Having just completed our series of studies in the book of Judges, we move on to the little book of Ruth. The events that are recorded in Ruth occurred, as we learn in the very first verse, “during the days when judges ruled in Israel.” It is a companion piece to Judges as much as Lamentations is a companion piece to Jeremiah. It also serves as something of an introduction to the Book of Samuel that follows it, giving as it does at the end the genealogy of David. The Book of Samuel provides no account of the ancestors of David. Indeed, at least one of the primary purposes of the book may be to explain how the saintly David could have emerged from the dark period of the judges. [Block, 595] The fact that it gives the genealogy of David indicates, of course, that Ruth was written well after the period of the Judges, as indeed the Book of Judges was, as we saw in our consideration of Judges 18:30, where reference is made to the exile of the northern tribes in the later 8th century B.C., centuries after the time of the judges themselves and several centuries after the time of David.
As with Judges, we do not know precisely when the book was written. It could have been written during the reign of David or anytime after. Similarly we don’t know who wrote the book. It is formally anonymous.
The Book is named Ruth which is remarkable for several reasons. First, Ruth was not an Israelite, making this the only book of the OT named for a non-Israelite. Her not being an Israelite is something of an emphasis of the book. She is referred to five times as “Ruth the Moabitess.” Second, by almost every calculation, Ruth is not even the main character of the book. The book begins with an account of Naomi’s troubles and ends with an account of her blessing. Indeed, when, after marrying Boaz, Ruth bears a son, we read that “Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him.” And the women of the town said, “Naomi has a son” not “Ruth has a son,” as we might have expected. Thematically, we might well have expected that the book would be named Naomi, not Ruth. Third, the book is noteworthy for the space given to dialogue. Of 1,294 words in the book, 678, more than half, occur on the lips of characters. [Block, 588] Of those words spoken by characters, Ruth speaks 120, Naomi almost twice as many, 225, and Boaz 281. Given those numbers we might expect the book to have been named “Boaz.”
Nevertheless, it has always been known as the book of Ruth. Ruth is clearly an admirable character and the fact that she is an outsider makes her faith and her sterling character all the more noteworthy.
v.1 It is obviously not an accident that Bethlehem figures so prominently, twice in the epilogue of the book of Judges (the young Levite who went to work for Micah came from Bethlehem; so did the concubine who was raped and murdered in Gibeah) and now here. Bethlehem was an insignificant village during this period. But it was David’s hometown and was to be the birthplace of the Messiah.
Remember, famine was one of the curses that God promised to visit upon his covenant people if they were unfaithful to him (Lev. 26:18-20; Deut. 28:23-24).
v.2 Ephrathah was apparently the area around Bethlehem. The name occurs in connection with Bethlehem again, you remember, in Micah 5:2, in the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Now the narrator doesn’t tell us what he thinks about Elimelech’s decision to leave Israel and go to Moab. Israel had an adversarial relationship with Moab and, apparently, most of the people in Bethlehem stayed put and weathered the famine at home. In Deuteronomy 23:3-6 Moabites are excluded from membership in the community of Israel down to the 10th generation because of their conduct toward Israel when she was in the wilderness. In any case, it was the family’s sojourn in Moab that connected them with Ruth.
v.5 These marriages – intermarriage with the Canaanites was explicitly forbidden in Deut. 7:3-4, though the Moabites were not strictly Canaanites and are not specifically mentioned there – were likely also forbidden in the covenant law given the exclusion of Moabites from the covenant community down to the 10th generation. It does appear, from all that happens to them, that the family stands under God’s curse. Not only do all three men die in Moab but, after ten years of marriage, neither daughter-in-law has had a child.
As so often in the narratives of the OT, events unfold in unexpected ways. Only later will we be able to see how all of this worked together for good and brought to pass important developments in the history of salvation. Certainly no one involved was thinking of Boaz or that Ruth’s descendants would include both David the King and Christ the King of Kings.
v.7 The first reference to the Lord in the book. The Lord had brought the famine to an end. The word the NIV translates “food” is, literally “bread.” There is a play on Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread.” The house of bread is being restocked. [Block, 631] Again, Naomi is the focus of the story. Since both Orpah and Ruth were from Moab, only Naomi could be said to be “returning home.”
v.9 Why Naomi waited to have this conversation until the trio of women were on the road toward Bethlehem is not said. Perhaps she felt her arguments would seem weightier now that the young women were conscious of leaving all they knew behind. Naomi, of course, knew from personal experience how difficult it was to be an alien in a foreign land and apparently did not want this for her daughters-in-law for whom she had an obvious affection.
“Your mother’s home” is unexpected. Usually it is “the house of your father.” This way of speaking may indicate that the fathers of both women were already dead or that Naomi is releasing these women to remarry, which, if correct, is confirmed by what she says next. It would be harder for them to find husbands in a foreign land than in their homeland.
