This is the story of beauty, sacrifice, and above all, love.
The scene is in Bethlehem, Israel, the birthplace of Jesus Christ and the burial ground of Jacob’s much-loved wife, Rachel.
The time appears to be reasonably early in the book of Judges. There is a famine extreme enough to cause people to leave the country. Why is there a famine in the land flowing with milk and honey? Sin.
The story focuses on one family only, who left in hope, returned demoralised, only to be raised up to eternal fame by the living God. With a foundation of deep pain and suffering, several people’s stories were woven together here to create a golden pedigree ancestry.
Bethlehem man Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons, packed up what they had and travelled to Moab, leaving cousins and other kindred behind. How hard that one decision must have been. Quite often people from other countries arrive here in the same way. Be kind to them.
Israel was currently at peace with Moab, but Moab was a nation worshipping false-gods. I guess, at the time, it was not much different from Israel. Years before, Moab himself was the son from a one-off incestuous occurrence between Lot who was drunk and passed out, and his eldest daughter.
Two of the deities of Moab were Molech and Chemosh, which enabled the Moabites and Ammonites (Moab's brother) to engage in adultery, prostitution and incest and even killing off their unwanted and sometimes deformed, damaged or dying children by infanticide. This allows us some insight into the world's practice today of killing its unwanted children.
Naomi's life was under pressure. As if leaving their home behind to live in a strange country wasn’t enough tribulation, not long after arriving in Moab, Elimelech died. This left Naomi to bear the strain of the family. Around that time, the boys married two local girls, Ruth and Orpah, and all seemed to be getting better for a few years, but then for some reason unknown to us, Naomi's two sons died. This left three widows of the same family in mourning.
Deciding it's now pointless to remain in Moab, Naomi chooses to return to Bethlehem. She gives her daughter-in-laws a way out of the family ties, suggesting they remain in Moab. Orpah takes the opportunity and departs. On a spiritual journey, this is exactly how you want the half-hearted to choose, as it saves much drama later.
Ruth, on the other hand, had fallen in love with Naomi’s heart. She adored all the stories taught to her of Israel’s God, His wonderful law that converts the soul, and the chronicles of His awesome victories. Whereas Oprah heard the same stories but her heart was not ignitable. To her demise, she chose to return to her old way of life and the gods that ruled it. On the other hand, Ruth chose the God of Israel and departed with Naomi. Her soul was converted.
Ruth 1:16-17, clarifies Ruth's single-minded desire, “ …Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.’
It sounds like something one would say to a spouse, not a mother-in-law, yet this was a blood covenant Ruth made, by the blood of her own life (if ought but death part thee and me). She denied her gods, her parents, her family, and her country, to follow Naomi who was leading her to the Lord. It also sheds some light on Naomi’s inner beauty, clearly illustrating God.
“Whither thou goest, I will go”– Ruth was prepared to go hungry, thirsty, and poor if that’s what it took. It didn’t matter.
At any time through this journey of uncertainty, Ruth could have said,“I’m sorry Naomi, It’s just too far. I think I’ll go home after all. At least there is food there and I’ll know I’ll have a decent life while I’m still young.”
She could have reverted to self-interest as so many Christians do on their walk, but she didn’t. Instead, she fanned the flames of her own faith so they didn't go out.
There is a chasm of difference between a donation and a commitment. When we donate to a cause, we agree with it. When we commit to a cause, we are sold on it — we will sell everything to obtain that pearl of great price.
The sorrow of return
In Naomi's estimation, things seemed to be working against her. Some of us might wonder where God was in all her troubles, but Naomi's faith was well-rooted in the living God. Although depressed and seeing little future for herself or Ruth, Naomi kept walking toward her God. Despite being that depressed she couldn't visualise anything positive, she kept going in the right direction. A simple lesson for us all.
Ruth would have comforted Naomi the same way Naomi comforted Ruth a short while earlier when Ruth’s husband died. Ruth would have reiterated the stories of God’s love she herself had heard from Naomi over the years. But I still feel there were many tears shed between them both on that restorative journey.
Naomi must have also wept in thanks to God for providing of Ruth, and Ruth for Naomi's courage and discipline.
Naomi has returned!
Even with all the welcoming home from her old friends and neighbours, Naomi still couldn’t pull herself out of her depression.
Returning home is where the rubber hits the road. Not one of us wants to return unsuccessful, yet Naomi has lost her husband, two sons and a daughter in law, as well as whatever goods and chattels she had to leave behind. To others, it must have seemed like a curse.
Ruth 1:19 states, “all the city was moved about them, and they said, is this Naomi?” Yet, her depressed state would only release words of the defeated, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” The upside of this comment is that, like Job, Naomi shows us that she believed God was sovereign over her life, good or bad. (Job 2:10 & 42:11)
Naomi is clearly still in a state of deep, deep, mourning. These days we would call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is not right that children should precede the death of the parents, but that’s what happened twice to Naomi, as well as losing her partner in life. Any of us in a similar position would take years to get over that basic feeling of simply being robbed of life.
Little did she know the Lord was going to make her richer than she could imagine.
