6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. – Ruth 1:6-18 ESV
The book of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges, a three-century-long period of spiritual darkness marked by unfaithfulness and apostasy. In the book of Judges, the people of Israel are repeatedly portrayed as stubborn, rebellious, and unrepentant. And, as the author of Judges points out, their track record of unfaithfulness to God was persistent and pervasive.
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. – Judges 2:11
That condemning statement is made at least seven times in the book of Judges. And each time the people of Israel turned their backs on God, He would bring judgment upon them in the form of the Canaanites, who would plunder the Israelites until they called out to Him for help. Then God would send a judge who would deliver them from their enemies. But eventually, when that judge died, the people would turn back to their former ways, worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. And the cycle would begin again.
In the midst of all this sin, suffering, sorrow, and salvation, the book of Ruth provides a much-needed respite. It appears as a parenthetical pause, offering a refreshing glimpse into the life of a single Israelite family and their struggle for survival in those turbulent times.
Yet, the book of Ruth opens up on a remarkably sad note, revealing the fate of an Israelite woman named Naomi, whose entire world has cratered in around her. She is living in the land of Moab, having fled with her husband from Bethlehem in an effort to escape a devastating famine. But rather than finding relief in Moab, Naomi loses her soul mate. Elimelech, her husband, dies suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving her a widow in a foreign country. Fortunately, her two adult sons are with her. And in an effort to make the most of their time in Moab, her two sons marry Moabite wives and settle down. But Naomi’s fate seems to be cursed. Ten years later, both of her sons also die, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law to fend for themselves.
The scene is set. The actors in this divine drama stand on the stage, poised to reveal the plot devised by God from eternity past. What we have here is more than just a story of the life of Naomi and a Moabite woman named Ruth. It is a glimpse into God’s sovereign plan of redemption for sinful mankind. This small book seems to chronicle the life of a single Moabite woman, and yet, within its pages, it reveals the providential outworkings of a gracious, omnipotent, and omniscient God. Every single aspect of this story is God-ordained, from the famine in the land of Canaan to Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab. The deaths of Elimelech and his sons did not catch God by surprise. At no point in this story is God portrayed as wringing His hands with worry or fretting over the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Naomi. While she had every right to wonder where God was in the midst of all her suffering, at no point does she question His love or sovereignty. In fact, she exhibits a remarkable degree of peace and patience in the face of overwhelming loss.
Her husband and sons gone, Naomi has little reason to remain in Moab. A widowed Israelite woman, she has little hope of finding a husband among the Moabites. And she has no means of providing for herself and her recently widowed daughters-in-law, so she makes plans to return home. And at this point in the story, just when things are looking impossibly dark, a glimmer of light appears. While searching for food in the fields of Moab, Naomi hears the rumor “that the Lord had visited his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6 ESV).
The famine had ended. It was safe to return home. But this fortunate news should not be received as some form of good luck or blind fate. This is a sign of God’s divine timing. At just the right time, God brought an end to the famine, so that Naomi could return to her native land of Judah. She would be going back to her hometown of Bethlehem, a small village whose very name means “house of bread.” God was going to provide for her needs, and in ways, she could never have imagined.
And little did Naomi know that all her losses would actually result in blessing, not only for her but for the people of Israel and the nations of the world. The dark cloud overshadowing her life’s story was going to have a silver lining that would have global and eternal ramifications.
As Naomi prepared to make the long journey home, she encouraged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. They were both young enough that remarriage was a distinct possibility and the most logical solution to their problem. There was no future for them in Judah. And Naomi graciously pronounced a blessing on both of them.
“May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” – Ruth 1:8-9 ESV
Naomi had not lost her trust in God. She still believed He was there and that He cared, despite all that she had endured over the last ten years. And she lovingly asked that God would bless her two daughters-in-law with husbands, health, and happiness.
Initially, both women refused Naomi’s request that they remain in Moab. They each expressed their intention to stay by her side, refusing to forsake her in her time of need. But with further coaxing from Naomi, one of the women, Orpah, decided to return to her own people. But Ruth, unwilling to leave her mother-in-law alone, refused Naomi’s advice and boldly proclaimed her unwavering pledge of faithfulness.
“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” – Ruth 1:16-17 NLT
These verses have a familiar ring to them because, over the centuries, they have become a common feature of innumerable wedding ceremonies. Tens of thousands of brides and grooms have repeated these words to one another as a pledge of their commitment to marital fidelity and solidarity.
But when Ruth uttered these words to Naomi, she was expressing her willingness to leave all that she knew behind. She was stating her intention to walk away from her family and ancestral home. She would be moving to a land in which she would be a foreigner and an outsider. As a Moabitess, her chances of remarriage in Judah would be drastically reduced. And she was taking on the weighty responsibility of providing for her widowed mother-in-law, for as long as God gave her breath.
This amazing expression of faithfulness should not be taken lightly. It stands in stark contrast to the blatant unfaithfulness and infidelity of the nation of Israel as portrayed throughout the period of the judges. This was a time in the life of Israel when each man “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV). And yet, here was Ruth, a woman from Moab, who was willing to put the needs of her mother-in-law ahead of her own. And don’t miss this often-overlooked aspect of Ruth’s commitment. She was even willing to give up her god.
While the people of Israel were busy forsaking Yahweh, their covenant-keeping God, here was Ruth the Moabitess, making a covenant commitment to switch her allegiance to Him. Whether she realized it or not, Ruth was forsaking her false god for the one true God. And her decision was going to have eternal ramifications that would influence the nation of Israel and the entire world.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.