9. Coincidences

Meditations in Ruth : 9. Coincidences

Ruth 2:3   So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.

We concluded chapter 1 noting that when Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem, they returned as the barley harvest was beginning.” (1:22) and we commented then on coincidences. The process of the harvest and, having been told the famine was over, we may assume it was plentiful this year, was as follows: a) cutting the ripened standing grain with hand sickles (usually done by men), b) binding the grain into sheaves (usually done by women), c) gleaning, i.e., gathering stalks of grain left behind, d) transporting the sheaves to the threshing floor–often by donkey, sometimes by cart e) threshing, i.e., loosening the grain from the straw, f) winnowing–done by tossing the grain into the air with winnowing forks (Jer 15:7) so that the wind, which usually came up for a few hours in the afternoon, blew away the straw and chaff, g) sifting the grain to remove any residual foreign matter; and h) bagging it for transportation and storage. It is as well to know that to understand what follows.

Today we have ‘benefits’, financial handouts to help the poor. In those days there were no such things but in Israel it was the duty of the family to care for poorer members and the general duty of society to make life easier for them. When it came to harvest, the Law made provision for the poor of the society: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien,” (Lev 19:9,10) and this was expanded in Deuteronomy: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deut 24:19-21)  That was the principle that operated to make some provision at least for the poorer members of society, and of course Naomi and Ruth now fall into that category.

We are then told something else which at first sight has no relevance but soon becomes a key piece of information: “Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz.” (2:1) Boaz, we are going to see shortly, was a farmer who owned fields to be harvested. Ruth has a good heart and has presumably learned the ways of this culture and so we find, “And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” (2:2) Note she is still called ‘the Moabitess’. She proposes that she will go and do what the poor do and make some provision for her and Naomi. Naomi approves of this: “Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.”

So it is that we then find, “So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.” (v.3)  Look at those words we’ve underlined: “As it turned out.” Coincidence? She goes to collect the left-overs in a field being harvested only find that the field she has been doing it in, belongs to a relative of Naomi’s. This in turn is going to have implications.

So consider the factors bringing this together:

1. Timing: they just happen to arrive back at harvest.

2. Law: the provision is for the poor at harvest

3. Good heart: Ruth is willing to go out on behalf of Naomi.

4. Chance? She finds herself working in a field of a relative.

Now, as we said, in what follows, the fact that Boaz is a relative of Naomi’s is highly significant because we will see, and as we’ve hinted at already, families had responsibilities in respect of their poorer members. Purely by chance (????) as she conforms to the Law and provides for her mother-in-law, Ruth will find she has put herself before one of Naomi’s relatives and will be drawn to his attention. If this hadn’t happened he might never have actually met her.

So the obvious question must be, was this pure coincidence or was God guiding her? Well the answer has to be, we don’t know because it doesn’t say. But isn’t this how it so often is with life. In Christian teaching we so often speak about God’s guidance (and the Bible is full of it) but when it comes down to every day living, things happen that leave us wondering, “Was that Him?” It seems so often things happen and the sceptic will shout, “Coincidence!”  However, I used to have a friend who said, “People say to me answers to prayer are pure coincidence, but all I know is when I stop praying the coincidences stop happening.”

I am sure God does intervene on our behalf in the circumstances of life and sometimes the coincidences seem so big you just have to attribute them to Him. Could He have prompted Naomi to return to Israel so it coincided with harvest?  Could He have prompted Ruth to look out gleaning?  Could He have guided her to the right field? Yes to all these. Yes, He could. The cynic says, “Yes, well, maybe, but maybe not,” but the man or woman of faith says, “Whether or not it was God, the outcome was good. Lord thank you for the outcome, and doubly so if you had a hand in it. Thank you that you do that sort of thing!”

8. Return to Starting Place

Meditations in Ruth : 8. Return to the Starting Place

Ruth 1:18,19   When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem.

