AN OBEDIENT HEART – Unlocking the Cultural Mysteries of the Book of Ruth

by
JAN LIS

The Book of Ruth is the ultimate love story. It contains all the mystery, love, and intrigue you would expect from a great play. The story unfolds in four acts with a plot and characters worthy of an Elizabethan drama. Let’s take a look at the main characters:

•  Naomi – a formerly wealthy woman brought low by the death of her family, living away from her kin in a foreign country.
•  Ruth – the daughter-in-law of Naomi, a beautiful young woman of foreign birth, also       impoverished by the loss of her husband, Naomi’s son.
•  Boaz – the handsome, middle-aged, wealthy landowner and nobleman.

The plot is not your typical riches to rags to riches story. In fact the fate of the world hangs on the outcome. The setting moves from a hostile foreign land to Naomi’s rural home-town surrounded by farms and fields of ripening grain.

And the love interest. The story of Ruth includes the unshakable love of family and country. The deep abiding love of God and God’s unfailing love for His chosen people. As to the question, “Will Ruth find love and happiness?” We will have to wait and see as the story unfolds.

Finally, the moral. Every good story has to end with a valuable lesson all wrapped for us to walk away with, and Ruth will not disappoint us here either. Let us climb into the drama and see how the Lord’s divine plan is fulfilled through the obedience of one woman.

CHAPTER ONE

A FAMINE IN THE LAND

There was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.  The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion.  They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem.  And they went to Moab and lived there.

Our story opens with a disaster.  There has been a devastating crop failure throughout the land of Israel.  In the town of Bethlehem, which means house of bread, there are precious few loaves baking.  We witness wealthy landowner Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons tearfully bidding farewell to friends and neighbors.  They set off with all their possessions to live in the land of Moab, Israel’s historic enemy.

While sojourning in the land of Moab another disaster befalls the family.  Elimelech, Naomi’s husband dies.  Then very much against Jewish custom Naomi’s two sons marry Moabite women.

Finally, after living in Moab ten years both sons die.  Naomi is now left without husband or sons.  This would have been the end of Elimelech’s line.  How devastated Naomi must have felt.  She had lost everything and was alone in a strange country.  No descendants to carry on the family name.  No sons to look after her in her old age.  Of utmost importance to a Jewish family was carrying on the family name and possession of land in Israel.

But God has a plan.  He always has a remnant.  From the Garden of Eden the enemy of our soul has tried to destroy the line our Savior would come through.  Yet we see the crimson thread continue down through history.  And Elimelech’s line would be no different.

Upon hearing that the Lord had favored Israel and there was food again in the land, Naomi prepared to return to Judah with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.

For the Lord has chosen Zion, He has desired it for his dwelling.  This is my resting place for ever and ever:  here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it – I will bless her with abundant provisions, her poor will I satisfy with food.  (Ps 132:13-15)

Naomi with her daughters-in-law set out on the road that will take her back to her birthplace, to Bethlehem.  We can imagine what Naomi must have been thinking as she walked along that dusty road.  While they were yet in Moab, she worries about the life Orpah and Ruth will lead with her in Israel.  It will be a life of poverty for them because they have no husbands. They have no sons therefore no place in the land.  In Israel they would not be free to marry outside the family of Elimelech.  And they would face possible rejection as Moabites.

Naomi remembers how both her daughters have cared for her sons, and the kindness they have shown to her.  She stops, turning to Orpah and Ruth and tells them to go back to their family homes.  She prays a blessing on them saying:

“May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Stay in Moab and rest securely before your hearth with your Moabite husband.  Raise children and live your life in the land of your people.

Naomi then kissed them and they cried.  Orpah and Ruth now have a choice to make.  Will they go with Naomi and serve the Lord God of Israel or will they choose to remain in their own land with its detestable idols?  Both daughters seemed the same on the outside.  They both acted the same.  They both lifted their voices and wept when Naomi said for them leave her and return to their families.  They both declared they would go with Naomi to her people.

But the Lord knew what was on the heart of each woman.  He knew who had earthly pleasures on her mind.  And which daughter would follow Him with all her heart.

CHOICES

Sometimes the choice to go with God seems to be the most difficult.  A life of hardship and loneliness in Judah must not have been appealing to Orpah or Ruth.  How easy it would be to stay where they were and just let life flow on as before.  The Lord puts circumstances in our lives that cause us to have to decide if we are going to follow Him or remain in our settled ways and miss the blessing He has for us.  Following God requires that we make changes in our lives.

Now fear the Lord and serve Him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods of your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:14,15)

Orpah and Ruth both wept and said they would go with Naomi to her people. But Naomi replied:

Return home my daughters.  Why would you come with me?  Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands:  return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband.  Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – would you wait until they grew up?  Would you remain unmarried for them?  No, my daughters.  It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!

RAISING UP SONS FOR THE DEAD

So much of what happens in the Book of Ruth relates to the Mosaic Law written in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.  This Leverite Marriage Law is the legal basis for what is taking place in the story.

If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family.  Her husband’s brother shall take and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother in law to her.  The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

Naomi was distraught about the seemingly inevitable conclusion that she would not be able to have more sons for Orpah and Ruth to marry.  That they would come with her for naught because they could not marry men outside the family.  She foresaw a future when the Elimelech’s line would have no name or land in Israel.

That the Lord’s hand seemed to go against her was probably the worst thing of all for Naomi to bear.  The loss of her husband and two sons, the probability of no grandsons, no descendants was hard enough to face, but that the Lord was against her was too much.  Did Naomi think that she had sinned against the Lord?  Did she think somehow this was all her fault?  Maybe if she had persuaded Elimelech to stay in Bethlehem…