F O R T Y - N I N E



6 6 8 8

Greener Pastures

Mountains of only three and four thousand feet elevation but cruel and man-killing as Sisera in ruggedness ran across the back of Ken’an and Israel from south to north. It was there, in the south part, a blue-white star, shining like a diamond, detached from the night sky and came to rest. Wally, very sensitive to extra-terrestrial incursions, closely monitored the trajectory and identified the exact place of impact. Like the previous two, this was no meteorite, for its descent was completely calculated and gradual, with no burning explosion such as you would expect with a bollide. “What could it be?” he wondered. “Is it FC or yet another dratted OP?” He flew to the spot but could not find any trace of the intruder. For three years he returned at intervals to check for signs of the alien “star.” The only thing he noticed was a drought and famine so severe it created great hardship and wreaked turmoil in every family throughout the tribal territories of Benjamin and Judah. Though not a world-wide famine as yet, it was a bothersome local development for the Israelites. But another problem plagued him more. What had happened to the second OP? What mischief was it up to? Seemingly, it had withdrawn from the gameboard and dug itself deep into Earth II. As for the third OP, he could be thankful that after its rebuff at the hands of a Kenite couple it apparently forsook Earth for parts unknown. “But where is the fourth devil-star?” he continued to wonder. “What evil and wickedness is it up to?” Now after all his contact of late with the Hebrews, Wally was beginning to think like them and use the same terms.

Day after day, Naomi climbed to the roof of her house in Bethlehem in Judah and gazed eastwards across the roofs of her neighbors. Not so far as the vulture flies but a week’s hard trek down and up again, each time thousands of feet, gleamed the only patch of green in her wide view of the country. Each time she saw it she was all the more certain of the worth of her plan. But would Elimelech her worthy husband go along? They had two growing sons, after all, to consider. And it was time to find them wives--or at least bethroth them to the right families. Then Mahlon and Chilion might not like leaving their natal city and boyhood friends for a strange place like Moab. Chemoth was the fire-spouting god of that heathen country, and it was the usual sort demanding endless sacrifices of firstborns. Could they be happy in a land that permitted such an abomination? Naomi sighed at the impossibility and went below into the house. How hot and stifling it was! How dusty and dry! There was no water she could spare for the mop. A broom was hardly any good. She was forever sweeping, sweeping, but still the river of seeping dust crept back in--invading everything. Their clothes were thick with dust. She could clean all day, but the house grew dirtier and dirtier. Very clean in her habits, she was at her wit’s end. Her house had grown to be a heathen pigsty in her eyes. Did Elimelech care? she wondered. He was not much of a talker, of course. He seemed to say even less when there was trouble in the household--that sort of man. Not bad, but frustrating to her type of woman. Later, she was standing exhausted and drained, thatch broom in hand, when he came in from the countryside. He had gone to see about their fields and whether they should attempt a planting of barley, or wait until the wheat season and try then, or, failing that, wait yet another year. She looked at him expectantly with red, dust-chafed eyes. “My dear--” he began lamely, and just by the halting, woebegone tone of his voice she didn’t need a divining cup or the high priest’s Urim and Thummin to tell which way the wind blew. “My dear, there is nothing for it! There was some dew last night, but it all burnt away before I reached the land. Rain hasn’t come, as you know, and we cannot plant barley. Maybe later, the wheat--” “But we can’t live on nothing!” Naomi burst out, throwing her broom into a corner. “Our sons must eat! We are using up our silver pieces--my dowry! Three years, now a fourth? We are ruined!” Elimelech turned to her with pleading, hopeless eyes. “But we can still sell the land, field by field, and wait. There are two or three of the town who can buy land in these times. We have four goodly fields. Three sold will keep us another year at least, maybe two.” “No, no, no! What will we do if no rain comes the year after next? Sell more land? We shall then be beggared if this goes on!” Elimelech’s eyes looked utterly bewildered. He raised age-spotted hands, then let them fall to his sides, where they dropped and made two puffs of dust from his clothing. Naomi’s eyes gleamed. It was, she knew with a woman’s instinct, her main chance to save her family from certain destitution. “Come, husband, and we shall see what we must do.” She led him up to the roof like an old sheep, and he looked where she pointed with a broom handle. Toward dusk, the green of Moab deepened to emerald. Their parched eyes drank it in for a long moment. “There is the goodly land of refuge where we must go at present. We can sell all our holdings but one field, keeping our place in Judah, then go and sojourn in--” “Heathenish, uncircumcised Moab?” Elimelech cried out to her. “Woman, have you lost your wits? Eglon’s dung-heap? It is a sink of abomination, and they’re sworn enemies of the Most High God and His people. Chemoth--” Naomi flung her broom. “I know, I know all that!” she cut in petulantly. “But we can buy a field or two and a house and grow crops and live well until the trouble here is over. Then we can return, not empty as a dry waterpot, as we are now, but full and slopping over.” “I won’t do it! And why not Mizraim? At least there they don’t sacrifice firstborns so often and the males are circumcised at the beginning of manhood.” “But Mizraim is just too far! Moab, as you well know, is only five donkey trots away!” “No, I absolutely won’t give in to your folly! Leave God’s land and His Chosen People for Moab’s foul and reeking sties? Never! It’s a transgression just to think about it!” Naomi dared to face her husband. She was very angry. Hard pressed as she was at that time, if she could have separated herself from the wretched, old stick of a man at that moment, she would have. But where would she go? What would she do? And her sons, how would they eat? Besides, they would not go with her and forsake their old father and his house. Still, she was strongly tempted at that moment. After all, she knew many other wives had already faced their husbands and done just that--run off, taking other husbands where the famine was not afflicting the land. But, then, they were younger than she. Naomi had to admit that. Three years previous, she might have struck out on her own. But now it was too late, she felt in her bones and in the very marrow of her bones. She was dried-up, old Elimelech’s, yoked for life, in health and wealth or in sickness and dearth, whether she liked it or not. “I will not move to that accursed land, however green it is!” Elimelech stoutly repeated, as if she were as hard of hearing as he was. Bitter and aggrieved, she would not suffer him to have the last word on the matter, however. Let their neighbors, all listening in, get an earful! “So! The Lord God of Israel be my witness! You would rather sit here and let your faithful vine and beloved olive plants dry up and perish before your stubborn, old eyes! Well, then, let us wither to the root, die, and bleach white before your door as a lasting reproach to your hard heart and selfishness!” Thrown such a challenge, Elimelech acted as she knew he would. He hobbled away, to go and find comfort with his aging peers at the gate. A quiet-living man, he loathed domestic quarrels. After that, Naomi did not see him for more than an hour. He missed the sparse meal of vinegar mixed with oil and roasted parched barley, but she did not care. They went to bed on their wrath. In the morn ing, Naomi rose and, without fixing anything for the household, went to sit on the roof. Elimelech went up to see what was wrong, though he knew it already and his face was very troubled. She heard his slow, dragging footsteps and heavy breathing on the exterior staircase and clamped her lips tight, determined not to speak another kind word to him so long as he lived. “Good wife,” began the flustered husband of many years to a strong, brighter-witted spouse. He glanced guiltily toward Moab in the east and then even more guiltily upon the neighboring houses and fields. From there he could have also seen the roof of Rachel’s highly venerated tomb. “Now you must know it would only be for a year and a year, or maybe three, if we sojourn there. Then we must return home to live with our sons and their wives and families until I am gathered to my fathers. I will not allow uncircumcised Moabites to climb upon my knee and pull my beard and called me Abba! Never! My sons must marry good women of our own people.” Naomi smiled. She was a gracious winner. She rose and squeezed Elimelech’s somewhat withered, trembling arm. “Yes, certainly!” she vowed to him and the listening neighbors. “It shall be done exactly as you say, my husband! But now you must go directly to the gate and see about selling the three fields. And don’t listen to them if they say money is lacking to pay the full price! We are not fools to be robbed by our own brethren!”





6 6 9 9

The Gleaner

Preyed upon by a deadly succession of OPs, subject to internal decay and also the corrective judgments of FC, the post-Re-location world remained--to Wally’s thinking--strange and twilit despite the second Sun (the same tradition-bound humanity insisted on calling “ Second Moon” or “ Day Moon”. Parts were being destroyed while others were strengthened. It was most odd. How long would the revived Earth with its neo-Antiquity of Israel, Babelen, Mizraim, and Assyria diesel on? The question nagged him even while he searched for the hidden, second OP and turned to deal with its insidious siblings, each in turn. Meanwhile, Elimelech and his family “sojourned” in green-pastured Moab. They received little satisfaction for their investment. When Elimelech bought a field he had gone out personally to see beforehand and approved, when he came to take possession and work on it with his sons, a man claiming to be the owner confronted him with his laborers.

