Ruth 1:6-22

The family of Elimelech had left Bethlehem behind for the promise of the green fields of Moab; they had left behind the “house of bread” for a country that had refused bread to their ancestors; they had left behind the Promised Land for a pagan nation. Elimelech had done what was right in his own eyes,[1] just like the rest of disobedient Israel during the time of the judges. Instead of enduring the discipline of the Lord and turning again to their covenant God in obedience, these Ephrathites from Bethlehem had sought fullness in a land that, though it may have been materially well-off, was spiritually empty. The first tragedy was to happen to the father, the likely architect of this foolish move; after seeking only to sojourn in Moab, he and his family had fallen into the trap and had remained – but Elimelech did not remain very long – upon the earth! “But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.”[2] Naomi, bereft of her husband, still had her two sons, and was thus, in her perspective, secure in the land of Moab. So secure did she think herself and her family that they settled down in Moab, and lived there for ten years, the sons taking to themselves pagan wives, marrying outside of the covenant community. “They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”[3] With the death of her sons, the security Naomi had assumed was hers was revealed to be nothing but a vapor.[4] Without her husband and her boys to provide for her, Naomi was left a destitute alien in a foreign land; there were no social security programs in Moab, no governmental hand waiting to catch Naomi when she lost the provision her family provided. If she remained where she was it would not be long before she starved to death. This realization, no doubt compounded by the very human grief that any mother and wife would feel at the loss of her sons and husband, made Naomi a lonesome and desperate creature! But Naomi was not the only one to suffer loss at the death of these three Ephrathites; the Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth, were also left in destitution. The hearts of these three women are laid open to us in the passage we turn to now.

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. When Naomi had left Bethlehem, the land of Judah was under the discipline of the LORD in the form of a famine; the “house of bread” was empty. As was often the case in the time of the judges, however, this discipline had been likely followed by a short-lived period of repentance; and thus, the blessing of their renewed covenant obedience was a healthy crop.[5] The psalmist, when he was summarizing the history of the people of Israel, wrote, “He drove out nations before them; he apportioned them for a possession and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents. Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God and did not keep his testimonies, but turned away and acted treacherously like their fathers; they twisted like a deceitful bow.”[6] Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, the Israelites who were finally settled in the land were easily led astray and did not keep God’s Word; but, also like the Israelites in the wilderness, “When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought God earnestly.”[7] When they repented God would show them mercy; but their repentance was so often not from the heart – “Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant.”[8] Eventually, they would rebel again and in their renewed rebellion, God would bring judgment on them again. This was the recurring cycle during the time of the judges. But, at this point in our passage, The LORD had visited his people and given them food; in His grace and mercy, God had ended the famine that had for so long afflicted His people and had been the excuse for Elimelech and his family to leave the Promised Land for Moab. And, in the midst of her grief and rebellion, Naomi rises and begins her return to the land of Judah. Interestingly, the word that is here translated as return,[9] a word that is used twelve times in this chapter,[10] is used elsewhere in Scripture to denote an active repentance from sin. For example, Hosea, pleading with his brothers to repent of their spiritual adultery, calls to them, “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.”[11] Naomi, who has most certainly been torn and struck down is taking the first steps of repentance in the form of returning to the covenant community she and her family had so foolishly left behind. Perhaps, Christian, you too have been settled down in Moab; maybe you have left the covenant community behind to seek fulfilment in the world, and God has graciously torn you and struck you down; perhaps you have been awakened to your peril and wonder what to do next. Backslidden brother or sister, arise and return to your people! Come home!

