RUTH – LESSON TWO
In recent years people have been fascinated with their roots. Where did my family come from? What kind of interesting, royal, or renegade characters might be found in my ancestors’ closet? What makes us the way we are? People are often surprised at what they find as they form their family trees.
What would Israel’s most famous king find in his search for ancestry? Perhaps David’s background is the most surprising of all. It is a fascinating mix of Gentiles and Jews. It includes a person involved in a shady profession, a person conceived by incest, and also exceptionally honorable down home people. There are no high-ranking Jerusalem intellectuals in the mix. The family tree involves faithful law keepers with an interesting story that brought them together. In some ways David’s founding family is an everyday story taking place in a small town. It would never be front page news were it not for the famous shepherd king that came from their ranks. But we can begin to see what made David the way he was.
We can learn some valuable family lessons from this story. Family heritage was designed by God to pass on truth and righteousness from one generation to another (Deuteronomy 6:1-9). In this case, it worked; David turned out exceptionally well. Will it work for me and my family?
DAY ONE: ELIMELECH’S FAMILY MIGRATED TO MOAB.
READ: Ruth 1:1-2
A. ISRAEL WAS EXPERIENCING A FAMINE.
Elimelech, Naomi, and their two boys, Mahlon and Kilion, lived in the Bethlehem area in Israel. Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It was a fertile area for grain crops, especially wheat and barley. But the land depended on rainfall for the crops to produce, and God used rain as a means of blessing or cursing (Deuteronomy 11:13-17). At that point in time the land was experiencing a famine. As head of his household, Elimelech must provide food for his family in this hard time. How will he provide?
The plans, purposes and protection of God involved their ties to the Promised Land. So what was a father to do? Was it wrong to leave the land God had portioned to Elimelech’s family? Was he sinning in “escaping” to Moab? Some scholars believe so. But there is no condemnation in the text of Ruth so we will move on.
B. ELIMELECH’S FAMILY RELOCATED TO MOAB.
Everyone has a story. Our lives have many twists and turns as we struggle to survive and thrive. Things happen that weren’t planned. Disasters may take us to places we never intended to go. Dreams may be turned into nightmares. And nightmares may turn out to be new opportunities for something wonderful. God can work all things for good, but sometimes things seem to get worse before the good shows up.
C. ELIMELECH’S FAMILY SETTLED INTO LIFE IN MOAB.
Moab was just across the Jordan River from Bethlehem. Moab is a fertile strip of land situated on a plateau above the Dead Sea. It would take only a few days to travel there. It may seem a bit surprising that this Jewish family would settle there. Moab is one of the nations that oppressed Israel during the period of judges (Judges 3:12-14). Today we might see a man make a “career move” to some place that is not family friendly or is not good for the spiritual growth of the family. While he may make more money or climb the corporate ladder, his family may suffer. Was this a good move for Elimelech?
Friendly relations with Moabites were discouraged in Deuteronomy 23:3-6, but they were not forbidden. As descendants of Lot, the Moabites were distant relatives of the Jews. However, they didn’t usually get along well. Moabites were banned from worship in the tabernacle because of aggressive action against the Jews at a critical time in their history. Intermarriage with Moabite women was not specifically forbidden (as it was with Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7:1-4). But it was never a good idea to intermarry with idol worshipers. Solomon later modeled this kind of disaster. (1 Kings 11:1-13)
Since their two sons were of marriageable age, they each selected Moabite women (Ruth and Orpah) as wives. We would hope that the faith of these young men was strong enough to impact these women for God.
D. QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY OR DISCUSSION
- In your opinion, was Elimelech sinning when he left his homeland where God had placed him?
- Do you think Elimelech’s death was a judgment from God or an unfortunate accident of some kind?
- Is there any evidence that Elimelech prayed before moving out?
- In your opinion, was Elimelech wise to settle in Moab, a hostile nation, but a place of fertile farm land?
- When has your family had to make a choice that was hard?
- What role does prayer play in any decision you make for your family?
DAY TWO: TRAGEDY STRUCK NAOMI THREE TIMES.
READ: Ruth 1:3-5
A. NAOMI BECAME A WIDOW.
At some point after settling in Moab, Elimelech died. As with most narratives in the Old Testament, we would like to know more details. Was he killed by enemies in Moab, was he involved in an accident, did he have a disease? We aren’t told anything more about this man.
In the ancient world there was almost nothing worse than being a widow. It was a man’s world. Women were considered the property of men – fathers, husbands, or sons. Women weren’t allowed to own property or conduct business. Their education was typically limited to household matters – cooking, sewing, and hauling water. Widows with no one to take care of them became destitute. In Israel, God set up laws to ensure that the poor women got some help. In Moab, Naomi still had her sons to care for her.
