Ruth is probably the best short story in all of Scripture. It’s riveting, it’s real, it’s engaging with our hearts and emotions, and it’s got the a great ending! The big picture of Ruth serves as the means of recording how Yahweh continues to sovereignly bring salvation to earth through Abraham’s seed (Gen. 12:1-3; blessed to be a blessing), to the seed of Jesse (king David), to the seed of Mary (Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit).
This is in part, why the Hebrew word hesed is used to describe this book. Many people define hesed as mercy, loving kindness, faithfulness, and goodness. But Bruce Waltke (the main OT theologian who I’ve used to unpack technical terms in this series) defines hesed in the book of Ruth in many ways, one of them being “help for the helpless”; thus, the title of the series. That’s all for now. Let’s get right into the story:
Act 1: Ruth migrates from Moab to Bethlehem (1:1-22)
This first act has two scenes: Elimelech’s household migrating from Bethlehem to Moab, and its grieving widows returning to Bethlehem.
Scene 1 (1:1-5):
v. 1a: In the days when the judges ruled… The book’s setting is during the time of the Judges, where we see the cycle of rebellion (apostasy), slavery (taken captive by other nations), repentance (crying out to God to be delivered), and redemption (being delivered from the hand of their oppressor by a judge that God sends for the sake if Israel) among the Israelites.
The last passage in the book of Judges says this: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (25:21) There was no fear of God, no love for neighbor, and no sacrifice for the greater common good. This was a godless and wicked time in the history of Israel.
v. 1b: …there was a famine in the land, Scripture isn’t clear in this passage, but there was a famine in the land more than likely because God had raised up oppressors to come against unfaithful Israel and plunder all their grain. Then God withholds the rain to create a famine.
vv. 1c-2a: a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech
There was famine in the land, and the land this family was from was called Bethlehem, which means “house of bread”; go figure! People are hungry in the house of bread. The man’s names is Elimelech, whose name means “My God is King” acts like He has no king to trust in. Why do you say that?
Well, we need to understand a little more about Moab. The whole city began from an incestuous relationship, when Lot’s (nephew of Abraham) daughters got him drunk on 2 different nights, slept with him and had children; the first child being named Moab, the father of the Moabites. This is where Eli is going. To the nasty forbidden Moab, an incestuous perverted pagan city, where they worshipped pagan perverted gods, namely the god Chemosh, simply because there were financial opportunities in the city compared to the bread shop.
Eli has camped his wife and kids in the middle of a foreign land with no church family, no prospects for his sons to marry (at least prospects acceptable to Jews who were supposed to marry other Jews) and the whole reason he went to Moab was because of a famine at the bread factory! This proves to be a bad move for Eli and sons!
v. 2: and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. Here we meet Eli’s wife Naomi (whose name means “Pleasantness” or “Sweetheart”) leave Bethlehem with their two sons Mahlon (whose name means “Sick) and Chilion (whose name means “Dying”). Great names for sons, huh?
v. 2b: They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. (cf. 1 Sam. 17:12). In short, this would have sounded to the listening ear in this day, that this family is possibly of great prestige… they were like a family from north Scottsdale.1 This also means there were other options to stay rather than uproot your family, go on your own, and try to survive.
v. 2c-3: [So,] They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.
So Eli moves to Moab, why? So he doesn’t die. What happened to wise old Eli? He died! Bad move Eli. Bethlehem was under the care of God, not to mention the place where his church family was, and now Eli dies and leaves his family in Moab, alone!
v. 4a: These (her 2 sons) took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.
Naomi loses her husband, and then as her two sons find wives (Ruth and Orpah) to carry on the family name, from Moabite women because their entrepreneur dad left them no other options. We need to understand what this meant. Moabites were not allowed into the house of Jewish worshippers because they worshipped pagan gods. That’s like marry a woman (dudes) or a man (ladies) who isn’t allowed to be a member at Kineo. They can’t worship together which proves to be a bad way to build a family!
vv. 4b-5a: They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, Oh man, this went from bad to worse. In v. 1 we learn that there is no grain seed (“there’s a famine in the land”), and in vv. 3-5 we learn that there is no human seed (“the death of all the men in the family”).
