Aug 07 - When Trouble Comes

When Trouble Comes

August 7, 2016

Ruth 1

 

 

WHEN TROUBLE COMES

August 7th, 2016

Ruth 1

 

The book of Ruth is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible.  In one sense, it is a love story … as far as those were possible back in those days … but it’s real point is to say something about the character of God, and what it takes to become part of his people.

 

1 In the days when the judges ruled Israel, a man from Bethlehem in the land of Judah left the country because of a severe family.  He took his wife and two sons and went to live in the country of Moab.  2 The man’s name was Elimelech (= God is King), and his wife was Naomi (= pleasant).  Their two sons were Mahlon (= weakly) and Kilion (= failure).  They were descendants of Ephraim from Bethlehem in the land of Judah.   Ruth 1:1-2

 

The time of the judges was, like most of Israel’s history, one of intermittent warfare, mostly with its direct neighbours, in particularly the Philistines.  Our story took place about 70 to 80 years prior to Saul being installed as the first king of Israel, in part, to deal more effectively with the Philistines than the judges did. 

 

Since there are at least two Bethlehem’s in Israel, one to the North in what would become Galilee during Jesus’ time, and one in the South, not far from Jerusalem, the writer has to make clear which one is meant.

 

This particular Bethlehem would become the birthplace of King David maybe 100 years later, and then, 1000 years later, the birthplace of Jesus.  By the way, Bethlehem means House of Bread, highly ironic given that Elimelech is taking his family elsewhere because of a famine, possibly due to a drought. 

 

It seems to me that the couple wasn’t all that bright when it came to naming their sons.  Imagine naming your kids “Weakling” and “Loser”?  What a way to damage a child’s sense of self-worth. 

 

It’s like going to the psychologist for an inferiority complex and being told, “no, no, don’t worry, you do not have a complex.  You really are inferior.

 

The original readers would already be clued in as to what would happen to those who carried such names.  If you’re a Star Trek fan, it might remind you of the hapless red shirts who inevitably would be killed off.   

 

In any case, we know from a passage later on in the book that Elimelech owned property, farmland, in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:3), which he feels forced to abandon because it could no longer sustain him and his family. 

 

However, as the story unfolds, one gets the very strong impression that those who remained in Bethlehem fared much better than Elimelech and his family, even though they had to endure the family. 

 

Moab is only about 70 km from Bethlehem, it’s just on the other side of the Dead Sea. 

 

Even so, Moab was a curious choice for Elimelech, because Moab was considered a traditional enemy of Israel. 

 

There the destiny of Weakling and Loser becomes apparent … redshirts, like I said.

 

3 During their stay in Moab, Elimelech died and Naomi was left with her two sons.  4 The two sons married Moabite women.  One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. 

 

[As a complete aside here, Oprah Winfrey’s actual name is Orpah Winfrey, after this character in the book of Ruth] 

 

But about ten years later 5 both Mahlon and Kilion died.  This left Naomi alone without her husbands and sons.                                                                                               Ruth 1:3-5

 

Weakling and Loser do two things that make their characters true to their names.  First of all, they were losers in that they married women from Moab, and second of all, they were weakly in that they died very young

 

So why was marrying women from Moab something less than ideal? 

 

In the OT (Gen 19), the Moabites are described as the descendants of a son who was born to one of Lot’s daughters after she got her dad drunk so that he would impregnate her.  Just one of the yucky stories in the OT.   As a result, Israelites didn’t think particularly highly of the Moabites. 

 

But the real animosity between Israel and Moab began during the time of the Exodus when Israel wanted safe passage through Moab in order to reach Palestine.  Instead, the Moabites forced Israel to travel out of their way into the wilderness to the East of Moab in order to avoid conflict. 

 

Even after the Israelites were camped on the other side of Moab, their king paid a prophet to curse Israel, a plan which backfired because the prophet blessed Israel instead (Num 22-24).[1] 

 

However, that did not lessen Moab’s attempt to compromise Israel.  Immediately following the ill-fated cursing of Israel, some Moabite women seduced men from Israel and convinced them to worship the Moabite god, Chemosh

 

Ultimately the Jewish men were killed for their actions (Num 25:1-5) and God orders Moses to treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them because of this incident (Num 25:17). 

 

As a result of these events the Moabite men were banned forever from becoming a part of the Jewish nation.

