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Return to Bethlehem (Ruth 1)

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1 During the time of the judges there was a famine in the land of Judah. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah went to live as a resident foreigner in the region of Moab, along with his wife and two sons. 2 (Now the man’s name was Elimelech, his wife was Naomi, and his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were of the clan of Ephrath from Bethlehem in Judah.) They entered the region of Moab and settled there. 3 Sometime later Naomi’s husband Elimelech died, so she and her two sons were left alone. 4 So her sons married Moabite women. (One was named Orpah and the other Ruth.) And they continued to live there about ten years. 5 Then Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, also died. So the woman was left all alone – bereaved of her two children as well as her husband! 6 So she decided to return home from the region of Moab, accompanied by her daughters-in-law, because while she was living in Moab she had heard that the Lord had shown concern for his people, reversing the famine by providing abundant crops.

7 Now as she and her two daughters-in-law began to leave the place where she had been living to return to the land of Judah, 8 Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Listen to me! Each of you should return to your mother’s home! May the Lord show you the same kind of devotion that you have shown to your deceased husbands and to me! 9 May the Lord enable each of you to find security in the home of a new husband!” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept loudly. 10 But they said to her, “No! We will return with you to your people.”

11 But Naomi replied, “Go back home, my daughters! There is no reason for you to return to Judah with me! I am no longer capable of giving birth to sons who might become your husbands! 12 Go back home, my daughters! For I am too old to get married again. Even if I thought that there was hope that I could get married tonight and conceive sons, 13 surely you would not want to wait until they were old enough to marry! Surely you would not remain unmarried all that time! No, my daughters, you must not return with me. For my intense suffering is too much for you to bear. For the Lord is afflicting me!”

14 Again they wept loudly. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung tightly to her. 15 So Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law back home!” 16 But Ruth replied,

“Stop urging me to abandon you!

For wherever you go, I will go.

Wherever you live, I will live.

Your people will become my people,

and your God will become my God.

17 Wherever you die, I will die – and there I will be buried.

May the Lord punish me severely if I do not keep my promise!

Only death will be able to separate me from you!”

18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped trying to dissuade her. 19 So the two of them journeyed together until they arrived in Bethlehem.

When they entered Bethlehem, the whole village was excited about their arrival. The women of the village said, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 But she replied to them, “Don’t call me ‘Naomi’! Call me ‘Mara’ because the Sovereign One has treated me very harshly. 21 I left here full, but the Lord has caused me to return empty-handed. Why do you call me ‘Naomi,’ seeing that the Lord has opposed me, and the Sovereign One has caused me to suffer?” 22 So Naomi returned, accompanied by her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, who came back with her from the region of Moab. (Now they arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.) (Ruth 1:1-22)2

Introduction

It was a good number of years ago that I sat in on an excellent elective class taught by my friend, Tom Wright. The subject was the Book of Ruth. In the past, Naomi was always portrayed in a somewhat flattering way. And yet as the story of Ruth unfolded this time, it suddenly became obvious to me that Naomi was no role model. When I realized this, I blurted out, “What a witch!”, much to the surprise of the rest of the class. As the years have gone by, I may have mellowed in the terms I would use to portray Naomi, but my opinion of her has not really changed. In fact, my study for this sermon has caused me to think of Naomi in even less flattering terms. I’ll attempt to support my conclusions as we proceed in our study of this book.

Having started off on a rather negative note, let me hasten to say that the Book of Ruth is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have just come from the Book of Judges. You will note from the first verse of chapter 1 that the setting for the story of Ruth is the times of the judges. The closing chapters of the Book of Judges contain some of the most gruesome accounts in all of the Bible – homosexual Benjamites want to rape a guest in their city; a woman is brutally gang raped by these same men; her husband seems more than willing to sacrifice her to save his life, and then he chops her dead body into twelve pieces which he delivers to every part of Israel. And all of this resulted in the near annihilation of one of the twelve tribes (Benjamin) and a conspiracy to acquire wives for the remaining Benjamites in a way that was morally unacceptable.

What a relief it is to leave Judges behind and come to the Book of Ruth! In spite of the fact that Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his two sons (Mahlon and Kilion) are living according to the spirit of their day (“doing what is right in their own eyes”), two people (Ruth and Boaz) stand out as examples of those who live by faith in the God of Israel, and whose lives exemplify living in accordance with God’s Word. And one of these two – Ruth – is a Moabite, not an Israelite. In the dark shadows of the days of the judges, we find two individuals whose lives are truly lights in the darkness. Here is a story that not only warms our hearts, it encourages our faith by unveiling the providential hand of God in bringing salvation and blessing during one of the darkest periods in history.

A Word about the Moabites

Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely Christian in a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. His name was Nate Mirza. When we met, I had no idea who he was, but he introduced himself something like this,

“Hi, Bob, I’m Nate Mirza. I’m an Assyrian – not a Syrian. We don’t have a very good reputation in the Bible.”

I remember responding to Nate, “Neither do the rest of us.” Well, if this is true of us, it is certainly true of the Moabites. It would do us well to review where the Moabites came from and how they related to Israel in the past.

