The Inciting Incident (Ruth 1)

The Book of Ruth begins with this sentence:

[1] In the days when the judges ruled

But if you are not very familiar with the Old Testament this does not mean very much to you. So allow me to explain:

Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, where they lived until Moses died. Then a man named Joshua led the people into the land that God had promised to Abraham more than five hundred years before. And you can read that story in the Book of Joshua.

Then, after Joshua died, the days of the judges began. And you can read that story in the Book of Judges — it’s the book just before the book of Ruth.

And the Book of Judges is like a nighmare that gets worse and worse and worse. The people keep wandering away from God and worshiping idols. Then God allows their enemies to conquer them and enslave them, until finally they wake up and realize, “Oh, we really need the True God after all!” Then God would send them a Messiah, usually a warrior, who would go to war against the enemy, win, and give the people peace for one generation. They called these messiahs “judges”. Some of the most famous judges were names like Deborah, Gideon, Samson.

But then the next generation would forget, they would wander away from God, and the whole process would begin again, except even worse. And this went on for about 350 years until the Book of Judges actually ends with a terrible civil war.

So when the writer begins by saying, “During the time when the judges ruled,” his readers would immediately get the shivers. Because the original readers of this book lived a few hundred years later, during the time of the kings, when the nation was much more stable and prosperous. So to them, starting the story like this would be like saying, “Once upon a time, back in the bad old days, before we had a king to unite us and protect us…”

In Malaysia, we might say, “Once upon a time, in the days when UMNO ruled…”

It’s like that.

Then the writer adds some more information: there was a famine in the land.

Oh. And this second sentence makes it even worse. Because the original readers would remember their scriptures, they would think back to certain warnings that Moses gave them: “If you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands…the sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.”

So when the writer adds, “there was a famine in the land,” his readers would immediately know that this story begins during one of the bad parts of the Book of Judges: the land is under God’s curse because the people are not being faithful.

Then the writer goes on make it even worse: So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.

And the orginal readers would immediately remember their history: about 700 years before this, God told Abraham to go to the Promised Land, and Abraham obeyed — until a famine came along, and then he left and moved to Egypt, where he got into trouble!

They would also remember Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, who lived obediently in the Promised Land — until a famine came along, and then the whole family moved to Egypt, where they became slaves for 400 years!

So when writer says, “This certain dude moved to a foreign country to escape the famine,” his readers would all be shouting at the television, “No! Don’t do it, man! Don’t go there! Something bad is going to happen to you!”

Then the writer gives his readers one more important piece of information: [2] The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

This family is an Ephrathite family from Bethlehem. Now, this name means nothing to us, but the original readers would have known, “Oh, they were Ephrathites!” A very well-connected family, a rich family, direct descendants from Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.

So this is the same old story: when trouble comes their own country, the rich families fly away to another country, to greener pastures. And so now the original readers would be rolling their eyes, “Oh: they’re Ephrathites. Well of course they’re running away from their problems: they’re rich, aren’t they?”

And, sure enough, our readers are right, something bad does happen:

[3] Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons.

Well, that makes sense. If God tells you, “This is your land. Stay and take care of your land!” it’s a bad idea to disobey! When your Father says, “Don’t do that, or I will have to discipline you!”…then don’t do that! Because God has a habit of keeping his promises.

God also has a habit of being merciful. The days when the judges ruled was terrible, because God had to keep disciplining his people for their disobedience — but the original readers would also have known that God’s discipline is always designed to turn his people back to himself, to bring them to repentance.

So, now Elimelek, the father, is dead. Will Naomi and her sons get the message? Will they repent, and go back home?

Verse 4: They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth.

And by this point in the story, the orginal readers are tired already. It’s like watching one of those horror movies where the characters always make the wrong decision, so eventually you stop giving them advice and just say, “Okay, so die la you!”

Because Moses was pretty clear about this also: “Do not intermarry with pagan women…for they will turn you away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”

But here, Naomi’s sons have married pagan Moabite women. So what is going to happen to them?

After they had lived there about ten years, [5] both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

Okay, then.

But the good news is this: that was just the introduction. That was just the back-story, the set-up for the real story. That was like the Star Wars prequels: terrifying, horrible, you never want to see them again, but: now you’re ready for the real story.

And the real story in this case is about this old woman: Naomi, a widow, left completely alone in a foreign country. She was part of a rich family; now she has nothing. And the real story centers around this question: what hope does she have now? Where can she look for salvation now that God has turned against her?

