The Old Testament book of Ruth is often used as a women’s Bible study, and I can see why when it shows the amazing faith of a young widow named Ruth. Yet, I think it is even better as a study for men, since the male lead is a real man’s man: Boaz. Both characters show what faith is in action, both main characters demonstrate godly humility, devotion and service, and as I see it, the take away from the story is one that each one of us can learn from. What does a godly woman look like? Take a look at Ruth. What does a godly man look like? Take a look at Boaz… and guess what guys; Boaz didn’t have to turn in his “man card” to faithfully follow God.
The story begins in the days of the Judges, when God was the only King in Israel. While the text doesn’t say which one of the judges was in office at the time, scholars tend to think that it must have been early in that period, since our text does not say “when there was no king” (Ruth 1:1). In any case, it seems that there was a famine in the land that should have been flowing with milk and honey.
It is important for us to bear in mind that famines were not supposed to happen, and that if one did occur, there were more problems in the land than just a famine. In the Law, God linked His statutes with blessings and curses; there would be blessings when the people obeyed the Law, curses when they did not, and one of those curses was famine (Lev. 26:19). That there was a famine in the land is indicative of disobedience afoot. It would seem that the situation became so bad that people were leaving Bethlehem, headed for more favorable areas where they could find food.
In our story, we find a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their sons Mahlon and Kilion. As most of you know, it is always a good idea to find out what Bible names mean, and this is especially true in the Old Testament, so let’s see… Elimelech means my God a King, Naomi means amiable or pleasant, and their sons’ names mean sickness and consumption. Perhaps the boys were sickly children, unlikely to live long lives; certainly, if I wanted to go “old school” with you, I’d say that the lesson is that out of an amiable and pleasant life comes sickness and consumption (the old name for tuberculosis) but when do I ever go “old school” here?
Off they go to Moab, the land of the Moabites just across the Jordan River, which isn’t really very far from Bethlehem, at least in terms of highway miles. Even so, it must have been night and day when it comes to the availability of food. Understand that for a Jew to leave the Promised Land to live among the gentile Moabites was a very big deal, and this family must have been very desperate to do this.
The family lived in Moab for 10 years. During this time, Elimelech died, and then the two sons married local Moabite women, and in turn each of the sons died leaving Naomi alone with her two daughters in law. No reasons are given for the deaths of the men, but one thing is very clear: These events were disastrous. For a woman, or three women, to be left alone in the world without a man or an extended family in those days meant that one of three things would very shortly happen: The woman would find a man to marry, she would become a prostitute, or she would starve. Thus Naomi, Orpah and Ruth were in very deep trouble as our passage draws to a close. What will they do?
We pick up the story in the midst of calamity for Naomi and her two daughters in law. All of their husbands have died and they have no way to earn a living in Moab without them and something must be done− and done quickly. Naomi resolves to return to Bethlehem, since she has heard that the famine has passed and the fields are once again producing in abundance. She announces to Orpah and Ruth that she intends to return home, and urges them to return to their families, in the hope that they will be taken in, but they protest. The text does not tell us exactly why they protested so much; what Naomi has urged upon them makes all the sense in the world; their only chance is to be reunited with their extended families… but will they have them back? Maybe Orpah and Ruth have just become so attached to Naomi that they can’t bear to part and would prefer to take their chances back in Bethlehem, where there are certainly no guarantees that they will be accepted, since they are not Israelites.
Naomi’s thinking is pretty simple; she is too old to marry again, and even if she did she may be past childbearing. Even so, if she could bear more sons, and found a man who would take her as a wife in his old age, Orpah and Ruth can’t wait around for years on end while the sons grew up. No, their only hope would be to return to their families and hope for another chance. Orpah finally sees reason and heads back to her clan, but Ruth, well that is another matter.
For whatever reason, Ruth declares her unyielding intention to stick by Naomi, to worship the God of Israel and to go where ever Naomi goes and to share her fate. Seeing Ruth’s determination, Naomi gives in and lets her travel with Naomi to Bethlehem and an uncertain fate.
What will happen to them when they return? Will the family take Naomi in after all these years of living among the Moabites? Without a doubt, many families would turn their backs on her at this point, particularly with a gentile in tow. When they arrive, the people in Bethlehem are amazed to see them. Naomi tells the women (for men did not normally speak to unattached women) that they should call her Mara from now on, which means bitter, for God had turned against her.
Interesting isn’t it? From Naomi, which means amiable or pleasant, to Mara which means bitter because of all the family calamity she had suffered. The chapter ends with the notice that they had arrived just as the barley harvest was beginning.