The generation of people that had entered the land with Joshua, following the death of Moses, had since past away. The following generations were now scattered throughout the land of Canaan, living in their tribes across the land where God had instructed their forefathers. They had settled throughout the cities and hillside villages living alongside the Canaanite people. There were intermittent eruptions of hostility across the land between the Israelites and the Canaanite people.
Each tribe had adapted their lifestyle to this fertile land. They were now far removed from the desert lifestyle of their ancestors. There was no king in Israel yet. In time, the Israelites stopped worshipping their God Almighty and worshipped the Canaanite’s false gods. They also adopted their pagan culture. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes and because they did what was evil in the sight of God, God raised up the Midianites to overpower them.
One year, at harvest time, the Midianites migrated in vast numbers into Canaan. They were nomadic herdsmen. They swarmed across the land like locusts settling across Canaan with their tents and camels. They stole the crops from the local farmers. In their warlike manner they bullied the local people. They stripped bare the farmer’s land destroying the crops throughout Canaan. No crops were left and no sheep, ox or donkey.
For seven years, at harvest time, the Israelites were oppressed by the Midianites. The food shortage became so desperate, that had nothing been done, Israel may well have had to leave their land. It was at the time in history, that the story of Ruth is set.
Elimelech, which means ‘My God a king’ married young Naomi, which means ‘pleasant’. They lived in a village in the area surrounding Bethlehem city in the land of Canaan. Canaan meant ‘the house of food’. It was known as ‘the land flowing with milk and honey.’
But, the oppression of the Midianites caused a famine in Canaan. The ‘house of food’ was now empty. Elimelech and Naomi had two sons. Mahlon meaning ‘sickness’ and Chilion meaning ‘consumption’. To escape the famine, Elimelech took his family out of Canaan and journeyed far away from Bethlehem, across the Jordan River into the land of Moab.
There was underlying hostility between the Israelites and the Moabites. About 200 years earlier Ehud, who had been raised up by God, lead the defeat of Moab, who’s king had been oppressing the Israelites. It was a bloody slaughter of 10,000 mighty Moabite men. But with them now living in relative peace with the Israelites, Elimelech and his family settled down to live among the Moabite people.
But, Elimelech died leaving Naomi alone living far away from her home town. She was grief stricken by the loss of her husband. But she held to the hope of prosperity and security of her family with her sons. In time her two sons married Moabite women. They lived there for 10 years.
But, Naomi’s suffered further grief with the death of her two sons. They had not yet borne any children to provide for the future of the family. Her daughters-in-law were not Israelite women. Widowed and now too old to marry herself, she was extremely destitute. Naomi’ sorrow and grief overwhelmed her. She could not be comforted.
In the meantime, back in Canaan, the Israelites had finally cried to God for help. God had raised up Gideon who fought a successful battle that rid their land of the Midianites. The Israelites repented and returned to worshipping God. They followed God’s law while Gideon was alive. They appreciated even more the abundance of food now that they had lived through a famine. Yet, they knew, if they had faithfully obeyed God and not turned away from Him to worship the false gods of the Canaanites, God would not have punished them and they would never have had to endure the famine.
Naomi heard that the famine had finished in Canaan and there was now plenty of food. She had been a happy woman once with a home, a husband and two sons. But like the Prodigal Son returned to his family home, empty, dejected and full of sorrow, so too Naomi would now return to her home village. She felt that God had punished her by taking away her husband and two sons.
So, she left Moab with Orpah and Ruth accompanying her, leaving her husband and two sons buried in a foreign land. Naomi loved Ruth and Orpah as if they were her own daughters which was unusual as mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are often at odds with each other, but not in this family.
They had travelled part of the way with Naomi when she stopped and urges Orpah and Ruth to stay and marry men from their home country. They were still young enough to attract a husband and bear children. “Go back home to their own mothers who have family homes.” Naomi was not sure if she would have a home to live in when she got back to Bethlehem. She would more than likely have to rely on friends and extended family. She had nothing good to offer the women only hardship and sorrow. As Naomi had been a foreigner in their country, now they would be despised foreigners in her country.
Even if she did find a home to live in. Ruth and Orpah would be hated by Naomi’s countrymen for the Moabites had, in the past, not only oppressed Israel, they had also mocked them for worshipping God Almighty.
“Why should I draw them into my poor troubled future?” thought Naomi. It would be enough of a burden to struggle on by herself let alone have to watch the young women suffer as well. The chances of them marrying Israelite men was highly unlikely.
“No, we will not leave you” the women wept. But with Naomi’s insistence, Orpah kissed Naomi and said goodbye. She started on her journey back to her own mother, religion and country. She would rebuild her life with the help of her own mother’s family.
Now as her sister was walking away, Ruth made an oath to Naomi and to her God “Do not urge me to leave you, or turn back from following you. For where you go, I will go and where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die. There I will be buried. I will endure whatever you endure. Nothing but death shall separate us.”
Now desolate and at the end of herself, Naomi accepted Ruth’s plea to stay with her. Naomi had often shared the great stories of her people’s history with Ruth and Orpah. Ruth’s mind could not be swayed. She has renounced her family, country and religion to be loyal to Naomi, her God and her people. Naomi accepted Ruth’s decision with mixed emotions. Her own sorrow and destitute future was enough to cope with, but to add to her sorrow the pain of watching her beloved young daughter-in-law suffer the same destitute future was almost too much for her to bear.
Ruth and Naomi continued on their journey. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town enquired of them “Is this Naomi?” Old friends gathered around her. They were surprises to see her in such a poor condition. She was so broken and different because of her suffering.