Naomi has determined to return to her old home town and after failing to deter Ruth with talk about having to change her people and her God, the two return to Bethlehem. Returning to the original point of a journey into failure, delusion or heartache is never easy but sometimes essential.  As far as family upsets go, most of us would prefer to leave the past in the past and not go to places that revive memories of hurt. When Naomi returns to Bethlehem she must have had memories of how she had married there and born two sons, but now she is alone but for a Moabite daughter-in-law, and how will people receive her?

But if Naomi is to have any life it has got to be back with her own people. She is becoming an elderly lady and with no husband or sons to support her, the future looks bleak, and if she is going to survive anywhere it had better be with her own people. There is little other option.  Often we need to go back to start again. If we have left the past with unresolved disputes we can never carry on a full and righteous life if we do not, at least, try to do something to resolve those past conflicts.  Sometimes it requires us to face what happened in the past with open honesty, accepting out part in what went wrong, perhaps seeking forgiveness and perhaps confronting others with their failures in respect of you. How they respond is up to them. Biblically forgiveness is only granted with acknowledgement of having been in the wrong and asking for that forgiveness (God only forgives the repentant sinner). Sometimes there may need to be restitution, whatever it takes for us to do all we can to put right past wrongs. Oh yes, in God’s kingdom we cannot sweep the dirt under the carpet and hope it will go away.

But the thing is that it can’t be the same as before. If we walked out on our family, if there was relational upset, if wrong was done to us, the reality is that we cannot expect the clock to be put  back and pretend everything is now all right. If we are the father of the returning prodigal (Lk 15) with the grace of God, we can welcome back with open arms, but not everyone may welcome them back in the same way (e.g. the ‘elder brother’) and there may need to be work to regain trust.

The other thing, of course, is that if we are the one returning, we have history between the time we left and now, and that history, as in Naomi’ case,  may be very painful. The truth is that we are not the same person. It may well be that the painful events have refined us and we return with a larger measure of grace than we had before. However we may have memories (and habits and behaviors) that we need help in being released from. Time is a healer but so is the truth and then the grace of God.

If we are ‘returning’ we can ask ourselves, ‘What have I learnt from what I have been through?’  We can learn from what we’ve been through; it doesn’t have to have been a wasted time of our life. Maybe we came to understand the realities of this fallen world, maybe we came to appropriate the grace of God more fully.

So Naomi and Ruth return: “So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”  (v.19) Years have passed but people who knew her in the past, see the arrival in this relatively small town and think, “I have seen this woman before. I know this woman. Surely it is Naomi who left with her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons.”

But when they greet her Naomi doesn’t try to put a gloss on it; she is open and honest about what has happened: “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (v.20,21)  Now Israel knew that when God afflicted someone they deserved it, so this is her way of confessing, “I blew it, we got it wrong, and it all went badly. I am not the woman I was.”

And thus we read, “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.” (v.22) Not Ruth the new Israelite, but Ruth the Moabitess; that is significant as we’ll consider in the future. And it’s barley harvest. Coincidence?  We’ll see, but whatever else it is, it is significant as we’ll see as the story unfolds. Naomi is home again. The whole town was “stirred because of them”, because of their obvious plight. The gossips certainly had something to talk about – and what about this Moabite woman Naomi’s brought back with her????

7. Commitment

Meditations in Ruth : 7. Commitment

Ruth 1:16,17    But Ruth replied, “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.”

So Ruth has been confronted with the two big stumbling blocks to her going with Naomi: first the fact of having to leave her own people and become part of a completely different culture and all that that meant and then, second, that she would have to leave behind the idols and superstitious worship of her own land and declare allegiance to Yahweh, the one true, almighty, creator God who has revealed Himself to Israel.

Ruth’s response to Naomi faces just these issues but it goes beyond that and, in fact, starts with her allegiance to Naomi herself. The bond that she has formed with Naomi over the years as her daughter-in-law is sufficiently strong that it means that whatever Naomi goes for in the future, so will she, Ruth, go for it.  Note the personal nature of her initial affirmation: But Ruth replied, “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.” (v.16a)  The motivation for her commitment to God and to Israel is first of all founded in her relationship with Naomi.

