It seems that everyone loves a story with a happy ending. But when that story reflects a God-inspired Biblical drama featuring the underlying themes of loss and redemption, you have the kind of timeless message that resonates across the generations and speaks to our culture today. Such is the case with the book of Ruth, the eight book of the Bible.
Unlike some other Biblical books, we are not entirely certain about the authorship of this volume. Ancient Jewish tradition tells us that the prophet Samuel served as the author of Ruth and while this is possible, it seems unlikely for two reasons.
First, a genealogy found near the end of Ruth suggests that it was placed into written form long after the time period mentioned at the beginning of this book. Next, Ruth 4:7 makes reference to a specific kind of legal practice and refers to it as a “custom in former times,” a statement that presumes that Ruth’s original audience had to be enlightened regarding that practice since it had become archaic by that time.
Because of this, its likely that the book of Ruth had its beginnings as an oral account of actual events that was passed along from generation to generation until it finally reached its ultimate written form around the time of King Solomon in the tenth century B.C.
In light of its nature as a historical narrative, the book of Ruth can be read and understood on a number of different levels. For example, the book of Ruth depicts the common human experience shared by every generation through its portrayal of emotional pain and the struggle for survival along with the virtues of faith and commitment. It provides a rich historical insight into the various cultural practices of that time and provides the attentive reader with a handy catalog of mistakes to avoid in dealing with the issues and difficulties of life.
In addition, this short, four chapter book demonstrates that virtually anyone can find a place of significance within the sovereign plan of God, even those who may have once been considered as “outsiders.” It serves to reveal God’s providential care on an individual level as He executes a specific, long-range plan through circumstances that initially seemed hopeless. The book of Ruth also serves as a prophetically significant book as it reveals Ruth to be a key figure in the lineage of King David and ultimately, Jesus Himself.
Finally (and most importantly), this book serves as a picture of Jesus’ redemption of humanity and His role as our ultimate agent of salvation.
The book of Ruth begins by establishing the time period for the events that follow in the very first verse of the book…
“Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1).
So there are no long preambles or extensive introductory comments to begin the book of Ruth. Instead, the book begins with a time-stamp that helps establish a point of reference for ancient and modern readers alike: “In the days when the judges ruled…” (ESV).
This brief introduction identified a dark and difficult period that is chronicled within the Biblical book of Judges. It marks an era of moral and ethical anarchy that began around 1400 B.C. and lasted for several hundred years; a period where the people of Israel repeatedly fell into an attitude of moral indifference, spiritual apathy, and/or idolatry.
It was during this time that people of Israel continually and repeatedly turned away from God- that is, until God focused their attention on their spiritual dereliction by way of a natural calamity (such as the famine that we read of here in Ruth 1:1) or through the attack of a foreign oppressor. Once the people realized their mistake in abandoning the God who had so graciously provided for them, they subsequently began to seek His intervention on their behalf once more.
Again and again during this period, God responded to the pleas of His people by raising up a judge to serve as a deliverer from the hardships that had been inflicted upon them by their own design. Some of the more prominent and well-known personalities among these judges included Gideon (Judges 6-8), Deborah (Judges 4-5), and Samson (Judges 13-16). Once each individual judge achieved success in securing Israel’s deliverance, the people generally responded by following God during the remaining lifetime of that particular individual.
Unfortunately, once the danger had passed and prosperity resumed, the people returned to their spiritual indifference once again and the cycle began anew. This attitude ultimately led to the observation found within the final verse of the book of Judges, a passage that serves as one of the most regrettable commentaries in all Scripture: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
It is this verse that sets the stage for the account that immediately follows the book of Judges in our modern Bibles: the book of Ruth.
“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” (Ruth 1:1 ESV).
While every hardship, problem, or difficultly encountered in life may not have a spiritually related cause, the situation that we read of here in the opening verse of Ruth certainly did.
You see, a “famine” refers to an extended depletion in the supply of food and/or water and the fact that the people of the Bethlehem area were suffering through such conditions was no mere coincidence. You see, God had earlier warned that the existence of a famine (much like the one that had gripped the area of Bethlehem during that time) could be tied to a specific cause.
The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy provides us with a list of the physical, political, material, and financial blessings that God would graciously provide for those who chose to adhere to the terms of the Old Covenant (see Deuteronomy chapter 28). However, there was a second aspect to this Covenant for Deuteronomy chapter 28 also lists the punishments that would come upon the people if they ever chose to abandon the God who had brought them into the land.
This second list essentially served as a mirror image of the blessings listed earlier in that portion of Scripture and two verses within that chapter specifically tell us this…
“The heavens above you will be as unyielding as bronze, and the earth beneath will be as iron. The land will become as dry as dust for lack of rain, and dust storms shall destroy you” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24 TLB).
When we consider the fact that the period of the judges represented a continual cycle of moral and spiritual decline followed by repentance and restoration, its reasonable to assume that the book of Ruth begins during a period when God was seeking to direct the people’s attention to their spiritual condition by way of a famine. Since God had specifically promised to provide abundantly if the nation chose to follow Him, the fact that a famine existed served to indicate that something was spiritually wrong.
While the hardships and problems of life may not always be spiritually related (as was presumably the case here in the book of Ruth), its still wise to seek God for the cause and appropriate response to those difficulties we experience (see Philippians 4:6-7).
