Many are especially excited for this Christmas season to finally get underway given the year we have all endured. There is something about the holidays that gives people something to look forward to. This season, for believers and unbelievers alike, acts as a finish line of sorts that many are eager to reach after the marathon of the previous months. It is this theme of journeying to a preferred place/end that I’d like to explore over the next couple of weeks in our Christmas series—“Journey to Bethlehem.” In the Bible, Bethlehem proves to be the epicenter of a lot of activity and a lot of blessing. However, it is getting to Bethlehem that proves to be the issue. What is God willing to do to lead his people where he wants them to be? What are God’s people willing to endure on their way to accomplish God’s will? We will answer these question as we journey to Bethlehem today in Ruth 1 and next week in the New Testament. In Ruth 1 we are going to witness four episodes in the journey to Bethlehem for Naomi and Ruth and learn how God can use even the worst experiences in our lives for his incredible purposes.
I. INTRODUCING TRAGEDY-:1-5
This important book begins with a less than positive assessment of the situation in Israel: “Not it came about in the days when the judges governed that there was a famine in the land…” (1:1a) In this period between Joshua’s death and Saul’s coronation, God-appointed judges to rule his people and yet, each new judge proved worse at the job than the one previous. This failed leadership led to all kinds of problems.
Judges 2:16-18-Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them…”
Judges 17:6-In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.
In verse 1 of Ruth, the great spiritual famine is brilliantly juxtaposed (placed alongside) the literal famine that Judah was experiencing. In fact, the curse of the famine may be a direct result of the lawlessness and spiritual deprivation that was rampant during this time period.
As the author continues to set the scene, he introduces us to a particular places and people—“and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and two sons”(1:1b). The irony is unavoidable when the reader learns that Bethlehem means “house of bread.” The “house of bread” is without food or any seed for growing such for this family. Because of their seedless situation, this man leaves the homeland to the land of Moab (literally, “the fields of Moab”). This distinction is important because it alludes to the sole purpose of their sojourn, survival.
This move was not easy for several reasons. 1. The Moabites originated in the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter (Gen. 19:30-38). 2. The Moabites’ resisted Israelite passage through their territory when they came from Egypt (Num. 22-24). 3. The Moabite women were know to seduce the Israelites (Num. 25:1-9). 4. Israel maintained a constitutional exclusion of Moab from the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:3-6). 5. Moab had recently oppressed Israel under king Eglon (Jud. 3:15-30). Desperate times, however, called for desperate measures.
Next, the author reveals more about this family—“ The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife, Naomi and the names of his two sons were Maholon and Chilion …” (1:2a). Elimelech, “My God is King” is married to Naomi, “to be pleasant,” and they have two sons: Mahalon (“to be sick”) and Chilion (“to eb finished”) (yikes—doesn’t sound like these two were destined for greatness). Each of these names in their own way point to the intensification of the crisis about to strike Naomi.
The entire family is identified ethically as “Ephrathites of Bethehem in Judah” (1:2b). The author is hoping that the audience will invest in these characters as he describes a tightly-knit family of a Dad, Mom and two boys down on their luck. This makes what happens next so much more shocking.
Having escaped the clutches of famine, this family falls into the unrelenting snare of death—“ Then Elimelech, Naomi’s Husband, died; and she was left with her two sons…”(1:3). Here, the proverbial rug is pulled out from beneath this family unit and hope suffers a desperate blow. The narrator adds that Naomi was “left with” her sons (Lit. “to be left over,” or “to remain” which often speaks of bereavement at the death of another). Naomi is now a widow and she and her two sons bury their father in this foreign land (which, according to Amos 7:17, was considered the ultimate punishment).
All is not lost, however. The line and Naomi’s seed may still be saved as her seed (her sons) can go and carry on the family line. This is what they seek to do in verse 4—“they took for themselves Moabite women as wives” (1:4a). The marriage of both sons raises the hopes once again for the reader that line of Elimelech and Naomi may continue.
“the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other, Ruth, and they lived there about ten years…” (1:4b). Although little can be said concerning the names of these women and what they mean, it is no secret that they were Moabite women. These marriages must be understood in light of Moses’ prohibition against marriage with pagans (Deut. 7:3-4). This prohibition should have been reason enough for Naomi to forestall these marriages. Although not ideal and perhaps even forbidden, marriage to these Moabitesses was a desperate effort in order to save what was lost, in much the same way that the journey to Moab was in the first place. Lack of seed brought on by the famine led this family to Moab, and it would be lack of seed necessary for children that would introduce them into these marriages.
