Ruth 1:1-5

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”[1] This word of the LORD given to the prophet Micah was written several generations after Ruth and Boaz and Obed and Jesse and David; indeed, it was written of the One Who would be born of the Virgin, He Who would be heralded by angels, sought by shepherds and wise men; it was written of the Christ, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David,[2] the Son of God, our Savior Jesus Christ. It was there in little Bethlehem that God the Son would become man, would take on flesh to accomplish the work of our redemption. There, one Middle Eastern night, to an ordinary human family a Baby would be born, and joy would enter the world! But the times in which this Child would be born were not, as Dickens once put it, “the best of times.” Judea was under the Roman occupation, and it was ruled over by the mad King Herod, a puppet of the Gentiles. We must remember that it was not long after discovering the birth of this child that Herod ordered the massacre of the innocents. “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he has ascertained from the wise men.”[3] The Savior, under the instruction of an angel of the Lord,[4] had already been carried away from that place to Egypt where He would be safe. Herod’s moral madness was a characteristic mark against the society that, three decades later, would crucify the innocent Man this innocent Child would grow up to be.

The book of Ruth, which was written after the accession to the throne of King David, acts as a kind of bridge that leads us from the book of Judges into the books of 1-2 Samuel, from the time of the Judges to the time of the Kings. Indeed, this short book is meant to provide us a foundation for understanding God’s providential work in bringing His king to the throne of Israel, the main action of which is recorded by the prophet in Samuel. Generations before David, and centuries before Christ, the writer of Ruth tells us of another ordinary family living in extraordinarily turbulent times; and just as the story of David and the story of the Incarnate Christ begins in Bethlehem, so does the narrative of Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons. The author of Ruth[5] tells us from the beginning that the times in which these Ephrathites from Bethlehem were living were times of great social, political, and religious disorder, not unlike the times of David, of Christ, and our own times as well. He writes, In the days when the judges ruled. These few words are packed with historical emphasis. The author of Judges, at the end of his book, tells us that the period of the judges was a time when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The chief problem behind this moral and social decay that is posited by the author of Judges is that “In those days there was no king in Israel”;[6] there was no central figure who would call the people to repentance and to keep the covenant of Israel with the LORD. Anyone who has read Judges recognizes that it is the story of a long backsliding of the people of God. The first two chapters sees the failure of the people to complete the conquest, the judgment of God, and the death of Joshua. After his death, the prophet records, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger.”[7] In His anger, the LORD gave the people over to plunderers and the surrounding nations who afflicted them as judgment. But, when they would cry out because of their affliction, God would send them a judge whom he empowered to deliver his people. For the most part, at least at first, when the judge ruled over the people, there was a time of repentance and turning back to the LORD; however, as soon as the judge died, the people again abandoned their covenant God for the gods of the nations and behaved as the surrounding pagan nations did. This was the ongoing cycle for generations: the people disobeyed the covenant; God punished the people by allowing them to fall into the hands of the surrounding nations; God had mercy upon the people and sent them a judge to deliver them; as soon as the judge died, the people again rebelled against the LORD. Even the judges began to become corrupt over time; that is, the cycle of judges begins with pious Othniel, the younger brother of Caleb;[8] it continues on through numerous others, including idolatrous Gideon who began by destroying the altar of Baal and cutting down the Asherah pole[9] and ended by fashioning his own ephod for his own private use against the law of God;[10] the cycle of Judges ends with Samson, who wickedly broke every facet of the Nazirite vow,[11] married a Philistine,[12] had sex with a Philistine prostitute,[13] was foolishly seduced by Delilah,[14] and died with his Philistine captors.[15] The book of Judges ends with a gruesome story of a Levite and his unfaithful concubine who sought refuge in Gibeah of Benjamin. There, in a replay of the sin of Sodom, the men of the city, Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin, seek to sodomize the Levite, but instead settle for the concubine whom they rape to death. The Levite then cuts her corpse into twelve pieces and sends the pieces throughout Israel to the twelve tribes who then, under the leadership of Judah, make war on Benjamin.[16] The moral relativism that resulted from their abandonment of God had left Israel in a state of religious, political, and moral chaos. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” What a descriptor of an age! But could it not be used of our own time as well? We wonder at the wickedness of our world, but do we not see clearly its source? The Apostle Paul reveals to us the source of moral madness: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity… to dishonorable passions… to a debased mind.”[17] Whenever people abandon God for their own way, God is not obligated to draw them back; one of the worst judgments that can ever be meted out to man’s idolatry is for God to give them up to their own devices. We see this judgment being meted out in our own day; and we see this judgment meted out in the days of the judges, in the midst of which we find the events of the book of Ruth taking place.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, writes the prophet, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The wording used by the prophet in writing these lines reveals a sad irony. First, we are told that this ordinary family – a man, his wife, and their two sons – are from the clan of Ephrathah in the city of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, in Hebrew, is literally rendered, “house of bread”. Bethlehem was located in a very fertile region of Israel, the “breadbasket” of the land, as it were. But, as the prophet has told us, there was a famine in the land. The “house of bread” was empty. Famine, in the context of the Mosaic Covenant, was a judgment against those who had broken God’s covenant. In Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the people concerning the blessings for covenant obedience and the curses for covenant disobedience. He writes, “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.”[18] It is likely, given the context, that the famine that had come upon the land was a direct result of the rampant covenant disobedience during the time of the judges. Instead of seeking to obey the LORD and the covenant stipulations between Israel and God, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It’s not as though there was no Torah, no Law for the people to follow; they rebelliously decided to be a law unto themselves, to follow their own definition of what is right, instead of pursuing obedience to their covenant Lord. In this way, they followed the sin of Adam, disobeying God and following their own darkened wisdom.[19] Just as that covenant disobedience resulted in death for all mankind, the covenant disobedience of Israel was destroying them as a nation. And what does this ordinary family do in these times? They went to sojourn in the country of Moab. Moab, the descendants of Lot’s incestuous son by his elder daughter,[20] were traditional enemies of Israel. Not only this, but the Law strongly forbade fraternizing with this ancient enemy. Moses again writes in Deuteronomy, “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever…” The reason? “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia , to curse you.”[21] This ordinary family from the empty “house of bread” was fleeing the famine by going to a pagan nation that had not offered to feed Israel when they were redeemed from slavery in Egypt. If this seems utterly foolish to you, that’s because it is! Yet how many Christians, who are perhaps under the discipline of the Lord that is meant to lead to their repentance, flee from the church to enter the land of the enemy? flee from the house of God’s provision to a place where no real bread is offered? This is precisely the kind of disobedience that would again mark the Jews in the time of Jeremiah; the Lord said through His prophet, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”[22] Whenever we choose the world, whatever reason we give to try to justify it in our own eyes, we are forsaking God, the only Source of true and eternal life.

