But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go—for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, if I should have a husband tonight and should also bear sons, “would you wait for them till they were grown? Would you restrain yourselves from having husbands? No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me!” Ruth 1:11–13
Naomi actually persisted in dissuading one of her daughters-in-law from following her to the Promised Land. In her arguments she even has the audacity to pretend that the whole ordeal is worse for her than for them. Making reference to the levirate laws, she contends that even if she could bear a son, the two younger women would be too old by the time the sons could marry either one of them. Here she completely ignores the possibility of other family members who live in the land acting as husbands to them. Instead Naomi insists on concentrating entirely on the deadness of her womb. She believes, and thus she acts as if, there is no hope for the future. Her thoughts are simple—her sons are dead, her womb is dead and the future of her house is dead. We are reminded of the story of Genesis 38 and Judah’s refusal to follow God by faith when his sons had died. Indeed, like Judah, Naomi tries to rid herself of a woman who she believed was a curse.1
Naomi ruminates about the wondrous possibility of her bearing a son, but because everyone is too old she quickly concludes that this is impossible. She should have recalled redemptive history—this would not be the first time God brought miraculous life to the dead womb of an older woman. Even though God has changed these kinds of situations in the past, Naomi persists in her despair and drives Orpah away from the hope of the covenant. Furthermore, Naomi blames God for her despair while never assigning any responsibility for her plight to the unfaithfulness of her husband. She refuses to assign any guilt to her husband, even though he had attempted to provide for his family’s future outside of the covenant. What a missed opportunity!
She could have sought restoration as she confessed her sins; instead she blames God. Her situation was the accumulation of a series of ungodly decisions and faithlessness. Yet, Naomi assigns the responsibility to God, telling her daughters-in-law to return to Moab in order to find a husband, which she believes that neither she nor God can provide. In responding in this way, she indicates that she does not believe God will provide them with a future—she is not living by faith. This is a recurring issue in the story of Ruth.
Next the reader encounters a setting of profound emotions as Samuel narrates a gripping incident of the weeping, wailing, and sadness. One does not need to pause at this scene very long to feel the deep emotion of the moment. These women were touched with the hardest of life’s trials and pains, and they realize that nothing will ever be the same for them. Thus the reader sees them clinging to one another, lamenting with genuine heartache and loss over this truly sad transition. If you have ever had to goodbye to a friend, or closer yet, to a son or daughter as they leave subsequent to their wedding, then you know something of the emotion of this scene. It is not only filled with emotions, but it becomes one of the many critical turning points in our story.
As they weep and cling to her, Naomi persists in pushing them back to Moab. Orpah, whose name probably means fawn, reacts naturally, leaving Naomi and returning to her people. After all, if Naomi’s God has mocked Naomi’s name as a pleasant one and has refused to provide for her family, what hope would one expect for Orpah, a foreigner. Orpah may have properly noticed that the family’s position was characterized by rootless wandering for food—hardly an enticing prospect or a foreign widow. Just as their sons’ names would indicate, when the family finally settled in another land, they found nothing but the agony of a gradual languishing away. Naomi’s testimony of the cruelty of God had its intended effect. Orpah listened to the bitter words of Naomi and she decided to return to Moab. In striking contrast, Ruth did not despair.
Once Naomi caused Orpah to return, she concentrated her full efforts on persuading Ruth to leave her. Ruth 1:15 rightly tells us the nature of returning to Moab. This return is a return to the gods of Moab. We read,
And she said, “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” If you think about the theological import of what Naomi was trying to do, you realize that she was a terrible witness! A sensitive reader will discover that this was not merely a return to the fields of Moab, but a return to the gods of Moab.
Dean Ulrich rightly notes,
By sending Orpah and Ruth back to their gods, Naomi broke the first commandment and denied its practical application to a specific case. . . . The one true God was allegedly not sufficient to grant security to all who trust in him, regardless of national and social background.2
Naomi was arguing vigorously to push these women to their assured doom. Imagine an Israelite from Bethlehem having become so bitter that she tries to push her daughters-in-law away from the Lord. Naomi’s arguments would lead them to their eternal death. We can give thanks that the future did not depend on Naomi!
