Ruth and Naomi

Reading: Ruth 1.1-19a

Do you like going places? Sometimes it might be a holiday to somewhere completely different. We haven't been there before and we see many things that are new and exciting. Then we go home. We have our films processed and re-live some of our memories. It is fun, isn't it?

This week has been Synod in Brisbane and I have been staying with Paul and Keri in their new home at Lindum. I have had to see them over an early breakfast - they leave for work at seven in the morning and were in bed by the time I arrived home. This weekend they were going to Ship's Stern in Lamington National Park, together with John and cousin Phillip. As the week went on, the lounge showed increasing evidence of the coming expedition - with backpacks, tent, bedding… The plan being to camp out, everything has to be carried in. With the rain that has fallen, they have been assured that the track will be safe but muddy in parts. They'll be having fun - strenuous fun! Do you like doing things like that?

Going places is one thing, but it's a bit different when we move to a new area to live! We have a new house to settle all our things into, and new neighbours. We have to make new friends, go to a new school… And that's not always so easy, is it? We miss our old friends and wonder if we will ever have friends like them in this new place. At school we may find closed clusters of friends who won't make room for a newcomer. Then, we had got into a routine in our old home. We could put our hands on things without having to think about it. But now, so many of our old habits have to change. We may even wonder if we can really settle into this new place and call it home.

The Visit to Moab

Elimelech and his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion lived in Bethlehem in Judah. It was their home. Their relatives and friends lived there. But the family fell on hard times - "...there was a famine in the land." A famine is a shortage of food. It may have been caused by drought, by a plague of locusts or even by the violence of the times. It was in the time of the judges and the book of Judges ends with the comment, "There was no king in Israel at that time. Everyone did just as he pleased" (Jdg.21.25).

Whatever the reason for this famine, this family heard that conditions were better east of Jordan for the moment and decided to move there "to live for a while in the country of Moab." They had no intention to stay there. In due course they would return home when conditions were better. There may have been other reasons for the move. When they named their children, it usually meant something. Mahlon was their elder son, and his name means "weak, sickly." Chilion, the younger, means "failing, pining." These names may suggest that the boys had been born with health problems. Add to that harsh conditions and a shortage of food and we may have a better understanding of why this particular family decided to uproot for a time, while their relatives and friends stayed in Bethlehem. We can't really be sure, but it may be a clue to what happened later on.

But disaster struck - Elimelech died and Naomi was left alone with her two sons. Mahlon and Chilion married Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. The Moabites were descendants of Abraham's nephew, Lot, by his eldest daughter. Deut.23.3 does not place restriction on Jews marrying Moabites, but they may not be admitted to the congregation and the offspring of marriage with a Moabite were not to be admitted to the congregation to the tenth generation. (It was Balak, the King of Moab, who tried to get Balaam to put a curse on the Lord's people on their way to the promised land. He refused and blessed them instead.)

The statement that they were there about ten years probably covers the whole of their time there, and not simply the time of their married life. Probably their marriages were toward the end of the ten years, otherwise there would be reference to children or childlessness.

Disaster struck again - Mahlon and Chilion died. Now Naomi was "all alone, without husband or sons." The Jewish Talmud regards the death of the three males of the household as punishment for leaving Judah. The cause of death is no part of this story, though Naomi herself says, "The Lord has turned against me."

Home to Bethlehem

"Some time later Naomi heard that the Lord had blessed his people by giving them a good harvest…" Learning of the end of the famine in Judah, the three women prepare to return to Bethlehem. Our reading makes it quite clear that both Orpah and Ruth set off with the full intention of going all the way with Naomi.

For Naomi, the journey is a return home after an extended and tragic visit to the country of Moab. It is a return to family and friends. It is coming back to "the land" again, the place of the Lord's people. But Naomi has no intention of involving these two young widows in a change of country. In those days marriage was almost the only career open to a woman. It was the one thing that promised stability. Naomi can see no future for the young women in her own country. Being Moabites they would be less likely to remarry in Israel. So Naomi presses them to go back to their mother's home and wishes for them the blessing of the Lord and marriage and a home.

But the young women protest, "No! We will go with you to your people." But Naomi presses them again. She has (and will have) no more sons for them to marry. They would have to share with her the poverty of a widow's home. Better for them to return to the country of Moab. It is as if she feels that the Lord has become her enemy, and she wants them to experience his blessing, not his judgment.

Orpah kisses her mother-in-law and sets off home. I suppose, in reading the story, we tend to condemn Orpah, yet she was simply responding to Naomi's sensible advice and obeying her request. Don't be too hard on her!

But Ruth has already made up her mind. She doesn't want to be urged to change her commitment. "Don't ask me to leave you! Let me go with you. 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." This means that she will be cut off from the Moabite people and will make Naomi's people her own. But, even more, she has come to trust Naomi's God, a trust that is very real. "Wherever you die, I will die, and that is where I will be buried. May the Lord's worst punishment come upon me if I let anything but death separate me from you!"

Ruth's commitment to Naomi is not short-lived. She will stay with Naomi until death and will continue in her community after Naomi's death. Naomi seems to view her own disasters as a sign of the Lord's judgment on her, but Ruth sees divine judgment as following unfaithfulness to her commitment to stay with Naomi.

Loyalty and Hope

So they arrived in Bethlehem, Naomi with her grief, disappointment and despair. No longer can she be Naomi, the pleasant one. They should call her Marah, the bitter one - "God has condemned me and sent me trouble."

But it isn't the end of Naomi's story, is it? Ruth had come. Her coming was comfort for the grieving, but also hope for the future.

So often our society makes commitment unimportant and faith in God as one of those insignificant personal options. What matters is doing your own thing, fulfilling your own goals, discovering your own abilities, being yourself. The story of Ruth stands in contrast to this view, affirming that commitment brings hope for individuals and for a whole society and that as we continue to trust in God we will know his blessing.

John 3 reminds us, "For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour."

And if God can take the circumstance of the brutal death of his own Son and make it the means of salvation and blessing of all who believe, then in every circumstance of our own lives we can trust him and find hope and know his blessing on our lives.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 17 October 1993
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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