A Bitter Journey (Ruth 1:1-6)

A Bitter Journey (Ruth 1:1-6)


We noted last week that chapter one presents the problem of death and emptiness in Naomi’s life. The solution begins to develop in chapter two, but the reader must wait until the very end of the story before seeing the full realization.

Read Ruth 1:1-6

The famine that occurs in Bethlehem begins the story and explains why Elimelech is moving his family to Moab (1:1). The Lord’s provision of food ends the episode and begins the return journey of Naomi, now widowed and childless (1:6).

This opening passage speaks of death and emptiness, which will be replaced with life and fullness at the end. We begin with Naomi’s bitter circumstances and conclude with her blessing. This pattern is found throughout Scripture.

However, in vv.1-5, darkness is the one thing in full focus. It isn’t until v.6 that we even get a hint of hope.

› 1. The Darkness of Famine (1-2), 2. The Devastation of Death (3-5), 3. The Hint of Hope (6).

The Darkness of Famine (1-2)

“In the days when the judges ruled” (1a): A little context is helpful.

What does Scripture tell us about this time in Israel’s history?

The people were quick to become just like the nations surrounding them. Daniel Block says the central theme of Judges is “the Canaanization of Israel” because the book describes the progressive decline of the nation of Israel. Israel becomes so much like their neighbors that the tribe of Benjamin looks like Sodom (Judges 19:22-26). They don’t appear to have any interest in keeping the commandments of God. They repeatedly rebel.

The last verse of the book summarizes the period well. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 21:25). Israel’s corruption provides the background to the famine. “They did what was right in their own eyes.” They thought they were autonomous. They thought they had no need for the law. They would govern themselves.

So the famine makes sense. The Pentateuch warned that if Israel turns to serve other gods, drought and famine would result (Lev. 26:18-20; Deut. 28:23-24). One example is:

Deuteronomy 11:16–17 ESV

Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.

The people had been warned that drought and famine would come if they turned to foreign gods, yet this period in Israel’s history is characterized by their failure to exterminate the false religions from their midst. The people of Israel were so intrigued by the idols and worship practices of the pagan nations that they were unwilling to cast them out of the land.

Sure, they did not abandon Yahweh entirely. They may have continued to worship Yahweh in local sanctuaries and even participated in the required feasts, but they were becoming increasingly syncretistic. Yahweh was just one of the deities they worshipped. They thought they could hedge their bets by serving both God and Baal.

But how does God respond to this half-hearted worship? He despises it. He is a jealous God who demands exclusive worship. He does not share space with other gods, so he cannot remain disinterested when his own children look elsewhere for fulfillment.

We must not minimize or take away from the pain and ravage caused by a famine. Our emotions are not properly engaged if we do not consider the seriousness of Israel’s predicament.

There is great anguish and bitterness in a land that has been devastated by a famine. Lamentations 4:9-10 says it well:

Lamentations 4:9–10 ESV
Happier were the victims of the sword
than the victims of hunger,
who wasted away, pierced
by lack of the fruits of the field.

The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

Can it get much worse than that? Eating your own child because of starvation is almost unthinkable. But that is what a famine can and did do to the people of God. Famines could turn compassionate women into cannibals.

Cannibalism as the result of famine was not only found in ancient history.

• Starving prisoners during the Holocaust would feed on human flesh.

• Arthur Waldron writes of a famine between 1959 and 1961 that claimed the lives of 30-60 million Chinese. He relates the precedence for such a thing within Chinese history,

“Along with the knowledge of which leaves and grasses are safe to ingest, the practice of exchanging babies to eat has long been part of the ‘famine culture’ that has enabled China’s rural masses to survive unspeakable privations caused by natural disasters.”

• Waldron also points out how this phenomenon is cross cultural. Human flesh was reportedly sold in markets during the Ukranian famine of 1932-1933.

Many more examples could be given, but the point is to say that famines and the ugliness that results from them has been experienced across cultures and throughout history.

So we shouldn’t gloss over this first verse in Ruth. We should pause and consider the eminent danger that hovered over the people of Israel.