In the midst of this very emotional scene something rather dramatic emerges; Ruth refuses to leave. Naomi cannot detach Ruth from her because she is holding fast. Ruth clings to her and refuses to let go. She holds so tightly that she becomes the only person in our story who sees with the eyes of faith. Surprisingly, Ruth (not Naomi) interprets her decision to return to Bethlehem as a religious commitment to the Lord.
Ruth determines to follow the God of Israel and takes Naomi’s place as the covenant representative of the family, just as Boaz later will take the place of Elimelech as the family’s covenant representative. Elimelech failed; the sons failed, and Naomi failed; now we have a foreigner refusing to fail. Samuel portrays Ruth as an active contrast to Naomi and Orpah. She will not despair but holds tightly, clinging to the covenant promises and looking to the future.
Naomi uses the omnipresent word, “return.” At first, both women promise to “return” saying “our return will match your return.” But Ruth determines to act with true faith. She clings to the covenant and to the faith that Naomi must have taught her when they first met. Ruth’s grasping hold of the covenant promises of God provides not only the reversal of the lot of foreigners such as Ruth, but the reversal of the entire city of Bethlehem, and through it, the whole world. What follows is perhaps one of most-quoted conversion experiences in the whole Bible. This is a confession of faith par excellence.
But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, If anything but death parts you and me” (vss. 16–17).
Ruth Joins the Pilgrimage
This passage continues in the vein of many Old Testament books regarding the theme of pilgrimage. The Bible characteristically portrays the history of redemption as a pilgrimage. God’s covenant people are on a journey of faith. Indeed, the call of our father Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans to the city of God is much like a foundation of the walk of faith for all of God’s people. Ruth now chooses to join this journey with the covenant people of God. She decides to follow in the walk of faith. Ruth chooses to journey to the house of bread, and this act of faith is what reverses the direction of our story and begins the new story of restoration and hope. There is now a future for God’s people.
Ruth is a faithful bride, and God has now become her husband. Samuel provides the reader with a tangible, colorful picture of God’s faithfulness to the widow.
Covenantal: Your People Will be my People
If you are either starting your pilgrimage or if you have been walking for a long time, Ruth’s story is encouraging—no person ever walks the journey of faith alone. Ruth not only started a pilgrimage, she joined a family. Rather, God calls us out of darkness and into his glorious light in the company of others. We join his covenant people, and we do not do this as individuals. In the Bible there is no such thing as individualistic salvation, and there are no lone rangers in God’s kingdom. Ruth herself makes this connection, saying that Naomi’s people will be her people, and thus she becomes a part of the covenant community. Her destiny and her future are wrapped together with the future of God’s community. Even as an “outsider,” Ruth soon discovers the blessing of covenant community. In this sense, Ruth’s confession of faith includes the confession of the “holy catholic church.” We are called to be covenantal. There is a proper sense of connectedness in her confession.
In committing herself to the Lord, Ruth uses a covenant expression as a vow or oath. We see this same thing in Genesis 15, when God acts as the one who invoked a self-condemning or a self-maledictory curse. This phrase “may the Lord deal with me,” is a part of Ruth’s covenant with the Lord as well as with Naomi, and she invokes the name of the Lord.
Buried in the Land
“Where you die, I will die and be buried.” Here we may see something of the land as a place of hope and resurrection. When discussing the concept of famine, we noted that the land was a place of hope and rest. It is, therefore, very important to be buried in the land. The land represented resurrection and hope for future rest. The land was a symbol of the future Sabbath and resurrection life.
As Elimelech left the land of promise, he went into the wilderness. He journeyed to Moab, a land characterized by death for God’s covenant people. Here again the irony is amazing. In the Old Testament, God had established the land of promise as the place where his name was exalted. The land was the dwelling place of God. To be outside of the land was to be outside the promise of the covenant. The land was holy to God; it was sacred. God had invested the land with powerful redemptive meaning. It was the place where God promised to dwell with his people. The land in some ways was like the garden of Eden. It was the place where God had promised peace and rest to his people.