She prays that the Lord would show “kindness” to the young widows as they had shown that kindness to her sons and to her. “Kindness” is hesed (דסח), an important word in the OT. It means love, grace, kindness, loyalty and so on. It sums up the benevolent attributes of God. He alone is described as “abounding in hesed” (Ex. 34:6). Hesed will prove to be an important term in Ruth. The story will turn on Boaz’ hesed toward Ruth (2:20) and her hesed toward him (3:10).
v.10 Their determination to go back with Naomi demonstrates how close they have become to their mother-in-law. They are closer to her than to their own people.
v.13 Naomi’s argument is serious and practical. It was hard to be a widow in the ancient Near East. These women no doubt wanted to marry again and Naomi hoped they would for their own sakes. But going back to Bethlehem with Naomi almost certainly would mean that they would not remarry. Being Moabites, they would not likely socialize with the people of Bethlehem. There was no chance of finding other husbands within her family for she had no other sons, would have none, and, even if she did, when they were old enough Orpah and Ruth would be beyond the age for marriage and childbearing. [The notion of Naomi bearing sons for Ruth and Orpah to marry is not, of course, some ridiculous reductio ad absurdum. Her comment is based on the well-established ancient Near Eastern custom of levirate marriage. The term is Latin, from levir meaning brother-in-law. Upon the death of a husband, his brothers were obliged to marry the widow and provide a family for her and offspring by which her husband’s property would remain her possession and that of her family. This practice, strange as it may seem to us, surfaces several times in the Old Testament and, you remember, formed the basis of a question once posed to Jesus by the Samaritans about a widow whose husbands, all brothers, died one after another. Whose husband would she be in heaven?]
But then Naomi says something more. She says that the Lord’s hand has been against her. The narrator has not said that her family’s exile to Moab, the death of her husband, then the death of her two sons, and the barrenness of her daughters-in-law was the Lord’s doing, but Naomi has the faith to see that in all of this she has been dealing with the Lord. He has been judging her and hers. And she concludes, therefore, that her daughters-in-law are better off away from her rather than with her.
Now whether Naomi’s statement is fully justified is not at all clear. Certainly there is nothing of an overt acknowledgement of Israel’s sin or her own. The remark can be taken in a more positive way – as an expression of her faith in God’s sovereignty – or in a more negative way, as if God has dealt unjustly with her. Still, the godly have often felt and said such things, as we read often enough in the Bible. Think of Job.
v.14 Naomi’s argument convinces Orpah and, sad as she is to do it, she turns for home. That makes only the more remarkable Ruth’s resolve to remain with Naomi in the face of the lonely future that is likely to be hers as a result.
v.15 Naomi’s statement is troubling. Does she actually believe that Moab had its own gods as Israel had Yahweh? That is what Moabites believed, of course. And, we know that during the time of the judges, Israel was tempted by Canaanite ways of thought. As one commentator puts it, “If [Naomi] represents the highest level of faith in Israel, it is no wonder Yahweh had sent a famine on the land.” [Block, 639]
v.17 The first words we hear directly from Ruth’s mouth are some of the most memorable in the Old Testament. She is hurt that her mother-in-law is pressuring her to return to Moab. And lest there be any doubt about the firmness of Ruth’s commitment, she asserts her determination not only to go with Naomi back to Bethlehem but to share all the experiences of life with her and finally to die there and be buried in the family grave. She will spend her life with Naomi, settling among Naomi’s people and making them her own and worshipping Naomi’s God.
Then she invokes Yahweh’s name as witness to her promise. How much this says about Ruth’s faith at this point is hard to say. It depends on how positively or negatively we view Naomi’s theology to this point, at least so far as we can read it from what she says in vv. 13 and 15. Ruth has lived with Naomi for ten years and some have regarded her statement here in vv. 16-17 as a confession of her faith in Yahweh as the only true God. On the other hand it is not obvious that Naomi has been, to this point, a missionary of the true faith of Israel.
v.19 It is the women who exclaim, “Can this be Naomi.” In this way, the women of the town function as a kind of chorus. They appear here, at the beginning of the account of Naomi in Bethlehem, and then they occur once more at the end, in 4:14 and 17. The impression we get here in 1:19 is that the years and the sorrows have taken their toll on Naomi and the women of Bethlehem are struck by the change in her appearance.
v.21 So Naomi explains why she looks so different. There is a tone of bitterness in what she says. Is she blaming God for her troubles? Is she angry at God, as we say nowadays?
v.22 The first act ends with the two women arriving back in Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest, a little chronological note that foreshadows things to come.
Now there are many themes we might profitably explore in this narrative of the opening act of the book of Ruth. There is the question of Naomi’s faith and its quality. It seems to be sturdy in some respects and weak in others, not least in humble submission to the Lord in the knowledge of her own sin and God’s mercy. There are many Christians, many of us, of whom the same could be said too much of the time!
