|TO MOAB AND BACK
Series: Ruth: There is a Redeemer - Part One
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
April 27, 2014
This morning we’re beginning a study of the book or Ruth. Before we get into chapter 1 - we have a short video and a question. The video is about softball. We get to play softball this afternoon. Here’s the question: Who wins?
(Video: Tucholsky & Holtman)
When I see that I can’t help but think about the differences between a girl’s softball game and a guy’s game. In a girl’s game they’re wondering what happened to her. Picking her up. Carrying her around. There’s people crying. In a guy’s game its like “Tough luck dude. Keep crawling.”
Who won? As we’re filling out the scorecard for our lives what really counts? Is it possible to actually win by loosing?
Ruth, chapter 1. These first 5 verses are The Introduction - which give us the setting for the book. Our introduction to what’s going on and who’s a part of all that.
Ruth 1:1: In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.
Let’s pause. There’s a lot of information packed into these verses that we need to grab on to if we’re going to grab on to the book of Ruth.
The account of Ruth is set “In the days when the judges ruled.” Those days come after Moses and the Exodus - after the conquest of the Promised Land - and before Saul and David and the monarchy. Somewhere around 1400 to 1100 BC.
Judges 2 gives us a good picture of what those days were like. “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them - God’s people - saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked , who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so… Whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them… So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.” (Judges 2:16-23)
The days of the judges was a time of political and religious and moral chaos. God’s people worshipping just about every god but the God. Living totally immoral lifestyles. God’s people living ungodly. God’s people getting themselves into trouble. And God using invading kings - national calamity - to oppress them - to wake them up - to call them back to Him.
Which they did. God’s people would cry out to God in their distress. God would raise up a judge. A judge meaning not someone in a courtroom who’d render verdicts. But more like Captain America coming to right what’s wrong. John Wayne or Rambo depending on your generation.
God’s people would get themselves into trouble and God would send a judge to - in a sense - to bail them out. Which they did. And then God’s people would go back to anarchy - pagan religions - and anything goes.
The last verse of Judges gives us a summary of all that. Judges 21:25: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Things don’t change a whole lot. Do they?
What we’re going to see in the account of Ruth - which is set in those days - which in many ways are not unlike our days - or any other days - what we’re going to see is how God’s people can experience God’s sovereignty - God’s wisdom - His kindness - His presence - even in godless times. Grab that: How can we experience God - His wisdom and kindness and presence in our lives - even in the days when we live?
Verse 1 tells us that during the days of the judges there was a famine in the land. Which very likely could have been an act of God’s judgment on the sin of His people. God using a famine to prompt His people to turn back to Him. To trust Him.
During those days of famine there was a man of Bethlehem in Judah. Bethlehem means what? House of bread. A place of God’s presence and provision.
Let’s not miss that. In the account of Ruth there are a number of ironies that go on behind the scenes that are there to help us to grab the significance of what’s going on. Emphasis: In the house of bread there’s a famine.
During this time of chaos and famine a man from Bethlehem goes to Moab taking his wife and two sons with him. We need to understand about Moab. Places are important to what’s going on in Ruth.
(map) Looking at the map: We can seen Bethlehem on the left in Judah. Moab is a separate country down on the right - on the east side of the Dead Sea. Moab means “waste” or “emptiness.” There are reasons for that.
Lot - nephew of Abraham - lived in Sodom. Which God wiped out because of Sodom’s sexual perversity - sin. Lot - because of Abraham’s intervention and God’s grace - Lot escapes with his wife and two daughters. The two daughters get Lot drunk - and in an incestuous relationship with Lot - Lot’s daughters get pregnant. Moab - father of the Moabites - Moab is the son of Lot’s daughter number one and Lot. (Genesis 19:23-38)
As perverse as all that is - the descendants of Moab went even farther - continued that line of sexual and moral perversity. Moab is a moral wasteland.
Moab is a spiritual wasteland - empty of true godliness. The number one god of the Moabites was Chemosh. The Bible calls Chemosh “the abomination of Moab.” (1 Kings 11:7) Chemosh was known as “the destroyer.” The image of Chemosh had an open mouth with a fire inside. They would place living children in that mouth as a sacrifice. Chemosh demanded perversity - cruelty - in order to gain his favor.
Moab was constantly a thorn in the side of Israel. Just prior to the events of Ruth - Eglon, who was a king of Moab, had oppressed and subjugated Israel for 18 years. (Judges 3:12-30) Because of the way that Moab had treated Israel - during the Exodus - God had cursed Moab. For 10 generations no Moabite could be a part of God’s people. (Deuteronomy 23:3-6)
In the days of the judges the Moabites are seen as bastards - perverse - pagan - hated - disgusting people to avoid at all costs.
