While Ruth went out to glean, Naomi stayed at home. Yet now she is starting to think of someone else’s needs rather than her own. What seems to have happened is that over the course of these chapters, as she experienced God’s goodness and continued faithfulness to her, her heart began to soften. Through the hard work of Ruth and the generosity of Boaz, she found new hope. Perhaps she even began to see that she had been too quick to blame God, and perhaps she began to recognize her failure to take responsibility and to repent of it. Repentance inevitably draws our attention away from ourselves and out toward others. Bitterness drives us inward in self-absorbed depression, while true repentance enables us and motivates us to start to serve other people’s needs.
Ruth needed a husband and a home of her own. This was not exactly a new observation: it was, after all, the reason why Naomi had told Ruth to go home in chapter 1, back to a place where she might be more likely to find such a place of rest with a husband of her own. She told Ruth that this was still what she wanted (v. 1). But who in Bethlehem would provide a place of rest for an outsider, especially a foreigner like Ruth? Taking a Moabite wife would probably have been at least socially awkward, if not worse. A man might end up as a social outcast, spurned by decent society. Who would be willing to undertake such a risk? Naomi thought she knew the answer (v. 2).
The reference to Boaz as “a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers” in the previous chapter (2:20) may already have started Naomi’s mind moving in the direction of Boaz’s marriage potential as a solution to all of their problems. It was now close to the end of the wheat harvest, six to eight weeks after the first encounter between Ruth and Boaz, and there seemed to be little progress in their relationship. However, Naomi had an idea how to jumpstart things (vv. 3:3-4). Ruth was ready to act (vv. 5-6), and later that night, she found herself alone watching events at the threshing floor (v. 7).
The party was over, and it had been a good evening. After a long day of work, and a long night of feasting, Boaz must have been feeling very good about life. So, he went and lay down at the end of the grain pile and fell fast asleep. In the middle of the night, though, something disturbed him – perhaps the cold air on his now exposed lower extremities. He rolled over, reaching for his blanket, and discovered to his amazement a woman there (v. 8). “Who are you?” was a natural question for Boaz to ask. Ruth responded, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer” (v. 9).
Here is where Ruth’s actions diverged from Naomi’s instructions. Instead of leaving the situation dangerously ambiguous, as a woman of character, Ruth wanted to make her intentions clear right from the outset. Her goal was a commitment to marriage, not a single night of passion. In the ancient world, such a commitment was symbolized by the gesture of covering someone with the corner of one’s robe, roughly equivalent to the giving of an engagement ring in our culture. Ruth wanted Boaz to marry her and thus to provide a refuge for her and Naomi, just as a kinsman redeemer would.
Ruth’s words left a great deal to be desired. Naomi’s more open-ended scheme had a variety of possible outcomes that might each have reached the same goal, through more or less morally acceptable pathways. But Ruth knew that her future didn’t ultimately depend on her ability to formulate a cunning plan and execute it. God was overruling all things for good and, amazingly enough, Boaz agreed to her audacious request. His first words to her – “my daughter” – show that he was aware of the situation. Boaz was willing to pay the social and financial costs of welcoming this despised outsider into his family. Indeed, Boaz complimented Ruth on having chosen him rather than going after a younger man (v. 10).
It is noteworthy that Proverbs 31, which in the ordering of the Hebrew Bible comes right before Ruth, describes a woman of character whose “works praise her in the gates” (Prov. 31:31). Using similar language, Boaz says, “And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman” (Ruth 3:11). More literally, Boaz says, “all the gate of my people knows that you are a woman of worth.” The idiom is usually lost in translation, but what we see in Ruth is precisely a “Proverbs 31” woman in the flesh: her deeds have indeed been praised in the city gates!
At this point in the story a complication arose. Although Boaz was a close relative of Naomi’s, apparently there was another redeemer who was even closer; as Boaz explained to Ruth (vv. 12-13). By rights, this other redeemer had a better claim to perform this service for Naomi and her family. This must have been a bitter blow to Ruth, who at this point was surely feeling that things had been progressing rather well. In the morning, Boaz would approach the man and sound him out. If the other man wanted to redeem her, then well and good. But if he were not absolutely delighted to undertake this service, then Boaz swore that he would do it himself. One way or another, Naomi and Ruth would certainly be taken care of.