In the Old Testament, the land was the place of rest. Hence, it was considered the proper place of burial. Indeed, Moses devotes a large section of the Genesis account entirely to Abraham’s negotiation and purchase of a burial plot for Sarah (Genesis 23). The father of our faith considered it very important to bury his family in the land. Jim Jordan states,
Abraham was a stranger and sojourner in life, but in death he was a stranger no longer. Hence, he actually owned this part of the land, and this was a down payment on possession of the whole of the land.3
This is not the only place in Genesis in which God makes it evident that his people should be buried in the land of promise. Jacob instructs his sons in Genesis 49:29–33:
Then he charged them and said to them: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite as a possession for a burial place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave that is there were purchased from the sons of Heth.” And when Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.
It is important to be buried in the land of promise. This is not the end of the emphasis on burial in the land. Indeed, the next chapter in Genesis offers us great detail regarding Jacob’s funeral and the trip to the land for burial. Furthermore, Joseph also underscores the importance of burial in the land:
Then Joseph took an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:25, 26).
When we die, we go to God, and He is our dwelling place. When we die, we go to Abraham’s bosom; we go to be with Christ. Today it no longer matters where we are buried in regard to sacred space. In the new covenant, Christ is our ultimate place of dwelling. We are in Christ, and as such we no longer have a piece of land wherein we find rest or hope for resurrection in the future.
Unfortunately, in a number of Christian traditions this idea lingers in superstitious ways. Some traditions place a strong belief in “holy” places. Certain places are invested with special power as they are considered holy and sacred to God. This is why if someone is excommunicated from these churches, they lose the privilege of being buried on sacred ground. In fact, when the famous John Wycliffe died, he was in good standing and was buried on holy ground. However, after his death, he was excommunicated posthumously, and his bones were exhumed. After his remains were unearthed they were burned as those of a heretic.
Old Testament literature taught that the land was the location where God had set his name as a sacred place, which God had set apart for holy use. Therefore, the land had a tremendous significance and it mattered greatly where God’s people were buried. In the Old Testament it was important to be buried in the land as a symbol of their hope of future rest, but this is no longer the case in the New Testament. When we die, we go to be with Christ. The Scriptures inform us that to be buried in the land was to be asleep in the place where God dwells. It was to be asleep with the Lord. Now, of course, we sleep in Christ when we die, and in Christ we wait for the resurrection. Hence, even in the burial practices of the Old Testament saints, we are beautifully pointed to Christ and the hope of the resurrection.
In the Old Testament, the land was part of the promise of the covenant. God’s land was sacred space. This would become even more specific when God built the temple. The land and the temple were the places where God promised to dwell with his people. In the new covenant, the church has replaced God’s special covenant land. The people of God are the land today (see Hebrews 12:22). The church is now the place where God has ordered His name to dwell. Thus, the church has replaced the land as the “place” of blessing. This is not to say that the actual parcel of earth upon which a church building is dedicated is sacred dirt. But rather, wherever God’s name is named among His people, He has promised to dwell there in the midst of them. His covenant promises are no longer bound to a geographical location, but they are given to His body, the church.4
You can commonly see this concept perverted in horror movies in which sacred dirt or water or other objects are used to ward off evil things. Many of these perversions come from churches that continue to mix Old Testament and New Testament concepts improperly. Yes, the church is the holy land or dwelling of God. But this does not mean that church property has any more sacred value than farmland in Ohio.
A missionary to Ethiopia came to visit our church and showed slides of superstitious Christians who bowed down to kiss what they considered to be sacred holy stones. These stones were invested with special powers because of their connection to past spiritual wonders. The superstitious worship of stones and sacred places is testimony to the perversion of this Old Testament concept. In the New Testament, the Bible teaches that the whole earth is to become sacred, as the church goes into the world making disciples of its inhabitants. Now wherever God’s people go, the land goes with them, because they are the place where God has placed His name.