In the New Testament the apostle Peter was to counsel Christian women married to unbelieving husbands (presumably after the woman had come to Christ while married), “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1 Pet 3:1,2) It was the quality of their lives and their relationship that should impress, challenge and eventually convict their unbelieving husbands.  Later in that same chapter Peter gives some more general counsel to all of us, based on the same idea: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet 3:15) Note it is an answer in response to what people first see in us that provokes them to ask questions about us. The same idea is there that the quality of our lives should be so convincing that it leads people towards a relationship with the One with whom we have a relationship. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me,” (Jn 17:21) the same idea is there, that the world will see our unity with the Godhead and the reality of it will convince people.

That is the starting place of Ruth’s declaration of allegiance or declaration of commitment, it is her commitment to Naomi. But that commitment then takes in the things we considered in the previous meditation, first of all a willingness to become apart of the nation of Israel with its unique culture – “Your people will be my people” – and then to the God of Israel, Yahweh – “and your God my God.”

But this isn’t a short moment commitment, not something I may try for a short while, this is a whole-hearted life-long commitment: “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” THAT is commitment and that is what the Lord expects of those becoming Christians, those giving themselves to Him – it is a “for ever”  commitment!

Now Ruth concludes this affirmation by making it into a vow and it is a vow made in the sight of the Lord: “May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”  The fact that the covenant name is used (in capital letters in your Bible referring back to Exodus 3) implies at the very least that Naomi had spoken about the Lord and that Ruth now understood the implications of what she was saying.

This commitment of Ruth’s must come as a challenge to many in the church in the twenty first century where professions of commitment are often more emotional than intellectual and are thus made on the spur of the moment with little real understanding and a lack of opportunity to carefully reflect on just what we are saying and doing.

The end result of this is that we have two women united in their anguish for lost loved ones and united in purpose to return to Israel with all that that implied. When we come to Christ, we are united with all other believers now in the body of Christ, in that we all have the same background that we have left behind (a selfish, self-centred, godless and unrighteous life) and the same future – unknown by us but known by God. Yes, there are many similarities with what is happening to Naomi and Ruth.

6. Facing the Options

Meditations in Ruth : 6. Facing the Options

Ruth 1:15, 16,    Ruth clung to her. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

Naomi has decided to go home and has encouraged the two daughters-in-law to return to their own people and find husbands there. They initially refuse to leave but when she spells out the impossibility of her helping them have another husband, one of them does the common sense thing and decides to stay. It is Ruth who will not be deterred; she will stay with Naomi – whatever!

After Ruth had “clung to her” she still sought to deter her: Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” Which is when we then find Ruth making this all-important declaration which is so significant in the story.   But before we look at that, notice the two aspects of life that Naomi puts before her to try to put her off. First there was, your sister-in-law is going back to her people.” There is the social dimension that Ruth is going to have to get over. Different people groups have different customs and familiarity with the customs of ‘your people’ makes for a feeling of security. If Ruth leaves her people and goes and joins herself with another people, there is a whole new life to be learned, an unfamiliar life, and unfamiliar people with different customs and different ways. Fitting in with a new and different society is always an effort and often trying, if not downright difficult.  If Ruth is to go with Naomi she will have to learn to fit in with Naomi’s people and that may be difficult.

But then there is the spiritual dimension which is equally important: “your sister-in-law is going back to …. her gods.”  This land and this people have their ‘gods’. Back in Israel there is only ‘The Lord’, Yahweh. There is an immense difference between the two cultures. In this one ‘gods’ are an add-on, a useful addition to life, but back in Israel the Lord is the central feature of life, everything hinges on Him and the laws of the people are the laws that Yahweh has conveyed through Moses; the whole of life is focused on Him. If Ruth goes back with Naomi to her land she is going to have to change her allegiance from an idol worshipping culture, to submit to the one True God, Yahweh, the I AM of Israel. That is the key issue of Ruth going with Naomi.