We read of the origin of the Moabites in Genesis 19,3 just after the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As you will recall, Mrs. Lot was turned to salt because she looked back at the city. Lot fled with his daughters and was living in a cave. His oldest daughter concluded that their father would die without an heir. She persuaded her younger sister to help her get him drunk, and then for both of them to sleep with him to produce offspring for him. The oldest daughter went first, bearing a son whom she named Moab. The younger daughter then did likewise and bore a son named Ammon. The Moabites were the result of the initiative and immorality of Lot’s oldest daughter. No wonder they didn’t have a great reputation.

It was a bad start, and sadly things didn’t get any better over time. Many years later, the Israelites were camped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho, poised to enter the Promised Land. Fearing they would be overrun by the Israelites, Balak (king of Moab)4 hired Balaam to curse Israel. We know that this backfired because Balaam could not curse those whom God had blessed.5 When this approach did not work, Balaam counseled Balak how to harm Israel in a very different way – by having the Moabite women seduce the Israelite men.6 One might easily infer from this that the Moabites, like the Canaanites, were a sexually immoral people (in a way that tempted the Israelites). From these events, we can easily see that the Moabites were no friend to Israel. No wonder God forbade Moabites from entering the assembly to the tenth generation.7

Moab’s hostility and opposition to Israel continued on into the period of the Judges. In Judges 3, we read that the Israelites were subject to Eglon, king of Moab, for 18 years.8 Since the Moabites were not Canaanites, marriage to a Moabite was not strictly forbidden.9 Nevertheless, Moabites were not only regarded as aliens or foreigners, but also as “second class citizens.” Marriage to a Moabite was not something one did to gain status in Israel.

The Story of Chapter 1 Retold

A famine plagued Israel in the days of the judges. We are not told how wide-spread it was, but we do know that it affected Bethlehem (which ironically means “house of bread”). In an effort to escape the famine, a man named Elimelech took his family to Moab, where he intended for his family to sojourn until the famine ended.10 How could he have imagined how long his family would stay? Elimelech had a wife named Naomi and two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. While they were in Moab, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi and her two sons. It must have been on Naomi’s watch that these two sons married their Moabite wives – Orpah and Ruth. Naomi and her sons lived in Moab for ten years and then both Mahlon and Kilion died as well, childless. From Ruth 4:13, one might infer that God prevented both Orpah and Ruth from bearing children to their husbands. Naomi was now left without a husband, without sons, and without grandchildren.

Word had reached Naomi in Moab that God had visited His people by ending the famine and providing abundant crops back in Israel. This news prompted her to return to her people and to her land. Orpah and Ruth were committed to returning to Israel with their mother-in-law. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law had already set out for Israel11 when Naomi began to have second thoughts – not about her return, but about having two Moabite daughters-in-law in tow when she arrived at her home town of Bethlehem. In our text, Naomi’s conversation with her daughters-in-law is couched in language that gives the appearance that she is encouraging them to return to their families and their land because this would be in their best interest. In Naomi’s mind, it probably was in their best interest, but it also appeared to benefit her.

As they continue their journey toward Bethlehem, Naomi makes a three-fold attempt to persuade Orpah and Ruth to return to their homes, rather than to accompany her all the way back to Israel. It took two attempts to convince Orpah to turn back and three attempts to convince Naomi that her efforts to turn Ruth away were futile. Naomi’s first attempt is described in verses 8-10. She urged her daughters-in-law to return to their mother’s home, with the expectation that the LORD would bless them with security in a marriage to a new12 Moabite husband. She then kissed both of them, a very clear signal of dismissal. Many tears were shed, but in the end both women refused to leave Naomi and return to their mother’s home. They insisted on going on to Israel with Naomi.

Naomi’s second effort13 will be less subtle and more pointed and forceful. Humanly speaking, staying with Naomi does not offer much promise of a good life for these Moabite widows. Naomi doesn’t mention that these women would likely not find an Israelite husband. Neither does she mention the mistreatment they would likely receive because Moab is Israel’s enemy, but they could probably read between the lines. Who would want a Moabite wife, especially a widow? Who would want Naomi for a mother-in-law?

What Naomi does mention pertains to marriage and child bearing. The “security in the home of a new husband” referred to earlier is now spelled out in plainer terms. The only hope Naomi sees for Orpah and Ruth is the hope of finding a Moabite husband and bearing children. If Naomi had other sons, she could give them to these women in Levirate marriage, but she has no other sons. She has no husband to father sons, and she is too old to bear children anyway. Even if she were able to bear children, it would be unreasonable for these two widows to wait 20 years for “replacement husbands.” No, in Naomi’s mind there was no good reason to remain with her as she returned to her homeland.

Naomi adds one final argument in favor of Orpah and Ruth returning home to Moab. Not only is Naomi unable to provide these women with husbands (and thus with children), God is also dealing harshly with her. The inference is clear: to remain with Naomi has no promise of blessing and every reason to expect that they will share in her divinely-imposed affliction. If God has it in for Naomi, what woman in her right mind would want to be closely associated with her?

