The writer of Ruth is brilliant. Truly. This little story is pack with meaning and layers of insight. It manages to tell the macro story of Israel and micro story of Naomi. It’s about the salvation of a family and a nation. And it’s all done with style.
This is part two of our study through Ruth. You can find part one here.
Let’s dig in.
The book of Ruth opens on a bad note. The writer tells us, “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.” (Ruth 1:1) There are two very important facts found in the opening verse. One it’s the time of the judges and two it opens in the Bethlehem.
The time of the judges was a period in Israel’s history of constant rebellion, destruction, repentance, salvation, and back to rebellion. That cycle played on repeat for about four hundred years. Our story opens in a time destruction. There’s a famine in the land. That is Israel is reaping the consequences of their sin.
It’s ironic that our story opens in the town Bethlehem. Bethlehem means house of bread. Now, for people living in this time bread was a sign of blessing. Bread meant that God (or the gods) had shown favor to you and your people. That rain and sunshine had worked in just the right amounts so that you had a harvest. So to live in a town called House of Bread meant you lived in a town God favored. But Ruth opens with a famine. A time when there was no bread.
This isn’t a good time to be in Israel. In fact, it’s a chaotic time to live in Israel. But this is the Israel that Elimelech finds himself and is faced with the question should I stay or should I go? The story continues, “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 went into the country of Moab and remained there.” (Ruth 1:2)
So Elimelech moves his family to Moab. This is huge. Remember Lot and Abraham? Lot left Abraham’s new tribe and went his own way and fathered his grandchild who was named Moab. The Moabites were everything Israel was not supposed to be. So when Elimelech pulls a Lot and leaves Abraham’s tribe it’s a big deal.
God Is King
The writer of Ruth has a brilliant literary mind. Notice what is going on here with the word play. Elimelech and his family live in the time of the judges. The conclusion at the end of the book of Judges (If you look chronologically, the story of Ruth would take place during the latter part of the book of Judges.) is that a king is needed to save Israel from this cycle they are stuck in and what is the name of the man who is leaving Israel for Moab? Elimelech. And Elimelech means God is King.
What is the writer telling us? In a very subtle way the writer is saying the answer to Israel’s problem is to live like God is king. But instead of living like God is king, like Abraham did, they are living like Lot. They are leaving God’s new tribe, founded through Abraham, and staking claim with Lot’s tribe. They aren’t living as if God is king, they are living like they are king.
The decision to move to Moab doesn’t pan out. The purpose for going to Moab was to live, “But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died.” (Ruth 1:3) The very next verse tells us that Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women. That is they are taking root in Moab. They settled down in the land of Lot. And then they die. So Naomi has lost her husband and two sons and now all she has are her two Moabite daughter in-laws.
At this point Naomi is about as far from God as you could imagine. But distance isn’t something to stand in God’s way.
In the story of Ruth we see both the redemption of a nation and the redemption of a family. You see while the nations of Israel was stuck in a cycle of rebellion, destruction, repentance, and salvation. Naomi’s family is living that cycle out in their lives. They rebelled when they left Israel and they faced the consequence of destruction as a result. The question then is will they repent and find salvation? (And why is the story named after the Moabite daughter in-law? I mean, why isn’t it called Naomi? We’ll answer that question too.) We’ll find out as we continue through Ruth in our next post.