We have a great story to consider this morning as we look at two dynamic women—certainly Ruth, but also her mother-in-law, Naomi. Before I go any further, I want to let you know that I have gained helpful insights into the story of these women of faith from three especially helpful authors: Ruth Tuttle Conard, Alice Mathews, and Carolyn Custis James.1
Ruth is one of only two books in our Bible with a woman’s name as the title. The other, of course, is Esther. Moreover, Ruth is one of only two books in our Bible written from a woman’s perspective. More precisely, one of about one-and-a-half books, for Song of Songs includes extensive poetry from a woman’s perspective. The two main characters are women, with Boaz being the third. In the male-oriented, patriarchal society of those days, where women were valued primarily through marriage and bearing male heirs, we find not only two single women, but, even lower on society’s scale, widowed women with no living children. Indeed, the story of Ruth is filled with drama; there’s tragedy and triumph, loss and gain, and of course, romance. Much like a fairy tale, it is a story of true love with a happily-ever-after ending. But more than a fairy tale, this true love is inspired by the source of love, the very heart of God.
As we dig into Scripture, it is important always to consider the context, the setting of the story. So we begin at v. 1. It reads, “In the days when the judges ruled. . . .” The period of time in Israelite history marked by the rule of judges was an era dominated by weak faith and irresponsible conduct. The climate was one of barbaric oppression, tribal civil wars, and unchecked lawlessness. The last words in the book of Judges, which immediately precedes Ruth in the Christian canon, describe this time period well: “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes” or, as the New International Version puts it, “everyone did as they saw fit.” Sound familiar? The book of Ruth is a good reminder to us that even in the worst times, in every era in history, there are individuals seeking God, and God is faithful to them. That gives us hope for today, and for every day.
Continuing on in v. 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” (NIV). As soon as you hear, “from Bethlehem in Judah,” what story does your mind run ahead to? Perhaps first to King David, for it is his hometown. But surely then you think of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. The Christmas angel of Luke ch. 2 helps us make these connections: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11 NIV).
Now, in addition to this era’s constant unrest and violence, the narrator mentions famine. Bethlehem means “house of bread,” and in the house of bread there is no bread; so Elimelek takes his family to neighboring Moab. The trip eastward to Moab was not a long one in distance, especially by our standards, but distance in the Bible is often not measured in miles but in distance from God. And Moab was a long way from God. The Moabites worshipped false gods. They practiced child sacrifice and grossly immoral fertility rites. This Jewish man took his family into a pagan country, into Moab.
Let’s read on, vv. 3–5. “Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband” (NIV). Life doesn’t get much lower than that—violence all around, famine, a move to a strange land, death of a spouse, death of two sons, loss of income and security, responsibility for two foreign daughters-in-law. These hardships prompt the observation that Naomi is the female equivalent of the suffering Job.
Many of you know the OT story of Job. Job serves as the poster child for the difficult conversations around evil and suffering. Both Job and Naomi had their lives ruined by evil. Their trouble was compounded—not just one event but a whole series of awful experiences. Naomi and Job both lost their families, as well as their worldly possessions and their social standing. They felt abandoned by God and complained bitterly about how God treated them. Though God did not explain himself, he met them in their pain and they never abandoned their faith in him. And of course, both stories end with redemption.
I’m guessing there are quite a few of you here today who have experienced times in your life when you have felt like Naomi when she says in v. 13, “the Lord’s hand has turned against me.” Perhaps you have asked or are asking, “Why is all this happening to me?” or “Where is a loving God in all of this?” In seasons of hardship—loss of jobs and income, family troubles, addictions, divorce, cancer and other illnesses, the death of loved ones—it is not unusual to wonder if God has abandoned us.
The story of Ruth reveals that our situations are nothing new. The period of the judges was more than a thousand years before Christ. Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel of John, “In this world you will have trouble” (16:33). The Apostle Paul, listing in Rom 8 various things that cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, names suffering and afflictions, trials and hunger, violence and death. Such things all happen in this life. No one is immune.
The television version of a prosperity gospel and the false image of what it means to be a Christian have led many of us to believe that, as Christ followers, we should have some kind of protected status, a better than average bankroll and house, children and grandchildren who make the right decisions, a marriage without struggles, life free from illness and stress and strain. But God never promised us that. In fact, when Christ was hanging on the cross, when he felt abandoned by God and cried out—much like Naomi, much like many of us—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—in that seemingly-God-forsaken moment, Jesus was in the very center of God’s redeeming love. God works in the midst of our brokenness. God takes our pain, our failures, our losses, our families, and redeems them for his good purposes. For those of you struggling today, hear this. No matter your circumstances, God is with you and you are loved. God promises never to leave us or forsake us. Even in your difficulties, trust God.
Back to our story, Naomi hears that the famine has ended and decides to return home. Naomi knows the future for her two daughters-in-law is bleak and uncertain back in Bethlehem. Remember, they are Moabites—foreign, pagan women, despised by the Israelites. So Naomi releases her daughters-in-law from any obligation to her. Orpah makes the expected choice to stay back in Moab, and Ruth makes the unexpected choice of what the Hebrews called hesed, “loyal love.” We hear Ruth’s proclamation of love and of faith in 1:16–17, words you have perhaps heard at a wedding celebration. “But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. 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" (NIV).
