From Trial to Testimony

(Please read Ruth 1:1-22.  The following remarks have been developed from study with the NIV.)

Message: One of the many reasons God allows suffering is so we can experience His salvation and be transformed to accomplish His purposes.

  1. Naomi’s destitution (1:1-14).

Naomi’s first experience of destitution was when famine “forced” her family to relocate (1:1-2).  I put the word “forced” in quotation marks because humans have always been prone to make excuses for themselves.  One way we do this is recast decisions we make as things we “had” to do; we can’t be assailed for making a wrong choice if we convince ourselves and others that we had no choice in the first place.  This observation is relevant to this passage when we note that not everyone left Bethlehem as Elimelech’s family did.  It’s clear the famine motivated their decision, but when Naomi returned to their ancestral home, people who’d lived there before were still there and they recognized her.  So – not everyone left and some survived the famine.  I’m merely emphasizing this was Elimelech’s choice.  This gives some substance to the traditional Jewish interpretation that Elimelech made a bad decision when he relocated his family.

Not to build too big a case on this one detail, but this is also good news.  It shows that one bad decision, even a catastrophically bad one, with deadly consequences, is not going to put us so far outside the will of God that we can’t be redeemed.  The book of Ruth is a story of redemption, a precursor to THE redemption story in the Gospels.  There is no sin that irredeemable or at least unusable in the redemptive plan of God.  GREAT STUFF!  OK, let’s carry on.

The last verse in Judges and the first verse in Ruth set the stage for this book: THE DAYS WHEN THE JUDGES RULED (1:1).  JUDGES were people God raised up to lead Israel out of periods of idolatry.  This period started with the death of Joshua (Moses’ successor) and lasted until the ministry of Samuel

Here’s how the Bible sums up that period of history; IN THOSE DAYS ISRAEL HAD NO KING; EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT (Judges 21:25).  Hint: that’s what Elimelech did when he decided Moab’s grass was greener.

Admittedly, this was not a decision made lightly.  After all, THERE WAS A FAMINE IN THE LAND.  Famines occurred as a result of raids conducted by neighboring nations or as the direct action of God in judgment for Israel’s sins.  The fact that Elimelech lead his entire family out of the country implies that the famine was not limited to Bethlehem and environs.  The text makes it clear that the scope of the famine was not just local, but it was not international either.  Of course famines do not respect political boundaries, but sometimes reflect neighboring nation’s different practices.  It should also be noted that Elimelech’s intent was not to resettle, only TO LIVE [there] FOR A WHILE.

In order to appreciate the depth of their decision, we can compare cultures.  In our very mobile modern culture, people move frequently.  With increasing globalization moving to other countries becomes increasingly commonplace.  But in this culture, here’s what this family gave up:

– Abandonment of ancestral lands; who else would tend to the house and fields?

– Severance from family and clan and all the relations within the tribe of Ephraim.

– Even leaving behind God.  At this time, the prevalent belief was “henotheism;” the belief that all gods were real and that they were most powerful in their own homelands.  This family was not just leaving the tabernacle and other tokens of faith, they were leaving their God’s domain and entering the lands where another god reigned.  (NOTE; this belief is not biblical –it is not accurate – but is occasionally noted in the Bible that people believed it.  Indeed, Naomi’s remarks in this first chapter seem very henotheistic when we reread them from this point of view.)

Naomi also suffered the devastation of grief and poverty when death took all the men from her family. (1:3-5)

The head of the household was named “Elimelech,” which means “God is king.”  We are not told how long the family lived in Moab before Elimelch died.  Jewish rabbis understood his death to be a sign of God’s judgment against him for leaving his homeland.

The names of the sons are a lot less positive. “Mahlon” means “to be sterile, weak, ill, pierce.”  (On the plus side, it could also be translated as “crown.”)  “Kilion” is based on a word that means “at an end, weakening, or pining.”  While you don’t want to read too much into this level of detail, perhaps the names of Ruth’s sons are offered as explanation for their dying young and childless.  We’re not told how far into their life in Moab Naomi’s sons married; only that after having been in Moab a total of ten years, her sons died.  In that culture, to die childless was a sign of destitution; especially after having been married for years.

The Law did not forbid marriage with Moabites (see Deuteronomy 7:1+3), but they were not considered part of the congregation of the Lord until the tenth generation after the marriage (see Deuteronomy 23:3 and Nehemiah 13:1-3).  In spite of this ambiguity, Jewish rabbis assumed that the deaths of Naomi’s sons were a sign of God’s judgment against them for marrying pagan women.

Regarding the daughters-in-law, here’s what we know about these Moabit maids. The meaning of the name “Orpah” is difficult to determine; It can be everything from “stiff-necked” to “perfume,” so there’s no help there.  “Ruth,” however, is easier to trace.  It means “friend or friendship, abundantly watered.”

One devastation lead Elimelech to decide to leave their homeland, then the devastating loss of her husband and sons lead Naomi to decide to return.  Her decision is a natural one; when you’re hurting and alone, going home sounds extra good.  Also, being without a male head of household was the same as being homeless.  Widows were just above slaves on the social ladder of Israel; who knows about Moab?  So, given the choice of being a “bag lady” in a foreign land or returning home to the charity of her kinfolk, Naomi chose the easier of the two.