Now this, to come to our own lives and our own time, is true as much today of people considering whether to become a Christian, as it was then. Listen to how the apostle Paul describes our old life, the same life that all non-believers follow: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph 2:1-3) Previously we were locked into Sin, that godless, self-centred tendency and as a result of that we were dead spiritually and God seemed a million miles away. Moreover, although we did not realise it at the time we were being led by Satan who encouraged our disobedience and our lives were motivated by and driven by our personal desires. That was the world (of Moab?) in which we once lived. Coming to God meant not trying to turn over a new leaf and try hard at being good; it meant leaving this dominion of darkness (Col 1:13) and going to live by the enabling of the Holy Spirit in God’s kingdom under His rule, a kingdom where love and goodness prevail in us in a godly relationship with the Lord. That is the measure of the transformation; it is actually a change in ‘country’ or ‘land’ or ‘kingdom’.

In this kingdom we find ourselves united with other believers and we find a new social life. It is not that we want to escape our old friends, simply that we find we have more things common with the people of God.  Moreover, we leave behind the worship of all the little gods in our lives, the gods of fame and selfishness and materialism, and we go to live in a land where there is only one God, the Lord. He alone now claims our allegiance and He alone is worthy of our worship.  These are the things confronting Ruth and they are the same things that confront any person today who is being challenged over the direction of their life.

5. Maternal Care

Meditations in Ruth : 5. Maternal Care

Ruth 1:8    Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me.

Naomi has decided to return home to Israel, but she now has two daughters-in-law who, through adversity and through her sons, have become attached to her and her to them, no doubt. But her concern for them prevails over any personal desires and she wishes to release them from their ties with her so that they may go back to their own people and, no doubt, find new partners and marry and have children in their own land. Her starting point is Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home.” (v.8) and she explains that wish was, “May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (v.9a) Now the ties that bind them are revealed as, “she kissed them and they wept aloud.” (v.9b)

Indeed those ties are revealed even more in their responses to her. They “said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” (v.10)  Their initial response to her is one of loyalty, a declaration that they will stay with her and return to her home, to her people, but it is her people.

And Naomi’s response is to press them further to remain here in this land with their people for the reality is that there is no way she can be a further mother-in-law to them. She puts it in rather Eastern language: “But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me–even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons– would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!” (v.11-13)  No, there is no future hope for them through Naomi and so it would be far better for them to remain in their own land and hope for a husband from their own people. Now that is just plain common sense and it is good advice.

With these words, the girls again weep: “At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.” (v.14)  One of the girls is moved by this logic and decides to stay – for indeed that is the sensible thing to do, but the other one clings to Naomi. Something has happened in Ruth and we’ll have to wait to the next meditation to consider it.

Now there is something happening here that has echoes in Scripture. It is the principle that the Lord never drags people after him; indeed sometimes He actively seeks to put them off. Perhaps the first example of the Lord putting a good but wrong alternative before someone is the case of Moses up Mount Sinai. This is not quite the same but it is the similar principle of the Lord putting options before us for us to choose what we really want. Aaron has created the golden calf for the people to worship while Moses is up the Mountain with the Lord. The Lord sees and responds: “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Ex 32:9,10) Some of us would say, “Well, if God says it, let’s go for it!” but the Lord is testing Moses’ heart: “But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: `I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ” Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” (Ex 32:11-14) No, says Moses, that will damage your name and it goes against the promises you made to the Patriarchs. Well done, Moses, you passed!

When Elijah called Elisha, he did it in such a way as to challenge Elisha’s commitment: “So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother good-by,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”  “Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?” So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant.” (1 Kings 19:19-21) He puts his cloak on Elisha and when Elisha asks to go back and say goodbye to the family, he asks him, “What have I done to you?”  He’s called him to total commitment and so Elisha demonstrates that by destroying his past means of provision.

Jesus similarly taught his disciples to think carefully if they were about to make casual professions of faith: “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:31-33). Jesus almost puts obstacles in their way. Think about your commitment carefully is what he says, and that is what is happening in this dialogue with Naomi. More in the next mediation.