 

Ammonites or Moabites may never be included in the assembly of YHWH.  Their descendants, even to the tenth generation, may never enter the assembly of YHWH.  … As long as you exist you may never seek their peace or prosperity.                                              Deuteronomy 23:3,6

 

Some commentators point out that the number “10” is the number of complete exclusion.  So Moabite men could never become part of Israel and were permanently excluded from taking part in the Jewish feasts, festivals and other religious celebrations.  Further, Israel was never to make a treaty with Moab.[2]

 

However, what about Moabite women?  In the Mosaic Law, Jewish men were forbidden to intermarry with or make treaties with the inhabitants of Canaan (Deut 7:1-3).[3] 

 

While the Law of Moses does not outright forbid marrying women from the nations surrounding Canaan, we need to keep in mind the immorality associated with the origin of the Moabites and with the seduction of Jewish men.  Also the prohibition for Moabite men to become part of the commonwealth of Israel may also imply that the women are as well.

 

Even 650 years after the events of the book of Ruth took place, during the time of the resettlement of Jerusalem under the priest Ezra after the Babylonian exile (458 BC), Ezra himself interprets the Mosaic Law no longer as a prohibition of intermarriage with Canaanite women, but as a general prohibition against marrying any non-Jewish woman, particularly those who came from the nations surrounding Israel., including Moab. 

 

The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring people who have detestable practices, like … the Ammonites, Moabites ….  They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the people around them.                                                     Ezra 9:1-2

 

Ezra was appalled at the intermarriages, called a general assembly, and told the men that they had to separate themselves from their foreign wives and the children they had with them.  Those men who refused were excommunicated.  

 

[Some commentators think that Ruth was penned during the reign of the kings over Israel and Judah.  Other’s think that Ruth was penned in order to be a counterweight to the story of Ezra, and therefore must be dated much, much later, after the time of the prophets.  It’s extremely hard to definitively say when the book of Ruth was written.[4]   ]

 

During Jesus’ day, the Rabbis forbade Jews to marry non-Jews (Kiddushin 68b), unless these converted to Judaism – which the Rabbis believed that Ruth did.

 

All that to say, that the Jewish readers of the book of Ruth would have definitely frowned on Weakling and Loser marrying Moabite women.  After all, the trip back to Judah to find a Jewish bride was by no means a long one.  “Nothing good can come of this,” they may have thought. 

 

And then, the men were losers and weak in that they could not produce any offspring … and, it wasn’t because their wives were barren.  They may have been betrothed quite young, but nevertheless couldn’t have kids … even after 10 years.  In any case, the two sons in the most unfortunate way, lived up to their names as they die young. 

 

So everything went wrong for Naomi.  The death of the men put her, as well as her daughter-in-law’s, in desperate straits since they would have little chance of being able to support themselves.  Today we cannot possibly understand the situation for those women.  Worse of was Naomi, because living sons were the old age security for parents … without them there was no one to provide.

 

The normal and logical thing for the two younger women was to abandon their mother-in-law.  They were still able to return and be accepted back into their parents’ homes where they would be taken care of.  They could remarry and have children.  And their obligation to Naomi would have been minimal. 

 

Yet they did not leave Naomi.  In fact they stuck with her and likely did their best to look after and support her.  Nevertheless, Naomi decides to return to Judah when news reached her about the famine being over in her homeland.  She was likely hoping to find family members who would be willing to support her.

 

6 While in Moab, Naomi heard that YHWH had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again.  So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland.  7 With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.

 

The two younger women are more than prepared to follow Naomi into a foreign land, which would likely diminish their chances of finding another husband and escaping potential grinding poverty. 

 

However, during the trip, Naomi starts to think about what is in the best interest of her two daughter-in-laws’.

 

8 But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes instead of coming with me.  And may YHWH show you steadfast love and kindness (chesed) as you have shown it to the dead and to me.  9 May YHWH bless you with the security of another marriage.”  Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.                          Ruth 1:8-9

 

In this passage an important Hebrew word, chesed, is introduced.  It is a word that is found twice more in the short book of Ruth.[5]

 

Chesed is a Hebrew word that is variously translated as “lovingkindness,”  “steadfast kindness,”  “abiding mercy,” “loyal love,” as both a disposition of the heart or the actions resulting from it.   