In the morning, before it was light enough for her reputation to be unfairly tarnished, Boaz sent Ruth away, but not before giving her a gift of six measures of barley (which is 80 pounds of barley!). Chapter 3 ends much the way that chapter 2 ended, with Ruth returning home to share with Naomi news of her adventures (vv. 16-18). The growing realization of Ruth’s value is underlined by Boaz’s generous gift.
Boaz sends Ruth back with a large bundle of seed so that she will not go back to Naomi “empty,” the same word that Naomi used to describe herself back in chapter 1. She came back to Bethlehem “empty,” but the Lord is fulfilling all of her needs through Ruth and Boaz. The Lord provided for her hunger, and a place of rest for the weary. Would the Lord now withhold from her the one other thing she lacked, descendants? Certainly not! In light of that, Boaz’s earlier response (“There is a redeemer nearer than I”) takes on a whole new significance. All through the story there has been a Redeemer closer than Boaz, a Redeemer for Naomi and Ruth who has hovered in the shadows of the narrative, behind all the human agents, reaching out to His beloved but wandering sheep and showing them grace upon grace.
Ruth 3 compels each of us to ask this question: “What am I willing to risk, and for what?” People willingly face all kinds of perils in life, both small and great. For the sake of having fun, or receiving a promotion, or having a family, people are willing to put up with all kinds of discomforts and potential costs. What are we willing to risk, though, for the sake of the gospel?
For most of us, the true answer is probably, “Not very much.” We’re not willing to risk our lives or our health, our reputations or our comfort, our friends or our families for the sake of the gospel. The most obvious proof of our aversion to spiritual risk lies in our unwillingness to talk to others about God. Never mind putting our reputations at risk at midnight during the barley harvest, we wouldn’t even risk being thought odd by our friends over coffee because we talk to them about Jesus. We all have our excuses. What have they done for us, to deserve our taking that kind of risk for them?
Yet what if Ruth had said the same thing? Her actions certainly could have cost her reputation or much worse. Did Naomi deserve to have Ruth go out on this limb for her? Certainly not. But Ruth had made a commitment to Naomi in spite of her earlier coldness and her lack of responsiveness. Did Naomi deserve Boaz’s willingness to accept the social and financial cost of welcoming outsiders into his home? Certainly not. If there was any self-interest that made the deal attractive to Boaz, it was the character of Ruth, not that of Naomi. Naomi was among the undeserving, but because Ruth and Boaz treated her with grace, she came to know the joy of God’s salvation. Who are the people that we can reach for Christ, if only we will take a personal risk with the gospel?
Ruth 3:1-18 Study Questions:
What does Naomi hope will be the result of her plan and instructions for Ruth (vv. 1-5)? What is she counting on, with regard to the character and integrity of Boaz? What risks are involved for Ruth as she follows Naomi’s instructions?
What do you notice about Ruth’s statement to Boaz in verse 9? Had Naomi instructed her to be this direct? What might Ruth be seeking to avoid, in terms of Boaz’s understanding of her intentions?
How does Boaz’s response to Ruth continue to reveal to us his character (v. 10)? What kindness does Boaz refer to here? What does he promise to do for Ruth in response to her intentional appeal?
According to Boaz’s words, does he himself have any legal obligation to marry Ruth and become her kinsman-redeemer? Why does this make his kindness and generosity even more noteworthy? How does this again point to the Christlike qualities of Boaz and remind us of the generous grace of our Redeemer?
As the chapter concludes, Ruth returns to Naomi with a large bundle of barley as they wait together for Boaz to take action. Describe the transformation that has occurred in Naomi and Ruth’s situation. What has changed? How has God proved to be faithful?
Have you ever hit rock bottom? Sometimes we feel as if we are not simply scraping the bottom of the barrel but have already taken the barrel, held it upside down, shaken it, and discovered that there is absolutely nothing left in it. Further scraping would be a fruitless task, because there is nothing left to scrape. That is where Naomi and Ruth found themselves in the beginning of Ruth 2. From her state of fulness at the beginning of the book, where Naomi had a husband and two sons to support her and take care of her, Naomi had been reduced to a state of emptiness with no one around her to help her. The only one left was her pesky Moabitess daughter-in-law, Ruth, and she wasn’t too sure whether Ruth was more of an asset or an embarrassment.
