Today's lesson we are going to study the Book of Ruth.
Interestingly this is the only book in the Bible where there is no prophet, no priest, no king and no judge. This book almost seems like a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary people during the time of the judges of Israel. But within it lies an extraordinary tale of loyalty, faithfulness, and love.
As we study the lives detailed within the book of Ruth, remember that a study of the Bible is largely a study of a patriarchal society, and an elected people. Here our focus is on someone who was not of the elected people and was a woman. Certainly not deemed to be anyone of special significance or importance in the grand biblical scheme of things. In fact the book of Ruth does not even start with Ruth.
What's in a name?
Our story starts off with an ironic setting. Beth-lehem literally translated as "the house of bread" and later the setting for Christ's birth was in a famine. The contrast between the name and the lack of food is glaring. It suggests that this famine stretched beyond physical constraints but was also a spiritual famine.
And who were the people involved? Elimelech and his wife Naomi. EliMelech means "My God is king". Naomi means "pleasant or pleasing". The very names suggest a couple who were obedient and who followed the Lord God of Israel. And we are told they left the land of famine and moved to live with the Moabite people. The Moabite people did not worship the Lord God of Israel but rather worshiped other gods and idols. After all the commands the Lord had given his people not to mix with others who were not the chosen people this seems like an odd choice for a righteous couple.
And then note the names of their sons. Mahlon and Chilion. If you translate their names they are roughly translated as "sickness" and "death". Not a good omen! But let's remember that much of what we read in the Old Testament has great symbolic meaning attached to it.
I believe what we are being asked to recognize before the real story begins is the same situation as of old. Elimelech and Naomi represent Adam and Eve, living in the bosom of God. Then they no longer have physical or spiritual food available to them and are forced to leave to go into the world. Sickness and death follow. Likewise, we having once lived in the presence of our Father in Heaven, could not have our spiritual hunger satisfied and out of necessity we too were forced out of his presence into the world where we would experience sickness and death but where we could also be nourished further as necessary to our growth.
v.3-5 We learn that the sons did marry Moabite women - Chilion (death) married Ruth and Mahlon (sickness) married Orpah (please note this is not Oprah!!). Who Ruth married, I believe, holds some significance later in our story, but for now let's move on. Very quickly the narrative introduces 3 very tragic events. The entire priesthood line of this family is wiped out. Father and both sons die, leaving three widows, with no protection, no children or heritage or future, and nobody to provide. It is a stark reminder of the trials and tribulations that potentially face us all in mortality. Of course it also leaves us, the reader with the obvious question - What would we do? How would we survive? How are Naomi and her two daughters-in-law going to survive? More apt would be to ask how do we survive in a world where tragedy and turmoil are a natural part of life? We may not ever reach the extreme position of Naomi and Ruth and Orpah, but the questions are still posed and asked, how do we react, what do we do in time of need and trial?
v.6 It is clear Naomi has made her choice. In a life of trial and tragedy, she is following the path to the Lord for she "had heard...how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread." Her faith teaches her that in returning to the Lord there is providence and protection. There is life.
v.8-13 Now Naomi gives those around her a choice. Her daughters in law are Moabite women. Their most obvious means of providence and protection is with their own people, not with Naomi's people. And as is the way of the gospel, Naomi places a choice before Ruth and Orpah. They must choose whether to follow her to her land and her people and her God or to return back to their people and their gods. Now part of the decision lies in understanding the laws of the time. In verse 11-13 Naomi outlines these laws. Essentially there was a law that protected widows from being left completely destitute. When a man died it became the legal responsibility of his brother to look after his wife and children. Tragically in Naomi's case even this law does not seem to help them. As she tells Orpah and Ruth, there is no logical or rational hope in following her. Naomi has no other sons who could take on the legal responsibility to protect and provide for Orpah and Ruth. And she reminds them that even if she remarries (which she indicates is realistically not likely as she is too old) and even if she has children (also unrealistic) and even if those children are sons, Ruth and Orpah will be old women before such sons would become of age to protect and provide and give them children. It is indeed a bleak path of loneliness and solitude ahead.
Likewise, in choosing the path of the Lord, we are also faced with the reality that logically, rationally it could be a very lonely path.
v.14-17 It was obvious that Naomi had a close relationship with her daughters in law. The scenes of bidding goodbye are emotional and personal. They know that in leaving, they will not see each other again. This is not a passing moment but an everlasting decision. Orpah originally chooses to follow Naomi out of loyalty to her. But when Naomi reminds her that there really is no hope of the life most women of her day would want and expect, Orpah emotionally changes course and returns to the world. And though we never hear of her again we are left with no doubt as to what became of her. When Naomi tells Ruth that Orpah has "gone back unto her people and unto her gods" it almost seems like an invitation and a warning. And in truth we are given the same invitation and warning. We can choose the world but a consequence of that is that we will lose our God.
But we are told Ruth was resolute in the path she chose. Rather than returning to her world, she chooses instead to follow Naomi, her life and her God. The words she speaks are almost like a marriage vow. I am not sure there is a more powerful or beautiful introduction to a character in all of literature than this statement of intent from Ruth,
"And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go: and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me."
Ruth's words outline a deep commitment to the path ahead. So committed is she, that she is willing to sacrifice her own people, her former life, and her future to follow the Lord's path. And additionally she is committed to Naomi's God, the God of Israel. One can only appreciate the full impact of this decision when they recognize what Ruth herself saw as her future. No longer would she have any luxuries in life. No longer could she look forward to having a family and watching children of her own run around and grow up around her. No longer could she hope for the love that all young women dream of. She was giving all of that up, to become a beggar, living on the edge of a society, destitute and wholly reliant on the charity of others while caring for an aging mother in law somehow. And all of this with a people whose God seems to have been unable to prevent the tragedy of her circumstances. When you see all of this in this perspective, you can begin to feel the import and impact of Ruth's statement begging Naomi to stop telling her to leave. Ruth's decision to join Naomi, to join her people, to join with their God, reflects the similar decisions new converts make every day across the world in Latter Day Saint communities and homes. Theirs too is a huge sacrifice. We are asking them, to give up so much and to take on the path of discipleship and it is not easy. So next time you see an investigator or a new convert, keep in mind the huge decision they are making in their lives. Be mindful of the sacrifice they are being asked to make. Help them, love them, even learn from them.
TO BE CONTINUED...