More tears are shed. This time it is Orpah who kisses Naomi goodbye. She has been convinced and turns back to her own country. One has to ponder the outcome of her decision. Surely it fell short of what Ruth’s experience will be. Who thinks of Orpah today? Who even remembers her name?

Naomi’s third appeal is to Ruth alone, based on Orpah’s decision to return home. As Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye and turns back toward home, Ruth clings all the more tightly to her mother-in-law. Naomi seems to be encouraging Ruth to accompany Orpah as she returns home. It certainly would be safer for the two women to travel together, but it is Orpah who will travel alone, not Ruth.

We should note several things about Naomi’s third attempt to persuade Ruth to join Orpah as she returned to Moab in verse 15. We should first note that Naomi’s words here are prompted by Orpah’s decision to return home. Now that Orpah has decided to turn back, Naomi appears to have more leverage. Shouldn’t Ruth follow her lead? Wouldn’t it be better for the two of them to travel together? But Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi and clings to her tightly. Second, Naomi’s words are even more forceful here,14 issuing Ruth a command to leave her. But the most dramatic new development in Naomi’s argument is her reference to Orpah’s “god”: 15 “So Naomi said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law back home!’” (Ruth 1:15)

Without a doubt, this is the most amazing and distressing thing Naomi has said so far. How could any faithful Israelite encourage someone to return to their (false) god(s)? A godly Israelite would not only trust in the one true God, Yahweh, they would also know that there are no other gods. How could Naomi encourage Ruth (and, by inference, Orpah) to return to their god(s), when doing so would condemn them eternally? Serving the god(s) of Moab (or any others) was an abomination to God:

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

“Pay attention to do everything I have told you, and do not even mention the names of other gods– do not let them be heard on your lips” (Exodus 23:13).

“You must not bow down to their gods; you must not serve them or do according to their practices. Instead you must completely overthrow them and smash their standing stones to pieces” (Exodus 23:24).

1 When Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to commit sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab. 2 These women invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods; then the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 When Israel joined themselves to Baal-peor, the anger of the LORD flared up against Israel. 4 The LORD said to Moses, “Arrest all the leaders of the people, and hang them up before the LORD in broad daylight, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you must execute those of his men who were joined to Baal-peor” (Numbers 25:1-5).

Once again I would suggest that Naomi’s strong urging for Ruth and Orpah to return was as much for her interests as for her daughters-in-law. They would be a reminder that Naomi’s sons – their husbands – had not married Israelite wives. They would be a reminder that Elimelech and Naomi had left Bethlehem when the going got tough. They would be (or so it may have seemed to Naomi) a liability to her when she returned. But when she urged Ruth to return to her pagan god(s), that was the worst unkindness of all. Their ultimate blessing would have been to leave their land, their people, their false religion, and to identify with the Israelites and with their God. How could Naomi point them in the wrong direction?

Ruth would have none of this foolish talk, and she made this abundantly clear to her mother-in-law. First, she insisted that Naomi must cease urging her to turn back. Then she firmly stated her commitment to Naomi, to Israel, and to Israel’s God as a covenant. She would go where Naomi went and live where she lived. Naomi’s people (Israel) would be her people, and Naomi’s God would be her God. Ruth would not only do this until death separated them, she would do so in death. She would be buried where Naomi was buried. Not even death would separate them. And in good covenant form, she pronounced a curse upon herself if she did otherwise. No wonder Naomi finally ceased trying to convince her to turn back (verse 18).

The two women, now forever bound together by Ruth’s covenant, continued on their way until they reached Bethlehem. As they entered Bethlehem, they became the talk of the town. It had been at least ten years since Naomi and her family had left them. Obviously, Naomi had changed. “Can this be Naomi?” they asked (verse 19). My impression is that Naomi had changed not only in her appearance (she may not have aged well in Moab), but also in spirit. Naomi told her friend not to call her “Naomi” (which means “pleasant”) any longer, but rather to call her “Mara” (which means “bitter”). Naomi also made it clear that this was because (in her mind) God had dealt harshly with her.16 Naomi measured God’s blessing only in terms of food and of family. She was “full” when she had a husband and two sons; now she was “empty,” for all she had was Ruth. How wrong Naomi was.

The chapter ends with the author’s assessment of where things stand, with a hint of what lies ahead. Naomi returned to her homeland accompanied by her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. They arrived, in fact, just in time for the barley harvest. They came “empty” (at least according to Naomi’s assessment – see verse 21), but God would not let them go hungry (or childless). The barley harvest will play a significant role in moving this story forward in the next two chapters.

Observations

(1) There is no clear link to a particular time, to a particular judge, or to a particular event recorded in the Book of Judges. The genealogy provided in chapter 4 would incline us to believe that the events of Ruth took place later – rather than sooner – in the period of the judges, because Ruth is the great grandmother of David.17 But other than this, there do not appear to be any direct links to events or persons in the Book of Judges.