They arrived in Bethlehem just in time for the Barley harvest, the first of the grains, which meant employment. But the only way they could get it is if Ruth worked. They were a team now. The much older Naomi would have taken on the housework, while Ruth went to the field with the men.
I would hazard a guess that some of the locals would have supplied this ageing widow and new convert with a few meals, but for a sustainable life, one must work.
Boaz( meaning in him is strength;)
Ruth gathered sheaves as she followed the reapers who cut them, staying close to Boaz’s property. Boaz asked his team leader who the woman was. They told him and said she was a good worker.
Boaz knew very well who she was. He spoke to her personally, and said,“Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens:”(Ruth 2:8) This was a safety warning, but it's also a spiritual one. When we come to the Lord, this is what He tells us — stay in my field with my other workers and abide close by. You will be protected here and paid well. I cannot protect you if you seek another’s field.
Further on in v15, it says,And when she was risen up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not:He warned the young single men to stay away from her and neither hang any smart remarks on her.
Boaz was observing Ruth. He had heard all she had done for Naomi — in faith coming to a land she didn't know and working so Naomi could eat well. Now, Boaz wanted to see for himself. I wonder if Ruth realised she was on trial?
When Ruth went home that evening, Naomi asked her who’s field she was in, and she said his name was Boaz. Naomi blessed the Lord, as he was a near kinsman. Ruth gleaned throughout that harvest and the next, the wheat harvest.
Naomi then advised Ruth of the custom of approaching a near kinsman with the intention of marriage. A near kinsman was allowed the first hand in marriage of a widow. Ruth approached Boaz with the offering to cast his garment over her, which Boaz did. Boaz sought honourably to take Ruth as his wife, but to do that, he had to take all Naomi’s burden’s as well, including those of her sons.
Being a relative, he had the right to do this, but there was one relative closer than he, and it was required by law that he get the first option at Ruth. The closer relative declined, as it was complicated, preferring rather to choose selfishness over honouring the Law of the Lord. This left Ruth, Naomi and her sons heritage with Boaz, who took it all on.
The marriage between Boaz and Ruth produced the lineage of King David and later Jesus Christ through Mary. Baoz was a child of Salmon and Rahab the saved (formerly the harlot). Salmon was the son of Nahshon, prince of the tribe of Judah in the times of Moses, (and whose sister married Aaron the High Priest). Rahab went from harlotry to royalty. What faith can do!
It’s an interesting sidenote to see how God didn't let Biblical characters run away from their past, as some of us try to do. It’s good to embrace the bad bits, as it emphasises our Saviour's abiding grace and mercy.
Hard to grasp
Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, was a kinsman of Boaz, who was very rich and powerful in the region, which begs the question of why he didn't play a big part in Elimelech’s life before they left the promised land for Moab?
Scripture doesn't make certain that Elimelech left Israel because of the famine, but just that he left when there was one on. He could have been an entrepreneur seeking to ‘make a killing’ in a land where there was more money at the moment. Who knows?
All we know is that Boaz may have been in a position to help them before they left, but didn’t. We are not sure of Boaz's wealth when they left, either, as scripture doesn't say. But, how many rich cousins have you approached for a loan long before you were destitute? It’s just something most of us don't do.
However, if Elimelech was helped prior to leaving, there would be no Ruth. Which begs another question, did God put the thought into Elimelech’s head to leave, whilst also preparing Ruth at the other end for the connection? Or did He just use a circumstance to achieve an outcome? God knows the thoughts and desires of every human heart, and can use anyone and anything for His purpose.
All three woman, Rahab, Naomi and Ruth, were nobody special. What made them special was them stepping out in faith and keeping on walking. Each one of them put it all on the line.
The Ruth and Naomi narrative is in type the Church marrying the Lord Jesus. Yet, I just like it as a great story. It shows us how through love and commitment some people can stay the course, overcoming many overwhelming obstacles, to end up, unbeknown to themselves, greatly manoeuvred by the Lord.
Ruth had voluntarily dowsed her own light, to walk in the light of her mother-in-law’s Lord. Rahab did the same. Naomi soldiered on with barely a glimmer of hope — a match light in a vast dark valley if you like. Yet, that microscopic light was sufficient for her to see enough to put one step in front of the other in faith. Otherwise, she would have been just another insignificant old Israelite widow.
We wonder at the compassion of the living God, and how he can see the state of a heart. How he can raise someone up from a wicked nation to be a forebear of the King of Kings.
Ruth and her second mother-in-law, Rahab the Harlot, had little in common so far as their social life was concerned. We are even unsure if Rahab was still alive when Ruth came on the scene, but these two gentile hearts, along with Naomi’s, would have been melded together as one in praise.
If living now, I can imagine them singing this old favourite together, as it seems to sum up all three lives.
All the way my Savior leads me
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His faithful mercies?
Who through life has been my guide
Heavenly peace, divinest comfort
Ere by faith in Him to dwell
For I know whate'er fall me
Jesus doeth all things well
Mark 8:35 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.
Praise God we have so many women of faith throughout history, then and now.