“You are mistaken, Old One,” the man declared. “The field you purchased is over there, beyond my boundary stones. This field was never sold to you. It was mine and my fathers for many generations, since before the reign of Zippor the king.” So Elimelech went to the other field with his sons and found it too steep to hold the rains when they fell. Also, it was full of rocks and man-tall weeds. Big rocks would have to be broken where they stood, then carried out by an expensive hired cart. What soil there was he could have held in one hand and watered with his tears! When he went back to the gate, prompted by his wife, he was told by the owner of the poor field and the elders that he was, indeed, mistaken. The poor field was all there was to be sold in that village, now and in the future. They were fortunate to get it at the price of a good field, he was told. They could not help his eyes were poor, that he could not tell the boundary stones and thought another man’s field was the one mentioned in the sale. Could he understand their holy tongue aright? No! But that too was not their fault. They were sons of Moab, and he was just a sojourner who would come one day and go the next. Not handling the Moabite language well, they were cheated, not only in the land purchase, but at every subsequent turn. If Naomi went to the village market, she returned with poor goods invariably, at twice the ordinary cost of quality. This had never happened to her in Bethlehem Ephratah! Yet Naomi, in a strange and unfriendly land, remembered her people and God by and by, and kept silent. She did not rail against the Moabites, who repeatedly stabbed her in the back with sharp dealings and arrogance. “After all,” she said to her husband in private, “they are children of Lot by his daughters, and we cannot expect them to behave as children of light.” The more senseless people laughed behind Naomi’s increasingly threadbare back, but she paid no mind and went about her business, whatever it was. Despite the dimming of prospects in Moab, Naomi’s brightest hopes rested on her two stripling sons. Tall, well-favored youth, friendly, they found easy acceptance among the Moabites, who forgave them their strange-acting and queer-talking parents. In deference to her own feelings and her husband’s will, Naomi sent away to Bethlehem for their bethrotheds, but the families broke the compact she and Elimelech had made with them. A writing was sent. It said, “We cannot send them away to live in heathendom. Find wives there, for we cannot let our beloved daughters go to such a defiled place even for your sake.” Naomi had been afraid of that happening--but had dismissed the possibility in her driving determination to gain her object. Now she had to think what to do. Elimelech was grown too old to be any good in such matters, of course. There were many eligible Moabite maidens, she knew. The village, even one so small as theirs, was full of them, all good-looking and fat in flesh. Evenso, when Naomi put forth certain feelers, she was immediately rebuffed by the families. “How do we know you won’t take our fair daughters off to your country in a year or so? Isn’t that what you’ve already planned to do with their dowries? No, your people are our eternal enemies. They will slay our daughters at the gate of your city because they are Moabite! We know how treacherously you children of Jacob treat our good people whenever you get the chance!” They added cutting, tactless remarks, dredging up the past at her expense. “You Hebrews are all alike! You sneak over here in bad times, get rich at our expense, then leave quickly with your purses stuffed with our good money. And now you seek to steal away our daughters too, together with their dowries! It’s an absolute outrage! You do nothing but take sly advantage of our open kindness and hospitality in letting sojourners dwell peacefully amongst us. Well, we’ve realized ever since poor Eglon was slain that we need to be on our eternal guard!” Naomi did not fight back with words and took their abuse. She went away, recalling that the Moabites had no reason to love her country. Eglon may have seized the goods of Israel and left them destitute, but it was war and such things were expected of foreign armies. Let into the royal palace in Dibon after he was searched on his right side for a concealed weapon, Ehud the Benjaminite appeared as a suppliant to the victorious Eglon. He said he had a fine gift from his people to the king. In the king’s private chamber on the roof of the palace, left-handed Ehud drew a knife from his left thigh and stuck it into the fat man’s belly. After locking the door, he climbed down from the roof and got away before Eglon’s court attendants decided to investigate and burst in the door. Everyone knew that account. So Naomi nearly despaired of finding suitable mates for her sons. Then she went to the poorest families and found open doors. Though their daughters were fair of face and form, these people could offer no dowries. “That is all right,” replied Naomi. “Let them come to my sons and be my daughters.” Yet they required one thing. “Do not let your sons take them from our fatherland and our great god Chemoth.” And Naomi gave her husband’s word. Then Elimelech died and had to be buried in foreign soil. He had been ill and could not work in the field, for Moab’s air--often rank from the pigsties of neighbors--never suited him. Friendless, lonely, he passed quietly away. Naomi carried on, but not alone. She had Ruth and Orpah, two daughters-in-law, but life was hard. Fortunately, the two did not complain, since they--if their families’ circumstances were any indication--had never known luxury and ease. Then when they observed how Naomi took the depredations of the neighbors and village folk, returning them no harm, her stature grew in their eyes until they loved her. With Elimelech her staff of bread gone, it seemed the people were determined to strip the foreign widow bare of everything she still held. They cheated her without shame at every opportunity, and even devised opportunities when they were slow in showing themselves. Naomi continued to suffer silently at their hands. Once Orpah tried to stop a bad transaction she saw taking place between Naomi and a tradesman. But Naomi saw Orpah’s intention and gave a slight shake of her head and went on and was brazenly robbed by the man. Orpah cried out to Naomi afterwards. “But his fingers have been dipped thrice in honey! He’s using a false measure on the scales, adding one for you to the one for everybody’s use! He is charging you double, dear mother!” “Yes, daughter,” sighed Naomi. “The poor fellow thinks he is making up for the loss of Eglon, who enriched your nation with warfare. If it makes him feel better toward us, sobeit! It’s only fair exchange, my money for Eglon’s life.” From then on, Orpah held her peace, though she told Ruth, “I would have scratched out his eyes!” But Naomi went back to the same man and was shorn again and again without complaint.

As for Mahlon and Chilion, they never seemed to take deep root in Moab, despite the initial ease of finding friends. They labored on the poor field of their father’s, and then they were married and their wives were good to them, but they grew poorer for all their hard work. With poverty, the light slowly dimmed in their handsome faces. Chilion the youngest leaned on the older brother. He fell sick. Mahlon did twice the work for a while, but he could not keep it up, and he too fell sick. Now they were destitute, with both men at home unable to work. Their wives went out and labored in the field, and took care of the dwindling stock of animals. Ruth’s husband Mahlon, the strongest, died. Bereft of his brother, a pillar to him, Chilion lost heart and soon followed. It had been ten years when Chilion joined his beloved brother, and now Naomi, in widow’s weeds, had no husband and no sons. Naomi never mentioned the lack of grandsons. But the neighbors made up the lack. “They’re barren as posts,” it was said of both Ruth and Orpah after their husbands died. “Serves them right that Chemoth withered their wombs for marrying those thieving, treacherous foreigners in our midst!” But Orpah knew better. She had given birth to a lusty son before coming to the house of Elimelech and Naomi. Being too poor to keep him, the son had been given right after birth to Chemoth as a firstborn sacrifice in another district. If some of the village knew of it, nothing was said to Naomi because Orpah had acted so piously in their estimation. Yet that did not stop them from including her in other unkind comments. Sometimes Orpah’s feelings got the best of her, and she fought back. On one occasion the village was treated to the spectacle of Orpah pulling the hair of female tormentors and giving them the lash of her tongue. Local merchants proved no exemption. As time went on tradesmen refused to do any business with Naomi if her second daughter-in-law accompanied her, and the mother-in-law had to offer many abject apologies to make amends.

Then news came about Israel. Everyone in the village and round about had already heard and discussed it before some careless tongue let a word or two slip to Naomi. She hurried home to tell her daughters-in-law. “God has turned his anger from His people and blessed them with good barley harvests!” Accustomed to hear only bad spoken of that country, Orpah and Ruth stared at her, unable to see why Naomi was so excited. “But my daughters!” cried Naomi, laughing and crying at the same time. “It means we are returning home! If means we--” She faltered as she realized what she was saying. Her countenance fell with her words. Ruth turned with sympathy to her sister-in-law, for both knew how their families stood on the matter. Naomi went to them, taking their hands. “I am sorry, you were promised to your families. Even though they gave you to my sons, they made me vow that I would never take you away from your country. I forgot that just now! But your families know best. You will be much better off here, since it is your land, than you would be in a strange country with traditions and customs you would not understand.” Ruth did not look so convinced. Neither did Orpah, whose countenance was more sullen. “My family hasn’t even a donkey!” Chilion’s widow burst out. “How could we do worse in your country, which is so blessed by your god that the farmers are becoming rich and selling their surplus to caravaneers? And Chemoth has never done much for me despite what I--” After a guilty glance at Naomi, she slipped quickly out the door, as if to fetch something. Ruth turned to Naomi. “I will help you gather your things and do whatever else you must do here.” “Yes! There is much to do before I can go!” Naomi glanced about the little house. First, it must be cleaned throughout, then given to the families of Ruth and Orpah to divide as they pleased. She knew no one would give her a fair price, so it would be better to give it. As for the land, she no longer cared. Despite all their labors, it was a killing field and scarcely kept them alive. Let it go back to rocks, thistles, and the original owner. That would simplify things. All she needed was what she could carry--for she had no donkey to carry her things and to ride. Despite initial joy, the reality of her straightened circumstances forced her to look at herself. No husband! No sons! And no money! Not even an old donkey to her name! Silently, she began to shed an old widow’s weak, helpless tears.

