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In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.  2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.  3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.  4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years,  5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food.  7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.  8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”  11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons,  13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.”  14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 

15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”  16 But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  17 Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 

19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”  20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 

22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.Ruth 1:1-22

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Ruth

The book of Ruth is somewhat unique among the books of the Bible in that the central story involves two women, and it focuses on how those two women responded to a series of tragedies.

Because the issues are so human, their story is easy for people in all times and places to relate to. As we make our way through our world – in a time where it seems like we see tragedy after tragedy, between pandemic and earthquake and fire and flood – we may find ourselves saying (as Naomi says), “God has dealt bitterly with me.”

Like Ruth and Naomi, we have no idea where the currents of history are carrying us. We have no idea what’s coming around the next bend. But God had plans for Ruth and Naomi, and God has plans for us. However these plans will only see the light if we choose (like them) to be faithful to God even in the difficult times. The book of Ruth gives us a picture of two people living faithfully even when they feel like they can’t put one more foot in front of the other.

Today’s reading only includes the first chapter of Ruth, chapter one out of four chapters. I wish we could make a four-week mini-series out of this book! But with the upcoming holidays we won’t have room, so for today I will focus on chapter one, but I will mention important points in the other chapters in order to round out the story.

Starting off with chapter one verse one: “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.”

This first sentence is packed with information! Let me unpack it a bit. “In the days when the judges ruled” – this would be in the nation of Israel after the exodus but before any king was chosen. For a period of a few hundred years in between Exodus and monarchy, Israel had a unique form of government: a loose coalition of the twelve tribes of Israel, each one led by a Judge who was appointed by God to settle any disputes in the tribe and to help muster an army in case any of the twelve tribes was attacked. It was a form of government that allowed for a great deal of personal freedom – which could either be good or bad, depending on how committed the people were to doing things God’s way.

bethlehem-rooftops

During this time, there was a famine in the land, and the famine was so severe people felt they needed to leave their homes in order to find food. This was particularly ironic in the city of Bethlehem, a city whose name translates “house of bread”.

As an important side-note: Pastor Dylan mentioned at Bible Study this past week that there are certain Hebrew words that keep popping up in the Old Testament, and it adds meaning to our reading of the Bible if we notice them and keep a list of them. Here’s one for your list: the prefix “Beth-” means ‘house’ in Hebrew. So we have many place names like Bethlehem (house of bread), Bethel (house of God), Bethsaida (house of fish), Bethany (house of figs) and so on. So whenever you see “Beth” at the beginning of a name in the Bible, be sure to ask for a translation!

So back to the story.  There was a famine in Israel that included Bethlehem, and a family who lived in Bethlehem moved to Moab to find food.

Anyone living back in those days would have immediately said, “that must have been some famine!” because the people of Israel had nothing to do with the Moabites. The Moabites were an enemy nation who had attacked Israel in the past. They were ‘pagans’. They tried to discourage people from worshipping God. Israelites considered Moabites ‘unclean,’ and they were looked down on.  We see this in the book of Ruth, where Ruth is referred to not by name but as “Ruth the Moabitess” – over and over. It’s a mark of prejudice.

But things had gotten so bad in Bethlehem that this family felt they had no choice but to move to Moab and live with their enemies. They became refugees in a foreign land. There’s a saying today among refugee communities that “one does not put a child in a boat unless the land has become too dangerous”.  This was certainly was true for Elimelech and his family. They had no choice.

And again, as is so often true in the Old Testament, the family names have meaning. “Elimelech” translates “my God is king”. And “Naomi” means “pleasant”. If we put those together it fits nicely: how pleasant it is when God is king!  But there’s also something wrong: because the sons are named “Mahlon” and “Chilion” which mean “sickly” and “pining”. Was this because they didn’t have enough food to eat? Possibly. Were the children just not thriving? The Bible doesn’t tell us; but whatever was wrong apparently stayed with them throughout their lives.

This refugee family then moves to Moab and makes a home there. They have to learn the language; they have to learn the customs; they have to learn to fit in. We can guess that they were farmers in Moab as they were in Bethlehem, but they probably had to farm someone’s else’s land, at least until they could earn enough to buy some land of their own. But they managed to stay alive and make a home in that foreign land.

While they were there, sadly, Elimelech died. But Naomi still had two sons to help keep food on the table. The boys grew up and married Moabite women, local women. And things seem to have worked out pretty well except… after ten years of their marriages there were no grandchildren. And then tragedy struck again, and both Mahlon and Chilion died.

No parent expects to bury their children. And to make matters worse, the death of the young men left the three women widows with no means of support. In the ancient world, where there was no social security or welfare, childless widows were extremely vulnerable. The best the women could hope for – the best they could hope for – would be a life of begging. And it could get worse.

It seemed the best course of action for all three of them was to try to find new husbands.  So the women are faced with an agonizing decision. Naomi and her daughters-in-law have grown to love each other: they are family in a very real sense. When Naomi receives word that there is food again in Bethlehem, she decides to go home; and the young women decide to go with her.

