Ruth: A Guide for Life’s Troubled Times
by Brian Bailey
The book of Ruth starts in a particular time of Israel’s history: “…in the days when the judges governed…” (Ruth 1:1). This would have been sometime late in the period of the Judges, the 14th to 10th century B.C. We have the testimony of Judges 21:25, ”In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This was a time of spiritual confusion and ignorance, very much like our own. Authority, especially religious and spiritual authority, was virtually non-existent. How correct Solomon was when he said there was nothing new under the sun.
Why does the author divulge the timeline? Well, to make the point that this is history that is conveyed here. This narrative is historical, dealing with real people who, as we will see, left a footprint in Israel’s history.
The first verse sets the scene that will unfold:
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, 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, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. 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. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband (Ruth 1:1-5).
A famine in the land set the chain of events into motion that will create the background for this book. The primary actors in this story are pushed by events totally beyond their control.
Elimelech and family leave the country
We meet the family of Elimelech the father, Naomi the mother, and two sons who are named Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech’s family is from Bethlehem in Judah. Our text tells us they were “Ephrathites from Bethlehm in Judah” (v. 2). Ephrathites means they were a royal or founding family; they had status and position in the community. We are told that a famine has struck and the Elimelech clan moves to a neighboring country to escape the famine.
This family moving out of the country is controversial among scholars and commentators. Doubtless the question on the lips of other people in Bethlehem was, “You are leaving God’s promised land for His people to go live with the Moabites?” To some it was almost a betrayal.
“You are going to Moab!?” some would ask.
The people of Israel didn’t think well of the people of Moab. Although they were distantly related, the direct bloodline started as a result of drunkenness and incest.
Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. And the firstborn said to the younger, "Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father."3So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.
The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, "Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father." So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day (Genesis 19:30-38).
With the pagan Moabites
All this was written to strongly make the point that these people were not inherently good, moral people. The people of Moab were pagans; they worshipped the god Chemosh and at times engaged in human sacrifice.
They were essentially unfriendly to Israel as was seen when they wandered in the desert. In Numbers chapters 22 through 24, which we will not quote here, the king of Moab, Balak, hires the prophet Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam ultimately ends up pronouncing blessings upon the Hebrews. Because of this opposition the people of Moab are excluded from the congregation for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23: 3-6). It is to this people that Elimelech brings his family.
Choices can have unintended consequences
There are times that we as people simply have to respond to these life events that are larger than ourselves with the best choices that we can make at the time.
At times these choices have no moral overtone but unintended consequences may be truly adverse or even tragic. As J. Vernon McGee pointed out in his commentary on Ruth, sometimes when we run from one problem we run headlong into another problem.
Responsible people seek to make the good and moral choice in any situation. We must realize that we choose, but the results can be clearly anything but what we intended. Sometimes it all seems to go to "hell in a hand basket" even if we have made what we feel is the best, wisest choice we possibly could. We are not infallible. And life seems to have a way to completely upend the applecart.
Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, things just don’t turn out as we hope.
Elimelech made what he thought was a wise decision in leaving Israel.
In their wonderful study of the book of Ruth, Brad Brandt and Eric Kress make the following point: “How often have we acted prudently according to so-called logical standards or the current culture’s standards but not consulted God or His word?” They
go on to say, ”Ruth was written to remind us that for those who will return to God, His grace and loyal love can shine beautifully and brightly inspite of the darkness of our sin and failure-and not only in spite of our sin but amazingly-even through it.”*
Was it sin?
Did Elimelech ultimately sin in going to Moab? We are not told specifically that he did sin in doing this. Was it wise? The wisdom is questionable. Matthew Henry wrote of Elimelech, “…it is evidence of a distrustful, unstable spirit to be weary of the place which God has set up for us. And to be leaving it immediately whenever we meet with any uneasiness or inconvenience in it.” **
Of course, ultimately for our narrative, it was important that Elimelech made the choice he did, but we need to parse a point in his actions.
Be salt in the world
His leaving Israel for Moab potentially could have devastating results apart from the grace of God. We as social beings are created for fellowship with others. It is the portion of our nature created for fellowship with God. Fellowship with others should be carefully given. We walk a fine line: we are to be in the world, but not of the world. We are also to be salt of the earth, and salt does absolutely no good if it resides solely in the saltshaker.
But there comes a point where we have to guard our closest affections. The simple truth is we develop similarities with those we are closest to emotionally. Our most intimate relationships that we have choice over are not to be exclusively with those outside of Christ’s body. We need the spiritual warmth of other believers as charcoal briquettes need contact with other briquettes to catch fire and burn. If you have ever built a charcoal fire for cooking steaks and noticed one briquette that managed to get isolated from the others, off to the side alone, it cooled and extinguished far before the others.
Peril outside the camp
By taking his family out of the fellowship of other Israelites into Moab Elimelech was taking a tremendous chance that his sons could turn pagan. The move was fraught with spiritual peril.
”But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons” (verse 3).
In this case, the decision ultimately turns fatal for Elimelech, and he dies. We are not given a reason from the text to suppose this is a direct judgment from God; we are not told this. Nevertheless, Elimelech is dead, making Naomi a widow and his sons fatherless. This is a terrible calamity in any age but certainly very much at that day and time. Naomi is left alone with two sons to finish raising and bring fully into adulthood starting families of their own. In these ancient societies the fathers took responsibility for procuring wives for their sons and husbands for their daughters.
Marrying outside the faith
We are familiar with the story in Genesis where Abraham went to great pains to find a suitable wife for his son Iaasc. Abraham made his chief servant swear by the name of Abraham’s god that he would not allow Isaac to marry into the Canaanite clans but that he would find a bride from Abraham’s people. (Genesis 24) In all likelihood this is what Elimelech would have done.
Naomi, however, allowed them to take two Moabite women for wives: Orpah and Ruth. The name Orpah means literally “deer” or “fawn” which is a pleasing word picture. Ruth can be translated as “beautiful” or “friendship”. We will see that God was gracious even in this decision.
Doubtless as Naomi watched these two boys enter manhood and marry she consoled herself with the fact that she had these two sons.
For about ten years the five family members live in Moab; but we read that now the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, die and leave a widowed mother and two widowed wives. This is the worst of all possible disasters that could fall on these women. The future is absolutely bleak. This is total affliction for Naomi. Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion all gone and with them all measure of solace.
“…and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.” (Ruth 1:5 NASB)