Several days after hearing the glad news of God’s blessing upon her native land, Naomi followed the King’s Highway that, miles to the north at Heshbon, met the road to Jericho. Ruth and Orpah accompanied Naomi part of the way. Both wore widow’s head shawls, but in the Moabite fashion, which left hair and any dowry silver pieces they had exposed across the forehead and down the back. Naomi wore a long, gray outer robe and and beneath that a widow’s black head shawl over her shabby clothes. She carried a bundle containing some bread, cheese, a little clothing, and a washpot. Besides the remnants of her dowry--silver rings in her ears and hair and a silver chain about her neck--that would seem to have been the extent of her holdings in this world. So it appeared to Elimelech’s widow. She stopped and wept at the thought. When she could weep no more, she turned to her waiting daughters-in-law. “Go, return to your mother’s house. The Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with your husbands, and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of your new husband.” Naomi could say no more. She kissed them. After all they had been through together the last years, leave-taking was too much for Ruth and Orpah. They wept with Naomi. “No, we must go with you!” said the daughters-in-law. “What are you thinking of?” said Naomi. “Why go with me? I have no more sons to give you, and I am too old to bear more. So go your way, for I am too old to find another husband. Even if I did find one, would you wait until my sons were grown so you might marry them? Oh, no! It is impossible for us to remain together, my daughters! You see yourselves that the Lord’s hand has gone sorely against me!” Naomi began to trudge away from them. Orpah caught her and reached up to clutch her her shoulders.

Na-omi and Orpah

When her mother-in-law made no move to pull her along, seeing the way the wind blew, Orpah then backed slowly, reluctantly away, the light in her eyes fading into grim determination. Thinking she could still patch things up with all the people she had offended, she turned and went back toward the village, stopping only once to remove her widow’s head-shawl and fling it as far as she could. Naomi said to Ruth, “Observe, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods. Do as she has wisely done. She can remarry and still bear sons for her old age.” Ruth’s voice sounded strangled in Naomi’s robes. The words seemed to tear from her very heart with huge, wrenching sobs. “Don’t beg me to leave you or not to follow you! For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried. The Lord strike me if anything parts you and me!” Stooping to retrieve Ruth’s fallen head-shawl, Naomi sighed at its stylish impracticality, then stroked Ruth’s beautiful red hair. With the matter resolved at last, they continued together down the road to Heshbon and Jericho.

Tema, an Ishmaelite trader who plied Israelite markets, took the same route as the two women. Because of long drought and famine in the territories of Judah and Benjamin, he had been forced to go father afield to buy grain, but now the harvests were reported excellent, and he was going to meet the wheat harvest in Judah and buy all they would sell. He happened to pass the widows with his fast-striding camels and trotting donkeys. Though not many women dared a trip without well-armed men he thought little of the dust-caked pair walking down the road to Jericho. From their dress, one appeared Moabite, the other Israelite--that was all he noted in passing. From Madeba and Heshbon of the Ammonites it was virtually all downhill from there to the Ken’anite City of Palms, though soon it would grow unbearably hot on the descent. But heat and exhaustion would not be their greatest problems. The busy road attracted many robbers. Yet robbers were mortal men and had to sleep sometime and might let two poor widows slip the net. Perhaps they would make it to Jericho, perhaps not. They were either very brave or very foolish. At Jericho he had some business in the market that kept him for several days longer than he liked. With that concluded, he set out and found the two women he passed earlier going the same direction--up to Jebus the mountain-girt Ken’anite city. “God’s hand must be on them!” he thought, somewhat amazed. “He has delivered them thus far from mischief.” If it had not been for the younger of the pair, whose attractive hair was red and only partly covered by her head shawl in the Moabite fashion, he would not have been so certain. From Jericho on the traffic thickened and he saw too many people to pay attention to any one or two of them. But he had a trader’s eye. He knew it was the two widows! Now once a camel train is in transit it is unwise to call an arbitrary halt. Donkeys are only too glad to halt, while camels are loath to change their routines and let drovers know by spitting and trying to stomp on their masters’ feet. But Tema felt a strong tug in his breast and obeyed. Leaving his roaring, stomping camels, donkeys and men, he went personally and bowed to the women. “Do not fear,” he said to the eldest out of customary deference. “I have observed your long journey and two or three of my donkeys were relieved of goods at Jericho. Would you ride them?” The astonished women hurriedly conferred, their backs turned to the Ishmaelite stranger. The eldest faced him. “But we have no money to pay you! It is a kindness of God that we must walk.” Tema’s wiry, black eyebrows lifted. “You call it kindness to let you walk all this way at the mercy of brigands and ruthless vagrants?” The eldest nodded gravely. “My husband and two sons are dead. Why should I ride your beast in comfort while they lie in Sheol? No, it is God’s kindness, lest I forget them!” Tema’s face sobered. He had not thought of it in that way before and the old woman’s wits impressed him. And the expressiveness of her careworn, heavily-wrinkled features gave unusual force to her words. Just the same, Tema didn’t like the thought of the dark cloud of her widowhood hanging on him too, so he put a sort of riddle to her. “But if he is kind in that fashion, am I being cruel to offer relief and protection?” The eldest was equal to this challenge as well. “Yes, you are being cruel, without meaning to be. For we must turn you down, having no money.” Tema shook his head. “I demand no fares from you! I am a merchant!” The eldest, for the first time, was taken aback. “But--but--why are you stopping?” Tema was a businessman. The exchange had been more than amusing to lend interest to a long journey, but he had clients to contact and much grain to buy. “Please decide at once! You cost me nothing, so I can charge nothing. Now are you going with us or not?” The old widow glanced at the younger and they both nodded. Tema would have liked words with the attractive young widow, but it was not to be. The eldest, knowing her business, made sure it would not happen. The ascent to Jebus was not easily done, even with strong camels and donkeys. The way was very hot, dry, dusty, and robber-infested, and there was nothing but climbing for many miles. Though only four thousand feet in elevation, Jebus was so difficult to reach it might have been twenty or thirty! Of course, many people and many animals never made it to their destination. The roadsides were lined with graves and animal bones. Naomi, who knew better than Ruth how hard the road might be on a return journey, was aware she would have never survived the climb except for the ride with the mysterious Ishmaelite. Why had he loaned them two donkeys and exacted no payment? She kept silent about it, however, as the animals struggled upwards, intent only on getting to their destination. From time to time Tema glanced at the women in the rear of the train. They were eating dust continually, of course, but he couldn’t bring them forward without exciting resentment from his sons and man-servants. After all, they were foreign women. If they had been Ishmaelite, well, that would be a different matter! Nevertheless, he did not like what he had to do. The eldest reminded him of his mother. And the youngest? She could have been his daughter--if he had fathered one along with his six lusty sons. The six were riding just behind him, in fact. He was aware their eyes were turning toward the Moabite widow rather too often, and at the right moment he gave each a look that brought him up short. Onward, to Jebus! “If only none of my camels and donkeys goes lame on the ascent!” he thought. It happened every time he came that way, making for much difficulty. Often, they just had to leave the animal to the vultures, if it still couldn’t walk after being relieved of its load. He reached for a waterskin he tied to his mount. Then he recalled that the women had no such skins. “Too bad for them!” he thought, relieving his thirst. “But would the eldest widow take water even if it were available? She might think it a cruelty!” Tema shook his head, recalling the words that had passed between them. “What could she find in Jebus or thereabouts that is better than what she had in Moab?” he had to wonder. “If she had no money to ride on a donkey, then she can’t have better prospects wherever she is fleeing.” Yet he had to admit that the God’s hand was upon the two women. For good or evil? He could not tell. Nevertheless, he had felt the divine touch in his own heart concerning them and offered them his donkeys. Perhaps, God would repent from his hardness and see to their future provisioning as well. Just the same, he would not have liked to exchange destinies with such obviously poor and unfortunate women as these strangely matched widows--one young and Moabite, the other elderly and Israelite, one tall and red haired, the other gray, stooped, and wizened. “Is God afflicting them?” he wondered. “For what reason?” He had to quit and turn his mind to another subject. The two guests of his caravan were a source of endless mystification, and he was a man of practical business sense who hated mysteries. At least he thought he hated them.

