[K:NWTS 25/1 (May 2010) 3-10]

Ruth: The Story Begins

Ruth 1

James T. Dennison, Jr.

This opening chapter is the beginning of one of the loveliest books in the Bible. Yes, it is a lovely romance—gentle, idyllic, tender, full of multiple happy endings. Ruth—a love story from the turbulent days of the Judges. Ruth—a love story to place alongside a love story from the placid days of the Monarchy. Ruth—a story to stand alongside Solomon’s Song. Suggestive, is it not? Solomon’s ancestral mother—her love story; alongside Solomon’s poetic song—his love story. Romantic love is found in the Bible—in narrative and in poetry; even as romantic love is found in life—in narrative, in poetry.

But the beginning of Ruth’s love story—the beginning is as tragic as the days of the Judges in which she lived. The opening scene in our drama is filled with images of famine and starvation and helplessness and death! And that tragic motif follows the pilgrims from Judah to Moab. Death removes the loves: the love of Noami, the love of Orpah, the love of Ruth. And Naomi’s husband died; and Orpah’s husband died; and Ruth’s husband died. Three loving wives, now three bereft widows.

A lovely story? A tragic story! This was not the prospect at the beginning of our story. Elimelech, husband of Naomi, father of Mahlon and Chilion—Elimelech leaves Bethlehem and goes eastward—eastward to Moab. We find no fault with a man who takes his family from a place where they may starve to a place where there is food. But a twinge of irony rises from the name Bethlehem. In the Hebrew language, beth lehem means “house of bread”. You perceive the irony, do you not? In these days when the Judges judged, no lehem in Bethlehem; no bread in the house of bread.

Is breadless Bethlehem to cast its shadow over this immigrant family? Is Moab a paradise land where there is no shadow of death? Would strangers and sojourners remaining there, hunger no more, neither thirst any more? “Then Elimelech . . . died” (v. 3); “then Mahlon and Chilion also died” (v. 5). In Moab—yes, even in Moab—death comes to the emigrants. In Adam, all die—even in Moab. Death respects no borders; is barred by no boundary markers; is shut out by nothing—nothing in this world. “What man lives [who] shall not see death?” (Ps. 89:48). Death came, at last, in Moab, even as death came in the beginning to Bethlehem. Whether in famine-stricken Judah or bountiful Moab, death comes. Inevitably, inexorably, irrevocably, death comes to those who sojourn, even as it came to those who did not sojourn. It came, did death, to Elimelech, to Chilion, to Mahlon. It came to Naomi, to Orpah, to Ruth. “Thou wilt bring me to death, to the house appointed for all living” (Job 30:23).

But Naomi, Orpah, Ruth live. The struggle of a widow’s life is thrust upon them—but they live. And now we are impacted by even more poignant ironies. The opening scene shift from Judah to Moab is about to be reversed. Naomi is poised to return from Moab to Judah. And the irony which parallels this reverse location is the life-death reversal. The family had moved in life from Judah to Moab; and there, the reverse of life struck. Now, with the bereavement of death upon them, the widows embark upon a reverse sojourn—from Moab to Judah. Back to Judah, the land of life which turned to death in famine—Judah is now reversed, now a place of life where the Lord has visited his people with food (v. 6). And Moab? Moab, the place of life—Moab has become the scene of death. Reverse ironies piled upon ironies of reversal.

Does not the text suggest these ironies? Notice v. 6. Naomi prepares to “return”—to reverse her sojourn in Moab. Death leaves her longing for the reverse—for life in the land where the Lord gives bread. Now, v. 7—she and her daughters-in-law “return”. Orpah and Ruth join Naomi in the reverse journey from the land of their visitation by death to the land where it is reported there is “bread”. The repetition of the word “return” emphatically underscores the reverse pattern in this drama. Reverse setting; reverse fortune.

I am suggesting that verses 1-7 must be treated as a narrative unit. I am justifying this suggestion by pointing to v. 1 (they go to the land of Moab) and v. 7 (they return to the land of Judah). Verses 1-7 come full circle—where they begin, they end. Naomi is about to return to the place where her story began.