Naomi, recognizing that she was still the mother-in-law of two Moabite women, attempts to send them home. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” Her first attempt to send them both away fails. There was no friendship between Israel and Moab; they were ancient enemies. One interpretation of what is happening in Naomi’s attempt to send the women back to their families is that she realizes that though the decision to return to Bethlehem is a good decision for her, that might not be the case for her daughters-in-law; they would be strangers in, what to them would have been a strange land. Not only this, they would have been as destitute as herself; it was highly unlikely that any man of Judah would risk becoming a pariah by marrying a Moabite woman whilst in the Promised Land. And Naomi was past the age of bearing sons, as she tells these poor widows herself: But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying?” Clearly, in Naomi’s mind, though she had blessed the women in the name of the LORD, she believed that blessing would be dispensed to them in a pagan nation, not in the Promised Land. There was no invitation to them to turn from their idolatry and serve the living and true God. She had perhaps meant well, but her blessing was empty because she was actively trying to turn her daughters-in-law away from the LORD. She says to them, “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” In this brief statement, she reveals her heart’s true belief concerning God. In Naomi’s mind, God is against her. After all, wasn’t it God Who has taken her husband away from her? had taken her dear, dear boys whom she had carried in her own womb and raised and loved? It so often happens that when adversity arises, believers, children of God for whom the Son of God died, begin to think that God is punishing them, that He is vindictive and only means their harm. May it not be, though, that God loves you more than to allow you to settle in Moab? to allow you to become comfortable in a den of vipers? The author of the epistle to the Hebrews, hearkening back to the book of Proverbs,[12] writes, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”[13] Sometimes God brings adversity into our lives not because He hates us or is seeking to obtain a kind of revenge upon His children – God isn’t an abusive Father; rather, He wants us to grow up and to grow out of a way of life that leads only to death. Above all, adversity is allowed to come into our lives to drive us to take refuge in the Lord, He Who is our greatest good! If you are a child of God in Jesus Christ, brother or sister, no matter what you are going through, be assured by the steadfast love that did not spare His own Son, that God is for you![14] None of this has come into your life because God hates you or is acting in judgment against you; if you belong to Christ, your sins have already been punished in Him![15] Cast yourselves on the Lord! Weep on the shoulder of your loving, caring Father![16] “For he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” His mercies sometimes may be severe, but He is always merciful, and always working all things for our good.[17]

Naomi has presented her case, and how worldly-wise a case it is! “Go home! Go back to your families and your false gods! At least there you stand a chance! No man of Judah will marry an idolatrous Moabite; and I won’t be having a son to take up the responsibility of levirate marriage. You’re better off in Moab!” It’s not difficult to see, especially for a young woman who has just lost her husband, her only means of provision in the ancient Near Eastern world, how such an argument would sound tempting. Note, though, that after the first admonition, both Ruth and Orpah said to Naomi, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But, as Naomi continued her argument concerning the impossibility of levirate marriage (that is, the responsibility of a living brother to provide children for his dead brother),[18] Orpah began to rethink her initial promise to remain with Naomi. Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law. And this kiss was not a kiss sealing the promise she had made in v.10; rather, it was a goodbye kiss, a farewell to her mother-in-law whom she would never see again. Ruth remained, but Orpah returned to her family and her idols. but Ruth clung to her. And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” We will discuss Ruth in a moment, but first it’s important to note how Orpah acts as a kind of contrast to Ruth. Orpah was, like Ruth, on her way back to Bethlehem with Naomi. When Naomi had given her first admonition for the young Moabite widows to return home, Orpah had refused. But, suddenly, Orpah was taken with the logic of all that Naomi, the anti-missionary, was saying. Surely, life would be easier for her in Moab than in the land of the LORD with the people of the LORD. For her to continue on with Naomi meant an abandonment of everything she had known before and an embracing of a culture and a God she had not known, and when she weighed the risk, she didn’t think it worth it. And so, she kissed her mother-in-law, and abandoned her for the world. Orpah is the “almost-believer.”[19] In Matthew 13, our Lord tells the parable of the sower and the seeds. One particular instance of the sowing sees the seed fall on rocky ground: “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.”[20] Later, when He was explaining the parable to His disciples, He said, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”[21] Orpah heard the good news of God’s grace in visiting the people of Israel with good crops; she rejoiced at the idea, and immediately arose and began the journey to the Promised Land. But, when embittered Naomi began spelling out to her what would be her likely future, Orpah fell away. How many there are who, hearing the good news, start out on the gospel road, but when they discover it is a hard road, they turn back to the world! Like Demas, they are in love with the world,[22] and have no love for God! Orpah returned to her paganism, and in the end she received the reward for her paganism; she took the easy road that, though it be the more comfortable path under the sun, is yet the road to destruction.[23] Sinner! Consider the end! Will you for a drop of pleasure swallow a sea of wrath?[24]