This particular famine that had swept through Judah was almost certainly the result of Yahweh’s judgment for the people’s idolatry. God must judge their disobedience. Indifference is not an option. If it were, all mankind would be doomed. If God could simply look away, if he could ignore our waywardness, then we would pursue our own fleeting pleasures to our eternal demise.

But God is merciful, so he draws us back to himself with the cords of discipline. He reveals his ultimate concern for souls by allowing bodies to starve. That bears repeating even if it is difficult to accept. God reveals his ultimate concern for souls by allowing bodies to starve. That is why God brought about the famine.

Yes, the famine was judgment. God’s anger was upon the people of Israel, but what was the purpose? God was not simply judging Israel in order to reject them. He would not break his covenant promises to be their God. Because of the covenant, the people of Israel should have seen the famine as a call to return to Him.

They should have had the sentiment of the psalmist who says,

Psalm 30:4–5 ESV
Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

They should have seen their need to get right with him. They should have turned from their wickedness and pursued after holiness.

That is how Iain Campbell understands it. He writes,

“Part of the purpose of this famine was to renew obedience. It was the voice of God speaking loudly to the souls of his people, calling them to return and repent.”

Elimelech and his family felt all of the anguish and bitterness, but they could not see God’s grace at work in allowing the famine. So they left the Promised Land and went in search of greener pastures.

› The Darkness of Famine was quickly followed by…

The Devastation of Death (3-5)

However, before condemning this family, we need to ask some honest questions. Why did they go? One can imagine several reasons why this family would leave the Promised Land.

• Maybe they felt that God had abandoned them.

• Maybe this was during a particularly difficult period of oppression that was scattered throughout the era of the judges.

• Or, more likely, they saw fields in harvest that stood in stark contrast to their lifeless crops.

The bigger question is: Was it wrong for them to move to Moab? Why shouldn’t they have gone? Elimelech had a family to care for, and they were possibly on the verge of starving to death. What else could he do? Was he supposed to stay in the land and watch them die?

Plus, if one of the purposes of the book is to show that the covenant was not restricted to Israel, how would that have been achieved if they remained in Israel? How would Ruth the Moabitess find her way into the genealogy of Christ? Isn’t this simply the sovereignty of God at work? God is working out his purposes for His people. Maybe Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab wasn’t so bad after all.

God did turn this tragedy into a display of his mercy, that is certainly true, but it cannot justify Elimelech’s actions. They never should have left. Just because God can work his grace in spite of human sin, failures, and weaknesses, does not mean God is indifferent toward evil. No, because God is righteous, evil must be dealt with.

What was wrong with moving to Moab?

1. The Moabites and the Ammonites were the descendants of Lot’s incestuous union with his daughters (Gen. 19:37). They were constant enemies of Israel.

2. Balak, the king of Moab, is the one who asked Balaam to call a curse upon the nation of Israel (Num. 23:7ff). Their relationship was notoriously bad.

3. In Deuteronomy 23:3 Israel was forbidden from doing anything with either nation, “Do not have anything to do with the Moabites or the Ammonites in all your generations, forever.”

What could possibly justify Elimelech’s decision to take his family to Moab? Why would he turn away from God’s clear command?

It is pretty simple really. His family needed food, so he took them to where the food was. It may still seem hard to understand what was so wrong with that decision. As Dennison argues, “We find no fault with a man who takes his family from a place where they may starve to a place where there is food.” But is that how we should see it?

Not according Bryan Schroeder who writes:

“Don’t think that Elimelech’s sojourn to Moab is merely the innocent migration of an Israelite family in search of food, following in the pattern of their patriarch Abraham. It can’t be! Redemptive-history has progressed; Israel is in the land of promise.”

Rather, we should see that Elimelech’s decision fits the pattern of the times, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Here’s the point: There is something more fundamental than food. Spiritual health is much more important than physical health. Elimelech chose physical comfort over spiritual comfort. He was seeking temporary relief from temporary suffering.

His sons were guilty of the same thing. They were so focused on the temporary displeasure of the single life that they were willing to take wives outside of the covenant community. Their sin was just as plain as their father’s.

All of them were living for the here and now. They sought instant gratification.

The suffering we experience in this life – no matter how severe – is just temporary. It is critical that we realize this truth. We must ask ourselves whether we are living with eternity in view, or are we living for the instant pleasure and the momentary satisfaction?