4. Returning Home

Meditations in Ruth : 4. Returning Home

Ruth 1:6,7    When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Naomi is an Israelite and she is away from home. The thing about that physical people of God was that they were supposed to be in the Promised Land, the land that had been Canaan and is now what we simply call Israel. The promises to Abram, Isaac and Jacob, the Patriarchs, had been in respect of that land. That is where the Lord would bless them, that is where the Lord would make them a light to the nations (Isa 49:6). It was, in fact, living in that land in relationship with the Lord, following Him and receiving all of His blessings, that they would become that light – that was God’s plan and, although it was Isaiah who coined the phrase, that was what He had spoken to the Patriarchs.  And that included every single Israelite. Collectively they would be that light to the Gentiles. They could only be that when they were together in the land. We so often forget that or take it for granted, and Naomi and her husband either didn’t realise that or had forgotten it.

Naomi is in an alien place, where the blessing of God has not been pronounced over the nation, and as a result she has suffered the loss of her husband and her two sons. She alone is the survivor of this expedition. And then the word filters out of Israel and reaches Moab, that the famine has come to an end.  It had obviously been the end of the cycle that we noted in the first meditation. Israel have returned to the Lord and He steps in again and blesses their harvest and declares good over it, and it flourishes and the famine comes to an end.

When Jesus fed the five thousand and the four thousand, he was subtly reminding the people that he was the one who could provide for them. The blessings of Deut 28 provided abundant provision from the Lord when the people stayed close to Him. As they returned to Him, He declared His blessing over the land and the famine comes to an end – and Naomi eventually hears about it in Moab.

She is living in an alien land and a land now full of bad memories of the loss of her family. It doesn’t take much intelligence to realise where the best place to live now is. She needs to get back to Israel. They have food and that is where home is. I think I have seen signs that say, “Home is where your heart is.”  Well, actually in spiritual matters, your heart should be where your home is. Home is where God has established you and when your heart comes in line with His will, then you are in line for His blessing.

The parable of the prodigal son is the classic instance of this (Lk 15:11-24). The son leaves the home of the affluent father, a father who is willing to give him everything, and the son goes to ‘a distant country’ where he spends all he has. there is a famine there and he falls on very hard times and it is only when he ‘came to his senses’ that he realises that back home is where he should be.

Naomi’s experience is similar. She has lost everything in this distant land and she comes to her senses and realises that she should be back home. She doesn’t know what it will hold but it must be better than being here.

How many people, I wonder, find echoes of reality in this story, having gone away from God, gone away from a loving godly home and now find themselves in a place of dissatisfaction, a place of anxiety, a place of discomfort. This place does not ‘fit’, it is not where you were supposed to be.  The London City Missionary, George Dempster in his books such as “Finding Men for Christ” often told of those he found living dissolute lives who had come from good backgrounds but who left home and fell on hard times.

But of course there may be those who say, “But you don’t know my home. I had to escape from it, it was so bad,” and that may be true and therefore we move away from talking about our physical home to the spiritual home that awaits you. This doesn’t just apply to heaven at the end of our lives, as wonderful as that will be, but ‘home’ is the place of peace and security knowing Christ, being known by God, a place of goodness and love in God’s presence – now! How many have walked away from childhood experiences of God, feeling they were inadequate foundations for life. True, they might well have been, but the only true foundation for life is ‘at home’ with God, made possible by what Jesus did on the Cross.  That is the ‘home’ that will be calling some.

Naomi faced up to the realities of life where she was and what it was back home and wisely concluded home was indeed where he heart was and where she should be. As we will see, home was also the place where things could yet happen that brought her a place in The Book.

3. Living in a Fallen World

Meditations in Ruth : 3. Living in a Fallen World

Ruth 1:3-5  Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

We have an expression don’t we, that “everything went pear shaped”. Well that certainly applies in this story. This family settle in Moab. There seem to be no suggestion of it being a temporary stay, ‘Just until the famine passes’. No, they settle and the sons marry Moabite women and ten years later they are still there. (Perhaps ten years is not a long period when you are waiting for the economy to pick up and a famine to be overcome.).