This is a story about the powerless. This is a story about those who have lost everything: perhaps through disobedience, perhaps through the disobedience of the people around them, perhaps for no apparent reason at all. This is a story that asks the questions that every one of us has asked — or will ask — at some point in our lives: why is this happening to me? Have I screwed up somehow? Has God turned against me?

This story was written to answer those questions.

So let’s get started.

The real story begins in verse 6 when this widow Naomi hears that the famine in her homeland is finally over. The people have repented; they have cried out to God, they have returned to his care, and as a result he is caring for them.

So, she decides that — all things being equal — she would rather eat in her own country than in a foreign one.

So she packs up, and gets on the road, and her daughters-in-law come along. Why? Well, they were family for ten years at least, and apparently these young women have some affection for their mother-in-law.

But before they get too far down the road, Naomi tells them, “Look, really you should stay here in Moab. Go back, find new husbands. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. But I don’t really need to you come along.”

Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud [10] and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

So Naomi tries again in verse 11: “No, really. You need to go home. If you follow me to Israel, you will have just about zero chance of finding new husbands.”

And why does she say this? Well, because good Jewish boys are not going marry foreign girls! Naomi’s own sons were not really good Jewish boys, and even if Naomi found a new husband and had a new set of sons so they could grow up to be bad Jewish boys and marry these pagan daughters-in-law all over again — well, it’s just not going to work, is it? Naomi is too old to have more sons, and even if she were young enough, it would take another twenty years for the plan to work, and that is why Naomi says in verse 13, “would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them?”

Of course not! So she says, “No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

She is saying, “God has turned against me, and if you follow me God is going to turn against you too. So go home!”

Then Orpah decides to go back. But Ruth refuses. And in verse 16 she says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. [17] Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

These verses are among the most beautiful ever written. What a promise! What a vow! What a covenant Ruth makes with Naomi here! Naomi has nothing to offer Ruth. No money. No husband. No status. No future. But this pagan young woman says, “I don’t care. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.”

And people ask sometimes, “So, did Ruth convert here? Did she stop being pagan and start being monotheist at this point?”

Well…no. And yes.

It depends on what you mean by convert. A lot of modern Christians, when they say “conversion”, they mean a spiritualized emotional kind of movement based on belief in certain doctrines about God. And this idea comes, generally, from our Baptist friends, who put a great deal of weight on the concept of individual personal belief.

But that’s not what Ruth is going through here. We don’t know what she understands about the nature of God. Probably her theological understanding is very limited. So she is not “converting” in that modern sense.

However, she is converting in the biblical sense. See, conversion, in the bible, is not simply a matter of belief or understanding. Biblical conversion means moving from a place outside of God’s people, to a place within God’s people. It is a change of loyalty. It is a change of identification.

Up until this moment, Ruth would have introduced herself as Ruth of Moab, a worshiper of Chemosh, the god of the Moabites. But now, through this vow, she has changed her home, her race, and her religion. She is now Ruth of Bethlehem, a worshiper of Yaweh, the god of the Israelites. Does she really understand everything that means? Not yet! But she has committed herself to figuring it out. And she has said so in very strong language!

So, verse 18, When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

This is an uncomfortable verse, actually. Literally, in the Hebrew, this sentence says that Naomi “stopped talking to her.”

Ruth makes this beautiful covenant vow of faithfulness, and in return…Naomi gives her the silent treatment.

What is Naomi doing? Back in verse 9 she said, “May the Lord show you kindness as you go back to your people and your gods.” But now that Ruth has said, “No, I love you so much that I am going to leave my gods and join your God,” now Naomi speaks no blessing at all.

What is wrong with this woman? You’d think she’d be happy to have some company on the road! You’d think she’d be happy that somebody is standing by her! But she’s not! Why not?

Well, we don’t know exactly. Maybe Ruth is just a painful reminder of how much she has lost. Maybe Naomi is ashamed: maybe she doesn’t want to go back home and have to explain to her old friends that Ruth is her son’s pagan widow, the woman he should not have married in the first place.

And this whole thing is ironic. When Naomi spoke that blessing to her daughters-in-law, “May the Lord show you kindness,” she was using covenant language. That word “kindness” in English is just a nice word. But in Hebrew, the word Naomi uses means so much more than just “kindness.” It is a word that in other places is translated as “everlasting love,” “covenant love,” the kind of love that can never be taken away, no matter what happens.

