The Ballad of Ruth[i]
William Blake, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah
There was no bread in the house of bread[ii] and so from the house of bread the breadless fled
To Moab went Elimelech and Naomi[iii] the sweet with two sons, departing hungry yet full
Foreigners in a foreign land they seek life but find only death and emptiness
A father dies, but leaves two sons behind to watch over the sweet one and to carry the name on
And yet the names of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, tell a tale all their own and a short tale it is
For Ruth and Orpah marry men whose part in the story seems only to perish, and perish they do[iv]
So in Moab is left Naomi the sweet made bitter, no longer hungry but empty
And yet in the house of bread, bread has returned
In the land of Moab sweet has turned bitter, bitterness has filled Naomi from bone to bile
In a foreign land the blessing of God seems to have turned to a curse, fullness to emptiness
The joy of wedding and the blessing of hope into the dirge of mourning and sons buried too soon
There is no gift for the wives of her children except to send them home to their father’s house
No sons left to give or bear, only a wish for the Lord’s kindness and a new beginning
For with Naomi there is only death, what is left but to return home to die
Breadless, childless, loveless, hopeless and bitter
And yet to the house of bread, Naomi will return
In the land of Moab, Orpah returns home to her father’s home but Naomi will not return home empty
The love of God comes wrapped in an unexpected form, the Moabite wife of her son
She becomes not only the bearer of grace and mercy but as the agent of God’s love[v] for the wounded child
Ruth’s words that, ‘where you go I’ll go, where you live I’ll live, your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I’ll die and there I’ll be buried.’
You asked for the Lord’s blessing in my departure, but may the Lord judge me if I depart
For neither life nor death, nor things present nor things to come will be able to separate Naomi
From the love of God shown in the Moabitess
To the house of bread, Naomi returns with Ruth as her only harvest
To the house of bread came two women, one known and one unknown
The known is Naomi, gone for a decade or more, returning as Mara[vi]
Departed sweet and returned bitter
The other is the Moabitess, the daughter of former oppressors, the alien, the outsider
She is the immigrant, the unprotected, the dangerous defiler, and yet she is Ruth
The outsider bears God’s grace in a way the insiders do not
At harvest time they return to a home long abandoned with empty fields.
Will there be bread in house of bread for the breadless?
Is there a place for the alien, the outcast, the widow, the poor and the weak?
Will the leftovers be enough to fill their emptiness or will they die forgotten?
Will their bodies be sold or taken for free in the reaping fields?
Or will new life begin in the harvest, will life return to the lifeless and bread to the breadless?
What will be gleaned in the barley harvest? Blessing or curse, life or death?
The fields are ripe in the house of bread and the harvest begins
The worthy man extends the blessing of the Lord’s covering[vii] and offers the shelter of his protection
For he has taken notice of the Moabitess working in the fields and knows of the grace she has shown
The outsider is made equal of the servants out in the fields and return home with a bushel of grain
Bread had returned to the breadless, life to the lifeless
Boaz has spoken to the heart[viii] of Ruth, and his words have returned hope to the bitter one
Bless the one who has covered us, who has not forgotten the dead
Bless the one who grants bread from the house of bread
Harvests come and harvests go in the house of bread, and then comes the celebration
The eating and drinking, the festival and feasting for once again the work is done
On the field of the threshing floor lies the worthy man, the fruit has been separated from the chaff
On the floor, covered[ix] lies the man who provided a covering for Ruth and Naomi
Work done, mercy extended, blessing shared…
Yet in the mystery of midnight what will happen to what lies on the threshing floor?
For in the mystery of midnight Ruth comes, perfumed and prepared
On the threshing floor at midnight the man finds himself uncovered and a woman lying at his feet
“I am Ruth, spread your covering over me” Once you wished the Lord’s covering on me, now be that covering
Can you accept the foreigner as one of your own, can your family be my family and your home my home
Your God is already God, may I go where you go, may I die where you die
In the mystery of midnight are the worthy man and the foreigner
Two agents of grace, two who covered others
Will the mystery of midnight on the threshing floor of the house of bread be fruitful?[x]
The worthy man and the kinsman and the elders at the gate must make settlement
Land must be redeemed, a family saved, life will begin anew
A sandal is passed, the deal is done
The worthy man and the foreigner are now one
God’s covering came, life begins anew
A child named Obed in Naomi’s lap grew
And from Obed, Jesse, and from Jesse , David the King
And a foreigner showed grace, a worthy man covered her and life began anew
In the house of bread begins a line of kings
And in ages to come over the house of bread the angels will sing.
[i] This is taken from the book of Ruth, this is not a translation or paraphrase but I do stay fairly close to the story and try to capture some of it’s patterns
[ii] Ruth plays on the Hebrew word for bread which is lechem, Bethlehem is literally the house of bread
[iii] Naomi one of the meanings of Naomi is sweet one
[iv] Mahlon’s name is similar to one of the Hebrew words for disease while Chilion name is the Hebrew word ‘to perish’
[v] Another of the key words to Ruth is the Hebrew word ‘Hesed’ often translated kindness in Ruth, but most other places it refers to God’s actions of unmerited grace and mercy
[vi] Mara is the name she gives herself which means bitter, the opposite of her former self
[vii] Another of the keywords in Ruth, kanap which can mean wing, covering or garment and will be used playfully from this point on in the story
[viii] Another Hebraism which may mean speaking kindly to or may indicate sweet-talking
[ix] This is again Kanap, as the blessing of the Lord’s covering was wished on rush, now this covering will become that covering
[x] This scene is pregnant with images that can go either in an innocent or non-innocent way, it is like a movie where the door is closed and what goes on is based largely on assumptions.