Are we together? This man from the house of bread - a place of God’s presence and provision - Bethlehem - where there’s a famine which should have awakened God’s people to their need for God - this man takes his family to a place of ungodly moral and spiritual waste and emptiness - Moab.
Verse 2: The 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.
Names to the Hebrews were hugely important. They represent who you are - your character and reputation. Names in Ruth are important.
Elimelech means “God is my king.” Which is ironic to the point of making us pay attention.
Ironic that a man with the name “God is my king” - rather than turning to God in trust - seeking to get right with God or to seek out God’s guidance - “God is my king” - trusting in his own whit, wisdom, and working - takes his family away from Bethlehem - God’s presence and provision - moves his family to Moab - cursed land of Chemosh and ongoing perversity even worse than what’s going on in Judah. Proving that for “God is my king” - God isn’t.
Naomi means “pleasant” - “agreeable” - “attractive.” We can only imagine that Naomi must have had an attractive inner beauty - if not outward beauty as well. Naomi must have been a really wonderful person to be around. Well thought of. Respected. Which is something we’ll come back to in a moment.
Mahlon means “sickly.” Chilion means “invalid” - like crippled or just plain physically weak. Which only makes us wonder what the circumstances of their birth was. Names being important. Why would Elimelech and Naomi name their kids this?
Verses 3: But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.
This just gets better. Doesn’t it? So much for the move that was going to ensure prosperity and the survival of his family. “God is my king” dies. Leaving this wonderful woman - Naomi - with her two boys: Influenza and Weakling.
Verse 4: These - Chilion and Mahlon - took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years,
Which makes sense. Elimilech dies. The two boys and mom have settled. So the boys marry what’s available in the culture where they’re living. Two women who happen to be from this pagan perverse culture.
Chilion marries Orpah - meaning stiff necked or stubborn. Mahlon marries Ruth - meaning fullness or satisfied. Then for 10 years they’re living the vida loca in Moab.
Verse 5: and both Mahlon and Chilion died Apparently they really were sick and weak. Possibly this is also a judgment from God. Mahlon and so that the women - Naomi - was left without her sons and her husband.
Great introduction. Isn’t it? Lots of dead people. Great plot. Pun intended. Naomi is left alone in Moab with two Moabite daughter-in-laws.
Quick question. If we’re keeping score: How did Elimelech do for his family? Is anyone winning here?
Verse 6 - this next section is The Decision To Return. How do these 3 women respond to the circumstances they’re in?
Verse 6: Then she - Naomi - 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.
Naomi - left without husband - without sons - is probably working in the fields. There she hears a report that things back home are better. God has “visited” His people - literally attended to their needs - and there is food back home. Food - ironically is the word “lekhem” - as in Beth - lehem - meaning bread. So, Naomi makes the decision to return home.
Verse 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. 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. 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.
Notice the first two things we hear coming from Naomi. First is advice. “Go back to your mother’s home.” Which is about Naomi’s realistic concern for her daughter-in-laws. There’s nothing for you in Bethlehem. Who is Israel is going to marry a couple of bastard perverted women from Moab anyway. Go back.
The second thing we hear coming from Naomi is prayer. A prayer of blessing over her daughter-in-laws.
“May the Lord deal kindly with you.”
Lord here is in small caps. Remember last Sunday? We talked about how the translators use small caps to clue us in that the name for God here is what? Yahweh. Which is the covenant name of the Almighty God of creation. Meaning the Almighty God who has a personal saving relationship with His people. There’s an intimacy here. God taking personal interest in the welfare of these two daughters-in-law.
“Kindly” here is the Hebrew word “hesed” - which is hard to put into English. It has the ideas of lovingkindness - mercy - devotion - goodness - unchanging love - all of that rolled into one. What someone infinitely more powerful - God for example - the kind of mercy that God performs on behalf of His people who are infinitely weaker and not at all deserving of it.
It’s a great prayer. May Yahweh - not Chemosh the destroyer - May Yahweh - the God of the personal covenant relationship - May Yahweh deal “hesed” towards you. May Yahweh grant that you find rest - security - comfort - especially the security that comes with marriage.
Verse 10: And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 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? If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 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.”
Naomi tells them, “Don’t be dweebs.” Slight paraphrase. Naomi is a realist. What’s here is well thought out. Pessimistic. Hopeless. But a logical argument. Naomi is a sharp lady.
