Ruth: Lesson Two

Widowed (Ruth 1:6-18)

Naomi Begins to Return to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:6-7)

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.

When Naomi hears that Yahweh had “considered” or “visited” the people of Judah and ended the famine, she decided to return to Judah and resettle there. We don’t know how long it was after the deaths of her husband and sons that God “visited” Judah, but the moment must have been remarkable. Living in Moab, whose God was Chemosh, Naomi heard that Yahweh, the God of Israel, had renewed life in Judah by gifting them food. The famine was over because Yahweh acted in grace (gift) toward God’s own people. This news moved Naomi to return and, at least for the moment, her daughters-in-law accompanied her with every intent, apparently, to resettle with her in Judah.

The verb translated “considered” (or, visited) often refers to God’s encounter with Israel. This visitation can be either negative (like punishment or discipline as in Exodus 34:7; Isaiah 13:11) or positive (gracious as in Exodus 4:31; Psalm 65:9; 106:4). Whatever the case, it changes the situation. God “visits” in the sense that God acts. God does something. In Ruth 1:6, God graced Judah with the end to their famine. God gave them food or, literally, “bread” (lechem). Ultimately, Naomi returns to Bethlehem (meaning “house of bread”) from Moab because God has once again graced Judah, including Bethlehem, with bread (“food”). God had not forgotten the people. Just as in other contexts during the period of the Judges, God returns to deliver and renew life with the people.

Understandably, widowed and without sons, Noami decides to return to her homeland. We don’t know what happens to an Israelite widow in Moab who has no sons. She may have lost all ability to sustain herself, though she still had two daughters-in-law. However, she recognizes Yahweh’s grace to Judah and hopes, perhaps against hope, to participate in it herself as one whose family roots are in Bethlehem. But she has no assurances, and it is a risky journey. Her tragic circumstances do not encourage hope but perhaps the journey is based on some hope, or perhaps it is more like going home to die. What she says to the daughter-in-laws in the next section might lead us to think it is more the latter rather than the former.

Naomi Urges her Daughter-in-Laws to Stay in Moab (Ruth 1:8-13)

But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.”

Three times Noami encourages here daughters-in-law to “turn back” (the verb is used six times in Ruth 1:8-13; thirteen times in chapter 1 [“return”]).

  • Turn back, and Naomi blesses them (1:8-9)
  • Turn back, and Naomi questions them (1:11)
  • Turn back, and Naomi theologizes with them (1:12-13)

We don’t know how far they had traveled; perhaps they were on the verge of crossing the Jordan or entering Judah. Whatever the case, Naomi announces it is time for them to separate. She will go to Bethlehem, and the daughters-in-law must return to their “mother’s house.” If they return to their “mother’s house,” they might perhaps find future husbands. But if they continue with Naomi, she has no sons to offer them.

This is a remarkable sacrifice on her part. Her two daughters-in-law are her only support system, the only family she has in Moab. This reflects Naomi’s compassion for her daughters and perhaps even her own hopelessness.

In her first word, Naomi blesses them: “May Yahweh deal kindly (hesed) with you.” This is an important moment in the story. First, Naomi has not lost faith in her God to whom she still prays and offers blessings in Yahweh’s name. Second, she blesses them with the sort of experience from Yahweh that they have showed her and her sons. These Moabite daughters-in-law have been people of hesed (loving kindness; loyalty); Moabites can exhibit a key aspect of Yahweh’s life. Yahweh has an effective presence in Moab through these women; the borders of Judah and Moab do not delimit God’s presence. Hesed is a pervasive and central description of the God of Israel (see Psalm 136; Exodus 34:6-7). These Moabite women have practiced hesed, a quality that fundamentally describes Yahweh. Third, Naomi wants them to find “security” (literally, “rest”) in the home of another husband. Her wish prayer—that Yahweh would give them—is for peace and prosperity in the land of Moab with new husbands. Her heart only has grace and blessing for her daughters-in-law.

Both daughters, however, refuse to return to their mother’s house but press to return with Naomi to her people.

Naomi’s second word to her daughters-in-law questions their decision. “Why will you go with me?” Their refusal to return to Moab appears irrational to Naomi. There is no reason for them to continue with her. Their prospects are better in Moab than in Judah. It is better to return to their mother’s house in Moab than to continue with a widow into Judah. She has no more sons to offer them.

Naomi’s third word offers a piece of theology as a rationale for returning to Moab instead of continuing with her to Judah. While she expands the argument that there are no prospects for a husband arising from her womb, her final point concerns Naomi’s relationship with Yahweh.

