Naomi and Ruth
Ruth 1:1-22, Key Verse 1:16
“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.’”
Today we begin our study of the short Old Testament book of Ruth. The book of Ruth is important because (1) it shows the historical connection between the time of the judges and of King David, including David’s genealogy; (2) It shows how God works in history, especially how he works in ways that don’t always follow the human or national order; and (3) it teaches gospel faith, because as we’ll see, the faith Ruth expressed and lived out is the same kind of faith by which we come to Christ.
This book also shows how God can bring rejoicing out of tragedy. The first chapter of Ruth paints a very real picture of suffering, loss, and grief. It also shows how faith is the beginning of turning a sorrowful situation around. Let’s see what we can learn from this chapter.
I. A family’s suffering and loss (1-5)
This book is set in the period known as the time of the judges. It was after the Israelites had conquered the promised land under Joshua, but before they had a king. When we say that, it sounds like a bad thing to have no king, but actually God never commanded the people to have a king. God hoped his people could live as a holy nation without a king. Through the memory of what the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt, and the righteous laws he gave them through Moses, they should have kept their identity as a chosen people, kept the pure worship of one God, and been blessed to be a blessing to the world.
However, as the book of Judges vividly shows, Israel did not live up to this hope. Overall, they degraded into a lawless and fleshly existence. When God saw this, he sent raiders and invaders to discipline his people. When they suffered, they cried out to God, and then God raised up an interim leader, typically a military commander. The Hebrew word for them is traditionally translated into English as “judges”. When a judge was raised up, he or she fought off the invaders and called the people to return to the Lord. But when a judge died, the people soon went back to their corrupted ways. This cycle repeated over and over again. The book of Judges ends with this summary statement: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Jdg 21:25). It was a time when God’s hope was hard to find. However, there was always a remnant of people in the land who remained faithful to the Lord.
In the book of Ruth, we are given a picture of a single family in those times. Look at verse 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.” The famine mentioned here could have been one of those times of divine discipline. Verse 2 says that the head of the family was named Elimelek, and his wife was Naomi. They were of the tribe of Judah and lived in Bethlehem. We can’t really be sure how faithful they were, but we see that Naomi clearly called on the name of the Lord. The famine affected this family personally, and they experienced hardship until they felt they had no option except to take their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, leave the land of Canaan, and go and live in a foreign country, in the land of Moab, where conditions were better. Maybe if Elimelek had had more faith, he could have stayed in Canaan, holding onto God’s promise for his people and praying. But the book itself doesn’t give any judgment on that.
What do we know about the country that Elimelech’s family moved to? The people of Moab were actually related to Israel; they were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot (Gen 19:37). There had been animosity between Israel and Moab from the time that Israel came out of Egypt. It was Balak the king of Moab who hired Balaam to curse Israel when he saw them coming like a mighty horde out of Egypt. However, at the time of this book’s events, Israel and Moab seemed to be living in peace with each other. At least, there was not so much animosity as to prevent immigration.
How did this family fare in Moab? The summary of their 10 years in Moab in verses 3-5 is almost entirely tragic. First, Elimelek died, leaving Naomi as a widow. Then her their sons married, which is at least something good. Both sons married Moabite women; their names were Ruth and Orpah. I don’t know how Naomi felt at first about her sons marrying foreigners, but as we can see, she did open her heart to make a good relationship with her daughters-in-law. That’s not always an easy thing to do. But then, both of Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Kilion, also died in Moab without leaving any children.
To lose any of one’s children is an unspeakable tragedy, but to lose all of them, while having no grandchildren yet, is a true disaster. Besides the sorrow that she would feel, Naomi’s life was in a very precarious position. She was living as a lone widow in a foreign land, with no means of support. In such a situation, Naomi could humanly only conclude that her life was over—that any hope of blessings she might enjoy was gone for good. Naomi might think that God had rejected her completely, cutting her off from the people of Israel by giving her no descendants. But God was not done with Naomi and her family yet. What seems to human beings like nothing but a tragic end can be the beginning of a great new work of God.
