As a literary work, Ruth is a multi-layered composition with several themes which alternately come to the forefront and then recede from prominence as the story progresses. Despair followed by hope, romance, true biblical masculinity and femininity, God’s providence, racial issues, risk-taking followed by reward intertwine in the story of Redemption. Before Israel had a king like other nations, God was at work getting the people of his choosing into place; the very ancestry of our Redeemer demonstrated how in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile but only saints saved by grace.
Closer to Ruth’s day, there were probably questions about the legitimacy of David as king for Israel. After all, his great-grandmother was a Moabitess! However it is clear from her story that God knew what he was doing, that he did indeed intend for his anointed king to have a Gentile ancestor. Set in the time of the judges when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) including some of the key figures in our story, Ruth plainly shows how God sovereignly superintended events in the life of one particular family.
We know how the story turns out – Ruth and Naomi blessed beyond imagination. As the events were unfolding, Ruth and Naomi didn’t have any way of predicting the outcome. And God threw some hard stuff their way, what we would rightly call great tragedy as necessary elements in his sovereign plan. Through it all, as recorded by the inspired writer, Ruth acted the part of a model virtuous woman (Ruth 3:11), displaying many of the traits found in the ideal of Proverbs 31.
A. the circumstances v.1
during the time of the judges – time when Israelites in large numbers were unfaithful to God, practicing idolatry, doing all sorts of evil. See Judges 2:11-19.
wrongdoing – started with a generation who didn’t know God, who followed the ways of the Canaanites left behind during the conquest of Canaan. Practiced idolatry and immorality in direct defiance of God’s commands.
retribution – to cause the people to turn back to him God sent predators, invaders from neighboring areas to harass and cause hardship. The Israelites lost in military engagements, their animals were stolen, weapons and metal tools taken away, crops destroyed.
rescue – when things got tough enough that people saw God as their only hope. God sent leaders, judges, who had his blessing and guidance. Would prevail over their harassers, experience a time of peace and prosperity so long as the judge lived.
relapse – once leader had died, people returned to former patterns of bad behavior starting cycle over again. Evidently conformity to God’s expectations only external and not backed up by repentant hearts. Throughout 350 year period God had his remnant of faithful followers in spite of overwhelming majority who had abandoned him.
more specifically – during one of the times of severe extended hardship; famine induced by their enemies sent by God, not drought or plague. Since it was a result of God’s corrective judgment, would not have affected surrounding areas. Perhaps occurred during Midianite invasion recorded in Judges 6 and immediately prior to tenure of Gideon, when we’re told that they devoured all the crops leaving nothing for the Israelites to eat.
B. the cast v.2, 4
Elimelech & Naomi – dad and mom
“my God is king” and “pleasantness” or “delight”
names are significant; later in narrative Naomi draws attention to the irony of her own name given present circumstances. She emphasizes that her treatment at the hand of God is anything but pleasant. By the end of the account her view changes but much occurred in the intervening period that Naomi could not anticipate.
Elimelech’s name gives voice to prominent theme of the book: because God is king, he has the right and ability to ordain man of his choice as king over his people. Looking to the long view: God is king over all nations, not just Israel, and exercises his dominion through the reign of that son of David, King Jesus.
Elimelech did not live up to his name in at least some areas of life – made choices regarding family that put sons at risk during vulnerable period of their lives. Elimelech not fully responsible for the actual choices they made after his death; was responsible to the degree he set them up to do wrong. He also took his family from place where God was worshiped rightly at least some of the time and settled in a land known for its worship of Chemosh, a god who required human sacrifice (2Ki 3:27).
Mahlon & Kilion – two sons
“sickly” and “piney”
casualties perhaps of the poor pre-natal and early childhood conditions of hardship. Had names that indicated less than robust health; the fact they were able to find wives shows they weren’t total losers. Further evidenced by character of Ruth displayed throughout the rest of the book – is not portrayed as one who would be likely to marry a deadbeat. We know from Ruth 4:10 that she was married to Mahlon, consequently Orpah to Kilion. If Mahlon were the elder son, could explain in part the sense of responsibility Ruth had toward Naomi and caring for her mother-in-law.
Orpah & Ruth – two daughters-in-law
“gazelle” and “friend” or “companion”
Moabite women, not resident aliens like Elimelech and family but actual members of people group that had hired Balaam to prophesy against Israel as they were passing by Moab on their way to Canaan. Were a people under the curse of God for their treatment of the Israelites. May not have been military or political enemies of Israel at that time but certainly were ideological opponents. Israelites not forbidden by law to marry Moabites but because of differing worldviews/belief systems it certainly wasn’t a good idea.
Both Orpah and Naomi saw something in the two Jewish boys that got their attention, enough so to marry them. Like mother- and father-in law, they had no way to anticipate the future and its surprises, to prepare for God’s activity in their lives.
C. the calamity v.3-5
Elimelech had the audacity to die. And his sons not on their own yet: “she was left, and her two sons”. They still had some big decisions to make AND had a mother to support. They didn’t do so well with their choice of wives, perhaps complicated by grief over losing Dad. Israel wasn’t that far away, they could have gone back there to find wives and then take them home to Moab; Abraham did that for his son Isaac. Mahlon and Kilion could have relied on extended family to help them with their selection.
Instead they chose local girls who may or may not have professed conversion to Judaism. It’s quite possible Orpah and Ruth simply added Yahweh to Chemosh on their god-shelf and worshiped both to keep peace in the family. We’re not told how long Mahlon and Kilion were married but it’s apparent that neither of them had any children, another way in which God was involved in the details of their lives (see Ruth 4:13). Then they both had the audacity to die.
Sorrow upon sorrow upon sorrow. First Elimelech, then Mahlon and Kilion died, leaving three widows with no one to provide for them and no children to take responsibility for the family inheritance. Is it any wonder that Naomi would think that God was being mean to her? That her circumstances were the result of God’s chastising? Yet there was no way she could discern the blessing God had in store for her and for Ruth, too, after the sorrow.
If Naomi believed God was displeased with choices men of the family had made (and she had gone along with), she would not expect God to bring good from trying circumstances. Certainly knowing that God can use evil for his own purposes, for good (see Joseph) never justifies wrongdoing. It is testimony to his grace that God often does use hard providences to bring major blessings to his children.
We expect loss, that loved ones will die, eventually, after we have already gone on to our reward. We don’t expect or prepare for getting ganged up on, experiencing such profound and far-reaching loss in a relatively short time as Naomi did. When we’re in the middle of tough stuff, we can maybe see that God is doing something, but we rarely if ever can figure out what it is that he’s up to. It is only when we’re through it, looking back on it from the end of the journey, that it becomes apparent how God has led us every step of the way.