Her reasoning is progressive: she has no husband, and even if she gets a husband and bear sons, would you wait until they were of marriageable age? Can you wait that long to marry? That is a lot of “ifs.” In other words, it is unimaginable to Naomi that her daughters-in-law would return with her in hopes of finding rest with her house. Even if rest is possible, it is years away. It is better if they return to their mother’s house and seek husbands in their own land and culture.

Her theological statement, however, is the clincher. It is the climactic point. The daughters-in-law must “turn back” because “it has been more bitter for me than for you,” and this is “because the hand of Yahweh has turned against me.”

Her bitterness—a theme to which we will return in the next lesson due to her statement in Ruth 1:20—is greater than her daughters-in-law. This certainly includes her multiple losses—a husband and two sons, though the daughters-in-law also lost husbands and a father-in-law. All three women lost their support system. Nevertheless, Naomi’s loses are “more bitter,” more tragic, though all losses are devastating. But her sense of “more bitter” is grounded in her next statement.

Naomi attributes here tragic circumstance, her bitterness, to the hand of Yahweh. She attributes, in some sense, her losses to Yahweh’s action or power.

Yahweh is still her God. She blessed her daughters-in-law in the name of Yahweh. At the same time, she believes God is responsible for her tragedies that generated her bitterness. The phrase “hand of Yahweh” refers to divine acts or divine sovereignty (see Numbers 11:23; Joshua 4:24; Isaiah 41:20; 59:1). Job, who himself was bitter (Job 7:11; 9:18; 10:1; 27:2), had a similar perspective: “Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?” (Job 12:9).

While I will say more about this in next week’s lesson, it seems that Naomi did not want her daughters-in-law to go to Judah with her because of her bitterness which is the result of the hand of Yahweh. In other words, perhaps she means that the daughters-in-law will find rest in Moab but not in Judah because to go to Judah is to continue with Naomi in her bitter situation. Perhaps she means that the daughters-in-law should not subject themselves to the ongoing bitterness in which Naomi lives because the hand of Yahweh is against her. She does not want her daughters-in-law to share her ongoing bitterness and Yahweh’s seeming hostility towards her. They will not find rest in Judah with Naomi because Yahweh’s hand has, literally, “gone out” against Namoi.

The Daughter-in-Laws Choose (Ruth 1:14-18)

Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

            “Do not press me to leave you

                        or to turn back from following you!

            Where you go, I will go;

                        Where you lodge, I will lodge;

            your people shall be my people,

                        and your God my God.

            Where you die, I will die—

                        there will I be buried.

            May the LORD do thus and so to me,

                        and more as well,

            if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

Orpah kissed Naomi, but Ruth clung to her. Orpah turned back “to her people and to her gods,” and Ruth embraces Naomi’s people and God. Orpah returned to Moab, and Ruth continued with Naomi.

Both Orpah and Ruth have great affection for Naomi. Orpah kisses her and returns to Moab. She doesn’t leave Naomi in anger; she does not reject Namoi. She surrenders to her wish and accepts Naomi’s blessing. Indeed, from every reasonable point of view, Orpah makes the most sensible choice, as difficult as it was. Orpah is not critiqued for her decision; she submits to her mother-in-law’s direction. She does exactly as Naomi blessed her to do. She leaves with Naomi’s blessing.

Yet, Ruth “clung” to her, which is an intimate verb reflecting a close relationship (Genesis 2:24). Ruth is immovable; she is going to hang on to Naomi. This is beyond the bounds of duty. There is no obligation. It is gracious; it is Ruth’s gift to Naomi.

Instead of returning to her mother’s house, Ruth commits to sharing Naomi’s future: where she lives, the people among whom she lives, the God she worships, and the ground where she will be buried.

It is a wonderful statement of loyalty and commitment. It arises out of her hesed for Naomi, which arises from Yahweh’s own work in that family. This is the sort of commitment (covenant) Yahweh has made the people of Judah, and Ruth commits to share Naomi’s people and God. It is a commitment until death parts them, and even in death, Ruth will remain in the land and be buried in the place where Naomi is buried. Her commitment is total.

Ruth confirms this commitment with an oath using the name of Yahweh. It is a self-imprecation: “may Yahweh kill me if I don’t keep my promise to you.”

Perhaps her invocation of the name of Yahweh—whose hand had brought bitterness to Naomi’s life and in whose name Naomi had blessed her daughters-in-law—convinced Naomi that there was no use in trying to persuade Ruth otherwise. She swore an oath in the name of Yahweh, and there is no taking that back. Consequently, she said nothing else to her about it.

So, Naomi and Ruth continued their journey to Judah and ultimately Bethlehem. The widow with her barren daughter-in-law return to the land which Yahweh has recently “visited” with grace. What will they find there?

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