In a second round of tragedy and in one climactic blow—“Then, both Maholon and Chilion also died and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband” (1:5a). This left Naomi with no male remnant—neither husband nor children. Things move from bad to infinitely worse as now there appears to be no hope for a restoration of the family line (a restoration of seed in Naomi’s life). Famine and death—what a way to begin a book! What a way to begin a journey! However, what we learn next is that these events, painful though they may be, are the very things that direct Naomi to the place of blessing.
II. VEILED SOVEREIGNTY-1:6-14
The idea of “returning” to the land from whence she came permeates the remainder of the chapter. In fact, the word “return” is repeated 6 times in verses 6-14 (cf. 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12), the first of which is in verse 6--“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab” (1:6a). The author is emphasizing something about the significance of Naomi’s journey back to the land that should not go unnoticed. By returning to her homeland, Naomi reversed the direction she and her husband had taken earlier. The author therefore creates and apt illustration of repentance that can be enjoyed throughout this passage. In fact, the same Hebrew word for “return” is also used for “repent.”
Perhaps the reason for her departure paralleled the reason for her sojourn in the first place—“ for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food” (1:6b). Originally, she and her family had left Judah because there was a lack of seed in the land (a famine). It appears that the seed had been restored in her homeland (the famine in Bethlehem was over) and the timing could not have been more perfect. Naomi’s plight in Moab would have been very grim. With no husband or children or seed possibilities, she would soon die in this foreign land. Although she would still face a difficult time in Judah as a lone widow, her odds of survival would have been better among her people.
Already, God’s hand can be traced as we see it lifting the famine in the homeland at the very time that would have helped Naomi best. Although Naomi is no doubt being led by God back to Judah, she was unaware that this leadership was taking place and her life and perhaps believed that this was her only opportunity for survival. However, already the reader can pick up on the reality that God is moving in Naomi’s favor. This doesn’t make the journey easy, but it does make it deliberate.
“So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the lane of Judah…” (1:7).
While on the way home Naomi, taking nothing for granted, urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their own homes in Moab—“ And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go return each of you to her mother’s house…” (1:8a). It would have been quite a stretch for either of them to remarry in Israel. These two girls may have been in their late teens or early twenties, and Naomi took a motherly interest in seeking what was best for them.
Naomi continues by saying “May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me…” (1:8b). It is obvious from this pronouncement of blessing that Naomi loved these girls and thought that they had proved themselves to be loving wives. The word hesed (loving-kindness), is an important word in the book of Ruth (cf. 2:20; 3:10) and throughout the Old Testament. It speaks of God’s covenant loyalty to His people. Not only did it involve grace that was extended even when it was not deserved, it is often shown to accompany human action. Here, Naomi hopes that this kindness would be extended to these women.
After pronouncing the blessing of God’s grace and love upon them, Naomi continues and asks that God would grant each of them a place of rest with another husband—“ May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept…” (1:9). This becomes a key issue in the book also. Marriage in the ancient world meant security for a woman and Naomi wanted these girls to enjoy the security that a husband could bring once again. After pronouncing these blessings upon them she literally kisses them goodbye and they enjoy a good cry together.
In spite of her advice and the conclusive pronouncement of blessings she gave sealed with a kiss goodbye, these two women, against all expectations , determine to return to Judah with Naomi and appear to give up the possibility of marriage by leaving their home, Moab (“And they said to her, ‘No, but we will surely return with you to your people…’”) (1:10). The resolve of these women to remain with Naomi seems to suggest that Naomi’s sons had picked for themselves excellent wives who demonstrated incredible loyalty to their mother-in-law.
Naomi’s determination to continue back to Judah alone is expressed in her persistent request for the women to leave—“But Naomi said, ‘Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?’” (1:11). Ultimately, Naomi was out of sons, out of seed. This realization would have been enough to discourage any young woman from following their mother-in-law. Usually, when there is no one left to marry, there would be no more interest in the family. In this way, Naomi is telling them that there is nothing left for her to offer them and the one thing she could offer them, she is out of, sons.
