One of the smallest books in the Bible is the story of Ruth the Moabitess. The book of Ruth is very short, and can be hard to find. It is the eighth book of the Bible. After the books of Moses, come Joshua, Judges, then Ruth. This short and sometimes neglected story has no obvious miracles, no mighty and divine interventions. And yet, it offers us a great deal, as we shall see.
In a nutshell, here is the story:
There is a time of hardship and famine. Naomi, her husband, and their two boys journey to Moab to live. The boys marry Moabitesses Ruth and Orpah. But each husband dies, leaving all three as widows. Naomi decides to return to Israel and asks the daughters to leave her and remarry in Moab. Orpah finally stays in Moab, Ruth pledges Naomi that she will never leave her and that Naomi's God will be her God, too. They return to Bethlehem. But Naomi, rather than rejoicing, tells her friends to call her "Bitter," because the Lord has dealt harshly with her.
After returning, Ruth goes out to glean in the field according to the laws for the poor. A relative, named Boaz takes notice of her. It turns out that he is a redeemer, one who according to Levitical law can marry Ruth to preserve the deceased husband's name. There is another with a stronger right of redemption. That relative refuses to redeem Ruth, but Boaz does redeem her. Ruth and Boaz soon have children, and Naomi gets to take care of the grandchildren. In fact, the boy is named Obed, who fathers Jesse, who fathers David, who will be king of Israel, indeed, ancestor to Jesus.
The story in the book of Ruth progresses across four chapters. We will follow the same order today and in parts to come. And so, let's begin the story with the first five verses.
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband (Ruth 1:1-5 ESV).
Here then is a story from the days of the Judges. It comes after the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus. Moses has been dead for some time, the nation under Joshua did not successfully subdue the land. Things have degenerated. So, these events are located after the great return from Egypt but before the shift to the Hebrew monarchy. The story occurs before the time of Saul and David.
There is a famine. Elimelech takes his wife Naomi. They already have two sons. They go to Moab to live.
The journey from Bethlehem to the plateau of Moab was not far, but remember, the family left because of famine in Judah. The Plateau of Moab stood about 3,000 feet above sea level, and was well watered. Surely it was a hardship for the family to go there. In any case, they made the journey. We are not told how it happened, but Elimelech died. Naomi was left with the two young men, and soon they took wives. Being in Moab, the women were Moabites. Again, we are not told exactly how it happened, but both boys die. Now we have three widows, and no men to protect or provide.
Our age would divide the sexes, focus on unfairness. Men and women are different by design and have different life situations. It is true that much wrong has been done toward women. But the two are complimentary by design. Men are designed to become the best they can be with godly women, and women to achieve their utmost with godly men. The fifth verse says that "the woman was left without her two sons and her husband." In any culture that would be a calamity. Naomi is deprived of all the males in her life, and feels very alone. For Adam when there was no Eve, the world was incomplete. Now these three women, with no man, feel very alone.
Naomi Leaves for Bethlehem
Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!" Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me." Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. And she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." But Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you." And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more (Ruth 21:6-18).
Word comes to Naomi that God has blessed His people with food, and she determines to return to Judah. The little that she can carry is packed for the journey. But Naomi now asks her daughters-in-law to return to their mother's houses. They are widows. Her prayer is that each of the young widows will gain a new husband.
Interesting the way she puts this, isn't it? From Eden humanity is given the original diet, the original male and female roles, the original Sabbath, and the original plan for marriage. Part of God's mission for His church is really is a return to Eden and its perfectly designed, perfectly aligned situation; a turn to the rest He architected. There is rest in this design, but turmoil and chaos when we try to roll our own. Naomi's prayer is that her daughters-in-law will find rest in the house of their husbands. Not their deceased husbands, the house that is on the point of dissolution, but, she is looking to the future, and the hope of new relationships, new households, new children, a starting over again for them.
Naomi is sure that it is too late for her; she can provide them no more husbands. Their life is mostly before them; Naomi feels that hers is mostly past. She feels alone. It is a time of parting.
Naomi pleads with her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, not to come with her to spend the last of their youthful years supporting her. She releases them to return, stay in Moab and start new lives. After much pleading by Naomi, Orpah finally kisses her in parting and returns to Moab. Not so Ruth. Ruth insists on staying with Naomi.
Consider the exchange. Some features might trouble us.
After Orpah leaves, Naomi pleads again with Ruth to go back also. "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." Naomi asks Ruth to follow the example of her sister. She has gone back to what? Back to her people, and back to her gods.
"Back to her people" means to return to the Moabites. The Moabites worship a god called Chemosh. This "god" occasionally required child sacrifices to appease him (2 Kings 3:27). How could Naomi suggest these two impressionable young women leave Yahweh to return to the worship of a false god? More than this, there is a churning undertone in Naomi's thoughts. She says that the hand of the Lord has gone out against her. But why? She does not know. We'll see in a moment that she feels this is unfair, that she has done nothing. God is against her--but all unjustly.
But God works through people. He works through human relationships. Ruth was born a Moabite, she was raised, doubtless taught all the tenets of Chemoshian religian. She came of age surrounded by Moabite people. She was one. But into her life came Naomi and Naomi's sons and Ruth became wife to Naomi's son. She saw Naomi interacting with her sons, sons possibly who had not for long been without their father Elimelech. Ruth saw Naomi interact with them. She saw how Naomi treated them. How Naomi treated her. Then, she would have seen how Naomi behaved when her sons died.