It is striking to me that it was the faith of Naomi and her husband Elimelek, and their sons, as foreigners in Moab that brought faith in the one true God to Ruth. Ruth would have continued in her pagan practices had it not been for this Israelite family sharing their good news. Even when Naomi blamed God for her life circumstances (see 1:20–21), Ruth had been so taken in by the love of God’s people that she pledged never to abandon them.
I’m wondering . . . can we love God and others to that point where others could not imagine life without God? We do not know specifically what the witness of Naomi and her husband and their sons looked like—but we hear of the fruit of their faith. When they arrived in Moab from Bethlehem you can bet they had different political views from their neighbors; they definitely had different moral values. Yet those things did not prevent the love of God from being shown. Their faith and love transformed the life of Ruth, and through her, the world.
Naomi made a choice to return to Bethlehem, Orpah made a choice to stay in Moab, and Ruth made a choice to follow Naomi and her God. Practically speaking, much of life is about choices. We make them all day long—some so incidental we don’t even notice. But make no mistake, our choices have consequences. Ruth’s choice to return with Naomi had consequences that reached far beyond her imagination.
Ruth’s virtues—loyalty, strength, courage, faithfulness—worked well for Naomi and Ruth. Upon their arrival back in Bethlehem, they needed a food supply, so Ruth went to work gleaning; that is, she picked up the leftover grain from the fields after the reapers had finished. Ruth went to work in an unsafe place, among men in the fields, as a single foreign woman, in order to put food on the table.
Ruth found herself in the fields of Boaz, Naomi’s relative. Some might consider this luck, but as Christ followers we know better. “Behind what appears to be human luck lies divine purpose.”2 Even in the coincidences of life the hand of God is often at work. The Israelites, including Naomi and converted Ruth, lived with the assumption that God’s hand was behind everything. Providence is the theological term attached to how God governs this world. “Providence tells us that there is much more going on than what we can see, for God is at work behind the scenes to keep things moving in the direction of God’s ultimate goals for us as individuals and also for the world.”3
But providence is not an excuse for passivity. One of the central tenets of providence is what we call concurrence, the fact that God invites us to participate in the completion of the divine plan for the world. God’s preferred method of getting things done is to work through people. “We are not spectators to what God is doing in the world, but participants.”4
Now we need to fast forward our way through the story (I encourage you to read it; it’s only four chapters). Not only is Ruth in the field of her relative Boaz, but Boaz shows up while she is there. They get acquainted, Boaz gives Ruth the status of “most favored gleaner,” and Naomi, upon seeing Ruth’s success her first day of gleaning, begins to seize an opportunity. In v. 9 of ch. 1, Naomi had prayed for Orpah and Ruth, “May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband” (NIV). Here is an example of concurrence; Naomi begins to work with God to answer her own prayer.
Sometimes we have the idea that we tell God what we want or need and then sit back and wait passively for something to happen. Scripture supports that option with words like Ps 27:14, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (NIV). But we need to take the whole of scripture. There are times when God presents opportunities and expects us to seize the initiative.
Naomi knows that Boaz is one of their kinsman redeemers. In Deut 25, there is a provision for widows that requires the deceased’s brother to marry the widow in order to continue the family line. If there is no brother available to marry the widow, she can ask a more distant relative to do so as a “kinsman redeemer.” So Naomi, seeking to restore property for herself, and to provide financial security and future inheritance for Ruth, instructs Ruth to initiate this redemption.
Ruth uses another strange old custom (take notice of ch. 3) to ask Boaz to be her redeemer; in short, she proposes to him. Boaz accepts, speaking beautiful words of affirmation to Ruth, praising her for her kindness and self-discipline and acknowledging her reputation as a woman of noble character.
Remember the “happily ever after”? Ruth 4:13–15:
“So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth” (NIV).
Ruth was indeed better than seven sons as she and Boaz became great-grandparents to Israel’s greatest king, David. And please remember, Elimelek was from Bethlehem in Judah, King David was their descendant, and from the line of David came our King, our Redeemer, Jesus.
It’s a constant in God’s stories. That which is lost can be found, restored, recovered, redeemed. The provision of a kinsman-redeemer foretells the story of the Redeemer-Savior, Jesus Christ, who steps into our lives, including our difficulties, to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
God provided bread through gleaning. God provided security through a marriage. God provided posterity for Naomi. God provided a great king for Israel through ordinary women’s leadership.
God uses the faithfulness, initiative, and courage of ordinary people to accomplish great things. There are times we may find it hard to believe that God is really at work in our lives. Life can be hard; choices may seem insignificant or accidental, but God is at work in us and through us.
Ruth stands in the line of those through whom God chose to send his Son into the world to bring us salvation—our redeemer. Jesus, with his own blood, out of great love for you, for me, for the world, purchased our salvation. With him, we have a secure future and a living hope. This is the gospel, the good news of Ruth. Amen.
1. Ruth Tuttle Conard, Designer Women: Made by God (Colorado Springs: Authentic, 2008); Alice Mathews, A Woman God Can Use: Lessons from Old Testament Women Help You Make Today’s Choices (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1990); Carolyn Custis James, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
2. Mathews, A Woman God Can Use, 71.
3. James, The Gospel of Ruth, 128.
4. James, The Gospel of Ruth, 133.