But v. 8 also sets vv. 1-7 off as a unit. For you will notice that v. 8 contains something not found in vv. 1-7. Verse 8 contains dialogue, speech, conversation. Notice, vv. 1-7 no dialogue, no speech, no talking—just reporting, just narrative. Now v. 8 and our characters begin to speak, to talk to one another. The talking signals a new literary unit. Now we are going to see our characters through their own mouths. They will tell us about themselves in their own words.

The first to speak is the aged matriarch. She who had come to Moab a wife now speaks as a bereft widow. And to the end of this chapter, we will hear, we will listen to the voice of women. There are no male characters in vv. 8-22; only the females—Naomi, Orpah, Ruth. And as the inspired narrator places these three women in the spotlight, we are reminded, we are taught (are we not?) that the Bible contains heroines as well as heroes. Is it not so that the Word of God places women at the center of the history of redemption? Are the female characters in the Bible not as much objects of God’s redeeming grace, his love, his wonderful affection, as the male characters? Is it not so that the story of God’s salvation is for women and girls, as it is for men and boys? Does not the book of Ruth—this lovely book of Ruth—tell you that God loves young girls and mature women and even widows?

But it is not the love of God which moves Naomi to speak. One of our Biblical heroines opens her mouth and from her mouth pours forth complaints: “the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me; call me not Naomi, call me Mara, for the Lord has dealt very bitterly with me.” Naomi speaks and we learn that our aged heroine is bitter—very bitter! Bitter about the Lord; bitter about life; bitter about her sojourn. Is it not so, even now? The temptation besetting the widow to be bitter; to be very bitter that the Lord has taken away her security, her strength, her love, her husband. Is it not the case that the widow—even the widower—is tempted to talk in bitterness about the sovereignty of God? “Call me Mara,” which in the Hebrew tongue means “bitter”. Naomi has placed her face towards Judah—she is poised to return to the place of her beginning; but Naomi is bitter—very bitter that the Lord has dealt with her as he has.

Naomi’s initial speech in vv. 8 and 9 is a plea to return. She who is poised to return to the place of her beginning implores her daughters-in-law to return to the place of their beginning. Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to remain in the place of their beginning, but our inspired narrator has used this word “return” again even as he used the very same word in vv. 6 and 7. He avoids the term “remain” (which he had used in v. 2) because he is drawing attention to the dramatic irony of the scene. Returning Naomi commands a return to Orpah and Ruth. Naomi sets her face towards Judah; she urges her beloved daughters-in-law to set their faces in return towards Moab. Naomi is detaching herself from them; and in detaching herself, this sad widow is isolating herself from those closest to her. Is it not so? Is it not the temptation of widows to retreat, to withdraw, to urge others—even beloved others—to turn away from them and leave the widowed in loneliness, with memories, with the past, with themselves only? Is it not the temptation of those like Naomi to un-attach themselves from what they once loved?

You will notice that Naomi invokes the Lord’s name in defense of her command. Verses 8 and 9 contain a parallel affirmation—“May the Lord.” The duplication is an emphatic declaration of Naomi’s determination to detach herself, leave Orpah and Ruth behind and disappear into the shadow land which they have never seen. It is as if Naomi leaves them to return to reality, while she enters a land unknown to them—she vanishes into a world of reverse reality, a world of unreality. Notice what Naomi says: “the Lord deal kindly with you”—implication, the Lord has not dealt kindly with me. “You have dealt kindly with the dead and with me”—implication, the Lord has not dealt kindly with the dead or with me. “The Lord grant you rest”—implication, the Lord has granted me, will grant me no rest. “The Lord grant you peace in the house of a husband”—implication, the Lord will not grant me the house of a husband, nor a husband’s peace. This land into which Naomi is poised to vanish is a land of bitterness, emptiness, unkindness, loneliness, husbandlessness! “Return,” she says. “Do not follow me! Do not follow me into that land.”