We find this action of the family from Bethlehem doubly ironic when we are informed of their names, particularly the name of the father who would have been the main proponent of this move. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name 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. The names Mahlon (which means “sick”) and Chilion (which means “wasting away”) were likely not the real names of the children of Elimelech and Naomi; they may have been names given later, marking the manner of their deaths. Naomi, which means “pleasant”, will later change her name because of the change in her circumstances, and her perception of God’s judgment against her. The name that is of particular interest in this move from Bethlehem to Moab is the name of the father, Elimelech. Elimelech means “My God is King”. During the time of the judges, when “there was no king in Israel”, we are not to assume that Israel had no Ruler; rather, the author of Judges wants us to see that Israel as yet had no earthly prince. God was always King of Israel. Isaiah writes, “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.'”[23] David, who would later become the earthly king of Israel, would often acknowledge that the true King, the High King, as it were, was God; for example, he writes in Psalm 145, “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.”[24] Elimelech‘s name was his parent’s way of pointing him to the true King he was called to serve; however, Elimelech‘s actions pointed to the fact that, like the rest of Israel, instead of being obedient to his covenant Lord even in the midst of trial, he was intent on doing what was right in his own eyes. He leaves behind the Promised Land for Moab. Instead of relying on his covenant God to provide for his needs, he instead goes to the land of Moab, a pagan country where the idol Chemosh was worshiped. Essentially, what his actions were saying is that if the LORD will not provide for his needs, he will go to a land with a god who will. Whatever his intentions, Elimelech’s decision to move his family from Bethlehem to Moab betrayed a lack of faith and understanding. He lacked the faith of Habakkuk who wrote so poetically, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”[25] He lacked the understanding that recognized that what was needed in Israel was not self-exile, but repentance, a turning back to covenant obedience to the LORD![26] His name meant “My God is King”; but his life revealed the opposite.