Part of this is down to Naomi. Whether she went there at her husbands behest or she was the one who instigated it, we don’t know but we are simply told that after they settle in Moab her husband dies and it is then that her sons marry Moabite women and that they then live on there some ten years. The moment her husband died she could have said to the boys, “We must go home. If you are going to be married you ought to have good women from Israel.”

No, there may not have been a specific prohibition against marrying Moabite women but the Law was certainly very negative against Moab: No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you.” (Deut 23:3,4)  They were clearly prohibited from coming into the godly assembly (which is maybe something we should remind ourselves of later in this story), and so if you married one you would always be an outsider. However that does not seem a consideration when they are in exile because of a famine. They have lost their roots and they do just what seems expedient.

Beware doing what seems expedient in the circumstances! It was what Sarai urged Abram to do when she appeared not to be able to conceive, to go and take her maidservant and have a child through her. The whole Israel-Arab conflict has resulted from that foolish action. Expediency ignores the will of God and fails to seek the Lord. ‘What seems right’ should always be measured in the light of the word of God and the will of God and should be subject to the Holy Spirit’s direction.

Saul was another one who did what he considered was expedient.  He offered sacrifices when Samuel appeared to be late in turning up but he wasn’t of the priestly family and had no right to do such a thing (see 1 Sam 13:8-14). Years later after Samuel had died, again Saul did what seemed expedient, he sought out a medium when there seemed no one else to bring God’s guidance, despite the Law prohibiting (Lev 20:27, Deut 18:9-13) this sort of thing (see 1 Sam 28:4-)

Ignoring the will and word of God and doing ‘what seems expedient’ always causes problems. Within ten years these two couples (who remain childless) are reduced to two widows. Naomi is now in this foreign land with no husband, no sons, and just two daughters in law who are foreign women, coming from families that will have their own ‘gods’. It is not good!

Now our temptation at this point is to try to see who is to blame and whether it was God who brought these misfortunes (we have already done the first thing). We see the same thing in Jesus’ disciples: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:1,2). In the book of Job we find a similar thing in respect of Job’s comforters who declared, ‘when things go wrong it is a sign of God’s judgment on sin. Things have gone wrong for you, so it must be that you are a sinner.’

Well, things go wrong because people sin – yes, sometimes, but sometimes it is because others sin or it’s just living in a fallen world. There is no doubt that since sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, and they fell from the perfection and purity that they exhibited as God’s perfect beings, that ongoing sin in mankind seems to have a variety of effects so that the world simply, ‘goes wrong’, and there are upheavals in ‘nature’, sickness strikes randomly, accidents happen and things go wrong in relationships and there are wars, family upsets, etc. etc. Of course there is also Satan working in the background to bring destruction and promote sin.

Does God bring judgment? Yes, He does. Does God bring discipline? Yes, He does. Was what happened here specifically the act of God? We are not told. What we can surmise is that at the very least the protective hand of God was no longer over this family. In the same way that we find in Romans 1 Paul declaring that in three instances “God gave them over to…”  (Rom 1:24,26,28) and we see that God lifts off His restraining hand from society so that sin runs rampant and acts as a form of discipline. So, according to the Law of curses and blessings (Deut 28), behaviour does provoke the activity of God that may involve His specifically declaring good – blessings for obedience – and also there appears His activity that brings bad – curses for disobedience – and that may come as specific acts of God or at the very least God removing His hand of protection or blessing.

The uncomfortable truth is that God has given us free will and where we exercise that negatively we have to live with the consequences that flow out of it:A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7)  But is that the end? No, God will still be working to bring us back and bring good out of it, as we will see in the coming verses and chapters of this book.

2. Know who you are

Meditations in Ruth : 2. Know who you are

Ruth 1:2  The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

So we have considered the fact that the players in this little story have been motivated to leave Israel and flee to Moab because of a famine in the land. We considered that a famine is a trial that tests the people of God, as well as being an indication of the removal of the Lord’s hand of blessing from the land. We also suggested that spiritually this was a barren time for Israel, these early days of the judges.

