Quite a few weeks ago I was talking with a local believer. She was going through a difficult time in her marriage--and still is--and wanted some advice from Scripture. At one point she mentioned that she had never understood why Ruth was held up as someone special. My friend thought that Naomi was the more amazing character in the story. Later, I thought about what she had said and why she would think that way.
Marriage in this culture is between a woman and the husband's family. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have heard a mother-in-law talk about "my bride"--not "my son's bride"! In many ways, the relationship between mother-in-law and bride is the fundamental relationship in the family. Sadly, it is not uncommon for the young bride to be little more than servant to the mother-in-law. One elderly woman, an unbeliever, once told me that her son was an excellent son. When he married, he laid down the law and let his wife know that his mother was the boss and that if she didn't do what his mother said he would knock her head off.
It took me a long time to sort out the relationships in the very first family we met. They were our landlords and lived next door; we knew none of the language and they knew no English. There was a grandmother, a young mother and two sons. As I began to learn the language, I discovered that the mother was a widow, and that she was daughter-in-law to the grandmother. Living next door, we were well aware that there was a lot of arguing and yelling, so it really surprised me that this very young widow would continue to live with her mother-in-law when it was obvious that they weren't the best of friends.
In this culture, however, it was the most natural of situations. The young woman had married into that family. She left her family and was now bound to her in-laws, widow or not. She was obligated to stay.
My believer friend is currently separated from her husband. Where does she live? With her in-laws. Her husband is the one staying some place else. It's a painfully difficult situation for my friend, since she's living in a house full of people who are very angry with her.
And that is the background for how my friend views the story of Ruth. Of course Ruth stuck with Naomi. The shocking part of the story is that Naomi would allow Ruth to remarry. Not understanding the Jewish culture, people here are amazed at Naomi's selflessness and generosity.
The Bible means what it means, and I don't believe that meaning changes in different cultures. However, this conversation reminded me that I must understand the way people here think. Not only that, but I have to be on guard against understanding Scripture wrongly based on my own western background and culture.
Pray with us that we will be able to understand more and more fully the culture that we live in and how to present God's truth to people here.