The Book of Ruth contains narrative of an ancient family that lived in Bethlehem about a millennium before Christ was born. The human author is not known but Hebrew scholars hold the book in high esteem and consider it to be ‘a masterpiece of careful narration’.
The narrative is set in the days of the ‘judges’, 1. 1. Some have seen it as an appendix to the book of Judges but the tenor and content of the books are so different that they must be regarded as separate and correctly placed in the sequence of the Old Testament as we know it. In the days of the judges the tribes had become separated and had gone their own ways. The Judges were ‘saviours’ prepared and raised up by God to meet local emergencies and protect from local enemies. W. KELLY writes, ‘often in uncomely forms, as regards the men or measures employed’, Historical Books, p.178. On two occasions in the book of Judges we are given an insight into the moral condition of the period, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes’, Judg. 17. 6; 21. 25.
The Book of Ruth is occupied more with moral than military or political matters. Key words are ‘love’, ‘integrity’ and ‘loyalty’. The book divides into four parts:
Chapter 1. Sojourn of the family in Moab and the return to Bethlehem of Naomi with Ruth the Moabitess.
Chapter 2. Ruth gleans in a field near Bethlehem and meets Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz.
Chapter 3. 1 – 4.12. Boaz becomes the kinsman redeemer.
Chapter 4. 13 - 22. The marriage of Boaz and Ruth and the birth of Obed.
Sojourn of the family in Moab
The narrative begins with Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their sons Mahlon and Chilion leaving Bethlehem to live in the land of Moab. At a time of famine in Bethlehem, they were attracted by the fertile highlands of Moab. Soon after their arrival Elimelech died and the sons met and married Moabitess girls. Further tragedy overtook the family when the two sons died. After some years, Naomi hearing that the Lord has blessed His people and the famine in Bethlehem was ended, decided to return to Bethlehem. Her daughters-in-law commenced the journey with her but after much persuasion Orpah returned to her family. No persuasion, however, would separate Ruth from Naomi. She asserted her love for Naomi and the God and people of Israel, 1. 16, 17, and together they journeyed to Bethlehem. On arrival, Naomi was remembered and received warmly although Ruth must have been regarded with interest if not suspicion. Naomi confessed that the time in Moab had brought much sorrow and bitterness and she saw in this the judgemental hand of God.
Responsibilities of an Ephrathite
Scripture is careful to tell us that Elimelech was an Ephrathite, 1. 2. He was descended from the first settlers in the land and this gave him a certain standing and respect amongst the people. It linked him with the events of the entry into Canaan as recorded in the opening chapters of the book of Joshua. The people crossed Jordan miraculously and were commanded to erect memorials at the place of crossing. Twelve stones were taken from the bed of the river and erected as a pillar at Gilgal on the Canaan side. Twelve stones (probably taken from the wilderness side of Jordan) were placed in the bed of the river where the feet of the priests had stood with the ark when the people passed over. The pillar erected on the bed of the river would, presumably, have been broken down when God released the upriver waters of Jordan, but that in Gilgal remained as a memorial for future generations. Joshua chapter 4 verses 6 and 7 reveal what the pillar at Gilgal called them to remember. It was not their entry into the land (they were there and did not need to be reminded of that) but what God had done to bring them into the land. Acceptance of God’s word and His provision had taken them from the place of death in the wilderness, through the waters of Jordan to the place of new life in Canaan. God desired to gather His people there that they might enjoy fellowship with Him and recount His great goodness to them. It was the place of worship and rejoicing. The pillar should have been a reminder to Elimelech of his obligation and commitment to the God who had blessed him.
Typically, Canaan speaks not of heaven for there were enemies and unrest there, but of the blessings and obligations of God’s people on earth. There is an interesting parallel for the present-day believer with believer’s baptism. Both speak symbolically of being brought from death to life through what God has done and of commitment made to Him, Rom. 6. 4.
Elimelech – An Ephrathite who forgot
In Elimelech’s day there was a famine in Bethlehem. Because of the moral condition of the day and departure from His word, God dealt with His people in a manner that would encourage them to return to His ways. The matter before us here is how Elimelech the Ephrathite responded to God’s dealings. Sadly, he ignored the lessons of the Jordan experience, forgot his obligation to the God who had blessed him, and sought his own solution. He left Bethlehem, which means ‘House of Bread’, in the land of Canaan … ‘a good land and a large land … a land flowing with milk and honey’, Exod. 3. 8, to associate with a people descended from the incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. Moab was an idolatrous nation and an enemy of God’s people. The result, as far as Elimelech was concerned, was disaster and death. We learn from this that God’s way does not always equate with the convenience of our circumstances but it always leads to blessing. To find our own solution may ease the immediate difficulty but often takes us away from His purposes. The famine passed and God blessed Bethlehem yet again with bread, 1. 6, but it was too late for Elimelech and his sons.
Naomi – a wife who remembered
It was through Naomi whose heart was ever in Bethlehem that the family was brought back into blessing. During the years of loneliness in Moab she kept alive her love for Jehovah the God of Israel and within her diminished family taught and demonstrated that love. This produced in Ruth not only love for Naomi but also love for Naomi’s God and His people. It was that which she had learned from Naomi within a godly family environment that caused Ruth to utter those delightful words of endearment recorded in chapter 1 verses 16 and 17, and motivated her to make the difficult journey to Bethlehem. In a day when the divinely established family unit is under attack we do well to consider the way in which God blessed through this family.
To be continued.