The story of Ruth isn’t a fairy tale tucked away in a corner of the OT. Though there’s high drama, disaster, intrigue, even romance, this episode is more than just thrilling narrative. Rather, it’s an anticipation of the redemption of all things in the coming of the promised Seed. The literature is delightful, the story is thrilling, but the providence & purpose behind it all is glorious beyond compare.
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 Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehemjudah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there. And Elimelech Naomi’s husband died; and she was left, and her two sons. And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years. And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband. […]Ruth 1:1-22
Summary of the Text
During the wild-west days of Israel, when the judges judged, a famine came upon Israel (Cf. Jdg. 6:3-4) and the severity compelled Elimelech to resort to sojourning in the fields of Moab, along with his wife, Naomi, and his two aptly named sons Mahlon (sickly) & Chilion (pining) (vv1-2). Then the hard times got harder when Elimelech died. Though Naomi’s hope arose through the marriage of her two sons to Moabitess women (Ruth & Orpah), it was soon dashed to pieces by the tragic death of the sons before they’d brought forth any sons themselves (vv3-5).
Rumor of returned abundance upon the Lord’s people reached Naomi, so she set out to return to Bethlehem, accompanied by her daughters-in-law (vv6-7). She gives them her blessing to depart without any obligation to her (vv8-9); initially, they both refuse (v10). She reasons a second time with them, remonstrating with them that she has no hope of providing them husbands, in satisfaction of the levirate law (Cf. Deu. 25:5); this demonstrates–not for the last time–her godliness & piety (vv11-13). Ruth & Orpah are clearly affected by her speech, but whereas Orpah is compelled to return home, Ruth clings the closer to Naomi (v14). Naomi tries a third time to persuade Ruth (v15); but Ruth wonderfully avows her steadfast resolve to remain united to both the people & God of Naomi (vv16-17). Seeing Ruth’s resolve, Naomi ends the debate; they come at last to Bethlehem, causing a great hubbub amongst the Bethlehemites (vv18-19). Naomi insists on being renamed “Mara” to reflect the afflictions which the Lord’s hand had brought upon her (v20-21). Like any good story, a clue is given to us by informing us that the return to Bethlehem took place at a specific season of the year: the barley harvest (v22).
Setting the Stage
The initial crisis of this story is striking: a breadless house of bread. It’s likely that this famine came about during Gideon’s time, when the Midianites had brought ruin upon the fields of Israel. This tale (likely written by Samuel) is intended as an origin story for the house of David. That being the case, admitting to his “tainted” ancestry seems problematic. But the story “leans into” this controversy. In the end we see that God always intended the arc of Israelite history result in gathering in the Gentiles into the harvest of Redemption. Not only that, but this narrative is asserting that the prophecy of Jacob that the scepter would not depart from Judah is being fulfilled through these twists and turns of providence. The crooked lines of man can’t thwart God’s purposes.
Moabites were descended from the incestuous union of Lot and his eldest daughter (Moab means, “from my father”) (Gen 19:37). Moses had warned against marrying “strange women” (Ex. 34:16); Solomon, later on, repeatedly warns his sons against being enticed by the “strange woman” (Pr. 2:16, 7:5). Balaam had prophesied that a scepter would arise from Israel, destroying Moab (Num. 24:17); he then concocted the scheme to seduce Israel into whoredom; this led to Phinehas’ heroic act (Num. 25:7-8). Moses died in the realm of Moab (Deu. 34:5). Moab had repeatedly persecuted Israel in the days of the judges, most famously by the tyranny of the enormous Eglon (Jdg. 3). In other words, by every token, we should be suspicious of Ruth.
The Breadless House of Bread
Naomi had fled the breadless House of Bread full (of offspring); but now the House of Bread was full of bread once more while she had been emptied. She is barren, and is accompanied by a barren, but loyal, daughter-in-law. The hope of having their inheritance in Israel preserved hangs by a thread.
Namoi could have resentfully claimed that the deuteronomic blessing rang hollow: “And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And ye shall eat old store, and bring forth the old because of the new. […] The LORD shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee (Lev. 26:5,10; Deu. 28:8).” Yet we find her devoutly explaining the Law to her daughters-in-law (Deu. 25:5). In the depths of bitter suffering, she endures without becoming bitter, and without spurning the Lord’s covenant promises.
Her three debates with Ruth & Orpah aren’t marked by the briny waters of self-pity. Her return to Bethlehem is a return of hope that the Lord who’d brought the judgement of famine upon His people, had now visited them with abundance. It was this hope which Ruth, by Naomi’s faithful witness, wished to join herself. Even in Ruth’s famous lines, we see a depth of understanding of Israelite law which can only be attributed to Naomi. Indeed, Naomi embodies the lines of that wonderful hymn:
Though vine nor fig tree neither their yearly fruit should bear,
though all the fields should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there,
yet God, the same abiding, His praise shall tune my voice,
for while in Him confiding I cannot but rejoice.
We Don’t Name Ourselves
One of the ironic features of this story is Naomi’s attempt to rename herself. She tasted the bitter cup which providence had sent her, and she thought she knew the ending of the story. But the Storyteller refuses to go along with her renaming. Despite telling everyone to call her Mara (bitterness), we get no indication that the Bethlehemites complied, and the narrative certainly doesn’t.
Naomi, in her just complaint, is learning the lesson which every saint must learn, to hope in God’s goodness, even when confronted with the most bitter trial. This is the same truth which Naomi’s descendant David would one day wonderfully compose in the 42nd Psalm. Why are you downcast? Hope in God. We don’t know the end of the matter. Thus we must trust ourselves to the One who shall give to His redeemed a new name (Cf. Rev. 2:17).
Forsaking Foreign Gods
The most poignant moment in this first act of the story is when Ruth avows her loyalty to the laws of Moses, the people of Israel, and, above all, Jehovah God. This is true faith. In Ruth, through Naomi’s witness of suffering through famine, exile, the valley of the shadow of death, and the pain of barrenness, we see that true faith looks not to circumstance but to the promise.
God had promised the Messiah, a conquering Seed, to Israel; Christ is not only there in the triumph, we must learn to see Him in the darkest and most bitter moments of Trial. This is all from His hand, and will all be worked together for the good of those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose.
Though there are many practical lessons to glean from these characters, and their example is worthy of emulation, the golden thread is found in Ruth’s confession of faith. Redemption is of God. She confesses this in the midst of barrenness, with future prospects of comfort & blessing looking bleak. Yet she sees clearly: the foreign gods are impotent. They won’t raise up a promised Seed. Out of Jacob shall the scepter rise, a promised Seed springing up to bring deliverance from all evil. The barley harvest has come, even for the barren woman.