 

I’ve decided to translate it by used the statement “steadfast love and kindness” in order to express that chesed is speaking of ongoing (unfailing) unselfish and self-giving kindness toward another

 

Both of the younger women had shown chesed to Naomi by staying with her, and, by extension, have also shown chesed to Naomi’s deceased husband and sons, as they honoured their wife and mother. 

 

Somewhat surprising is that Naomi’s double blessing on the two women is made in reference to the Jewish God, YHWH, given that it appears as if God had withheld his chesed, his self-giving kindness from the women – at least at this time. 

 

However, calling upon God’s chesed, does make sense if there is the hope that this kind of love or kindness is foundational to God’s character.  It speaks of the hope that God would ultimately show his unfailing kindness not only to the younger women, but also to Naomi. 

 

The good-bye kiss was Naomi’s way of dismissing the two younger women … it was a very strong hint that they were to go now.  However, despite being freed from any obligation, urged to now look out for themselves, and dismissed with a kiss, both women refuse to leave.

 

10 “No,” they said.  “We want to go with you to your people.”  11 But Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me?  Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands?  12 No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again.                                                            Ruth 1:10-12a

 

And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what?  13 Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else in the meantime?  No, of course not, my daughters!  Things are far bitterer for me than for you, because YHWH himself has caused me to suffer.”         Ruth 1:12b-13

 

In order to make sense of these verses, it is necessary to be familiar with what is called the Law of Levirate marriages.  In the Mosaic Law (Deut 25:5-6), the oldest surviving brother of a deceased man who has no son, is obligated to marry his brother’s widow, and the widow is obligated to marry her husband’s brother.[6]  The point of Levirate marriage was to produce a son who would carry on the name of the deceased and receive the inheritance due to him. 

 

It was possible for a brother to refuse to go through with the marriage, although this process was associated with a public shaming.  The widows really didn’t have any options or choices with regard to this matter.[7]  Today Levirate marriage has become a thing of the past among Jews.[8]

 

In any case, under the Law of Levirate marriages, if Naomi managed to find a husband – highly unlikely at her age, - and then managed to get pregnant and have a son – even more unlikely, - it would take a too long for the newborn to reach an age where he could marry either Ruth or Orpah. 

 

We have to understand that for a woman, marriage meant security and survival.  It had nothing to do with falling in love, hearts, flowers, and candies on Valentine's Day.  Having sons meant status because the husband’s family line could continue, and, as I mentioned, security in old age.  Not having sons was a disgrace and would lead to a life of poverty after the death of a husband. 

 

The chances that Ruth and Orpah would be able to receive a husband and children through Levirate marriage were zilch, which is why Naomi tells the two younger women to leave her … she knew that she is not able to offer them any kind of future if they stayed with her.   

 

However, Naomi is not placed into a favourable light despite her seeming concern for the two women, since she blames God for her condition.  It’s God’s fault and he has dealt much harder with Naomi because she herself has no chance of remarrying.   A lot of self-pity speaks out of her words, as well as an accusation against God.

 

She believed that God had cursed her, and that Orpah and Ruth would simply share her divinely-imposed affliction if they stayed with her. If God has it in for her, what woman in her right mind would want to be closely associated with her?

 

One commentator suggests that Naomi’s insistence that the two younger women return to Moab had ulterior motives.  The two women would have been a strong reminder that Naomi’s sons had died.  They also would have been a visible sign to those in Bethlehem that her boys had made the unseemly choice of marrying Moabite women – and were unable to have children. 

 

Or perhaps Naomi hoped to sell the piece of land near Bethlehem that had belonged to her husband and was loathed to be forced to share the proceeds.  Whatever the case, it is suggested that her motives were not just to look out for Ruth and Orpah.

 

14 And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye.  But Ruth insisted on staying with Naomi.  15 “See,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods.  You should do the same.”                                      Ruth 1:14-15

 

Orpah was convinced that staying with Naomi would severely lessen her chances of getting married again and having a life.  She returned to Moab, in pursuit of her best interests, and, by implication, to worshipping the god of Moab.  [Chemosh likely meant “The Destroyer” and in the OT, Chemosh is referred to as “the abomination of Moab” (1 Kings 11:7).[9]  ]

 

Orpah does not seem to have any great interest in Israel or the God of Israel. She is still a Moabites at heart.  After she leaves, it seems rather odd that Naomi would command Ruth to abandon the worship of YWHW and return to Moab and worship Chemosh instead.

