Naomi and Ruth: Ruth 1
“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion” (verses 1-2).
|The weather conditions of the Moabite tableland can differ considerably from those around the Judean hills near Bethlehem, as does the agricultural produce of the two areas. Bethlehem could easily experience famine at a time when Moab had plenty.|
Eventually, Elimelech died and Naomi was left with her two sons, who took Moabite wives, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After about 10 years, Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi had lost both her husband and her sons. When Naomi heard that the famine in Judah had ended, she had no reason to stay in Moab and decided to return home (verses 5-6). She told her daughters-in-law: “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband” (verses 8-9).
Naomi then kissed her daughters-in-law good-bye, but they were reluctant to leave. Naomi wanted Orpah and Ruth to start a new life — to marry again — but she told them she could not provide them husbands, and so again she urged them to return home (verses 11-13). Naomi’s comment here refers to the biblical custom of Levirate marriage, by which a dead man’s unmarried brother was obligated to care for his widow (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Naomi could provide no new brothers-in-law for the women to marry.
Orpah was convinced by Naomi’s plea, and tearfully kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth pleaded with Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or turn back from you” (Ruth 1:16). Unlike Orpah, she did not return to her own people and gods, but chose Naomi’s people and, significantly, Naomi’s God. In one of the most famous passages of the Bible, Ruth pledged to Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (verses 16-17).
As God’s chosen nation, Israel was to be God’s servant as a light to the nations in witness to him. Sadly, the nation often fell short, but God’s purpose for his people did not. In the story of Ruth — which was set in the time of the judges, a period of much unfaithfulness to God — we see that Ruth became a member of the community of God largely because of the examples of faithful people in that community.
This is a great lesson for us today. The Israelites were not the only people God loved. God chose the Israelites to be the people through whom the rest of the world would ultimately come to know him. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made this possible: “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:14). Through Christ, the entire world can come to know God.
The book of Ruth, which is the festival scroll read at Pentecost, foreshadows what the Day of Pentecost began to make possible — gentiles becoming part of spiritual Israel, the church. On the Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ followers, thus beginning the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). Later, during his meeting with the Roman centurion Cornelius, the apostle Peter acknowledged: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).
None of us should feel disqualified to serve God because of our sex, race, color or national or ethnic origin. The gentile Ruth, for example, became a great-grandmother of King David, through whom Jesus was descended. God can use anyone to do his work and to prepare for his kingdom. The Day of Pentecost also pictures the church, foreshadowed in the book of Ruth by the community of Bethlehem, being a light to the world.
When Naomi eventually returned with Ruth to Bethlehem, she was warmly greeted, but she felt discouraged, saying: “Call me Mara [bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi [pleasant]?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
Naomi was a righteous woman who had suffered the great anguish of losing her husband and two sons. Orpah and Ruth had shared her grief, but Naomi still considered herself to be the most bitterly unfortunate of the three (verse 13). However, she would gradually come to understand that, despite the tragedies she had undergone, God had not abandoned her. Naomi would yet experience great joy in her life and in her God.
The chapter closes, as do the next two chapters, with a succinct summary of the preceding action, which simultaneously sets the stage for what is about to unfold: “So Naomi returned from Moab…arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning” (verse 22).
The book of Ruth is permeated with ancient Israelite customs that seem strange to us: the gleaning of grain by the poor (Ruth 2:2), inheritance laws (Ruth 4:9-10), the removal of sandals in business exchanges (Ruth 4:7). Another custom alluded to in the story is that of levirate marriage (Ruth 1:11-12).
If a married man died without any children to carry on his name and inheritance, it was his unmarried brother’s responsibility to marry the widow. The purpose: “The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:6). This is known as a levirate marriage, from the Latin word for brother-in-law, levir.
According to The Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Levirate marriage existed in Ugarit, in the Middle Assyrian (no. 33) and Hittite law codes (no. 193), and possibly in the Nuzi texts” (vol. 4, p. 567). It was a common middle eastern custom.
The earliest biblical example of a levirate relationship is complex. It concerns Judah’s sons: Er, Onan and Shelah (Genesis 38). When Er died, Judah told Onan to have children by his brother Er’s widow, Tamar, so that Er’s name would carry on. Onan, knowing that any children borne by Tamar would legally be Er’s, slept with Tamar but selfishly ensured that she did not have any children. God was displeased and put Onan to death. Judah did not then give Tamar to Shelah as his wife, lest Shelah die also.
