Lives Abandoned on the Threshold
How do I seek your faceWhen my flesh needs your hand?
What must I do, O Lord, There’s a need to understand.
Rita Springer 1
During the period of judges sometime “after the death of Joshua,” two stories of women take place that would change a nation. 2 “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit,” the writer of Judges foreshadows. Their stories are remarkably similar, yet their dénouements could not be more different. They are the chronicles of two pair of women: a young married woman and a young virgin, and two barren widows. The first story is recounted in Judges 19; the second follows only three chapters later in the Book of Ruth. (As space limits extensive commentary, I would encourage the reader to read the entire narrative that spans seven chapters.)
The events in Judges 19 occur in Gibeah, four miles north of Jerusalem. The story in Ruth takes place in Bethlehem, just five miles south of Jerusalem. Both stories begin with journeys precipitated by a crisis. The former involves a woman who goes back to her family of origin after a domestic dispute 3, while the latter concerns two women in a foreign country who left home in a time of famine. Both stories also culminate in the return home. They include a second-class wife—the woman in Judges 19 is the concubine of a Levite—and a second-class citizen—Ruth is a widowed foreigner from a country (Moab) that does not worship Yahweh.
The story of Ruth (and Naomi and Boaz) is certainly one of the most treasured and beautiful narratives in Scripture. The memorable metaphors—Kinsmen Redeemer, the refuge wings of God—remind us that even in this dark period in Israel’s history, God does not forsake His people. Indeed, the word that appears throughout this book is hesed—“lovingkindness.” Hesed is a relational expression that denotes God’s favor and faithfulness, the wideness of His love and mercy to the children of His covenant. The word is so rich in meaning that scholars say it is not translatable in English, like a wonderful, vivid dream one cannot quite describe upon waking but its beauty lingers for days. And certainly the Book of Ruth is one of those dreams, is it not?
Yet before we encounter this dream, a few pages earlier we are ensnared in a nightmare. Unlike Ruth and Naomi, the concubine and the young virgin are—literally and figuratively—nameless, voiceless women. The other primary characters are a Levite (the tribe Yahweh designated to provide spiritual leadership to Israel) and an old man who is the father of the virgin. They are anonymous, too, but significantly, they do speak. As such, as commentators observe, the characters represent the possible actions and future of every man and every woman when each person did what he thought was right in his own eyes. 4 I will leave it to the reader to examine the events in Judges 19. It is a horrific story that leads to further violence and concludes with the repetition of the ominous prologue: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (21:25). Thus, one scholar posits: “When the Israelites look in the mirror, what they see is a nation that may be ethnically distinct from the natives but which is indistinguishable from them with regard to morality, ethics and social values…. Israel has found her enemy, and the real enemy is herself.” 5
As in that story, the motif of “seeing” also appears in the Book of Ruth. Ruth is personified, that is, she becomes visible, through the mirror of Naomi’s and Boaz’ caring eyes. “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” exclaims Ruth upon Boaz’ provision for her and Naomi (2:10). However, no one takes notice of the concubine—not that night nor even in the morning when her husband stumbles upon her battered body in the doorway. In fact, we are dumbfounded by his chilling response to this sight: “Get up; let’s go” (Judges 19:28). “But there was no answer,” reads the rejoinder with intended ambiguity, for whether she was alive or not, she was undoubtedly dead.
Whereas we witness “the hidden hand of God” 6 upon Ruth and Naomi, what little we know of the concubine’s story is unveiled through the personification of one physical description: “there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold” (19:27). Who knows how long she lay there desperately reaching for the door? How is it that her husband, after thrusting her into the hands of evil, even abandoned her here while he was safe inside? And one wonders about the young daughter whose father abandoned her in his actions. Did she marry and finally leave home, or did she cross that threshold daily with the awful reminder of the young woman at her door? And though we tremble to ask such questions, why was the hand of God not visible?