But let’s consider who these people are. Now names were very important in the Hebrew culture and a parent would give a child a name in the light of the present circumstances or of what they hoped for the child. Now Elimelech means “(My) God is King”. Now that is a powerful statement of testimony which suggests that years earlier when this man was born his parents wanted to make this bold affirmation of faith and belief in God’s sovereignty. With a name like that this man should have turned to the Lord and declared, “You are king, you are ruler of all things so, Lord, what are you doing? Why is this happening to us?” Instead he simply fled the land and there is no record of him having sought the Lord.

Naomi’s name simply means ‘pleasant’ (see v.20 and footnote). That is nice but someone neutral. No high expectations in her parents perhaps. In what follows we will see the man with the name declaring God’s sovereignty forgetting that, and the woman who is pleasant getting swept along by circumstances and yet winning the affection of another woman. She must indeed have been pleasant.

Now Mahlon simply means sick or sickly which suggests that the boy born to this couple already had a weak disposition. Kilion (or Chilion) appears to mean ‘pining’ again a somewhat negative meaning that could possibly be stretched to wonder if it meant the mother or father pined for something better for the land. Whatever the meaning, neither of these boys had been given names of faith; that had been the state of the parents some years earlier at least. (So from one generation that declared “God is king” the wheel has turned and the nation drifted so that weak names or names of little faith are given in the next generation.)

Now there is one more irony in the names in this verse. The land around Bethlehem was known as Ephrathah, and hence they are called Ephrathites, but the crucial information is that the name Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. So here they are, the chosen people of God with a heritage that says God is king, and they live in a place that speaks of provision – and there is none, there is only famine. Now of course it is quite possible that they felt similarly to Gideon who lived in this same period of the judges and who, when challenged by an angel, asked, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, `Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us.” (Jud 6:13)

But there is a problem to that supposition, because they fled to Moab. It had been “Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time”, who had “sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor.” (Num 22:4,5) in order to call down curses on Israel and had eventually led them astray by their women. No, Moab was no friend of Israel. Admittedly it had been the place where Moses died (Deut 34:5) but that in itself speaks of it as a place of death and discipline. No Moab is not a good place to go to!

So ultimately why did this family go there? They went because there was a famine in Judah. No, it is more than that! They went because they did not believe who they were. They were the people of God and God had promised blessings on them if they followed him. This family, even if the rest didn’t, could have turned to God and sought Him, but they didn’t.

For a classic example of someone who, by contrast, did know who he was, we have to go a few generations on from this family to David who, when he heard about a Philistine giant frightening the army of God, asked, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26) Observe the langue: “this uncircumcised Philistine.” That is David’s way of saying, this man who has no relationship with the living God. Everything about David in that episode indicates that he knew who he was and because of who he was, the Lord would be with him and the Lord would defeat this giant.

Now this man and his family face another sort of ‘giant’, something that threatens their very lives, a famine. Yes, there is a genuine threat, but we the people of God must learn what Abraham learnt, that God will be our Provider (Gen 22;14) and if He isn’t (as Gideon pointed out) then there is a reason and the remedy almost certainly is in our hands – and it is repentance. Is the Lord providing for His church today? Are we able to stand with David’s certainty, or will we turn away to the world’s provision and find it is an empty cistern (Jer 2:13)

1. Escape from Famine?

Meditations in Ruth : 1. Escape from Famine?

Ruth 1:1  In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.

In some ways the book of Ruth reminds me of Job. No, there is no arguing going on and relatively little dialogue and mostly historical action, but the fact that it is largely (at least in the first part)  dark and everything appears to go wrong, has similar echoes to Job. With Job resolution comes in the knowledge of the background revealed in the first two chapters and then the encounter with Almighty God in the closing chapters. With Ruth, the resolution comes in a completely different way.

