Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Choosing Community Wisely

Our past five lessons have dealt with the book of Judges and the nation of Israel after they entered the Promised Land. These lessons examined the repeated cycle of the Israelites' disobedience, oppression, repentance, and deliverance by a judge raised of God. Their faithfulness would be renewed for a time and the cycle would begin again.

We shall begin to look at another event which took place during the time of the judges. The time of the judges was characterized by moral decline. It is not surprising to find the land undergoing famine, God's promised chastisement for disobedience. The first words as to the time period is all we have. It was ' the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land...' (Ruth 1:1b). It is assumed that the famine occurred during the beginning cycle of one of the earlier judges. Some theorize that Boaz (who married Ruth) born of Rahab, who received the spies in Joshua's time, was born during the period of the earlier judges. In fact, the Scripture only mentions a famine in the entire book of Judges when God raised up Gideon as judge. But some theorize it may have happened during the cycles of disobedience when God raised up either Ehud or Deborah as judges.

Because of the famine, an Israelite family left the city of Bethlehem (house of bread, fruitfulness), tribe of Judah (praise) and traveled to Moab, a heathen nation, to live. (Ruth 1:1c) Instead of having faith in God and viewing the famine as part of the cycle, this family, part of God's chosen, decided to leave. They sold their parcel of the Promised Land and left to live in Moab. 'The name of the man was Elimelech (my God is King), and the name of his wife Naomi (my pleasant one), and the name of his two sons Mahlon (sickly) and Chilion (pining),...' (Ruth 1:2). Elimelech should not have left the Promised Land, least of all to settle in Moab. God had made the Israelites aware they were not to live in the same community and/or depend upon the Moabites for their prosperity. '... Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever:...Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days forever' (Deut 23: 3,6). During the time the family was in Moab, Elimelech died. Scripture does not reveal how long he lived after he arrived in the foreign heathen land. But after his death his family did not return to the peace and prosperity of the Promised Land. They remained in Moab, a place of death and barrenness for them. Mahlon married Ruth (see Ruth 4:10) and Chilion married Orpah. After ten years of wedded matrimony and during the extended families' waiting period to return to the homeland, both sons also died childless. (Ruth 1:4-5) We might want to question why Naomi did not immediately return to the Promised Land after she was widowed and had only the two sons. Could she have saved the lives of her sons by going back to the Promised Land sooner? It was not part of God's plan. Naomi is left with two daughters-in-law of Moabite descent.

Upon hearing that the Lord had visited His people with bread, Naomi decided to return to Judah. Moab had provided the supply and shelter during the time of famine in her homeland, but she needed to return to the holy land of rest forever. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set out toward Bethlehem in Judah. In the midst of the trip, the three women, all widows, considered their future. The two daughters-in-law were young enough to remarry. In all probability Naomi would not marry again. She was concerned for her daughters-in-law. In those days, being a widow was a serious situation, as there was no welfare system and widows were on their own. Naomi advised her daughters-in-law to go back home to their mothers. (Ruth 1:8a) She had built a relationship of love with them. The daughters-in-law were with Naomi even after the death of their husbands. Naomi urged them to go back to Moab. In all probability they believed in the gods of Moab knowing Naomi believed in the God Almighty of Israel. Yet there is a love for Naomi that these daughters-in-law held in order to begin the journey to Judah. When Naomi urged that they return to their mother's home, she prayed '...the Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband...' (Ruth 1:8b,9a) The aim of Naomi's prayer was that her daughter-in-laws trust in the Lord for true security and the Lord would deal kindly with them. She felt they had a much better chance of survival in their land where they were known. She kissed them as if to say goodbye (Ruth 1:9b) and they wept.

Orpah and Ruth protested the advice of Naomi. (Ruth 1:10) They insisted they would return with her to her people in Bethlehem. Naomi sought to discourage them again. '...why will ye go with me? are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?...if I should have an husband also...and should also bear sons; Would ye tarry for them till they were grown?...' (Ruth 1:11b,12b,13a; cf Deut 25:5-6) The only other possibility would lie in her having near-kinsmen who would, under Jewish custom, marry her two daughters-in-law. Naomi could not think of no such relative and did not want her widowed daughters-in-law to be looked down upon because they were barren. In her plea she continued, ' grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me' (Ruth 1:13b). Naomi was confessing that she was a sinner and did not want them to suffer. She was attempting to protect them and once again she insisted they 'Turn again, my daughters, go your way...' (Ruth 1:12a) She was sending them home as daughters and with love.

'And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her...' (Ruth 1:14) Notice the different attitudes of the three widows after Naomi's second attempt to discourage Orpah and Ruth. Naomi was a grieving widow, stripped of the earthly joys of husband and family by divine judgment. She felt she was too old to have such joy in the future. Orpah, having soberly considered the second argument of her mother-in-law, proved to be a leaving widow in the interest of self-preservation. She loved her mother-in-law, but not enough to abandon what she considered safe. She chose the easiest course and went back home to Moab (and its gods). When Naomi saw Orpah return, she urged Ruth to do the same. Such was not to be the case. Ruth was a cleaving widow, clinging to Naomi despite her discouraging words. It immediately becomes clear that Ruth had abandoned thoughts of self-preservation in favor of allegiance and devotion. It was no longer about Ruth, but about Naomi. When she chose a new life with Naomi, she knew it would not be easy, especially since there was no male provider. She also knew she was separating herself from her home in Moab and her loved ones. Ruth declared to Naomi that she was making a total commitment in by promising: '...for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me' (Ruth 1:16b,17). Ruth convinced Naomi that she would leave all she had in Moab to follow her mother-in-law. She persevered until Naomi '...left speaking unto her' (Ruth 1:18b). With that, Naomi ended her protests and headed for Bethlehem with Ruth at her side. (See Ruth 1:19)

It was the beginning of the barley harvest, the season of firstfruits, when Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem. All the city was excited to see Naomi once again and greeted her cordially by name. She said to them, 'Call me not Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter): for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me' (Ruth 1:20). She had gone out full with her husband and sons, but the Lord had brought her back empty; i.e., a widow and childless. 'So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her, which returned out of the country, of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest' (Ruth 1:22).

Written by Deborah C. Davis

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