Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth 1

In this chapter, the eponymous Ruth follows her mother-in-law back to Israel.

There's a lot of things I want to say about this chapter, since I think it's a very interesting chapter.  First of all, note the famine.  Famines are a recurring theme in Israel's history, beginning with the several famines in Genesis (Gen 12, 26, 41) that afflicted Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's generations.  During their lives, Abraham and Jacob both traveled to other lands to escape the famine, and Elimelech and Naomi do the same thing here.

Even though Moab and Israel have mutual enmity, Elimelech seems to settle down; both of his sons get married to Moabite women, and they make a life for themselves.  Perhaps not a good life, but a life.  Of course, we are told in verses 3-5 that Naomi's husband and both of her sons died, so perhaps it was not a very good life at all.  We don't know how they died, but there is an implicit hardship that they must have been facing such that they all died before bearing any children.

Next, note that after Naomi's husband and sons died, she no longer had anyone supporting her.  Sons are particularly important for an older woman because they provide both food and physical protection for you in your old age.  There is no social security in Israel; your children provide for you in old age.  There is also no police force; your sons and relatives protect you and avenge you if anyone tries to harm you.  For an earlier example, see Gen 38.  In fact, Naomi tells the two women to return to Moab because she would not be able to provide husbands for them, which I think is an implied reference to levirate marriage, that Naomi would raise up sons to give to them in marriage.

Verses 16-17 contain one of the most beautiful passages of devotion in the bible.  Naomi is urging Ruth to return to her family and to Moab, because Naomi simply has nothing to give her, nothing but pain.  But Ruth insists on staying with her to the end, no matter what happens.  As with so many other stories, I find myself wondering how Ruth got to this place.  What happened to Ruth such that she desired to follow Naomi, contrary to her own self interest?  What made Ruth want to serve the LORD, rather than the gods of her youth?

In this chapter, Ruth is behaving like Abraham.  Abraham left his family, his home and his gods in order to follow the LORD, travel to the promised land, and to become "the father of many nations."  Ruth does much the same, giving up her family, her land and her gods in order to follow the LORD and Naomi, traveling into a hostile country.  Also remember that this is during the judges period, when "there was no king in Israel" and everyone "did what was right in his own eyes".  Not only is Ruth a foreigner and a widow, but she's also in a hostile and lawless country.  She is following Naomi at considerable risk of both starvation and being raped or murdered.

I marveled at the faith of Abraham, how he was inspired to follow the LORD, and I marvel at Ruth as well.  Abraham did it as a man with many servants; Ruth does it as a single woman.  What hope could they have had?  Naomi changes her own name to Mara, bitterness, as an expression of the bitterness she feels her life has become.  Naomi clearly had no hope.  What hope could Ruth have had for anything good to come into her life, following Naomi into a barren and hostile land?  In what did Ruth have faith?  What promise of goodness inspired her to cling to her mother-in-law, seeking the LORD and refusing to go back to the gods of her people?

When Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem in Judah, the people are surprised to see Naomi return without husband and in destitution.  This is the nadir of the story; things are about to turn around.

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