So Naomi knows the words. She has the concept in her head. She is properly “converted” in the modern sense: she believes all the right doctrines about God.

But Ruth, even though she does not yet know all the right covenant words and theology and stuff, she gets it. She understands that covenant love means covenant faithfulness. It means you give up everything for the sake of someone else.

[19] So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”

Her old friends can hardly recognize her, she’s been gone so long. She went away with a husband and two boys, enough money saved to migrate to a new country and start a new life; now, here she is back: old, worn out, with nothing left.

And at this point Naomi finally bursts out. She says, “Don’t call me Naomi! Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. [21] I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

See, Naomi’s name means “Pleasant.” So when the women meet her, and they say, “Wow, can this be the Pleasant One?” she can’t take it anymore! She says, “Don’t call me Pleasant anymore. Call me Mara, the Bitter One!”

Why? Because the Almighty has made her life very bitter.

And we should notice that she changes her name for God here. Until now in the story she has always called God “the Lord” — Yahweh in Hebrew. This is God’s covenant name, the name he uses when he is dealing with his people.

But here she calls him “the Almighty” — which is Shaddai in Hebrew. Now, Shaddai means the Judge, the king of the all the gods. And we see here that she switches back and forth: in one moment she calls him Shaddai, the Judge. Then she calls him Yahweh, the Covenant-Keeping God. Then she switches back to Shaddai.

She is frustrated, confused. “Does God love me, or does he hate me? Is he supposed to destroy me for my sins, or is he supposed to have mercy?” And we all know what this feels like! especially, perhaps, those of us who were raised in Christian homes. We grow up being told that God is Love and all that — and then we become adults, and our life doesn’t go the way we thought it would, and we are left wondering who God really is! Is he good? Or is he just out to get me?

[22] So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

And with this last line, the writer shows us that the famine really is over. It is springtime in Israel, April or May in our calendar. And the barley harvest is beginning. God’s people really have repented and returned to God’s care; and God really is the Covenant God, Yahweh, who is going to provide for his people no matter what they have done in the past.

So we see that, even though Naomi is frustrated and bitter, and confused about who God really is — this does not change the reality of who God is. Naomi’s confusion is not God’s confusion. The people were confused about who the True God is, but now they’re back and being cared for. Naomi is still confused about who the True God really is, but now she’s back — in body, at least, if not in spirit. Is God going to take care of her even though she doesn’t yet understand?

The people were confused about who the True God is, but now they’re back and being cared for.

Naomi is still confused about who the True God really is, but now she’s back. Is she going to be cared for?

In other words: who is God, really? Is he Yahweh, the Covenant-Keeping God who loves his people with an everlasting love? Or is he Shaddai, the Judge, the disciplinarian?

What hope does Naomi have now? Where can she look for salvation? Has God turned against her, or not?

This story was written to answer these questions.

So let’s look back over this chapter and see if this God is Shaddai the Judge, or Yahweh the merciful Covenant-Keeper.

Elimelek is disobedient, moves his family away from God’s covenant country, and he dies. His sons are disobedient, they marry women outside of God’s covenant people, and they die. Soooo…this does look like the work of Shaddai, the king of the gods, who rules by with a rod of iron. God does not look very merciful here.

And we know that this is the impression many people have of the God who is revealed in the Old Testament. They read these stories and say, “I’m sorry, I just cannot worship a harsh, unforgiving, judgemental God like this.” And it is a problem for us, isn’t it? Because, truthfully speaking, we as Christians would say the same. If we believed God was nothing but harsh and judgemental we wouldn’t worship him either!

So how are we supposed to answer our friends when they say these things?

First, we can point out that every god is harsh, unforgiving, and judgemental. Even modern, secular gods are harsh, unforgiving, and judgemental. In fact, modern secular gods are more judgemental than the old kind. Our modern gods are things like Economic Theory and Environmentalism. And they are absolutely unforgiving! The overwhelming message of our modern science is this: “If you do not follow the rules, you will get smashed! Your economy will crash. Your environment will fall apart. Death will come to you if you do not obey our commands!”

So the first thing we can point out to our friends is that, despite their best efforts, they already worship harsh, unforgiving, and judgemental gods. Actions have consquences, and the gods enforce that.