However, we’re about to find that the family mentioned here in the opening verse of Ruth had a different, shorter-term solution in mind.
“In the days when the judges were ruling, there was a famine in the land. A man from Bethlehem in Judah went with his wife and two sons to live for a while in the country of Moab” (Ruth 1:1 GW).
One of the hidden ironies behind the opening verse of Ruth can be found in the fact that this account originates in the town of Bethlehem. Since Bethlehem literally means “house of bread,” the fact that a famine had afflicted such an area was highly ironic.
So in response to these conditions, the family mentioned here in Ruth 1:1 decided to temporarily relocate to the land of Moab, an area located approximately fifty miles (80 km) east of Bethlehem on the opposite side of the Dead Sea.
The nation of Moab originally began when two angelic messengers instructed Abraham’s nephew Lot to take his family and leave the area of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to it’s destruction (see Genesis 18:16-19:28). Following their departure, Lot and the remaining members of his family found their way to a mountainous region where they eventually found refuge by living in a cave.
Some time later, the Scriptures reveal how Lot’s daughters decided to act upon the moral values they had acquired while living in Sodom…
“Now the firstborn said to the younger, ‘Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to come in to us as is the custom of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.’ So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose” (Genesis 19:31-33).
Genesis 19:37 then goes on to tell us, “The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites to this day.” (1)
The antagonism between Moab and Israel later grew to such an extent that Deuteronomy 23:3-4 tells us, “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you” (NIV).
Because of this, we might question this family’s decision to relocate to Moab, even on a temporary basis. However, there were some other factors to consider as well- and we’ll look at those considerations next.
(1) Genesis 19:34-38 tells us that Lot’s younger daughter went on to follow her older sister’s example and thus became the progenitor of the Ammonites, another people group with a long-standing history of antagonism towards the nation of Israel.
“During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab” (Ruth 1:1 CEB).
While the language behind this decision to relocate to Moab indicates that this family intended to remain within that region for a limited time (perhaps just long enough to wait out the famine and then return home to Bethlehem), a move to the nation of Moab also meant moving to a place with a long and extensive history of hostility towards the people of Israel.
For instance, the Old Testament book of Numbers relates the account of a Moabite king named Balak, a man who once tried to enlist the aid of a magician/prophet named Balaam to curse the people of Israel (see Numbers 22-24). Another leader of Moab later went on to form a confederation with two other ancient enemies of Israel known as the Ammonites and the Amalekites and subsequently forced the people of Israel to serve the Moabites for a period of eighteen years (see Judges 3:12-14). Later on, Israel’s King Saul fought against Moab and a number of other hostile nations, a collection that the Scriptures simply identified as “enemies” in 1 Samuel 14:47.
In addition to these military hostilities, there was the matter of the moral and spiritual practices associated with the people of Moab as well. For example, the Scriptures tell us that the women of Moab had enticed the men of Israel to commit both idolatry and sexual immorality on at least one ocassion (see Numbers 25:1-9).
Then there was the issue of Moab’s religious practices. Moab’s leading religious deity was known as Chemosh, a “god” that 1 Kings 11:37 identifies as “…the abomination of Moab.” One reference found in 2 Kings 3:26-27 suggests that human sacrifices were offered to this pagan deity.
Taken together, these cultural, civil, and spiritual realities seem to indicate that Moab was not a good place for a family that truly sought to honor God. Nevertheless, it also appears that Moab represented the only area that offered an opportunity for this small family to survive. When faced with such a choice, its difficult to categorically state that this decision to relocate to Moab was wrong.
Instead, a far more significant issue has to do with the fact that a critical element appears to have been missing from this decision to relocate to Moab- and we’ll examine that element next.
“During the time of the judges, there was a famine in the land. A man left Bethlehem in Judah with his wife and two sons to live in the land of Moab for a while” (Ruth 1:1 HCSB).
The spiritual, cultural, and civil attitudes that were present within the nation of Moab tell us that it was not likely to be an accommodating place for a family that truly sought to honor God. Nevertheless, its difficult to say that this decision to temporarily relocate to Moab was absolutely wrong. After all, God had earlier instructed the Old Testament patriarch Jacob to relocate from the Promised Land to the idolatrous nation of Egypt (see Genesis 46:2-3). Centuries later, Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus received similar instructions as well (Matthew 2:13-14).
Even so, there is one critical factor that is conspicuous by it’s absence in this family’s decision to relocate to Moab. You see, the problem with this decision may not be related so much to the fact that this family decided to leave for the pagan and idolatrous region of Moab but to the fact that there is no mention that anyone ever prayed or sought God’s direction as to where they should go or what they should do in response to the famine that had affected the Bethlehem area.
The decision to leave Bethlehem and temporarily relocate to Moab may have been the wise, prudent, sensible, and God-honoring thing to do in light of the situation at hand. However, it also may have represented an attempt to run away from a serious problem and escape the correction that God had brought to the people of that area. In light of these variables, it would have been far wiser for the members of this family to seek God for His direction in responding to this situation rather than make a decision solely on their personal assessment of these conditions alone.
As we’ll see, God will eventually bring something good from this decision. Nevertheless, this passage reminds us that it is unwise to rely solely upon our limited knowledge of a situation without seeking God’s help, direction, or input. A decision to pray and seek God’s direction in the decisions of life will help put us in the best position to deal with the issues and events we encounter.
