We are continuing a look at this opening chapter and its theme of death and emptiness in Naomi’s life. Last week we saw that her family’s move to Moab left her without her two sons and her husband (5). But God has brought and end to the famine (6).
Read Ruth 1:7-22
When we suffer and go through seasons of difficult circumstances, we often run. We attempt to flee our problems, and sometimes that includes fleeing the Church. We run from the one thing that offers us real hope. We saw that hope at the very end of verse 6 when the Lord gave them food.
Naomi’s despair builds throughout this chapter even though the kindness of God is reflected very clearly in Ruth’s loyalty to her.
The darkness of her losses in Moab never seems to lift in Naomi’s mind. But despite the stubborn nature of her bitterness, Naomi’s faith in a sovereign God pierces the heart of Ruth.
We closed last week acknowledging that the main problem the author is portraying in the opening chapter of Ruth is not the famine, but Naomi’s sense of emptiness.
› 1. Emptiness Compounded (7-14), 2. Emptiness Interrupted (15-18), and 3. Emptiness Expressed (19-22).
Emptiness Compounded (1:7-14)
Another theme begins to emerge in this scene. The word שׁוב (return) occurs ten times in the first chapter. It is, therefore, an important theme. Naomi, an Israelite living in exile, was returning home. This same word in Hebrew is also used to refer to repentance. When someone repents, they turn away from sin and they turn toward God. So this passage is not only a picture of an Israelite returning to her hometown, it is also a picture of conversion. The Gentile Ruth is surprisingly converted in the midst of her suffering, while Naomi is on the slow journey of returning.
Naomi hears word that Israel once again has food. She has essentially lost all hope of being supported in Moab, so she returns to the Promised Land. Her daughters-in-law begin to return with her. They were just as lost and hopeless as she was. We do not know what the situation was like with their families. Had they been cut off for marrying Israelites? It is quite possible that they too were at a loss for who they could turn to for help.
Then Naomi turns to her daughters-in-law and tells them something that indicates that she was still focusing on temporary comforts. Instead of repenting of her and her family’s sins, she accuses God of making her life miserable (v.13).
She actually encourages them to return to their homes. She prays for them, that God would provide them with husbands again. It is hard to imagine their situation completely. How desperate were they for someone to provide for them? Was there any sort of system in place among the Moabites that would see to the care of widows? There probably was not. But apparently the women would have been accepted back into their mother’s homes. This is what Naomi suggests. And Orpah eventually agrees to do that.
But why does Ruth cling to Naomi? What was it that Ruth was clinging to?
Naomi was on this journey back to the land of Judah, but she lacked the confidence that returning would offer much relief.
Why was she so pessimistic about what life in Israel would be like?
Her family had fled the land during the famine. It was probably going to be a little humbling attempting to return now. She was going to have to admit that they had been living amongst the Moabites for over a decade. Not only that, but her two sons each married Moabite wives. How would all of that be received? It’s possible that Naomi feared she would be ostracized by her own people. She probably thought that she would be unable to care for her daughters-in-law if they followed her back to Judah. But something else is going on in this scene.
Dennison captures Naomi’s real motive for sending her daughters back to Moab:
Naomi is detaching herself from them; and in detaching herself, this sad widow is isolating herself from those closest to her. Is it not so? Is it not the temptation of widows to retreat, to withdraw, to urge others—even beloved others—to turn away from them and leave the widowed in loneliness, with memories, with the past, with themselves only? Is it not the temptation of those like Naomi to un-attach themselves from what they once loved?
Naomi realizes that every time she looks at her daughters-in-law she will be reminded of all that she lost in Moab. She doesn’t see their presence as a blessing to enjoy, but a burden to bear.
Naomi was on the verge of being lost forever. She was at the edge of no return, spiritually speaking.
Schroeder finds a structural emphasis at the end of v.8: “As you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Schroeder believers the reason Naomi wants her daughters to leave is because she already identifies herself with the dead. What is left of her life is as good as dead. This becomes even more apparent when she arrives back in Bethlehem and expresses her bitterness to the people who are excited to see her (vv.20, 21).
