Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, we come now before you because we are hungry. We live in a land that is growing more and more barren. We live in a land of famine, and therefore we ask for you to feed us. You gave bread to your people in the wilderness, and you have given us Jesus who is the bread of life. Feed us now by your Word, through your Spirit, that might know you, love you, and follow you.
Ruth opens with a pretty desperate scene of famine, barrenness, and death.
Days of the Judges
The book opens with chronological information placing the events of Ruth in the period of the Judges. The traditional date of the Exodus is around 1445 B.C., and if we tack on the forty years in the wilderness and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, that puts us around 1350 B.C. Which makes the period of the judges run from that point until Saul is anointed King around 1050 B.C. It’s likely that the events of Ruth are taking place somewhere between 1150-1100ish. Remember too that this story is written in the time of David (Ruth 4:22).
We’ve Heard This Story Before
Bethlehem is near where Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried, on the way to Ephrath (Gen. 35:19). This is where the name Ephrathite comes from: Ephrath or Ephratha is apparently the old name for Bethlehem (cf. Gen. 48:7). One of the striking aspects of the beginning of Ruth are the multiple echoes of other stories that are evident from the start. “A certain man of Bethlehem, Judah…” is reminiscent of two very odd stories that have just concluded the book of Judges. The first has a man leaving Bethlehem (like Elimelech) (Jdgs. 17:7-8), and the other is related by its connection to Bethlehem. These stories seem to be commenting on the degeneration of Israel and the failure of the Levites in particular. Both have a very simple moral that includes the injunction not to leave Bethlehem. So that invites us to be a little suspicious of Elimelech at the first. At the same time, this is not the first time in Scripture we have seen a man moving his family to a new land due to famine. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all did it (Gen. 12:10, 26:1, 42:5). But that was before the conquest. After the conquest, famine was not supposed to plague the land of Canaan unless they were unfaithful, a curse that would fall upon Israel if they were unfaithful to the covenant (Dt. 28:48, 32:24). And proof of the curse of God is the fact that instead of coming up out of the land blessed and prospering as Abraham, Isaac, (and Jacob), Elimelech and his sons die there (Ruth 1:3, 6). It’s reasonable to suggest that the state of the Levites in Bethlehem is directly related to the general state of the city. There is no food because the law of God has ceased to be their food, and the story of Eli and his sons is probably exemplary of this (1 Sam. 2:12-17). There are ironies woven through the text here: there is a famine in “Bethlehem”, the “house of bread.” Elimelech’s name means “my God is king” and yet he’s leaving the promised land of his God. Another allusion is bound up in Elimelech’s destination: Elimelech takes his family to the land of Moab. Moab was the son of the older daughter of Lot by incest (Gen. 19:37). Thus, interestingly, in a matter of verses we have two “daughters” in Moab again, and once again the problem is that there is no man for them (Ruth 1:11). This land was given to Lot, and therefore was not part of the promise land (Dt. 2:9), and Moab was not known for its friendliness (e.g. Num. 22-23, Judg. 3, 11). The story of Lot in Gen. 19 has a number of parallels to the story in Judges 19.
Curse, Death, and Famine
There is death in the land and in the family of Elimelech. There’s a famine of bread and men. Notice that after getting married, they dwelled in the land for 10 years before the two sons died. This means that there was barrenness in the family. Not only is Naomi “barren” through the death of her husband, her sons do not raise up any children, and then Naomi becomes barren through the death of her sons (1:11). This reminds us of Samuel’s mother, another barren woman, who lived in this same general era. All forms of barrenness are related. And this is part of understanding the exhaustive nature of the covenant. The covenant extends to all of life. God wants all of us, and this is ultimately so that he might bless all of it. There is no compartmentalizing of sin, and this also relates to the broader body of Christ. When one member suffers, we all suffer. Remember Achan, but also remember Jesus.
Naomi hears that Yahweh has “visited” his people. This word is not a throwaway. The first time this word shows up in the Old Testament is in Gen. 21:1 where God visits barren Sarah and blesses her with conception. The word is used several times during the story of Joseph to describe Joseph being placed in places of authority, being raised up from humiliation, being blessed. Later, when Joseph is dying, he tells his brothers that God will “visit” Israel and bring them up out of the land of Egypt (Gen. 50:24-25). And it is this same word that describes Yahweh’s activity toward Israel as he comes to deliver Israel out of bondage in Israel (Ex. 3:16, 4:31). Another use of this word is to count/list/enumerate (e.g. Num. 1-4).
Naomi urges her daughter in-laws to return to their mothers’ houses in order that Yahweh might give them “rest” in the house of a husband (1:9). This is the same word used to describe the camps of Israel on their way to the land of Canaan (Num. 10:33), and later the rest that Israel enjoy in the land (1 Kgs. 8:56 cf. Ps. 23:2, 95:11). When Solomon describes the rest, he particularly associates it with Yahweh keeping his “good promise” to Moses. In Psalm 132, it is particularly associated with God’s resting place in the Temple with the ark (Ps. 132:8, 14). Isaiah prophesies of Christ and says that his “resting place” shall be glorious (Is. 11:10). Ruth follows Naomi to find this resting place.
Conclusions & Applications
What are you running away from? All the appearances are that Elimelech was running away from challenges and difficulties he should have stayed to face. If it’s hard now, running is only going to make it worse.
Husbands are called to give their wives rest. They are called to create a Promised Land rest for their wives. Their homes must be places of Sabbath rest.
Finally, remember how God visits his people. He feeds them; he gives them life. He bestows mercy. In the midst of their failure, in the midst of their famine, in the midst of their barrenness, he visits them and gives them bread.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Closing Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that you have visited us, that you have forgiven us and delivered us, and that you feed us and give us life. Give us strength to follow you. Through Jesus our Lord, who taught us to pray, singing…