Eli leaves the house of bread, goes to a pagan land to live because there’s financial opportunity there, and he dies, and so do his sons. Would you call that bad planning?
v. 5b: so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. This phrase seems to minimize the pain and loss of Naomi. Naomi buried her husband, and her two sons! Not to mention without having an heir to her name. In these days, without an heir, Elimelech’s household will lose its inheritance and will socially become an outcast in Israel. This is losing more than loved ones, its also losing any chance to live a normal life, if she survives herself. As an old woman in these days, her situation is dreadful.
The young widows (Ruth and Orpah) can remarry and haves sons because they are young, but Naomi is stuck as an older woman. It seems that Naomi’s life as she knows it would be better if she had never been born.
Her grief and demise has stirred up a lot of deep struggles with God, His goodness, and love for her (1:20-21). Naomi’s pain and struggles are very similar to that of Job’s. We must remember where Naomi is at right now. She is suffering and God is asking her to trust Him even though He has not revealed to her major pieces of the puzzle. But Naomi is even worse off than Job because she’s a woman who is childless and post-menopausal if you know what I mean! This is a road Job didn’t have to go down.
Job could work again, rebuild his wealth. Naomi can’t. He may endure unjust accusations from friends, but he will not face degradation, discrimination, possible physical/sexual abuse, or social oppression. Naomi has all that to navigate through and live in fear of. This is a terrible situation, worse than we could imagine, or maybe many of us this morning can unfortunately imagine it more than we would like.
But Naomi must go on. Death has stripped her down until she stands naked before God without anything else that women culturally have to rely on to give them significance (husband, children, a home, provision, ability to have kids, ability to work, etc.)
She is stripped of everything and has nothing to hide behind, and neither do we if we are honest with ourselves. We are all naked before God and our only hope is Him. Is this resonating with anyone? Have you ever felt hopeless, powerless, devastated to the point of quitting? This is Naomi. She does not look like a candidate to play a leading role in salvation history.
Scene 2 (1:6-22):
v. 6-7: 6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.
This new scene begins with a small ray of hope for Naomi as she hears that the Lord had lifted the famine in Judah, and has given them food. God, the name used here is Yahweh, whom we know to be Jesus. Jesus visited His people and gave them food! Naomi is headed home, back to the house of bread, and back to her people who worship Yahweh with her 2 daughter-in-laws.
Here, in this verse, we see God’s sovereignty at work, behind the scenes, yet still at work. God works by the means of miracles sometimes, but most of the time God works in invisible ways, at least to the normal eye. God works in very normal ways, among very normal people like you and I, to accomplish His purposes. And within His purposes, God works sovereignly (He is the highest authority, He rules and reigns, He’s over Satan, demons, death, He is even over the accidents and in all that He is good!)
vv. 8-15: As Naomi is headed home with her two daughter-in-laws, she turns to them and urges them to go to their mothers’ home, find husbands, remarry, that the Lord may “deal kindly” with them. Here is where we learn of that beautiful word that permeated this story of Ruth; “Hesed”.
May Yahweh bless you and bring you hesed, loving kindness that will never abandon you, but be kind to you in rich ways. And as Naomi is weeping, Ruth and Orpah respond and say “No, we will return to you to your people.” (1:10).
So Naomi turns up the heat and says: “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” (1:11-13).
In short, Naomi tells them that they have “No!” future with her. “According to the Israelite law of levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-9), other sons or close relatives of hers should marry the childless widows and use their seed to preserve the deceased relative’s name and land inheritance.”2 This is where we get the phrase “kinsman redeemer”.
In the time of the judges, Naomi has little, to no hope that a relative will sacrifice his fame and fortune to help a young widow by bearing her sons that will neither bear his name nor add to his property or wealth (or in her bitterness forgot about Boaz or other relatives).
By law, God set this law up to protect women in these situation and to keep families from poverty. A kin (relative) to Naomi was to step up and sacrifice for the sake of Naomi’s family, marry Ruth, and he will get no payoff from this, and will be looked to by many as a fool, not mention the child would be Naomi’s, not his.
So Naomi says to Ruth and Orpah, that the only practical and sensible thing to do is to go back to your home, and marry and live a normal life. Naomi says that she is a dead end road; “forget about me” is essentially what Naomi says.