II. Naomi’s big heart (6-13)
One glimmer of good news came not long after, when Naomi heard that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them. The famine in Judah was over. (6) Since she had nothing left in Moab, Naomi prepared to return home to Bethlehem. Well, she didn’t exactly have nothing. She still had her two daughters-in-law. It seems they had continued to live under Naomi’s roof after the deaths of their husbands. They had formed a family together, with Naomi as the head, and that bond was not easily broken. Also, in the society of that time, Naomi probably had the right to expect her two daughters-in-law to stay with her. So, when Naomi packed up and headed on the road back to Judah, verse 7 says that her two daughters-in-law went with her.
However, after they got not too far down the road, Naomi made a decision—or maybe she had been planning this all along. Look at verses 8 and 9. “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. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’”
A first thing to observe in these verses is that Naomi expresses gratitude to her daughters-in-law for their faithfulness to her and to their husbands, even in death. Then she blesses them to go back to their homeland, asking the Lord to show them kindness and grant them new husbands. All I can say about this is that Naomi’s heart is so big and generous. Many people in such tragic life circumstances would be totally self-absorbed, never giving a second thought to others’ situation. Someone else in the same position may have only tightened her grip on her daughters-in-law. But Naomi considered what was best for her daughters-in-law, at least from a pragmatic point of view. Though her daughters-in-law are all she has left, still Naomi lets them go, thinking not of her own good but of theirs.
What did Ruth and Orpah do when they heard Naomi blessing them to leave? Of course, they started crying. Then they said, in verse 10, “We will go back with you to your people.” They probably didn’t think Naomi was really being serious when she told them to go back; maybe they thought she was just being nice to give them a choice but really wanted them to stay with her. At this point, both Ruth and Orpah show themselves to be devoted and faithful daughters-in-law.
But Naomi was serious. In verses 11-13, she spells it out. “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!”
Naomi, affectionately calling Ruth and Orpah her daughters, spells out their situation very bluntly. It’s almost humorous, the way she says that even if she could have more sons, Ruth and Orpah wouldn’t want to wait for them to grow up. The point is, she knows her daughters-in-law have nothing to gain from staying with her.
Naomi also freely expresses her own grief, saying how her life has become very bitter to her. We can see the crippling sense of God’s punishment that was in Naomi’s heart. The words “even if I thought there was still hope for me” show how she had in fact lost all her hope for life. Naomi seems totally given over to fatalism. We can call it a normal human reaction. And yet, even in spite of that, she is not selfish. In spite of all her own pain, she’s not willing to take anything away from these two young ladies who still can have bright futures. This unselfishness is Naomi’s greatness. Even though she can’t see it in the midst of her sorrow, Naomi actually has the character of the blessed. In Matthew’s gospel, we studied the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the famous beatitudes. A couple that I think especially apply to Naomi are: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted… Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Mt 5:3-4, 7-8). We should believe that a person with such a heart will be blessed in the end, no matter what they go through in this life.
III. Ruth’s pledge (14-22)
After Naomi’s speech, there was more weeping and hugging. Then one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Orpah, kissed her goodbye and went on her way. But Ruth did not go. She did not say anything, she just clung to Naomi. (14) So Naomi urged her again, saying, “Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” (15)
Then Ruth made her own statement. We can call it a pledge or proclamation or a vow; whatever it is, it’s amazing. Look at verses 16 and 17. “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. 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.’”
With these words, Ruth commits herself to her mother-in-law for the rest of her life. There is so much greatness to reflect on in her words and decision. First, notice that by saying, “Your people will be my people and your God my God,” Ruth gave up her identity as a Moabite to live and worship as an Israelite from then on. Also notice that Ruth’s pledge is totally unconditional, with no mention of her own benefit. Ruth didn’t say, “I’ll go with you to Judah and see if I can find a husband there, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll come back.” She doesn’t try to extract any guarantees from Naomi or give herself an escape clause. Ruth’s words show that she understands the only thing really guaranteed is death, and even then, she wanted to be buried with Naomi. It reminds me of marriage vows, in which couple pledge themselves “for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health…” Ruth gives herself one-sidedly.