  1. Naomi’s decisions (1:6-14, 19-21).

Her first decision to separate herself from her daughters-in-law. (1:6-14)  While there was certainly sentiment and emotion involved, the way Naomi handled this situation tends more toward a practical decision.

– ONE, she’d heard THAT THE LORD HAD [provided] FOOD FOR His people. So the green grass was now back in Israel.

– TWO, she realized that three mouths to feed would be harder for her kinfolk to support and probably harder for her to arrange.

– The girls might have a harder time being pagans living in Israel.

– If they returned to their fathers’ households, they would be cared for and the process of finding them new husbands would be initiated.  Their best chance was to return to their homes.

All three of them prepared to leave, perhaps with Orpah and Ruth assuming they would go with Naomi as she was now head of their household.  It seems from their reaction in the text that she surprised them (vs. 8+9).  In all, this was a sensible decision and probably the most loving thing Ruth could do for her daughters-in-law.  So when they stood at the head of the road, she formally released them from any obligation to her.  She offered a blessing on them (REST can be translated as “security”) and kissed them.

Their mutual tears reveal how traumatic this was for Ruth and Orpah, as does their initial refusal to leave Naomi (9+10).  This speaks well of these women and of Naomi.  Naomi shows her own tender heart in verse thirteen when she refers to them as “MY DAUGHTERS.”

In vs. 11-13, Naomi attempts to reason with them, showing how it was impossible for her to raise up sons to keep them in her household.  This assumes Naomi’s mind was on the Law of Moses, specifically the provision that a man would marry his brother’s widow and raise children in his place (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

Naomi’s second decision was theological: she decided God’s hand was against her. (1:13)  As Naomi attempted to reason with her daughters-in-law, Naomi explained that her lot in life was worse than that of her daughters-in-law; she had no hope for remarriage and the remainder of her days would be dependent wholly on the charity of others.  It should be easy for us to sympathize and see how Naomi would be bitter and angry with God for bringing this calamity on her.

Notice that the text neither commends nor condemns Naomi’s decision about the LORD’s intent.  The story simply is what it is.  As such, it’s more of a commentary on human nature than divine nature.  However, the Bible gives us evidence everywhere that God is in charge and that He is the hero of every story.

Naomi’s third decision was to be characterized as “bitter.”  We see this explicitly stated later, in verses 19-21, when Naomi wants to change her name.

Notice how this happens.  Her family greets her in a friendly way; THE WHOLE TOWN WAS STIRRED, AND THE WOMEN ASKED, “CAN THIS BE NAOMI?”  This may have just been a friendly, folksy kind of greeting.  But there may have been more to it than that; after at least 10 years away and after all the grief she suffered, Naomi’s appearance may have been altered.

Naomi reacted to this welcome negatively and strongly; she wanted her name changed to reflect her changed circumstances.  “Naomi” means “pleasant.” “Mara” means “bitter.”  What’s amusing about this is that nobody else buys it.  Nowhere in this book is Naomi ever called “Mara.”  This is her grief talking.

Even here faith is active; Naomi did not blame here trials on bad luck or the devil or other gods, she acknowledged that God was in control and He was making these things happen to her.  She may not understand or appreciate her trials, but they have not caused a crisis of faith for her.

Indeed, it is an immature faith that attributes pleasant things to God and unpleasant things to someone else.  If we say that anything happens outside the will of God then we do not believe in the Almighty God of the Bible.

  1. Naomi’s deliverance (1:14-18).

God used Ruth’s love to deliver Naomi from bitterness (1:14-18).  We’ll see this developed throughout the remainder of the book, but need to note it now.

Apparently Orpah was a practical person; she gave way to Naomi’s logic and reluctantly turned back to her father’s house (1:14).  Her virtue was obedience; nowhere in the Bible is she criticized for it.

But Ruth refused the easier path, the one more sensible if seen in worldly wisdom.  She chose the loving path instead and CLUNG to Naomi.  This reminds me of Jesus’ Resurrection when the women CLUNG to the feet of the resurrected Jesus, (see Matthew 28:9).  The word CLUNG is significant in the original languages; it is used to express the ideal of intimacy that can be achieved in any relationship, usually marriage (Genesis 2:24; 1 Kings 11:2).

Ruth’s response to Naomi’s logic is heart-strong; it stands as one of the most classic declarations of love in all of literature.  It is often used in weddings.  Most importantly, it demonstrates that Ruth’s commitment is total.   No commentary on those words is needed; they speak for themselves.  One thing to note: Ruth, though a Moabite, has clearly heard Naomi’s faith as she invokes the LORD as a witness and guarantee of her oath.  Part of the beauty of this statement is that it was a convincer.  After Ruth said all this, Naomi gave up on trying to argue with her.

Ruth is rightly praised for her commitment, but we must see Naomi’s influence behind it.  Think about it – she must have done something to inspire Ruth to this level of devotion.

The end of the story: RUTH WAS PART OF JESUS’ FAMILY TREE.  As we’ll see in the fourth sermon in this series, Ruth was one of the ancestors of Jesus.

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