Naomi is too old to find a husband. Even if she did find a husband and married him that very night it would be asking too much of them to wait until her sons - assuming she had at least two sons - until those sons were old enough to be married. Hebrew custom - that’s probably about 20 years and 9 months down the line.
Behind Naomi’s statement is what’s called Levirate Law - “levir” being Latin for “brother-in-law. What God spelled out in Deuteronomy 25. A childless widow is to marry her brother-in-law in order to have children by her brother-in-law in order to perpetuate the inheritance of the deceased brother - her dead husband. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
Well, that ain’t gonna happen. The brothers-in-law are dead. There are no more in the pipeline.
Naomi’s solution - her advice - is “I’m way too old to get a husband. You’re still young. You’ve got all kinds of possibilities with your own people. Go home.” Naomi’s prayer is that God would bless that return to Moab.
That’s irony. The Godly woman of Judah sending her daughters-in-law back to pagan Moab to find happiness blessed by Yahweh.
The end of verse 13 gives us some insight into Naomi’s heart. Why she advises what she advises and why she prays what she prays. Verse 13: for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.
That’s what the common assumption was. God blesses the righteous and smites the unrighteous. If you’re going through tribulation then you must have sinned. Naomi doesn’t give us an explanation of what sin she thinks she’s committed. Just that God hates her. His hand is against her.
Naomi - burying her husband. Burying her first son. Burying her second son. Being a childless widow stuck in Moab. God’s hand is against her.
Naomi is a woman of prayer. She must have prayed. Praying to Yahweh for his “kesed” in the midst of all that. Prayed to the God Who’s sovereign over all that. Over and over again - its not hard to imagine her praying for what God did not give to her.
Notice that as Naomi prays for Orpah and Ruth that Naomi doesn’t pray for herself. She’s still is praying. But her conclusion is that God hates her. That’s God’s prerogative. So she’s stopped asking about her future. God’s sovereignty is a certainty. His “hesed” is not.
She’s disappointed in God. She’s bitter - angry - ticked at God. She’s given up on Him. She’s depressed. She see’s her situation as hopeless.
Ray Stedman used to tell a story about an old woman and a young pastor. She would come up at the end of the service and list out all of her problems in life. And this pastor would try to give her some positive reason to look at life different than all that. Her response to this pastor was, “You know, young man, when God sends tribulation He expects you to tribulate.” (1)
Naomi - in her bitterness - has gone way beyond tribulating. She’d concluded that God hated her. He loved some people. But not her.
That’s irony. Naomi - invoking the blessing of the God who chooses to love the unlovable - to be merciful to those who do not deserve His mercy - Naomi invoking Yahweh’s blessing on Orpah and Ruth - and yet assuming that Yahweh the merciful is against her.
Have you ever been there? We tell people to trust in God. That God is loving “hesed” and sovereign. God is good. He’s good all the time. Heard that someplace recently. And yet, God is good to everyone else. But not me. Otherwise, why would I be going through what I’m going through? There must be something wrong with me - or God.
Ever been disappointed with God? Wondered where He was? Or just convinced of your own worthlessness?
We believe in prayer. Only a fool wouldn’t pray or ask for prayer. But, once we’ve finished praying we’ve got to live as if the results depend on us. To face facts. To count the cost. To consider the possibilities. To use the brains and ability that God has given us. That’s the only way that people survive in this world. God helps those who help themselves.
Are we together? While Naomi is giving sound advice to her daughter-in-laws - while she’s praying for them - she’s making decisions out of her own self focused bitterness. Decisions based on her own whit, wisdom, and working. I’m going back to Bethlehem. Because I can’t count on what God may do for me - or to me.
Going on - verse 14: Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. Orpah kisses her mother-in-law and returns to Moab. But Ruth clings to Naomi.
“To cling” is the same Hebrew word in Genesis 2 used to describe a man leaving his parents and holding fast to his wife and the two of them becoming one flesh. There’s a deep oneness in that. The word “cling” is used to describe a soldier in battle clinging to the handle of his sword. There’s an inseparable bond in that. The noun form of “to cling” is the word for “glue.” Ruth stuck to Naomi like glue. Loyalty - affection - physical closeness.
Verse 15: And she - Naomi - said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
“Stubborn stiff-necked left. Go back with her. Go back to your people and your gods. Your land. What are you still doing here with a Yahweh cursed looser like me?”