Moreover, this is not just a pledge of human loyalty. Ruth’s words show that an important part of her decision to stay with Naomi was recognition of Naomi’s God, the God of Israel. She calls on the name of the Lord, Yahweh, to witness to her. The Moabite religion was fundamentally idolatrous. Their chief god was named Chemosh, and according to the book of 2 Kings at times even human sacrifices were offered to Chemosh. Ruth must have seen how Naomi worshiped the one true God, not bowing down to idols like her own people. She must have heard the stories about how Israel was brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and she realized that these people’s God was the one she needed to be blessed by. Maybe she had even heard about Balaam, one of her own people, who had testified, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?” (Num 23:8)
Most of all, I believe that the goodness of the God of Israel was shown to Ruth by Naomi’s character. We could say that to Ruth, Naomi was like Jesus. Ruth was a Gentile and Naomi was her way to become one of God’s people, just like we Gentiles are adopted into God’s family through Jesus. Ruth is like the disciples, who heard God’s call in Jesus and left other things to follow him, not receiving any promise of worldly benefit. Ruth’s act is an expression of faith of the same nature as gospel faith.
Ruth’s act is also a reflection of Abraham, who left his people, his country, and his father’s household to find God’s promise in a land he had never seen. Ruth would be a foreigner in Israel, with no human protection except her mother-in-law. She had never been there and did not know what was in store for her. I believe that like Abraham, Ruth had a sense that she was entering the stream of God’s blessing in history. I thought about comparing Ruth’s faith to Rebekah, but actually Ruth’s faith is so much greater. Nobody brought Ruth 10 camels loaded with gifts and a rich husband candidate waiting for her!
Of course, just making a pledge with one’s mouth isn’t everything; you have to keep it too. We know that Ruth did. The rest of the book of Ruth is evidence of how God accepted and blessed the faith of Ruth, making her part of the lineage of David and ultimately Jesus himself.
When Naomi heard Ruth’s pledge of love and devotion, she stopped trying to get her to go back. I imagine she was happy, as much as it was possible for her to feel happy. One true, pure-hearted friend is better than 100 fair-weather friends. We might also point out that this love relationship between Ruth and Naomi crosses the generation gap.
When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, it seems like people had trouble believing it was Naomi. Maybe in 10 years she looked like she aged 20 years, because of her hard life and all her sorrows. Or maybe just nobody expected to ever see her again. She tells her hometown people about all her disaster and misery. She even wants to change her name from “Naomi” to “Mara”, saying that God changed her life from pleasant to bitter. Someone may find fault with Naomi’s blaming God for everything, but at least she lives before God. Someone said, “If you’re going to blame someone for your problems, at least blame someone who can do something about them.” Well, God can do something about it. And as we’ll see, God has surprise blessings in store for Naomi. The barley harvest was coming; love was in the air.
Today, we saw Ruth’s exemplary faith, expressed by her pledge to Naomi. So, how can we apply this to ourselves? What about Ruth should we imitate? Frankly, the unconditional nature of her commitment is very challenging to me. First of all, we should ask, why should we commit to anything at all? From a worldly viewpoint, breaking faith according to what one stands to gain or lose might be considered a basic right. Why shouldn’t we just follow whatever seems to be the best opportunity at each moment? Why not? It’s because if we live that way, we will actually miss the greatest thing.
The greatest thing that we can know and experience is faithful love. That’s what God gives us in the gospel. Ruth swore not to be separated from Naomi, even in death. Similarly, in Romans 8 Paul wrote, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? …I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ro 8:35, 38-39) Thank God that such love is shown to us in the gospel, because it’s hard to find in the world. The best way we can experience this love is to model it in our lives. Ruth’s faith was expressed by her unconditional love toward her mother-in-law. In the same way, we are called to follow Jesus as the way to God, and to be steadfast in our love toward one another. Maybe even today there is someone you or I know who is suffering, and what they really need to know is that we will stick by them no matter what. Maybe we are already doing that for someone, but it would help them so much just to hear the words, “I am with you for the long haul.” May God bless you abundantly in your faithfulness to Christ and to God’s people.