But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God."
When I speak of home, I speak of the place where in default of a better—those I love are gathered together; and if that place where a gypsy’s tent, or a barn, I should call it by the same good name notwithstanding. —Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
According to Jewish numerology, ten is the number of completion. So when the narrator of the book of Ruth introduces Naomi’s family, who lived in Moab for “about ten years,” he subtly signals a significant point (1:4). Naomi’s sojourn in Moab is complete; it is time to return home to Israel.
Depending on who you are and where you are, a return and a turn back may not be the same thing. Having fled famine-stricken Israel, Naomi, along with her husband and two sons, headed east to find desperate refuge in the enemy land of Moab. Now, it is important to know for this story that in the Hebrew worldview a movement towards the east is a movement towards evil. The calamity of Naomi’s circumstances seems to prove this perspective. Having cultivated a new familial life in Moab, Naomi’s husband and her two sons unexpectedly died, leaving her a widower with two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Once she receives word that the famine in Israel is over, Naomi sets out with her daughters-in-law to return home. But on the way, she has a change of heart, urging Orpah and Ruth to turn back towards Moab, so that they may go home to their mother’s household in order to find another Moabite husband. Orpah acquiesces and departs, turning back “to her people and to her gods” (1:15). But Ruth does not. She clings to Naomi, uttering her memorable confession of devoted faith: “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). Ruth knows that for Naomi going home is a return to Yahweh’s covenant community, where she belongs. She also knows that turning back to her mother’s household in Moab would be a movement away from the flourishing life of Yahweh’s blessing. So she obediently chooses to return home with Naomi—a westward movement into a covenant relationship with Yahweh among the Israelites.
In his tale Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens tells a similar story of a young man’s courageous journey to save his family from destitution in nineteenth century London. Despairing over his financial debts, Nicholas’ father dies an unexpected death. In order to protect his mother and younger sister from starvation, Nicholas accepts a teaching position at a rural boarding school. Once there, he witnesses the vicious headmaster’s vile treatment of the children. The headmaster is particularly abusive towards his servant Smike, a teenage orphan who suffers the crippling of one leg. While witnessing the headmaster’s threat to thrash Smike, Nicholas intervenes, taking the switch against the headmaster’s own backside. As the two flee in the night, they find refuge in a barn. As they lay upon the hay, Smike asks Nicholas where he will go. Nicholas tells him that he will return home to his family in London. Knowing that he cannot turn back to the school, Smike begs Nicholas to allow him to return to his London home, too. Not knowing that Smike is an orphan, Nicholas urges him to go back to his own home. “You are my home,” Smike confesses.
“You are my home.” Let these words settle into your soul. For this sentiment—or something like it—expresses Ruth’s Gospel understanding of her relation to Naomi. For Ruth, home is less of a geographical place and more of a relational presence. Through her loving devotion to Naomi, Ruth enters into covenant relationship with Israel, extending her faithful obedience to Yahweh. By so doing, she echoes Yahweh’s promise in the Abrahamic Covenant—“I will be your God, and you will be My people”—with her “your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Charles Dickens reminds us, “Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.” All of us wander from our true home, moving eastward, so to say, into evil. Once there, we try to make a new home of it, forgetting that we are living in enemy territory. Will we stay? We may try to return home, but we are tempted to turn back towards Satan’s household. As the great hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” The good news of the Gospel is that God comes to us in the grace of Jesus Christ, returning us home. After all, God Himself is our home. His warning command, then, to us His people is that our wandering sojourn in the Enemy’s land is complete. And His inviting promise is—as another grand hymn similarly says it—that “grace will lead us home.”