We turn the page to the Book of Ruth to read of two women at another threshold with a door closed to hope. Envisioning an empty future without progeny, provider or daughters-in-law, Naomi surmises, “Even if I thought there was still hope for me…” (1:12). Yet we discover, contrary to appearances, that “the LORD has not abandoned his lovingkindness to the living and the dead” (2:20). Here is hesed once again, and like this term, azab (“abandon”) is used throughout the Old Testament in reference to relationship, and particularly God’s covenant. When God directs Isaac’s servant to Rebekah to be a wife for Isaac, the servant proclaims, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his lovingkindness and his faithfulness toward my master” (Genesis 24:27; see also God’s promise in Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:15). The antithesis of this phrase is found in the proverb “Those who cling to worthless idols abandon the lovingkindness that could be theirs.” Strikingly, this proverb is uttered by a man running from God, who finds himself, in God’s ironic providence, inside the dark refuge of a fish: Jonah. 7
For Naomi and Ruth, in God’s providence their threshold unfolds upon a threshing floor. Ruth 4:14 reads literally, “God has not ceased a Redeemer,” and indeed, their story does not end with the marriage of Ruth and Boaz nor the birth of Obed. In God’s hesed, their narrative becomes our narrative because the promise given upon Obed’s birth has a fuller and deeper meaning for all generations: “He will restore your life and sustain you” (4:15). He, of course, bespeaks of David’s seed, Jesus, who is our Kinsman Redeemer.
Even so, sometimes the hand of God is not visible in our past or present, and we wonder whether our Redeemer will indeed restore our lives and sustain us in the future. But how critical it is to notice that in the above query of God concerning the story in Judges 19, the question is not Where was the hand of God? but rather, Why was the hand of God not visible? Why make this distinction? Because we know that God was there—yes, even on that threshold—but in our frailty we wish that we could see clear evidence of the Redeemer’s presence.
Yet perhaps more so, should we not also ask ourselves, Why was God’s hand not visible through His own children? For just as the Book of Ruth reveals how God’s hesed shines through those who love, so the narrator of Judges exposes how human sin can hide the face of God. In fact, commentator Daniel Block remarks that hesed is “that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage that it might bring to the one who expresses it…. [T]his quality is expressed fundamentally in action rather than word or emotion.” 8 As such, one of the reasons we find comfort in the Book of Ruth is that Boaz, Ruth and Naomi are each manifestations of the Redeemer’s hand upon others’ lives; God’s lovingkindness is clearly made visible through them. Conversely, no one acts for the better of another in the concubine’s story.
In this quest for something more and fearing something less,
I have learned that vision dies When felt most by my flesh. 9
Lastly, when there are no easy answers (as if there ever were), we need to be reminded of what we do know—of God’s character and of His covenant with His children. As noted, Judges 1:1 informs us that the account of these Israelites occurs sometime “after the death of Joshua.” Years before Joshua’s death, God delivered the Israelites in the exodus from Egypt and then instructed Moses to renew His covenant with His children. So Moses spoke forth God’s promise to Joshua and the people of Israel, notably twice repeating the same verb (azab, “I will not abandon”) proclaimed by Naomi and by Isaac’s servant. 10 And God, in turn, reiterates what Moses says almost word for word in His promise to Joshua himself. God reassures Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor abandon you” (Joshua 1:5). God reminds Joshua of His faithfulness to His covenant when Joshua most needs to remember this—on the threshold of the Promised Land. So may we abandon our lives on the threshold of God’s promises, knowing that our Redeemer “will not abandon his lovingkindness to the living and the dead.”
1 “I Remain In You.” Words and music by Rita Springer. © 1995 Kindred Joy Music (BMI).2 Judges 1:1.3 Whereas the NIV renders Judges 19:2 as “she was unfaithful to him,” the Septuagint and ancient Jewish sources read: “She was angry with him” or “despised him.” See Daniel Block’s excellent commentary Judges, Ruth, v. 6: NAC (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 522-523.4 See, e.g., Daniel Block’s and D.M. Hudson’s comments in Ibid., 517-518.5 Ibid., 544, 545.6 Ibid., 608ff. 7 Jonah 2: 8. I have examined Jonah’s proverb in some detail in “Idle Time, Idol Affections” in the Spring/Summer 1995 issue of Just Thinking available at www.rzim.com 8 Ibid., 605-6069“I Remain In You.” Words and music by Rita Springer. © 1995 Kindred Joy Music (BMI).10 See Deuteronomy 29-31, and specifically 31:6, 8.