Orpah and Ruth refuse Naomi’s plea. And they do so with that word “return”—that omnipresent word “return”. Verse 10—“we will return with you. We will not return from you; we will return with you.” This apparent refusal to detach themselves from the aged widow is quite natural—quite natural and commendable. “No, we will not turn away from you, detach ourselves from you, leave you alone, allow you to vanish from our lives. We too will join you in that shadow land to which you are going. Our return will match your return—we will not turn from you nor forsake you.”

And Naomi’s response? There’s that word again—“return” (v. 11). And again emphatically repeated in v. 12—“return”. And now we learn why Naomi insists that Orpah and Ruth go back—turn back from her. There are no sons left—none outside her womb, none inside her womb. Naomi is not only husbandless, she is childless. If her daughters-in-law are to receive kindness; if they are to receive rest; if they are not to be embittered, they must return. Back to Moab—the land where you first found husbands; return to the place where you began and begin again—find a man who will restore your life, a husband who will secure and support you, even to old age. “Return! Return! My daughters.”

And Orpah? Orpah returns (v. 15). Orpah goes back to Moab. I want you to notice the pattern of vv. 9 and 14. Naomi kissed them; they lifted up their voices and wept (v. 9). Again, they lifted up their voices and wept (v. 14); and Orpah kissed Naomi. The Hebrew phrases are exact duplicates. But who stands outside? Who stands outside the laments and tears in v. 9? Naomi does. She kisses her daughters-in-law. Now, who stands outside the kiss in v. 14? Ruth!! She accepts no farewell kiss; she clings, she hugs, she holds tight to Naomi. Naomi detaches herself from Orpah and Ruth in v. 9—she stands apart from them. Ruth will not detach herself from Naomi in v. 14—she stands apart from Orpah; she clings to her beloved mother-in-law. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi alone—to forsake her—to detach herself from her. Ruth will not stop clinging, hugging, holding on to her beloved, widowed, embittered mother-in-law.

We must stop the camera for a moment and freeze-frame on Ruth and Naomi. There are only two in the picture. Orpah is absent—gone from clinging to Naomi. We will not focus on Orpah again. She disappears from the story; she detaches herself from the history of redemption; she returns—returns to her gods—her Moabite idols. Back to Chemosh, her national deity; back to Chemosh and Baal. Orpah is not in the picture. She has returned to paganism—returned to the land of her beginning. Orpah has returned to death.

Orpah returns to the land which is marked by the death of her husband, the death of her brother-in-law, the death of her father-in-law. Orpah returns to the former ways—to the former days—to the days of a living death. And into that land, Orpah disappears—disappears as she disappears from the picture—disappears from the story. Only Naomi and Ruth, Ruth and Naomi are in the picture. They are the center of the on-going story—the story of life, not death.

“Do not tell me to go back,” says Ruth. “Do not tell me to return to death—to the land of my dead husband—to the land where my dead brother-in-law is buried—to the land where your dead husband remains. Do not tell me to leave you” (v. 16). And there’s that word again—that omnipresent word—“do not tell me to return.” “I will not, I cannot go back. I will go on; I will go forward with you. As surely as I embrace you; as certainly as I cling to you, I will not go without you. I will not leave you. Rather, holding fast to you, I will go where you go. Clinging to you, I will dwell where you dwell. Embracing you, your people will be my people. Hugging you, your God I take for my God.”

We must stop the camera once more. We must pause to savor this statement from this Moabitess, this pagan, this Gentile, this outside-the-covenant woman. We must cling for a moment to this declaration from Ruth’s lips—from Ruth’s heart. We must pause to drink in Ruth’s confession. We must stop—to embrace Ruth’s faith.