She places their interests above her own and makes the decision to face her own dark future alone. This is not the right decision, as she is sending these women back to their homes to serve vile false gods (Baal, Chemosh, etc.). Naomi is bitter and angry and acting in the flesh.
vv. 14-15: 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
They weep together, but Orpah takes her up on it. She chooses to live by sight, not by faith. She would rather fall back and serve false gods than risk losing a normal life. She was a pretending Christian… But Ruth… this is a really good “But” that we find in Scripture. Oh the beautiful “but’s” of Scripture:
vv. 16-17: 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me [literally: stop afflicting me] to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Facing the same realities that Orpah couldn’t handle, Ruth divinely insists that she remain with Naomi no matter what! She is sticking to her covenant she made with the house of Elimelech and her deceased husband Mahlon. Ruth uses the Hebrew word [pagaʿ]: “Stop afflicting me!” She is set on what she is called to do and she backs her word up with an oath: “May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Like Abraham, Ruth leaves her family and homeland to follow Yahweh to an unknown land. This is a clear picture of God providentially planning to establish His kingdom here on earth. But this seems to be a bigger act of faith than even Abraham’s obedience, if I dare say that! Abraham is told by God to go, and to our knowledge, Ruth is going with what she believes to be right, not necessarily because she received a word from God.
So they return to Bethlehem together and upon their arrival, the years of anger and bitterness had aged Naomi to the point where her friends and family say: “Is this Naomi?” And Naomi interprets what has happened in her life like this:
vv. 20-21: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
Naomi basically says, “Call me old hag for I am miserable and bitter”. That’s at least being honest. I love Naomi for her honesty! We could learn from Naomi’s honesty about where she’s at with the Lord (expound on this).
v. 22: So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. But ironically, Naomi is able to return to her hometown because the Lord had ended the famine, and she is not alone, and it just so happened to be harvest time for the barley.
This paints a picture of many of our lives in different ways. Some of our lives truly resemble Naomi’s life, and other’s lives resemble her life emotionally. You feel abandoned by God. You truly think He’s publicly against you and wants to punish you.
You feel like He’s playing one big joke on you that isn’t funny. You don’t believe that He is good or that He is “for” you… you think his sovereignty means that He’s in control of everything, but He’s not not good. God is sovereign and He is eternally good! But sin is bad! Humans are bad! Demons are bad! God is good! He is sovereign and He is good!
But I don’t think any of us would say about how Naomi feels, “That’s crazy! Why would she feel that way! She’s over doing it a bit!” We wouldn’t because we know her story and we have seen all that has happened to her. But we are not angry for her as we would be if we didn’t know the end. (the prodigal daughter and she doesn’t know it!)
We see the end. We see how God is working. Even before the big moment of redemption. Ruth is with her. The famine is over. She is back home. Even though Naomi can’t see the hesed of the Lord yet, the end of this journey home is the beginning of a new journey. Two destitute women arrive safely in time for barley season! This is true for you and I today. We may not be able to see what God’s doing, but we do know He is not against us, in the same way we know and see that He is not against Naomi.
We read the Hebrew used of God here in chapter 1 is Lord, Yahweh; which we learn in the NT that Yahweh is Jesus. Jesus is the One who visited His people in Bethlehem. And He has visited us through the cross. He gave it all up so that we could gain it all. God is for you today because He sent Jesus. No matter where your story is at right now, the end can be sealed in sure redemption and reconciliation.
But to do that, we must be honest with ourselves today. We must learn from Naomi. Instead of coming in here with thoughts about God that are concealed (“How are you?” “Oh, I’m good, it’s a beautiful day!” and inside you can’t figure out why God seems so far from you today or that He would let this or that happen to you.)
Are you like Naomi today? Are you bitter and angry at God? Be honest. Let Jesus visit you this morning as He did Bethlehem.
Maybe you’re Eli, and you have taken the reigns of your life and think you’ve got everything figured out, but you’re headed towards death. You’re producing sons called “Walking pneumonia” and “Tuberculosis”. Submit, acknowledge you need help.
Maybe you’re Ruth and you’ve made a tough decision, and you don’t know what’s next and are afraid, but you’d rather trust Jesus. Be encouraged today. God is with you and you are not alone. Let someone here know where you are and let them walk with you.