(2) There is no indication that other Israelites from Bethlehem (or elsewhere in Israel) accompanied Elimelech and his family to Moab. There may have been others who traveled to Moab with Elimelech and his family, but the author does not make a point of telling this to his readers. My sense is that most of the residents of Bethlehem stayed in Bethlehem, rather than leaving to sojourn in a foreign country during the days of the famine.

(3) One gets the impression that those who remained in Bethlehem fared reasonably well during the famine; certainly better than Naomi and her family did. When Naomi returns to Bethlehem, she finds most of the residents of the city still living there, and judging by what we are told about Boaz, they appear to have done fairly well.

(4) While the author does not make a point of it, it seems reasonable to assume that the famine (as well as the deaths of Elimelech and his two sons) was a manifestation of divine discipline. This is entirely consistent with Old Testament history and with the warnings recorded in Leviticus 26:18-20 and Deuteronomy 28:23-24. Perhaps one reason why the author does not make a major point out of the theme of divine judgment is because his purpose is to emphasize divine mercy, not only as God provided food for His people, but also in His providential provision of a family and a posterity for Naomi and Elimelech. It would also seem that Naomi’s barrenness was divinely imposed.18

(5) Moab was not the place of God’s promised blessings; Israel was.19

(6) Most (if not all) of Naomi’s actions, attitudes, and advice were misguided and downright wrong. Naomi felt that God was against her, and every indication is that she felt God had dealt with her in a harsh and severe way. She seems to have little or no conviction regarding her sins, the sins of her husband, or of the sins of the nation. And thus there is no evidence of repentance on her part at this point in time. There is really no evidence of faith (on Naomi’s part), either. Naomi thought of God’s blessings in terms of having food and a family. If her daughters-in-law could snag a good (Moabite) husband, bear some children, and have a bountiful harvest they were indeed blessed, at least as Naomi viewed it.

(7) Naomi does appear to have one thing right – humanly speaking, Naomi’s chances of perpetuating her husband’s line are between slim and none. It is no wonder that Naomi speaks to her daughters-in-law about husbands, marriage, and children, because this is what is on her mind. In her thinking, God had stripped her of all hope by taking her husband and her sons in death, and by preventing their wives from bearing children. But what she fails to see is that God is only increasing her problems to the level of human impossibility, so that He can demonstrate His power and grace through her weakness. The more Naomi protests her miserable state, the more we are being prepared for a great work of God.

(8) All of this leads me to conclude that Naomi is not an example of faith, but an excellent example of Israel’s poor spiritual health. Stated in the words of the author of Judges, “every man (and woman) was doing what was right in their own eyes.” Here is a woman who is not walking by faith, but by sight, who is not living according to the law, but in disregard for it. In short, Naomi is a picture of Israel’s spiritual condition at this point in their history.

(9) What we know (and Naomi does not) is that God is about to do a wonderful thing for her, solely on the basis of His grace. In the midst of her affliction and hopeless despair, God is at work preparing for the gracious things He is about to reveal to her – and to the reader.

A Study in Contrasts

I’d like to deal with our text by calling your attention to the contrasts the author has highlighted in the first chapter of Ruth. We find Ruth contrasted with Orpah, and then with Naomi. Let us reflect on these contrasts for a moment.

The contrast between Ruth and Orpah. One would have to begin by saying that these two women have a fair bit in common. They were both Moabite women, close to the same age. Both had married Israelite husbands, had borne no children, and were now widows. Both were related to Naomi in the same way. And both (at least initially) were committed to staying with Naomi, even if that meant immigrating to Israel. Both were traveling with Naomi as she made her way toward Israel. Both women initially refused to heed Naomi’s exhortation to leave her and return to Moab.

But here is where the similarity ends. Other than weeping, Orpah remains silent;20 Ruth’s words and actions are what the author has chosen to report. Orpah seems to have no great spiritual interest in Israel or in the God of Israel. Ruth has an uncanny grasp of Israel’s religion and has chosen to embrace it as her own. Orpah succumbed to Naomi’s reasoning and chose to pursue what appeared to be in her best interest. It would seem to be significant that Naomi told Ruth that Orpah had returned to her god. That strongly suggests that she was still a Moabite at heart, still an idolater at heart. Ruth rejected Naomi’s appeal to leave her and go back to Moab, choosing instead to believe and behave like a true Israelite. Ruth was determined to serve and care for her mother-in-law; Orpah chose to look out for herself.

The contrast between Ruth and Naomi. The benchmark by which we need to compare Ruth and Naomi is the Abrahamic Covenant:

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father's household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis mine).

