November 20, 2017

A Faith that Surpasses Abraham

Naomi and Her Daughters in Law, Doré

By Chaplain Mike

Ordinary Time Bible Study 2011
The Book of Ruth (5)

In Ruth 1:1-5, we are introduced to a family that became beset by severe trials. Forced to leave their home and journey to a neighboring country during a famine, the patriarch of the family then died. Subsequently the two sons, who had taken wives but not produced children after ten years, also passed away. That left three desperate widows, the Israelite Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.

At the end of that concise introduction to the Book of Ruth, Naomi finds herself in the position of having lost everything that gave a woman identity and significance in that culture. By the end of verse 5, the author doesn’t even call her by name, but designates her, “the woman.” She had been emptied of everything. Her daughters-in-law likewise found themselves bereft and childless.

Ruth 1:6-19

So she decided to return home from the region of Moab, accompanied by her daughters-in-law, because while she was living in Moab she had heard that the Lord had shown concern for his people, reversing the famine by providing abundant crops. (1:6)

The first mention of God in the book provides a ray of hope. Literally, the text says that Naomi heard a report that “the Lord had ‘visited’ his people.” This beautiful word describes the Lord’s concern and care for his covenant people. It describes him coming personally to deliver blessing to them.

  • Genesis 21:1—The Lord visited Sarah, and Isaac was conceived
  • Genesis 50:24-25—On his deathbed, Joseph foretells that the Lord will visit his people in Egypt and bring them back to the land
  • Exodus 3:16, 4:31—Moses is to tell the people that the Lord is visiting them with his deliverance
  • 1Samuel 2:21—The Lord visited Hannah and she conceived Samuel
  • Jeremiah 29:10—God promises to visit his people and deliver them from the Babylonian captivity
  • Luke 1:68—Zechariah praises God that he has visited his people and provided redemption through Jesus
  • Luke 7:16—When Jesus restores a young man’s life, the crowds proclaim that God has visited his people
  • Luke 19:44—Jesus calls the time of his ministry “the time of your visitation”

Note that all these texts are found in narratives that record key moments in the story of redemption. When God visits his people, he certainly does provide for their present need. But a personal visit from the Lord usually implies something beyond that need as well—something related to the outworking of his plan for the ages.

Will the provision of bread for his people in Naomi’s day likewise portend even more significant events?

Now as she and her two daughters-in-law began to leave the place where she had been living to return to the land of Judah, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Listen to me! Each of you should return to your mother’s home! May the Lord show you the same kind of devotion that you have shown to your deceased husbands and to me! May the Lord enable each of you to find security in the home of a new husband!” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept loudly. But they said to her, “No! We will return with you to your people.” (1:7-10)

Boaz and Ruth, Doré

Now that famine is no longer an issue, Naomi makes her decision to return to Bethlehem, where she has family and a community of support. It is where she belongs. With kindness, she encourages her daughters-in-law to do the same. They should return to their own Moabite families, where they may find new husbands among their own people.

The state of widowhood was so precarious in those days that the only hope for young women like Ruth and Orpah was to remarry. Furthermore, if they returned to Isreal with Naomi, they would not only be widows, but foreigners in Israel, making their prospects even dimmer. Naomi recognizes this and does the most loving thing she can imagine.

  • Naomi encourages them to return to their “mother’s house.” This unusual phrase may refer to the “woman’s quarters” in a home then, where matters of love and marriage were discussed and arranged.
  • She prays for them the Lord’s hesed (extraordinary love). Hesed is the key word in the book and this is its first appearance. Naomi has seen this quality in Ruth and Orpah, and now she prays that God will reward them with his own hesed. This word was uttered by Abraham’s servant when he prayed that God would reveal the right woman for Isaac to marry (Gen 24:12-14), and it is used in the same way here. Naomi is praying that God’s love will provide his choice of loving life partners for her two daughters in law.
  • Naomi also states her wish for the young women like this: “May you find ‘rest’ in the house of a husband.” “Rest” is another great word in the Hebrew Bible. It describes being in the place of God’s choosing, enjoying his provision, safe in his security. The Israelites found “rest” in the Land. Naomi prays that Orpah and Ruth may likewise find rest—an end to their grief and perilous status, by finding husbands and establishing households.
  • Though their mother-in-law surely had their best interests at heart and a wise course of action to give them, the two young widows would have none of it. They had grown attached to Naomi, considered themselves part of her family, and so they insist that they will return to Bethlehem with her. One can only imagine the emotional turmoil in this scene. They had lost everything. Now Naomi is leaving. Ten years of their lives, about to vanish completely!

But Naomi replied, “Go back home, my daughters! There is no reason for you to return to Judah with me! I am no longer capable of giving birth to sons who might become your husbands! Go back home, my daughters! For I am too old to get married again. Even if I thought that there was hope that I could get married tonight and conceive sons, surely you would not want to wait until they were old enough to marry! Surely you would not remain unmarried all that time! No, my daughters, you must not return with me. For my intense suffering is too much for you to bear. For the Lord is afflicting me!”

Again they wept loudly. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung tightly to her. So Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law back home!”

But Ruth replied,

“Stop urging me to abandon you!
For wherever you go, I will go.
Wherever you live, I will live.
Your people will become my people,
and your God will become my God.
Wherever you die, I will die – and there I will be buried.
May the Lord punish me severely if I do not keep my promise!
Only death will be able to separate me from you!”

