Yesterday we began a series on Ruth, and made a list of all the things that weren’t “right” in the first five verses. (You really need to read yesterday’s notes for today to make sense.) What did you come up with?1:1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. 3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
Right from the beginning, we see that it was in the days of the judges – which, as we learned from the very final verse of Judges, meant that there was no king and everyone did as they saw fit. Already off to a bad start.
The next clue is the famine: in Deuteronomy, drought and scarcity of food is one of the punishments prescribed for following the gods of the nations around (like Moab).
Elimelek (whose name means, ironically, “God is king”) takes his family from Bethlehem, in the land of Israel, to live in Moab – which is not in Israel. To a land which doesn’t recognise God as king. Remember that while they were in the wilderness, Israel was told not to settle in Moab, but to go to the land God promised them?
Elimelek died, leaving Naomi a widow, with her two sons to look after her. But they married Moabite women – and you may remember reading something about not marrying Moabites! (The children of such a marriage would be unable to enter the tabernacle for several generations.) This was to protect Israel from the influence of foreign gods.
Finally, Naomi’s sons died. And from what comes next, we see that they don’t have any children – after ten years of marriage. In this culture, it means they were unable to conceive. Which, if you remember from Deuteronomy, was another consequence of idolatry.
It’s like Naomi’s family is mirroring Israel: not trusting God to provide, but running off to foreign gods and nations, and intermarrying with foreigners who worship other gods. And, like Israel, they’re suffering the consequences: famine and childlessness. These are the two obstacles at the heart of this story. (As well as this, there’s no king in Israel. Remember this for later. Much later.)
So what does Naomi do? She heads back home, in some ways like a prodigal returning to God’s providence in the promised land:1:6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there.
However, early on in the journey, Naomi tries to send her daughters-in-law away, for their own good:1:7-9a With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. 8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
In the ancient world, it was financial disaster for a woman not to have a man to provide for her: either a husband, father, or other close relative. While Naomi is heading back to her home town, probably in hope that relatives may provide, Orpah and Ruth are young enough to return to their homes and marry again.1:9b-10 Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
But Naomi again insists they’d be better off back with their families:1:11-13 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!”
The last comment is telling: Naomi interprets her misfortune as God being against her (just as he has against Israel, for her sin). Orpah takes Naomi’s sensible advice, but Ruth, surprisingly, refuses:1:14-17 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
Despite Naomi’s rather pessimistic view of how God is at work in her life, Ruth expresses allegiance to Naomi, to Naomi’s people, and (most importantly) to Naomi’s God. She becomes part of Israel, despite being a foreigner. (And, to spoil the punchline, part of the genealogy of Jesus: see Matt 1:5.)
This story is one of the rare instances where Israel did her job as a blessing to all nations. If you remember from Genesis 12:1-3, God chose Abram not just to be the recipient of blessing from God, but to be the means by which blessing would come to all peoples. His life – and the people who would descend from him – was to be an advertisement for what it’s like to have God on your side; to live life according to the maker’s instructions. People were supposed to be attracted to God through his people, and want to join them. It worked, on a small scale, in the life of Rahab (Joshua 2). And here in the life of a Moabite woman named Ruth. (Rahab figures in this story in another way, too. Keep your eye out in future chapters.)
Despite Naomi and her family’s not being where God intended – in the land he gave to them – he’s still at work bringing people to himself. Despite the famine and lack of children, Naomi’s still being given the hope of a family. And despite the fact that Naomi thinks God’s hand is against her, already he’s working for her to restore things. Just like he is in the wider picture, in the nation of Israel.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because at this point in the story, Naomi isn’t ready to see this. She’s still bitter (mara) and empty:18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. 19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” 22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
Even here, in the depths of Naomi’s self-pity, there’s a glimmer of hope. She’s come back empty – no children, no food. But she has a daughter-in-law. That’s a source of hope. And she’s back in her home town at the start of the harvest. That, too, is a signal of hope. And in the rest of the story, these two themes are intertwined.
To think about
Are there times in the past it has seemed that God’s hand was against you? How do you view those times now, with hindsight?
How have you seen God at work to produce good even in the midst of your bad choices and rebellion? Was that “good” he was working for you? Or for someone else?
Think about the other times in Scripture God has used the bad choices of his people to produce good: Joseph’s treatment at the hands of his brothers led to his family’s being protected from famine (Gen 50:20). Israel’s rebellion and subsequent exile led to their being freed from idolatry to Canaanite gods. Oh, and there’s the crucifixion of his Son which led to… well, you know the story.