So, this odd couple returned to Bethlehem. But in the midst of the darkness at the very end of Ruth 1, there was a tiny sliver of light; they arrived in Bethlehem “at the beginning of barley harvest.” In this little notice, the narrator hints that Naomi isn’t reading events correctly. Naomi has been seeing her situation go from fullness to emptiness in her own life, however, the movement for her people back home in Bethlehem had been the opposite. They had gone from famine as the story opened, to the brink of a new harvest in the Promised Land. There was food once again in Bethlehem. God’s hand of judgment had been lifted from His people.
Naomi’s problem is like the struggle many of us experience. In the dark night of our souls, we imagine and worry about the worst possible scenario. We persuade ourselves that God has abandoned us and that we have no prospects. God doesn’t promise to give us the grace to survive all the scenarios we can dream up – but only to give us the grace to enable us to make it through whatever He actually brings into our lives. In fact, much of what we worry about turns out in the end not to be part of God’s plan for us after all; our worry was wasted work! Of course, Jesus told us this Himself when He said, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:27).
In the meantime, though, there was the pressing issue for Ruth and Naomi of what to eat; and there was a likely solution (Ruth 2:1-2). Provision was made in the law of Moses to take care of the poor through a kind of “Welfare to Work” program. The poor were not simply to depend on handouts from the state. Rather, they were allowed to glean in the fields after the harvesters and around the edges, picking up scraps that were left behind.
Gleaning was hard work; it was hot work; it was not necessarily safe work either, since not every landowner would fulfill the provisions of the law. It was perhaps especially dangerous for a foreign woman, a Moabitess, who had no clan connections to protest her or to call on in distress. So, when Ruth volunteered to go out and glean to provide food for the two of them, she was making herself vulnerable not just for her own sake but for Naomi’s too (v. 2). She was stepping out in faith that somewhere out there was a generous, God-fearing landowner who would make room for the poor. Faith doesn’t simply sit around waiting for provision to drop down from heaven; we are called to do what we can, and as we do, to trust that God will provide for our needs.
As it turned out, there was a God-fearing landowner in Bethlehem who cared for the poor: a man named Boaz, who was a distant relative of Naomi’s. Ruth had no obvious reason to pick one field over the next, but she ended up in Boaz’s field (v. 3). The narrator is inviting us to see, there was no such thing as luck driving this chain of events. This was all part of a higher plan. It was nothing less than a divine appointment that brought Ruth to the fields of Boaz. Ruth trusted in the Lord; He directed her steps unwittingly to exactly the right location (Prov. 16:9).
In due course, the divine appointment-maker also brought Boaz to his fields to see how the harvest was progressing (vv. 4-7). As Boas looked out over the scene before him, something struck him. Among the gleaning poor was an unfamiliar figure. He therefore asked “Whose is she?” – not “Who is she?” as if he expected a name, but “Whom does she belong to? Where does she fit in society?” (v. 5). The foreman replied, in effect, “Oh she’s that foreigner who came back from Moab with Naomi – you know the one. She’s an outsider; she doesn’t really belong anywhere. But I can tell you, she worked like a dog in this hot sun all day.”
Boaz indeed knew the one of whom the foreman spoke. He had heard all about Ruth abandoning her people and her land for Naomi’s sake, and now he found her hard at work in his field for the sake of her mother-in-law. In spite of the difference between their social standings, Boaz spoke to her as a person (“my daughter”) and he made her a generous offer (vv. 9-12).
Can you imagine the impact these words must have had on Ruth, the outsider? These were the first kind words she had heard since she left Moab. More than that, they were a blessing that sought God’s favor upon her, as if she too were a member of the covenant community. No wonder Ruth was comforted, then, by Boaz’s generosity. She said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kingly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants” (v. 13). Ruth, the outsider, had been made to feel welcome to come in.
Boaz’s kindness was not limited to mere words, however. Rather than leave her at a distance at the mealtime, as she would have expected, he invited her to draw near (v. 14). Though Ruth had probably brought little or nothing to eat, Boaz provided her a share of his own food: special treats of bread dipped in sour wine and roasted grain so that, for once she had enough to eat. Boaz even commanded his men to be deliberately careless in their harvesting, so that this poor widow would have an abundance to carry home with her (vv. 15-19).