When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped trying to dissuade her. So the two of them journeyed together until they arrived in Bethlehem. (1:11-19)

Having failed to persuade Ruth and Orpah to return to their community by kindness and wise counsel, Naomi then argues that it would be utterly foolish and hopeless for them to cling to her.

  • First, she is incapable of producing husbands for them. She is past that time of life. Should she, by some miracle, have more children, Ruth and Orpah could not wait until babies were grown to remarry! Naomi uses an argument ad absurdum to persuade them to do the sensible thing.
  • Second, she warns them that she is not a safe friend for the future, because God has turned against her. In fact, the language Naomi uses is military: “the hand of the Lord is against me.” She feels like she has become an enemy target, locked in God’s sights. Though she sees a ray of hope in a return to Bethlehem, she still feels like a cursed woman at this point. She doubts she will ever be happy again. In that condition, how could she hope to provide happiness for Ruth and Orpah?

Orpah is convinced. She decides to return home. Should we fault her for this? I think not. We have seen that Naomi herself had acknowledged all her previous acts of kindness. For years, Orpah had proven herself a loyal wife and daughter-in-law. By going home now, she is respectfully taking Naomi’s counsel, which in context, is wise and loving. Orpah is doing the sensible, responsible thing. We should not imagine some flaw of character in her. She does what is right.

On the other hand, though, we must look at what Ruth does and says. If Orpah takes the expected action, Ruth clearly insists on taking the unexpected way. If Orpah represents the ordinary course of wisdom, Ruth exemplifies something extraordinary. If Orpah’s decision is perfectly understandable, Ruth’s is unimaginable. Risking everything, she casts her lot in with Naomi.

Before she does this, Naomi gives one more argument to try and persuade Ruth: “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law back home!” Naomi appeals to their religious differences as one final reason why Ruth accompanying her back to Israel will not work. But again, Ruth will have none of it. As her response to Naomi shows, the young woman is willing to trust the God of Israel and live in devotion to him as well as to Naomi.

Ruth’s words in 1:16-17 form a classic expression of devotion, loyalty, and faithfulness. They reveal the very essence of the Hebrew word hesed, which is the key note of this book. Though Ruth’s words are often used in romantic settings such as marriage ceremonies, it must be said that when she first uttered these words they must have sounded more like the final argument of a determined dissenter than one making wedding vows! Ruth won’t take “no” for an answer. She is putting her foot down, insisting firmly that she will accompany Naomi back to Israel. She simply won’t listen to any more pleas.

  • Ruth states her total commitment to share Naomi’s living circumstances. The words “where you live” normally refer to temporary lodging. Ruth is committed to Naomi no matter where her journeys lead her, no matter what kind of “home” they must make together.
  • Ruth states her total renunciation of her homeland and gods and her embrace of the God of Israel.
  • Ruth states her total commitment for life and death. Ruth will stay with Naomi and her people for her whole life and will be buried among them after her death. In other words, she is making a lifelong decision here to be with Naomi, her community, her God. She even swears a curse from God upon herself if she fails to keep these promises.

Ruth is utterly convincing, and Naomi recognizes her “unshakeable firmness” (Hubbard). She will not be dissuaded, and so Naomi relents. She is returning to Israel with her daughter-in-law.

It has been noted that Ruth’s faith surpasses even that of Abraham here. Abraham had a promise in hand and he stepped out time and again on the basis of God’s revealed word. In contrast, Ruth has a future entirely uncertain—no husband, no possessions, no prospects, and no divine promises in hand. Leaving her home and all that had been natural to her, she is journeying to live in a community that is prejudiced against her people and where she may not find welcome. Her only friend is a bitter and defeated older woman. She has no word from heaven and no comfort on earth, just an extraordinary spirit of faith that works through love.

Will that be enough? Will God meet them in Bethlehem?

Prayer for the Week
God of faithful love, at times I hear rumors that you have personally intervened to help and bless others, but when I look for your activity in my life, I see little to encourage me. And I know not what to do at that point. Should I set out on the safe way? the sensible path? the expected course? Or should this be the occasion that prompts me to take an extraordinary step of faith? To leave behind all that is familiar? To relinquish security? To abandon my gods? To determine that, come what may, this risky route is the only possible path to love? Today I have only questions, Lord. It is enough that you have visited your people and provided the Bread of Life, our Lord Jesus Christ. I rest my restless spirit in him. Amen.

Comments

  1. Wonderful, CM. “Hesed” runs like a thread through the OT, binding Christ’s story to history and prophecy, weaving on to us in the present age. That extraordinary love is the spine and binding of the Book, isn’t it?

    I needed this today. Thanks…

  2. Fantastic post!

    Thanks!

    Yes, the “hesed” of Ruth is the love of Christ.

    A little remark.
    I do not think that Abraham and Ruth are comparable. It’s a completely different perspective. God never intervenes directly in the story of Ruth and Noemi. In the book of Ruth, God acts in the interstices of the story. God rewards the the loyal love of Ruth to Naomi and to the God of Israel. Ruth receives the blessing of God without even expect it.
    However, for Ruth was easier to believe that she can find a husband in a small village in Israel that for Abraham believe the promises that are the pivot of salvation history.

    Apologies for my English.

  3. Have you read “Shattered Dreams” by Larry Crabb? It’s his take on Naomi’s story. He sees her as a parallel to Job. It seems that where Job’s friends failed him, Naomi was uplifted by hers. There’s a lot more in the book–I recommend it highly.