…every so often, when the Judge God raises up actually does their job justice can be found for those in the worst situation imaginable, even the wife of a skin flint like Elimelech who had no charity in his heart.
The Beginning of the Book of Ruth
I particularly like the first phrase of the Book of Ruth. “In the days when Judges governed”. The author of this wonderful piece of historic fiction will, ultimately, pull hope from disaster and the reason that can happen, the author argues, is found in this foundational phrase. “In the days when Judges governed.” You see, in the four hundred year period which is marked out on Israel’s calendar as the time of the Judges was anything but a good time. The Bible paraphrase The Message begins the Book of Ruth with the line “Once upon a time”. It’s fitting.
The Jewish canon puts Ruth with writings like the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. The Christian ordering of the books of the Old Testament treats the story of Ruth like history and places it right after Judges. It changes how we view the book. You may have heard the phrase ‘the whole meggilla’, most likely from Jewish comedians. A meggilla is a scroll of Jewish writings – Ruth is one part of that scroll. When the bible paraphrase the Message begins the book of Ruth it starts by saying ‘Once upon a time…” That’s fitting and it allows us to ask, who is this woman Ruth who is special enough to have an entire book in the Bible named for her? We know that she is a direct ancestor of King David, the matriarch of the Messianic line. And she’s a Moabite, not even a Jew.
And that’s a clue to when the book was written. On one level Ruth is a protest book. When the Jews were sent back to their little piece of the eastern Mediterranean following their exile it opened the period of restoration reported by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. In that time marrying outside of the Jewish faith was forbidden. This book challenges the authorities by pointing out that such a prohibition was alien to Judaism noting the matriarch of the Messianic line was not Jewish but a Moabite.
As soon as the promised land was conquered the settlers focused on proving up their homestead, working the land, planting olive groves, vineyards and fields, establishing gardens and farms to improve their standard of living. The leaders at that time, the Sanhedrin, were supposed to travel the land, teaching the people what their scriptures taught about how to live together and be responsible, that is the Ten Commandments. It didn’t happen and as a result the nation became self-centered and materialistic. They quickly forgot the Torah and the will of God for them and as a result the nation deteriorated into moral corruption.
God’s solution was to raise up Judges to spur their consciences, to help restore order for a number of years and to some extent that was successful. But when that Judge was no longer functioning the nation would slip back into its old idolatrous habits and follow the culture and behaviors of the non-jews who still lived on the land. Moses was the first Judge. The Book of Judges identifies a dozen and there were a few more.
This is the time of Naomi and Ruth, a moment when God’s established government did what government was supposed to do. That is the essential premise that, “when Judges do what judges are supposed to do”, justice can be found and people thought to be victims can be freed from their tragedies. Jewish tradition reports that at that time God said: “My children are stubborn. To destroy them is impossible. To return them to Egypt is impossible. I cannot exchange them for another nation. What, then can I do? I must make them suffer and cleanse them with famine.”
As the story opens Bethlehem is suffering a famine. You see “Bethlehem” means “the city of bread.” It was unimaginable to the hearers of this story for the city of bread to suffer a famine. According to Jewish tradition a great and wealthy man with enough resources to feed the entire nation of Israel through the famine lived in Bethlehem. His name was Elimelech. When the years of famine came, he said: “Now all of Israel will come to my door, each with his box (to collect money).” He stood up and ran away from them. He took his family and defected to Moab.
If you recall Israel’s history, after escaping Egypt the Israelites passed through the land of Moab. The Moabites didn’t attack them as did the Amalekites but they denied the refugees the most common of courties. Moab was considered the epitome of self-centeredness and lack of generosity and kindness. So it’s significant to our story that Moab is the place where Elimelech and his family felt most comfortable settling. Moab avoided feeding the suffering Israelites, who were distant cousins, and Elimelech escaped from feeding his fellow Jews in their time of need. Their escape from responsibility came from a desire to save themselves and their possessions.
In illustrating this story an 18th century Polish Jew describes the rich of his day: The way of the rich is to pleasure themselves with the pleasures of the world in clothing and edible delicacies…They purchase new showy clothes and they might use them one or two days and then they will not put them on again… In the meantime the poor go barefoot and naked without clothing or coats. The rich would rather trample these clothes underfoot and let them become moldy, than let the miserable poor use them. In their meals the rich eat delicacies all the time… making everyday like a holiday drinking wine and leaving leftovers that would have been adequate to feed 20 or 30 of the oppressed Jewish poor…But the rich are stingy and jealous…” We are to understand that those words describe Elimelech.
So, … a man from Beit Lechem… went to sojourn in the fields of Moav, he and his wife and his two sons. (Ruth 1:1)
And it all started out as a “sojourn.” But Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons stayed there for 10 years. Naomi’s name means sweetness. The sons, Mahlon and Chilyon (one of the son’s name means “disease” and the other means “destruction”); married two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Orpah means “the back of her neck” referring to her returning to her home. Ruth, on the other hand, is a more elusive term that could mean “overflowing abundance, wet and fresh, satisfied and full or simply friendship.
Elimelech dies, as do both of the sons. Under normal circumstances this would mean the end of the family. And Naomi is left a childless widow caring for her two non-Jewish daughters-in-law. In the middle of her distress she changes her name to Mara, or bitterness.
The story of Ruth is uniquely a woman’s tale where inheritance, decisions about migration, economics and law are in the jurisdictions of men. Yet once bereft of men, the initial tragedy of the story, these three women are on their own to make their own lives by their own wits, decisions and relationships. How will they transform themselves from objects to subjects, from victims to mistresses of their own destiny? How will a mother-in-law, a role that is typically at odds with a daughter-in-law, create a loving, self-sacrificing relationship with a daughter-in-law? Naomi goes from living in the House of Bread to famine, from homeland to exile and loss of her inheritance. Orpah and Ruth go from childlessness to widowhood. Naomi even tries to push Ruth away and to ignore her presence as she wallowed in self-pity. Naomi is a female Job.
As the story of Ruth begins we see the current condition of Israel, and are shown that even in this time, every so often, when the Judges God raises up actually do their job justice can be found for those in the worst situation imaginable, even the wife of a skin flint like Elimelech who had no charity in his heart.