How long did all of this take? We do not know, but the absense of small children from these two marriages suggests they may not have been married long before the death of Naomi's two sons. In short then, Ruth has seen Naomi working through the toughest times in her life. She has lived with her through those times. She has experienced Naomi's character up close.
This is what has made the great difference for Ruth. She has lived in close proximity to a follower of Yahweh. She has seen in Naomi and in the faith upoheld in her home something different than the result of the belief of her own people in Chemosh. She has been impressed--very much so. She wants to live what she has seen lived. Yes, Naomi is human; even her witness is not always all that it could be. But so much of the time it has been all that it can be, that, Ruth says, I want to become one of those. I want to become what God has made of Naomi!
So, she proclaims to Naomi her oath of loyalty. She changes Gods. She changes peoples. Hear her oath:
Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.
Ruth will stick to Naomi like glue. She'll be with her everywhere. She will not return to Chemosh; she will serve Yahweh. In fact, in verse 17 she uses the covenant name--Yahweh--in her oath. She takes Naomi's God for her God, in so doing, breaking with whatever remained from her Moabite past. She had been married to a young believer in Yahweh, and had seen the character of Naomi who became a mother to her, another follower of Yahweh. Now she too would be such a follower. She speaks her oath, and Naomi relents. And accepts. Ruth will come with her to Israel.
What makes Ruth a true Israelite? She behaves like one. She has received mercy, and now she shows mercy. Any and all human persons can become livers of mercy, God-followers, Israelites, Yahwehites. Even an idolater like Ruth raised in the surrounding of false gods can become a worshipper of the true.
Arrival in Bethlehem
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, "Is this Naomi?" She said to them, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?" So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest (Ruth 1:19-22).
When they arrive at Bethlehem, there is rejoicing. Naomi is remembered! Naomi's name in Hebrew means "pleasant." But to their surprise, Naomi cuts loose with a serious rejection. Don't call her Naomi, she says, but call her Marah, "bitter." Why? "For the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?"
Naomi, who has kept it together through thick and mostly through thin, seems now to loose it. She calls out God for treating her unfairly. She seems to be telling everyone, God has treated me this way and I don't know why. And it isn't fair. And there is nothing I can do. But it doesn't seem right. She has been responding to tragedies one by one and it kept building until here it falls in accusation against God. All this, from the hand of Yahweh!
Naomi here stands in the role of a female Job. All these things have happened to her and she does not know why. Her family has been taken away, she is all alone, her children are dead, and it isn't fair. She's not guilty. God is unfair.
So here is this great controversy situation. A follower of God is seen here worn out. She has just finished an exhausting journey and feels old, used up, wiped out, empty. She feels abandoned.
Now the reaction of God. Thunder, lightning flashes, divine wrath, hail raining down, and Naomi goes up in a slight puff of smoke. But no. Not only does God tolerate her complaint; could it be that in some situations, a complaint like Naomi's is the right thing? Remember, this world is temporary, marred by sin, a battle-zone, a demonstration ground for righteousness and for sin. God does not intervene every time every moment to save us from learning how bad rebellion is and how broken the world. If you take God seriously, how can you not be indignant when bad things happen to good people who have not caused them?
Naomi has been dwelling on this for so long that she is growing bitter. We would not diminish her losses. What would it be to experience what she has experienced? We have not been there and walked in her shoes. But it is still true that Naomi is missing something. She is not empty. Right here, right with her, apparently unnoticed, is extraordinary blessing. Standing quietly beside Naomi is Ruth through whom great blessing will soon be coming. But that will have to wait to further on in this series.
We conclude pointing out God stands ready to receive any and all. He will gladly take you in and receive you as one of His followers. He will enter into covenant with you. You may have grown up surrounded by the darkest most ridiculous of influences, and God will take you as you are and grow you. Ruth did not become a follower of God overnight. It took time. She had to see what it looked like in the flesh of real people. Propositions and doctrines are important but we are all living out the Christian story, and doing well with it or not so well. We are sending signals. Naomi was sending signals. Ruth was receiving.
The other lesson here is that when your life explodes or implodes, yes, sometimes it has a great deal to do with what you have done. But other times it has more to do with being in the wrong place--planet earth--during the reign of sin and its destructions. It is OK to shout at God and ask Him why these things are happening to you. He may not immediately answer. You might not even at any time in your life here on earth be given clarity about the whole answer. And in the day of despair you might not be easily remember this, but this moment is only a snapshot; it is not the whole story. God isn't looking for opportunity to zap you for asking questions.
But we can also learn that whether we are given the answer now or not, He actually is the kind of non-Chemosh God that we can trust. Because, in contrast to Chemosh and the sacrifice of one's own sons and daughters, the God of heaven and earth whom we serve gave His Son Jesus a sacrifice for us, to redeem us, to buy us back from bondage to a damaged world, and make a path for us to return to Him. So, this is just part one. Next week, something special begins to happen, when Ruth meets Boaz.
Bonners Ferry ID SDA 2013-07-06