To walk in the steps of Abraham, one like Ruth would need to: (1) leave her relatives; (2) leave her homeland; and, (3) trust God to bless her as she sought to bless her mother-in-law. This is exactly what Boaz commended Ruth for doing:

10 Ruth knelt before him with her forehead to the ground and said to him, “Why are you so kind and so attentive to me, even though I am a foreigner?” 11 Boaz replied to her, “I have been given a full report of all that you have done for your mother-in-law following the death of your husband– how you left your father and your mother, as well as your homeland, and came to live among people you did not know previously. 12 May the LORD reward your efforts! May your acts of kindness be repaid fully by the LORD God of Israel, from whom you have sought protection!” (Ruth 2:10-12, emphasis mine)

The contrast between Naomi and Ruth is very clear when the two women’s words and actions are viewed from the vantage point of the Abrahamic Covenant. Naomi not only disregards the Abrahamic Covenant, she also urges Ruth (and Orpah) to do likewise. Think of it: Naomi and her husband leave the land where God promised to bless them. Instead of trusting God to preserve her husband’s line (indeed, the Messianic line), she at least passively (if not actively) approves of their marriage to non-Israelites. Now, Naomi urges both of her daughters-in-law to go back home to their own land21 and to their mothers’ homes22 and to find a new Moabite husband, so that they might have security.23 While God promised to bless all those who blessed Abraham and his offspring, Naomi told her daughters-in-law that to stay with her would be to share in the curse God had placed upon her.24 As the story of Ruth and Boaz unfolds, God promises are fulfilled, while Naomi’s warning and instructions are proven to be false.

Ruth becomes a “true Israelite” in spite of Naomi’s persistent encouragement to return to her Moabite roots. Ruth’s words are beautiful, and thus it is no wonder that some have chosen to employ them for their marriage vows. Ruth emphatically says “No” to Naomi, but with such wonderful words Naomi can hardly continue to stand in her way. Ruth’s words are her covenant with Naomi, with Israel, and with God, patterned after God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants:

16 But Ruth replied,

“Stop urging me to abandon you!

For wherever you go, I will go.

Wherever you live, I will live.

Your people will become my people,

and your God will become my God.

17 Wherever you die, I will die – and there I will be buried.

May the Lord punish me severely if I do not keep my promise!

Only death will be able to separate me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17)

Take note of the fact that Ruth’s covenant is not a short-term commitment; it is a lifetime commitment. She has chosen to permanently leave her homeland and family and to embrace Israel, the Israelites, and Israel’s God as her own, forever. Her commitment is not just to Naomi; it is a lifetime commitment to Israel and to her God. Naomi tended to focus only on herself, on her lack of sons to give in marriage, and on her lack of a child to carry on the family line. Ruth focused on Naomi and her need and on Naomi’s people and their God. She was willing to sacrifice family ties, marriage, and a family to do so. Ruth and Naomi are very different people. Ruth does not cling to Naomi as a kindred spirit, but as a very needy person.

Conclusion

I believe the opening words of A Tale of Two Cities go like this: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… .” Surely these words aptly describe Ruth in the period of the judges. The final chapters of the Book of Judges are certainly “the worst of times,” and yet the Book of Ruth describes the “best of times.” This suggests to me that godly character is not only evident in the good times, but even more dramatically in the bad times. Many, including me, are troubled by the times in which we live, but this is no excuse for ungodly behavior. These are the times of darkness when godliness should shine forth as a brilliant light. The story of Ruth and Boaz (yes, and even Naomi) should encourage us to live godly lives in dark days, days of unbelief, disobedience, and disregard for the Word of God.

The first chapter of Ruth is very important because our appraisal of Ruth, Naomi, and (soon) Boaz in the first chapters of Ruth will greatly shape our understanding of the rest of the book. There are those who attempt to “guild the lily” as they read the Book of Ruth, desperately seeking some basis for making a pious Israelite of Naomi. Such is not the case, my friend, and seeing her as some kind of heroine will distort our understanding of the message of this wonderful book. Naomi is not at all like Ruth or Boaz; she is, in fact, a backdrop against which Ruth and Boaz are contrasted.

As I was studying our text for this message, it occurred to me that the text which describes the origin of the Moabites in Genesis 19 is a key to understanding the story of Ruth, and especially Naomi’s role in this account. Look with me at these words from Genesis 19, taking up just after the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s escape, along with his daughters:

30 Lot went up from Zoar with his two daughters and settled in the mountains because he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. 31 Later the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man anywhere nearby to have sexual relations with us, according to the way of all the world. 32 Come, let’s make our father drunk with wine so we can have sexual relations with him and preserve our family line through our father.” 33 So that night they made their father drunk with wine, and the older daughter came and had sexual relations with her father. But he was not aware that she had sexual relations with him and then got up. 34 So in the morning the older daughter said to the younger, “Since I had sexual relations with my father last night, let’s make him drunk again tonight. Then you go and have sexual relations with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they made their father drunk that night as well, and the younger one came and had sexual relations with him. But he was not aware that she had sexual relations with him and then got up. 36 In this way both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter gave birth to a son and named him Moab. He is the ancestor of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also gave birth to a son and named him Ben-Ammi. He is the ancestor of the Ammonites of today (Genesis 19:30-38, emphasis mine).

