Our passage today is found in Ruth 1:1-18 (NASB).
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Judges and Ruth were originally numbered together as one book. I find that very interesting because the two books are so different. The Book of Judges is about bloodshed, war, and strife. It also contains some of the most memorable stories in all of Scripture, not to mention numerous Old Testament heroes like Gideon with his trumpets and Samson with his hair.
The Book of Ruth, however, does not deal with the major events or institutions in Israel’s history, but with the problems and concerns of a single family in Bethlehem. You don’t read of any Old Testament superstars here. Ruth is a quiet story of ordinary people going about their quiet lives, but it deals with them in such a way as to show how God is truly involved in the affairs of everyday life. This beautiful short story, tucked away in the midst of national turmoil, could just as well be our story, for we too are living in uncertain times.
I’d like to focus on the opening verses of this narrative. Though the book bears the name of the primary character in the story (Ruth), the opening verses are really about Naomi and her family. Who were they and how do they bear any resemblance to us?
Naomi and Her Plight
Naomi was a woman of God. Her name means “pleasant” or “lovely.” If she were here today we all would enjoy having her around and she would be dearly missed if she were absent. Her husband, Elimelech, was also a man of God. His name expressed something of his conviction and character. It meant, “My God is king.” The collected evidence suggests that Naomi and Elimelech were also a couple of some note in the town of Bethlehem. Perhaps they did well for themselves financially, but more than that I believe their community looked up to them. They were respected pillars of the faith.
The future looked bright for this couple, and with God on their side how could anything go wrong? Like any couple of antiquity their heritage was in their children. The problem was that when they had children the names they gave them seem to indicate that things didn’t quite turn out the way they expected. There is some debate as to what the sons’ names actually mean, but many scholars believe that Mahlon and Kilion mean “sickly” or “weakening,” and “failing” or “pining,” respectively.
Another piece of the story that we learn is how a famine forced this little family of four to make a very difficult decision to move to Moab (east of the Dead Sea). In order to put food on the table they had to leave family, friends, and all they knew for the sake of basic sustenance. Their move was never meant to be a permanent, though. The plan was to return “ASAP.” However, before she knew it ten years passed by for Naomi. During that decade her husband died.
Shortly thereafter her two sons moved on with their lives and ended up marrying Moabite women. Years ago Naomi never dreamed that her children would marry out of the faith. There was no direct prohibition for Israeli boys to marry Moabite girls, but it was not looked favorably upon. What choice did they have, really? They didn’t have the option of going to a denominational college in Loma Linda or Angwin or Berrien Springs.
When it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, her two sons died and Naomi was left alone. Well, she wasn’t entirely alone; she had her daughters-in-law. However, if the stigmas and stereotypes existed of mothers and daughters-in-law back then as they do today, this wasn’t much of a consolation for Naomi.
Does it come as any surprise that at the end of those ten, long years Naomi no longer wanted to be called “pleasant”? Rather, she said, “Call me bitter,” for “the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” (v. 20.)
God’s to Blame!
One aspect of the story that I’ve struggled with is the concept that Naomi had of God. She evidently believed it was God who brought the famine. She believed the Lord was punishing her with the death of her family members. Maybe she just couldn’t get her mind around why all of these calamities had struck her. You see Naomi, like most people in the Old Testament, believed that nothing happens by chance. God’s people in the Old Testament had a very high view of God. They believed he is sovereign and does whatever he desires, and in the end God’s providence prevails. He brings the famine and the feast.
The view that Naomi expressed in the beginning verses of Ruth troubled me originally. I wanted to correct Naomi regarding her view of God. I wanted to say, “Hey! God is not like that!” But that’s not my place. This is what she believed about God and about the situation she was in.
As I continued reflecting on Naomi’s plight and started thinking about my own life, I realized that sometimes I’ve thought that way about God as well. Maybe all of us have. You don’t realize it, though, until you find yourself in that kind of a situation, until your assumptions of how life is supposed to work and how things are supposed to play out are challenged.
Lately I’ve come to such a place in my life. For seven years I was a pastor. During those years the churches I served experienced a good deal of “success.” Things were looking bright for me until, due to my wife’s career, we were forced to move. It wasn’t really that big a deal at the time, because I thought I could easily transfer to another church. However, when the time came to make that transition to another conference, it didn’t go according to plan. Due to the economic downturn, the conference I moved to issued a hiring freeze. I questioned God and even blamed myself: “What’s going on, God? Was I such a terrible pastor that you don’t see fit for me to continue shepherding the flock?” To make matters more difficult, I was now serving as a stay-at-home-dad. I found my whole identity was being challenged as I grieved the loss of a life that once was and a future I saw myself living out.