B. NAOMI’S SONS WERE CHILDLESS.
The second tragedy in this family was that both sons were childless. There would be no sons to carry on the family name. Again, we aren’t told whether this was an act of God to shut the wombs of the Moabite wives or whether some natural cause had rendered them barren. We aren’t sure how long each man was married. Barrenness was considered a disgrace and a divine curse. A childless widow too old to remarry and produce children was considered worthless and vulnerable.
C. NAOMI’S SONS DIED.
Then the third tragedy struck. Both sons died. All three women were left destitute. In Israel a woman couldn’t cultivate land without male relatives. The land in Israel belonged to God, but the right to farm and occupy it belonged to the men of Israel. Naomi now held the rights to the family land at Bethlehem but it was useless to her without sons to farm it. Her life seemed to be hopeless.
There is an old wives tale that says that trouble comes in threes. There is no Biblical confirmation for that saying, but it was true for Naomi. The text doesn’t say how much time passed in between the three deaths, but at the end of ten years all three men in the family were gone. Naomi was left to take care of herself and the two young widows in her family. What’s a mother to do??
D. QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY OR DISCUSSION
- Describe Naomi’s circumstances and prospects at this time. How would you feel?
- How does Naomi describe her life? (Ruth 1:20-21)
- Who does she blame for her tragic circumstances? (Ruth 1:13)
- When have you ever felt hopeless?
- Where do you turn when you are discouraged?
- What is promised to God’s children in Proverbs 3:5-6?
DAY THREE: NAOMI DECIDED TO RETURN HOME.
READ: Ruth 1:6-15
A. FAMINE IN ISRAEL WAS LIFTED.
Jewish tradition regarded the deaths of the three men as God’s judgment for leaving Bethlehem. However, the text does not give a reason for their deaths. We are left with only the result – hopeless tragedy for Naomi and her daughters-in-law. But in the darkest of days, God provides a ray of hope. News came that God had lifted the famine. There is food in Israel once again. Perhaps there may be a relative left in Naomi or Elimelech’s family lines.
B. DAUGHTERS-IN-LAW WERE COUNSELED.
Naomi was now responsible for her widowed daughters-in-law. But her prospects for feeding them and finding husbands for them looked dim. Her choices were to take them to Israel and possibly face extreme poverty (and maybe even shame for her sons’ marriages to women of idolatry) or send them back to their idol-worshipping families. Perhaps they could marry again in Moab. Marriage meant rest or security for a woman in the ancient world.
They started back to Israel when Naomi decided to send them to their families with a prayer for God’s blessing. But they wanted to stay with Naomi. Only after Naomi explained her lack of opportunity did Orpah agree to stay in Moab. Naomi explained that she had no more sons for them. She referred to the levirate custom in which a brother was responsible to marry his brother’s widow in order to produce a son to carry on his brother’s name. Naomi had no more sons, and she felt she was too old to have another husband. But Ruth wanted to go with Naomi despite the grim prospects.
Some have believed Naomi was sinning by sending Orpah back into gross idolatry. Some believe she was selfless in trying to provide the best opportunity for survival. Often in hard times all of the choices that are available to us seem flawed. We have to remember that God is creative. He may have a plan we could never have thought of.
C. QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY OR DISCUSSION
- Why do you think Naomi saw her plight as a judgment from God in verse 13?
- Some have seen her return as a form of repentance. How do you see it?
- Even though Naomi blamed her crisis on God, she did not reject God. How does this speak of true faith?
- What does Hebrews 11:6 say about true faith?
- Does Naomi ever deny that God exists?
- Do you think Naomi believed God’s discipline was justified? Did she convey this to the Moabite widows?
- How do you speak about God to unbelievers in your circle of influence?
- Have you ever been tempted to reject God in your hard times?
- What does Lamentations 3:22-23 say about God’s workings?
DAY FOUR: RUTH CHOSE TO FOLLOW NAOMI.
READ: Ruth 1:15-18
A. RUTH PLEDGED LOYALTY TO NAOMI AND TO GOD.
Naomi tried again to send Ruth back to her people and her gods. Ruth made the famous statement of loyalty to her mother-in-law personally and to Naomi’s God.
Ruth 1:16-17 – “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 anything but death separates you and me.”
Ruth does not know what will happen. They may die – but they will die together. They may find relatives and live – but they will live together. Ruth made a vow before the one true God that she will follow and care for Naomi as long as she lives. Naomi will not be abandoned in her old age – as destitute widows might have imagined would be their fate.