In the New Testament we read of the Prodigal Son who left his father’s house and lived a wicked lifestyle before returning home. In that story, it was very difficult for the son to finally return. He avoided it as long as he could. Isolation was no longer an option. He was going to have to repent to his father and it would be a humiliating situation. But, of course, the story doesn’t unfold the way he expected it to. Instead of judgement, he met grace. Instead of rejection, he was accepted with a feast.
Naomi expected a different reception in Israel. She did not think Israel was a place for her Moabite daughters-in-law to live, so she encouraged them to return to their homes, and to return to their gods. Whether she was trying to save face, or genuinely trying to protect her daughters we do not know.
But, once again, it was wrong! Telling her daughters-in-law to return to their gods makes little sense coming from a caring mother who is returning to a covenant community in Bethlehem. She showed more concern for their physical future than their spiritual future. For Naomi, finding relief for their temporary needs were more important than finding relief for their eternal needs.
All too often, we base our decisions upon a misperception. We assume the worst in people. Instead of doing what we know would honor God; we take the easy way out. We fear man more than we fear God. Approaching life in this way leads to pessimism. Basing our decisions upon a mistrust of people will only drive us away from community and it will deepen a pattern of living that is unable to hope, unable to be thankful for the Lord’s blessings.
Initially, both women expressed their intentions to return to Judah with Naomi. Then Naomi’s bitterness is clearly seen. In the process of trying to discourage her daughters-in-law from following her, she accuses God of leaving her empty (12-13).
Orpah kisses Naomi formally ending their relationship while at the same time revealing affection for her mother-in-law. The text makes no judgment about Orpah’s decision. Really, after Naomi’s rebuke, Orpah did the sensible thing. No one would have expected her to stay. But, in the end, Orpah’s response is only a foil that magnifies Ruth’s response. Hubbard states it succinctly, “One may understand Orpah; one must emulate Ruth.”
Remember how this return journey began. All three women were going together. Ruth and Orpah both expressed their desire to follow Naomi. All three of them lifted up their voices and wept as Naomi began urging them to return to their homes. These daughters evidently had a great amount of affection for their mother-in-law. But Orpah eventually went back to Moab. Her journey started out strong, but it quickly faded.
The New Testament book of Hebrew warns about this kind of person who tastes Christianity, but eventually turns away (Heb. 6:1-6). Modern Evangelicalism places all of the emphasis on that initial conversion experience. The more emotional the experience the greater the amount of assurance. But Orpah’s story, and the warning passages of Hebrews tell us that the journey’s ending is just as important as its beginning. People can be deceived by their initial emotional reaction. When Orpah left, she proved that she never truly believed (cf. 1 John 2:19).
› Her departure certainly served to compound Naomi’s emphasis (even though she encouraged it). Ruth, on the other hand, clung to Naomi. It is Ruth’s response that interrupts Naomi’s emptiness…
Emptiness Interrupted (15-18)
When Naomi wanted to detach herself from everyone, Ruth clung to her in loving defiance. Webb writes, “Her decision to return with Naomi is a choice to commit herself irrevocably, not just to Naomi, but to the God and the people to whom Naomi herself is returning (1:16).”
In effect, Ruth was saying, “I will give up everything to continue to follow you. I will forsake the likelihood of finding a husband. I will forsake my immediate family. I will follow you no matter what.” The result of Naomi’s warning and pessimistic portrayal of life in the land of Judah is met by a faithfully stubborn Ruth.
Carolyn James captures the picture well:
What causes this scene literally to rock the entire book and ranks it among the most dramatic moments in all of biblical history is not (as we have supposed) the tender display of Ruth’s deep devotion to her mother-in-law, but the collision that takes place between the weight of evidence Naomi has mounted against God and the radical choice Ruth makes. She is unrelenting.
She will not leave Naomi alone. Even though Naomi’s God has done all of this to them, allowing them to go through so much suffering, this was now Ruth’s God too.
It is possible that she believed in the true God because of her husband’s testimony. Maybe she had already begun to forsake the idolatry of Moab and already honored the God of Israel.