No wonder Naomi was astonished at what Ruth had gathered; somewhere between twenty-nine and fifty pounds of grain, or several weeks’ worth of food for the average worker. When Ruth returned home, there was plenty to eat, and also plenty to talk about (vv. 19-23). All of a sudden, faced with the mound of food that Ruth had brought home, the practical evidence of God’s goodness to her, Naomi’s attitude began to change.
First, Naomi’s heart began to soften toward God (v. 20). Suddenly, Naomi was beginning to see that the Lord wasn’t out to get her. In fact, He was still able and willing to smile upon her, to show her covenant faithfulness, in spite of her history of sin and rebellion. Ruth’s one-day outing, in which she went out empty and came back full because the Lord went ahead of her, persuaded Naomi that perhaps she had been too quick with her bitterness. The Lord was able and willing to provide for their physical needs after all. She began to recognize that, contrary to what she had earlier thought, the Lord had not stopped showing His covenant faithfulness to her and Ruth.
There is even a hint of repentance in Naomi’s strong urging of Ruth to heed Boaz’s counsel to stay from now on in his fields, rather than going into the fields of another, lest she come to any harm (v. 22). Now Naomi could see how foolish the decision was to move to the fields of Moab in search of greener grass had been. She was thus warning Ruth not to repeat her own pattern of sin: “Stay in the fields of the one upon whom the Lord’s blessing rests. Don’t go wandering off as I did!”
But food was only one of the things that Ruth lacked. She had not simply given up her best prospect of physical sustenance by going with Naomi, she had also – to all human appearances – given up the prospect of marriage and a home of her own. Even though she now had food, she still needed a husband, a lack that is emphasized by the closing statement of the chapter (v. 23). However, If God has faithfully provided so abundantly for Ruth’s need of food, will He not also supply her needs in this other area?
The apostle Paul says, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, though, does it? Sometimes it may seem as if God has turned His face away from us and closed His ears to our prayers. It may even seem that He has stopped showing us His faithfulness after all. Yet the Book of Ruth is a glorious testimony to Paul’s statement: God will meet all our needs. In her grief and confusion, Naomi had misunderstood God and misjudged Ruth. She had failed to see that the Lord is the God who welcomes the outsider. She had forgotten that He is the shepherd who does not stop showing His covenant faithfulness to the wandering sheep. She didn’t remember that He is the Father who waits with open arms to welcome back the prodigal daughter. God’s faithfulness never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning (Lam. 3:22), and will accompany us every step along the hard road of life, until our faithful God welcomes us into our heavenly home.
Ruth 2:1-23 Study Questions:
How does Ruth take initiative as this chapter begins (vv. 1-2)? What does Naomi’s response tell us about her demeanor perhaps changing toward Ruth?
The narrator’s literal words, in Hebrew, tell us that Ruth came to Boaz’s field “as if by chance” (v. 3). How should we understand this “coincidence” in light of the sovereign plan of God?
What do Boaz’s first words in the narrative tell us about his character (v. 4)? How does Boaz’s initial conversation with Ruth further develop and reveal his character and integrity (vv. 8-12?
What has Boaz obviously heard about Ruth already? What special commands does he give to his men concerning her (vv. 15-16)?
How does Naomi respond to Ruth’s day of gleaning (v. 18)? What instructions does she give to Ruth when Boas’s identity is revealed to her (vv. 19-22)? What hints are we getting as to Naomi’s softening heart? What does she say about God? What are we learning about God through His goodness and grace in this chapter?
There are moments in life when God’s pursuit of us seems like that of a persistent mosquito, constantly buzzing around our heads and causing pain, and we are utterly powerless to shake him off. Certainly, Naomi was thinking of God in those terms in the second half of Ruth 1. Having departed from the Promised Land with a husband and two sons to go to the greener fields of Moab, she had been left utterly bereft of support by their death. Moab was no longer a viable place for her to live; she had no choice but to return home. There was food at last in Bethlehem, and perhaps she too, widow that she was, might yet be able to eke out the rest of her miserable existence there.
But what should Naomi do about her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth? At first, they all set out to go back to Judah together. But was the choice Naomi was making, to go home to Bethlehem, the right choice for them as well? This was the dilemma Naomi faced on the road out of Moab (vv. 6-13). While Bethlehem had once been Naomi’s home, it was never theirs. Her people were not their people. And if Orpah and Ruth came with her, it would mean two more mouths to feed on a fixed and limited budget, two more bodies to clothe and house, all the while dependent on the charity of family members.
