6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
A couple of years ago an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. hoisted a large banner on the side of their sanctuary that read, “Conversation, Not Conversion.” The intent of the banner was clear enough. It was intended to communicate that this particular church was one in which visitors would not be unduly pressed (or pressed at all?) to convert to Christianity. Rather, this was a place of non-threatening conversation. This kind of language is becoming more and more commonplace among churches that, understandably, wish to distance themselves from some of the cruder and more obnoxious forms of pressure-tactic-evangelism. I am wholly sympathetic to wanting to distance oneself from such. However, one does wonder if this slogan, “Conversation, Not Conversion,” might also be a demonstration of our current societal aversion to the idea of truth or ultimate truth. My more cynical self wonders if the reason we say things like this is because ultimately we do not think that anything can be known with enough certainty that it calls for conversion.
After all, conversion happens when a person sees a particular truth claim as so compelling that they can no longer imagine holding on to their current position in the light of what they now know. Conversion entails both acceptance and abandonment.
Ruth 1:6-18 is a text that contains a scene that many consider to be a definitive depiction on conversation. I am speaking of Ruth’s refusal to abandon Naomi as Naomi leaves Moab to return home to Judah and as Naomi declares herself for Yahweh and for His people. Many Jews view Ruth’s actions and declaration in Ruth 1:16-17 as the ultimate model of conversion. Kirsten Nielsen explains:
In Jewish tradition these are the very words that are used as an example for the proselyte to follow. That Ruth is seen as the prototype of a proselyte is already clear from the Targum to Ruth 1:16, where Naomi explains to Ruth the demands of the law on the convert. In the Targum to Ruth 2:6 Ruth is described as a proselyte, while in connection with Ruth 3:11 she is said to be strong enough to bear the yoke of the Lord’s law.
Katharine Doob Sankenfeld offers further insights on how early Jewish converts used Ruth as a model for conversion.
Rabbinic writers interpreted her speech as a declaration of conversion and deduced from her words requirements to be accepted by all converts. A “catechism of proselytism” was developed in which each of her phrases was related to aspects of Jewish life…
It is actually an interesting question to ask just how much Ruth really knew about Yahweh and the Jews. In other words, was she really a convert per se? I think we must answer this question in the affirmative. To be sure, Ruth undoubtedly had much growing to do in terms of her understanding of God and His people. Even so, her ultimate declaration of allegiance to Yahweh God and to the people of God and to her mother-in-law in particular can only accurately be spoken of in terms of a radical life change, a stunning course correction, or a conversion.
Whatever you choose to call it, Old Testament scholar Daniel Block is surely correct when he writes that, “The first words we hear from Ruth’s lips alone are among the most memorable in all of Scripture. Few utterances in the Bible match her speech for sheer poetic beauty, and the extraordinary courage and spirituality it expresses.”
Let us then consider Ruth’s behavior and her words in terms of what they communicate about the nature of true conversion.
Ruth wanted a relationship with God and not merely a vague religion.
We begin with Naomi’s attempt to placate her daughters-in-law with a divine blessing.
8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
What we have here is a widowed lady trying to say goodbye to her Moabite daughter-in-law. In doing so, she offers them kindness in the form of a divine blessing. I am not suggesting that Naomi did not sincerely mean the blessing she invoked. She did indeed wish for God to show kindness to these dear girls. However, I would like to propose that Ruth the Moabite understood Naomi’s blessing more than Naomi did. I will go further. I would like to propose that Naomi’s blessing was sincere but deficient. She intended it as a duel function blessing: to bless and to dismiss. Ruth, however, showed that she understood the nature of Yahweh more than her mother-in-law who invoked the divine name.
To get at this, we need to understand what was meant by the phrase, “May the Lord deal kindly with you.” In saying this, Naomi was invoking the idea of hesed, the lovingkindess of God. This is a profound and theologically rich word, and many argue that it comprises in itself the very theme of the entire book of Ruth. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld has helpfully defined the term.
The blessing incorporates the first of a series of uses of the Hebrew term hesed, variously translated as kindness, lovingkindness, faithfulness, or loyalty…In the Hebrew Bible hesed refers to an action by one person on behalf of another under circumstances that meet three main criteria. First, the action is essential to the survival or basic well-being of the recipient…Furthermore, the needed action is one that only the person doing the act of hesed is in a position to provide…Finally, an act of hesed takes place or is requested within the context of an existing, established, and positive relationship between the persons involved.
