Ruth, Chapter 1

The book of Ruth shows us that God cares about ordinary people in everyday life. This story describes how God works through normal circumstances and everyday conditions, working out His sovereign plan with imperfect people. And these are people like you and me, average, everyday people.

And yet this account is not ordinary at all for Ruth starts out a Gentile, a Moabitess, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David, who is the ancestor of Jesus Christ Himself. She is one of four women mentioned in the predominantly male genealogy of Christ listed for us in Matthew chapter one (the others being Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba) and her book is one of only two books named after a woman in the Bible (Esther is the other).

The story is set in the time of the judges, a time characterized as a period of religious and moral darkness, disunity, and foreign oppression. Judges 17:6 and 21:25 give us the key to understanding the period of the judges, “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit.” It was a time when everyone did their own thing, both religiously and morally. There was no central governing authority, thus very little governing protection, if any, resulting in moral chaos and oppression from foreign lands (including Moab but not at this time.) This was a difficult time in which to live. Life was hard.

Into this dark and disobedient world stepped Elimelech (meaning My God is King), his wife, Naomi (pleasant, delightful, lovely), and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion.

But these were not the only problems Elimelech and his family faced. There was also famine in the land. And famine was a life and death matter for Elimelech. How could he provide for his family when there was little to no food in Israel? He faced an agonizing decision. Should he remain in Bethlehem and let his family go hungry or should he take his family to the neighboring, idol-worshipping country of Moab where there was food? And food looks pretty good to those who are starving, no matter what the cost!

What was the cost? For a Jewish man to give up his land, his most precious possession, would be normally unthinkable. Passing down the family’s land and inheritance was a sacred matter. There was a tremendous attachment to their inheritance (see the story of Naboth in I Kings 2: 1-16). 

But he and his family had to live, didn’t they? When Jesus was tempted by Satan himself, he replied, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). And having eaten nothing for 40 days, Jesus’ body would have been craving food. And yet Jesus said there were more important things to consider than food. How often we fall into the trap of saying our circumstances are against us, that God hasn’t come to our aid and we begin to question God’s goodness and doubt His love for us. Ruth 1:19 tells us that there were some who stayed in Israel and survived. Somehow God had provided for them. But Elimelech was not one of them. He should have remained in Bethlehem and trusted God to provide for them, but he decided to take his family to Moab. The cost to the family was huge but they didn’t know that at this point in the story. 

Verses 3-5 tell us that after they arrived in Moab, tragedy struck. Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with her two sons to support by herself. And then 10 years later, after their marriages to Ruth and Orpah, two Moabite girls, the sons also died. Now Naomi was truly alone with two daughters-in-law to care for.

Could it get any worse for Naomi? Have you ever felt like your life seemed to be out of control? If so, you can relate to Naomi. She had faithfully followed her husband’s direction to leave Bethlehem to move to Moab and now she had lost both her husband and her two grown sons. Now she was not only alone, but she was living in a foreign country surrounded by pagans as a dependent widow with no one to depend on. She had been a single mom for about ten years! And then she lost both of her sons! What a crushing blow! Women had very little means, if any, with which to support themselves in that day. They couldn’t own land nor could they own their own business. They were completely dependent on their father, husband or son(s) to provide for them if they were still living. But Naomi had no one. What was she to do? Also, during this time, the loss of one’s family line was a great tragedy and Naomi was certainly beyond child-bearing years. Things were not looking good for the family of Elimelech. 

Think carefully . . . was any of this Naomi’s fault? No. Were her circumstances beyond her control? Yes. Was it her fault she lived during a time of spiritual apostasy? No. Was it her fault Israel was suffering through a famine? No. Was it her fault that her husband and sons all died? No. Do we ever encounter problems as a result of the sinful decisions of others? Yes! Is God still in charge even then? Yes! Even during difficult times, God is still in control even when what happens isn’t our fault. God’s grace is still sufficient and God’s plan is still good even in those times. 

Naomi had little choice but to return home to Bethlehem where she could seek financial help from her relatives. When she heard that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah all set out to return to Bethlehem. But shortly after they set out Naomi told both girls to return to their homes. She loved them both but believed the best chance for them to find a husband, and hopefully future children, was to send them back home to Moab. She had no more sons to give them and she knew they would be social outcasts, foreigners, in Israel. Naomi knew how they would be treated. The chances of finding a husband in Israel were slim to none. Who would want a foreign wife? Naomi also spoke of how bitter she was in verse 13. 

