Hope and Healing (Chapter 3)

The Way Home

And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her. And she said, Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law. And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: 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 ought but death part thee and me. When she saw that she was stedfastly minded to go with her, then she left speaking unto her.

So they two went until they came to Beth-lehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Beth-lehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me? 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 Beth-lehem in the beginning of barley harvest.

And Naomi had a kinsman of her husband’s, a mighty man of wealth, of the family of Elimelech; and his name was Boaz. (Ruth 1:14-2:1)

Having suffered unbearable losses, Naomi has determined to leave Moab to return to her home, friends, and extended family in Bethlehem. Most of all, she is returning to the place where she can worship God as He requires. Although she feels totally defeated by her years of exile and loss, she is not without hope. The God who redeems and restores His people does not allow Naomi’s years in Moab to be wasted. In the passage for today’s study, we see that Naomi’s faithfulness to God had won the hearts of her daughters-in-law, especially Ruth, who made a solemn, lifelong covenant to remain with her. In this lesson, we begin to see hope for recovery from grief for both Naomi and Ruth as these women draw closer to each other because they are growing closer to God.

Naomi’s Entreaties

When Naomi had moved to Moab 10 years earlier, she traveled in the company of her husband and sons. She had protection and companionship while on this difficult journey, which was at least 50 miles over rough terrain. Now she faces the prospect of making that 10-day journey all by herself, and no doubt it was unsafe at the time for a woman to travel alone. Remember that these events take place during the time of the judges, when everyone did what was right in his own sight.

Her daughters-in-law have begun the journey with her, but out of concern for their well-being, she stops before long and begs them to go back home to the security of their mother’s home. She not only wants to spare them the dangers of the journey, she knows that they will be assured of a roof over their heads and plenty to eat if they return home. Even though Naomi has heard rumors that food is now plentiful in Bethlehem, she has no guarantee that this is true. Given her recent losses, she would rather put her own life in danger than see another loved one die.

So Naomi graciously blesses them, releases them from any obligation they may feel for her, and urges them to start over and find new husbands in familiar territory. When they tearfully protest, she makes an even stronger argument for them to return home, reminding them that she has no hope, no way to provide for them, and no husbands to offer them. She ends with the heartfelt cry, “It grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). At this point Orpah turns back, sorrowful. Though it breaks her heart to do so, she is convinced that her mother-in-law’s argument makes sense. As much as she loves Naomi, she takes the option that seems secure. Although her story ends here in the Scripture, rabbinical literature indicates that she was Goliath’s mother.  If that is the case, her choice illustrates the result of not following the one true God, regardless of the cost.

As they watch Orpah walk away, Naomi urges Ruth to follow her in returning to her people and her gods. Before we discuss Ruth’s response, it is important to see how Naomi’s character is revealed in this tearful scene with her daughters-in-law.

First, it is obvious that she has genuinely loved her sons’ wives and treated them with great respect though their years together. Otherwise, why would they choose to go with her on the journey back to Bethlehem and weep bitterly at the thought of parting with her? The love they demonstrated in clinging to her was merely a reflection of the love that she had showered on them since they became a part of her family. There is often resentment between mothers-in-law and their sons’ wives, but that does not seem to be the case here. Orpah and Ruth might have had reason to resent Naomi for not converting to their religion, and Naomi certainly would have had a reason to resent these foreign women as not being “good enough” for her covenant sons. But for the sake of the love that she bore for her sons, Naomi accepted their wives into her heart, and apparently taught Orpah and Ruth about the ways of the covenant God. And they apparently listened.

Second, Naomi’s love is seen in her willingness to face a dangerous journey alone rather than have her daughters-in-law risk their future to stay with her. Although some writers say that Naomi was testing her daughters-in-law by telling them to leave her, none of her words have the slightest hint of accusation or passive-aggressive manipulation. She never mentions what would be best for her or even what would bring her comfort. Naomi’s only concern seems to be the welfare of Orpah and Ruth. Most important, Naomi understands that whether they stay in Moab or go with her has to be their own decision.