What made it far worse for Naomi to contemplate, though, was the fact that these two were foreigners who would hardly be welcome in polite society in Bethlehem. Orpah made the sensible choice and went back home (v. 14). Orpah looked her situation in life clearly in the face and made the necessary decisions by using exactly the same logic that Naomi had followed earlier: the fields of Moab looked far greener than the land of Israel. With that simple, sensible choice she marched off, out of the pages of the Bible.
Then there was Ruth. Ruth was a nobody, an outsider, a Moabite of all things. There was nothing kosher about Ruth. Conventional wisdom shouted for Ruth to follow the way of Orpah, the most likely way of worldly security and significance. But Ruth was not Orpah and there was nothing conventional about her. She would not let Naomi go on alone to her empty future. Ruth was glued to her mother-in-law, and nothing and no one could send her away (v. 15). But in a crescendo of commitment, Ruth poured out her heart to Naomi (vv. 16-17). Here is an astonishing act of surrender and self-sacrifice. Ruth was laying down her entire life to serve Naomi.
In response, Naomi said nothing (v. 18). Isn’t Naomi’s silence an astonishing response to her daughter-in-law’s words? Ruth’s words were far from welcome words for Naomi in her state of bitterness. She had nothing to say to this unwanted outpouring. For confirmation that this was indeed her line of thinking, consider what she said when she and Ruth finally reached Bethlehem, and the townswomen gathered around her (vv. 19-21).
As she returned to Bethlehem Naomi summed up her experience while she had been away. “Don’t call me Naomi (“Pleasant”) anymore,” she said. “Instead, call me Mara (“Bitter”). I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. I left here with everything; now I’m left with absolutely nothing.” But if Naomi evaluates her present situation on her return to Bethlehem as having absolutely nothing, what does that make Ruth? Less than nothing?
Naomi may have been returning to the Lord’s land in body, but she was not exactly returning to the Lord with a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Mara, “Bitter,” was exactly the right name for Naomi now. It was a name with a history, a history of God’s people rebelling at His perceived lack of provision for their needs. It was at Marah in the wilderness on the way out of Egypt that the children of Israel grumbled against the Lord because they couldn’t drink the water (Ex. 15:23-24).
Like her ancestors, Naomi’s heart was angry with God for the way her life was turning out. She was experiencing the pain of life in the desert and felt that the judgment that had befallen her were all God’s fault. The Lord had “testified against” her (v. 21); that is, He had called her to account. Her losses were attributable directly to the Almighty’s acts of judgment against her. In response, her heart had grown hard and bitter toward Him, both recognizing and at the same time resenting His power in her life. At this point, there was no whisper of acknowledgment in her heart of her own responsibility in choosing the path of disobedience that had led her away from the Promised Land in the first place.
Naomi was simply resentful that the greener pastures of Moab, outside the land of promise, had actually turned into a desert in her experience. The prodigal daughter may now have been back home in her Father’s land physically, but she was back only because she didn’t see any prospect of continued survival among the pigs in the far country. Her body may have made the journey home, but her spirit was still far from restored.
So, what does this passage say to us? In the first place, it addresses us as people who are just like Orpah and Ruth. Like Orpah and Ruth, there was nothing kosher about us when we were born. On the contrary, we were outsiders to the gospel, outsiders to grace, by nature objects of God’s wrath, even if we grew up in a Christian home. By nature, we were dead in our transgressions and sins, as Paul puts it (Eph. 2:1). We all need a new birth – to be born of the Spirit, as Jesus told Nicodemus – in order to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5).
Like Orpah and Ruth, as natural-born outsiders, we cannot simply slide into the kingdom. We are all faced with a crucial choice at some point in our lives, a dividing of the ways. We can continue to seek our security and significance in the world’s way, as Orpah did. We can seek to find meaning and value in our career, our family, our health, or our wealth. Or, alternatively, we can choose the way of Ruth; choosing the gospel way to true life. It is a daunting path that can be taken only by faith, by throwing oneself on the mercy and favor of Israel’s God. As outsiders, we have nothing to offer Him except our emptiness.