Verse 16 - Ruth’s response: 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. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do to me and more if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
What’s interesting about Ruth’s response is that she basically agrees with Naomi. Ruth - like Naomi - is a widow. She’s childless. There might have even been a question in her mind about whether she could ever have children - even if she did get married again. Meaning that whoever might marry her has got to wonder if its worth marrying the widow of another man who may not be able to produce children. And let’s remember she’s a Moabites. Who in Israel would marry her? In some ways Ruth is in a worse position that Naomi.
Ruth isn’t arguing against the circumstances. Nor is she deluded about her prospects. Ruth doesn’t say, “I’m going to Bethlehem with you to find a man. Surely God will provide a husband for me there.” What Ruth does say is “God has given us each other.”
Ruth who could be very bitter about all this is not. Ruth by her response is showing us that at the heart level she’s aware that God - Yahweh - in His sovereignty really is accomplishing His will and is acting with “kesed.” Ruth’s response to Naomi is about clinging to Naomi and Naomi’s God. Ruth’s trust in Yahweh - His wisdom and kindness and presence - even in the midst of what they are going through.
Where you go I’m going. Where you lodge I’m lodging. Your people. They’re my people. Whatever their prejudice may be against me. Your God is my God. No more Chemosh. Where you die that’s where I want to be buried. Which was a custom - burying members of the same family - emphasis family - in the same tomb.
Whatever was back there - family - friends - homeland - deities - prospects for marriage - children - gone. I’m tearing up my return ticket. I’m with you not just for the journey but for life. May God smite me dead if I ever go back on my commitment to you and Him.
Ruth’s response is to cling to Naomi and put her life in the hands of Yahweh.
Quick question. If we’re keeping score - which of these two responses is a winner?
Verses 19 to 22 tell us about The Return To Bethlehem.
Verse 19: So the two of them - Naomi and Ruth - went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
“Stirred” in Hebrew is the word “hum.” The town hummed with the news of their arrival. Literally there was a kind of confusion and a murmuring. A question is asked.
After 10 plus years - the whole town turns out to see Naomi’s return. It is not too far out of line to understand this as Elimelech and Naomi having had some kind of stature in the community - maybe even wealth. They were known and highly regarded - probably by both friends and family. Naomi’s return is an event.
The women’s question says something about how Naomi was remembered and now the woman returning has changed. Not for the better. They’re shocked at what they saw.
Verse 20: She - Naomi - said to them - the women of Bethlehem - “Do not call me Naomi - meaning what? Pleasant - call me Mara - meaning bitter - for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.
Although - ironically - she’s with the clinging Ruth who’s name means… fullness or satisfied. But, Naomi - in her bitterness - doesn’t see what God has blessed her with. The glass is half-empty. Sometimes we can’t even see the glass.
Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
Verse 22: So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
Grab the significance of the location and timing. They’re back in Bethlehem - meaning… “house of bread” - place of God’s presence and provision. At the beginning of the barley harvest. Spring - after a dark and dreary winter. Culturally a time of great rejoicing - of optimism - expectation - of hope.
We need to see behind all that the sovereignty of God. To see beyond the circumstances of all these people getting dead in the first 5 verses - and two childless widows coming into town empty handed - that Yahweh is giving us a glimpse of coming “hesed” - hope.
Coming back to softball and who’s keeping score. In chapter one - who wins?
Elimelech - “God is my king” - who looks at his circumstances, and rather than turning towards God, makes the decision to trust what he sees as an opportunity provided by the economics of the world - the stuff of humanity. He moves his family to Moab with all of its ungodliness - and loses everything.
Naomi - “pleasant” - who looks at her circumstances - concludes that God must be against her. That He doesn’t love her. Naomi - talking the religious talk but in reality trusting her own whit, wisdom, and working - Naomi descends into a pit of self-focused bitterness - frightened - angry - and withdrawn. Struggling with life. Fists clenched at God.
Ruth - “fullness” - the Moabite daughter-in-law who looks at her circumstances and chooses to let go of her life in Moab and cling to Naomi and Yahweh. Essentially Ruth is saying: “I have no idea what will happen. But I can be committed to you and your God and your people. And, I’ll let Yahweh deal with the future.”
Jesus - the great Umpire in the sky - who’s scorecard is the only one that really counts - Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24)
That’s not based on how we see our circumstances - the days we live in - the circumstances of our lives. That’s just faith. Trusting the sovereign God with our lives.
One of the great things about this book is that God doesn’t leave Naomi where Naomi has brought herself. Naomi is going to change.
Wherever we are - it is never too late to turn towards God.
1. Cited by Steve Zeisler, “A Tale of Two Widows” - Ruth 1:1-22
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.