November 20, 2017

From Fullness to Emptiness

Story of Ruth 2, Rooke

By Chaplain Mike

Ordinary Time Bible Study
The Book of Ruth (4)

The Book of Ruth was written to show how an unlikely woman, who proved herself to be a woman of wisdom and love, became a “founding mother” in Israel. In the tradition of Israel’s honored ancestors, God providentially worked for her and through her to fulfill his promise that kingly descendants would be born in Abraham’s family. This happened as she and others practiced extraordinary love (Heb: hesed) toward their families and neighbors.

The author of Ruth shaped this story to remind readers of the patriarchal stories. The very atmosphere of this book partakes of the family accounts in Genesis. Like them, this narrative focuses on ordinary human events as the context for God’s action. Common life elements of food and material provision, family and marital relationships and children, provide the stage upon which God works.

However, his actions are “hidden”—God’s name appears only in conversations and blessings shared between the human characters. The story stresses human activity, especially acts of lovingkindness, as the portal through which God’s will is accomplished on earth as it is in heaven.

The Book of Ruth thus provides for God’s people a delightful tale of wisdom and salvation. Our Promised King came to us through God’s merciful and surprising acts in the lives of ordinary, even unlikely people, to the praise of the glory of his grace. It encourages us to believe that we too can experience God’s blessing in the ordinary course of our lives and become important contributors to God’s story as we live among our neighbors with extraordinary love.

Story of Ruth 3, Rooke

Ruth 1:1-5. An Israelite Family in Moab

In verses 1-2, we hear about how famine led an Israelite family to migrate to the nearby country of Moab, where they settled in hopes of finding provision there.

“During the time of the judges there was a famine in the land of Judah. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah went to live as a resident foreigner in the region of Moab, along with his wife and two sons. (Now the man’s name was Elimelech, his wife was Naomi, and his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were of the clan of Ephrath from Bethlehem in Judah.) They entered the region of Moab and settled there.”

• • •

However, in verses 3-5, events take a tragic turn as the men of the family die, leaving the matriarch and her two Moabite daughters in law emptied of hope. Now widows in a patriarchal society, they found themselves among the most vulnerable of people on the fringes of the community.

“Sometime later Naomi’s husband Elimelech died, so she and her two sons were left alone. So her sons married Moabite women. (One was named Orpah and the other Ruth.) And they continued to live there about ten years. Then Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, also died. So the woman was left all alone – bereaved of her two children as well as her husband!”

Observations and Comments

  • The story is set in the “time of the judges.” This forms an inclusio with the genealogy at the end of the book where the name of “David” appears (4:17). Ruth is the story of how Israel went from the days when they were ruled by judges to the days when God’s chosen king came to them.
  • “Famine” evokes images of hunger and human suffering. But for those who remember the patriarchs, it may mark a move by God to advance divine purposes among his people (Gen. 12:10, 26:1, 41:54-57, 42:5). In all these stories famine led to a forced migration to a foreign land. However, God’s people ultimately emerged from these forced exiles with renewed prosperity through God’s providential actions.
  • The first name in the story is “Elimelech.” Naomi’s husband’s name means, “My God is King.” Is this a clue to where the story is headed?
  • The mention of “Ephrath in Bethlehem of Judah” brings back memories of the patriarchs as well. This is where Jacob, whose sons became the twelve tribes of Israel, buried his wife Rachel in the days before he and his sons were forced to go to Egypt because of a famine (Gen. 35:16-19, 48:7).
  • They become “resident foreigners” in the region of Moab, east of the Dead Sea. The people of Moab were descended from Lot (Gen. 19). In the days of Moses, as Israel made their way to Canaan, the Moabites forbade them from passing through their country and refused assistance to them. As a result, God gave his people an ordinance that no Moabite should be admitted into the Lord’s congregation (Deut. 23:4-7). Nevertheless, God also turned the curses of Moab’s prophet Balaam into blessings for Israel, and the people in the land maintained a conflicted relationship with their neighbors for generations. The fact that Ruth came from Moab provides one of the many surprising elements in this story.
  • After Naomi’s husband died, her two sons lived with their wives for about ten years before they too perished. “Ten years” may be significant. It was at the ten year point that Sarai gave her handmaid Hagar to Abram, suggesting that it was expected that couples would produce children within that time frame (Gen. 16:3). Later Rabbinic laws said failure to do so was legitimate grounds for divorce. At any rate, here we are introduced to the main conflict of the story. Not only are these women bereft but also childless. Grieving today, they also have little hope for the future.
  • This grief is highlighted even further by the use of the unusual word “lads” to describe Naomi’s sons in verse 5. Though grown and married, the text still emphasizes that they are Naomi’s little boys who died. This tragic situation is answered in 4:16, where Naomi took the “lad” born to Ruth and held him on her lap.

