I'm named after Naomi's daughter-in-law. And let me tell you. Those are some big shoes to fill. Since my name is Ruth, the book of Ruth is my go-to book when I open my Bible and feel directionless. So I've read it COUNTLESS times. And yet, this last time I read it I learned the most.
It was surprising to me when I found out that some of my closest friends didn't know the story of Ruth. I didn't have judgement towards them, but because she's my namesake I figured, everybody knows about her, right? Wrong. Let's talk about Ruth. But in order to talk about Ruth we have to start at the beginning.
The first people who come on the scene is Elimelech, his wife and two sons. No mention of Ruth, she comes later. The first sentence opens the book by telling us that Elimelech was a sojourner in a foreign land. The country of Moab to be specific. This is big because they were Ephrathites. This means that they were from the town of Bethlehem in Judah. So they were Israelites. They were Jewish. And they had traveled to Moab. This could only be from necessity. And we see that it was from necessity. A terrible famine took hold of Bethlehem. This is near impossible for us to grasp. "Oh yea, a famine." But you (most likely) have no conception of what the heck this means. You can definitely conjure up some commercial that zooms in on some skin and bone African kids only wearing a piece of cloth covering their privates, while some rich white guy walks through the slums and talks about how your dollar a week can feed kids in Malawi for 12 years all while Sarah McLachlan rips your heart out with some slow, sad ballad in the background. (Shoot, what did I learn about run-on sentences?....) But we don't get this. We have never experienced anything like this. Even if you've gone hungry for a while, or your family was real poor when you were a kid, we don't really, truly GET this. Even the poorest American is richer than third world countries. We have never experienced a famine. Famine is what drove Elimilech and his family from their Bethlehem home. I can't imagine how bitter and confused they must have been. Bethlehem literally translates "House of meat" or "House of Bread". I can't imagine the thoughts Naomi must have had. "House of bread my a**." Ok. Maybe not, but she was only human. Bitterness and upset had to have crossed her mind and heart at some point.
Famine in Bethlehem were only the beginning of their troubles.
To sojourn suggests continual travel. But in the case of this family, it became a more permanent thing. Being an immigrant isn't an easy thing. It brings a gamete of troubles and woes that I don't understand. I was born in the states, I've lived my whole life in the states and I don't foresee any major moves in my near future. (Knock on wood?) I'm a home-body. For sure. But Naomi's homesickness went unrelieved thanks to a lack of modern technology. But homesickness was minor compared to what happened next. In one sentence Elimelech is wiped off the page and out of the story. The death of Elimelech was not a milestone Naomi ever desired to cross. Naomi's heartbreak goes unmentioned for now. A women loses her husband. Many women have lost their husbands. But holy buckets. Take a second. A women loses her husband. I'm sure that Naomi was thrown into grief that would ebb and flow for the rest of her days. But thank God she still had her boys.
Boys were a big deal back then. They were a big deal because they were the continuation of a line. The name carried on thanks to them. But, girls were a big deal too. They are the oven for the bun after all. Naomi's boys were her pride and joy and all that she had left. Since she was thrown into single-parenthood she had a duty to them. She had to find them wives. (We're getting closer to Ruth! Shoot, spoiler?) Now here, a problem is posed. The boys, Mahlon and Chilion are Israelites and they're in Moab. Moab was not the place to be when searching for that perfect Jewish bride. In fact, Moab was the last place any Jewish parent wanted to search for a wife for their boys. Moab was a land descendant from the incestuous encounter between Lot and his oldest daughter. They served a god who demanded child sacrifice. In short, Moabite women were a Jewish mother's worst fear. In that day and age, fathers negotiated arranged marriages. But with no father to negotiate marriage and no money, land or prospects to entice a Moabite family, the pickings were slim. To be blunt, Ruth and Orpah were not from choice families. Things just kept getting worse. After the marriages to these less than desirable women, a decade passes without any sign of a child. This, is devastating. Like I said earlier, a woman was nothing if she was unable to have children. It's heartbreaking for Ruth, Orpah and Naomi but it's also nothing short of embarrassing.
That's as bad as it gets, right?
The sons die next. Naomi's precious sons. Ruth and Orpah's beloved husbands. In another simply constructed sentence they disappear from our minds and concerns. We're left grieving with Ruth, Orpah and Naomi. Naomi had nothing now. Literally. She's left with no one to carry on the family line. She's left with two Moabite daughters-in-law. She's left with the epitome of a broken heart. She's left with no hope. In 24 hours, Naomi's already lacking social status hit rock bottom.
I'd like to believe that Naomi's faith in Yahweh, El Shaddai, Adonai Elohim was strong enough to take these blows. I root for her. I want her to withstand famine, displacement, widowhood and childlessness. But come on. She's a human. She was lost, heartbroken and utterly shaken. Many people brush by Naomi. But I count her as Job. Her struggles were equally as earth shattering. If not more! Job lost his wealth, his children, his health. But Naomi? She lost all of that plus her husband. There was no hope of continuation of her family. That was a shame and loss that couldn't be healed. We seem to think that the more mature believers we are, the thicker our spiritual skin will become. It's a sign of spiritual failure when suffering gets the better of us. BALDERDASH. This throws us into a downward spiral farther away from the One who can take our suffering and provide hope and peace.
Naomi has a choice to make. Stay in Moab or return to her hometown with some tiny hope that she would find safety and solace with her relatives. So she packs up what little she has and leaves with her daughters-in-law in tow. They get on the road and make it a small way when Naomi abruptly stops them and orders them to go home. Her determination to carry on without them is ironclad. Her words are met with astonishing resistance. I can just imagine that their cries and wails could be heard for at least a mile. Their grief and tears seem to spill onto my hands as I turn the pages. Naomi has definitely underestimated the bonds of love and grief. For the young women, Moab offers hope while Bethlehem only offers permanent widowhood. Naomi can't stifle her feelings anymore. She's overwhelmed with grief. Terrible, abundant grief. She makes another plea for the girls to return to their families. Maybe they can get remarried, have families! After all, they're still so young! There is potential in Moab. But that hope does not flow over to Bethlehem. So Orpah follows her mother-in-law's advice. She goes home. With tears and goodbyes, she returns to Moab. But Ruth, she stays. Ruth pulls up herself up by the bootstraps and tell Naomi to stop arguing. Ruth is determined. It was no halfhearted decision. It was a commitment to the grave. And it was less a decision about Naomi and more a decision about God.
Ruth was a risk taker.
She made a decision for God.
And He would bless and reward her for her commitment to Him.
I pray that I will be a risk taker like Ruth. And I pray that you will be a risk taker like Ruth, too. Take risks for God and you don't know what you'll get.
But I can guarantee that it'll be good in the end.