and Israelites is marked by animosity and antagonism. Genesis provides an origin story for the Moabites, which casts them unfavorably from the beginning. When Lot fled from Sodom before its destruction, he was able to escape with his two daughters (remember Lot’s wife “looked back” and was turned into a pillar of salt). His daughters were concerned that they might not have children. They devised a plan that involved an excess of wine. Moab was the son (and grandson) of Lot (see
Much later, as Moses was leading the people of Israel from Egypt toward the Promised Land, the King of Moab, Balak hires Balaam to curse the Israelites. The Lord prevents Balaam from cursing the Israelites—and in fact, blesses them four different times; much to Balak’s frustration (see
What Balak couldn’t purchase, the women of Moab are able to secure. The Israelite men “made themselves impure by having illicit sex with Moabite women. The Moabite women invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. So the people ate a meal, and they worshipped their god. Israel became attached to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry at the Israelites” (Numbers 25:1b-3). The trespass is revealed quickly, God pronounces judgment, and Moses authorizes punitive action; nevertheless, 24,000 Israelites died from the resulting plague.
Conflicts and skirmishes between the Israelites and Moabites continue throughout the story of the conquest of the Promised Land and into the time of the Judges. Moab is not a place Israelites go on vacation.
“In the days when the judges ruled,” Moab is where Elimelech takes his family, and then, he dies, leaving his wife with their two sons. Now, as if to add insult to injury, their sons marry Moabite women. They continue to live in Moab for 10 more years before both of the sons die, leaving Naomi without her two sons or her husband – without resources, prospects, or protection.
There is no way to know the circumstances of the deaths of Elimelech and his sons. They may have died from some illness or injury. It may have killed them quickly or they may have lingered for weeks, months, or years. If they had had access to proper care or the support of family and friends, they may have recovered and survived.
It is possible that they were the victims of violence. They may have been targeted because they were foreigners. They may have been unjustly accused of some transgression of local customs or traditions. They may have offended some local authority who let his lieutenants know that he would be glad to be rid of them.
Whatever the circumstances of their deaths, it had to be traumatic for Naomi. With each death her existence becomes more tenuous, her options more limited, her hope more desperate.
When have you made changes to your situation in life (e.g., new house, new job, new town, new relationship) hoping it would be a solution to your problems, only to discover the change created a whole new set of problems? How did you feel?
A Glimmer of Hope
When it appears the situation has become most desperate, Naomi hears news from home that the famine has come to an end. There is nothing to keep her in Moab. She packs her household and prepares to return to Bethlehem. Her son’s wives have been a part of that household for at least 10 years. They are her daughters-in-law. They are her family, despite their cultural differences. They prepare to make the journey with her.
How specific does the promise of a better life have to be to motivate you to change your situation?
It is impossible to know all that was going through Naomi’s mind as she “went along the road to return to the land of Judah.” When she had left – other than being short on food – her life had been pretty good. She had been married with two sons. Her situation had certainly become desperate. How would she explain to her friends and family all that had happened to her? How would she express her regret without dishonoring the memory of her husband and sons? Perhaps it was then that she began to wonder what people might say about the two Moabite women who were returning with her.
It may be just as likely that while she was trying to figure out where they were going to live and what they were going to eat that she realized she had little to nothing to offer her daughters-in-law; particularly, no husbands to replace the ones they had lost. Their prospects would be much more secure if they returned to their own mothers’ homes. If they continued on with her, they were going to be strangers in a strange land.
Ten years of life together had created tight bonds between these women. Even the suggestion that the daughters-in-law should return to their own homes starts the tears flowing. Neither of the young women is willing to turn back but are determined to return with Naomi to her people. Naomi is insistent.
What do you imagine Naomi was thinking when she decided to send her daughters-in-law back to their mothers’ homes?
A Relationship Redefined by Covenant
One of the daughters-in-law, Orpah, relents. After more tears, weeping, and wailing, Orpah accepts Naomi’s argument and returns “to her people and to her gods.” Now Naomi tries to use Orpah’s decision to persuade Ruth to turn back, too. Perhaps it is the way Naomi characterizes Orpah’s decision that finally elicits the expression of Ruth’s deep commitment to Naomi, and not only to Naomi personally, but also to her God.
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Naomi’s faith and witness have converted her Moabite daughter-in-law. Ruth sees herself as a member of the same covenant people as Naomi – a covenant people in a relationship with a covenant God. Perhaps in the moments before Ruth declared her resolve, Naomi still thought of her daughter-in-law as a foreigner – someone outside God’s covenant. That would explain the reason she told them to return to their own people. At some level, Naomi still saw them as different, alien, other.
Ruth’s testimony is the basis for a new covenant between these two women who appear to have little to bind them together. Ruth has declared her commitment to stay with Naomi, and not only to share an address, but also to identify with her people – a covenant people – and with her God – a covenant God. Bound by this new covenant, they resume the journey together.
In The United Methodist liturgy of the Baptismal Covenant, the congregation affirms:
Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit
into God's new creation
and made to share in Christ's royal priesthood.
We are all one in Christ Jesus.
With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you
as members of the family of Christ.
How does this commitment inform our relationships with “people of all ages, nations, and races”?
Rev. Ashley Randall is the pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church. He is currently working with an interracial, interfaith group of faith leaders to establish a congregation-based justice ministry in the Savannah area.