In Naomi’s story what we find is a woman grieving a loss not only of her husband and sons, but of a life that never was. Naomi has a broken heart, and God is to blame. The last thing she wants or thinks she needs are her daughters-in-law hanging around. They serve as a token of what she wants to leave behind. So she sets out to go back to the land of Judah. However, her daughters-in-law want to go with her. Through her utter grief she crafts a cogent argument and convinces Orpah to return to her god and her people. But the argument wasn’t as convincing for Ruth. The author of Ruth states in dramatic contrast, “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her” (v. 14). The word “clung” is the exact same word used in Gen. 2:24 in referring to the ideal marital relationship: where you leave your existing family and cleave to your spouse, thus establishing a new family.
Orpah is often blamed as giving her mother-in-law the “kiss of death.” But there is no indication that she should be treated this way. Certainly Naomi didn’t view her in this light. It was because of Naomi’s convincing argument that Orpah chose to leave. The only thing we can pin on these two is that Orpah wanted to be a wife again, and Ruth wanted to remain a daughter.
The question that begs to be answered at this juncture in the story is: Why did Ruth stay? What did she have to gain? It seems completely illogical for her to stick around. Women in those days, especially in a rural setting such as Bethlehem, didn’t have any occupation other than being a wife. Since she was not Jewish by birth she didn’t have a chance of getting married. Her best shot at remarrying and finding security would be back in Moab. Furthermore, Naomi makes it very clear through her arguments the utter absurdity of either of them to stick around. It just doesn’t make sense for Ruth to stay. It’s illogical! So how do you explain it?
"Hesed” and the Grace of God
The answer as to why Ruth stays is found in the text. It’s found in 1:8, “kindly.” It’s the Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated “loving-kindness.” But hesed, in some respects, is a difficult word to translate. Those who speak other languages know that some words, idioms, and concepts are difficult to express in a different language. Hesed means something like loyalty or love. In the Old Testament it is often related to covenant, and it indicates the kind of warm and loyal attitude that the parties ought to have for one another. Hesed is intervention on behalf of someone suffering misfortune or distress. It pursues what is good and not what is evil. It goes beyond what is expected or deserved, based solely on a generosity of spirit toward others. It doesn’t make any logical sense, but it’s what everyone needs. An appropriate translation in this instance, I believe, is “grace.”
So where did a pagan girl like Ruth learn about grace? The only answer is that she learned about it from Naomi, the woman of God who accepted her as her own daughter, who treated her with grace. However, just because you’ve been a conduit of grace doesn’t mean that you’re immune from the circumstances of life. Naomi had experienced great tragedy and loss, and she desperately needed to be reminded that God’s providential leading would still prevail and that He had not abandoned her.
And so we read Ruth’s poetic refrain:
Do not urge me to leave you or turn back 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. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death part you and me.
It was through the attitude and actions of grace displayed by Ruth that Naomi was reminded of the grace of God. Ruth’s trust may not have been well informed, but it was real. It might not have been packaged through a perfect Jewish bloodline, but the principle of vital godliness was rooted in her heart and powerfully operative in her life.
Through Ruth, Naomi was reminded that God is present, and the same holds true for you and me today. God is present when you’re struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table, for our God is Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord Our Provider. God is present when it seems that life is not turning out the way you expected it to, for our God said, “I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for prosperity and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11-12). God is present as you grieve the loss of a loved one, for the God we know in Christ Jesus gets to the valley of death, loss and grief before we get there. God is present when you’re struggling with your marriage and family, for the love of God heals all of our hurts. God is present when you’ve discovered it’s cancer, for God can give you a peace and sense of intimacy with Him that you never thought was humanly possible. God is present no matter what other people think about you and say behind your back, because even if you were the only person who rebelled against heaven, he still would come and die for you. God is present when you had hopes of continuing in pastoral ministry but ended up being a stay-at-home-dad. God is present.
Erik Carter, D.Min., is working on a Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Claremont School of Theology. This sermon was originally preached at the Thousand Oaks Adventist Church in Thousand Oaks, California, on November 21, 2009.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2319