"Lesser Known Women of the Bible - Orpah"
Hosea 1:1-9 & 3:1-5
I want you to think for a moment about the characters in the biblical text. Who comes to mind first? Did anyone not immediately think of Jesus? Or did a New Testament figure like Paul or Mary or one of the disciples spring to mind? Did anyone conjure an Old Testament hero: David, Abraham, Moses? I’m really hoping after more than a year together all of you thought of at least one woman: Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah, or Esther.
I would be willing to bet, however, that quite a few figures escaped your thought processes: Jonathan, David’s best friend and confidant, the prophets Hosea and Obidiah, and pillars in the early church Priscilla, Aquila, and Phoebe. Such oversight is natural as these more “minor” characters tend to have shorter stories or appear for only a few verses beside better-known, more prolific figures.
But even the most minor of characters has a story worth contemplating, for their inclusion in the text assumes an encounter with the divine. So this morning, as we celebrate this glorious story from the book of Ruth, I’d like for you to imagine with me in a minor key. Imagine with me a character that’s rarely focused on. Imagine with me the untold story of Orpah.
Here’s how she spoke to me this week:
Most of you know me as a footnote, a byproduct, a foil for my better-known, beloved sister, Ruth. In this “little jewel” of a story, I’m the example of what not to do, the less loyal daughter-in-law. I’ve become a teaching tool to talk about a lack of faith, someone operating out of fear, a woman who doesn’t love her mother and sister enough to stick around. But there’s so much more to my story than a few verses.
From the beginning of my marriage, there were challenges. My husband’s family was foreign, resettling in my homeland of Moab due to a famine in their native Bethlehem. To this day I’m surprised at this choice due to the antipathy of my husband’s people for my homeland. In one of the Psalms their God calls Moab “my washbasin” (Psalm 60). But settle they did, strangers in a strange land when death came for the first time.
I never met my husband’s father Elimelech, he died before we married, but Mother Naomi spoke of him often and I believe she grieved for him for the rest of her life. When Elimelech died, Naomi was left with her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion who assimilated by marrying Moabite women; me and Ruth. For a time we were happy together, an average, unremarkable family. Then death came a second time and in the space of a breath, Mahlon and Chilion were gone too, leaving Mother Naomi, Ruth, and me to fend for ourselves.
It might sound odd to you, women being so independent in your world, but for us being without our men made us vulnerable. Even as we grieved, we knew we needed protection. Mother Naomi heard in the fields that the Lord had once again visited her homeland. Their famine was over so Naomi decided to return to Judah, leaving Ruth and me to choose for ourselves what we would do.
This was a first for me. I’d never had the ability to make decisions about my own life, and even with such freedom neither of the paths that lay before me was safe. Neither would be easy. But Naomi and Ruth were my family, so I went with them, prepared to start a new life as a refugee.
Almost immediately Naomi had second thoughts. Turning to me and Ruth she pleadingly commanded us to return to our mother’s homes, for she knew of course we weren’t just widows but also fatherless. After all, that was one of the reasons we’d married outside our ethnic group.
At that moment I comprehended the heaviness of Naomi’s grief, for despite the commanding tone her heartbreak was clear. Her usually joyful face was clouded with despair, her shoulders drooped, and she’d aged 10 years in a handful of days. How could Ruth and I leave her? Speaking through tears my sister and I said in one voice, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
Looking back, it was naive of us to think such a statement would end the conversation. Naomi was a stubborn woman even before her grief consumed her, but as she turned toward Ruth and I, it was clear something in her had changed. Compressed. Hardened. Narrowing her eyes in a way only mothers can, Naomi gave voice to her new reality and ours if we stayed with her:
“Go back, my dear daughters. Why would you come with me? Do you suppose I still have sons in my womb who can become your future husbands? Go back, dear daughters—on your way, please! I’m too old to get a husband. Why, even if I said, ‘There’s still hope!’ and this very night got a man and had sons, can you imagine being satisfied to wait until they were grown? Would you wait that long to get married again? No, dear daughters; this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.”
Spoken so plainly, the truth of Naomi’s words ripped across my heart like a bandage being ripped from a gaping wound. I’d been able to ignore the truth the first time she told us to turn back, for I was filled with love for these women who’d become my family. More than that, Naomi and Ruth understood me in a way no one else could. I didn’t have to explain my heartbreak and fear to them. Our grief and loss bonded us.
Perhaps that’s why I tore myself away, out of the tears and sorrow and grief. Perhaps that’s why I stood, pulling myself from the human puddle the three of us dissolved into there on the road to Judah. Perhaps that’s why I kissed Naomi, embraced Ruth, and turned for the first time in my life, in the direction of my own choosing. Into the unknown that I alone decided upon.
I had no way of knowing that in walking away, walking alone I would leave the two people I knew and loved best to rewrite history. After all, my sister Ruth remarried and became the great-grandmother to King David, Israel’s most celebrated ruler. Many centuries later, the same sister with whom I gathered water and lovingly complained about our husbands became part of the lineage of the Messiah.
To this day you tell her story to your children about and marvel at Ruth’s unshakeable commitment to Naomi. To this day my sister is an example of faithfulness in the midst of grief and a wildly unknowable future. She and Mother Naomi are models of what it means to be sacrificially dedicated to another person, to put that person before yourself. And though I find it odd that Ruth’s sublime words to Mother Naomi are so often used in your weddings - for maternal love and desperation are what drove her to speak - I am brought back to our final moments together on the road each time I hear this poetry:
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.
As for me, I long ago made my peace with being a footnote. After all, I walked away and you will never know the rest of my story. But my hope is that I might be thought of as just as faithful and perhaps even more obedient than my dear sister, for I did what was asked of me. I wasn’t unfaithful or disloyal or even cowardly, I was obedient. And though it may not seem so in your modern world, my choosing to walk alone was enormously brave.
Enormously brave - that’s the phrase that rings out for me as I think about Orpah. That and wondering what in the world was she thinking to travel on her own? I have serious doubts that Orpah reached her destination after walking away from her mother and sister, but that doesn’t mean that this most minor of characters doesn’t have something to teach us. For the Good News this morning is simple: in the impossible moments of our lives, God is still there.
In crisis situations when even our best efforts and most educated choices fail to keep people safe, God is there. When we’re faced with something for which there are no good solutions, God is there. In grief and loss, God is there. For immigrants starting over in a new land, God is there. God is there for widows, for women, for the marginalized, and exploited. God is there and God is here, with us at this very moment.
My friends, the richness of this Ruth text is enough for 50 sermons. You won’t be surprised that Ruth’s story is one of my favorites anywhere in scripture because I love the commitment and dedication these women have for each other. I encourage you to reread the entire book on your own, it’s only 4 chapters. And as you do, think about Orpah. Think about the impossibility of her situation. Don’t be too quick to judge or see her as anything less than a woman forced to stand on her own for the first time in her life.
Be generous with her. Be generous with others. Be generous with yourself, for God is with us all. Amen.
 Rev. Pat Raube, “Narrative Lectionary: Lovingkindness Personified (Ruth 1:1-17)” from https://revgalblogpals.org/2015/10/13/narrative-lectionary-lovingkindness-personified-ruth-11-17/  Ibid.  John Ahn, “Exegetical Perspective: Proper 26, Ruth 1:1-18” from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4 Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).  From The Message translation.  From The King James Version.