Summary: It is through Jesus that God speaks to you and me – no matter how dark the times, no matter how difficult the way, no matter how unfaithful people around us may be. God speaks to us through Jesus, and he calls us to himself just as he did Ruth.
The book of Ruth is the story of an extended family living in a dangerous place during turbulent times. The story is told in four scenes, with a chapter devoted to each scene. Chapter 1 is about a journey, chapter 2 a day in the field, chapter 3 a night to remember, and chapter 4 a morning that changed everything.
Today, we look at chapter 1, and, as I mentioned, it is about a journey. Actually, it records two journeys. In the first journey, a man named Elimelech, a landowner in Bethlehem, leaves his home and takes his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, and they move to live in another land, the land of Moab. We’ll say more about that in a moment. As it turns out, Elimelech dies in Moab, leaving his wife a single mother with two sons to raise. The boys grow up, take wives for themselves, but then they too die. And that’s when the second journey takes place. Naomi, along with her daughter-in-law Ruth, makes the return journey back home to Bethlehem in the land of Judah.
Verse 1 tells us that these events took place “in the days when the judges ruled,” and it tells us that “there was a famine in the land.” Both of these facts give us critical information. These were hard times. The book of Judges says that “in those days...all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jdgs. 21:25). That tells you something about what it was like back then, doesn’t it? There was wholesale disregard for the law of God. There was no commonly accepted moral compass, and everybody did whatever he thought he could get away with. Add to that the fact that there was a famine, and you see how extreme the situation was.
It was because of the famine that Elimelech chose to leave Bethlehem. Ironically, the word “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” but there was no bread in Bethlehem. So, Elimelech moved his family to Moab.
Now, there’s more to this move than just going elsewhere to find a job and put food on the table. Moab was a highly charged symbol of evil to the people of Israel. The Moabites were descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot by way of a shameful episode of incest. It was the king of Moab who hired Balaam to bring a curse upon the people of Israel when they were at their most vulnerable. So, there was animosity between Moab and Israel. What is more, Moab was a pagan society. The people worshiped a false god named Chemosh, and, as part of their cultic practice, they sacrificed their children in the fire. If you couldn’t say anything else, you could say that Elimelech showed questionable judgment in moving his family to such a place.
But there actually is more to say. In Israel, every family owned a plot of land. It was part of their inheritance from the time of Joshua, when God’s people settled in the land of Canaan. This was true for Elimelech, as it was true for every Israelite. It was part of the covenant agreement that God had made with Israel and that Israel had made with God. Each family was to work and keep its land in order to have something to pass down to the next generation. And this was to be an established practice from generation to generation.
But look at what Elimelech did! He scorned his covenant obligation and forfeited his land so that he could go to – all places – the dark and evil land of Moab. Elimelech’s name means “God is my King,” but God wasn’t his king. He despised the rule of God in his life, he forsook the covenant, and he put his family in danger. He reminds me of Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup just because his stomach was growling. But the truth is: It’s not just men of old, like Elimelech and Esau, who undervalue the covenant. Many in our own day are indifferent when it comes to God’s covenant with us.
I can’t stress how important it is for those of us who are fathers to remember that, in submitting our children for baptism, we have entered into a covenant with God. This covenant, of course, is defined by the promises that God makes to us and our children, but it is also defined by obligation on our part. We have covenant responsibilities to fulfill to God on behalf of our children, and that means that we are going to have to demonstrate in our own lives a recognizable devotion to the Lord. It means that we go to church regularly, that we get our kids to Sunday School, that we get our nose in the Bible, that we pray alone and with our families. It means sharing our heart for God with our kids when we lie down and when we rise and when we walk along the way. Otherwise, we inadvertently carry our families off into the Moab of our own day, where the name of the Lord is not held in reverence and where the laws of God have no coin. We teach our children by our negligence that God is more or less unnecessary and that attention to him is optional. Just as Elimelech had an obligation to fulfill the covenant by remaining on his land, so we have an obligation to fulfill the covenant by remaining in the Lord.