Tema called a halt outside the walls of Jebus. It was the usual clear, open space where caravans might find a place to spend the night before disposing of their goods in the city or resuming their trek. Like most caravans, he had both objects in mind. Eager to take advantage, Jebusite traders swarmed out to greet them as they came plodding wearily in. They had many sorts of items and services to offer caravaneers--all costing too much, of course, and few that did anyone any real good. He kept a sharp eye on his sons, too, while the camp was made. Not one to let them do as they pleased in big cities, he was not well liked by them, perhaps. Jebus had a reputation for beautiful women, but they came at a stiff price (most of which went to the authorities). His eldest and firstborn approached him with a urgent countenance, arm in arm with a stranger. “Abba, I am going into the city with this man, who is a good fellow and a friend to our people,” he declared to the father, who turned and looked not at his son but the tempter. The look was such the trader in woman’s favors pulled his arm from the son’s grasp and scampered away. His son would have run after him but Tema was quick and grabbed his firstborn’s arm. “You would crawl back to us like a dog on your belly, stripped naked of your robe!” he laughed. “That’s what they do to young men like you once they get you inside their walls!” His firstborn slunk away, to stand and cast furtive glances at the Moabite widow, who stood paying the men no attention. The eldest widow, however, approached him. “We cannot properly remain with you for the night,” she informed him, not surprisingly in the midst of heathen Ken’anites. Tema shrugged. “Where will you retire?” he inquired. “Where will you find respectable lodgings? And I thought you said you had no money.” The widow did not seem to mind his remarks. Unexpectedly, she smiled at him. “We women can always find a little corner snug enough in these mountains. What I came to say is that we are grateful for your help on our pilgrimage.” Tema nodded, but something in the widow’s manner made him wonder if it was over. “Are you remaining here, or going on?” His intuition was correct. “We are going on,” she replied. “Well, you have not let your companion trade glances with my sons and so you can ride on with us in the morning.” “That is very kind of you! But we can walk the rest of the way. It is not far--only to Bethlehem Ephratah.” Exactly where he was going! Tema was now very interested. How could this happen? It was most unlikely he should have helped two women who were going to the same place. Out of thousands of wayfarers, each journeying to one or more of a hundred cities and villages, he should pick these two? No, God’s hand was clearly on them.

On her part, Naomi was just as interested in the Ishmaelite. “Why did you let us use your donkeys without charge? “ she asked. “You could have let them to others for full payment.” Tema shrugged. He was a truthful man. “I follow my fathers’ God, El Elyon of the Forefathers Abraham and Ishmael.” Naomi’s brows arched. She stared at him but made no reply. Tema stood watching them go, wondering what more he might learn. In the morning, Tema rose earliest of his troop. He had slept little, predictably, for his sons lay restless in the shadow of walls and the allurements within. He put it down to the winsome women he had refused them, and youthful, troubled longings. But he knew it was more than that. The eldest widow’s question had touched on it. The budding patriarchs, Ishmael and Isaac, had started something long ago. Actually, it had been the wives! Abraham’s First Wife Sarai began the estrangement of the sons by growing insanely jealous of Ishmael the firstborn until she had him and his mother Hagar cast out of the camp and into the desert. She had been able to force Abraham to do this cruel thing because Hagar was her handmaid, and so her son--when he finally came as she was ninety or more years of age!--was greater in her eyes than the handmaid’s. That wrong had never been righted, so far as Tema knew. Israelites, as descendants of Isaac, still treated his people as Sarai had treated Ishmael and his mother. Yet they both gave homage to the God of Abraham--or at least some of his people still did. But Tema was a truthful man, even with himself. He had to admit, upon further thought, that very few of his people followed Abraham and Ishmael’s God any longer. More often than not, he found himself, the descendant of the long, holy line of Ishmael, Meshullam, and Abdullah the Great (Court Chamberlain of the Grand Taty of Mizraim), the only believer in whole encampments of Ishmaelites. The vast majority preferred Chemoth, the Tanim, Chillelu, Hibishu, and the like. It was a sad fact of life for him. Just the same, he wasn’t dismayed by what had happened in the past. Life held much opportunity despite what the forefathers, or, rather, the “foremothers,” had done against each other. He had tried to turn his sons to his way of thinking, but he wasn’t sure he succeeded. He cared much for business and profit. They cared about avenging ancient wrongs. How could he make them see that revenge is seldom profitable? Revenge might satisfy for a moment, but later it might bring retaliation and endless unhappiness and misery. Yet they stared at him uncomprehendingly when he explained such things that made for peace and profit and a good life. Now these women, for example! His sons would never have helped them, he knew full well. They might even have mistreated them since they went about without protecting menfolk. How could he change their attitude? If they refused his example, what could words tell them? So far he had been able to control them, but one day he would prove too old and feeble and might have to let them run free as wild asses. He knew they wished to fight and steal from other tribes and marry the most beautiful women possible. But he was a caravaneer heart and soul! Other tribes could follow such venerable, manly practices, but they turned no profit he could see! Besides, would God bless him if he followed suit and became a man of blood?

Tema soon had business with traders to take his thoughts. They swarmed out from the city gates at the first cock crow and began to haggle with him over his Mizraimite linens, finished jewelry, crafted jars and boxes, and other luxuries. Jebus, now that the surrounding Hebrew farmers were doing so well again, was full of ready money for his trade goods, and so he easily disposed of the entire lot. It took him months of preparation and hard trekking to get his goods from Nathasta, Machitha, Tanis and Pithom to Jebus by way of Edom and Moab, which was a much safer route than the Way of the Philistines--those haughty, feather-crowned robbers by the sea! Then only a moment to dispose of them! Yet in the process he had reaped a hundred-fold profit! He never ceased to be amazed at the gains he made, but they were soon turned back into another load of goods, for him to transport across the world to some other place and sell. That was the life of a caravaneer. He was rich, but he seldom had it in hand to enjoy. That left him his sons, a glum, fractious lot he saw every day, and his two wives whom he seldom troubled since they refused to share his tent in peace. Tema counted his silver and gold pieces carefully, entered them in his account, and then put them all in a trunk he carried on his camel, with his sons instructed to keep close guard. If that money horde disappeared, all the profit of years would vanish to thin air! What a calamity that would be! Understandably, that much money on hand made him nervous. If it were somehow lost, he would still have his animals, but with no money to buy new goods, he would have to sell most of them and start over, only in much reduced circumstances. It would be very hard to get back what he had lost. In fact, he would not live to see it regained. He had just put his money securely away when he found the widows had returned from their secret sleeping-place--probably some tiny cave among the thousands riddling the nearby mountainsides. “Have they eaten?” he wondered. Both looked wan and tired to him. He went to the circle where his sons were sitting and eating. Tea was being offered them by a local vender and they were ordering cup after cup. Tema engaged the vender and also took some bread and cheese for the women despite his well-fed sons’ indignant outcries. He said nothing but handed the widows the food. The vender poured out tea in a fine golden cup after a bow and the greeting, “Morning of fragrance!” Once they had been refreshed, the vender poured out the dregs of the tea urn. “It was full when I left the city!” he grinned as he commented to the women. “Now already it is empty!” Naomi slowly shook her head, then withdrew two silver rings from her ear and thrust them at Tema. “No!” he said. “You can pay me later, when you have come to your own city.” The eldest widow laughed, bitterly, he thought. “I went out full, but now I am going back empty!” she said. “You will get nothing more for your trouble than two of these poor rings left out of all my dowry.” He still refused them, so she relented and bowed to him. Tema turned to glance toward his camel out of old habit. His eyes sharpened instantly. In a flash he knew something was wrong--terribly wrong. He couldn’t see it--the money casque was gone and the strap securing it cut away! He lunged toward the camel and searched about. His shout brought all sons and man-servants running to him. Tema turned on his firstborn--but he too was missing! “Your firstborn, he took it and left the camp,” said a foreign but now familiar voice breaking in to Tema’s tortured thoughts. He gazed at the old widow, not comprehending for a moment, he was so overwhelmed by what his firstborn had done to him. “Sire,” pleaded the second and thirdborn, “let us go and fetch him! Don’t slay him! He will be sorry when we bring him back to camp from the city!” Tema, for all his faith in the God of Abraham and Ishmael, was so enraged that if his son had stood at that moment before him, then fallen to beg that his life be spared, it might have done him no good. He would still have five lusty sons to carry on his name. The fire of his wrath passed as quickly as it swept through him, however. He staggered a few feet toward the city on the heights. His five ran ahead of him. “No!” he commanded them. “Stay and look to the animals! I will go and bring him out.” “But he is not in the city,” interjected the old widow. “You were told that to put you off the track.” Tema turned to her, speechless, then cast a glaring glance at the lying pair who went pale and shrank back away. “How do I know this?” she asked for him. “I too had sons. If one did wrong, he would run to me and tell me soon after. The other was different. He hid the thing as long as possible, until I found him out, and then he was sorry. I think your son is maybe like that one, my second son. He has run away from here as fast as he could go.” Tema knew in an instant that what she had said was true of his firstborn. Thinking his manhood and been denied its rights, he had bolted after being refused the pleasures of the city. But where would he run? Mizraim? Babelen? Assyria? Or--” The widow again interrupted. “He has gone to his home. He will buy his first choice of bride there, parade about before his brethren and give costly gifts to all, and then seek to get away to another country with his bride and the remnant of your money.” Tema nearly forgot himself in his frenzy to get control of his calamity. He could have seized the woman and shaken the whole thing out of her, but he stopped in time. “How do you know all this?” he cried at her. “Are you so wise as a woman of God? A prophetess?” The old widow slowly shook her head. “I am no woman of God or seeress. Bruised of God, I am a mother with a deceased husband and two deceased sons. God has sorely broken me on his wheel.” Tema stared at her, without time to take in his good fortune that their paths had crossed on the road to Jericho. If he left now, he could overtake his son on the road and still return in time to buy the needed grain at the end of the wheat harvest! “We must go now,” said the old woman. “I owe this old one much! much!” Tema thought as he bowed low. He watched them walk away, and then he searched out every bit of money yet in his sons’ and man-servants’ possession and, trading a few animals, bought the best horse available. As for the caravan, his three faithful sons would be left to guard them until his return. After what the firstborn had done, they were, he observed, a most subdued brood and anxious to please him for a change. Evidently, from the expressions of the faithful trio, they were just as surprised and caught off-guard as he had been. As for the liars, they could be dealt with later, though if they were smart they would run now while they had a chance. No doubt his son had bought a magnificent horse, an Arabian, and it was going to be a fine race to Succoth! Sobeit! If only he could resist the urge to cut the young fool’s hands off when he caught him! And Tema knew he was yet strong enough to outpace a flaming youth. He would certainly catch him if he had to ride a dozen horses to death to do it.