As the Scriptures remind us in the New Testament book of James, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
“The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion — Ephrathites of Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to the country of Moab and remained there” (Ruth 1:2).
After establishing the time period and conditions that frame the events to follow, Ruth 1:2 introduces us to the members of the family mentioned in the opening verse. While each family member will have a part to play in this drama, three of the four will have little more than an indirect effect on the events to come.
The patriarch of this little family was a man named Elimilech, a name that means “God is king.” He was accompanied by his wife named Naomi (whose name means pleasant or lovely) and their sons Mahlon and Chilion, both of whom appear to be pre-teens at this time. Unfortunately for the members of this small family, some bad news was about to arrive in the form of an untimely death…
“Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons” (Ruth 1:3).
The conditions faced by Naomi following the death of her husband were far different from the challenges faced by a typical single parent family today. For instance, there were no life insurance, pension, or other assistance plans available during that time. If a woman in Naomi’s position had no other family members available to support her, the loss of a husband generally meant the complete loss of financial income and the prospect of living in poverty for the rest of her life.
But Naomi still had her sons to rely on- and in the course of time, she gained two daughters-in-law as well…
“Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years” (Ruth 1:4).
There is considerable debate among commentators regarding the marriages mentioned here. The dispute centers around the question of whether it was right for Naomi’s sons to enter into marriage relationships with these women from Moab. You see, a person who entered a marital relationship with someone from Moab entered into a relationship with someone who likely had little knowledge or interest in the God of the Scriptures. It also meant intermarrying with the society that helped shape and influence his or her worldview.
For someone who had grown up in the culture of Moab, that was a reality that was likely to cause problems for anyone who truly wished to honor God.
“Each son married a woman from Moab. One son married a woman named Orpah, and the other son married a woman named Ruth. They lived there for about ten years” (Ruth 1:4 GW).
One question regarding this verse involves the wisdom of these marital choices. While the Old Testament law did not specifically prohibit marital relationships between the Israelites and Moabites, this did not necessarily mean that such relationships were a good idea. As we’re reminded in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘All things are lawful for me,'” but not all things are helpful” (ESV).
Although Ruth will ultimately go on to make a commitment to the God of the Scriptures, its unclear if she had done so at the time of her marriage to Naomi’s son. As for Orpah, we’ll later find that she eventually returned to the people of Moab and their gods. For this reason, its difficult to fully endorse these marital choices. Instead, we might look to the experience of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac to find a better example.
When Abraham sought to find a marriage partner for his son Isaac, the Scriptures tell us that he called for his chief servant and said, “I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living” (Genesis 24:3 NIV).
A look at Abraham’s overall experience with the residents of Canaan suggests that the spiritual beliefs of his neighbors fell into two basic categories. The first category consisted of those who chose to live as if God did not exist. The second category was made up of those who accepted the idea of a “higher power” but preferred to exchange a relationship with the one true God for an alternative spiritual belief. Of course, this situation was not unique to Abraham’s time because there are many who fall into one of these categories today.
Through his close relationship with God, it appears that Abraham was clearly aware of an important principle for those who seek to honor God in their interpersonal relationships: do not get involved in dating or marriage relationships with people who are not serious about following the God of the Scriptures.
Now admittedly, this idea may sound unnecessarily restrictive. After all, there are many non-Christian people who are honorable, ethical, and moral- the very same qualities that anyone might seek in a potential marriage partner. So why choose to disqualify a person with these attributes based on his or her spiritual beliefs alone? Well, we’ll consider the answer to that question next.
“And they took two women of Moab as their wives: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth; and they went on living there for about ten years” (Ruth 1:4 BBE).
Why would someone choose to disqualify a potential marriage partner simply based on his or her spiritual beliefs alone? Well, one reason involves the fact that Christian/non-Christian relationships involve two people who are going in different directions.
You see, its important to keep in mind that a Christian’s ultimate priority involves following Christ. When a Christian chooses to get involved in a relationship with a person whose preference reflects something else, it means that both partners will have alternate priorities- and it’s difficult for a couple to stay together when two sides are pulling in different directions.
The Scriptures talk about this idea in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy says this…
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you… You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:1, 2-4 NLT).
The New Testament book of 2 Corinthians also goes on to tell us…
“Stop forming inappropriate relationships with unbelievers. Can right and wrong be partners? Can light have anything in common with darkness? Can Christ agree with the devil? Can a believer share life with an unbeliever? Can God’s temple contain false gods?
Clearly, we are the temple of the living God. As God said, ‘I will live and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ The Lord says, ‘Get away from unbelievers. Separate yourselves from them. Have nothing to do with anything unclean. Then I will welcome you.’ The Lord Almighty says, ‘I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters'” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17 GW).
As mentioned earlier, Abraham’s example tells us that he wanted his son to have a wife who honored God- and his determination to find the right marriage partner for his son provides us with a good example to follow today. Just as Abraham sought to identify a marriage partner for his son from among the members of his extended family (see Genesis 24), so we should also look to our own spiritual family (those who are equally serious about following Jesus) in our dating and marriage relationships as well.
Although her husband had passed away some time earlier, Naomi surely found some comfort in the fact that her sons remained with her. Unfortunately for Naomi (and her daughters-in-law), that situation was about to change…
“Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband” (Ruth 1:5).
