Abide: Ruth; 1 Samuel 1-3
The Old Testament names more women, and has more books named for women, than any of the other texts in the Latter-day Saint canon. They fulfill their roles as disciples, family members, and in following their personal integrity with living up to their commitment within community relationships. How do they fulfill those roles? And how can Latter-day Saint better fulfill these roles by following these disciples’ examples? We’ll discuss that, and much more, on today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
The Old Testament names more women and has more books named for women than any of the other Latter-day Saint cannon. They fulfill their roles as disciples, family members, and in following their personal integrity with living up to their commitment within community relationships. How do they fulfill these roles and how can Latter-day Saints better fulfill these roles by following their examples? We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute and each week we discuss the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block, so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today we are once again joined by Derek Baker, one of our research assistants. Derek is an Ancient Near-eastern Studies Major focusing on Greek at BYU from St. George, Utah. After Derek graduates, he plans to become a high-school history teacher.
Joseph Staurt: Welcome back, Derek.
Derek Baker: Thanks for having me again.
Joseph Stuart: Our pleasure. Now Kristian, we are looking at the book of Ruth and then 1st Samuel 1 through 3 today. What’s going on in this section?
Kristian Heal: The stories of Ruth and Hannah are like a delightful oasis amid the tales of conquest and kingship. They are stories of faith, devotion, longing, and blessing. The book Ruth is set in the period of the Judges and provides with the story of Judah and Tamar, found in Genesis 38, some concreteness and humanity to the genealogy to the royal house of David. Both Tamar and Ruth break with convention and expectation in pursuing their faithful objectives, making them perfect forebearers and examples for David. Both stories also tell us that God works in unexpected ways to bring about the salvation of his people. It is only after the kingship falls to David and his house that these stories make sense to the reader. The story of Ruth is therefore a reminder to remember that so long as God is at work in our lives, all things will work out for the best in a multigenerational time frame. Ruth is one of two Moabite women who marry into an Israelite refugee family driven to Moab because of famine. In quick succession, Ruth’s father-in-law, husband, and brother-in-law die and her sister-in-law returns to her own family. Ruth is invited by her mother-in-law, Naomi, to do the same but dealers in one of the most famous passages of scripture that, “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” As Adele Riehgnheart notes, “The central theme of the story is the movement from emptiness to fulfillment. This statement of devotion is the turning point in the story, the moment where emptiness begins to be fulfilled. Hannah’s is also a story of emptiness. Her story of barrenness is so familiar to us now, but no less poignant or painful for being familiar. This birth story is meant to contrast with Sampson’s I think. Both sons of Nazarites, both called to do God’s work in the House of Israel, but they end differently, seemingly because they begin differently. Hannah longs and prays for a son and is blessed with Samuel who serves as a faithful priest and prophet all his days. His faithfulness is shown by his willingness to repeatedly respond when the Lord calls, “Speak for your servant is listening.” Ruth and Hannah exemplify that very human quest for fulfillment. We all want to feel like we are living fulfilling lives, that we are filling the measure of our creation. As we read these stories, it is worth asking what the Bible has to contribute to this quest. Where is fulfillment to be found? How is it to be obtained? What relationships lead to fulfillment? And what goals lead to fulfillment?
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that helpful overview and I’m glad that you pointed out that the scripture from Ruth is one of the most cited in Christian literature. It is something that I have seen in the homes of many people of faith, just recognizing the importance, not only of individual righteousness but in our familial relationships to each other. Derek, in the book of Ruth, it’s always stuck out to me that Naomi has Ruth’s loyalty, having her be a daughter-in-law rather than a direct blood relation. What do you think about that?
Derek Baker: Ruth is in some ways, a prologue to the story of David. At the end of the book of Ruth you have a genealogy and it explicitly points out that Ruth is an ancestor of David. But within the story itself is the theme of God rewarding. In chapter 1 verse 8, Naomi hints at this theme of chesed by implying that Ruth and Orpha have in some sense earned chesed from God because of their loyalty to Naomi in the aftermath of the deaths of their husbands. In chapter 2 verse 12, Boaz implies that Ruth,, again, has earned chesed from God on account of her own chesed. The result of Ruth’s continued practicing of chesed is her eventual marriage to Boaz, the gift of offspring with him, and ultimately the recognition of Israel.