Ruth and Naomi walked the last miles to Bethlehem of Ephratah. As if to punish herself, Naomi refused her daughter-in-law’s arm to lean on. Despite the food and drink, Naomi’s legs were weak and badly swollen, though she said nothing of it to her daughter-in-law. She walked slower and slower, until Ruth had to stop for long periods for Naomi to catch up. “We must rest here by the road,” said Ruth finally. Naomi shook her head. It was too close to her city to stop now. Putting one painful foot in front of the other, she hobbled with her stick. She gasped for breath and then almost fell. Naomi’s stick lay on the ground, and when Naomi went to pick it up Ruth swiftly retrieved it for her, but instead of the stick Naomi accepted Ruth’s arm. Together they made a strange sight. Unable to move for other traffic, they risked being run down, but cursing cameleers and men on donkeys moved around them instead on the crowded road. At last they glimpsed the rooftops of the city and Rachel’s tomb. Naomi broke down and began to weep. Ruth, exhausted with Naomi’s travail, could have wept with her, but she was more frightened and curious than full of mourning for what had been lost. It had taken them most of the day to go the several miles to Bethlehem. Now the day was passing, and people were hurrying home from work in the fields or business in Jerusalem. Soon the traffic thinned and the two wayfarers were left quite alone except for some curious stray curs hoping for something from them. Naomi’s tears and weeping made the dogs nervous, and they yipped and howled mournfully as they followed. The strange sight of the women and their accompanying dogs brought people to their doors and windows as they passed. Just then the wind picked up and a dust devil rose, whirling down the road from Jerusalem. Passing round the women, it took the road again and swept right into the city where it flung its dirt and vanished. Children ran out to see what it was, and they followed the women too. Before long the mothers came out, with some of the menfolk. Naomi halted at the head of the street that once led to her house. She looked around her, then down the street, and shook her head. Someone, an old woman looking on the scene, cried out, “Is this Naomi?” The name quickly sped from window to window through the neighborhoods, that Elimelech’s wife had returned with a strange, young Moabite woman on her arm. Many women crowed round Naomi, looking at first hand to make sure of the unusual report. “No, that can’t be her!” one observed loudly. “You’re wrong, I cannot mistake her face for anything!” replied another. “I bet she’s run off from old Elimelech and thinks she can find a better husband here!” “Oh, how can you say that? Look at how old and dried up she’s become! No man would want her now! She was fat and fine-looking when she left, but now...” Naomi turned to the bewildered, arguing crowd around her. At last she saw them and what was bothering them. “Call me not ‘Naomi’ [pleasant], call me ‘Mara,’ for the Almighty has treated me very badly!” she cried. “I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again, empty. Why then call me ‘pleasant’, seeing the Lord has fought against me and afflicted me? For my husband and sons are all dead! all dead!” “All?” “Yes, yes!” Her words created a sensation, but it served to quiet the people, who felt ashamed of themselves for the pain they were causing a woman bereft of both husband and sons. Struck with fear that Naomi’s misfortune might be contagious, mothers snatched children from first, second, even third marriages and herded them indoors. A few women remained behind, wringing their hands at what had befallen a mother of Israel. “What will you do now, Old Mother?” one inquired. “You could dwell with me and my family, but there is not enough room, even with three stories. As it is, with the children from my other marriages my new husband complains the house is too full and noisy for him.” Now this was the woman’s fourth husband, which was not unusual. “Have you tried the new inn?” someone piped up. “Its prices are said to be very affordable and that way you wouldn’t inconvenience anyone.” Naomi sighed. “I have no money for lodgings, even the poorest. My house was sold. No, my daughter-in-law and I will go and sleep in one of the stables in the hillside if we must.” The onlookers looked scandalized. “How can you think of dwelling in a cave, with sheep and goats bearing their young lambs and kids? It is dirty and smelly, and besides the shepherds--you know what sort of low life they are! No, that is no place for a respectable matron born and bred in this city!” Naomi raised her hand and swung it uselessly. “But where am I to go? I have no place here anymore.” “Then come and abide with me,” a widow seemed to say, who just now approached the little group of bleeding hearts in the street. Naomi turned and looked upon a fellow widow, a toothless creature who lived alone with a few sheep she fattened for the market. Elimelech’s widow nodded, and she and Ruth followed the old widow. They came to the center of town. A big, ramshackle door of wood once painted green opened in a wall. The widow let them in, then bolted the door. Naomi and Ruth turned to look and saw a staircase leading to a hut built on the outside of a house. That, obviously, was the lodgings, but there was clearly no room for anyone but the old woman. The widow peered up at Naomi, cackling words Naomi could not catch. Then the widow called out and a big sheep bolted from a shed below the staircase hut. Surprisingly agile, the widow bolted after it, and they went into the hut at the top of the stairs. What was left was apparently theirs. Ruth peered into the reeking gloom of the sheep shed. Then Naomi took a more doubtful look. It was possible two people might fit, but not two people and one big sheep! The widow scurried down the broken, dirty steps with a newly shorn sheep struggling against its tether. They disappeared out the wood door, which banged shut and left Naomi and Ruth staring at each other. Later, when the old woman returned with no sheep but something weighty in her clenched hand, she laughed when she saw how Ruth had worked and cleared rubbish and droppings from the sheep shed, using a potsherd. Freed of the sheep, the old woman made herself useful too. She brought down remnant of a broom from her hut, then added various wrecked pieces of furniture and bedding. Ruth took the things as Naomi, overcome by the reek and the dirt, wept. With what the old one gave her, she finished what cleaning she could do without water and lay down the bedding. There they retired for the night and the following nights.