Since Mahlon’s name means “sick” and Chilion’s name means “pining” or “wasting away,” perhaps its not surprising to read that each of these men suffered untimely deaths. Unfortunately, the passing of Mahlon and Chilion meant that there were now three widowed family members living in Moab. One of these widows was an alien resident (Naomi) and each was childless.
If Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah were facing this situation today, they might have had the option of finding employment and the ability to provide for their needs. Unfortunately, there were few such options available to a woman in their position during that time. For Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah, the future must have seemed very bleak indeed- but then, a glimmer of hope appeared in the form of some good news from back home…
“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had visited His people by giving them bread” (Ruth 1:6).
Its interesting to note the location where Naomi came upon this news. You see, the phrase “country of Moab” can also be rendered as “fields of Moab” and is rendered as such in a number of different Biblical translations. So what was Naomi doing in the fields of Moab during that time? Well, if a widow like Naomi was working in the cultivated fields of that region, it probably means that she was gleaning for food to eat.
“Gleaning” was a task that was generally performed by the poor and destitute in the Biblical era. It referred to the act of following a group of field workers as they reaped (or harvested) a field of grain or other produce in order to collect anything that was left over. The Old Testament Law required laborers to leave a portion of each field unharvested and to refrain from making a second pass over a previously harvested field in order to provide the poor with an opportunity to reap that field’s production for their needs (see Leviticus 19:9-10).
Unfortunately for Naomi and her daughters-in-law, the Moabites were under no obligation to observe such restrictions. This reality helped make the life of a poor, childless widow in that area all the more difficult.
“Therefore she went out from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return each to her mother’s house. 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 in the house of her husband’ (Ruth 1:7-9).
So having heard that God was at work in the area she departed some ten years earlier, Naomi decided to return home. In addition to the fact that God had graciously provided for the needs of His people back in Judea, Naomi was surely reminded of the protections afforded to widows there; protections contained within the Old Testament Law that were not available in Moab or virtually anywhere else.
For example, one portion of the Old Testament Law tells us this…
“When you are gathering your harvest in the field and leave behind a bundle of grain, don’t go back and get it. Leave it there for foreigners, orphans, and widows so that the Lord your God can bless everything you do. When you beat your olive trees to knock the olives off, don’t beat the trees a second time. Leave what is left for foreigners, orphans, and widows.
When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, don’t pick the vines a second time. Leave what is left for foreigners, orphans, and widows. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I am commanding you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22 NCV).
These realities likely made the decision to move back home much easier for Naomi. Nevertheless, we might ask why Naomi departed from Moab with Ruth and Orpah only to attempt to talk them out of going with her once their journey began. Well, one commentator makes an observation that can help us make better sense of this seemingly unusual response…
“The three widows went together on the way back to Judah, but at this point in the narrative, the matter of their going all the way to Bethlehem had not been decided. The widowed wives of her two sons, at this point, were merely extending the ancient oriental courtesy of going part of the way as an escort for their mother-in-law, a custom which ordinarily would have ended at the border of Moab.” (1)
However, there are some other possible explanations for this response as well- and we’ll look at those possibilities next.
(1) James Burton Coffman Coffman’s Commentary on Ruth http://www.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?bk=ru&ch=1
“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” (Ruth 1:7-9 ESV).
Naomi’s attempt to talk her daughters-in-law out of traveling with her to a place where they could receive God’s provision may be related to the kind of reception that she might have received if she were to return to Israel with Ruth and Orpah.
You see, Naomi was sure to face some uncomfortable questions from among her friends as to why she had allowed her sons to marry two women from Moab; women who were foreigners to the community of Israel. This type of question was sure to present a difficulty for Naomi and might have been easier for her to deal with if she simply returned by herself.
On the other hand, Naomi may have feared the possibility that her beloved daughters-in-law might face an attitude of prejudice and rejection as foreign residents in Israel, even though the Law of God commanded the Israelites to treat such people fairly (see Deuteronomy 24:17-18). If this was the case, Naomi may have initiated this dialog in order to encourage Ruth and Orpah to consider what the decision to return with her might cost.
After all, it certainly made better sense for Ruth and Orpah to stay within the region of Moab from a practical standpoint. For instance, Moab was a familiar place with a familiar culture and familiar people. There would be no need to journey over a long and potentially dangerous route. Moab also provided a better opportunity for Ruth and Orpah to begin again in a new marriage relationship.
But while it may have been easier for Ruth and Orpah to remain in Moab, Moab was not the place where God was providing for His people- that was something they could only find by returning with Naomi to Judah.
So in effect, Naomi’s response would serve to uncover the basis for their decision to go with her. By releasing Ruth and Orpah from any obligation to demonstrate loyalty to her, their only remaining motivation for returning would be a genuine, personal desire to go with her to a place where God was at work.
“But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.’ Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept” (Ruth 1:8-9 NLT).
Despite spending a decade within the nation of Moab, it appears that Naomi had not allowed the spiritual practices of her neighbors to influence her trust and belief in the God of Israel. In expressing her heartfelt desire for Ruth and Orpah’s future success and prosperity, Naomi might have invoked the name of Chemosh (the so-called god of the Moabites) or some other regional deity. Instead, she expressed her hope for Ruth and Orpah in the name of the Lord, the eternal, self-existent God of Israel.
