Love in Action
The Road Home from Moab
This Sunday we begin a series of sermons on the Book of Ruth. As Christians, we think of Ruth primarily in relation to Jesus Christ. Ruth married Boaz and they had a son, Obed. Obed was King David’s grandfather. Ruth and Boaz were David’s great grandparents. Jesus was a direct descendant of David. Ruth’s significance in the Christian narrative is derived from Jesus’ genealogy, but Ruth’s own life story is a powerful account of “famine turning to abundant food, of loss turning to love, of bitterness turning to joy, and of barrenness giving way to birth.” Yet the Book of Ruth is about even more than these things. As one commentator puts it, “This little domestic tale is a story of God’s hesed, God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant love, lived out in the lives of everyday, ordinary human beings, much like you and me.”
Ruth’s story occurs “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). The last verse of the Book of Judges says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible! The period of the judges was a time of chaos, disobedience, decline, and anarchy. The events recorded in the book are truly horrific.
Judges epitomizes what has come to be called “the sin cycle” that marred Israel’s national history. Israel would sin against the LORD by committing spiritual adultery with idols. God would punish them by allowing their pagan neighbors to run roughshod over them. A period of bondage would ensue. Eventually, Israel would come to her senses and cry out to the LORD for forgiveness and help. God would raise up a judge to deliver them. Things would go well for a period of time, but Israel always fell back into idolatry, and the cycle would start all over again. We should note that the story of ancient Israel is also the story of the human race. We too are in the sin cycle of idolatry, bondage, repentance, restoration, and a return to idolatry.
In Ruth’s time, God’s judgment on his chosen people took the form of a famine. Our story focuses on one family: Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech’s name means “My God is King,” but God was not Elimelech’s king. Like the rest of his compatriots, Elimelech did what was right in his own eyes. Instead of following the path of repentance and faith, instead of trusting in the LORD to provide for his family’s needs, Elimelech chose the road to Moab.
The Moabites were the sworn enemies of Israel. They originated from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his older daughter (Gen. 19:30-38). The King of Moab, Balak, hired Balaam to curse Israel (Num. 22). Their women were a stumbling block to Israel in the wilderness, seducing them to worship idols (Num. 25), and they oppressed the Israelites in the days of their King Eglon (Judges 3). Moab was not a place for an Israelite to raise a family faithful to the LORD God of Hosts, but Elimelech did what was right in his own eyes and took the road to Moab. Moab became their home.
At first everything went fairly well, but Elimelech died unexpectedly leaving Naomi to raise two boys on her own. When the boys matured, they took Moabite wives. This was explicitly forbidden in Duet. 7:3. “Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.” For a period of ten years everything went well, but then Mahlon and Chilion both died. Neither of them produced children. In the Bible, God is the one who opens and closes the womb. Naomi’s sons’ wives were barren, another sign of God’s judgment on the family.
Naomi had no choice but to return to Bethlehem, but she had a problem. What would she do with her two daughters-in-law? They were the incarnation of her and Elimelech’s sin in forsaking the Promised Land and joining themselves to the hated Moabites.
Naomi tried to persuade them to return to their homes. “But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband’” (vs. 8-9). The daughters-in-law protested, and they wept together. There was a genuine bond of affection between them, but Naomi was determined to be free of them. She tried a second time: “But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me’” (vs. 11-13). In the end, Orpah heeded Naomi’s entreaties and returned to her mother’s house never to be heard of again, but Ruth clung to Naomi.
Naomi tried once again to shake her off. “So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law’” (vs. 15), but Ruth would not be deterred. In some of the most beautiful and moving verses of scripture, Ruth replied to Naomi’s plea to go home. “But Ruth said, ‘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. Where 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’” (vs. 16-17)! As one commentator observed, Ruth was “committing her life to Naomi, body and soul, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Ruth was committing herself unequivocally to Naomi and to Naomi’s God.
Naomi’s response is very revealing. “When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her” (vs. 18). There is no “Thank you.” There is no “I’ll be glad for some company on this difficult journey home to Bethlehem.” Literally, the Hebrew says, “When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped talking to her.” Naomi gave Ruth the “cold shoulder, the silent treatment.” Naomi would be forced to return to her own people with her Gentile, Moabite, daughter-in-law in tow.
The response of the women of Bethlehem to Naomi and Ruth’s arrival is instructive too. They say, “Is this Naomi?” Ruth’s presence is completely ignored; consider Naomi’s response too. “She said to them,
‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’” (vs. 20-21). “The LORD has brought me back empty.” Well, not exactly. The LORD provided Naomi with a daughter-in-law who forsook her people and her father’s house, a woman who abandoned the gods of Moab to dedicate herself to the God of Israel. Naomi was not empty.
Naomi was angry with God for the way her life had turned out. There was no broken or contrite heart in Naomi for leaving the Promised Land and giving her sons in marriage to Moabite women. She didn’t want to be called “Pleasant” anymore. Instead, she adopted the name “Bitter.” From Naomi’s vantage point, the LORD had dealt harshly with her and brought calamity upon her.
It is true that Naomi experienced terrible loss: the death of her husband and her two sons, but God had not left her entirely bereft. The LORD supplied Ruth, a faithful daughter-in-law. Naomi couldn’t see it, but that was the actual truth of her situation.
The story of Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, Chilion, Orpah, and Ruth is a powerful and instructive tale for us. Life is filled with choices. Some choices are made by us, but some choices are made for us. Like Elimelech, we often do what is right in our own eyes. We choose the road to Moab, and things may turn out reasonably well for a while, but eventually our choices catch up to us.
We may be like Mahlon, Chilion, and Naomi, who knowingly disobeyed God’s revealed will. Again, things may go along fairly well for ten, fifteen, or twenty years, but eventually sin leads to suffering and sometimes even death.
We have all known people like Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, and Chilion. Maybe we have been like them ourselves. We have all experienced loss in this life, perhaps in the form of personal or professional failure, broken relationships, sin, sickness, or the death of a loved one. Such experiences can make us bitter. We can become angry with God for the way things have turned out for us, but before and behind, above and below, within and without our bad choices and egregious transgressions is the God of steadfast love and faithfulness. We are not utterly forsaken. We can go beyond God’s will but not beyond God’s reach. This God has the power and the desire to turn famine into abundance, loss into love, bitterness into joy, and barrenness into fruitfulness.
What we need is for God to open our eyes to see his kind providence even in the midst of our poor choices, even in the midst of terrible loss. IF we have eyes to see them, there are people like Ruth in our lives. There is restoration and abundance to be had from our almighty and merciful God.
Chapter 1 concludes by noting, “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (vs. 22). The time of abundance was drawing near.
Have your chosen the road to Moab, the land of degradation, malevolence, seduction, idolatry, and oppression? Have you experienced terrible losses? It is never too late to come home to Bethlehem. The barley harvest is always ripening. Yes, we may have some shame to bear, but not alone. God will provide loyal companions to help us on our journey back to God. Above all, we will find the God of steadfast love and covenant faithfulness waiting for us with incredible blessing.
The story of Naomi is the story of the prodigal son in Old Testament form. The story of the prodigal’s return is the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, who never leaves us or forsakes us utterly. God has promised to be with us always in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, even to the end of the age itself. Thanks be to God for his loyal love. Alleluia! Amen!