Fortunately, the market was just a few steps down the street and Naomi and Ruth had no trouble getting provisions and various household items. They had no money, but Naomi removed each silver earring from her ears as needed to pay for purchases. The old woman said little to them, and she stayed most of the day in her hut at the head of the stairs. She had plenty of wool from her last sheep. Though half-blind, she was knitting garments for sale in the market! And when she sold them, the money would buy another sheep and still leave a little over for saving, to add to what she had gotten for the sheep. Since she had done this with ten or twelve sheep, and saved her earnings, she had the income to live better, but it was probably just as well no one knew how well she was doing though she lived so poorly. The stink of poverty kept the robbers at bay. Slowly, Ruth made progress in clearing the rubble and sheep droppings down to the original paving so they could sit outdoors during the day. It had once been a respectable merchant’s yard, she discovered, before being turned into lodgings for the old widow. Well-paved, it only needed cleaning, and as long as the old woman permitted it she continued. Rubbish and droppings she put in a discarded basket she found in a corner and patched with string. When full, she carried it out and dumped it at the end of the road that led past their lodgings and out through the Dung Gate. Working hard, she had the hut clean for Naomi and herself, with a considerable part of the yard cleared as well. They had a washpot brought from Moab too, and Ruth made dozens of trips to the well for scrub water and soon furnished considerable talk for the whole town by her industrious activities. It attracted the children too, most of whom were allowed to run wild, even sleep in the streets. The Moabitess was at first amusing to them, then a target. Called “devil” because of her red hair, mud, filth from the gutters, and even stones flew at her, but she went her way regardless. Men, their wives run off, propositioned her and could not understand her reluctance and abused her for “pride” above that of other single women. “Is she Naomi’s maid-servant?” many people wanted to know. “She’s supposed to be poor! So how does she rate having one, when our husbands force us to do all the household work?” “No daughter-in-law of mine would ever work that hard!” a bystander declared. “I have two fat and sassy good-for-nothings, and I would have to lay a whip to their backs morning, noon, and evening! Still I couldn’t get them to work like that, no matter how much they were whipped!”” Now this mother-in-law spoke truthfully of a third set of daughter-in-laws and at least a third set of whips. Some were angered by the fact a Moabitess was squandering precious city water and complained to the elders at the gates. She had no right to the water in the first place, it was charged, because God sent his rain to fall on the righteous, not the unrighteous. “Did you say she is a Moabitess?” inquired a chief elder of one complainer. He was not in a good mood, evident by his scowl, and his mind was distracted. He kept looking to see if Boaz was coming to serve again as elder. Whenever he put aside business to do so, they never got anything accomplished that day. He turned things upside down! “Of course! The heathen gives herself away with that silly foreign rag she wears on her head! And if she says anything, you can’t understand a single word!” “Well, then, let your men drag her to the gate, beat her soundly, then cast her out of the city. That’s the only decent thing to do in this case.” “No, we cannot do that. We are newly married and our husbands can’t be bothered exerting themselves like that, when they need to attend to us. She’s been taken under the wing of Elimelech’s widow, who once had a fine house in the city near the tomb of Rachel. Besides, she is living in the court of your mother, or didn’t you know?” “Well, you are wasting our valuable time!” huffed the elder, who had let his widowed mother’s house to someone and stuck her out on the staircase to live her last days, and so didn’t know she had taken boarders. “This great a city has more important matters for us to decide. Another string of murders and burglaries has started and requires immediate, decisive action. Then we must issue permits for the repairs on the roads and gates and certain residences. And then more permits for the new inns and taverns. After that we start on the latest foreclosures and divorces. Doesn’t that give you any idea how hard it is for us elders? No wonder our heads and beards are white as snow! So off with you!” “But what if she steals our children and sacrifices them to her abomination, Tanim?” “Well, what if she does? There are far too many stray children running about anyway, and Tanim is as good a god as any!” Both had got the Tanim, dragon-gods of the Ammonites, confused with Chemoth of the Moabites, which was easy to do since both peoples were descended from two sons of Lot; yet the name mattered little in a city where money continually passed hands between thieves, murderers, and magistrates, and where the public monies always seemed to vanish before repairs could be made. As for the more interesting domestic cases, he did not even mention them. One was a killing of a bride-wife by her husband of three months. The groom had fled to Kedesh, a city of refuge, claiming he had caught them in the act. As for the wife, that could be forgiven him, but the city was determined to bring him back from Kedesh to judgment because the murdered man was the son of an nobleman. Another involved the stabbing deaths of a wife and a young man sent to the house to deliver ordered goods from a town merchant. Though the woman was beautiful, the man was wealthy and very popular with the people and no one wanted to see him held responsible. Everyone gossiped continually about the woman and before long they had discovered that her complaints of vicious beatings, given her by her husband prior to the murders, were unjustified. Witnesses were prepared to cite the dead woman instead with multiple adulteries. Yet it did not take the words of an elder to confirm what people could see and hear everyday in Bethlehem of Ephratah. The town was deathly sick. Drought and famine may have ended, but an epidemic of a different sort raged all the hotter in good times. Woman found every reason to defy their husbands and do as they pleased; children were resented and neglected by fathers and mothers alike; the society crumbled before a whirlwind of selfishness, pride, bitter words, violent abuse, betrayals, estrangement and outright murder.

Before long, Naomi’s dowry was down to two rings. They faced starvation. What livelihood the widow above them eked out with her knitting and sheep rearing probably could not be stretched to another two souls, and she had not given anything but free lodgings. Besides, other than the first words calling them to stay with her, she uttered nothing intelligible that Naomi could make out. Naomi, who sat gradually recovering from the long journey and trying a bit of knitting, called Ruth away from her chores. “The wheat harvest has begun,” she said, having heard the news in the market. She added something else she had picked up from the tale-bearers. “I have a kinsman named Boaz, a man of wealth, living in the city, and he has fields somewhere, I don’t know the place, but south or east of the Jerusalem Gate.” Very surprised to hear of Naomi’s kinsman, Ruth knew then what she must do. Back in Moab Naomi had once told her of a custom her people had, of allowing poor women to glean grain from fields being harvested. Gleaners could take the grain dropped along the edge of the field and whatever the wind, snatching the sower’s seed, had sown outside the boundary stones. Of course, the privilege was paid for when the gleaner, usually a defenseless unmarried woman or a widow, was molested by the field workers, so only the careless or the most desperate of poor women became gleaners. But could she find the kinsman’s fields? In any case, there was no help for Naomi in a city so hard of heart and lawless as this one seemed to be, so she would have to try to look outside its gates. She faced Naomi. “Let me now go to the field, and glean wheat in the field of any farmer in whom I find favor.” Mortified and ashamed, Naomi turned her face aside. She was weeping teas as bitter as vinegar. “Go, my daughter,” she finally said in a muffled voice. “I would do it, but--” She need have said nothing to Ruth. She knew her mother-in-law’s weak and painfully swollen legs could never stand even an hour of work amidst the heat of day. But that would have been the least of her difficulty. Just then their hostess came and broke the awkward moment with a heavy, rag-wrapped bundle. She thrust it at Ruth and went away. Ruth opened the rags and found a grape vine stock. “Where should it be planted, Mother?” Ruth asked Naomi. Naomi glanced about the court with disinterest. “You decide,” she shrugged as she returned to her inept knitting with swollen fingers. Since there was no trellis, Ruth picked a place by the outside wall, so that it could grow up with the wall as support. She had hard work prying out enough stones, then added soil and planted the vine stock. It had little root to it, and would require faithful watering at first, she knew, but she believed the root would grow, and once it was vigorous, it would find its own water deep in the earth.

