We’re excited to begin a new series today on the book of Ruth. It’s the 8th book of the Old Testament, right after Judges. In fact, in the original Hebrew bible, Judges and Ruth were one book. I absolutely love the Old Testament because it deals with real people, real circumstances, real problems and issues, and real life. Through all of those, real and deep things of God get laid out for us in ways that make them easier to understand than some professorial-type lecture on a doctrine of God. And Ruth is no exception. It contains all a great epic needs—complex characters set in troubled time, gut-wrenching tragedy and heartache, challenges, tough decisions with huge risks and consequences, courage, anger, hopelessness, plot twists, and, for you romantics, true love. Let’s get to it!!
Ruth 1:1 - In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land. . .
This opening to the book of Ruth is as rich as Charles Dickens’ powerhouse, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” from A Tale of Two Cities. It describes a period of some 300 years following the death of Joshua, whom God used to lead Israel into the Promised Land. After his death, the people went through 12 cycles of falling away from God and worshiping other gods. When the wickedness reached a certain level, God would sent hardship in the form of famine or oppression by other nations. The situation in Israel would get so dire that eventually the people of Israel would turn back to God, confess, repent, and pray for rescue. And then God would raise up a judge, someone would who lead a revival of fervor for God and drive out any oppressors. Famine in the land tells us that this account takes place at a time of God’s judgment on Israel. And, given the genealogy at the end of the book, the events recorded likely occurred during the last 100 years of the 300 years of the judges. It was the worst of times.
The story quickly homes in on one particular family during this time of distress.
Ruth 1:1-2 - . . . and 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 and the name of his wife Naomi. . .
The family is no doubt aware of Israel’s history over the past couple of hundred years. Judgments of famine and oppression are reversed by repentance and returning to God. But we can be slow learners, no? Elimelech opts to outrun God. We’ll abandon the land God gave us and just zip over to Moab, where we hear there is food aplenty. We’ll escape that whole process of repentance and confession and prayer. Like most horrible decisions, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But Moab turns out to be a road to nowhere.
Moab was known for many things, none of them good, especially for a Jewish family. Moab began out of an incestuous relationship between Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his older daughter. After God’s destruction of Sodom, Lot and his two daughters end up in a cave. His daughters don’t see any other guys in the cave, so they conclude having offspring by their dad was their only chance of continuing the family line. So, Moab and the Jewish nation are distant cousins, but the relationship was strained. Moab refused to allow Israel to pass through its territory when God rescued them from Egypt. The Moabite king even hired a prophet to curse Israel. Later, Moabite women slipped into the camp of Israel and seduced some of the men and encouraged them to worship Moabite gods. In response, God instructed Israel to have nothing to do with Moab, not to mingle or intermarry. Doesn’t sound like a good place for a Jewish family to raise godly sons.
Ruth 1:2 - .. and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephratites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and stayed there.
Hey, you know times are tough when you name your sons “Puny” and “Longing”—that’s what Mahlon and Chilean translate to in English. Things should be better. After all, you live in Bethlehem, which translates to “house of bread.” Sadly, sin has produced an empty pantry. So, let’s see how things go with this big move to Moab.
Ruth 1:3 - But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.
The person responsible for the move is now dead. What will the survivors do? Stay in Moab, or return home to repent and confess and get things right with God?
Ruth 1:4 - These (the two sons) took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years.
Not only did they stay, but the boys managed to find Moabite women willing to settle down with a Puny and Longing. But why stay, Naomi? Could it have been pride, the realization that you would be coming home to friends and family with your life in tatters? And showing up with sons married to Moabite gals? How would that go down in the neighborhood? Maybe like with us, it was just easier to continue the pain of disobedience than to admit a big time screw up. Come on, we’ve all been there. We buy something on credit we really don’t have the dollars for, and God sends a little judgment our way for handling our money poorly. The car breaks down. We reason, “We have to get the car fixed so we can get to work to earn money.” So we pay for that on credit, too. Every step seemed like a good idea at the time, but the next thing we know, we can barely meet the minimum payments. God’s judgment was calling us to confess, repent, and turn back to Him, but we figured we can work our own way out of the mess. Most of us have a hard time looking up until we have no other place to look. Don’t feel alone, that’s where Naomi is, too. After all, she’s got two sons who can look after things. Or, does she?
Ruth 1:5 - . . . and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Uh-oh. Best laid plans go bottom up. No family means no food. A Jewish widow in Moab was not going to get welfare. No place to look but up, it seems. God’s forced her hand. In verses 6-8, Naomi strikes out for home with Orpah and Ruth. It seems that, back home, the people had come to their senses and turned back to God. Naomi heard while she was working in the fields in Moab that God had brought food again to Israel. People back there had survived, but most of her family had not. Time to get things right with God. So, off Naomi goes, with Orpah and Ruth in tow.
But it seems they don’t get far before Naomi has a sudden realization. "Life’s going to be hard for me, but it’s going to be nearly impossible for these Moabite women. I’ve got nothing to offer them back there, and back there could be a very hostile place for them. What right-thinking Israelite male would even consider taking them as wives? Their prospects are far better if they go back to their families here in Moab.” So, she orders them, about six times, to return home. No reason they should have to suffer because of her disobedience to God.
Both Orpah and Ruth initially refuse to leave. But when Naomi persists in explaining how awful life in Israel will be for them, Orpah changes her mind. She kisses Naomi “goodbye,” turns and leaves. What’s interesting is that we never hear of Orpah again after this event. Ruth, on the other hand, clung to Naomi and would hear no talk of returning. Ruth and Orpah represent two kinds of people. Both have a high opinion of Naomi, and both are ok with Naomi’s people, and her God. But Orpah isn’t willing to follow no matter what. She’s only willing to go if things are going to be great. Ruth also has a high opinion of Naomi. And because of Naomi, Ruth has a high opinion of Naomi’s people and her God. But as we’ll see, Naomi’s God isn’t just Naomi’s God anymore. He has become Ruth’s God, too. And she is not willing to give Him up, regardless of the consequences. Listen to her words.
Ruth 1:16-17 - But Ruth said, “Do not urge 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. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”
She’s in, lock, stock, and barrel. I am committed to this decision, to you, your people, and your God for the rest of my life and beyond. In fact, I’ll be buried there, not in Moab. Don’t even think about taking my bones back to my homeland. I’m counting on my new God to take care me in the afterlife. I don’t care how bad things are down here, don’t care if they are excruciating every day of the rest of my life. I will not abandon you, your people, and my God.
I heard about an Asian foreign exchange student who came to the US, fell in with a Christian family, and started attending a good church. She accepted Jesus. When her assignment in the US ended, she went home. Her village had a welcome home party of sorts. Part of that was to go to the temple and worship the gods. Her family went up first and bowed to these gods. She then went up. . . and spit on the idols. She then turned to face the villagers and walked out. This is a girl who knows something of the faith of Ruth. I renounce every other god but Jehovah, no matter what.
This is what being a Christian means. To turn from everything else and to turn to Jesus, clinging to Him through thick and thin all the way to death. Ruth got it. Oprah did not.