Oh, but what a joy is Ruth in this tale! Ruth, the convert, the new believer! Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. The verb we translate as clung here, is an expression of great loyalty and devotion. It’s used, for example, in Genesis 2, where Moses writes, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast (or cling) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”[25] The devotion that a husband is supposed to have for his wife is a similar kind of devotion and unity that Ruth is expressing here. In fact, her impassioned reply to Naomi’s further attempt to send her away spells out her devotion: But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” Ruth’s devotion to Naomi is completely undeserved by Naomi; in the next verse we’re told And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. There is no sign of thanks or even the slightest appreciation for what he daughter-in-law is doing. But, after all, that’s not the point. Ruth is showing Naomi steadfast love; indeed, Ruth is God’s agent of steadfast love to Naomi, the embittered mother-in-law who believes God is against her. Ultimately, God’s steadfast love for His people would be shown in Jesus Christ, Who “became flesh and dwelt among us,”[26] Who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[27] He left behind the comforts of heaven to come and suffer for His Bride; He clung to her, and united to Him we are saved! “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”[28] But, Ruth’s devotion is not merely to Naomi, or even primarily to Naomi; for, in uttering her beautiful speech of steadfast love, she uses covenant language when she says, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In Genesis 17, God established with Abraham the covenant of circumcision, saying, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”[29] Ruth, like Abraham, was a citizen of a pagan country, and, trusting in God, she, like Abraham, left behind her country and her kindred and her father’s house,[30] leaving behind all she knew and all that identified her, to serve the LORD and to be identified as one of His people; she had taken the risk by faith that Orpah, the “almost-believer” did not. Herein, also, we see some of the first-fruits of God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth in Abraham.[31] By God’s grace, Ruth was not uniting herself to Naomi only, nor was she simply relocating, but she had placed her faith in the God of Abraham, the LORD of Israel, entrusting herself to His covenant steadfast love. In doing this, Ruth the Moabite revealed that she, in that moment, was more a daughter of Abraham than was Naomi the Ephrathite who had lost her faith in God’s covenant love. As Paul would write centuries later, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”[32]

Before Ruth had reached Bethlehem, she was already part of the covenant community. But it’s interesting that once they had returned to Bethlehem, Ruth wasn’t even acknowledged by its citizens. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” Naomi, whose name means “pleasant”, asks the women of Bethlehem to refer to her as Mara, which means “bitter”. This name is used elsewhere in Scripture. In Exodus, immediately after God had delivered His people from slavery, Moses led them three days’ journey into the wilderness, and in those three days they had found no water. Eventually, though, they came upon a pool of bitter water. “When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?'”[33] Despite the fact that God had just shown them His steadfast love and covenant-keeping faithfulness in the miracle of the crossing through the Red Sea, the people still did not trust Him to provide for their needs. Likewise, even though God had provided Naomi with the agent of His steadfast love in Ruth, Naomi still believes that God is against her. In fact, it seems that Naomi completely ignores Ruth, not speaking to her, not introducing her, etc., in order to hold on to her bitterness. But, just as God providentially, lovingly, and patiently provided the means to make the bitter water sweet in the wilderness,[34] so He would graciously show Naomi His steadfast love and would bring sweetness to her own bitter waters. For, in the midst of all of this, He was providentially working all things to the good of His people. So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.


[1] Judges 21:25

[2] Ruth 1:3

[3] Ruth 1:4b-5

[4] Ecclesiastes 1:2

[5] Deuteronomy 28:11-12

[6] Psalm 78:55-57

[7] Psalm 78:34

[8] Psalm 78:37

[9] Hb., shub

[10] Ruth 1:6,7,8,10,11,12,15(2x),16,21,22(2x)

[11] Hosea 6:1

[12] Proverbs 3:11-12

[13] Hebrews 12:7-8

[14] Romans 8:31-32

[15] Romans 8:3-4

[16] 1 Peter 5:7

[17] Romans 8:28

[18] Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38:6-11

[19] David Strain, Ruth & Esther: There is a Redeemer and Sudden Reversals (Glasgow: Christian Focus, 2018), 33.

[20] Matthew 13:5-6

[21] Matthew 13:20-21

[22] 2 Timothy 4:10

[23] Matthew 7:13-14

[24] As Thomas Watson has said.

[25] Genesis 2:24

[26] John 1:14

[27] Philippians 2:6-8

[28] Psalm 136:1

[29] Genesis 17:7-8

[30] Genesis 12:1

[31] Genesis 12:3

[32] Galatians 3:7-9

[33] Exodus 15:23-24

[34] Exodus 15:25

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