What would have been a proper response to the famine?

Psalm 81:13 ESV

Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!

Psalm 81:16 ESV

But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

So the proper response to the famine would have been for Israel to quit paying lip service to the Lord about how they would honor him and obey his commandments, then live their lives just like their neighbors. If they would have listened to Him, and walked in His ways, the famine would have ended.

Sinclair Ferguson quips,

“Instead of turning back to the Lord this little family turn their backs on the Lord…”

They fled to Moab, and the sons took Moabite wives. And the result was… “…that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband” (5b).

Naomi followed her husband out of the Promised Land. She settled in Moab and within a short timeframe, her husband died. Her sons married Moabite wives and Naomi thought she would probably remain in Moab the rest of her life. As a widow, her sons would have ensured that she was taken care of. Then, within ten years, Naomi’s sons died.

As she stood beside three grave sites, what was crossing through her mind?

She was left without hope. Hubbard points out the significance of the time spent in Moab,

“The passage of ten years makes the audience anticipate the happy event which normally follows marriage, the birth of children. Thus, it quietly introduces one of the book’s dominant themes, the problem of heirs.”

Over the course of those ten years apparently the Lord had closed the wombs of the women. At the end of the story the narrator states that the Lord gave Ruth conception (4:13). By implication, it would seem the author is stating that the Lord kept Ruth from conception during the ten years she was marriage in Moab. Think of how devastating their disappointment would have been.

We read later on that Naomi was growing bitter (1:21). It must have seemed like everything she ever knew in life had been taken away from her and there was little hope of ever experiencing a recovery. Naomi has no husband, no sons, and no grandchildren.

Does Naomi’s suffering sound familiar? She is the female version of Job. But there is one major distinction; how they initially responded to God was drastically different. Job faced hardship that most of us will never come close to encountering, yet he initially responded to that hardship in a way few of us could ever do. After losing everything dear to him, Job said,

Job 1:21 ESV

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Had other families fled for Moab? In all probability there were many. Had they experienced the same level of loss? It seems unlikely. The author does not provide a simple formula for equating all suffering with sin. Some experience greater degrees of punishment in this life than others. But one thing is clear, God is sovereign, and he is working out his perfect plan. And if Naomi could only see what was in store she would have found reason to smile.

› Enduring the darkness begins with a ray of hope.

The Hint of Hope (6)

“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” (6). The story is full of death and emptiness at this point. Now hope creeps into the passage. God has “given them food.”

For as great as the problem of famine was, it was not the main problem in the story. By the end of this verse it is no longer a part of the story. The much larger problem was how the emptiness in Naomi’s life would be filled. Webb draws this theme out further by pointing out the author’s use of several names in these opening verses. Every major and minor character is named along with providing the names of several places. Webb writes:

As the ‘while’ of 1:1 lengthens into the ‘ten years’ of 1:4, and family members die, so the naming falls away too, until Naomi is left at the end simply as הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה, ‘the woman’, bereft of ‘her two sons and her husband’, the unnamed ghosts of absent figures. It is as though Naomi has lost not only her family, but even her own name. That is the symbolic end point of her descent into emptiness.

I have already shown how the author has structured the book of Ruth. He takes the death and emptiness that begins this story and turns it into life and fullness at the end.

Don’t you see how this relates to the unfolding drama of Scripture?

We see much of the same thing when we read about the fall and redemption. And ultimately, we see this in the climax of Scripture.

Who else felt God’s abandonment? Jesus Christ! As He hung on the cross He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). He felt the abandonment of God so that those who place their faith in him might experience eternal peace and communion with Him. In order for eternal life to be made possible, a death had to occur. In order for anyone to experience peace, One had to endure wrath. God is not indifferent to evil. He paid the ultimate price in order to deal with evil. We are offered everlasting blessing, because the eternal Son of God endured the curse that our sin demanded.

And because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, our story – that begins in darkness – will eventually lead us to the light, the everlasting light which is the light of men. That is what gives us hope and endurance now!

In light of that, we must be prepared with a Job-like response when famine strikes our lives. Fleeing is not an option. Rather,  we must turn to the only One who offers hope that is everlasting.