 

Wouldn’t it be in Ruth and Orpah’s ultimate interest to escape the worship of a false god?  Wouldn’t their ultimate blessing be to find the one and true God? 

 

It seems as if Naomi thought of God’s blessings only in terms of having food and a family. If her daughters-in-law could snag a Moabite husband, bear some children, and have a bountiful harvest they were indeed blessed, regardless of which god they worshipped. 

 

However, something unusual happens.  Despite the very strong argument and the command for Ruth to return to Moab, she is adamant in her refusal. 

 

16 But Ruth replied, “Stop asking me to leave you and turn back.  I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live.  Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.  17 I will die where you die and will be buried there.  May YHWH punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!  18 So when Naomi saw that Ruth had made up her mind to go with her, she stopped urging her.                                   Ruth 1:16-18

 

When Ruth refused again to return to Moab, she does so with the decision that she would no longer worship the Moabite gods.  She made the conscious choice to turn and embrace instead the God of Israel.  “Your people will be my people and your God will be my God” is a covenant formula that is often used in ancient treaties (I will be your God and you will be my people). 

 

[As an aside, her words to Naomi are so beautiful they are sometimes used as a marriage vows.] 

 

Ruth becomes a “true Israelite” in spite of Naomi’s persistent encouragement to return to her Moabite roots.  Ruth’s words are her covenant with Naomi, with Israel, and with God, patterned after God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  Unlike Orpah, Ruth has an uncanny grasp of Israel’s religion, what it means to live in relationship with God, and has made the choice of embracing him as her own God.  She makes a radical commitment of faith.

 

We also need to understand that Ruth was willing to become the perpetual outsider in a small village.  My father lived in the same small Austrian village for 41 years, but he was always viewed as an outsider by those who were born in the village.  The same would be true of Ruth.

 

Moab was from the other side … the other side of the Dead Sea, the wrong side of the tracks.  She would always be one of “them.”  Those people.  She would always stand out and always be known as the Moabite woman, a term that is used to identify her by the townspeople (Ruth 2:6; 4:5,10).[10]

 

While borders were more fluid and economic refugees were relatively common, racism existed then as it does today.  And the Jewish people in fact did discriminate against outsiders.  It’s hard not to be when you know that you are chosen by God.  You start to think of yourself as better than others and you start treating others that way.  Ruth was willing to live in that reality for the rest of her life.

 

 

That may be one of the main reasons why they are continually told in the Mosaic Law not to mistreat or take advantage of foreigners who lived among them – 11 passages).[11]  In fact they are told that, because God demonstrates his loving kindness for them, the Israelites should do likewise to the foreigners living among them (Deut 10:18-19). 

 

The statement, “May God punish me ever so severely,” was the most powerful oath that could be uttered at that time – and introduces a solemn pledge.

 

This oath is called self-imprecatory, a fancy word that indicates that someone is calling a curse of death and destruction upon his or her own head if the promised action is not fulfilled, in this case, to stay with someone until death.[12] 

 

I don’t want you to miss the implication of Ruth’s words.  This is not a short-term commitment … it is for life.  Nor is this a promise that does not have immense implications.  Ruth knew that by making it she would in all likelihood never see her parents and siblings again, never have a husband and kids, always be struggling financially, and always having to look out after Naomi.  The sacrifice she is willing to make is immense.   

 

Her powerful oath finally convinces Naomi that Ruth would not turn back no matter what reasons she could give and no matter what the consequences.  So the two women travelled on and crated quite a stir when they finally arrived in Bethlehem.

 

19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem.  When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred up because of them.  The women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”  20 But she said, “Don’t call me Naomi.  Call me Mara (= bitter) instead, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  21 I went away full, but YHWH has brought me back empty.  Why call me Naomi?  YHWH has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”      Ruth 1:19-21

 

Bethlehem was not a big village.  I get the impression that most of the residents who were around when Naomi had left with her husband and two boys, still lived there and recognized her even though over 10 years had passed. 

 

Naomi’s attitude continues to be misguided and downright wrong, since she felt that God has unfairly and undeservedly treated her in a harsh and severe way.

 

She seems to have little or no conviction regarding the possibility that she and her husband may have sinned by moving to Moab and by not providing Jewish wives for their sons.  She was right in calling herself “bitter” because she had become a bitter woman.

 

22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. 