So we can see that Naomi is using a term that is pregnant with meaning and significance. However, she is regrettably using it in an attempt to say goodbye to Ruth and Orpah and to leave them in a foreign land committed to pagan gods.
Ruth, who is ironically a much better theologian than Naomi, reveals that she is not content with a spiritual blessing that was not even being consistently applied by Naomi.
16 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.
Naomi seeks to placate the girls by invoking the divine name over them as she leaves them. Ruth, however, refuses to content herself with a mere blessing, with overtures of spirituality. It is as if Ruth is saying, “No, you cannot leave me with a blessing in the name of Yahweh. I do not want vague spiritually. I want Yahweh Himself! I want to know Him and His people. I will not be so easily dismissed by such inconsistent religiosity. How can Yahweh show me hesed if I remain among pagan gods.”
It is as if we tried to dismiss somebody with a “God bless you!” and they said, “Wait. If He’s going to bless me I need to know Him!”
True conversion means wanting more of God and wanting a relationship with God. It means not only wanting the hesed, the lovingkindness of God, but wanting to know Him personally so that you can see and experience and embrace His lovingkindness.
Ruth came to God despite practical and theological obstacles to her doing so.
Ruth wanted more than a spiritual blessing. And the intensity of her desire to know God is further demonstrated in her refusal to let the obstacles that Naomi and their circumstances present her to derail her.
8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
Honestly, Naomi’s efforts to deter Ruth from following her to Judah put Naomi in the “worst evangelist ever category”! When Ruth and Orpah initially refuse Naomi’s efforts to leave them behind, Ruth responds with an emotional screed concerning her own misfortune. Her arguments seem to escalate. First she points out that she is not pregnant. In verse 11, when Naomi asks, “Have I yet sons in my womb?” she uses the Hebrew word mehim, which means basically “my guts,” instead of the Hebrew words beten or rehem which refer to the womb. This demonstrates the increasingly emotional and raw nature of Naomi’s reaction to her daughter-in-laws’ initial refusal to leave her.
Her allusion to yet-unborn sons who might theoretically marry the girls is likely a reference to the idea of levirate marriage. We find this teaching in Deuteronomy 25.
5 “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’
Scholars debate whether or not this was what she had in mind, but it seems that her argument is at least somewhat connected to the idea.
She moves from complaining about having no more children to pointing out that she was too old to have a husband to complaining about God Himself. She bemoans that the hand of God has gone out against her. In saying this, she is revealing the nature of her spiritual disposition at this time. She is angry. This is understandable, given her loss, but she has clearly cast her lot with bitterness instead of trust. “Sharing the inadequate religious ideas of her people,” J. Hardee Kennedy writes of Naomi’s grief, “she associated life’s adverse experiences with the punitive acts (hand) of God.”
Thus Naomi throws up roadblocks before Ruth. And there were other obstacles. For instance, if Ruth returned with Naomi then the tables would be turned: Ruth would find herself a widow in a foreign land. Furthermore, if the Jews rejected Ruth as a foreigner then she would truly be a woman without a country: unwelcomed in Judah but already having repudiated her own homeland.
Even so, despite all the protests, Ruth clings to Naomi! She determines to trust in Yahweh God and embrace the people of God. She could not have known how it would all work out, but none of that mattered. She was overwhelmed by a vision of God and His people and she would not be deterred.
There are 1,000 reasons not to trust Jesus! Coming to Jesus might cost you your family, your job, your friends, or your very life! The person who is unwilling to trust with all their heart, soul, and mind will always and ever be mindful of these obstacles. However, the true convert will, like Ruth, be so determined to have a relationship with God and be in his family that he will be unable to stay away.
Ruth was willing to say the name of the true God and stop saying the names of the false ones.
The purity and intensity of Ruth’s commitment can also be seen in her saying the name of the one true God. Listen closely:
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
In verse 15, when Naomi points out that Orpah had “gone back to her people and to her gods” she uses there the general name for God, Elohim, though here it can be translated in the plural, gods, as well. “Your sister went back to her gods.” But it is telling that when Ruth says “your God [will be] my God” she uses the Hebrew divine name, Yahweh, instead of the name that foreigners would normally use for God, Elohim.
This is most significant. Again we see Ruth’s repudiation of vague spirituality and her insistence on a particular God: Yahweh, the only true God. This is profoundly significant. “Since one appeals to one’s own deity to enforce an oath,” Robert Hubbard writes, “she clearly implies that Yahweh, not Chemosh, is now her God, the guardian of her future. Hence, while the OT has no fully developed idea of conversion, vv.16-17 suggests a commitment tantamount to such a change.”
