Ruth 1:1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.
The book of Ruth is a classic love story that was written around 1200 BC. It begins in the little town of Bethlehem, which means house of bread. Unfortunately, the bread was running out due to a famine. To keep body and soul together, a little family of four migrated fifty miles to the land of Moab, where they hoped their situation would improve. Sadly, it would not.
Ruth 1:2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi.
After they arrived in Moab, Elimelek died, leaving Naomi a widow in a foreign land. Her two sons married, but they also died, about ten years later. Naomi was now a widow, living in a foreign land, with no immediate family. Hearing that life had improved in Bethlehem, Naomi decided to return home. Her daughters-in-law planned to go with her, but since there was nothing Naomi could do for them, she encouraged them to remain in Moab (Ruth 1:9). One of them agreed; the other did not.
Ruth 1:16-17 Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.
The young woman’s name was Ruth, and her words were a pledge to care for Naomi in her old age. The two were apparently close, and Ruth was willing to give up marriage and children, in order to care for her aging mother-in-law.
Ruth was also loyal to God. Your people will be my people and your God my God, she said. Before she met Naomi, Ruth probably worshipped Chemosh, the god of the Moabites (1 Kings 11:7). He was a local deity who made little difference in her life. But Ruth came to believe in God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1). Her faith was so firm that she was willing to leave family, friends and homeland to live in the land of Israel, and worship Israel’s God.
Ruth 1:19 When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, Can this be Naomi?
Life had been hard for Naomi, and she appears to have aged so much that she was barely recognizable. She went out with a husband and sons, but returned with neither. She went out looking for prosperity, but returned in poverty. Do not call me Naomi, she told them. Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter (Ruth 1:20). Naomi means pleasant, and Mara means bitter. Naomi’s life had been so bitter that she wanted to change her name to Bitter.
Believing in God is no guarantee against misery, and can even make our misery worse. In light of God’s promise to answer our prayers (Matthew 7:7-8), when our prayers go unanswered, it can seem like God is mocking us. One person put it this way: I have been disappointed enough times that I simply pray for less and less, in order not to be disappointed more and more. That is how Naomi felt.
Ruth 1:21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. . . . The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.
The Bible doesn’t whitewash Naomi’s speech, or shift the blame away from God. It simply keeps us waiting for God, because that is the nature of faith. Faith believes that, sooner or later, God will act and things will improve.
Ruth 2:1 Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz.
Boaz features prominently in the rest of the story, but here it is enough to see that he was related to Naomi, and was a man of standing in the community. There is no indication Naomi asked Boaz for help, but if things got worse, she could turn to him for assistance.
Harvest time had finally come, and Ruth went into the fields to glean. The land did not belong to her, but Israel had a law that required property owners to leave some produce behind for the poor. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands (Deuteronomy 24:19), wrote Moses.
Providentially, Ruth found herself in a field belonging to Boaz. They had never met, but Boaz made a good impression. The Lord be with you, he said to his workers. The Lord bless you, they replied. This little exchanged revealed to Ruth that Boaz was a man of some godliness, and that he enjoyed a good relationship with his employees.
Boaz asked about Ruth, and learned she was the Moabite who returned with Naomi. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord (Ruth 2:12), he said. But he went even further and urged Ruth to continue gleaning in his field. He also told his workers to leave her additional grain, and he even paid for Ruth’s lunch. Boaz was so generous to Ruth that it is difficult to know if he was just being kind, or if he was attracted to her. After all, they were both devout believers, and apparently single.
Ruth 2:19 Her mother-in-law asked her, Where did you glean today?
Ruth told Naomi that she gleaned in the field of Boaz. Naomi was delighted. That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers (Ruth 2:20), she said. A guardian-redeemer was a close relative who was obligated to help family members who were in serious trouble. The concept is found in Israel’s laws (Leviticus 25:25-55), and appears more prominently in the book of Ruth than anywhere else in the Bible.
Here we see the invisible hand of God beginning to care for Naomi and Ruth. They had not imposed on family or friends, but were trusting God to meet their needs. Now, at last, God was beginning to act.
We find this same idea in the teaching of Jesus Christ. So do not worry, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:31-33).
Jesus didn’t say that life would never be hard, or even extremely hard. But he told us we have a heavenly Father who knows exactly what we need. He also taught us to put God first in our lives, then trust him to take care of us. Naomi and Ruth were doing exactly that.
Reflection and Review
Why does God allow his people to suffer?
Did Naomi have a right to complain?
How did Naomi and Ruth cope with poverty?