God had just destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great sin. Lot and his family were spared, but his wife died (turned to salt) because she looked back. Lot and his two daughters are now living in a cave. The oldest daughter (who will become the mother of Moab) saw their situation as impossible. There were no men nearby to marry, she reasoned, so there was no conventional way25 for them to bear children and thus to preserve their father’s line. In such a declared “emergency,” she reasoned, they must take extraordinary measures. And so this older daughter persuaded her younger sister that both of them needed to get their father drunk, and then each should lie with him, so that they might produce offspring for their father. And so they did. The son of the oldest daughter was named Moab; the son of the younger daughter was named Ammon. This is the origin of the Moabites and the Ammonites.

In Judges 19-21, we find a similar situation. There we read of the Sodom-like immorality of some of the Benjamites in the city of Gibeah, which resulted in the near extinction of their tribe. Both the Benjamites’ sin and their judgment are similar to what happened in Genesis 19. Like Moab’s mother, the Israelites reasoned that due to their circumstances, an Israelite line might become extinct. And so they, like Lot’s daughters (the oldest one in particular), devised a scheme whereby the line would be preserved, albeit apart from faith and obedience to God’s Word. They produced offspring for the Benjamites by orchestrating the kidnapping and rape of 200 virgins.26 The Israelites were like Moab’s mother in that they were thinking and acting like Moabites.

The same is true for Naomi. I can imagine how it alarmed and frightened Naomi when Elimelech died while they were sojourning in Moab. Who would carry on his line? Was it at Naomi’s initiative that her sons took Moabite women for wives? And when both her sons died without bearing children, her situation seemed impossible. She had given up all hope. The best thing for her to do was to return to Bethlehem and live out the rest of her days, dying “empty” (i.e., childless). The best thing for Orpah and Ruth to do was to return to their people and their gods, Naomi concluded. But when Ruth refused to return to her people and accompanied her to Bethlehem, Boaz entered the picture, a close relative, a possible redeemer. And Naomi was now ready to arrange for a marriage and offspring in an “unconventional” way, just as Tamar, the mother of Moab, and the Israelites (more recently) did. We shall see more about this in chapter 3.

What Can We Learn from Naomi?

The danger of practicing pragmatism above principle. It was my friend Dave Austin who reminded me of the danger of pragmatism from this text. Lot’s daughters, the Israelites (on behalf of the Benjamites), and Naomi are inclined to resort to a pragmatic solution, rather than one that is faith-based and rooted in principle. A few years later, king Saul will offer the sacrifices, even though he was instructed to wait for Samuel, all because Saul felt this was a crisis that justified setting aside obedience in faith to God’s Word.27

Another label for pragmatism is “doing what seems right in our own eyes.” That was the spirit of the age during the days of the judges. We, too, live in very pragmatic times, and those who live by principle – especially the principles of God’s Word – are few and far between. Even professing Christians can fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent. The crises of life are God’s pop quizzes, times when He puts our faith to the test, times when He gives us an opportunity to put our faith on display. People of faith in God often stand out in times of crisis, so let us live by the principles of Scripture, rather than by pragmatism.

Naomi should teach us to be careful about accepting the counsel of those who seem to be well meaning. I hate to say this, but after being involved in ministry for many years, I would have to say that some of the worst counsel I have ever heard has come from well-meaning Christians. A Christian wife is having difficulties in her relationship with her husband, and she shares this with a Christian friend. Many are the times when friends counsel others to act in their own best interests, and all too seldom do they point their friends to the difficult principles and commands of Scripture. And they will do this because they believe they are doing their friend a favor. That is precisely what Naomi did with Orpah and Ruth. She gave them very pragmatic counsel, based upon what could be seen, rather than on God’s Word and the principle of faith.

I am reminded of Satan’s strategy in the Garden of Eden. He came alongside Eve as her friend, as someone who was doing her a favor. His counsel (even though it effectively called God a liar) was given as though it were in her best interest. The ultimate test is the Word of God and Naomi’s counsel, while it sometimes used God’s name, did not conform to God’s Word. Naomi counseled Orpah and Ruth to do what seemed right in their eyes. Beware of well-meaning advice that is not rooted in Scripture and that is supportive of what you would really like to do, rather than what God commands us to do.

Naomi instructs us to beware of Calvinism run amuck. Naomi did not doubt the existence of God nor did she doubt His power. The term she used to refer to Him – Shaddai – was a term that emphasized God’s great power. But she concluded that God was using His power against her, rather than for her. It led to a hopeless fatalism: “It doesn’t really matter what I say or do; God is against me, and there is nothing I can do about it.”

Now I should stop to say that I firmly believe in the sovereignty of God, that God is in absolute control of everything that takes place on this earth. It is not Naomi’s belief in the sovereignty of God that troubles me as much as how she applies it. She views God as harsh and uncaring, doling out affliction and trouble in a way that is completely unrelated to her attitudes and actions. She does not acknowledge sin on her part (and Elimelech’s), and she does not seek to repent. She believes in a God who is all powerful, but who is not merciful and compassionate. Such people are in misery, and honestly, they make those around them miserable as well. What a difference it makes to believe in a God who is in absolute control and who is also merciful and gracious, causing all things to work together for our good and for His glory, if we believe in Him.