For Elimelech, there was no opportunity for repentance; we find this out in the very next verse: But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. Elimelech and his family had moved from Bethlehem to Moab with the intention, at first, merely to sojourn, says v.1; but after they had left the Promised Land for the land of a pagan nation, they didn’t merely sojourn, but, the Scriptures tell us, they remained there. Perhaps, Elimelech had said to himself, “As soon as things start looking up in Bethlehem, I’ll go back.” Or, perhaps he had set a time limit – “After the next harvest season passes, I and my family will return.” It’s unclear how long Elimelech was in Moab before he died; but it is clear that he hadn’t entered Moab intending to stay. But, stay he did. He died, and instead of resting in the tombs of his fathers, his body was committed to the ground of a cursed nation. How many there are who, fleeing from covenant faithfulness to their covenant God, step into the land of sin, meaning, perhaps, merely to sojourn there! What presumption! God is not obligated to grant you an opportunity to repent! What if, like Elimelech, you venture into the land of Moab, meaning only to sip its deceivingly sweet waters and return, but there is no return? Leaning over the stream to sip, you slip, and there you are, drowned in the sin you only meant to taste? Solomon writes, “The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ And to him who lacks sense she says, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.”[27] Elimelech sojourned in Moab, and he never returned to the Promised Land. Some seek to sojourn in sin, and they never return.

With the death of her husband, the prophet tells us that Naomi was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years. Do you see the progression? First, this ordinary family from Bethlehem went only to sojourn in Moab; then, they remained in Moab; finally, the prophet tells us that they lived there about ten years. Instead of recognizing their folly, they persisted in it. Indeed, so at home were they now that Mahlon and Chilion took Moabite wives: Orpah and Ruth. From being Ephrathites from Bethlehem the family of Elimelech had practically become Moabites, had abandoned the Lord and the Land He had promised, and had joined themselves to pagan idolaters. Ten years they lived in Moab, a decade that gave no sign of a desire to return. Even after Elimelech had died, forever ending his chance of return, his family were not shaken to leave, but settled all the more. Then, after ten years in the land of the enemy, both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. Sometimes we become so at home in the world that it would seem we’ve abandoned the Kingdom. Sometimes, even people who have claimed to be Christians sometimes fall into seasons of sin, and never end up returning, showing that their season of sin was not merely a season, but their true life – they were never really believers to begin with, as John would write, “They went out from us, but they were not of us.”[28] When true believers fall into these seasons, however, it is often with a severe mercy that God awakens them to their plight. Naomi, at home in Moab, loses her husband and her sons, and is left destitute in a foreign land. She needed the help of the Lord; she needed to return to the covenant community, to be one of the people of Israel again. Perhaps you have been walking outside of the covenant community for some time. Perhaps, in love with the world, you have abandoned the Lord and the brotherhood and are living in the land of Moab. Repent, friend! Hear the call to return while it issues from the mouth of the preacher! Hear and obey before the voice that wakes you is the wailing of your own broken heart!

The beginning of the book of Ruth is not a happy story; it is a story of covenant unfaithfulness, of doing what is right in our own eyes instead of bearing the discipline of the Lord and repenting. Why did Elimelech bring his family out of the Promised Land into a pagan nation? On his part, faithlessness to the King. But, Elimelech was not the only one working in this situation. God had a bigger plan in allowing Elimelech to take his family into Moab. For, from this ordinary family from Bethlehem, and a certain Moabite woman whom a son of the tribe of Judah married in a foreign land, God would bring His king to the throne of Israel, and ultimately, would bring our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners. Indeed, as William Cowper so elegantly wrote, “His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”[29]

[1] Micah 5:2

[2] Matthew 1:1

[3] Matthew 2:16

[4] Matthew 2:13

[5] Who some consider to be the prophet/judge Samuel, though this is unlikely.

[6] Judges 21:25

[7] Judges 2:10-12

[8] Judges 3:9

[9] Judges 6:27-32

[10] Judges 8:27

[11] Judges 13:4-5

[12] Judges 14

[13] Judges 16:1

[14] Judges 16:4-22

[15] Judges 16:28-31

[16] A brief summary of the events of Judges 19-21

[17] Romans 1:23-24,26,28

[18] Deuteronomy 28:15-19

[19] Genesis 3

[20] Genesis 19:37

[21] Deuteronomy 23:3-4

[22] Jeremiah 2:13

[23] Isaiah 44:6

[24] Psalm 145:1

[25] Habakkuk 3:17-18

[26] Deuteronomy 30:1-10

[27] Proverbs 9:13-18

[28] 1 John 2:19

[29] William Cowper, “Light Shining Out of Darkness”

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