While it may be unusual to hear someone invoke the name of a pagan deity like Chemosh today, its not uncommon to hear people offer similar appeals in the name of such 21st century equivalents as luck, fortune, or chance.
For instance, we might wish someone “good luck” before he or she undertakes an important endeavor. Others may carry a special item that supposedly has the power to offer protection from harm. Then there are those who seek to avoid contact with things that are said to bring “bad luck” or seek out other items that are thought to be associated with good fortune.
But let’s consider the example of a person who carries an object that he or she believes will bring “good luck.” Instead of placing his or her faith in the God of the Scriptures, such a person is actually placing faith in an object that supposedly has the ability to bring success or favor . The problem is that this attitude demonstrates the subtle belief that God is really not in control of our lives- or at least that He is not powerful enough to overcome those things that might bring us “bad luck.”
A person who lacks a relationship with God through Christ may sometimes feel a need to rely on an object with the supposed ability to offer protection, success, or favor. In the Biblical period during which the book of Ruth took place, this often meant placing faith in an object made of wood, stone or metal that was crafted to represent a man-made deity. People often placed their trust in such objects to bring prosperity instead of the one true God who could actually do so.
Naomi didn’t fall prey to such thinking and we would be wise to emulate her example today.
“‘May the Lord enable each of you to find security in the home of a new husband!’ Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept loudly (Ruth 1:9 NET).
It’s clear that Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah shared a sincere, genuine love for one another as expressed by their deep emotional reaction to the prospect of being separated. But while Naomi appropriately invoked her desire for Ruth and Orpah’s future prosperity in the name of the Lord, a look at the way she expressed that desire tells us a lot about her spiritual and (perhaps misguided) relationship priorities for her daughters-in-law.
As mentioned earlier, the economic challenges faced by a widow in the Old Testament period intensified the emotional challenges confronted by such a person. For this reason, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear of Naomi’s expressed desire for Ruth and Orpah to find the security associated with a new marriage relationship. The problem was that Naomi not only encouraged Ruth and Orpah to return home to find new husbands but also to return to the pagan gods and idolatrous culture that was native to the land of Moab.
In this respect, Naomi is something of a dichotomy. On one hand, she clearly acknowledged and recognized the God of Israel as the only true God. On the other hand, it appears that Naomi may have been more interested in securing an opportunity for daughters-in-law to find new husbands than in encouraging them to return to the land where they could become acquainted with that one true God.
Although Ruth and Orpah would likely have been regarded as outsiders upon their arrival in Naomi’s homeland, the Law of Moses instructed the Israelites to accept those who chose to join them in following the God of Israel (see Exodus 12:48-49, Leviticus 19:33-34, Numbers 15:14-16). If Ruth and Orpah had chosen that path, they might then have asked God to provide for their emotional and economic needs in a new marriage relationship, one with a man who recognized and followed the God of the Scriptures.
Unfortunately, Naomi’s suggestion would have provided Ruth and Orpah with a short-term benefit (assuming that her daughters-in-law were able to find new husbands in Moab) but would not have addressed the long-term issue of their estrangement from God. That was something they were only likely to find by returning with Naomi to Bethlehem.
So while Naomi still recognized and accepted the God of Israel, she had apparently reached the point where she was no longer able to encourage Ruth and Naomi to place their trust in Him. We’ll see some further evidence of this unfortunate reality a little later in this chapter.
“‘May the LORD repay each of you so that you may find security in a home with a husband.’ When she kissed them goodbye, they began to cry loudly” (Ruth 1:9 GW).
While Naomi may have believed that it was in Ruth and Orpah’s best interest to return to Moab, the truth is that they ultimately would have been better served by traveling with her to the land of Israel. As one commentator observes, “Naomi incorrectly believed that there was more hope for her daughters-in-law by staying in Moab than there was by going with her to God’s chosen people and land” (1) This reminds us that a decision that may seem best from our limited perspective may not always be best from God’s viewpoint.
Nevertheless, its clear that Naomi felt a sense of deep emotional distress at the prospect of being separated from her daughters-in-law as evidenced by what we read next…
“And they said to her, ‘Surely we will return with you to your people. But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go—for I am too old to have a husband.
If I should say I have hope, if I should have a husband tonight and should also bear sons, would you wait for them till they were grown? Would you restrain yourselves from having husbands? No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me!'” (Ruth 1:10-13).
To understand the meaning behind Naomi’s response in these verses, it helps to know something about the Old Testament Law and how it related to childless widows like Ruth and Orpah. You see, if a young widow had been left without a son to carry on the family name, it was the responsibility of the deceased husband’s brother to marry her. The firstborn son from their relationship would then be accepted as the child of the deceased man and serve as heir to his estate (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
So when Naomi said, “Even if I got married tonight and later had more sons, would you wait for them to become old enough to marry?” (CEV), she was referring to the fact that she had no further sons to give in marriage to her daughters-in-law; and even if she did, the length of time it would take them to reach marriageable age was far too long.
(1) Notes on Ruth Dr. Thomas L. Constable, pg 13 http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ruth.pdf
“…’No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me!” (Ruth 1:13).
Naomi’s statement in this passage serves as one of the most poignant commentaries within all the book of Ruth. In one sentence, Naomi expressed her acceptance of God’s sovereignty over the events of her life as well as her distress over the way those events had affected her daughters-in-law.