Kristian Heal: It’s a lovely kind of summary in the women’s Bible commentary of Ruth that kinds of resonates with these themes that you’re bringing out here Derek. This is by Abuini P. Lee, “Ruth,” she says, “…is a masterful literary composition meant both to delight and to provide a model of faithfulness.” And I hope we all feel delighted as we read the book of Ruth. She continues, “It witnesses not only to divide chesed, covenantal faithfulness but especially to human acts of chesed that are transgressive. That is, they defy convention and cross-cultural boundaries and go beyond the requirements of Torah to ensure the preservation of family, and by extension, the flourishing of a nation. In so doing,” she continues, “…the book commends an inclusive attitude towards outsiders, challenging both personal and communal constructs of identity and otherness.” And there seems to be something there. You were pointing us towards this as well, this notion of chesed is a personal and interactive relationship and not just how we relate to God and God-givinness that we are now personalizing this idea of chesed and making something which connects individuals within a community.
Derek Baker: That ties pretty well into a scripture found in the book of Michah chapter 6 verse 8. It says, “What did the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” In this particular verse the word translated into mercy is, again, chesed or loving kindness. So in that sense, Ruth is an exemplar of interactive well with her fellow human beings of having the option to make the kind of average choice and choosing to do something exceptional because Ruth does not abandon Naomi even though she has every right to. That is chesed. The book of Ruth contrasts those who are of average character like Orpha or Boaz’s kinsmen eventually in the story, with those who practice a kind of exemplary chesed. However it does not criticize those who only do the expected or the average, which I think it an important note.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it always sticks out to me in stories when we look at the almost superhuman, or those who are in the hundredth percentile of faithfulness or skill at whatever craft, it doesn’t mean we need to discount those who are doing what they’ve been asked. And I worry sometimes that we think of pioneer forebearers starving to death and glorify that in a way that they would have much rather taken a plane or a train to reach Zion and so I think it’s important to keep in mind that while we look at Ruth as this great example, that as someone who showed loyalty despite not having it required of her that chesed is about covenantal faithfulness and long term, not just out interpersonal relationships.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. And I love this elsewhere in the Women’s Commentary on the Bible Uni Lee observes that Ruth offers an alternative vision of a caring community. And so we are starting to sort of shift as we think back to the story of Tamar. Tamar is a story of faithlessness on the part of Judah and his children and Tamar stepping in and taking control of her destiny, but here in Ruth we have a different set of relationships. All of a sudden we now show what is possible, the fulfillment that can be obtained when we treat each other with kindness and respect, when we have this covenantal loyalty with each other. I think in Latter-day Saint terms, what it means to walk on the covenant path is to have this kind of relationship with other people who are on that path. That’s the sort of thing that propels us forward and enables us to achieve our objectives.
Joseph Stuart: It also sticks out to me that it’s not just about the people we are sealed to by virtue of bloodline or through marriage, but that we have relationships with our friends, with our community members as well, and it reminds me of something Joseph Smith said when he preached, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism. It is designed to revolutionize the world and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” So also reminding me of a talk from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin about how the characteristics Latter-day Saints should be most known for is that of love. That everyone is not only a sibling, but is a friend as well.
Kristian Heal: The beautiful thing about friendship is that it traverses boundaries which we think as otherwise, obstacles to forming relationships and Naomi and Ruth is a wonderful example of this. These are people who wouldn’t in normal circumstances be friends. The Israelites and the Moabites didn’t get along. These weren’t two cultures that interacted but we suddenly find ourselves with this beautiful example of friendship that leads to fulfilling lives for both of them, fulfilling lives for Ruth because she enters this relationship with Boaz and is able to have children and for Naomi because these children are sort of raised up as her grandchildren essentially. It’s a beautiful idea. We also can think about this term, this idea of friendship, as the relationship that Hannah had before she became a mother. I think it’s interesting to look in there at her husband, Elikinah, and also the sister wife who has had lots of children, and to see Hannah as this favorite. She was clearly loved and cherished by her husband, much in the same way that Rachel was loved and cherished by Jacob. But still felt deeply this sense of unfulfillment in that relationship and Elkanah wonders, why? He can’t understand why his friendship is not enough. “Hannah, why do you weep?” He says to her, “Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” I think the message here is that devotion is not friendship. Friendship recognizes the limits of its own friendship and therefore, includes the determination to bring about a sense of fulfillment in one’s friends.
