"My daddy lets me watch three sheep
Beside the mill; and if I keep
Them safe, and make them fat, he said
That next year I'd get five instead.
‘If you can keep your three in line,
Then you can handle five at nine.'
My daddy's always making rhymes.
But they're not very good — sometimes."
His grandpa laughed: "You're pretty sharp
For being eight. And how's your harp
These days? I'd like to hear you play
Sometime. I heard your daddy say
You've gotten really good. Let's go
Sit down beside the sheep, and show
Me what you've learned." So David took
His grampa down beside the brook
And mill, beneath the carrob tree,
And cradled, like a lamb, the C-
Shaped kinnor in his lap, and played
A ballad Jews had sung and prayed
For centuries. The old man laid
His head back on the tree and swayed,
As if the music made the tree
A ship-mast on the rolling sea.
Then David noticed Obed's eyes
Were closed. "It better satisfies
The ear to close the eye," he once
Had heard his teacher say, "It blunts
The beauty of a thing to feel
A rival pleasure make appeal."
But when he saw on Obed's face
The tears, he stopped. "Grampa, in case
You'd like to hear a happier tune
I know one called ‘The Red Raccoon.'
I'm sorry that you're sad. What's wrong?"
"My mother used to play that song."
"You mean great gramma Ruth, grampa?"
"That's right. She was a great gramma
In more ways than you know, young man."
"Grampa, I'd love it, if you can,
To have you tell me all about
Great gramma Ruth. Can you stay out
With me and tell me how she came
To live in Bethlehem? Her name
Still makes the people smile and sing
Down by the barley fields. They ring
A bell at harvest time, and all
The grownups go down every fall
To watch some actors do a play
About great gramma Ruth. But they
Won't let the kids go down. It's got
Some parts that daddy says are not
For kids. Grampa, I am a youth,
But tell me 'bout great gramma Ruth."
"The story starts with God, as all
True stories do. As I recall,
Almost a hundred years ago,
God stopped the rain and broke the flow
Of blessing in the fruitful land
Of Ephratha. By his command
There was a famine from the shores
Of Lebanon south to the doors
Of Hebron and beyond. And none
Could stay his hand, or make undone
The deed of God. He had his aims
And one of these was Ruth. God names
Whom he will have, and moves the earth
To bring them to himself. By birth
She was a Moabite, outside
The Law, and Israel, the bride
Of God, cut off from sacrifice,
And priest, and covenant. No price
Paid to her gods of wood and stone
Could ever cleanse her heart, atone
For sin, or satisfy the just
And holy claims of God. Sheer dust
Upon the scales, all this, to weigh
Against idolatry each day.
And yet God had a plan to bring
Her out of darkness, make her cling
To him and give her royal seed."
"Grampa, what's royal seed?" "A breed
Of children, David, who will be
Like kings. I don't know how. But she
Was sure of it and prophesied. We need
It too. But let's go back. What deed
Delivered her out of the hand
Of Chemosh, brought her to the land
Of Israel, and put her name
In songs and give her godly fame?
It was a famine, David, God
Closed up the clouds and laid his rod
Against the back of Israel."
"But, grampa, how did famine tell
Great gramma Ruth to leave her land
And come to Bethlehem?" "The hand
Of God is very roundabout,
And there is time and room to doubt
At every turn, my son. A man,
Of Bethlehem was in the plan.
His name: Elimelech. He took
His wife Naomi and forsook
The land of God. It was an act
Of unbelief. Naomi packed,
But every movement was a grief.
She knew that God would bring relief,
If they would stay in Israel,
If they would seek his face and dwell
Among the righteous few who cleave
To future grace. ‘But that's naive,'
Elimelech replied, ‘there's grain
In Kedemoth, but only pain
In Bethlehem.' And so they went,
Unknowingly, to judgment sent,
But also on an errand of
Amazing grace and sovereign love."
"You mean grampa, because they'd find
Great gramma Ruth?" "That's right. But mind
You, David, this was all of God.
None saw the wielding of the rod
To save the tail and strike the head.
Within a year Elimelech was dead.
And then the rebel sons, to break
Naomi's heart, began to take
In Moab girls." "What do you mean,
Grampa?" "I mean, young man, that clean
And upright boys will never sleep
With girls until the day they keep
One woman for a wife. Beware,
Young man, no commoners should dare,
Nor even kings, to break this law.
Naomi trembled at the raw
And lustful sins of Chilion.
And Mahlon would carouse till dawn.
‘No more!' she cried. ‘I meant for you
To have two virgin wives. And do
You plan to put me in the grave
Beneath this soil, or in a cave
Cut for a Moabite?' And so
To mock their mother's faith, as though
To grant her wish, they sought
Two virgin Moabites, and bought
Them with the birthright of their dad."
"Wow, grampa, they were really bad."
"But, David, do you know who those
Wives were, whom these blind rebels chose?
One's name was Orpah, here's the truth:
The other was great gramma Ruth."
"But, grampa, that sounds terrible."
"O, no, my lad, incredible
Is what it was. The rescue of
The century: relentless love
Is what it was. The broken saint
Just took them in without complaint,
And from her lips and from her way
They met her God and learned to pray.
And then, one day, as quickly as
Their dad, her sons were dead. It has
The ring of judgment, David. Do
You see? They drowned while swimming through
The Arnon River just to spite
The bragging of a Moabite.
Naomi wept till she could weep
No more, and then she said, ‘I sweep
My place today, tomorrow I
Will leave it clean, and by and by,
God helping me, I'll put my feet
In Bethlehem, and there complete
My years with bitter memories.
Go back and find your families.
I have no sons to offer now,
Nor any man to keep his vow.
The Lord be with you in the house
Where you grew up and may your spouse
Be better than the last.' And so
She kissed Orpah farewell, ‘Now go.'
But when she turned to Ruth, she saw
A different face. As if the Law
Of God, with every promised hope,
And all of its eternal scope
Were written on her very soul
Unrolling like an endless scroll.
And thus she spoke: ‘Entreat me not,
Naomi, to return, or take my lot
Again among the Moabites
With wooden gods and pagan rites.
Turn me not back to these, but let
Me go with you. Whatever threat
Or hope you have, I will embrace.
I have no other dream or place
To live. Where you stay, I will stay,
The path you take will be my way.
And where you die, there I will die,
And bury me beneath the sky
Of Israel. There is a call
Upon my life, Naomi, all
That you've endured these ten long years
Has been for me and you. And tears
Cannot conceal that generations yet
To come through us, will not forget
To praise the bitter providence
Of God that wrought for us immense
And precious mercies in this place
And lavished me with painful grace.
A rod of famine was the price
For me, that opened paradise.
I am Moabite to you,
But more than that: your daughter too.
Come, let us leave this place, I cleave
To you, Naomi. I believe,
Beneath this sweet and bitter rod,
That your great God will be my God."
"Grampa, how did you memorize
All that?" "It came with lullabies
And ballads that she sang to me,
Just like the one you played. Could be,
My good grandson, that you will sing
Like that, and put the truth on wing
With harp and psalm and song. She would
Be pleased. Perhaps, then, if you should,
Your son, when you are gone some day,
Will sing it in a whole new way.
As we light candle one, I pray
That bitter providence today
Tomorrow will taste very sweet,
And every famine that we meet
And every broken staff of bread
In death, will bring us life instead.