The first chapter of Ruth sets up the story that follows. “In the days when the judges ruled” (1:1) refers back to the time of the judges, a time of chaos and disobedience in Israel. In fact the last verse of the book of Judges, the verse just previous to this one reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel.
The famine in the proverbial ‘house of bread’, the literal meaning of the name of the town of Bethlehem, thought to be the consequence of disobedience to God caused the family of Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to migrate to Moab. Moab was east of the Dead Sea, a land that was evidently willing to accept displaced refugees. Set against this backdrop of natural disaster a more personal calamity adds insult to injury to this nuclear family. First Naomi’s husband died and then not long thereafter both her sons died, leaving her with no way to support herself, much less the Moabite wives taken by her sons. Some of us can relate to Naomi’s loss and disappointment, her grief and bitterness.
Naomi is bereft. She decides to return to Bethlehem and her family. As she and her two daughters-in-law are on the way it occurs to her that, similar to her own situation in Moab, should Orpha and Ruth stay with her they both would be aliens and widows in a foreign land. She advises them to return to their own families where things might not be good but certainly a place more likely to find a future than staying with her. Orpha saw the wisdom in that. Naomi, as a widow in Bethlehem would have a hard enough time meeting her own needs much less trying to care for two women of foreign birth. She returned to her mother in the hopes of finding a future. It was a mature choice and too often we fail to acknowledge her wisdom.
It’s in this chapter where we find the most famous passage in Ruth: “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” (1:16). The bitterness of Naomi is not the whole of the story. Ruth’s loyalty, Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law holds the promise of something more.
I’ve wondered about how Naomi was received by those who had stayed behind in Bethlehem and endured the famine. 9So 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?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; It can be hard for a community to fully embrace someone who withdrew from the community. The other piece of that is that her old neighbors hardly recognized her.
The text says that “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi feels old and empty and not up to the physical challenges of working the fields. And though her presence reminds Naomi of her son’s death Ruth is with her, and the harvest is coming.
God does not speak from burning bushes in this book; nor does God divide the sea. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s faithfulness is embodied in human action. One example is Ruth asking permission of Naomi to go out to glean barley to sustain them. In answer to Boaz’ question of the identity of this foreigner gleaning in his field the servant reported “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”
As the old adage goes, “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous” and the text reads: “as it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” When Boaz is introduced in the narrative he is described as a powerful man of integrity. He is a pillar of the community who also just happens to be related to Naomi’s dead husband. He is impressed with her stamina and commitment. 8Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.”
So Ruth asks “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Again, God does not speak from burning bushes in this book. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s faithfulness is embodied in human action.
Naomi sees the astonishing amount of barley that Ruth has gleaned and finds out that it is Boaz who has helped Ruth. And it is only then that Naomi begins to move from despair to hope. She recognizes in this turn of events the hand of God and she is quick to name God as the source of blessing: “Blessed be he [Boaz] by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (Ruth 2:20). The tide is turning. Emptiness is being filled. Hope is born. And it is an old widow (one who has seen more than her share of sorrow) who recognizes the hand of God in these seemingly happenstance circumstances. Perhaps it is often thus: Those who have had long experience of seeing God at work can recognize and name those times in our own lives when miracles begin to happen.