Early the next morning the Moabitess crept out of the big, creaking door, careful not to wake Naomi. She had no way to bar the gate, but it occurred to her that everyone knew the widow of the place as among the very poorest, so she was in little danger of a break-in. Besides, the widow often left the court unbarred as she went on various mysterious errands, sometimes at very early hours and even at night. It was dark and not too safe in the streets. Robbers still prowled about at that hour looking for unbarred doors and windows on the better houses or climbed out of shops they had successfully entered and looted. She reached the gate safely, but had to wait until the old gatekeeper decided to get up and start the new day. While she stood before the huge wooden doors, she was joined by some field laborers. They were making jokes at her expense, which she half-understood, when the gatekeeper and his assistant pulled the bars and bolts and the doors groaned open. Just outside were stray dogs and beggars, sleeping huddled against the wall. Other objects were a few dead bodies of unwanted street children--orphans dead from disease or starvation--waiting for the city elders to send someone to bury them before the dogs created an unsanitary nuisance. Ruth moved quickly as she could, distancing herself from the half-asleep, rowdy laborers, who tried to draw her into their midst. She looked sharply into the hazy terrain beyond the road, wondering where she might go first. A farmer’s lane parted from the road and she took it. She walked down a slope into some green meadows where sheep were grazing. Frogs chorused in some small puddle and suddenly quieted as she approached. Beyond had to be the wheat fields, she realized, as she walked past the sheep and saw signs of cultivation. She kept walking, and by now the light was clear enough to see a distance. Back of her rose the little city on its knobby hills, the first smoky-blue tendrils from hearth fires rising above the sunlit roof tops. A nearby cock crowed so loudly she was startled. She quickened her step, though the lane had disappeared and she was crossing over recently harvested ground. Every fifty paces or so she crossed a line of stones. Some fields were tiny, others quite large, but all were carefully bordered with stones. It all felt very lonely, especially when a jackal yipped and howled, its voice carrying across the rolling hills in the distance. So far she had encountered no one. She stopped, wondering which way to proceed, either straight ahead toward the east, or to the north or south. Not sure of Naomi’s directions, she turned northward. Soon she saw young men harvesting, with the men cutting grain with sickles, while women followed and bound the sheaves. She went to the edge of the field, careful to see if someone was in charge. When she saw one or two of the workers go to a man who stood apart, she then went up to him too. After the field steward was finished speaking with them, he turned to her, his eyes taking in her foreign headgear. Ruth took out a bag she had sewn, then bowed low. She repeated the words Naomi had taught her, which informed him that though a foreigner from Moab she was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, Elimelech’s wife, and wished to glean. She held her breath, then he nodded, motioning toward the boundary stones where the young men had already passed with their sickles. She went over to them and began to search for the grain the young men and the women had missed. It was difficult work without a sickle, she soon found. She did not mind that she had to bend far over to pick up the stray heads of wheat, but those uncut had stiff, sharp stalks that hurt her hands until she tore off strips from her clothing and bandaged them, leaving her fingers free. Cooler hours of the morning passed into blistering noon-tide. Naomi was still working when, stopping to stand and rest her throbbing back, she noticed that the workers, both men and women, had left the field and gathered at a sheltering booth. A heavily-muscled man, naked except for a cloth strip tied between his legs, had brought two big skins of water slung across his strong shoulders and they were refreshing themselves, with much laughter and joking at the water-bearer’s expense. Laughing in turn, he flexed his muscles and boasted he could take any man there and throw him to the ground. The field steward noticed her gaze and called to her from the little booth of tamar tree branches and poles that shaded the water skins. She was taking a drink from the common cup when an older but vigorous man joined them. The two, intermingling groups of men and women quieted immediately. The steward bowed to the man, who said to all, “El Shaddai be with you!” The workers immediately gathered round the owner of the field, a man of wealth. “The Lord bless you, O Head of Ten!” cried someone. “It is another good harvest and you have made us rich men and we’ll never have to work again!” The man laughed, then saw the lone Moabitess in the group, her strange head-shawl giving her away, and her red hair. He turned aside to his steward. “Whose maiden is this?” “She is the Moabitess that came back with Naomi out of that country, and has been gleaning until a little part of this hour when I called her to rest and drink water with us. She asked me if she could glean and gather after the reapers.” Boaz moved forward to a few paces from Ruth and looked at her. “Here me, my daughter,” he said, for he was as old as her father might be. “Work here in my field, there is no need to go elsewhere, and keep close to my maidens, gleaning at their heels as they go. ” He turned for a word with the men, who listened soberly, then he again addressed her alone. “I have commanded my men to respect you, and when you are thirsty go to the water skins and drink what the water-bearer has brought. They will be replenished as long as we are here working in the field, so drink as much as you desire. My steward will not let the others stop you.” Ruth was astonished the more he spoke. When he finished she fell to the ground, bowing. “Why have I found grace in your eyes, that you take so much thought for me, when you see that I am a foreigner?” Boaz glanced at the listening steward and the resting men and women, then back to her. He smiled. “All was told me,” he said. “I know what you have done for your mother-in-law since her husband’s death and also the death of your own husband. I also know how you left your father and mother and native country and come here to an entirely foreign land for her sake. May the Lord fully reward you for that, the Lord God of Israel under whose wings you have entrusted your life.” A breeze played on Ruth’s head, rippling the curls of her hair as she looked up at her protector. “My lord, I hope I find favor in your sight,” she said. “For you have encouraged me, speaking to me like one of your maidens, though I am not one of them.” “How stately and dignified like a well-bred princess she is !” thought Boaz. “How well-spoken our language by a foreign tongue!” “When we take a meal, come and eat with the others.” Then he turned quickly away to business with the steward before she could respond. At a sign from the steward, the men and women got up and moved off to resume work. They continued until the one meal of the day, taken in the afternoon. Ruth did as Boaz had told her and went and sat with the women by the booth. Wheat had been roasted on a fire by the steward’s young assistant, and it was put in a big wooden bowl beside another with vinegar and oil for dipping the grain into. First the men took, then the women. Every worker was allowed to take the portion the steward had set, and no one complained that he or she did not get enough. When Boaz saw that Ruth was not partaking, he reached out with a flat stirring stick on which he had piled the roasted wheat and she took it and dipped in the vinegar and oil. Ruth, however, put a second part of her portion away, tied up in her clothing. The women around her talked to each other and ignored Ruth, eyeing her every movement but risking no unkind comments while the steward and the field’s owner stood by and ate with them. They all returned to work. In Ruth’s hearing, Boaz had another word with his men. “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and don’t say anything. And purposely let some fall ever so often so that she can have it.” So her hands filled quickly at that rate, with them helping her, and she was all the more amazed at the owner’s generosity. Then one young man let the owner’s name slip. He said “Boaz” when he was commenting on something the owner had said previously. Ruth was so overcome she could scarcely see what she was doing for quite a few moments. At even-tide Ruth stopped and beat out the chaff from what she had gleaned. Her bag was full of golden wheat, containing about an ephah. On that they could live for many days, and also sell part in the market. Some of the women, called “maidens” but not necessarily, passed by, and a few comments fell on Ruth’s ear. “What is so special about this long-necked Moabitess that he should favor her so?” one wondered aloud. “She’s just a little gleaner, a foreign one at that! Why, she made more today with her wretched gleaning than we did with hard work and good wages!” “Yes, giving that offscouring of incest water was bad enough, but he had to give her our food, then grain from the sheaves themselves which the men pulled out for her! You might think he has a mind to take her--” “Hush!” said another. “You wouldn’t want him to hear! You might lose your place here, and then what young men would you get to comfort you at night at your age?” But Boaz had gone. It was time to go, the workers were leaving the field, some of the men pairing off with willing women. Ruth, finished with the threshing, hurried away to the city before the gate could be shut against the night. Despite the heavy load, it was precious wheat she was carrying, and her feet were light as feathers. She also could not wait to tell Naomi about her kinsman.

Ruth the Moabitess

Like a malignant boil pressed before its time, which only increased the inflammation, news spread in the city before Ruth could reach home. Though she had been shown favor in Boaz’s field, it changed to rank jealousy, anger, and indignation in the city. But she was far too excited to notice the evil looks and curses that flew thick at her from every side. Naomi, waiting up anxiously, unbarred the door and let her in. Ruth put her sack of wheat down carefully, then moved it inside the little shed they called home. The mother-in-law slowly followed on throbbing legs, which seemed to swell all the more on poor diet and lack of food. “What is all this you bring?” she cried amazed. “You haven’t stolen it, have you?” Ruth remembered and quickly brought out the roasted parched grain for Naomi’s dinner. After the widow had eaten, she renewed her urgent questioning. “Where could you have gleaned so much today? Blessed be the one who let you work in his field!” Ruth could hold it in no longer. “The man’s name in whose field I gleaned is Boaz.” Naomi, after a long pause, finally took it in. Then she began to laugh and weep at the same time. When she finally got some control, she turned and said, “May the Lord bless him richly then, for he has not forgotten to be kind to the living and to the dead. He is near of kin to us, my daughter! One of those closest to us of our line! But did he say anything to you?” Ruth told her all he had done and said, including his repeated instruction later in the day that she should keep close by his workers until they finished the harvest and not go to another field to glean. Naomi, full of experience, nodded. “Yes, it is good you do that, keep close by the field women all the time you work there, and stay in his grainfield where your honor is safe.” And Ruth did as she was advised, and no harm and much good came to her and Naomi.