Ruth embraced that emptiness, and trusted that Naomi’s God would be her God also. This road necessarily passes through the way of the cross, the way of dying to self and to our own interests. In one sense, the gospel road is the easiest path in the world, for we bring to it nothing except our own need. In another sense, though, it is the hardest path, for the cross is a continual stumbling block to anyone who wants to bring anything to contribute to one’s own salvation. The way of the cross means constantly dying to self-interest, putting the needs and desires of others first, whether or not their response is one of gratitude and thanks. It means pouring out our lives for others, even in the face of their bitterness of spirit.
If Naomi in her self-pitying myopia failed to look back to God’s grace in the exodus as the source of her hope, what about us as we face our own trials? What do we need to remember? The gospel is the fundamental answer to Naomi’s need and to our own. Tremendous asset that she will prove to be, Ruth is not the final answer to Naomi’s needs. Ruth is simply a pointer to the gospel, a small symbol of God’s grace that pointed Naomi to the great symbols of God’s grace. The gospel is the fundamental answer, both for our lack of trust in God and for our lack of concern for the nations.
Ruth 1:6-22 Study Questions:
Why does Naomi so forcefully oppose the idea of Ruth and Orpah returning with her to Bethlehem (vv. 6-13)? What other difficulties might they face in the land of Israel, given their Moabite ethnicity?
What do you notice about Ruth’s impassioned speech to Naomi? What commitments does she make? What does she affirm? Is there evidence, in her words, of genuine faith in God? What is surprising about Naomi’s response to Ruth?
As the chapter ends, why might the narrator have included the detail about the beginning of the “barley harvest” (v. 22)? How is this a hint that God is not yet finished with Naomi? How is this detail a reminder of God’s grace to His people – both then and now?
In every life there are certain defining moments, key crossroads along the way. On the one hand, there are certain times when a person consciously chooses his or her destination. On the other hand, though, there are also times in life when it seems your destination had chosen you. These are the occasions when life gives us no choice at all, but thrusts us willy-nilly down a path that, however well or little traveled, we would never have chosen for ourselves. No one chooses to have her husband die, leaving her a widow with young children. No one chooses to have a crippling accident or a life-threatening disease with permanent consequences. These too can be defining moments in a life. But all of us – whether defined by choices we have made or the choices life has made for us – are on a journey through life, a road that is heading toward some destination or other. Where are you going?
The first chapter of the Book of Ruth is the story of choices made and choices seemingly thrust upon people, about roads traveled or left untraveled. It is about the long-term consequences of the decisions we make. Often the consequences are not those we expected and anticipated, but our lives nonetheless bear the mark of the decisions we have made and the defining moments we have faced. The Book of Ruth shows us that our actions have consequences. However, our lives are not simply the consequence of the various decisions we have made and events that have occurred, as if the universe were a giant supercomputer into which we feed all of the variables and come out with a predictable answer.
There is a mysterious X-factor that is evident in the Book of Ruth – a variable that has the power to change everything. It is the grace of God, which directs the outcomes of those decisions and events according to His sovereignty and good purpose for His people. That grace is not always evident to the players in the game at the time. But it is always there, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. Ultimately, for Christians, the grace of God is always the defining element of our lives.
The Book of Ruth starts with a description of the times in which the events took place (v. 1). It is a theological description of the character of the times in which these events take place. During the days of the judges, everyone did as seemed best in his own eyes, for there was no king in the land (Judg. 21:25).
There is a repeated cycle (or, more precisely, a downward spiral) of events in the Book of Judges. At the beginning of each cycle, God’s people rebelled against Him and sinned. Next, God acted in judgment against them. Then the people repented and cried out to the Lord. At least they did this the first few times they passed through the cycle. Later on, in the Book of Judges, though, this step of repentance is missing. Finally, at the end of each cycle, the Lord sent a deliverer to rescue His people, and they experienced some measure of rest. The final chapters of the Book of Judges (Judg. 17-21) stand outside this downward spiral and show us in graphic detail a nation that had comprehensively lost its way, becoming every bit as bad as the pagan nations that were previous inhabitants of the Promised Land.