Second, we can point out that our God, the God of the Christian bible, is the only exception. Yes, he is Shaddai, the Judge. But he is also Yahweh, the Covenant-Keeper. He is the only God in any scripture anywhere in the world who promises to love his people with an everlasting love. When God is dealing with people outside his covenant, he is Shaddai, pure and simple. His judgement falls, consequences follow action, and that is the end of the story. But when he is dealing with his covenant people, he is Yahweh. He is still Shaddai, the Judge — but now his judgement serves and saves the covenant relationship. It actually protects his people from the consquences of their actions.

But still our friends point to Naomi’s story and say, “Well, explain this! How is this the action of a merciful God?”

Here is how we can answer:

As a thought experiment, let’s pretend to be God, and turn this story around. Let’s pretend that Elimelek lives. He becomes more and more prosperous. His sons marry pagan women. They have lots of kids, and they become more and more prosperous.

Now, what is the inevitable end of that story? Will they ever leave Moab? Probably not. Why leave a country that is making them rich? Will Naomi’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren be worshippers of the True God, Yahweh, the Covenant-Keeping God? Probably not. At the very best they will be confused. At the very worst, they will be worshipers of Chemosh — who was a purely “Shaddai” kind of God, without the Yahweh part. Chemosh means “Destroyer”, and he was a god who demanded child-sacrifice, infants roasted alive. This is what would have happened to Naomi’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren if her husband and her sons had lived and prospered.

See, we think of death as the worst kind of judgement that can fall on a person. But, friends, that is not true. Sometimes death is a mercy. Sometimes death is what saves us and our children from even more terrible things. Elimelek and his sons disobeyed, and they persisted in their disobedience, and they paid for it with their lives. And if God had not shown them the mercy of death, Naomi would never have returned to Israel, the land of Promise, the land of the Covenant. If God had not stripped Naomi of everything she treasured, she would have lived to see infant members of her family sacrificed to the Destroyer in the most horrible ways imaginable.

So we see that God is Shaddai, the Judge. But for those within his covenant, he is also Yahweh, the God of everlasting love. The God who never demands that we sacrifice our children. The God who gives up his own Son so that we do not have to give up ours. Salvation does not always look the way we think it should, but we have to remember: even in death, God’s people are not beyond his reach.

But, of course, we are all like Naomi, aren’t we? Disappointment and grief come to us, and suddenly we doubt God’s character. We get frustrated, confused.

And so, ironically, when misfortune comes to us, not only do we forget God’s true character…but our true character is revealed.

It is easy to be Naomi — it is easy to be Pleasant — when everything is going great. But when things fall apart…the real “me” comes out. Naomi went away Pleasant because she thought she was rich; but after she lost everything the truth came out: she is not actually Pleasant at all. She ends up giving the silent treatment to the last faithful person in her life. She arrives home and she won’t even acknowledge that Ruth is with her, she says, “the Lord has brought me back empty!”

We are all just like Naomi, aren’t we?

And that means that the central question of the Book of Ruth is also the central question for us. The writer of the Book of Ruth wants us to be asking, “What hope does this old widow have now? Where can she look for salvation now that it looks like God is out to get her?”

It’s the same question for us: “What hope do we have? Where can we look for salvation when it feels like God is out to get us?”

And I have to tell you, as a preacher, that there is always this temptation at this point to take a shortcut, and tell you to save yourselves. The temptation is to say, “Just believe! Just have faith! Just repent, and everything will be great!” or, “Don’t be bitter like Naomi! Be like faithful like Ruth! Then God will stop being Shaddai and become Yahweh for you.”

And that advice sounds great. It sounds very affirming and self-actualizing and all that. Young people and rich people and strong people love that sort of application, because they still don’t know that, actually, they are already empty. That is is sort of sermon Naomi loved to hear when she had money, and a husband, and two sons.

But for those of us who have been emptied by the mercy of God; for those of us to whom God has revealed the truth about our helplessness — well, we know that just doesn’t work, does it. Often our experience is just like Naomi’s. God finally catches up to us in our disobedience. We finally surrender, and come dragging back into Christian community. And then we look around, and in all honesty we have to say, “Well, here I am. I’ve repented. But this still sucks!”

Sometimes our war against God goes on so long that by the time we give up we have nothing left to live on. We spend everything we have running away from him, and by the time we come to our senses and turn around, we realize we have nothing left for the road home. We repent, but we’re still at the bottom of everything, still powerless to rebuild our lives. We can’t be faithful and pleasant like Ruth! We don’t have the strength to pretend anymore.

So where are we to look for salvation when it seems as if God has turned against us? If we can’t “Just have faith!” then what are we supposed to do?