When Tamar realized that Judah would not allow Shelah to fulfill the obligations of levirate marriage, she disguised herself as a prostitute and sat where she knew Judah would approach. Judah did not recognize her and purchased her services. In due course, Tamar became pregnant and bore Judah twin sons, Perez and Zerah.
We do not know why Tamar embarked upon this action, but we are told that Judah acknowledged, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah” (verse 26). She had been faithful to her family obligations, whereas Judah had not been. Through her son Perez, Tamar became an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:3, 16).
In the book of Ruth, Naomi told Ruth and Orpah that she had no other sons who could perform the duties of levirate husbands (Ruth 1:11). Boaz was a near relative of Ruth’s late husband, Mahlon. Boaz performed the duties of kinsman-redeemer (Hebrew: go’el) by marrying Ruth and buying the property that had belonged to Mahlon’s father, Elimelech (Ruth 4:9-10).
The son of Boaz and Ruth would thus become the legal inheritor of Elimelech’s property, a “son” of Elimelech and Naomi (verse 17). This seems to be an extension of levirate marriage as discussed in Deuteronomy, but many details concerning the transaction remain unknown.
Letting her light shine
|“But Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me?…’ At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:11, 14).|
Ruth is rightly remembered for her pledge of total devotion and loyalty to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17). Ruth clung to Naomi even at the cost of renouncing her people and her gods in favor of Naomi’s people, the Israelites, and Naomi’s God, Yahweh: “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (verse 16). The totality of this commitment is emphasized by its terseness (merely four words in the Hebrew: ‘amekh ‘ami we’lohaikh ‘elohai, which literally means “your people my people; your God my God”). Yet Ruth extended her commitment still further, beyond death itself: “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” (verse 17).
These words may sound anticlimactic compared to accepting Naomi’s people and her God. But to understand their significance, we must appreciate the cultural mind-set of the ancient Near Eastern peoples. All the death accounts of the patriarchs mention the burial, often at length (Genesis 23:1-20; 25:8-10; 35:19-20, 28-29; 49:29-33; 50:1-14, 24-26). When a patriarch died, he was “gathered to his people.” Jacob and Joseph died in Egypt, but their bones were laid to rest in the Promised Land. The location of burial was important to them.
Ruth concluded her pledge by calling down God’s punishment on herself if “even death” (Ruth 1:17, NRSV — a preferred reading to “anything but death”) parted her from Naomi. Even after the death of Naomi, Ruth would live, die and be buried in Bethlehem. In so doing, Ruth identified herself with Naomi’s community in the most absolute manner possible.
Ruth was willing to forgo everything — her future in Moab, her people, her gods and even her ancestral burial plot — to be joined with Naomi. Yet as we remember Ruth, as we acknowledge and strive to emulate her devotion, her loyalty, her total commitment, let us not forget that other remarkable woman, Naomi. As F.B. Huey, Jr., explains, “Naomi’s consistent living must have so impressed her daughter-in-law to cause her to abandon her homeland and her gods” (“Ruth,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 524).
What sort of woman was this Naomi, to inspire such affection in a daughter-in-law? What relationship with God must she have had to cause Ruth to forsake the gods of Moab and worship Naomi’s God alone?
The biblical account is sparse, but it witnesses to the powerful effect Naomi had on those around her. Even during her more sorrowful moments, she put the welfare of others first. Naomi’s example brought Ruth into the Israelite community of faith, foreshadowing the day when gentiles would be grafted into spiritual Israel, the church.
Naomi is also an example for us all. Jesus Christ, the “light of the world” (John 9:5), told his followers: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). William Barclay comments, “It may well be said that this is the greatest compliment that was ever paid to the individual Christian, for in it Jesus commands the Christian to be what he himself claimed to be” (The Gospel of Matthew, rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series, vol. 1, p. 122). A Christian is not merely a follower of Christ, but a Christlike person.
The Christian is further commanded: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (verse 16, NKJV). Naomi’s light shone, and Ruth glorified God; we should let our lights shine so that others may glorify God.