But Naomi thinks it over and decides that what’s in the best interests of the young women is to return to their own homes and find new husbands and start new families. Naomi points out they have no hope of any new husbands through her. They will do better in their own neighborhoods. It’s also possible Naomi thought about how much prejudice the Moabite women might face in Israel – which was a great risk.

Bottom line, Naomi’s heart is broken. People who struggle with anger and grief, even today, can relate to Naomi’s story.

So Naomi blesses her daughters-in-law. In verse eight she says: “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” The word ‘kindly’ is the Hebrew word hesed which is often translated ‘loving-kindness’ and is often used to describe how deeply God loves us. So she is saying, in other words, “God has loved me through you.”

These words break the young women’s hearts, and they weep. They don’t want to go. Eventually Orpah is persuaded to go home; but Ruth won’t let go. There is nowhere she wants to be other than with Naomi. And somehow it seems over the years Ruth has learned about Naomi’s God – the God of Israel – and she wants to be a part of God’s family. We hear from Ruth those beautiful words, spoken in halting Hebrew:

“where you go, I go; where you lodge, I lodge; your people be my people; your God be my God; where you die, I die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more if even death parts me from you!”

And Naomi and Ruth embrace each other. They made room for one another in their hearts. Two women from different countries, different cultures, different religious backgrounds… embracing… this is an example the whole world needs to see.

And so they travel together to Bethlehem. When they arrive, the people of the town are stunned at what has become of Naomi. She answers them “don’t call me Naomi (‘pleasant’) any more; call me Mara (which means ‘bitter’) because God has dealt bitterly with me. When I left here I had everything, but now I have nothing…” she says.

And yet, they’ve arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest… which means there will be food. And in spite of what Naomi says, she’s not alone. She has Ruth, who – by the end of the book – the people of the town will say to Naomi “she is worth more to you than seven sons”.

There is one more scene from the book of Ruth that I want to mention, and that’s what Ruth does after she and Naomi return to Bethlehem. In chapter two, Ruth has learned the law of God concerning the harvest: that farmers in Israel are not to harvest all the way to the edge of their land – they are to leave some grain on the edges of the fields for the poor and the homeless. So Ruth takes her place as a refugee among the poor and the homeless, and gleans the edges.

See here the wisdom of God! The Bible is clear that those who have, are to leave some of what we have behind for others. Not in hopes of getting a note of thanks, or to impress our neighbors, but simply to open our hands and let some of what we have go; and trust God that it will land where it’s needed, and we will still have enough.

This is what the farmers are doing in chapter two. Ruth goes out and works behind them all day long, literally from sunup to sundown, picking up the grain that is left behind, and then at the end of the day she threshes it. We’re told in verse 17 she ended up with about an ephah of barley which is about 30 pounds, which she then carries a few miles back to town to where Naomi is. And she does this every day until the barley and wheat harvests are finished.

Ruth n Bo

While this is going on, Ruth’s work is noticed by a God-fearing man named Boaz, the owner of one of the farms – who gives us a wonderful example of how to welcome newly-arrived immigrants. He sees Ruth working hard, and he asks the neighbors: “who is she?” And he is told:

“she’s the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.”

(Notice how the neighbors talk about her – not by name, but by nationality. She’s one of ‘them’. And yet they’ve noticed how hard she’s been working.)

Boaz understands, and he encourages her. He makes her feel welcome. He says to her: “Don’t go to anyone else’s field. Stay in my fields; stay with my women. I’ve told my men not to touch you. And when you’re thirsty, get a drink from the water jars my men have filled.”

Boaz isn’t giving her handouts. He doesn’t coddle her. But he gives her protection, and provision, and a safe space in which to flourish. And isn’t that really what all of us need? Because we are all in some way strangers in a strange land. That’s why God has so much to say in scripture about kindness to strangers and foreigners.

Ruth reacts by bowing down to the ground and asking how it is that a foreigner has found so much favor in his sight?  He answers, “I have been told what you have done for your mother-in-law.” He says in verse 12, “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:12)

How sweet is that to a foreigner’s ears?

Ruth n Naomi

Later that night when Ruth takes home her 30 pounds of grain, she tells Naomi about her experience in the fields of Boaz, and Naomi says Boaz is a relative of hers. “He’s one of our kinsman-redeemers” she says. Which sets up the rest of the story, in which Boaz and Ruth grow to love each other, and at Naomi’s nudging, Boaz takes the part of kinsman-redeemer for Ruth and marries her. And Naomi takes care of their first-born son, who will be both their future and hers.

More than that, little baby Obed becomes the future of Israel, because he will be the grandfather of King David and the ancestor of Jesus.

Our salvation rests on the decisions these women made – and on their faithfulness. When all seemed hopeless they were faithful to God and faithful to each other, and even though they didn’t live to see it, their faithfulness changed the history of the world.

So be encouraged, brothers and sisters, in these dark days. Pray daily; bring God your pain, your fears, your doubts, your hard places, and your hopes. And trust that a place has already been prepared for you and for your loved ones, by a God who works in ways that will astound us. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/31/21

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