Obvious that her first reason proved unsuccessful in discouraging the women before her, Naomi sounds off and introduces the second reason why these two women should go away. Notice that her request grows more emphatic with two commands side-by-side, “Return,my daughers, Go! for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me…” (1:12-13). If the first reason was not enough to deter their interest in Judah (that there was no more seed), Naomi’s second realization would certainly do it! There is no time! Naomi was not about to run to Vegas, have a shotgun wedding, and conceive another child, nurture him to health, wait around until he can marry and then hand him over to one of these girls. Naomi’s prospects were done away with. Although the women must have realized this, the author of the story through Naomi reiterates the lack of seed with this rhetorical question. The answer of which is “of course not!”
Once again, these women lift their voices in agony at the prospect of their plight—“And they lifted up their voices and wept again” (1:14a). The text makes it clear that what these women went through was highly emotional. No more seed. No more time. Faced with these grim realities, what would these women choose to do next?
“and Orpah kissed her mother in Law but Ruth clung to her…” (1:14). Orpah decides to leave and repay Naomi’s kiss goodbye with a kiss goodbye of her own. In contrast to Orpah’s long-anticipated farewell, Ruth clings to Naomi. Rather than shake free of this Moabitess, Ruth attaches herself to Naomi against all odds and in spite of all Naomi has said. Little does she know that in so doing, she would reap the answer to the prayers of blessing Naomi voiced in verses 8 & 9. In the end, God would award her courage and extraordinary action with an extraordinary blessing.
Having listened to the choices given and the conversation that took place, which would you have chosen? It is quite clear that either is justified, and the account of Ruth is the one that the author chooses to follow from this point on. Anyone could have left, but Ruth chose to stay. What is more impressive than Ruth’s actions here is the commitment that she makes later.
III. POWERFUL POETRY-1:15-18
Naomi tries one more time to discourage Ruth from following her in verse 15--“Then she said, ‘Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods;…” (1:15a). In the biblical world, nations tended to be distinguishable on the bases of ethnicity (hence “her people”), territory (hence “land of Moab”), kingship (hence “Eglon, king of Moab” in Judg. 3:12-17), language (Moabite, Hebrew, etc.) and theology. Just as the Israelites were known in the world as people of Yahweh, Naomi associates Orpah’s return to Moab in reference to not only a change in geography but a return to her gods.
Naomi actually suggests to Ruth that she should return with Orpah back to her gods—“return after your sister-in-law” (1:15b). So desperate is she to go it alone in her discouragement that she encourages this woman to return to a land of sin rather than remain with her. Her theological perception at this point seems no more orthodox than those of many characters in the Book of Judges. If Naomi represented the highest level of faith in Israel, it is no wonder God had sent a famine in the first place. Sure, Naomi had repented, but she still had a long journey ahead of her both physically and spiritually.
The first words we hear from Ruth’s lips in response to Naomi are among the most memorable in all of Scripture. Few passages in the Bible match this speech in poetic beauty, and the extraordinary courage and spirituality it expresses. This poem exists in 5 major parts that can be distinguished into 5 couplets.
A- “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you;
B- For where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge
C- Your people shall be my people and your God, my God
B’- Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried
A’- Thus may the lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” (1:16-17).
Just as Naomi’s speeches increase in intensity, so Ruth’s first statement intensifies her joint response to Naomi with Orpah in v.10
Some suggest that such an oath may have been accompanied by a nonverbal gesture, like sliding one hands across one’s neck or in our context pointing our index finger to the temple of our head. With all of this in mind, it is plain that Ruth is making a life-long commitment to her mother-in-law that is unexpected and unparalleled at this point in Israel’s history. She is willing to change everything—her home, her identity, her religion, her allegiance, her life—for a new one with Naomi in Bethlehem.
Ruth’s eloquent declaration of devotion to Naomi leaves the older woman speechless. Although impressed by her skill of communication in the poem itself, the even more beautiful display of her resolve and the determination in her voice were the agents that convinced Naomi to back off and stop her efforts. Soon, the reader will be able to observe first-hand how Ruth makes good on these promises.
IV. MEANINGFUL HOMECOMING-1:19-22
The story picks up again in verse 19 with “so they both went until they came to Bethlehem” (1:19a). Remember, although a familiar territory to Naomi, this was a foreign land for Ruth.
No doubt Naomi’s relatives and family had heard of the grief she had experienced since her husband and sons had left the town and headed for Moab more than a decade ago. One can imagine their excitement when Naomi suddenly shows up unannounced—“ and when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them…” (1:19b). Naomi and Ruth’s entrance caused an uproar in the town consisting of soft-spoken comments and a quiet chorus of speculative townspeople.
