The Old Testament book of Ruth is a careful commentary on the interplay of self and social identity in its characters. No opportunity is missed to describe Ruth as the perpetual outsider. She is referred to throughout the story as “Ruth the Moabite” or “the Moabite woman” or even merely “the foreigner.” In fact, even Ruth refers to herself as a foreigner long after she left Moab. Yet her seemingly permanent status as an outsider is juxtaposed with her wholehearted declaration to identify herself with a new people, a new land, and a new God. “Where you go, I will go,” she says to her mother-in-law. “Where you stay, I will stay; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Identity is a very complicated thing. Even when we try to identify ourselves with something new, something we know to be true, something given to us or chosen for ourselves, it may only be a peripheral identity.
Nineteenth century poet Francis Thompson led the turbulent life of one caught between such dueling identities. His father wanted him to study at Oxford and become a physician, but Francis wanted to be a writer and moved to London to pursue a career. Sadly, he lost his way in narcotics, and for the rest of his life he would oscillate between brilliant writer and homeless addict. He lived on the streets, slaking his opium addiction in London’s Charing Cross and sleeping on the banks of the River Thames. But he continued to scribble poetry wherever he could, mailing his work to the local newspaper. The editor was immediately taken, noting there was one greater than a Milton among them, a slumbering genius with no return address. Thompson acknowledged that he was running from God, and in fact, spent his life wrestling between his identity as a child on the run and his identity as a child who had been found. Once succumbing to the pursuing Christ, he penned the famous words to “The Hound of Heaven.”
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
Pain and loss have a way of shaping who we are and what we see. Thompson’s divine pursuer is one Ruth did not yet know, and Naomi could not see. Interestingly, the first time Naomi spoke directly of her God within earshot of the foreigner who pledged to follow this God, it was to say that God had made her cold and grieving. Naomi imparts that her name should no longer be Naomi, which means “my delight,” but Mara, which means “bitter.” “For I went out full,” she says, “but the LORD brought me back empty.”
Naomi’s words are honest. She has lost her husband and her sons and her grief is consuming. The very meaning of her name seems a cruel irony. But there was also more to her. Tightly wound within Naomi’s identity was understandably her status as a widow, her status as empty. But she was not only a widow; she was not alone in her grief. She had not returned entirely empty. Naomi returned to Judah with a loyal daughter-in-law who had pledged to discover the God of Israel, maybe even as Naomi discovered the God of Israel herself. Though the social status of widows would certainly have justified Naomi’s vision of herself as empty, God used another widow—a foreign widow at that—to bring Naomi back to the meaning of her name.
It is often in the battle of warring identities that we seem most clearly to discover who we are. Naomi was indeed bitter, and she had every right to cast off the identity of delight in her name. Ruth had chosen a new life for herself, but she was indeed a foreigner, and was reminded of her status as an outsider at every turn. Even so, these identities, reinforced by their social standing, would not sway the God who loved them.
In the book of Ruth, the identity of God is always somewhere in the interplay of the dueling identities of its characters. Who God is seems slow to emerge, though the divine Spirit can be ascertained in the care of the outsider and in the bringing of an empty woman through her bitterness. But the identity of these women as God’s own is made unmistakably clear in the tracing of the Messiah through the bloodline of their own lineage: a foreigner named Ruth and a grieving woman named Naomi.