Story of Ruth 1, Rooke

Conclusion
Through skillful narrative in 1:1-5, our storyteller emphasizes the progressive diminishing of Naomi’s identity—the “emptying” of this woman. An Israelite, she finds herself in a foreign land. A wife, she soon loses her husband. A mother, she sees her sons die. At the end of this concise introduction, Naomi has lost everything that would have given a woman identity and significance in that culture. Her daughters in law are likewise bereft and childless.

However, if we know the stories of the patriarchs, we remember the perspective of faith—“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14) Human extremity is God’s opportunity, and by the end of these opening words, the stage is set for a patriarchal-type resolution to the story. We are anxious to see what God will do!

Perhaps, for this empty woman who has no earthly resources, God will do the impossible, and a child of destiny will be born to further God’s blessing in the world.

Prayer for the Week
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. In all our sorrows, we come to you for comfort. In our hunger, we look to you for bread. When we are without hope, we seek the assurance of your promises. When pain and loss disorient us, we come to your sanctuary to regain perspective. Like the fathers and mothers of our faith, may we hear your word and believe in Christ, that it may be reckoned to us as righteousness. With one hand wiping away our tears, may our other hand firmly grasp the plow and move forward in the way of the Cross, without looking back. Amen.

Comments

  1. I’m very much enjoying this series. It has helped keep my mind focused on the meta-story. I’ve been teaching 6 to 9 year-olds about the lower bronze age this summer. My piece has covered geography, geology, trade, cultures, and life skills found during this time period. The kids discussed the life of revenge in Samson’s story and the life of redemption in Ruth’s story last evening. As usual the kids cut through the story to find the humanity. One of their comments on Samson was that he shouldn’t have married “that woman because men do what women tell them.” It may be a patriarchal society (which we have discusses) but women still have power. They did enjoy that God doesn’t exclude people because of the lack of “chosen” status. He welcomes them and weaves them into the great Story of God.

  2. Adrienne says:

    Thank you Chaplain Mike for this study of Ruth. As usual here at IM I have learned much. The prayer is beautiful and one I will use often when my own thoughts won’t be still.

    EV, I loved your comment about God welcoming them and weaving them into His great story. Beautiful

  3. Soy un asiduo y agradecido lector de este magnífico blog, aunque no siempre comparta la misma sensibilidad de los autores sobre algunos temas.

    Mi impresión al leer Rut es que no se trata tanto de una historia de amistad (tal y como la entendemos los occidentales, en términos estrictamente individuales) sino de una historia de fidelidad y de adesión al pueblo y a los valores religiosos de Israel. Creo que los occidentales tendemos a ver sobre todo una historia “romántica” de amistad, cuando en realidad lo que hay de fondo es una trama legal (ley del levirato) que permite a Rut casarse e incorporarse a un nuevo pueblo.

    También tengo la impresión de que el espíritu de este libro contrasta con el exclusivismo de otras partes de las Escrituras en las que se prohíbe casarse con extranjeras.

    Por último, una de las cosas que más me gusta de Rut (como buen occidental habitante de ciudad) es el ambiente casi bucólico de aldea cuyo ritmos de vida están marcados por las faenas agrícolas.