Shocked at Naomi’s appearance, the women of the town cannot help but ask each other, “can this be Naomi?” (1:19c). This question brings to light a double-dose of surprise. First, they were surprised to see Naomi as they were not expecting their friend back at this point or at all. Second, there is little doubt that the years of grief and deprivation had surely taken a toll on Naomi’s visage, rendering her almost unrecognizable. This one who had left Bethlehem as the “pleasant one,” a robust woman in her prime, had returned as a haggard and depressed old woman. There is little doubt that although Naomi had changed outwardly, she was welcomed back with open arms by these women who could not believe that their friend had returned. Despite appearances and loneliness, Naomi was home again and that was enough to excite the crowd.
In one stifling outburst, Naomi interrupts the humming crowd with a pointed response, giving public vent to her years of frustration and pain—“She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (1:20a). In the process of getting everyone up to speed she requests that people no longer refer to her as Naomi “pleasant” but Mara “bitter.” In the aftermath of this request, Naomi begins accusing God in four pointed attacks, each with their own indictment.
A- “For the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me
B-I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty
B-…since the LORD has witnessed against me
A-and the Almighty has afflicted me” (1:20)
In her first accusation, Naomi refers to God with the title of Shadday. This term associates itself with a heavenly council that met at the top of a mountain. As overseer of the heavenly council, Shadday commands all the angelic hosts through whom His providential care and disciplinary judgment of humans is exercised. In Naomi’s mind, it is her perception that God had made her a target His arrows of misfortune, hurling them down from high above her.
In two parallel clauses we are given Naomi’s take on what has happened in her life.
“I went out full
Lord brought back empty” (1:21a)
On the one hand, if “fullness” is understood as referring to food and satisfied stomach (physical seed), the first statement “I went out full” is false. Otherwise, why would they have left Israel in the first place? On the other hand, if “fullness” is understood in terms of family and descendents (seed of a different kind), then the statement is true. Indeed she had gone out with potential for many offspring and came back with nothing left to sow. Although, in her mind, she was empty both physically and spiritually, the Lord has now brought her back to food and family.
Naomi continues to accuse the Lord and, in the language, take him to court—“Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?’” (1:21b). Phrases like “the Lord has witnessed against me,” suggest that like Job before her, Naomi believed God had called her to account, found her guilty, and instigated the affliction she experienced in response. For this reason, she once again reminds everyone that “pleasantness” is no longer a suitable name.
The narrator continues with “So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth, the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab,…” (1:22a). There is that word again, “return.” Do not miss the significance that Naomi and Ruth’s return on a physical level has been completed. Underscoring the very real emotional and spiritual journey that we just read through and discussed is the change of locality and geography that has taken place. Notice how much “Moab” is emphasized also. It was a big deal for a Moabite to be seen let alone adopted in Israelite society. To “return from the land of Moab” was unheard of and something that would have shocked the original readers. However, unexpected though this may be, Naomi and Ruth had, after a string of famines and death returned “to Bethlehem a the beginning of barley harvest” (1:22b).
They had returned to the “house of bread” (where seed had returned) and would find food. The harvest was ripe and we look ahead with anticipation as to how these women will be filled. Now that the place is set, the time is right, and the people have assembled, all was prepared for God to dish out His incredible blessings, the blessings we will observe in the rest of this extraordinary book.
It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth and Naomi would find food in the scraps left over after the harvesters. It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth would meet Boaz who would become her husband. It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth and Boaz would have a child and give Naomi a grandchild that would make her the envy of all the women in the town. It would be in Bethlehem that the family line responsible for King David and Jesus, a line which was jeopardized in the death of Naomi’s husband and sons, would move forward. Bethlehem proves to be a place of great blessing in Ruth and Naomi’s life. However, it was tragedy—famine and death—that led them there. As we consider this text and its message against the backdrop of this year and the journey(s) all of us have been on, consider how God’s story is greater and bigger than the difficult episodes we may come across. Yes, even a depletion of resources (famine in the case of this story), relocation, and death, are not wasted by our sovereign God. In the life of Naomi and Ruth, and in our own lives, even these sources of heartache may be exactly what God uses in our lives to bring us where he wants us —to a place of blessing. Trust him in this season and every season for he is in control, he is writing the story, and while this chapter may prove especially difficult, the story is not yet finished.