“Almighty God has dealt very bitterly with me. I left full and return empty. A mournful widow and mother.” Naomi told them. Ruth stood with her, a stranger in enemy territory. Alone with an elderly mother-in-law helpless in her deep sorrow and shamed by her poverty, with no hope for a prosperous future.
The Barley harvest had just begun and would be followed by the wheat harvest. Ruth decided to go and gather grain left behind after the cutting and binding by the harvest workers. Naomi and Ruth have no way of getting necessary food other than to beg for it. Ruth would go and gather enough food for both of them for now and for the coming winter.
Ruth’s condition was very low and poor but she was not ashamed to beg for food. Even though she had not been raised to live a beggar’s life, she accepted it humbly and didn’t complain. Ruth believed the great stories Naomi had told her about God Almighty. Ruth had placed her faith and trust in Naomi’s God and she believed that He would help them.
Ruth set out not knowing where to go to gather wheat nor who to ask for help. She went out alone in a strange hostile land to provide the bare essentials for herself and her mother-in-law. Ruth, a despised foreigner, would be vulnerable in the harvest fields. Mean farmers and reapers would mistreat foreigners. Some would not even allow them to gather. The locals could tell that she was not an Israelite woman because of her accent, her dress and her demeanour.
Ruth asked an overseer if she could gather in his field. This field belong to a wealthy man named Boaz. He was a respected godly man within his community, who obeyed God. When he went down to inspect his fields, he would kindly greet his workers and they spoke well of him. He was a good and fair boss and enjoyed good relations with his workers. He looked out over his fields to see who was begging on his land.
He recognised a new beggar and asked after her. The supervisor had already talked to her previously, so he told Boaz her full story. Boaz walked down into the field to greet Ruth. She was hard at work, keen and devoted to her task. Boaz realised that, as she was a Moabite woman, she would not be safe begging in Bethlehem. With fatherly kindness, Boaz told Ruth to stay in his field throughout the season. It was part of God’s law to care for the poor, widowed and foreigners among them. She would be safe in his field from insults, rebuke or physical harm.
Boaz invited Ruth to eat and drink with the workers and rest in their shelter. So, she ate her fill, though she was never a gluten. Ruth gathered abundant amounts of wheat for Boaz had instructed his workers to leave plenty behind for her. “Why do you care for me a foreigner?” she asked Boaz one day. He had been informed of her loyalty to Naomi and how she had left her country, religion and family and wanted to obey God Almighty. Boaz answered Ruth “May the LORD, under whose wings you have come to find refuge, reward your hard work and your care of Naomi.” She bowed and thanked him respectfully. He showed a peculiar interest in Ruth. She had won his heart by her humility and faithful care of Naomi and her desire to obey God Almighty.
When Ruth told Naomi all that had happened, Naomi realizes that the owner of the field was a close relative of her deceased husband. Boaz had shown kindness to her husband and sons when they previously lived in Bethlehem. “Could he be their Kinsman-redeemer?” Naomi thought. Boaz had already shown favour toward Ruth. She saw hope for Ruth’s future. Boaz could marry Ruth and bare a son.
A Kinsman-redeemer was by God’s law responsible for protecting the interests of needy members of the extended family. He was to marry the widow and provide an heir for a kinsman who had died. He was also to redeem land that a poor relative had sold or to pay out a mortgage that had been made to buy food.
According to the Israelite law, Boaz was Ruth’s husband before God. Naomi did not want Ruth to approach him in any other way than as his wife. Naomi knew that Ruth would make a good honourable wife. Ruth’s actions toward Boaz would be a request for marriage. She could secure a prosperous future under the guardian care of a husband.
At the end of the harvest session, Ruth followed Naomi’s instructions and prepared herself like a bride. Boaz would be sleeping in his grain shed to protect it from theft. When Ruth approached Boaz one evening, he understood why Ruth proposed to him. She had approached him in a virtuous and modest manner. Boaz was honoured that she had not gone after younger men. But offered herself as a wife to an older man like himself.
But, Boaz explained to Ruth that he was not the first in line to be her Kinsman-redeemer. He told her that if the rightful kinsman did not want to accept Ruth’s request to serve as God’s protector to watch over her and Naomi then he would gladly accept. Before sunrise, Boaz sent her home with a generous gift of grain. He did not want her to be seen leaving the grain shed alone as that may have damaged her innocent, pure reputation.
That morning, Boaz followed the law exactly to provide Naomi’s right to redeem her family land and Ruth’s right to a firstborn son to bare her deceased husband’s name. The rightful kinsman did not want to marry Ruth, so Boaz became Ruth’s husband and redeemer. The elders of the city witnessed the legal arrangement and blessed Boaz.
So finally, Naomi was able to secure a good future for Ruth. The firstborn son of Ruth would become Naomi’s redeemer for, according to their custom, her first son was also considered the son of Naomi. He would lift from Naomi the shame of being childless. He also possessed the right of ownership of Naomi’s inheritance.
So, Boaz and Ruth’s son, Obed, lived with his grandmother, Naomi. She raised him until he was able to take care of her into her old age.
Naomi was brought from emptiness to fullness again through the selfless love of Ruth and her belief and trust in God Almighty. Ruth became an ancestor of Jesus Christ who selflessly gave himself to save those all who believe and trust in Him.
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Judges 6-8, Ruth 1-4, Deuteronomy 7:1-11, Judges 21:25, Judges 3:14-30, Mt 10:35, Titus 2:5,
The Zondervan NASB Study Bible.1999. Zondervan. Michigan USA
Commentary on the Old Testament Volume 2. C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch. 1980. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company
Introduction to the Old Testament. R.K. Harrison. 1969 William B Eerdmans Publishing Company
A History of Israel Revised Edition John Bright. 1972 SCM Press Ltd London
Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts 1996. Thomas Nelson, Inc.