Indeed it does! To convert to Christ means to be willing to take His name, to say His name, to insist on no other name.
I am a great admirer of Methodist theologian Tom Oden. I have been since I first heard him lecture at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, when I was a student there. That being said, I am frustrated at Oden’s oft-repeated story concerning the Jewish scholar Will Herberg and his desire to convert to Christianity. Here is what Oden writes:
[Will] Herberg had weighty conversations with Reinhold Niebuhr on theology and seemed on the verge of converting to Christianity. Niebuhr urged him to rediscover his Jewish roots by studying Judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was just across the street from Union Theological Seminary. An irony worth noting: Herberg became a Jew by listening to a Christian; I became a Christian by listening to a Jew.
This is supposed to be a kind of charming story. I do not find it to be charming at all. When a person wants to convert to Christ you do not dissuade them! If a person wants to know Jesus, the only way to the Father, you celebrate that!
Ruth wanted to know God and God alone and she would give ear to no discouragements. On the contrary, she dared to speak His name: Yahweh.
Ruth made a commitment that was decisive and for life.
And then there is the extent of her commitment. In short, it was decisive and it was for life. We can first see this in the closing verb of verse 14.
14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
“Ruth clung to her.” Tellingly, the word translated “clung” is the Hebrew dbq which is the same word used in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast [cling] to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In other words, this is the verb the Lord God used when He instituted marriage upon the earth. This is not to say that this was a marriage. Of course it was not. It is simply to say that this was an intense clinging that reveals a fierce determination on Ruth’s part not to be separated from Naomi, her people, or her God.
Then we see Ruth’s beautiful proclamation.
16 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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
“Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” This is for life! She is not setting her feet on a path with any intention of ever looking back! In fact, she invokes a curse upon herself if she does so: “May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” That is an interesting way of putting it, especially as Ruth does not name the punishment for her actions. Many Old Testament scholars suggest that such an oath was oftentimes accompanied by a hand motion communicating doom, such as a thumb slid across the throat. Likely Ruth did something very much like that when saying these words. In other words, if anything other than death separated her from Naomi, her people, and her God, this is what God would do to her.
Leon Morris has commented on the question of how much Ruth knew in this conversion of hers.
Her trust may not have been well informed, but it was real. Simeon remarks, “Her views of religion might not be clear: but it is evident that a principle of vital godliness was rooted in her heart, and powerfully operative in her life. In fact, she acted in perfect conformity with that injunction that was afterwards given by our Lord, ‘Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple’.”
Yes, she does obey the words of Jesus about forsaking all. She determines that this will be her new life, her new mode of existence, her new identity. Ambrose of Milan would later argue that Ruth is therefore an example for all converts to Christianity to emulate as well.
Ruth entered the church and was made an Israelite, and [she] deserved to be counted among God’s greatest servants; chosen on account of the kinship of her soul, not her body. We should emulate her because just as she deserved this prerogative because of her behavior, [we] may be counted among the favored elect in the church of the Lord. Continuing in our Father’s house, we might, through her example, say to him who, like Paul or any other bishop, [who] calls us to worship God, your people are my people, and your God my God.
Oh Church, consider what a true conversion looks like. It looks like Ruth turning her back on her old gods and her old life and taking hold in an act of radical commitment of the God of Israel, the God who is above all other gods. When you consider your standing with Jesus, can you say that you have done this? Have you? Have you taken hold of Christ? Have you decided that the obstacles no longer matter and that you simply must be counted among God’s people? Have you bid farewell to your old life, your old views, your old sins, your old habits?
I pray it is so! Come to Jesus. Say His name. Take His hand.
He is faithful to save.
 Kirsten Nielson, Ruth. The Old Testament Library. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p.49.
 Katharine Doob Sankenfeld, Ruth. Interpretation. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1999), p.32.
 Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary. Vol. 6. Gen. Ed., E. Ray Clendenen. (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1999), p.640.
 Katharine Doob Sankenfeld, p.24.
 Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., The Book of Ruth. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p.109.
 J. Hardee Kennedy, Ruth. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol. 2. Gen. Ed., Clifton J. Allen (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1970), p.469.
 J. Hardee Kennedy, p.469.
 Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., p.120.
 Oden, Thomas C. (2014-11-06). A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (p. 134). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris (2008-09-19). TOTC Judges & Ruth (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 3798-3801). Inter-Varsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 John R. Franke, ed., Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament IV. Gen. ed., Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p.184.