Today’s Faith Workout on faith bigger than your fears was written by Jenny Jones, Chaplain of FAITH RXD West Houston.
(Chapter Leaders may choose to break this into a 2-3 part series on Ruth)
Hold on tight, because this Faith Workout is going to be all about the book of Ruth! I love this book, not only because it is a great story, like one of telenovela proportions, but because it is also packed full of truth that is so relevant to our culture. While it is not a book about kings or warriors or religious leaders, it is a book that gives us a window into the life of ordinary people in an ordinary family, trying to live lives that honor God despite some heartbreaking circumstances.
Sound familiar to you? It does to me!
It is a story that helps us see our personal need for a redeemer, and a God at work in the details of our everyday life. It is a story that I very easily put myself into, in fact while different circumstances, it is a story that I have identified with over the last several months.
The story of Ruth unfolds over three chapters and I encourage you to read all three, but for this Faith Workout, we are only going to focus on chapter one.
Before we jump into this chapter, there is one historically cultural thing that I want to talk about that was very important to the Israelite cultural at the time. This thing isn’t necessarily as in line with our culture today, but will play a really important role throughout the story of Ruth. And it is this: Family was everything in the ancient world.
Now, that may seem true of us today as well, family is certainly a big deal in our culture too, but in the ancient world it was less about “am I spending enough time with my kids?” Or “if Johnny doesn’t play tournament baseball is he still going to make the school team?” and more about family being a source of stability, identity, wealth, and overall purpose for someone, especially women.
When people were getting married, they were not doing it for individualistic motives as we do, marriages were more transactional, because they were believed to provide for the well-being and generational stability for the whole family for years to come. This concept of family providing stability, is going to be key in understanding the grief and overall severity of the situation at the end of chapter one.
Let’s go ahead and jump in the text:
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.
Ok, let’s stop here for a second and do a little background/geography lesson, because there are a lot of people and places introduced in these first couple of verses.
Right off the bat we see that there are two groups of people based off of geography introduced in this verse. There is a family from Judah, where there is a famine. Because of that famine, like most immigrant families, they have to make a decision to either leave their home land and survive or stay there and die from starvation. We see that this family did something that many Israelites had done before them, which was make the decision to live temporarily in a neighboring land, in this case Moab, to wait out this famine and offer their family a better life and a chance at survival.
Even though Moab was a short distance from Bethlehem, in fact, you could literally see it from across the Dead Sea, this was not an easy move, because the Israelites (who lived in Bethlehem) and the Moabites (who lived in Moab) did not have the best track record at peace. The Moabites were distant relatives and bitter enemies of Israel and had even recently oppressed the Israelites.
Look at Judges 3:12 – 13:
Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and because they did this evil the Lord gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. 13 Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms. 14 The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.
So, these two groups did not have a favorable opinion of one another. The Moabites were polytheistic, which was an abomination to the Israelites who firmly believed that no other god should ever be before the one and only true God, Yahweh. They also practiced astrology and worshiped other Ancient Near-Eastern deities like Ba’al. So, again this would have been a decision this family made strictly out of necessity of survival and a better life.
Let’s keep going and find out who this family is, Ruth 1:2:
2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
So, we have this family of four, the dad, Elimelek, which means ‘My God is King’, so obviously a guy that has a background of faithfulness to Yahweh; his wife, Naomi; and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion; when the first wave of tragedy strikes.
Let’s keep reading in verse 3:
Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth…
We don’t know how Elimelek died, all we know is that he did, and now Naomi is a widow, which would have been a devastating place for her to be in, especially as an immigrant, because remember family equals stability in this culture, if it wasn’t for her two sons, Mahlon and Kilion who could provide for her.
But, then the second wave of tragedy hits, let’s keep reading:
…After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
Now, Naomi has lost her husband and both her sons. She really is a widow, alone, in a foreign land without anyone to provide for her, and since she has no grandchildren there is no longer any formal/legal connection between the two daughters-in-law and Naomi. In this culture at this time, this is an absolutely hopeless situation for Naomi to be in. She is facing destitution, poverty, and a life of begging to survive.
Picking back up, in verse 6:
When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there.
