Summary: Ruth, a pagan widow through her faith becomes the key to Israel’s future and to God’s plan of salvation for the world
Today we continue our series on Heroes of Faith, characters from the Judges, though no longer from the book of Judges. But the setting of our story in that era is made clear in the opening verse of ch 1 of Ruth: "In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land." Our author wants us to connect this story with those of the book of Judges.
So what do we know about the history of the Judges? If you remember from a few weeks back, what we found there was a cycle of events that goes like this: Moral failure, military oppression, a call for help, the raising of a deliverer, victory followed by a short period of peace, before the saviour dies and the cycle begins all over again.
Well, here it seems there’s a similar situation. Not military oppression in this case, but famine. In this context, the famine would appear to be a sign of God’s chastening, just as the oppression of an enemy was elsewhere. And while there’s no formal cry for help, the story resonates with Naomi’s and Ruth’s need for deliverance. But in this case deliverance doesn’t come in the form of a saviour, although as we’ll see next week, Boaz does his bit. Rather, salvation in this story comes about through the faith of Ruth. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
The story begins with a famine in Bethlehem, which, ironically, in Hebrew means "house of bread". So the land of promise is beset by a famine. The House of bread is without any bread. So the story starts badly and it goes downhill from there. Rather than call to God for help, Elimelech decides to leave the promised land and migrate to Moab. Now things may have been bad in Judah, but in Moab they’d be far worse. The people of Moab were pagans who had made it clear over the centuries that they had little love for the people of Israel. And the feeling was mutual. The book of Deuteronomy declared that "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD." (Deut 23:3 NRSV) The Moabites were a cursed people, a people with whom the Israelites were forbidden to seek a treaty of friendship. So It’s not a good strategic move for Elimelech to take his wife and two teenage sons to Moab, even if there is a famine in Judah, since it’s almost inevitable that they’ll end up wanting to marry Moabite girls.
What seems fairly clear from these opening verses is that just like Gideon’s family, Elimelech was an Israelite in name more than in action. He still regarded himself as one of God’s chosen people, but he didn’t let that affect the practical decisions of life. And what happens next seems to confirm the ill-judged nature of his actions. Elimelech dies and sure enough, his 2 sons marry Moabite women. And then they too die, leaving Naomi, Orpah and Ruth without any visible means of support. Not only that, but it leaves our story without any male stars. What we have from this point on is a tale all about women. If you like it’s a Tale of 2 Widows. Here are 2 women who demonstrate the sort of faith so lacking in the likes of Elimelech and so many other men in Israel at the time.
Naomi hears that the Lord has again come to the aid of his people by giving them food, so she decides to return straight away. It’s as though Naomi knew all along that what they’d done by moving to Moab was wrong. She certainly recognises that it’s the Lord who has given them food again. So she sets out with her 2 daughters-in-law to return to Bethlehem. But then she stops. She suddenly realises that it isn’t just her who’s involved here. Orpah and Ruth are Moabites. They won’t be returning home. Just the opposite. Bethlehem isn’t the place for them. There they’ll be foreigners subject to who knows what sort of abuse from the local men. So she makes an incredibly generous gesture towards them, urging them to go back to their own families. Never mind that she’ll now be completely alone, without any social support. There’s almost a note of sarcasm in her voice as she says to them: "May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me," as though she’d want to add, "even if God hasn’t acted like that towards me." This sense of bitterness towards God comes out even more clearly in v13 when the 2 young women insist on going with her and she tells them: "it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me." There’s a real sense of hopelessness there isn’t there? Almost as if she’s saying she’s a jinx. Or as if she thinks that God has been punishing her and will go on punishing her for leaving Judah to come to Moab and it would be better if they weren’t with her to share her punishment.