Naomi was preoccupied with the here and now, rather than trusting in God’s covenant promises by faith. Naomi’s hope was in the physical rather than in the spiritual, in the present rather than in eternity. To her, God’s blessings should appear now, in the form of bread, an eligible bachelor (marriage), and babies. Naomi saw singleness (widowhood for her) and childlessness as a curse, while Paul taught that singleness could facilitate ministry to others and to God (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). At this point in time, one would not think that Naomi would be at the top of the list in the hall of faith:

13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

We should learn from Naomi that if barrenness is one’s earthly fate, our heavenly fate is vastly different. Naomi, so to speak, put all of her eggs into one basket – marriage and bearing children. There is no doubt that this is a great honor and privilege for a woman. But it is not the essence of what our life in Christ is about. That is why some men and women will choose never to marry or to bear children. Those who place too much emphasis on marriage and child bearing should listen well to these words of Scripture:

5 Who can compare to the Lord our God,

who sits on a high throne?

6 He bends down to look at the sky and the earth.

7 He raises the poor from the dirt,

and lifts up the needy from the garbage pile,

8 that he might seat him with princes,

with the princes of his people.

9 He makes the barren woman of the family

a happy mother of children.

Praise the Lord! (Psalm 113:5-9)

20 Yet the children born during your time of bereavement will say within your hearing,

‘This place is too cramped for us,

make room for us so we can live here.’

21 Then you will think to yourself,

‘Who bore these children for me?

I was bereaved and barren, dismissed and divorced.

Who raised these children?

Look, I was left all alone;

where did these children come from?’” (Isaiah 49:20-21)

1 “Shout for joy, O barren one who has not given birth!

Give a joyful shout and cry out, you who have not been in labor!

For the children of the desolate one are more numerous

than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.

2 Make your tent larger,

stretch your tent curtains farther out!

Spare no effort,

lengthen your ropes,

and pound your stakes deep.

3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left;

your children will conquer nations and will resettle desolate cities (Isaiah 54:1-3).

What Can We Learn from Ruth?

12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous. 14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. 15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, 16 on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:12-16, emphasis mine).

This is a text that has always puzzled me. I think I understand generally what Paul is saying here, based upon the promise in Jeremiah:

33 “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

Just being Jewish and knowing the Law of Moses isn’t enough; one must also live by the law. A Jew who knows the law and doesn’t live by it is not really a true Jew. Conversely, one who is not a Jew and isn’t instructed by the Law may have the law written on his (her) heart, and thus do the things the law requires. That person is a true Jew at heart. The New Covenant promises that God will write the law on the hearts of those He has chosen for salvation, whether Jew or Gentile.

My problem with the text in Romans 2 was that I couldn’t think of an example of what Paul was saying. I am now inclined to believe that Ruth is an example of Romans 2:12-16. She was not a Jew, and she had not been raised by parents who taught her the law. I would be very reluctant to conclude that Ruth’s husband or his parents taught her the law. They did not seem to live by it, so why would they consider it important to teach it to a Moabite? Somehow God wrote His law on Ruth’s heart, not unlike Tamar and Rahab, her predecessors.

Ruth’s spiritual journey is similar to that of Abraham. She had to leave her family, her homeland, and her gods and go to the place of God’s blessing. This she must do by faith. She was one who received God’s blessings because she blessed one of Abraham’s offspring by remaining with her and committing to care for her.28 Ruth was a woman who committed herself for a lifetime, and she did so in spite of her national pride, her family affections, the example of her sister-in-law, and the urgings of her mother-in-law. What a marvelous woman of faith Ruth was.

What Do We Learn about God?

We certainly are reminded of the sovereignty of God by our text, but unfortunately most of the emphasis on God’s sovereignty in chapter 1 comes from Naomi, and she is not seeing things as she should. Her God is all powerful, but not merciful and gracious. It is as though she has forgotten God’s description of Himself in Exodus 34:

6 The Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7, emphasis mine).

It is also true (as God Himself says above) that God also punishes the guilty, but that is not the totality of who God is. God loves to show mercy and compassion. He is slow to anger, and He does forgive sin. He keeps loyal love; that is, He is a God who perseveres in His love, and thus He is a covenant-keeping God. If Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, and Kilion suffered because of their sins, they deserved it. The wonder is that God remained faithful to those who so easily abandoned Him.

We need to bear in mind that what is at stake here is the Messianic line, the line which will ultimately bring forth Messiah. The Messianic seed was often put at risk in the Old Testament. Abraham put the seed at risk when he represented his wife Sarah as his sister, and she ended up (temporarily) in Pharaoh’s29 (and later Abimelech’s)30 harem. Judah married a Canaanite woman, and two of his sons died because of their sin. Judah (through whom the messianic line would be traced) kept his third son from a Levirate marriage with the first son’s widow, and then had sex with a woman he thought was a cult prostitute.31 God not only preserved the messianic line, He was faithful to fulfill His (Abrahamic) covenant32 with Abraham. His faithfulness to His people and to His covenant is at a time when His people are not faithful to Him and when they are living in disregard for His law. In our text (as in Judges and everywhere else in Scripture), man looks bad, very bad, and God looks good, very good.