Now, ‘come to the aid,’ literally means, ‘the Lord has visited his people’, this is the first of only two instances in the entire book of Ruth that the Lord directly intervenes, but this intervention caused Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah to prepare to return to Bethlehem.
Let’s keep going:
7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home.
This being Moab
May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
The word kindness is used twice in this verse, and in Hebrew is the word hesed, which means steadfast love expressed through loyalty.
This is a theme that is going to be shown throughout the entire book of Ruth. In this particular instance, Naomi realizes that her daughters-in-law have a much better shot at life and are young enough to remarry, and because they have illustrated hesed kindness toward her, she now wants to return hesed kindness to them and release them to a better life of rest and marriage, rather than that of begging.
The story continues on in verse 10:
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
This protest from the two daughters could have just been a gesture of respect, rather than a declaration but regardless Naomi continues to insist:
But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
Naomi is trying to get them to understand that she has nothing left to offer them. She cannot offer them land or husbands, and that by staying with her there is no prospect of a stable life. She cannot even fulfill the Israelite law of marriage, which stated that if a man died without a son, his brother was obligated to bear a son by his widow, and that son would be considered an heir to the dead brother’s household.
Aside from this seeming really weird and awkward to us- like I am incredibly thankful my husband, Chad, does not have a brother, so if anything ever happens to him I am not obligated to bear his child, this law was in place as a mechanism of God’s grace to provide stability to families in a time of unexpected tragedy. Naomi did not have that to offer her daughters-in-law.
This is why Naomi feels as if the Lord has turned against her, but little does she know that in the same way she was extending hesed kindness to Ruth and Orpah, so the Lord was preparing to extend it to her and her family line.
Let’s keep going:
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
So, at this point Orpah has been convinced by Naomi’s reasoning, and ultimately feels released from her obligation to stick with Naomi and decides to stay in Moab where she probably has ancestral family structures in place to provide for her. And, Naomi uses Orpah’s decision as a final tactic in order to convince Ruth to do the same, but the scripture says ‘Ruth clung to her.’
Then in verses 16-17 Ruth verbalizes the most beautiful display of hesed kindness, that steadfast love expressed through loyalty, when she says this:
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
These are really the pivotal verses of the entire book of Ruth, because this is when the story turns from being about Naomi to being about Ruth. Ruth makes a radical decision in this moment, she makes the decision to leave her home land of Moab and immigrate, as a foreigner, to a land of people that are hostile toward her very identity, and unlike we talked about earlier, she doesn’t do this for the hopes of a better life but with the full expectation of a worse life.
When Ruth says, “May the Lord deal with me…” in the Hebrew that is actually translated as the personal name of God, Yahweh, so Ruth is really saying “May Yahweh deal with me…” which is a big deal, that Ruth, a Moabite, using the name of Israel’s God shows how personal and serious her commitment is, and shows that she is also placing her trust in the God of Israel.
Any of us that have made the decision to place our trust in Christ, have had the same exact moment in which Ruth is having in these verses, a crossroads in which we had to make the decision to lay down the only identity we have ever known – student, American, parent, athlete, addict, perfectionist, academic, whatever your many labels may be, and take on the identity of Christ. And, like Ruth, we cannot walk into that journey expecting a better life – not in the physical sense anyway – rather we walk into that journey with a sense of, hesed, a steadfast love expressed through loyalty, not because we are in need of earning God’s favor, but because of what He already did for us through the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ.
We come to a time in which we say to the Lord, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and you God, will be my God.”
This was Ruth’s time.
Let’s keep going, verse 18:
When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. 19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” 22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
Even though at this point, Naomi had been gone for a number of years, Bethlehem was a very small town, so she was immediately recognized, and immediately feels the need to clarify that a lot of life has been lived between the time she left Bethlehem to the time she now returns, so much so that she changes her name from Naomi, which means ‘my pleasant one’ to Mara ‘bitter’ because she finds that even her name is contrary to her feelings, and her perception of God’s feelings toward her. She is interpreting the difficult situation, in which she finds herself as she enters Bethlehem, to mean that God is against her. She assumes God is the author of her suffering.