Well, to answer that question for ourselves, we have answer Naomi’s question. Where is she to look for salvation now that it looks like God has turned against her?

Or to ask that question in a slightly different way: where is Naomi’s messiah? Where is Naomi’s saviour?

Well, I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story for those of you who do not know it yet. But I will give you these hints: God has already given Naomi a messiah. This messiah has been with Naomi for years. This messiah has suffered alongside her through every bitter blow. This messiah has made an everlasting covenant with her.

So where is Naomi’s saviour? Right there, at her side. And all she has to do is look.

But here is the ironic twist: Naomi cannot look to this messiah because she cannot see. She has been blinded by her own bitterness. Salvation is right there, available to her, but she can’t even see it. So what can she do?

The answer is: nothing. She is going to have to wait for God to reveal his salvation to her. She is going to have to live in bitterness until God chooses the time of redemption.

The answer is the same for us. Where are we to look for salvation when it looks like God is out to get us? Who is our saviour, our messiah?

God has already given us a Messiah: Jesus, his Son. Our Messiah has been with us for years. He has suffered alongside us through every bitter blow. He has made an everlasting covenant with us.

So where is our Saviour? Right here, with us. And all we have to do is look!

But I think many of us have experienced times that are so bitter, so dark, that we are helpless even to look. We find ourselves powerless even to pray. And well-meaning Christians tell us, “Just believe! Just pray harder!” But you can’t, because you have nothing left. And that kind of advice just makes us doubt our salvation even more.

And this is where the character of our God makes all the difference. If our God were nothing more than Shaddai, the Judge, the Almighty, then the burden is on us to pray more, to work harder, to make sure we make him happy. And then, when we have nothing left to spend: the judgement.

But because our God is Yahweh, the Covenant-Keeping God, he comes to us when we are unable to come to him. He reaches into the darkness, into foreign lands, to save those who belong to him. He is the God who saves those who have nothing left to give.

So, practically speaking, then: what is our application? What are we to believe, and what are we to do?

Well, if you are here today, and you are a baptized believer, and you are living in active rebellion against God, then believe this: God has bound himself to you by an everlasting covenant. Which means that no matter how far you run, he will always send his Messiah after you, to bring you home. And since you believe this, then do this: give up quickly! Repent quickly, because I promise: you are going to run out of resources long before he does! He is going to win you in the end. So give in while you still have something left!

Now, if you are here today, and you are a baptized believer, and you are living in obedience with God — but still it feels like he has stripped you of every ambition, every resource, every source of joy; if you feel completely helpless; if you feel powerless even to pray…then believe this: God has already provided you with a Saviour. I know you can’t see him right now, but it’s true. And so, believing this, then do this: wait for him in the darkness. Do your best not to not beat yourself up. Because our God is Yahweh, the Covenant-Keeping God, and he will lift you up in his perfect time.

And finally, if you are here today, and you do not believe, if you are not baptized, then believe this: you are not yet in covenant with Yahweh. You are still under the power of Chemosh, the Destroyer. God is still only Shaddai to you, the king of the gods, who rules with a rod of iron. If this is you, then do this: repent and be baptized.

Maybe you have doubts. Maybe you are one of those who says, “I could never worship a harsh, unforgiving, judgemental God.” If that is true, then prove it: stop living under the power of the harsh, unforgiving, judgemental gods of this world. Enter into covenant with the only God who is not harsh, unforgiving, and judgemental. Bind yourself to him in baptism, and you will find that he has bound himself to you in everlasting covenant. You will see him transformed in your sight from Shaddai the Judge to Yahweh the God of everlasting love.

In closing then, let me say this:

Misfortune comes to us all. Sometimes God allows misfortune to come to us because we are living in disobedience, and he wants to guide us back to himself. That is mercy. Sometimes God allows misfortune to come to us because there is something about ourselves that he wants us to learn. That too is mercy. But sometimes God allows misfortune to come to us for reasons of his own, as part of a larger plan that we cannot yet comprehend. And this is hard. But because our God is Yahweh, the Covenant-Keeping God, we are able to say, as Paul does in the New Testament, “God works all things together for the good of those who love him.”

So when misfortune comes, friends: if you need to repent, repent. If you need to cry out, and blame God, do that. If you need to wait in the darkness, then do that. And above all, fix in your mind that our God is the God who keeps faith with his people. And when you see a brother or sister in trouble, don’t tell them to save themselves! Tell them they are already saved. Preach the gospel of Yahweh to them. 

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