In Jesus’ family tree in Matthew’s Gospel we find something quite remarkable in what is largely a male listing: Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.” (Mt 1:5,6)  Two women mentioned! One, Rahab, an innkeeper, possibly a prostitute from Canaan, and Ruth, a Moabite, both women from nations that opposed Israel. What an incredible message: Jesus does not mind being associated with hostile peoples, for even from within such nations can come those who will join the divine family. Incredible. Ruth is thus a signpost for us towards salvation and redemption.

But before we can see this we have to see some difficult things first of all. The story starts with an Israelite from the tribe of Judah who lived in the days following the Exodus, conquest and occupation of Canaan, during which judges led the people. From a reading of Judges we see it was a tumultuous time when again and again a cycle is observed: God blesses the people, the people eventually become complacent and drift away from Him, surrounding nations invade and Israel cry out to God and He sends a deliverer. So much of the time it was summarised by the closing words of Judges, In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Jud 21:25)  Putting it in today’s language, it was a time when Israel were not in a spiritually clever position! Understatement!

So we are told that there comes a famine in the land. Now we are not told that the Lord specifically brought this famine but famine was one of the ‘curses’ of Deuteronomy 28, one of the ways life would ‘go wrong’ when the nation turned away from God. Whether it is specifically brought by God or whether the Lord withholds His hand of blessing (see Rom 1 for this principle) is a moot point. Famine is clearly a characteristic of life in the absence of God. Abundant blessing and provision is the characteristic of the blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1-14. So much for the origins of famines.

But the crucial issue we must consider is our response to a famine. This man that we are about to read about flees the land and goes somewhere that does not seem to be suffering famine, Moab. When there was a famine in Canaan in Abram’s day, we find he takes his wife etc. down to Egypt – where he gets into trouble! (Gen 12:10-20). When a famine came to the land in Isaac’s time he similarly starting heading south but only got as far as the land of the Philistines in the south before the Lord told him to stay there and not to go to Egypt (Gen 26:1-6). Of course it was a widespread famine that was at the heart of Joseph’s story and which ended with Jacob and the whole family settling in Egypt (Gen 41-47) and it was because of this that some four hundred years later the Exodus occurred.

Consider this more generally (we’ll go on to the detail of who and what in the next meditation). A famine is a time of trial in the form of shortage of resources which God either directly brings or allows to come when He withholds His hand of blessing. A trial is a time of disciplining where the Lord tests us to see how we will respond. The response of faith is to seek the Lord and repent for the state of the Land that has ultimately brought this about.  The response of godless unbelief is to do a runner!  We’ve already noted how Abram and Isaac went to flee a famine and how a famine forced Jacob into Egypt and now we find that the motivation behind all that follows is a desire to escape unpleasant circumstances by fleeing to an enemy nation.  In David’s remarkable story, in the time of his life when he was fleeing from Saul, at one point he found his only refuge was with the Philistines, another enemy nation. Eventually he had to get out of that and here in the present situation we are going to see that here at least, the Lord does NOT deliver this family from bad circumstances. In fact we might say that it will be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, as far as the outcome is concerned.

What is going to be incredible about this story is the ultimate outcome that we have already referred to – that a Moabite woman is going to end up becoming part of the nation of Israel and, even more incredibly, that she will become part of the family tree of the most famous king in Israel’s history, David, and that of the Messiah. Pure chance? There are no signs of the hand of the Lord recorded as working in this book, it is just a record of circumstances and therefore it becomes a book that challenges us to see that the hidden hand of God must be there working in our circumstances.

Dictionary Definition: “Providence – God as prescient guide and guardian of human beings.” ‘Prescient’? Having foreknowledge.  This is a story of God (who is not mentioned)  who knows what is going to happen and who, behind the scenes so that He cannot be seen, guards and guides to bring a good outcome. Is this important? Absolutely, because this is what is so often happening with each of us.   Yes, we have, as Christians, the Holy Spirit working within us, cooperating with us and teaching and guiding us, but at the same time God is working in the background to bring good into our lives (Rom 8:28) but so much of the time we don’t see Him doing it, only the outworking. Watch this space! Oh, a warning: we need to co-operate in it all. We have a part to play as we’ll see in this story.