Or we could, as we have often recently in our study of Judges, consider the providence of God and the way in which, in that providence, divine judgment is dispensed, as it were secretly. Naomi’s family was, apparently, harder hit than those who remained in Bethlehem, where everyone suffered from the famine. Or we could consider again another mystery of that providence, by which famine, death, and barrenness are together the means by which the great-grandmother of David came to be an Israelite.
But I want instead to consider a characteristic of biblical teaching that is magnificently illustrated in Ruth. As this morning what we have here is a feature of the Christian mind. I’m speaking of merismus, a literary technique in which teaching is presented in separate parts, part here, part there. In fact, merismus comes from the Greek word, meros, meaning “part.” Now, here in Ruth we have merismus with a vengeance.
Listen to the text about the Moabites I already referred to from Deut. 23:3-6:
“No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. … Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.”
That would seem to be that! No Moabite could become an Israelite. Not for 10 generations. “Ten” is the number of complete exclusion. We might say, “to the umpteenth generation.” But Ruth was a Moabite, a descendant of a Moabite, and, even if one takes the number ten literally, there were not ten generations between Deut. 23 and Ruth. Yet she became an Israelite and, indeed, so much so that she gave her name to a book of Holy Scripture. So much an Israelite that Israel’s greatest king came from her and then, in due time, the King of Kings after him.
Now, the fact is, the Bible nowhere explicitly says that this stipulation of the law that no Moabite could enter the assembly of the Lord did not, in fact, exclude a woman such as Ruth. In characteristic fashion the prohibition is stark and unqualified, to make a powerful impact, but the wise and discerning reader of the Bible knows that elsewhere he finds balancing considerations. One of those other places is, of course, Ruth, where a Moabitess enters the assembly of the Lord and her entry into it has not only the Lord’s approval, but his blessing to a striking degree. Let a Moabite, insofar as he is a Moabite, an inveterate enemy of Israel and everything Israel stands for, let him come to Israel and there can be no leniency. He may not be admitted to the assembly, no matter what. But let the Moabite be a convert, like Ruth, and he or she will be entitled to a very different reception. [Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, TOTC, 128]
Now it is hardly here alone that we encounter this particular merismus. It is characteristic of the Bible’s teaching about membership in the assembly of the Lord, the church, in the New Testament as fully as in the Old. Take this statement, for example, from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Now, at least in this instance, we have that last part. “And that is what some of you were…” Otherwise we might think that a wicked past would exclude us from inheriting the kingdom of God. But the problem, is, of course, that also Christians, believers, the righteous, behave in these sinful ways as well and the Bible makes no bones about them inheriting the kingdom of God. Noah was a righteous man but he gave himself over to drunkenness. David was sexually immoral. So were many in the Corinthian church. Many, many Christians have been both idolaters and greedy, for, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, greed is a form of idolatry. One worships the thing, the thing he wants. How do we then know how to read and to understand such a statement as this in 1 Cor. 6. Well we know what it means and what it does not mean precisely because we read it in the context of all the Bible has to say about who is and who is not, who can and who cannot be a Christian.
When we read in 1 John – a letter written to give assurance of salvation to Christians – that among the marks of a Christian are these, that he does not sin, he keeps the commandments of God, and he loves the brethren, one might think Christians more are likely to be driven to despair than to assurance. For what Christian is there who is not altogether too conscious of how much he sins, how few of God’s commandments he keeps as he should, and how often he lacks true love for his Christian brethren. Should we conclude then that a person who feels this way about himself must not be a Christian at all? We will unless we are conversant with the Bible’s pedagogical style and approach and, in particular, with the Bible’s penchant for merismus – to give part of the picture here, and part of it there rather than all at once in one place.
The Bible characteristically speaks in stark and unqualified terms precisely so that the impact of the truth will fall hard and fast on our minds, our hearts, and our consciences. Balancing considerations are left for another time, another place. But, in order rightly to understand the Bible’s teaching in any place, its teaching in other places must also be known. That is merismus and that is what we have in Ruth. A member of a nation forbidden entrance into the assembly of the Lord welcomed with open arms. A discerning reader of the Bible understands; a pedantic, wooden, unsympathetic reading of the Bible finds a contradiction and an inconsistency here.
It is the Bible’s way to forbid all Moabites and then welcome one and to expect us to discern the principle that explains first the rejection and then the acceptance.
When you become aware of this feature of the Bible’s pedagogy, its manner of teaching, you begin, as I have, to see it everywhere. And it will wonderfully illuminate the Bible to read it in this way. It allows the Bible to keep all of its dramatic impact, its sparkle, and, at the same time, keeps us from unnecessary confusion.
How can I, a sinner in all the ways the Bible forbids, expect to inherit the kingdom of God when the Bible explicitly says that such sinners will not? Ah, because I have learned to know what the Bible means when it says such sinners will not inherit the kingdom. I know what Deut. 23 means; and I know what Ruth 1 means. And the two together give me a Christian mind.