Someone reminded me that the Book of Ruth is a lot like the Book of Esther. In Esther, the people of God were supposed to return to the Promised Land, but they chose instead to dwell in the apparent peace and safety of Persia. As the story of Esther unfolds, it looks as though every Jew is doomed to annihilation, but for the providence of God, whereby God’s enemies are destroyed and His people are spared.

One manifestation of God’s mercy, expressed through His sovereignty, is His providential working at times when there appears to be no hope. The more Naomi moans on about how bad things are for her, and how hopeless it would be for Orpah or Ruth to stay with her, the more we see the mighty hand of God working all things for the good of His people, as well as for His glory. At the very times when outward appearances look to us as though God is against us, God is at work behind the scenes for us. The suffering of His people, whether for sins they have committed or for living righteously, is but the prelude to His glorious salvation. It is not only Ruth and Naomi who benefit from God’s work in the Book of Ruth, for everyone who has been saved by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ has been saved by the offspring of Ruth and Boaz.

There is something particularly encouraging about our text. God has chosen to save Gentiles as well as Jews. This should not come as news to us, but it is a truth that has not come easily to Jews, even some Jewish Christians.33 It is Naomi who fails to live up to the faith of her fathers, while Ruth is an example for all to follow, Jew or Gentile. Ruth is never dealt with as a second-class believer. Her faith and obedience was known by all. And she was honored to be a part of the messianic line.34

If our text tells us anything about God, it is that His ways are not our ways.

8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds, 9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans. 10 The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return, but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops, and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat. 11 In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend” (Isaiah 55:8-11).

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? 35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

What a mighty, magnificent, merciful, awesome God we serve! I pray that you, like Ruth, have forsaken all confidence in yourself and have cast yourself upon the one true God for salvation.


1 Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in the series, Ruth: A Story of Redemption, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 10, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 Genesis 19:30-38.

4 Numbers 22:5.

5 Numbers 22:12.

6 Numbers 25:1ff.

7 Deuteronomy 23:3.

8 Judges 3:12-14.

9 See Deuteronomy 20:10-18; 21:10-14.

10 From what we learn from the Book of Ruth, one does wonder what role Naomi played in this decision.

11 The thought occurred to me that Naomi’s journey back to her homeland traced the steps of the Israelites when they first entered the Promised Land.

12 The word “new” is not in the original text. It has been supplied by the translators. Other translations have “another” – another husband. This, of course, is Naomi’s meaning. They no longer have their “old” or former husbands because they have died. They need new or different husbands to marry and to bear children.

13 Verses 11-14.

14 In her first attempt, Naomi issues a parting blessing, punctuated by a farewell kiss (verse 9). In her second effort, Naomi insists that her daughters-in-law must not return with her because it would only cause them to endure some of her affliction (verse 13). In her third attempt, she orders Ruth to follow her sister-in-law back home.

15 The translations differ here. The Hebrew term Elohim is plural, but some render it “god” here, and others “gods.” Chemosh appears to be the primary Moabite god, but there may well have been others.

16 The expression, the Sovereign One (rendered “the Almighty” by most translations) is the term Shaddai. If I have counted correctly, the term is used 48 times in the Old Testament; 9 times in the Pentateuch, 2 times in Ruth, 2 times in the Psalms, 1 time in Isaiah, 2 times in Ezekiel, 1 time in Joel, and 31 times in Job. In Job and in Ruth, this term seems to underscore God’s power, but in the context of suffering and adversity. The all-powerful God was making Naomi’s life miserable, so she thought and said. How wrong she was!

17 See Ruth 4:17, 21-22. There do not appear to be many generations between Boaz and David, but biblical genealogies don’t always include every genealogical link in such cases. Thus, we cannot say with certainty that the story of Ruth occurs late in the period of the judges, though this seems likely.

18 See Ruth 4:13.

19 See Genesis 12:1-3.

20 It could well be that Orpah had much to say, but the author did not wish to focus on her as she is not the heroine of this story. Put another way, the title of this book is Ruth, not Orpah.

21 Ruth 1:12.

22 Ruth 1:8.

23 Ruth 1:9.

24 Ruth 1:11-13.

25 Translations differ here, but I think that this daughter’s choice of words is very important to consider. In her mind, this was the normal, the customary, way to produce offspring. In this emergency, she was proposing an unconventional solution to their problem. This is completely secular thinking. She would have been very much at home in our Postmodern world. Bearing children was to be done God’s way. To do it any other way was to disobey God. Lot’s older daughter neatly avoided the moral implications of what she proposed.

26 The way they acquired the 400 wives by wiping out Jabesh Gilead is no more noble.

27 See 1 Samuel 13.

28 See Genesis 12:3.

29 Genesis 12:10-20.

30 Genesis 20:1-18.

31 Genesis 38.

32 Genesis 12:1-3.

33 See Acts 11:15-19; 15:1.

34 Ruth 4:13-22; Matthew 1:5.