Its clear that Naomi viewed the negative aspects of her experience in Moab as a result of God’s work in her life- and much like the impact of a great stone upon the surface of the water, Naomi saw the effect of those circumstances ripple out to affect those whom she loved. Her experience helps remind us that God’s response to our choices and decisions often have an effect upon others for better or worse.
One of the clearest Biblical references to this idea might be found in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul discussed the subject of those who approached the communion table in an unworthy manner…
“Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
Paul later went on to illustrate this concept in a more positive manner in his second letter to the church at Corinth…
“…God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’ Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.
You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (2 Corinthians 9:8-12 NIV).
These realities may help explain why Ephesians 5:15-16 reminds us to, “Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (NIV).
“No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13 ESV).
In considering Naomi’s acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the events of her life and the resulting impact of those events upon her beloved daughters-in-law, one commentary makes the following observation…
“The RSV translation conveys the thought that Naomi expresses regret that her daughters-in-law have been involved in her affliction, but the Hebrew is ‘for (it is) much more bitter for me than (it is) for you, for the hand of the LORD is gone out against me’. Her meaning seems to be ‘I have lost husband and sons and am too old to remarry and have sons. You have lost husbands, but are young enough to remarry and have sons. Why share my affliction?’
It is significant that Naomi does not attribute her affliction to chance (or) misfortune but to ‘the hand of the LORD’, a common anthropomorphism for the LORD’s over-ruling activity, acknowledged throughout the story.” (1)
For those who are willing to apply the benefit of Naomi’s experience, these observations remind us that genuine faith is often revealed through perseverance and continued reliance on God in times of difficulty. For instance, James 1:2-4 tells us…
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (NIV).
A few verses later, the Apostle goes on to say, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12 NIV).
While it is not uncommon to hear others acknowledge God in a moment of triumph or achievement, how many are willing to do so in a period of trouble or uncertainty? Our response to those challenges and difficulties of life can often serve to reveal our desire for a deep, genuine, intimate relationship with God through Christ or a warm, fuzzy, “feel-good” spiritual experience that fades when the problems of life intervene.
Naomi’s example also calls attention to the fact that others are often watching (and evaluating) our response to the trials and hardships of life. In Naomi’s case, her example will go on to inspire another person to make a life changing decision, one that will eventually result in an extraordinary display of God’s faithfulness.
(1) New International Bible Commentary
“Then they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14).
The sentiment expressed within this verse implies that Orpah did not simply kiss her mother-in-law in a token display of affection. It indicates that Orpah had chosen to kiss her mother-in-law goodbye.
It appears that the cost of leaving Moab behind was too great for Orpah- and once Naomi released her from any obligation to accompany her to Bethlehem, she apparently felt that it was in her best interest to remain where she was. In the vocabulary of our 21st century corporate world, we might say that Orpah made a “business decision” to return to the people and the gods of her childhood home- and perhaps not surprisingly, this is the very last time we will read of Orpah in the Scriptures.
So despite her demonstration of character, devotion, and initial willingness to go with Naomi, it appears that Orpah decided that the potential sacrifice involved in traveling to a place where God was at work was not worth the effort. Much like the rich young ruler who spoke with Jesus in Mark chapter ten, Orpah’s external decision to return to Moab revealed an internal reality- the life that she lived in Moab apparently held more appeal than the prospect of a new life in Israel with the God of the Scriptures.
In this respect, Orpah’s decision is reminiscent of a man who once approached Jesus with an offer to become His disciple…
“And another also said, ‘Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God'” (Luke 9:61-62).
Like Orpah, the man who approached Jesus in this passage demonstrated an initial willingness to start a new life- until other priorities intervened. Although we don’t know how this man reacted to Jesus’ response, we do know that Orpah’s sister-in-law chose a different path, for Ruth 1:14 tells us that “…Ruth would not be parted from (Naomi)” (BBE).
While Orpah demonstrated both love and respect for Naomi, Ruth went a step further by demonstrating a level of devotion and loyalty that her sister-in-law had not shown- and as we’ll see in her response to Ruth’s demonstration of faithfulness, Naomi clearly understood the significance of Orpah’s decision.
“Then they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. And she said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law'” (Ruth 1:14-15).
Judging from her response, it seems that Naomi clearly understood the implications of Orpah’s decision to remain in Moab. You see, Orpah had not simply declined an opportunity to seek out a fresh start in her mother-in-law’s hometown; Naomi realized that Orpah’s decision meant returning “…to her people and to her gods.”
Orpah’s choice to return to the people and the gods of Moab stands in stark contrast to another path chosen by the members of the New Testament church at Thessalonica. In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica (a letter that we know today as the Biblical book of 1 Thessalonians), the Apostle Paul discussed the significance of a decision made by the membership of this first century church…
“For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
This passage draws a simple, yet effective word picture that effectively illustrates the difference between these two choices. You see, it is impossible to face two objects that are in opposition to one another when standing between them. A person in such a position would need to turn from one such object in order to face the other.
In a similar manner, those who desire to turn to God (like the members of the church at Thessalonica), must turn away from those things that attempt to oppose or substitute for Him. Unlike Orpah who turned away from the opportunity to start a new life in order to return to her people and her gods, the Christian community in Thessalonica turned to God and away from those things that might have taken His place.