It was in these difficult days that a man moved his family out of Israel (v.2). Unfaithfulness to God had once again resulted in a famine in the land. The ultimate irony had occurred: Bethlehem, whose very name means “House of Bread,” was a place of no food. In that situation, Elimelech had a choice to make, a road to choose. He could stay in Bethlehem, the empty breadbasket of Judah, mourning the sin that surrounded him and trusting God to provide for him. Alternatively, he could leave the Promised Land behind in search of greener fields, in this case the fields of Moab, where food was more abundant.
The road to Moab turned out to be the road to nowhere. That reality was not immediately apparent, of course. But then it rarely is. At first it seemed as if Elimelech had made the sensible choice. While his kinsmen back home were suffering and hungry, there was food in Moab. Like the prodigal son in the story Jesus told (Luke 15L11-32), Elimelech’s stay in the far country went well at the outset. He was able to support his wife and two sons in comfort, and after a while Moab became home. Perhaps there never was a conscious decision to settle there permanently. Like so many, they now seemed simply to be drifting through life without any grand plan.
Somewhere along the road, however, being in Moab took on a more permanent cast (vv. 3-4). Now after Elimelech’s death the remnant of the family had a decision to make. They could repent and go back home to their own land and their own God, or they could stay where they were in exile. Tellingly, their choice was to stay. They still rated their prospects more highly in Moab than in Judah; they felt more at home in the land of compromise than in the land of promise. As a result of that road not taken, Naomi’s sons then took Moabite women as wives (v. 4), even though the law of Moses had commanded them not to do so (Deut. 7:3). Once entered upon, the road to continued and deepened disobedience is often smoothly paved and provides little resistance.
This too is often the way it is for us. Choosing to step outside God’s revealed will may come at the end of a lengthy period of wrestling with our consciences. Yet remaining on the outside may well require less effort. The prodigal’s decision to leave home was a deliberate one; remaining in the far country after all his money had been squandered required only an absence of thought. Indeed, sometimes the biggest obstacle to returning home is our pride. We hate the thought of having to return to our homes and our families with our lives in tatters and having to admit that our previous choice was wrong.
Even after Elimelech had died, though, Naomi was still reasonably well situated in life. She had her sons, after all. They were young and married and had every prospect of providing future descendants to take care of her in her old age. For ten years, everything seemed to be proceeding sufficiently according to plan, although the barrenness of both of her son’s wives ought surely to have been recognized as a sign that God was not blessing the family.
Worse was to come for Naomi (v. 5). In the space of half a verse, Naomi’s whole world came crashing down around her, and she was left alone, a remnant of one under the judgment of God. Who would support a foreign widow in her declining years? So, Naomi faced another defining moment in her life. It was time to make another choice – though this time, it hardly seemed like much of a choice at all. She would have to swallow her pride and go back to God’s people, in Bethlehem, where she had heard that there was now food again (v. 6).
The Book of Ruth addresses us as people who are just like Elimelech and Naomi. Like them, we often find that the grass seems greener in the fields on the Moabite side of the fence. The temptation to abandon the bread of heaven for this world’s provisions is very strong, especially during times when the bread of heaven seems scarce. The option of choosing the land of compromise (in this case Moab) instead of faithfully persevering by faith in the land of promise is a constant theme in the Old Testament. The food that the unpromised land offers seems very real, very tangible, and easily available in contrast to the promises of God, which constantly test our faith and our trust.
God is committed to save for Himself a people of His own. He does this not by searching for perfect paragons of virtue, but rather by reaching down to rebellious sinners and transforming them from the inside out. This is usually a slow work, as it was in Naomi’s case, but God is not in a hurry. This slow work often involves painful paths, as God strips away the things in which we have placed our trust instead of Him. All along the hard road to heaven, though, the love of God draws us and drives us to Himself and will not let us go. What an awesome God He is! How great are His mercy and grace!
Ruth 1:1-5 Study Questions:
How might verse 1 provide not only a historical setting for the story of Ruth but also a theological setting for these events? Why might the intentional mention of the “judges” ruling be so significant for our understanding of this account?
While the narrator doesn’t comment on the morality of Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab, what might we assume about this choice (v. 2)? Why might that have been a dangerous, if not a sinful, move for Elimelech to make?
Even after the death of her husband, Naomi would have been well cared for with her two sons still alive. Why would their deaths, then, have been such a crushing blow for her (v. 5)? What seems to awaken in her a desire to return to the land of Israel?