Or, just as possible, the fact that Naomi’s bitterness never turned into apostasy showed Ruth a sincere faith. In all of her complaining and resentment, Naomi never stopped trusting in Yahweh. She was upset. She was losing hope. But she never abandoned her faith. And that must have spoken volumes to Ruth.
Quite possibly, for the first time in Ruth’s spiritual journey, she witnessed an honest faith. Naomi was not a stoic. She didn’t try to hide her faults behind some veneer of religion. Ruth saw her mother-in-law at her worst and yet her faith remained. It was drastically weakened, she may have been holding on by a thread, but it was still there, it was still true.
Ruth witnessed Naomi’s raw faith, and it was inspiring. She was willing to give everything up in order to follow that God. Ruth witnessed the real struggle in Naomi’s faith. She saw Naomi’s faults. She saw Naomi’s fears. She saw Naomi’s doubts. But in the end, there was a resolve to return. Her commitment to God remained – even if it was at its weakest point. The lowest ebb of Naomi’s faith in God was the greatest witness to Ruth.
So Ruth clung to Naomi who once again attempts to reason with her to go back to her home. “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law” (v.15). Then we come to one of the most beautiful expressions of faith found in all of Scripture.
These verses are key to understanding the chapter. They provide the “turning point” as Sinclair Ferguson refers to it. “This is a turning point,” writes Ferguson, “geographically and also spiritually. We might even say it is the conversion point.”
In other words, this is Ruth’s profession of faith. The original readers would have possibly picked up on this because of the keyword שׁוב (return/repent) that we considered to be the theme of this episode. It will be helpful to break it down phrase by phrase.
“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you.” You will not convince me to leave you. Even as your faith is wavering, my faith is being strengthened.
“For where you go I will go,” Ruth was willing to follow Naomi anywhere.
“And where you lodge I will lodge.” She would not flee even if it left them homeless.
“Your people shall be my people,” We are stuck with each other for better or for worse. Ruth was committed to the people of God before she had even met them.
“And your God my God.” She knew that the Sovereign Lord was the only true God. Even as he had allowed so much grief to enter their lives, his existence could not be denied. Somewhere along this journey of grief Ruth had encountered the living God. Dennison writes,
“Ruth hugs Naomi and declares, ‘Your God shall be my God’ because God first hugged Ruth and said, ‘You, dear child, shall be my daughter!’”
“Wherever you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” Ruth was making a lifelong commitment to Naomi. This was not a stroke of spontaneity that would fizzle out in a few days. She was staking her future on this single decision.
There comes a point for all of us, when we finally decide that we are going to change the trajectory we are on. We decide that we will no longer live for our own pleasures and we pursue after God.
“May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” In Ruth’s response to Naomi she continually used covenant language to profess her own faith. God promised Israel, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” (Leviticus 26:12; cf. Gen. 17:7-8; Ex. 6:7). Ruth takes that same language and confesses her belief in God. She understands the covenant lord. She gets it!
Was Ruth converted? This passage certainly seems to testify to her faith and the fruit of her repentance is demonstrated by her actions throughout the book.She did not make her decision rashly. Having heard Naomi’s challenge to return to Moab, where a potential for a future with a husband and children was still feasible, Ruth knew the cost of discipleship. But her faith was stronger than her fear.
Naomi was painting a picture of Ruth’s future, using nothing but shades of black and blue. “This is what life will be like if you continue to follow me.” Ruth saw the picture, but it did not cause her to look away. She didn’t turn back. She faced it as if it were her only option.
Her response was similar to Peter’s when Jesus asked the twelve disciples if they wanted to flee like many in the crowd had done. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” (John 6:66-68).
Ruth may not have understood everything, but she knew that Moab did not have the answers. All she knew was that Yahweh was the only true God. Her circumstances did not dictate her faith.
When we take our eyes off of Christ and solely focus upon our circumstances, our faith weakens. But even in the midst of our broken and dysfunctional faith, we should recognize the value of authenticity. People aren’t looking for the perfect Christian in order to believe. They want to see someone whose faith remains even when their world is turned upside down. God may receive greater glory when your faith is at its weakest. It proves his sovereignty.