For her part, Naomi’s counsel to “return after your sister-in-law” would help ensure that Ruth’s decision would not originate from a sense of guilt or obligation to her. Instead, it served to provide Ruth with an opportunity to freely choose her path, just as Orpah freely chose to return to the people and the gods of Moab.
Although Naomi had opened the door for Ruth to join her sister-in-law in returning to the people and the gods of Moab, Ruth was ready with a response that Naomi might not have anticipated…
“But Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever 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. The Lord do so to me, and more also, If anything but death parts you and me'” (Ruth 1:16-17).
While Naomi clearly struggled to reconcile the difficulties that God had allowed to enter her life (a struggle that will become more evident later in this chapter), it appears that her commitment to the God of Israel had a produced a significant effect in Ruth’s life.
Even though Naomi had endured the pain and emotional loss of both her husband and he sons, her dedication to the God of Israel in the midst of those struggles serves to demonstrate the positive impact we can have upon others as we continue to rely upon God in the midst of a difficult situation.
We should also note that Ruth’s response represented more than just an expression of her deep, abiding love and affection for her mother-in-law; it represented an expression of her personal commitment on multiple levels:
- First, Ruth was making a commitment to leave the idolatrous culture and society of her youth.
- Next, she was committing herself to following Naomi’s God, the God of the Scriptures.
- Finally, Ruth was an outsider who was committing herself to join the community of Israel.
The great 17th century commentator Matthew Henry observed a parallel between the choices made by Ruth and Orpah and Jesus’ statement from Luke 9:23: “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” In considering this parallel, Henry observed…
“Orpah was loth to part from (Naomi); yet she did not love her well enough to leave Moab for her sake. Thus, many have a value and affection for Christ, yet come short of salvation by him, because they will not forsake other things for him. They love him, yet leave him, because they do not love him enough, but love other things better. Ruth is an example of the grace of God, inclining the soul to choose the better part.”
“…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 1:16-17).
Ruth’s response to Naomi was so noble, honorable, and virtuous that these verses have found their way into an untold number of marriage ceremonies as an affirmation of love, faith, and commitment. Yet Ruth’s expression of devotion went far beyond a simple declaration of loyalty to her beloved mother-in-law.
You see, Ruth’s commitment to Naomi extended to her residence, her family, her culture, and even her final resting place. However, Ruth’s vow also contained an element that went far beyond even those commitments: “…your God will be my God” (CEV).
Unlike her sister-in-law, Ruth made the decision to renounce the life that she had previously known in order to commit herself to following Naomi’s God, the God of the Scriptures. Her decision meant forsaking the substitutionary gods of Moab for a relationship with the one true God. She also chose to align herself with the people of that God despite any faults, personality quirks, or idiosyncrasies they might possess.
Ruth expressed her decision as a total commitment that left no room to reconsider these choices or change her mind at a later date: “May the LORD’s worst punishment come upon me if I let anything but death separate me from you!” (GNB). For Ruth, this “all-in” decision meant abandoning what seemed to be a better short-term opportunity for a new relationship as well as the comfort and familiarity of the place she once called home.
While some might contend that Ruth gambled her future on an ill-advised commitment to an aging woman in a foreign nation, this decision brings to mind a question that Jesus would ask centuries later, one that illustrates the real value of Ruth’s choice: “…what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37 ESV).
Ruth could have followed her sister-in-law back to a culture and a life that held no eternal significance. Or she might have attempted bring those pagan gods and the idolatrous culture of her youth along with her. Instead, she made a complete commitment to leave those things behind and move forward into a new life with the God of the Scriptures.
“And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. 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?'” (Ruth 1:18-19 ESV).
While a statement like, “Naomi and Ruth traveled until they came to the town of Bethlehem…” (ERV) may seem rather inconsequential, its easy to forget just how challenging and difficult a journey like this could be in the Biblical era. Although 21st century technology often provides us with multiple options for commuting great distances, travelers of Ruth’s day were limited to just two basic choices when taking a journey.
The first (and often fastest) option involved riding a horse or other animal. Unfortunately, two poor widows like Naomi and Ruth were unlikely to possess such an extravagant means of transportation. This meant that these women were probably relegated to the second travel option available during that time: walking on foot. At an average walking speed of two miles (3km) an hour, along with breaks to eat, rest, and attend to other bodily needs, a Biblical traveler might be able to cover up to 15-20 miles (24-32 km) per day if the road and weather conditions were good.
However, travelers of that day also had other issues to contend with. For instance, there was always the possibility of an attack by thieves or predatory animals along the way- and two women walking alone were especially vulnerable in this regard. In addition, any items that a traveler wanted to bring along on a journey had to be carried or pulled on a cart if one was available. With this in mind, its easy to see how carrying a sack or pulling a cart for 15-20 miles a day might make traveling difficult.
Then there was the issue of the route itself. Roadways of that time were sometimes little more than footpaths that featured terrain that might easily contribute to foot, leg, or ankle injuries. If we take these things into account, we can say that this 50-75 mile (80-120km) trip from Moab to Bethlehem represented a journey that probably took Naomi and Ruth at least a week to complete.
Nevertheless, it appears that these two widows arrived in Bethlehem without incident, a silent testament to God’s protection considering everything that might have happened along the way. Yet, it also appears that Naomi’s decade-long sojourn in Moab had taken its toll upon her, for we’re told that her hometown acquaintances responded to her return by saying, “This can’t be Naomi, can it?” (GW).