Derek Baker: I think that’s an important one to bring up that friendship recognizes the limits of it’s own friendship and in this particular case with Elkinah and Hannah, Elkinah is noted in the Bible as loving Hannah, as favoring Hannah and despite that, he can’t understand why his relationship with Hannah is not enough and I think that speaks to a very modern issue where we have this expectation that we are going to marry a person and that person is going to fulfill all the needs we have as human beings, they’re going to form every relationship we need them to form when in reality, friendship, marriage, any kind of healthy relationship is about recognizing what you cannot provide to a person and being willing for that person to find that thing somewhere else.
Joseph Stuart: It sticks out to me too that Elkinah gives us a great example of how not to respond when someone is depressed or having a hard time, making it all about himself and saying, am I not good enough for you? Is that why you’re suffering? It’s important I think instead to look at Naomi’s relationship to Ruth, where she is actively trying to push her into finding happiness for herself.
Kristian Heal: Exactly, I think those lovely lines in Ruth 2:22, “It is best daughter that you go out with Boaz’s girls,” Naomi is actively thinking, what is going to be best for you and for your life and for your future. And again at the beginning of chapter 3 Naomi, her mother-in-law, said to her daughter, “I must seek a home for you where you may be happy.” And seeking for this deep desire that I think is embodied in this friendship that I think Joseph Smith was talking about to bring about the happiness of another human is a revolutionary act of friendship. Friendship is not a codependence where we find and latch onto somebody who brings us something but this sort of interdependence that allows us to draw out and be concerned about the happiness of another human because of that love and affection that we have for them and definitely friendship is bound by that love and affection.
Joseph Stuart: So fulfillment isn’t only coming through interpersonal relationships in these twin stories, but it’s also coming through faith to God and when Hannah hears Eli say, “May the Lord God of Israel grant you what you asked of him,” Rebekah responds, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Afterwich Rebekah returns to eat and drink with her husband and was no longer sad. It is important to recognize that friendship is not a panacea, it’s not a fix all for relationships, but that once faith has an important part in finding fulfillment as well. Friendship isn’t the only thing that brings fulfillment in these narratives of Hannah and Ruth, it is also required that they have faith and find meaning in their faith. How do we see that in the text Derek?
Derek Baker: In both of these stories you have instances of people in some sense practicing a kind of faith. In Ruth’s instance, it’s more a kind of faith in the form of being good to other people and in Hannah’s instance it’s a kind of faith that leads you to your knees to prayer. When Hannah hears Eli say, “May the Lord God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him,” Hannah responds, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Afterwhich, Hannah returns to eat and drink with her husband and was no longer sad, so when Hannah is told by Eli that what she wants, which is a son, that she’s going to devote to the service of the Lord is going to be granted. Her sadness vanishes. She practices the kind of faith where she is told she is going to receive a blessing, and believes it.
Joseph Stuart: I wonder if this is something too where we can think about Jesus telling us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, that the burden doesn’t disappear, that the yoke doesn’t disappear from your shoulders, but that through faith, those burdens can become light to you.
Kristian Heal: I love in this instance how 1 Samuel chapter 2, the opening verses are this celebration of this moment in a celebration in song essentially. And if you look at this in various versions of the Bible, you’ll see these verses, verses 1-10 laid out in verse. And it’s something similar as you’ll see as you look at the celebration of Mary’s experience laid out in Luke chapters 1 verse 46 to 53 and scholars have noticed a connection between Hannah’s response to this blessing and Mary’s response to her experience and similar wordage she used and in fact if you look at the description of Samuel growing up in 1 Samuel 2:26, you see very similar language to what we find in Luke 2:52, that said Samuel and Jesus both grow up in wisdom and in favor with God and man. So we have here this here Hannah foreshadowing Mary, we have this idea of Samuel as a type of Christ, but interestingly we have this beautiful articulation of Hannah’s faith at the beginning of chapter 2 and I just came across this lovely book written in the 19th century by a Sephardic Jewish author, Grace Aguilar, which is called Women of Israel. She has a lovely reflection upon these opening verses of 1st Samuel chapter 2. She says, “The prayer, or rather hymn of thanksgiving, in which Hannah poured forth her gratitude to God in a strain of the sublimest poetry and vivid conception of apparent goodness of him, whom she addressed, is a forcible illustration of the intellectual as well as the spiritual piety which characterized the women of Israel and which in its very existence denies the possibility of degradation applying to women either individually, socially, or domestically. Their intellect must have been of a very superior grade. While the facility of throwing the aspirations of the spirit into the sublimest poetry evinces constant practice in doing so and proves how completely prayer and thanksgiving impregnated their vital breath. Both received a child that was not really theirs.” I think this is a lovely imagining and engagement and empathizing with this story by this 19th century British Jewess and the experience that Hannah was having and recognizing women in the Bible, particularly in the Hebrew Bible are presented in these kind of terms, in these terms of often their capacity for action, their kindness, their intellect, their smartness, their capability, and it’s wonderful to see this, to see Grace Aguilar resonate with that and see that in Hannah.
