For almost a year now, I have been working my way through the Book of Ruth. Yes, I know it is a short biblical book. Only four chapters long. But there is a method to my madness, one that I could explain, but that’s not the point right now.
This morning I am studying Ruth 4:16: “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.” A dozen commentaries lie open or stacked on my dining room table. Recording almost that many arguments about whether Naomi, an old woman, the mother-in-law of the baby’s mother, might really have been a wet nurse to this tiny child.
I’m not quite finished reading all the commentaries. Right now, I’m leaning toward the “Not Very Likely” camp. But as I work, we in the United States are being urged to self-quarantine and embrace the practice of social distancing. So here I sit, alone at my dining room table, working, stopping while my one son drops off a dozen eggs and couple of boxes of facial tissues, and listening for the “FaceTime” chime telling me my other son and his children are checking in on me. “They miss their Nana,” he texted me a while ago.
This is a pandemic and the logic behind self-quarantining and social distancing makes sense to me. And I am doing my best to do both. But I’ve known for days now how hard this will prove to be: on people who struggle emotionally to be on their own, who are endangered or hungry when they are “home,” who already were lonely and isolated before the virus struck. And so, some of the points made this week by David Brooks were already haunting me before I sat down to read his column. He’s done his homework on pandemics and the toll, not only in terms of the lives lost, but on the people who lived through them. I highly recommend that anyone reading this read his column.
Meanwhile, I’m taking a few minutes to recommend that and write this because of something I read just now in my work on Ruth. Before Naomi takes her grandson into her arms, the women of the town remind her that, despite the deaths of her husband and her two sons, Naomi is no longer “empty.” The women bless God for providing Naomi with a nearer redeemer, not the boy’s father, Boaz, but the child himself. “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age,” the women say.
One of the scholars from the “Not Very Likely” camp has concluded that a tiny child can redeem an old woman without her being his wet nurse. She cites some biblical verses but rests her case on the two phrases the women also use: “a restorer of life” and “a nourisher of . . . old age.” Elsewhere in the Bible, “a restorer of life” saves one from death and feeds someone who is starving. And a “nourisher” feeds those who are hungry, revives their courage in stressful times and redeems a troubled soul.
I am not as eloquent as the women of Bethlehem or the writer of the Book of Ruth, but they express what I feel whenever I gather up a grandchild and hold him or her close to my chest: All of us are too old to nurse, but they restore and redeem me whenever I hold them. And now the prospect of not holding them for a while brings tears to my eyes. I think the women of Bethlehem were right, the redemption and restoration of Naomi doesn’t mean she could nurse her newborn grandson. And I think David Brooks is right to warn us of the clear and present danger we face in this pandemic (and it’s not just a virus). And I hope I am right about children redeeming their grandparents -- even from a social distance.