Third, her faith in the goodness of God is still intact, despite the sorrow that she has endured. Her prayers of blessing on Orpah and Ruth, as well as her reminding them of God’s provision for widows through the Levirate law, show that she still clings to the faith she learned in childhood. Ruth’s decision is evidence that Naomi has passed those teachings along to her daughters-in-law.

Ruth’s Covenant

Ruth’s response, which is a beautiful statement of faith, as well as a covenant promise that she makes to Naomi, warrants a close look.

And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: 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 ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)

This covenant promise is such an fervent statement of devotion that it is sometimes taken out of context and mistakenly assumed to be about marital love. While it is an outcome of the marriage covenant between Ruth and Mahlon, it stands in its own right as a confession that Ruth has fully accepted the God of all covenants. The bond between a husband and wife should not under normal circumstances cut either of them off from either of their families. Although the relationship between parent and child changes when the child leaves home and cleaves to a spouse (Genesis 2:24), it is not destroyed. We see this, for example, in the relationship between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro.

Like the covenant that God made with Abraham, Ruth’s covenant is one-sided. She takes all of the burden on herself asks nothing of Naomi other than that she cease protesting. Ruth’s oath has two parts, a promise and a curse (also called “sanctions”). Her promise is that she will remain with Naomi for the rest of her life, and that she will accept every facet of Naomi’s life—her home, her family, her way of life, her fate in death, and most important, her God. The curse she would call down upon on herself is death, should she ever forsake Naomi.

Unlike Orpah, who was content to return to her own family and the idols of Moab, Ruth cannot bear the thought of rejecting the one true God. Nor can she bear the thought of leaving the person who had brought her to the faith. She has no idea what lies in store; she only knows that she prefers it to the future she would have had in Moab. As the scripture puts it, she is so “stedfastly minded” to go to Bethlehem that Naomi stops trying to convince her otherwise (Ruth 1:18). Her response to Naomi is similar to Peter’s response when Jesus asked his disciples if they would leave him as others had done:

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. (John 6:68)

Hope Revives

True hope and healing can only take place within the family of faith. Not only does the bond between Naomi and Ruth show how God’s people can forge a relationship of love, comfort, and support, the reaction of Naomi’s friends in Bethlehem illustrates how the “extended family” of fellow believers can be a source of great comfort. Notice how they welcome her home, genuinely moved by the sight of their longtime friend. Notice also that they let her voice her grief without making light of her circumstance. For a while, she will be Mara the bitter, not Naomi the pleasant, and her friends accept this situation as a natural outcome of the losses she has endured. They understand what grief looks like and refuse to circumvent the process.

But besides the family of God that has begun to form a circle of love around Naomi, she has two other reasons to hope. First, she and Ruth have arrived in Bethlehem just in time for the barley harvest. The rumors of plentiful grain have proven to be true. In response to Naomi’s act of faith in returning home, God has blessed her with friends, family, and now food.

Second, the first verse of chapter 2 provides a hint that Ruth may have reason to hope she will be married again. Naomi had been so focused on her sons that she had forgotten there were other options for a Levirate marriage: “And Naomi had a kinsman of her husband’s, a mighty man of wealth, of the family of Elimelech; and his name was Boaz” (Ruth 2:1). Although Naomi had not returned with the goal of getting Boaz to marry Ruth, when the possibility presents itself, she recognizes it as the perfect plan of God. We will read more about that blessing in later lessons.

Journal Prompts

  1. Have you had a friend who remained faithful to you when others distanced themselves from you?
  2. How can a parish develop a culture in which grieving hearts find hope?
  3. Was there a time in your life when there was no earthly reason for you to hope, yet God gave you hope?
  4. Do you think Naomi was wrong to encourage Orpah and Ruth to return to their homes? Why or why not?

Recommended Reading:

That You May Prosper: Dominion by Covenant, by Ray Sutton

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