› Despite Ruth’s incredible faith, Naomi returns to Bethlehem expressing her emptiness to the women there.
Emptiness Expressed (1:19-22)
The third scene is short but thematically important.
“The whole town was stirred because of them” (v.19). What initially may sound like an ambiguous reaction from the people of Bethlehem is actually a statement of their excitement. Hubbard translates the phrase וַתֵּהֹ֤ם כָּל־הָעִיר as “the whole city echoed with excitement.” He points to the use of the same language with reference to the city of Jerusalem’s reaction at Solomon’s coronation (1 Kings 1:45), as well as Israel’s reaction to the recovery of the ark of the covenant (1 Sam. 4:5), both events suggest an interpretation of excitement. Bush also concludes his analysis with a similar translation “the whole town hummed with excitement.” The women are joyfully surprised to see Naomi (v.19b), but her response quickly dissipates the mood as she expresses her bitterness.
“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (v.20). This is where all of the parallels with Job and Joseph stop. Naomi does not respond to the bitter providence of God in the same way as the other two did. While her theology was right, her practice was wrong.
“I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (v.21a). Here Naomi indicates her belief that the emptiness of her life is the result of the Lord’s judgment upon her.
“This opens a window on to the psychological plane of the story” writes Webb, “and strongly suggests that the departure and return are to be understood thematically in terms of rebellion and repentance. Naomi comes back from the far country as a returning prodigal.”
But her repentance is flawed because of the bitterness she obviously harbors. Iain M. Duguid agrees, he writes,
“Naomi was not broken and repentant over her Moabite experience. She may have been returning to the Lord’s land in body, but she was not exactly returning to the Lord with a broken spirit and a contrite heart.”
She went away “full” even though they were starving from famine. She considers herself to be “empty” though she has a daughter-in-law with her who has just forsaken her homeland and all hope of security and finding marriage (vv.11-13) in order to stay with her. Regarding Naomi Webb writes, “She seems blind to Ruth’s continuing kindness to her, and to the promise that it holds.”
“Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (v.21b). If there was still doubt about Naomi’s frame of mind, this verse serves to clarify. She is bitter toward God. The only positive thing that can be said about this verse is that Naomi recognized the sovereignty of God. “Naomi’s world view does not permit her to rail at fate or chance or circumstances,” writes Bush. Naomi knew who was in control, but she certainly didn’t appreciate it.
“So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab” (v.22a). Both Naomi and Ruth are said to have “returned” and the narrator places Ruth’s return in prominence over against Naomi’s. The two women are placed side by side and it is apparent that that they stand in stark contrast to one another. Whereas Naomi was filled with bitterness, hopelessness, and despair, Ruth is full of faith, courage, and unbending determination. When Naomi should have been modeling covenant living for Ruth, Ruth was exemplifying covenant faithfulness to her mother-in-law.
“And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (v.22b). Once again, the darkness that cast a pale over the episode is lightened with hope at the end. The chapter that began with a famine now concludes with a harvest. Hope is in the wings.
The opening chapter centers around the darkness that envelopes the life of Naomi. This is offset by the contrast with Ruth’s commitment of faith (1:16-17). The opening chapter set up the problem of Naomi’s experience of death and emptiness.
Although there are glimmers of hope in the last verse, the problem is not resolved. Naomi returned to Judah for what appears to be purely pragmatic reasons. She is not returning with any assurance that the Lord is going to provide for her.
The physical famine described in the opening verse was a mere foil of the spiritual famine Naomi would experience in this opening act. The beginning of this story invites the reader to enter into Naomi’s darkness and gloom. The weight of her sin and consequent judgment bear down with unrelenting pressure.
In contrast, Ruth clings to her and reveals something of the covenant faithfulness of God. Her own conversion proves to be the turning point in the passage, but Naomi is blinded by her own bitterness. On the brink of apostasy, God shows Naomi a faithful picture of his love in the words of Ruth.
Naomi can only see her emptiness, but the fullness she seeks is on the way. As God increasingly reveals a love that will not let her go, Naomi’s despair will turn to rejoicing.