Widows in the Bible, Part 2: Ruth and Naomi
The Book of Ruth can be dated to the early years after the Exile, 587-37 BC, during a time when intermarriage with foreigners was being debated. The book concerns the plight of three widows, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, both Moabite women. Briefly, Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, had settled in Moab to escape a famine in Judah. Eventually, all three women found themselves widowed. Naomi announced that she was returning to Bethlehem in Judah where food was available. Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to stay with their families since she was too old to have sons for them. Orpah stayed, but Ruth insisted she would not abandon Naomi despite an uncertain future in Judah.
In Bethlehem, Naomi sent Ruth into a field to glean ears of grain for food after the harvesters, as the law permitted for widows. Ruth met the owner of the field, Boaz, a distant male relative of her deceased husband. Boaz was impressed with her concern for Naomi and he treated her kindly.
When Naomi heard of Boaz and his kindness, she instructed Ruth to go at night and uncover the feet of Boaz as he was sleeping on the threshing floor. Ruth did as Naomi instructed.
When Boaz found Ruth at his feet he said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth your maid. So, spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative” (3:10). In Ezekiel 16:8 “spread your mantle” is used on the lips of God while establishing a covenant with Israel. Here, the phrase was a proposal of marriage by Ruth. Boaz told her he could not marry her because she had another male relative even closer than he was.
Boaz found the other male relative and, in the presence of elders, explained the situation of Ruth. The male relative said he could not accept financial responsibility for the two women and gave up his lawful claim to marry Ruth. Boaz then declared his intention to marry Ruth; in contrast to Judah in Tamar’s situation, Boaz is depicted as a generous and faithful Israelite man.
The elders then offered a prayer which ends, “With the offspring, the Lord will give you from this girl, may your house become like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah” (4:12). Ruth and Boaz had a son, Obed, and his son was Jesse, the father of King David. Ruth, a foreign, immigrant, young widow, who honors the obligation to care for widowed Naomi, is presented as the great-grandmother of David and ancestress of Jesus. Both Tamar and Ruth appear in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew. Investigating the historical situations of Israelite widows, Tamar and Ruth are correctly viewed as foreigners, yet acting according to the law to secure their rights and fulfill their obligations; they are significant participants in salvation history.
While Queen Elizabeth II, a widow, is hardly poor or oppressed, images of her can serve as a reminder of other widows or single mothers today, the world over, who are less fortunate – those who are poor, oppressed in various ways, and without a voice in the society in which they live. We may also observe others, faithful women and men who care for elderly widows/widowers, including members of our own parish communities.
Notice that the younger Ruth took care of Naomi who in turn taught Ruth. The early Christian communities recognized such widowed women and the older ones were enrolled in an “order of widows.”