The passage begins with a time marker – “In the judging of the judges.” The book was written looking back on the period before Israel was ruled by kings, a lawless time when Israel was plagued by foreign oppression and national apostasy. At this time Israel lacked a true leader. And so it is significant that this book is about the establishment of the line of David.
Famine strikes in the house of bread. In the past, famines drove the patriarchs out of the land temporarily, to experience greater blessing – Abram (Gen. 12:10), Isaac (Gen. 26:1), and Jacob (Gen. 41-50). But Elimelech ends up in a very different story. Our temptation is to think that we see the story that God is telling and then we try to script for God how he will bring blessing out of disaster. That doesn’t usually work. We learn from history to trust in God’s promises, not to rest in your own prediction of how God will work things out.
Elimelech leaves Israel for Moab (v. 2), on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, a nation descended from Lot’s incestuous union with his daughter (Gen. 19:30-38). Relations between Israel and Moab were strained. Balaam was hired by the Moabites to curse Israel (Num. 22-24). They and their descendents were not to be permitted to come into the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:4). And during the time of the judges, Ehud killed Eglon, king of Moab ( Judg. 3:12-30) and subdued them under Israel.
And Elimelech dies (v.3). The sons then take wives for themselves from the Moabites and then dwell there ten years (v. 4). It’s time for something to happen, and what happens is both sons die. The story of deliverance in Moab is not off to a good start.
6-9 Naomi sees the hopelessness of her situation in Moab. Hearing that the famine has lifted from Bethlehem, she begins to return home. Her daughters-in-law begin to follow her. She thanks them for the kindness (chesed) that they have shown (v. 8) and gives them a definitive goodbye (v. 9).
10-13 No, really, goodbye. Naomi explains that she is a dead end. Don’t tie your future happiness to her because she is a lost cause. The hand of the Lord, the power by which he orchestrates all that comes to pass, has gone out against her. The sovereignty of God is against Naomi, so don’t stand next to her.
1:14-17 But Ruth Clung to Her
This is the vocabulary of marriage (see Gen. 2:24). Orpah has returned to her people and to her gods. But Ruth makes a strikingly poetic vow to Naomi.
First, notice it is much bigger than just a promise of friendship and loyalty to Naomi. It includes people, place, and God. It extends beyond Naomi’s death, to Ruth’s death. And it ends with an oath before Yahweh (thus confirming that Naomi’ God is now Ruth’s).
Where did this come from? This is one of the clearest pictures of a conversion in the Bible. It closely parallels Abram’s conversion (Gen. 12:1-5), except for the fact that Abram converted after receiving a wonderful promise from God. But Ruth converts in the face of Naomi’s despair. Ruth exemplifies the Gospel commitment that Jesus would teach over a thousand years later (Mat. 8:21, 10:37, and 19:29).
Ruth is the embodiment of chesed, a term that will become a theme for the entire book.
1:18-22 A Grim Return
Ruth is determined. Naomi sees this and gives up on trying to convince her otherwise. Both Naomi and Ruth have been left empty and hopeless. One is young, resolute, and still determined. The other is every bit as determined, but it is a determination that is soaked with bitterness and resentment. She returns to God, but almost like a satellite that has fallen from its orbit and plummets to earth. Naomi seems like she has just resigned herself to the gravitational pull of God’s sovereign will. Naomi is fairly honest about where this has left her.
Now it was the beginning of the barley harvest, which was in late April or early May and was followed two weeks later by the wheat harvest. The harvest was a festival time, a time of celebration like our Thanksgiving. So how strange must it have been for Naomi to return home bitter at just this moment.
Remember also that we began the book with the statement that there was no bread in Bethlehem. At the same time that Naomi is telling everyone to call her “bitter,” God is beginning to change their circumstances. And they are about to learn that God’s ways are not our ways, and his story is not the story that we wrote for him.