The Old Testament book of Ruth is a flawless love story. Although it is brief (eighty-five verses), it still runs the full range of human emotions—from the most gut-wrenching grief to the very height of glad-hearted triumph.
Ruth’s life was the true, historical experience of one genuinely extraordinary woman. It was also a perfect depiction of the story of redemption, told with living, breathing symbols. Ruth herself furnished a fitting picture of every sinner. She was a widow and a foreigner who went to live in a strange land. Tragic circumstances reduced her to abject poverty. She was not only an outcast and an exile, but also bereft of any resources—reduced to a state of utter destitution from which she could never hope to redeem herself by any means. In her extremity, she sought the grace of her mother-in-law’s closest kinsman. The story of how her whole life was changed is one of the most deeply touching narratives in the whole of Scripture.
Ruth’s story began near the end of the era of the Judges in the Old Testament. It was about a century before the time of David, in an age that was often characterized by anarchy, confusion, and unfaithfulness to the law of God. There was also a severe famine in Israel in those days.
We are introduced to the family of Elimelech in Ruth 1:1–2. Elimelech had a wife, Naomi, and two sons, named Mahlon and Chilion. Their hometown was Bethlehem, famous as the burial place of Rachel, Jacob’s wife (Genesis 35:19). Bethlehem in future generations would gain more lasting fame as the hometown of David, and then, of course, as the birthplace of Christ. The story of Elimelech’s family became a key link in the chain tying the messianic line to Bethlehem.
The famine in Israel forced Elimelech and family to seek refuge in Moab, just as a similar famine had once driven Abraham into Egypt. These must have been desperate times, because Moab itself was a mostly desolate region, a high tableland bounded on the west by the Dead Sea and on the east by arid desert wasteland. Its boundaries on the north and south were two deep river gorges (the Arnon and the Zered, respectively), and these were virtually dry most of the year. Moab was fertile but dry, and therefore the land was largely destitute of trees, good mostly for grazing flocks and herds.
The Moabites were descendants of Lot’s eldest daughter through her incestuous act with her own father. The child born of that illicit union was named Moab. He was a second cousin of Jacob. (Remember that Lot was Abraham’s nephew.) But even though their ancestries had that close relationship, the Moabites and the Israelites generally despised one another.
During the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, Moabite women deliberately seduced Israelite men, then enticed them to participate in sacrifices to idolatrous gods (Numbers 25). Moab was the same nation whose king, Balak, engaged the hireling prophet, Balaam, to prophesy against Israel. So throughout the Old Testament, relations between Israel and Moab ranged from uneasy tension to outright hostility.
The Moabites worshiped a god whom they called Chemosh. (He was their chief deity, but Numbers 25:2 suggests that they worshiped many others also.) Scripture calls Chemosh “the abomination of Moab” (1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 23:13 NKJV). Worship of this idol was grotesque, at times even involving human sacrifices (2 Kings 3:26–27). As the events of Numbers 25 suggest, Moabite worship was also filled with erotic imagery and lewd conduct. Moabite paganism typified everything abominable about idolatry. The Moabite culture practically epitomized everything faithful Israelites were supposed to shun.
We are therefore meant to be somewhat shocked and appalled by the fact that Elimelech and family sought refuge in Moab. Elimelech was a landowner in Bethlehem, and prominent enough to be called “our brother” by the city elders there (Ruth 4:2–3). His name means, “My God is king.” That, together with Naomi’s faith and character, suggests that he and his family were devout Jews, not careless worldlings. The fact that Elimelech would take his family to Moab is a measure of the famine’s frightening severity. The land of Israel was evidently both spiritually and physically parched, and times were desperate.
Tragedy quickly mounted for this family. First, Elimelech died in Moab, leaving Naomi a widow with the responsibility of two sons. Fortunately for her, Mahlon and Chilion were approaching adulthood, and they soon married. Unfortunately, the wives they took were Moabites (Ruth 1:3–4). No devout Israelite would have regarded such a marriage as auspicious. Israelite men were expressly forbidden to marry Canaanite women, lest the men be turned away to other gods (Deuteronomy 7:1–3). Common sense suggests that for similar reasons, marriage to a Moabite wasn’t deemed appropriate, either.
Nevertheless, Naomi and her sons must have felt trapped by their desperate circumstances, so Naomi seems to have graciously accepted these daughters-in-law. One was named Orpah (meaning “stubborn”) and the other, Ruth (“friendship”). Ruth married Mahlon (Ruth 4:10), who was apparently the elder of the two sons. Orpah, then, would have been the wife of Chilion.
But circumstances did not appear to be improving for Naomi. In fact, matters took a turn for the worse. Both Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving the three women to fend for themselves. In that culture, this was a nearly impossible situation. Three widows, with no children and no responsible relatives, in a time of famine, could not hope to survive for long, even if they pooled their meager resources. We’re not told what caused any of the husbands to die, but the fact that all three perished is a measure of how hard life was in the adversity of those days. Mahlon and Chilion seem to have died in quick succession, suggesting they perhaps fell victim to a disease, very likely related to the famine.
Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah had been brought to the brink of ruin. So when word reached Naomi that the drought was broken in Israel, she quickly made up her mind to return. She was now childless, widowed, impoverished, and aging (Ruth 1:12), destitute of all land and possessions, and without any relatives close enough to count on them to care for her. Still, she longed for her homeland and her own people, and she decided to go back to Bethlehem.
Both daughters-in-law began the difficult journey with Naomi, but as Naomi considered their circumstances (especially the hardships these two young women might face if they staked their futures to hers), she decided to release them back to their own families. It seemed to Naomi as if the hand of the Lord was against her (Ruth 1:13). She no doubt struggled with bitter regret over having come to Moab in the first place. Now she would be leaving her husband and both of her sons buried in that God-forsaken place. She seems to have been overcome with remorse and perhaps a feeling that she had somehow incurred the Lord’s displeasure by going to Moab. Why should her daughters-in-law suffer because God’s hand of discipline was against her? So she tried to persuade the young women to turn back.
The biblical description of the scene—especially the bitter anguish shared by all three women—is heart-rending:
Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food. So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
And they said to her, “No, but we will surely return with you to your people.”
But Naomi said, “Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.” And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. (Ruth 1:6–14)
Ruth’s allegiance to her Jewish mother-in-law was unshakable. And as we’ll see, that willingness to abandon her pagan heritage would extend all the way to the God she worshipped.