Ruth 1 – Coming Home Empty Handed
The story of Ruth begins like all good stories, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Actually, Ruth isn’t so long ago. It’s the time when the ‘judges judged’. It was an unsettled time for the nation of Israel. They were still finding their place in the world and in the Promised Land. Tellingly, the book of Judges ends with the words, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.’ (Judges 21:25). In the midst of that turmoil, we zoom into one particular family and one certain man of Bethlehem in Judah, Elimelech. Interestingly, his name means, ‘My God is King!’ So with the background of Judges in mind, the question is, how will this man express his belief in God? Will he live up to his name?
We’ve had some friends up for the last few days. Deb had promised to take her husband Emmanuel to the Beechworth Bakery. She’d talked up the donuts there, but when they went guess what. They’d run out of donuts! As the story of Ruth begins there’s a famine in the land of Bethlehem, which is ironic because Bethlehem means ‘House of bread’ in Hebrew! The house of bread has run out! This famine’s a problem, not just on a national, or regional scale, but on a personal one too. In the face of this particular crisis, what will this certain man Elimelech do?
Rather than calling to God for help, Elimelech decides to pack up his house and move his family to the land of Moab. Now, speaking from recent personal experience, moving house is no small matter. Even moving a few blocks, as Willem and Marie have done recently is a big job! Of course Elimelech and Naomi wouldn’t have had all the stuff that we have, but they wouldn’t have had a truck either! But Elimelech makes the call that leaving town with his wife and two teenage sons is the best thing he can do.
The decision to go to Moab was probably a pragmatic one. The aim is to escape the famine, to head somewhere that’s not affected. But Moab presents an even greater risk. The people of Moab were descendants of Lot, so in a way they were cousins to the Israelites. But like a lot of distant families, there was no love lost between them. To make things even worse, the Moabites had turned from worshipping God to worshipping idols. So Deuteronomy declares that, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deut 23:3 NRSV). Moving to Moab, especially with two teenage boys in tow, is a risky move! But that’s where Elimelech decides to take his family. And unfortunately, while they’re there Elimelech dies, leaving his wife Naomi alone with their two sons. And when the boys came of age they married local women, Moabites named Orpah and Ruth.
Then tragedy strikes again, Mahlon and Chilion also die. She’s not only a widow, she’s also lost both her sons. That alone is tragic enough. But to fully understand the depths of despair that Naomi’s in we need to remember the state of women in Ancient Palestine. It was a strongly patriarchal society. Women couldn’t own or inherit property, which meant that a wife was dependent on her husband and her sons and their progeny. But Naomi’s lost her husband and her sons. There is no one to care for her, no one to provide for her and no one to carry on the family name. What’s worse, she’s stuck in a foreign land, far from any support, far from family or friends.
But then Naomi hears that the Lord had considered his people, God had seen their plight and heard their cries and had given them food. The famine in Israel is over! So Naomi resolves to head back home, she packs up and heads off. But then she suddenly remembers her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth! They’re Moabites. For them Bethlehem isn’t home! Who knows how they’ll be treated there? She has no means of supporting them, now or in the future. And so Naomi makes an incredibly generous gesture. She tells the girls to go back to their own families. She doesn’t just tell them to get lost, she actually prays for them. She says, ‘May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.’ The word ‘kindly’, is a translation of a Hebrew word hesed, it means loving-kindness. It’s an important word as we’ll see in the book of Ruth. Naomi’s prayer is that Ruth and Orpah would know the kindness and love of God, that he would look upon them favourably. After a bit of convincing Orpah takes Naomi up on her offer and heads home. But Ruth refuses, she’s a stubborn daughter-in-law! Ruth insists on staying by Naomi’s side. So the two of them return to Bethlehem. When they get there, the cause quite a fuss. All the women start chatting, ‘Isn’t this Naomi?’ And what does she say? Don’t call me that!
There’s something real about Naomi isn’t there? Her mourning for her husband and now her sons has led her to despair, almost to self-pity. She tells the people not to call her Naomi, which means ’pleasant’, but to call her Mara, which means ’bitter’, because the Lord has afflicted her. She says she went away full, but has come back empty. It’s as though coming back to Bethlehem has brought out all the force of her anger and grief.