Have you begun to fathom the remarkable quality of this woman? Have you begun to understand what has happened to her—what has happened inside her? We must pause to freeze-frame once more—this time on Ruth alone and her confession of faith. If Naomi is feeling empty (v. 21), Ruth is full—full of faith—full to overflowing with trust in the Lord God. Do you see? Ruth’s profession of faith is the result of someone clinging to her. She puts her arms lovingly around Naomi; God put his loving arms around Ruth—with his fullness, his abundant life—God embraced Ruth with his eternal life. Ruth hugs Naomi and declares, “Your God shall be my God” because God first hugged Ruth and said, “You, dear child, shall be my daughter!”

Or have you forgotten your Calvinism? Have you come to Ruth chapter one without the Reformed faith? As we stop the camera and focus on Ruth’s declaration of faith, do you somehow think that she has come to this point without someone bringing her there? Oh, you may say to me, God is never a direct character in the book of Ruth—and you are right. But every Calvinist, every Reformed believer, every Biblical Christian confesses that Ruth does not profess the Lord God unless the Lord God first changes her heart in order to confess him. Every Calvinist, every Reformed believer will declare—God acts before man or woman confesses. First God, then man. First God, then Ruth. If Ruth loves the Lord God, it is because he first loved her. If Ruth clings to the Lord God, it is because the Lord God first clung to her. If Ruth draws herself unto the Lord God, it is because the Lord God first drew her unto himself. God the Lord is behind this scene—this freeze-frame—this sweet confession of faith from the lips of once-upon-a-time pagan Ruth. God has been at work. He has been at work in the heart of Ruth—in the life of Ruth. She will not let go of Naomi any more than she will let go of the Lord God himself.

The story of Ruth begins with the issues of life and death. And Ruth chooses life. She chooses the living bond with Naomi, not the death-land of her husband. She chooses the living embrace of her widowed mother-in-law, not the detachment, the return to death of her sister-in-law. She clings to the living God, not the dead idols of her native land. Ruth separates herself from death—detaches herself from the arena shrouded by the pall of dead, lifeless finality. And Ruth attaches herself to life—to the arena ablaze with fresh, vital, throbbing, embracive life. Ruth hugs life, not death. Ruth hugs the Lord God, not dead idols. Ruth hugs the arena of no more death, not death evermore. By faith, Ruth clings to the Lord and to his arena. By faith, Ruth clings to the Lord and to his life. By faith, Ruth clings—yes! Ruth clings to Jesus Christ.

And there, the story of Ruth ends. Yes, the story of Ruth which begins in Moab and the land of death, ends in Bethlehem-Judah and the land of the Lord Jesus Christ. For you know that this lovely book ends with the genealogy of David (Ruth chapter 4). And David’s genealogy ends with the genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew chapter 1 and Luke chapter 3). And now, you know the rest of the story—the rest of the story which is, in fact, the heart of the story of Ruth. God first loved Ruth, the Moabitess, Ruth, the pagan, Ruth, the Gentile because God ordained her to be the ancestral mother of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And now, you know not only how Ruth comes to faith in the Lord God of Israel—a Gentile grafted into the trunk of Israel before due time. But now, you know that the Lord Jesus Christ is present in this story—in the beginning of this story of Ruth. For the one whose life emerges from this story is present from the beginning. He whose story is the end of the life of Ruth; he whose story is the end of Ruth’s faith; he whose story is the beginning and the end of the everlasting story—the Lord Jesus Christ is here in this story.

For he is your life, as he was the life of Ruth. And he is your God, as he was the God of Ruth. And he is your Savior, as he was the Savior of Ruth. You do hang on the neck of the Lord Jesus Christ, do you not? You do cling to the embrace of the son of Ruth, son of David, Son of God, do you not? You do hug the Lord Jesus Christ as your life—your eternal life—do you not?

The story of Ruth never ends—never ends until he comes—until Ruth’s greater son comes again to raise up her body and my body and your body who believe on his saving name with saving faith; raises it up into a land of never-ending salvation, never-ending life, never-ending love, never-ending rest. For on that day, the story begins anew. The Lord God who embraced Ruth, who embraces you who believe on his name—on that day, Ruth and Boaz and David and all the saints will be embraced by Jesus Christ in the land of life everlasting.