(watch here: https://youtu.be/4WUlOzpHM18)
1In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.
6Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But 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. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ 11But 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? 12Turn 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, 13would 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.’ 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 16But 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.
17 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!’
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
19So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ 20She said to them,
‘Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
21 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?’
22So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
I’m reminded of the story about how a house caught fire one night and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”
This morning we set out on a new, 4-week journey exploring the book of Ruth. There is great wisdom to be gleaned from this little book, wisdom that would otherwise be glossed over by the standard lectionary. These summer series have been helpful in exposing us to parts of the Bible that we wouldn’t typically be exposed to and I appreciate them. And, as luck would have it, the book of Ruth consists of only four chapters so we can look at a full chapter each week…hence the long reading! This first chapter introduces us to two out of the three key characters of this book, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. Due to unforeseen circumstances, both Naomi and Ruth were forced to make difficult choices and how they made them ultimately reveals our God. You see, Naomi and Ruth are not unlike that unfortunate young boy calling out in the flame and smoke and darkness. They could not see what the future held for them but trusting in God they jumped nevertheless.
And what a jump it was for the both of them! When Naomi married Elimelech, surely she had no idea that the region they lived in would be beset by a famine. Even more surely did she not expect to have to pick up and leave that region only to go into a neighboring region that was a despised region. We don’t know why Elimelech chose to go to Moab of all places…Judeans hated Moabites! But together they went and before long they were raising a family with two sons in that foreign land. As fortune would have it, Elimelech dies at a relatively young age leaving Naomi to raise her two boys in the strange land. Eventually the boys grew up and took wives of their own, native Moabites. But they, too, died at early ages leaving Naomi to fend for herself. Naturally, she was compelled to return to more familiar surroundings in her home country of Judah, possibly reconnect with Elimelech’s family who might help take care of her. An elderly, widowed woman of biblical times had few options for support and being a stranger in a hostile land didn’t help. Her best chances were back in Judah with Elimelech’s family.
Of course, this meant Naomi had to leave behind her two daughters-in-law and possibly any grandchildren. They would have been taken care of by their own families living there in Moab. A widow’s place is with family, or so the tradition believed. But for Naomi to hold to tradition meant she had to leave the only family she knew and loved! Even then, there was no guarantee that Elimelech’s family would welcome her and care for her. After all, she had fled to an enemy country! Surely Elimelech’s family had their suspicions about her. Naomi’s options were bleak to say the least; either stay in a foreign, hostile, land with remnants of a family that culturally has no obligation to care for her or go to a not-so-foreign yet equally hostile land and hope that an unknown remnants of a family might care for her. Ruth refused to let Naomi to make that choice and live with that choice alone. Yes, Naomi’s odds of survival were better if she returned to Judah but not that much better. Ruth understood this and was willing to sacrifice her own familial support to support Naomi in whatever decision she chose. Naomi chose to leave Moab and return to Judah and Ruth followed right along with her.
In this first chapter, we witness two women making very difficult choices and we’re left wondering why. Naomi’s choices were a little easier to understand—she was simply being a dutiful wife. She had simply followed where her husband went and was returning to where her husband had been. Recall the wisdom of Proverbs when defining a dutiful wife: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” (31:25) Or, as an alternate interpretation reads, she is “without fear of the future.” This is the expectation of a dutiful wife according to scripture. But Ruth’s choice to leave her home and support is a little more difficult to understand. What did she rely on to make her difficult choice?
Perhaps the same thing we must all rely on when making difficult choices: the love and assurance of God. We all must make difficult choices in this life, some more than others. We all must choose how to use what God blesses us with to bring glory to him. We all must choose whether to acknowledge and accept his presence and sovereignty over our lives. We all must choose to live or to die, plain and simple. These are difficult choices to make but whoever said life is easy was pulling a fast one. Life is not easy and the choices we must make are not always easy. And I’ve found that difficult choices expect and demand faith. They don’t have guaranteed outcomes. We hope for the best possible outcome but hope rests on faith—we simply don’t know all outcomes. Only God knows all outcomes. And He likes to throw curveballs, things like miracles…totally unexpected and mysterious. I like Luther’s thoughts on faith: “God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.” God made life in this world absolutely dependent on faith. Nothing is certain in this world except God’s love and assurance. But even that is not of this world–it is greater than this world. It is in this world and yet greater than this world.
In making difficult choices and wading through the difficult times in this life, we take comfort in passages like Isaiah 43:2, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” God was with Naomi when she fulfilled her wifely duties and went to a hostile, foreign country. God was with Naomi when her husband died and left her with two sons to raise. God was with Naomi when her sons died and left her with a loving, supportive daughter-in-law. As we’ll see in the next few weeks, God will be with her as she and Ruth reestablish themselves in Judah. We’ll shift our attention more to Ruth in the remaining chapters but the truth remains that God never left these two women. He was with them through it all, gently and persistently loving them. God is with us through the difficult times, in the difficult choices, of this we can be assured. “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.