We’re clearly meant to empathise with the sense of loss and despair that Naomi’s feeling at this point. It’s a feeling that many have felt down the ages. A sense of God having abandoned them, or even, as in Naomi’s case perhaps, that God’s targeted them for punishment. Her situation is about as bad as it gets. She’s without social support, has no source of income, no-one to protect her from harm, and even the sense that God is looking after her has gone. In fact as far as she’s concerned, God’s to blame for her condition. We’re meant to empathise with her emotional devastation. We’re meant to understand what she’s going through as she directs her anger at God. Just like Job, or Jeremiah, or the author of so many of the psalms, she feels let down, punished beyond what she deserves.
There’s a valuable lesson for us here, for those times when we find ourselves in a similar situation, when we too feel let down by God. God can handle us expressing how we feel to him. There’s no sense in this passage of Naomi being in the wrong for crying out in her pain and despair. Her anger is simply reported as how it is. This is part of what it means to live in a fallen world and it’s natural to express the anger and hurt we feel. Even Jesus Christ on the cross cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But it’s also important for us to realise at those times that the story goes on. This isn’t where it ends, this is just the beginning. Naomi’s grief won’t last forever. God hasn’t in fact forgotten Naomi, even if that’s how she feels.
In fact, she’s not really returning home empty handed is she? Orpah took the offer to return home. But Ruth clung to Naomi all the more tightly. In fact the word used, clung, can also be translated cleaved. It’s an old fashioned word. One of those great words that means the opposite of what it sounds like. It sounds like being cleaved apart, but actually means to be intimately and tightly bound. You probably don’t use it in everyday, but it’s a word that we use in the marriage service, to describe a husband and wife leaving their birth families and being cleaved, or joined, together. Did you notice here the significance of what Ruth has done? She’s forgone the opportunity to return to her home to try to find another husband. Instead she’s cleaved herself, inextricably bound herself to this older woman! Listen again to what she says:
16“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
What devotion, what commitment, what faith! She’s seen something in Naomi that makes her want to follow her. She’s not just following her back to Bethlehem. There’s a lot more going on here. She’s turning away from her pagan past and instead becoming a follower of the God of Israel. ‘Your God will be my God,’ she says.
It’s a decision that affects not just the life of Ruth and Naomi, but as we’ll see, the whole nation of Israel. In a way God’s plan for the salvation of Israel, indeed the salvation of the whole world hangs on this seemingly insignificant decision of an insignificant Moabite widow. God uses ordinary people doing ordinary things to tell his extraordinary story. There’s an encouragement here for us. We might be only a few ordinary people, but we can make a difference. Not because we’re extraordinary, but because God is. God can use us to bring a change to the lives of those around us.
That might come as we speak to others about God’s care and provision, even at times pointing out what they themselves might not be able to see. Naomi complains that she’s come home empty handed. What she needs to be told is that’s not the truth! She’s come home with Ruth! By the end of the story the women who are gossiping here in verse 19, say to Naomi Ruth is worth more than seven sons!
We can also change the world as we show the same kind of covenantal love that Ruth displays. In a way she came ‘home’ empty handed. She gave up her chance to return home, to find a new husband and live a normal life, for the sake of her mother-in-law, She made her choice knowing there was nothing in it for her, no prospects. She returned home with Naomi, empty-handed, without an agenda, without looking for what she could get out of it for herself. She did that out of love for Naomi, a lonely, vulnerable person in desperate need of support. She was showing God’s love to Naomi.
You probably know people yourself who have shown, or are showing, that sort of covenant love in their own lives. We mustn’t underestimate the value of such life giving love in the greater scheme of things. We don’t know the eternal consequences of what might seem like insignificant acts of love.
In the beginning the book of Ruth looks like it will be all about a certain man named Elimelech. But it’s actually about his wife Naomi, and their daughter-in-law Ruth. It’s about the love that Ruth shows Naomi. It’s about God’s love and how he calls all of us to share that love with the world. Let’s pray that God helps us to show, and share, that love with those around us.