This pledge from Ruth must have provided some form of comfort to Naomi. Even though she couldn’t imagine how they would survive, it is always a comfort to have another person for support in hard times.
B. RUTH PLEDGED LOYALTY TO GOD.
Ruth made a vow before the one true God. We don’t know how much Ruth knew about Jehovah. She had never seen the tabernacle or the sacrifices being offered. She had never heard a reading of the Torah in a synagogue. (Synagogues didn’t exist until much later in Jewish history.) She only knew what she had learned from her new family.
She had seen the deep faith of Naomi and perhaps the faith of her former husband Mahlon as well. Jehovah was a different kind of God than her Moabite god Chemosh, who required the sacrifice of children and who could not be personally known. She was drawn to a God who communicated, who was faithful to His good covenant, and a God who could be known personally. Perhaps Naomi or another family member had even told her about the wondrous works of God in the history of their nation. It is hard not to talk about God when we have experienced his works of love in our lives.
C. QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY OR DISCUSSION
- What attributes of God do you think makes Him worthy to be worshipped?
- What attributes of Naomi would cause Ruth to make a lifelong commitment to her?
- Who do you know who deserves your sacrificial love?
- In your opinion, did Naomi act selflessly in trying to send Ruth back to her family or did she act sinfully in trying to send her back into idolatry?
- When have you shown selfless love to a person in your extended family?
- What most impresses you about Ruth so far? How can you incorporate this behavior into your life?
- Why do you think Ruth’s pledge of love and loyalty to her mother-in-law is so often read at weddings?
DAY FIVE: NAOMI AND RUTH TRAVELED TO BETHLEHEM.
READ: Ruth 1:19-22
A. NAOMI’S BITTERNESS WAS OBSERVED.
Naomi (and Ruth) came back to Naomi’s home town after being gone for ten years. Everyone changes somewhat in ten years, but the change in Naomi was shocking to her kinsmen, especially the women.
She left happy and secure but returned in deep pain and grief. She expressed her deep depression and attributed her tragic life circumstances directly to God’s hand. She even changed her name to a word that means bitter.
It is hard to criticize a person who is suffering a deep grief from the death of loved ones. But it must be noted that bitterness can lead to sin and a lapse of balance in our lives. It can crowd out any notice of the blessings that might be obvious to everyone else. Naomi had suffered loss and hardships but she had the help and devotion of Ruth and she had a God who promised restoration upon repentance. She was only able to see the negative in her life.
A root of bitterness can poison your life and affect the people around you (Hebrews 12:15). Complaining is an insult to God and puts Him in a bad light before other people. When we feel that we have suffered almost more than we can bear, we must take our complaints and emotions directly to God. We can trust Him to help us work through our grief and learn to trust again. David models this kind of solution in Psalm 25:16-21. Job also took his complaints directly to God in Job 10:1-3. God can handle our anger and grief, but often people cannot.
There are two great verses that speak of the value of quickly overcoming unhappiness:
- Proverbs 17:22 – “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
- Nehemiah 8:10b – “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
C. GOD’S PROVISION WAS TIMELY.
It is noted in verse 22 that Ruth and Naomi arrived sometime in April or May as the barley harvest was beginning. There was a law of gleaning in Israel. By law Israeli harvesters could make only one pass through the fields. Anything left belonged to the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10). The widows will not starve in the next few weeks. God is at work already blessing them. God’s system was to feed the poor who were willing to work and also to prevent the owners from hoarding.
D. QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY OR DISCUSSION
- Read about gleaning in Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19. What do you think about God’s “system of welfare?”
- What does Scripture say about the care of Naomi’s God? (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:17-18))
- How does Scripture describe the god of Ruth’s Moabite culture? (1 Kings 11:7)
- How does this help explain Ruth’s conversion to Naomi’s God, even though Naomi is bitter toward Him at this time?
- What does Lamentations 3:37-39 say about complaining?
- What does Paul say about handling our hard times? (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
- What was Paul’s personal experience in this problem? (Philippians 4:11-13)
- When we look out through pain-filled eyes, we often miss God’s new blessing. When have you had a root of bitterness in your life?
- What great blessing came out of your life after a tragedy?
There are times when life looks bleak, even hopeless. We may have made bad decisions, or we may have come under God’s discipline. There are many other reasons for tragedy in a fallen world. But God can work all things for good when we turn to Him and learn to trust Him again. We must take our troubles to Him, not others whose faith may be weakened by our moment of pain. Naomi has come home again, and she can put herself under the loving care of her Father who loves her and wants to bless her.
There is rejoicing in heaven when we come home again to our loving Father.
Include a time of thanksgiving in your prayer life each day this week.
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