Derek Baker: And of course the greatness of some of the women in the Hebrew Bible, like Hannah in this instance is echoed in later New Testament passages like you mentioned where in Mary’s magnificat it echoes pretty much all the themes of Hannah’s song of the Lord reversing the fortunes of the poor and the oppressed, lifting them up while humbling those who are more powerful.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s really great. And here, Mary is acting in this tradition of women of the Hebrew Bible essentially, she’s functioning within that world and within that role.
Joseph Stuart: I’m also thinking about those who act in faith and don’t find fulfillment, that for every Hannah who has a child, there are women and families who are not able to have children or disappointments that can be far less eternal in nature or perhaps thinking about it a different way that there are people who act in faith and receive a fulfillment but they don’t necessarily find the joy that they were looking for in that.
Derek Baker: I think using the example of Hannah when she is told she is going to receive this blessing, Eli tells her she is going to receive what she wants in the form of a son and she is no longer sad. I think that’s great for Hannah, good for her. But for a lot of us, we come into situations where we are told we are going to receive a blessing, eventually. For Latter-day Saints a lot of us are told it will come in the next life if it doesn’t come into his life and a lot of the time, sadness kind of lingers and so I think it’s important to make space for those who do not have that kind of reaction of Hannah where for whatever reason she’s in a place where that kind of sadness washes away. And as long as we make space for those who have to sit in the sadness, I think that’s the important bit.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s really lovely. And I think being, you have the experience of being in those moments and then the experience of witnessing those moments and sitting with and comforting and mourning with those that mourn. I think both of those roles are really important to take. I often have the saying of President Benson come into my consciousness that if you turn your life over to God, you’ll find he can make a lot more out of it than you can. I really love this idea of submission to God, but I think it requires a submission of our desires and our expectations as well as within what we do in our actions and in our performances. I think that can be one way we can come to terms with. I think this sense of fulfillment is reconnecting with God in different terms and this seems to be scriptural resonances for that.
Joseph Stuart: I think it’s important too, to recognize that there are limits for the disappointment that we are asked to bear. That there are limits despite our faith, despite how we may have felt earlier that we have to respond to prayers about what is right at a specific time, not only about the things that told us a decision was right once. In other words, God can tell us to do different things if things aren’t working for us at that point.
Kristian Heal: And often that’s the most difficult counsel to take from God because we build a picture for ourselves, a picture for what our lives should look like, a picture of boxes that we have checked which should result in our happiness and we find ourselves, and we can find ourselves and many of our friends and neighbors have found themselves in situations where that happiness is not there. Both parties are not involved or some circumstances or other tragedies interpose themselves into our lives. Death or divorce, or other difficulties, and we then have to reset and find a different relationship with God that’s based on a different set of expectations and that can be a journey that requires precisely this kind of loyalty from friends, from family, this willingness to look across expectations and realize that sometimes people’s paths transgress the normal boundaries that we would expect and we have all kinds of examples of that in the Old Testament. The path is not smooth, the road to happiness is not one that looks like we thought it was going to look like. I think that can be a way in which the messages in the story from Ruth and Hannah can minister to and make us rethink what it is that will bring fulfillment in our lives.
Joseph Stuart: That’s a great place for us to end today, have a blessed week y’all.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)