Opening Prayer: Our Father, I ask that you would be with us now by your Holy Spirit, your Word is sharper than any two-edged sword, and therefore we ask that you would cut us open. Reveal our hearts, expose our sins, and make us more like Jesus that we may share in his life and be equipped to serve those around us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen!
We noted last week that Elimelech had all the appearances of faithlessness. This week we consider the significant contrast between Ruth and Naomi.
Naomi is Israel
Notice how the trek back to Bethlehem proceeds: Naomi and her daughter in-laws begin to return to Judah (1:7), and only after this journey has begun, does Naomi send Orpah and Ruth back. This creates a double meaning to the word “return.” The word “return” is used 12 times in Ruth 1 and just three other times in the book. Return may mean going back to Bethlehem or going back to Moab. Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth are between the lands, and this creates a sort of wilderness situation between Moab and the Promised Land. Remember that Israel came out of Egypt a “mixed multitude” and now Naomi has too, but instead of welcoming the gentiles, she seeks to send them home. Notice that Naomi’s attempt at getting Ruth and Orpah to turn back to their “mothers’ houses” is based upon arguments that specifically remind us of Sarah. She says that there are no more children in her womb, meaning that her womb is past child bearing. She also says that she is too old for a husband. Finally, she insists that even if she had a husband and could bear children, even if she conceived twin sons that very night, Ruth and Orpah don’t want to wait for them. It’s impossible, Naomi says. And Naomi stands for Israel in the days of the judges when they have despaired in their sins.
Ruth is Israel
But God visits his people with salvation through sometimes surprising means. Somehow Ruth has come to know Yahweh despite the dysfunctional family she married into, and she is determined to “cling” to Naomi (1:14). This is the same word used to describe the way a man is to cling to his wife (Gen. 2:24), but this language is also used in Deuteronomy to contrast faithfulness (4:4, 10:20, 11:22, 13:4, 30:20) and unfaithfulness (13:17, 28:21, 28:60). The calling of Israel has been to fight idolatry and assimilate gentile believers into their midst but to make no covenant with unbelievers (Dt. 7:2). The irony is that while Naomi’s family disobeyed and made marriage covenants with Moabite women, Ruth is a gentile who is “clinging” to Naomi in order that she might “cling” to God (1:16-17). And now Naomi is trying to send Ruth back to her pagan family, back to her “gods” (1:15). She doesn’t mind gentiles when they might bring her something in return, but she tries to get rid of them when they don’t seem to serve a helpful purpose. Nevertheless, Ruth swears loyalty to Naomi, Israel, and to the God of Israel, and she “returns” from the country of Moab (1:22). This is all the more striking because she is a member of a people that God has cursed vehemently (Dt. 23:3-6). Naomi can only speak about her bitterness, but Ruth binds herself in a marriage-like covenant to Yahweh and his people. Ruth is doing what Naomi and Israel should have been doing all along. The pagan is more righteous than the Israelite. In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is found in the “Writings”, amidst the Wisdom Literature, and one easy connection is this contrast between Naomi and Ruth, a woman of folly and a woman of wisdom (compare Pr. 9:13, 14:1 with 1:20, 9:1-6, 31:10ff).
Conclusions & Applications
While Ruth is clinging to what God has given to her, Naomi is clinging to her bitterness (1:8, 13, 20-21). Bitterness, Hebrews says, is a root that when it is grown defiles many (12:15), and bitterness, Moses insists, is the opposite of the covenant loyalty required by God (Dt. 29:14-18).
In one sense, we are always “returning” somewhere. Our lives are full of turns and returns. The only question is to where are we turning, where are we returning to? The word “return” is important in Scripture because the most important “turn” is the turning of repentance (e.g. Ez. 18:30-32). Ruth shows us an example of tenacious and heartfelt repentance. Naomi shows us an example of expedient repentance. Who are you?
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Closing Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that you have not turned away from us, but you have come near us in Jesus and that you have given us his Spirit. Give us new hearts, O God, turn us and we will be turned. Give us new spirits, and we will be saved. Turn us that we may live. And we ask in particular that you would deal with us. Root out our sins, dig out our bitterness, and cast far away from us. Give us courage and grace to cling to you and never let go. And we ask this in the strong name of Jesus who taught us to pray, singing…