                                                                        Ruth 1:22

 

Chapter one closes with the two women in Bethlehem, but the important point that is made, is that it is the beginning of the barley harvest.  Barley and wheat were both planted in the fall.  But barley matured faster and would be harvested sooner in the year – in April, while wheat was harvested in May. 

 

Also, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, including the Passover feast, were celebrated just around the time when the women arrived … a celebration that speaks of God’s redemption of Israel when they were still enslaved to the nation of Egypt. 

 

The barley harvest will play an important role in how the lives of the two women moves forward, and at its beginning it foreshadows that some kind of redemption may take place.

 

So what can we learn from this story so far?    

 

  1. Minor compromises can lead to bad consequences.  Will I keep making them?

 

Maybe we’ve allowed things into our lives that we know are detrimental in some way: physical, relational or, spiritual.  Is it time to weed this out?

 

  1. Bad things will happen.  Will I allow them to make me bitter?

 

Tragedies are a guaranteed part of life.  If you haven’t experienced heart break or tragedy, you simply haven’t lived long enough.  At times, the amount of bad things that happen, the amount of stress or pain we have to endure, may cause us to call out to God, “Enough already!”

 

Do we expect to live a charmed existence where those realities simply do not happen, and when they do, do we shake our fist at God or turn our back on him? 

 

  1. There may be “sacrifices” to truly living for God.  Am I willing to make any?

 

 When we come to God, we promise to be in a covenant relationship with him … We promise to live for him, to follow his will.  But sometimes we want to live completely unfettered, completely at ease, completely self-indulgent.

 

If that is the case, then the Lord’s Supper should call us up short.  The apostle Paul tells us that when we celebrate Communion, we should examine ourselves (1 Cor 11:28), which I want us to do in just a few minutes of silence, after which I will pray before we hand out the elements.

 

Prayer of confession, repentance, cleansing

 

This is my body, given for you … eat in remembrance of me.

 

This cup is the new covenant in my blood .. drink it in remembrance of me.    Remembering the death

 

[1] Israel did not take away the land of Moab … Israel sent messengers to the king of Moab (requesting free passage through the land), but he would not consent. … The Israelites went through the wilderness and around … the land of Moab and came to the east side of the land of Moab, and they camped beyond the Arnon river, but they did not enter the territory of Moab because the Arnon was the border of Moab.   Judges 11:15-18; in reference to Numbers 21:11-13. 

[2] There was at least one armed struggle between the tribe of Benjamin and the Moabites, leading to Moab’s rule over Israel for 18 years – Judges 3:12-30; Under David, the Moabites were subjugated – 2 Sam 22:3-4; 1 Chron 18:2.  Isaiah predicts the complete annihilation of the Moabites – Isa 15; 16; 25:10-12.

[3] They disobeyed the prohibition to intermarry with the Canaanites (Judges 3:6; Ps 106:34-36).

[4] The book of Ruth had to be penned during or after David’s reign as king of Israel (c. 1000 BC), since David is mentioned in the book (as the great-grandson of Boaz).   Arguments that place the dating in the post-exilic period (language mostly) don’t appear completely convincing to me.

[5] Ruth 2:20 in reference to Boaz; 3:10 in reference again to Ruth.

[6] If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family.  Her husband’s brother will take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her.  The first son she bears will carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

[7] Deut 25:7-10 – The widow will take off one of his sandals and spit in his face before the elders at the city gate, and the man will be known as the “unsandaled one”. 

[8] In contemporary Jewish communities, the symbolic act of renouncing the right of Levirate marriage is universally practiced.

[9] Chemosh may have also been called Ashtar and Moloch, but these may also have been separate deities.  Solomon introduced the worship of Chemosh to Jerusalem during his reign (1 Kings 11:7,33) and this worship continued for 400 years until the reforms under King Josiah (2 Kings 23:13).

[10] This is also how the author identifies her (Ruth 1:4,22). 

[11] See: Ex 22:21; 23:9; Deut 1:16; 24:17; 27:19; Lev 19:33; 24:22; Num 15:16.  Note that the law of gleaning is to benefit also the foreigners (Deut 24:20-21; Lev 23:22).

[12] 2 Sam 3:35; 19:14; 1 Kings 2:23; 19:2; 20:10.  However, even King David did not follow through on this vow when it came to the destruction of Nabal’s family (cf. 1 Sam 25:22).   The vow can also be used as a threatened curse upon another (cf. 1 Sam 3:17: May God to do YOU and more also …)