The Beginning of Naomi’s Grief
Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehemjudah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there. And Elimelech Naomi’s husband died; and she was left, and her two sons. And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years. And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband. (Ruth 1:1-5)
These five brief verses that open the book of Ruth are filled with “who, what, when, where, and why” information about Naomi and her family. Every fact provided here is critical to understanding not only the overall story, but also the extent of Naomi’s grief. We discussed in the previous session about the ungodliness that was prevalent during the period of the judges and about the famine that cause Elimelech to take his family out of Bethlehem into Moab. In this session we will focus on her entrance into Moab and her exit from the Promised Land, two related topics, each with its own sources of grief.
For the children of Israel, the Moabites were the embarrassing relatives that you don’t invite to family dinners. They were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot, whose daughters decided quite literally that he was the last man on earth that they would ever see because he had taken them to live in a cave after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:30). They got him drunk, seduced him, and became pregnant. (Genesis 19:36-38). Not trusting God’s provision for their lives, they sinned greatly, and their children were the source of the nations Moab and Ammon, which were constantly at war with the children of Israel.
One famous example of this conflict is found in Numbers 22 through 24, where we find the account of Balak, king of Moab, who is trying to recruit the prophet Balaam to curse God’s people. The story of the verbal duel between Balak and Balaam would almost be comical if the context were not so serious. Balak sent messengers to summon Balaam, and God told Balaam not to go. But Balak insisted, and Balaam really wanted to go anyway, so he finally went. But after an encounter with a talking donkey and the Angel of the Lord, Balaam repented and promised the Angel that he would offer only blessing.
Balak was thrilled to see him coming, but his evil joy quickly turned sour when Balaam offered a blessing rather than a curse. Each time Balaam blessed God’s people instead of cursing them, Balak became more furious, and by the third time, Balak begged him to just stop talking—don’t curse them or bless them—but Balaam could not stop blessing God’s people because that was God’s desire. Rather than submit to the one true God, Balak finally gave up and went back home to worship the false gods of Moab. But out of this series of events came a familiar and beautiful prophecy of the coming of Christ:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. (Numbers 24:17)
Clearly, Moab was the land of the enemy and it represented all that was evil, yet that is where Elimelech took his family. He seemed not to remember that God had given the following commandment:
An Ammonite or 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 for ever: Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee. (Deuteronomy 23:3-4)
If Moabites were not welcome in the congregation of the Lord, it stands to reason that God would not want His people to live among the Moabites. Even after the people of God entered the Promised Land, the Moabites plagued them. During the period of the judges, which was marked by a cycle of disobedience, judgment, repentance, and back to disobedience again. God raised up other nations to bring judgment and call His people to repentance, and one of those nations was Moab, as we read in Judges 3:
And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord: and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the Lord (Judges 3:12)
Now let’s stop and analyze what’s happening here. First, God was angry with the Ammonites and Moabites because they treated Israel badly in during their journey to the Promised Land. Now He is strengthening Eglon so that Moab can conquer the Israelites.
Is God fickle? Has He changed sides? Has He abandoned His people?
Absolutely not. To understand the apparent disconnect here, we have to go to Genesis 50. When Joseph’s brothers found out he had become a powerful ruler in Egypt, they were afraid he would punish them. This was his response:
And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20)
The Moabites had chosen to oppose God and His people. When Eglon conquered Israel and oppressed them for 18 years, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do. His every intention against God’s people was evil, and he thought he could fight God and win. But he was also doing exactly what God wanted done, and that was to cause His people to cry out to Him in repentance. God had a binding covenant with the Israelites. He was not in covenant with the Moabites, and that was exactly the way they wanted it.
But why did we need to look in such depth at Moab? Only when you understand the depth of this nation’s hatred of God and His people will you understand the first major grief that Naomi endured, that of saying goodbye to her friends and leaving the blessings of covenant society to go to this hostile country that hated everything about her family and their God. Later we will study more about her re-entry into Bethlehem, but for now, the description of the welcome that she and Ruth received will show how very much she had left behind:
And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? (Ruth 1:19).
The whole city remembered her, loved her, and was overjoyed that she had returned. She had been far removed from this depth of love and friendship during her darkest hours after the loss of her husband and then her sons. Is it any wonder that she was willing to make the journey home? This was one great loss that she could remedy.
Out of Israel
As if moving into a hostile country was not enough, Naomi had the greater grief of leaving behind all that she knew and loved, as well as leaving the solace and strength of covenant worship. You might wonder whether leaving Israel during the time of the judges would really have been so bad. After all, it must have felt like a spiritual roller coaster for those who chose to remain faithful, as I suspect Naomi would have done, given the fact that Ruth looked to her for spiritual guidance even while they were in Moab. What was Naomi leaving behind when she went with her husband to Moab?
The most obvious answer to this question was that she was leaving the Promised Land. We use that term a lot to refer to heaven or sometimes to the Church, but I wonder if we understand the significance that it had during the time when Naomi lived. The promise of the land of Canaan was part of a larger promise that God had made to Abram, even before He made a formal covenant, and the promise was formalized in the covenant ceremony described in Genesis 15.
Within a few generations, God’s people had left the land because of famine, spending 400 years in Egypt, most of the time in slavery. When the Egyptians eventually let them go free, the Israelites were thankless and disobedient, and so had to wander in the wilderness for 40 more years. But through the leadership of Moses and then Joshua, they finally, finally made it back and were supposed to be bringing the land into subjection to the God of the covenant. And now Naomi’s husband was taking her away from the very land that was the focus of a centuries-old promise that God had obligated Himself to fulfill.
But a patch of earth is not all that Naomi and her family were leaving. God had given the law and the ceremonies, and even though the Israelites did not obey Him perfectly, there was absolutely nowhere else on earth that they could worship God as He had prescribed. There is no indication that Elimelech was a priest, and even if he had been, he would not have been able to maintain the required rituals so far from the tabernacle. So Naomi was leaving the opportunity to worship God fully and to participate in the prescribed religious feasts throughout the year. Even worse, her sons would not have the benefit of growing up surrounded by the teachings and practices of God’s covenant.
Further, she was giving up the opportunity for her sons to marry Israelite women. God’s command for Israelites not to marry outside the covenant was not based on faulty notions of racial superiority or national bias. If it were, then Ruth would never have been accepted later as a proper bride for Boaz. No, the point was that children of the faith should not marry those who worship other gods. Naomi’s sons chose women who had been raised in the religion of Moab, which included human sacrifice (2 Kings 3:26-27).
Elimelech had taken his family to Moab to save their physical lives while disregarding their greater need for spiritual food. Had that been the whole story, we would have no reason to rejoice. But the grace of God reached into the wounded life of Naomi and drew her back to the place—both physically and spiritually—where she could begin to thrive again.
Christian, there is nothing for you in Moab. If you are there, turn away and run back to the God of the covenant.
- If there has ever been a time in your life when you were separated from the life of the Church, what was your life like during your absence? If you have returned, what brought you back, and how has your live changed?
- If you are part of a church and have never been away, what do you think you would you miss most about being in the covenant family?
- What do you need to do to draw even closer to Christ?
- For whom do you need to serve as a model and teacher of the faith, as Naomi did for Ruth? What do you need to do so that others would be drawn to Christ through you.
- Write a response to this statement from Bible scholar Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on Ruth 1: “Earth is made bitter to us, that heaven may be made dear.”