“But she said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
This passage features a play on words that helps provide us with the reasoning behind Naomi’s request to change her name. You see, people of the Biblical era were sometimes given (or requested, as in Naomi’s case) a name that was descriptive of an incident or occurrence that pertained to him or her.
For example, it was not uncommon in Naomi’s day for a parent to name a child after the circumstances of his or her birth. We can find one such example of this practice by considering the births of Esau and Jacob as recorded in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Genesis 24:24-26 provides us with an account of the births of these two prominent Old Testament personalities and as the moment of delivery approached for Esau and Jacob, we’re told…
“When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob…”
The name “Esau” means “rough” or “hairy-feeling” while the name “Jacob” means “heel-catcher” or “supplanter,” names that were given to each of these children in recognition of their respective births.
In a similar manner, Naomi asked for a name that reflected her circumstance as well: “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara; for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me” (ASV). Since Naomi’s name means “pleasant” and Mara means “bitter,” this change of name signaled Naomi’s recognition and acceptance of those difficult circumstances that God had brought forth within her life.
Life in Moab had been bitter for Naomi and it appears that she preferred to accept the reality of her circumstances rather than attempt to pretend that everything was OK when it really wasn’t. Like Job who preceded her and Solomon who followed, (1) Naomi accepted the fact that God may sometimes choose to allow some very difficult circumstances to flow into our lives. But in the words of Hebrews 12:11…
“No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (HCSB).
“I went out full, and the Lord has sent me back again with nothing; why do you give me the name Naomi, seeing that the Lord has given witness against me, and the Ruler of all has sent sorrow on me?” (Ruth 1:21 BBE).
One of the challenges associated with understanding and applying the Scriptures involves the need to account for the language and cultural distinctives that exist within each of the individual Biblical books. While timeless Biblical principles such as, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7) may be readily understood and applied within any culture or society, other statements (like the one found here in Ruth 1:21) are more prone to potential misunderstanding.
One such example can be found earlier within Ruth chapter one where Naomi responded to Ruth’s objection to the idea of returning to the nation of Moab. In the New King James (NKJ) translation of this account we’re told, “When (Naomi) saw that (Ruth) was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her” (Ruth 1:18).
In many modern-day cultures, the idea of “not speaking to someone” often implies rejection, loss of fellowship, or the complete dissolution of what had once been a friendly relationship. However, this verse clearly implies something far different. A number of Biblical translations acknowledge the difference between these ancient and modern concepts of “not speaking to someone” by rendering this passage, “she stopped urging her to go back” (CEV), “she stopped trying to persuade her” (HCSB), or, “she stopped trying to talk her out of returning to Judah” (Voice).
We might consider Naomi’s assertion here in Ruth 1:21 in much the same way: “How can you still call me Naomi, when God has turned against me and made my life so hard?” (CEV). While a modern-day reader might interpret Naomi’s statement as an attempt to blame her problems on God, the reality may actually be far different. Here’s how one commentator attempts to place this remark in the proper cultural context…
“(Naomi) speaks respectfully of God (Shaddai, “Almighty”), but in the characteristic Hebrew manner she regards him as the ground of all existence, whether evil or good. While she is complaining about her misfortune (Heb. the Lord has afflicted me), therefore, she should be regarded as reporting upon the trend of events, and not blaming God for disasters in the way that many Gentiles normally do.” (1)
(1) Elwell, W. A. (1996, c1989). Vol. 3: Evangelical commentary on the Bible. Baker reference library (Ru 1:15). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
“So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. Now they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22).
While this passage may seem to be little more than a bridge that transitions the reader from one chapter to another, it actually provides us with some important information that sets up the events that are about to transpire next.
You see, the barley harvest mentioned here generally took place during the April-May period. The wheat harvest then followed a few weeks later. For Ruth and Naomi, this meant that they were in the right place at the right time, for the harvest period would provide them with the opportunity to glean a freshly harvested field once the laborers had completed their work.
This passage also has a number of implications for the remainder of this book, including a few that may not be immediately obvious to a modern-day reader who is unfamiliar with ancient agricultural practices.
For example, a Biblical farmer began the harvest by cutting the grain by hand with a sickle and then binding the resulting sheaves into bundles for transport. These sheaves would then be loaded onto a donkey or a cart and eventually find their way to the local threshing floor.
The threshing floor usually consisted of a large, flat area with exposure to the prevailing winds. As the name implies, this was a place that was specifically chosen to provide for the next stage in the harvesting process: threshing. Threshing involved the practice of loosening the grain portion from the surrounding husk, a job that was often completed by oxen or by the use of a threshing sledge. This portion of the ancient harvesting process will become more prominent later on within the book of Ruth.
Once the grain was loosened from the rest of the plant, it was then “winnowed.” Winnowing referred to the act of tossing a pile of grain into the air so the breeze could take away the remaining straw and chaff while the heavier grain fell to the ground at the winnower’s feet. Following this, the grain was sifted to remove any remaining foreign matter then bagged for storage and later use.
It was during this period that Naomi arrived in Bethlehem with Ruth. At this point, Naomi had lost her material possessions and all the members of her immediate family with the exception of a young foreign woman who had married her late son. Yet despite these seemingly dire circumstances, God is going to bring a tremendous blessing into Naomi’s life through the unlikely avenue of “Ruth the Moabitess.”