At first both girls said they would go back to Bethlehem with her. However, in verse 14, Orpah followed her mother-in-law’s advice, but Ruth insisted on staying with Naomi. She could have dismissed herself from any responsibility for her mother-in-law’s care and anticipated another marriage, children, and a good life in Moab. Amazingly she turned from all that she knew—her family, friends, religion and culture—to stay with and care for her mother-in-law in a foreign country. She loved her that much. She had also come to love Naomi’s God that much as well!

Naomi urged Ruth to reconsider but Ruth responded with these well known words in verses 16-17, Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you will stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me. In years past, these words were sung at many weddings including my own!

Ruth’s statement proved to be a turning point in her life. She had not only committed herself to Naomi but to Naomi’s God and to Naomi’s people. This was not simply a change of address, this was a statement of faith. Her poetic statement was both an admission of love for Naomi and her growing admiration and love for Naomi’s God. She was still young and could have easily decided Naomi, who was too old to bear any more sons, was no longer her responsibility. Why should she ruin her entire life by saddling herself with Naomi’s care? That she chose to do so reveals Ruth’s heart: open, submissive, and full of unselfish love. Orpah was not unusually selfish by returning home; Ruth was unusually unselfish by staying with Naomi.  And we can be sure that Ruth’s devotion warmed the heart of her mother-in-law.

How had Ruth come to know the true God? It had to be through observing Naomi and her devotion to the God of Israel. Ruth had observed how Naomi handled her grief when she lost both her husband and sons. Ruth would have noticed how Naomi’s God had been a great source of comfort and enablement for Naomi to go on. Moabite gods were of no such comfort to Ruth. 

People are always watching us, especially when we face pressure, problems, and grief. What a powerful thing it is when a Christian shows that God is real by responding in faith even in the face of grief and suffering. Our mission director and his wife lost their 24-year-old son in a motorcycle accident. After months of grieving, they showed a maturity and a seasonedness in their attitude and a confidence and trust in God that got them through their grief. I’m sure there are still some moments of intense sadness but they have showed an assurance in God’s love and care to all in our mission as well as all those who know them.  

Naomi finally gave up urging Ruth to return and they both continued on their way to Bethlehem. As they entered the gates of Bethlehem, the townspeople (those who had stayed) couldn’t believe this was Naomi, the same woman who had left some ten years before. Perhaps the lines on her face had deepened and her countenance was sad, reflecting the tragedies she had experienced. To their questioning stares, she responded, (verses 20-21) “Don’t call me Naomi, call me Mara (meaning bitter) because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

Notice the last statement of the chapter: So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. What is significant about this concluding statement? It’s the timing! Was this coincidental? Did the timing of their arrival in Bethlehem just happen by chance? Hardly. God had arranged the whole thing. He had led Naomi and Ruth back to Israel at just the right time . . . the beginning of barley harvest. 

Why was this so important? Because the Old Testament law provided that the poor and the landless could gather (glean) grain left behind in the fields owned by others during harvest (Deut. 24:19).  The God of Israel was going before these two desperately poor widows, arranging the timing of their return. And God does the same thing for us. Often we are so unaware of what God is doing in our lives, we don’t even realize it.

Take Home Truth: When life seems to be out of control, we need to reject bitterness and put our faith and trust in God. Remember bitterness is a sin. Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” If allowed to take root in our hearts, bitterness grows until it consumes us; it takes control of our thoughts and actions and we become self-centered and angry. Sin needs to be recognized, confessed, and turned from. 

You might think, Yes, but you don’t know what I’ve been through. But Scripture doesn’t allow any exceptions. James 1:2-4 states, “Consider it pure joy, brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” See also Romans 5:3-5, where Paul teaches us why God brings suffering into our lives

Ruth and Naomi serve as examples of living by faith. Naomi hung onto her faith. Ruth acted on her faith even though it was still in its infancy. When their lives seemed to be out of control they stepped out in faith believing God would take care of them. And he will take care of you too as you step out in faith in your ordinary (or maybe not so ordinary) life.