A traveling Levite poet who, like many others of this facile, landless tribe, earned his living by versifying local events came by Bethlehem, heard the account, and with his arts fashioned a new song on the spot that he took pains to adapt to his ordinary, workaday audience, the common townsfolk. Simple in form and expression, the song became popular, particularly after the city forgot its rancorous, marital troubles and joined in celebration of the birth of Elimelech’s third son and heir. In fact, Bethlehem Ephratah was never the same again! After telling Naomi’s troubles in Moab and the journey there and the troubles she suffered in a strange land, the “Song of Naomi and Ruth” described the daughter-in-law who refused to leave Naomi to her misfortune, but shared it and even accompanied her back to Israel, forsaking her fatherland for the sake of her mother-in-law. Then, it continued with the unfolding events of how Naomi found favor with an Ishamelite trader, who gave them free donkeys, and how God granted mercy and Naomi found free lodgings with an old widow in Bethlehem when no one else would take her in, and how Naomi’s kinsman, the good Boaz, granted favor to Ruth when she came unwittingly to his field to glean, and how, as the poet put it...

Evening came to end the day, Ruth did thresh her gleanings out; Wheaten grain, an ephah lay, Was much to bear on her home route. Naomi was waiting up, Saw the wheat grain in Ruth’s robe; “Blessing fill that farmer’s cup Who favored you as God blessed Job.” Ruth replied with joyful face: “Boaz is the man’s own name.” Mahlon’s mother praised God’s grace; “This man,” she cried, “of our line came.” So until the wheat was in, Ruth the Moabitess gleaned, Heaped with golden grain her bin, And from the heads all chaff she cleaned. Naomi then said to Ruth, “Daughter, may I serve you well! This I know, it is the truth, Draw up close, and I will tell. “Boaz winnows grain tonight; Wash therefore, put on fine scent, Best of clothes, and veiled tight-- The threshing floor to him was lent. “Daughter, wait until he’s done Drinking, eating to his ease; Go then softly, do not run, When he lies down to rest his knees. “Lie down then at his bare feet, He will tell you what to do.” Ruth rose up from her low seat And chose a gown of purple hue. Eglon’s daughter, as some own, Lost her kinsmen, family, all; Royal princess, poor and lone, She fled from Ehud, palace, hill. Wed to Mahlon, no one knew Ruth was purpled in her blood; Years then passed, and not a few, As Jacob’s God slow formed a bud. Bruised by Israel’s Most High, Cast down from her high estate, Ruth a servant chose to tie Her life to Mahlon’s mother’s fate. Love was all she had to give, Crushed and winnowed of her chaff; El Shaddai began to live In her own heart, plowed whole, not half. So to threshing floor she went, Down below the Water Gate; Trust, obedience had bent Her soul to love as its own mate. Darkness fell upon the hill, Ruth saw not a single star; Silent wings of good, not ill, Dropped round her close though God seemed far. Doing as her mistress spoke, Ruth lay down by Boaz’ feet; Midnight came and he awoke And found a woman in his wheat! “Who are you?” he said amazed. “O sir, ‘tis Ruth, your maidservant; Pray, spread your hem o’er God has raised, My mistress is your honored aunt.” Boaz sat on threshing floor Bruised and beaten by a Hand; Golden grain from stem so sore Now fell unnumbered as the sand. Yet he answered to the call: Rahab’s son to Moab join; Spread his hem, and with it all, Gave up right to his own loin. “God bless you with his favor! Young men, rich or poor, were not Chosen by you, time’s child; Now I will help you as I ought. “Yet there is a nearer kin, Well if he will do his part; Yet if not, his right I win, So have no fear in all your heart! “Stay this night and take your rest, I will do what is ordained; In the morning light is best For working out what honor gained.” Ruth then lay on ripened wheat, rising early after dark; Grain he gave her, six heaps full, For Naomi’s eyes how sweet! Bent with Boaz’ grain she went Home with strange joy as her part; Stars still shone, their light now lent A beauty that vied hers at heart. “Wait his day, for time will tell,” Naomi then said to Ruth; “He will settle (I will sell Poor Mahlon’s land!) all this in truth.” And all was done as Boaz said; He went to Water Gate and sat; The next of kin declined to wed, Restore the Dead with his own fat. The land Naomi had to sell To next of kin was Mahlon’s due; Then ‘twas redeemed, a fountain fell on Mahlon’s grave through Ruth’s womb-well. Giving up redeemer’s right, The kinsman passed Boaz his shoe; Ten elders witnessed by their sight That Boaz bought Mahlon’s wife too. Then Boaz said without gainsay To elders and the people there: “For you all witnessed on this day What was redeemed by right most fair: “The land of Naomi but more, Elimelech’s and Mahlon’s too; So that their name lies dead no more, I’ll wed the dead son’s wife as due.” All Bethlehem ran to the gate To see the great things making there; An Ishmaelite not come too late Was passing through with camels bare. He called the train then to a halt, His camels roared and came to stop; He took the story with some salt, But something in his heart did hop. They told him of a heart full true, A Moabitess from afar, A widow serving widow too, With love that shone just like a star. He saw a vine as they did speak Climb up a barren trellis there, And fruitful grow through stem was weak, The two proved strong, no longer bare. He saw again a golden Vine, Fair Israel upon her God, And then believing on this sign He felt his heart begin to laud. “O grant me, Lord, one look at them!” He prayed silent within his breast; But he must now leave Bethlehem And carry home what grain was best. Going to the threshing floor, He bought (no barley!) wheat like gold; It tasted sweet unto the core, His camels heaped ‘til all was sold. Much grain of Boaz, clean and bright, Now threshed and beaten of the chaff, Went forth with joyful Ishmaelite, Who praised the Lord with sons not half. The people at the gate all cried: “We all today are witnesses; The Lord be with you and abide, Build up your house as with Perez!” A small boy piped a cheerful sound, And reapers raised a manly cry: “In Bethlehem be you renowned, In Ephratah your wheat heap high!” And then the maidens sang a song, With timbrel they all solemn-stepped; They circled in a line along Where Boaz sat with heart that leapt. “As Rachel, Leah, both bore fruit And filled up Jacob with increase, So may Ruth now, though poor in root, Give sons to you without surcease!” So Boaz took his Ruth to wife With pipe and dance and glad array; El Shaddai brought her womb to life, And she conceived within a day. The Moabitess bore a son, Through him the Star of Israel raised; Yet God had hid what He had done, To Naomi the women praised: “O blessed be the Lord today! He raises poor up from the dust; For those cast down he lifts his sword, His steadfast love for those who trust. “From the dung-heap they are raised up To sit with princes of his land! He fills the barren woman’s cup And gives her children by his hand. “For she who bore this son of yours, Is more than seven sons to you; On you this daughter’s love outpours.” ‘Twas then the widow ceased to grieve. Without her mourning garment on, In festive garments, Naomi Then took the boy as her own son and cared for him most tenderly. The neighbor women sat round one day, Rejoiced and gave to him a name; “Obed” or “Servant” they did say, Unknown to them had gained great fame. For Obed was forefather too Of Jesse by whom David rose To glorify the Lord he knew, Who one day conquered all man’s foes. Far off from Bethlehem at night, An Ishmaelite to God gave praise; He thought he saw a birth of Light, Where there was none a Star did blaze.

Bowing low before the collected citizenry after his performance, the minstrel collected what pennies were cast into his bowl and passed on to other cities and other lands. He too had seen the star the Ishmaelite glimpsed. But both men missed seeing yet another star of Bethlehem light the sky over the city. The child Obed was not a year old and his head thick with astonishing, red ringlets when a house in town blew up in a fiery explosion. Something flew upwards into the night sky, turned and came hurtling back toward the city. It hovered close over the rooftops, gleaming and glittering like an adamas stone the size of a small mountain. The heat started some of the rooftops aflame before it drew back as if scorched by a greater fire than its own. What was burning it? Everyone who witnessed the actions of the “fiery star” thought it was the end of the world, but in fact it was the end of the fiery star that was more probable at that moment. Now the old woman, a mother of Israel, had not said, “Then come and abide with me.” Without teeth, a mistake could easily be made. Not hearing their need, what she said to Naomi and Ruth far back now on the road was, “Flee, my children, from the Wrath to come.” That warning word might well have been heeded by the resident devil-star. Something a certain Moabitess had ignited in the hearts of people around her suddenly began to vibrate and agitate, creating a powerful and energetic radio energy field that could heat and destroy anything inimical to it. If there was a single message in the phenomenon, it was “Love selflessly!”, with Selfless Love invoked by His mighty nomenclature of two letters, the first and the last of a divine alphabet--

“A-Z! A-Z! A-Z!.....

The OP in Bethlehem was soon aware it was over-heating as it hung above the city, reluctant to leave. The pulse grew stronger, unbearably stronger, in the closing moments of the year.

“A-Z, A-Z, A-Z, A-Z.....!

Within seconds, the alien found its position untenable. About to explode, it beat a strategic retreat.

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