Updated: Jun 15, 2022
But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you, or turn back 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.” (Ruth 1:16 NASB)
Yes, the title is spelled correctly (although God bless Oprah, too!). Orpah was a young widow. She married an Israelite man named Chilion, who had taken refuge in Moab with his parents and brother during a famine. But disasters struck, leaving Orpah, her mother-in-law Naomi, and her sister-in-law Ruth all widows. Widows are notorious for poverty in the Bible. How were they to survive?
Naomi advised, “Go, return each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. May the Lord grant that you may find a place of rest, each one in the house of her husband” (Ruth 1:8b-9).
This was good advice, offered with two blessings. Perhaps their birth families could arrange a new marriage. “God, give them new husbands,” is what Naomi prayed. Naomi had nothing to give them. Orpah and Ruth clung to Naomi, but finally Orpah submitted and went back to “her people and her gods” (v. 15).
Orpah and Ruth remind me of Japanese women I met in English language programs for international students.
“Ruth” would be the student who came to the US for a two-week cultural exchange, stayed with a Christian family, and went home deeply touched by their faith and wanting to return. When I met Ruth, she wanted to be a Christian and wanted to stay in the US. She felt “un-Japanese” and that she would fit better in the US. Ruth became a Christian and adopted the US as her home.
More typical are the “Orpahs.” They are very touched by the lives and faith of Christians they meet. Some do become Christians. Some yearn to participate in the beauty of the faith but feel a burden of culture or family restraining them. And most have no option to stay in the US, even if they’d like to.
One woman I’ll call Orpah-Sue loved the US and loved seeing herself here in a new way. I visited Japan and met up with Orpah-Sue after she had been home in Japan for a year. “How is it?” I asked. She answered, “It’s as if I’ve been zipped back into a Japanese suit from the top of my head down to my toes.” Her culture reclaimed her, and the self that she saw in the US had disappeared.
Another woman I’ll call Orpah-Em spent more than a year in our ESL Bible study for beginners. She shared an insight from Genesis 1 that still moves me: “God created creating.” Orpah-Em was very drawn to Jesus. Even after she moved to California for a time, we got together when I visited family there. She had met some Japanese Christians and was still agonizing about following Jesus.
Her dilemma was this: “I want to be a Christian. But I have a chain around my ankle, holding me back. I can’t leave my husband behind. I can’t leave my family behind. I’m going to return to Japan, and I must, again, be part of that world. I can’t separate myself from my family.”
I believe that every encounter with God matters. Some who encounter our Jesus must live in cultures, families or environments unfriendly to Christianity. We who are Christian long for all the Orpahs and Ruths we meet to enter the family of God, but we can’t physically and economically take every person we meet into our households. However, like Naomi, we can bless them in the name of our God and pray in the name of Jesus that God will love and bless them and give them rest.