Ruth, considered her circumstances, staying in Moab, remarrying, and more than likely living a fulfilling life; or following the poor widow, Naomi, and in return staying true to her hesed characteristics of kindness. Can you imagine how Ruth must have felt walking into Bethlehem? She probably looked a little different, spoke a little different, dressed a little different and essentially her mother in law just said, “the Lord has brought me back empty…” and she is standing right there.
She probably had times of significant doubt, wondering what in the world did she just do, leaving her home to go to a land in which she would be discriminated against and poverty stricken. Naomi tried to use her circumstances to tell her people why this tragedy was happening to her, while Ruth trusted that God would provide a why at the right time.
Does that sound familiar to anyone else? It sure does to me. It is so easy to try and take our circumstances and treat each detail like a puzzle piece to the will of God or God’s opinion of us.
For me, this has been the most challenging part of walking through brain cancer with my mom over the past few months. Day after day, I have found myself trying to analyze each individual circumstance, each piece of the puzzle, and then predict the final picture. Is A, B, and C events happening right now because God knows my mom is not going to make it and he is preparing us for that? Is D, E, and F events happening because those things are going to lead to a cure?
If I am sad, does that mean I don’t have enough faith, if I am not sad enough does that mean I don’t have enough faith? Over and over again, and if you don’t know this by now, let me be the first to tell you, even pastors have Naomi moments. We all do!
But here are 3 truths we can remember when we are facing disappointment and questioning God’s goodness through it all, and we see the beginnings of these 3 truths in this first chapter of Ruth:
- God is our provider
He will always provide a way. In my circumstance God will provide a way for healing for my mom. Our prayer, our desire, is that healing would happen on this side of heaven, but even if it doesn’t, God will provide healing if she is taken home to heaven. Which brings me to the second truth:
- God’s provision is always what we need but not always what we want
At the end of the day, I know that God is not the one doing this to my mom. I know his intention was for us to have whole, perfect, fully functioning bodies – because that is what He created when He created Adam and Eve.
When we say we live in a broken world, that does not just mean that people make poor decisions with their behavior, that also means that our physical world and physical bodies are literally broken. That unexplained natural disasters happen, that people get cancer, that we have limited natural resources – in which even sometimes children don’t get their basic needs met. And, while that does not mean God is powerless in these circumstances by any means, it is that sometimes we don’t always understand in the moment how He is providing or what we exactly need – but He does. And, last:
- God’s provision protects our heart. Our desires have the potential of corrupting our heart.
Over the past month, when I would start to have moments like Naomi, and my thoughts would begin to corrupt my heart, there are two things I did immediately:
First, I would turn on worship music. But this is something that I already had as a part of my life, whether I am going through a trial or not, because music is a powerful influencer over our thoughts and emotions.
I am not musical whatsoever, as far as talent, but the lyrics of songs tend to be the things that immediately run through my head in times of trial, and I think part of that is because I already listen to so much worship music. For example, over the last few months, as I started to go down the rabbit trail of “God where are you, God what are you doing?” My immediate next thoughts would be phrases like, “When I don’t understand, I will choose to love you God.” Or “You don’t give yourself in pieces, you don’t hide yourself to tease us.” And, I would literally say those lines over and over again, even out loud if necessary.
Secondly, I would talk to people that I knew would speak truth. I would go to Godly friends and I would say, out loud, what I was thinking and struggling with, knowing that they would speak truth to my clouded mind especially when I wasn’t able to speak it to myself.
We might not understand why God does or doesn’t allow some things to happen. But, even then, what would it look like if we choose to trust Him and let that be the lens through which we process circumstances?
See, God is not trying to break our hearts, with the hard situations in our lives, but rather make us ready for what He sees just ahead – and that is what He was doing for Ruth and Naomi – and that is what He is doing for us too.
It is ok to have Naomi moments, you may be walking through one right now.
God saw their hopeless situation, He saw their need for a redeemer – someone who could intervene in their life and restore them, and He sees the same thing in each one of our lives. We all have the same spiritual need for a savior – the question is how are we going to respond to that need- Like Naomi, or like Ruth?
That is the scene in which we leave chapter one of Ruth. Ruth is in a foreign land, she is no longer a wife or friend, to the Israelites she is simply a Moabite, a foreigner but her value and purpose to God is just beginning to unfold. Despite all this tragedy, God is there.