Many prophetic or eschatological schemes still include strange concepts of the resurrection of a promised land, and they are utterly misleading. The land always pointed us to the place of rest within God’s covenant, which ultimately is Jesus the Christ. The church as the dwelling place of God is now the land in the sense that this is the place where God has caused His name to be named; it is now the sacred place for God’s people. This is true, of course, not in a geographic sense, but in a spiritual sense.
At this time in redemptive history, geographically speaking, there is no sacred space. Now the promises with respect to the land have been replaced, and the whole earth is made clean in the work of the church. Now, wherever God’s people dwell, there the concept of sacred land is fulfilled—there is no sacred land in the same sense as there was in Ruth’s day. Ruth’s heart’s desire points us to what our desire should be—we should want God to dwell with us forever. Christ has come as the dwelling place of God. Outside of Christ there is no hope of life. It was to this that the concept of the land of promise pointed, and to this Ruth testified in her statement that she longed to be buried in the land.
Buried in Bethlehem
Here we look at a minor, but poignant, image of Ruth as the new Rachel. Ruth was asking to be buried in Bethlehem. She would become the fruitful bride and bear a child of the covenant. Hence, she would be like a second Rachel, a new bride of the covenant. In redemptive history, Bethlehem was the place where Rachel was buried, and this would be the place where Ruth would find a faithful husband and become the blessed bride of the covenant. She will take the place of Naomi as the new bride of the covenant.
Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem. And it happened, when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was excited because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:19–21)
Naomi cries out against the Lord, revealing a deep bitterness against her God. She continues to blame the Lord for her circumstances and she does not properly acknowledge any need for repentance for leaving the land or for giving her sons to Moabite women. Instead, she accuses God as one who brought her to these woeful circumstances. Is this not characteristic of bitterness toward God? We sin and we rebel, but when the painful consequences begin to strangle us, we cry out in bitterness.
Naomi now asserts that her new name is Mara or bitter. This also reminds us of Rachel’s death in Bethlehem, when she named her son Ben-Oni, son of sorrow. Rachel was essentially asking to be called Mrs. Sorrow. Here Naomi seems to be doing the very same thing. Naomi is continuing in Rachel’s footsteps of bitterness. As the story unfolds, Ruth will replace these women, and she will become a blessed bride of the covenant. Rachel died in bitterness, and Naomi has already expressed both her deadness and bitterness. The pattern of resurrection reversal is obvious. Resurrection through God’s intervention is the only hope for the future—and this is exactly what will happen. Once the city of Bethlehem was cursed and Rachel died a sorrowful bride, but now God reverses the scene and brings new life to the city.
Hence, Samuel continues to use new life or resurrection as a consistent theme. Because God is faithful to his covenant, He will offer His people a new beginning. This is so characteristic of the hope of the covenant. At this juncture in Ruth, we have a new beginning—salvation comes as a new beginning. Salvation is the image of new beginning—the image of God providing life from the dead. Consequently, salvation never comes from man. It always comes as God breaks into history from eternity and provides redemption. He brings hope to the hopeless and life to the dead. Noah was spared a certain death from the worldwide flood because God gave him new life. Abraham was called out of the city of death and into life with God. Israel was taken out of the land of slavery, and God brought them out unto life. In Ruth we see yet one more of the many beautiful illustrations of this same “death to life” principle of redemption. In Ruth’s story, God is about to create new life from the dead womb of Naomi. The pages of redemptive history testify that the idea of God bringing new life from dead wombs is not new. Didn’t God break through the death of Sarah’s womb and provide resurrection life? This is yet another grand example of resurrection life to the dead womb. Naomi is dead, but Ruth will take her place and bear a son, Obed. Naomi adopts Obed, and once more salvation comes through resurrection.
Given Naomi’s bitterness, we know that her actions will not be the basis of any hope. If it were left to the one whose name means pleasant, there would be nothing but bitterness. Yet, the chapter ends with the hope of a harvest. Though the chapter began with a famine, it now ends with a harvest.
Another common theme in Ruth is that of God raising the hope of new life from a barren woman. God brings new life from a woman in whom there is nothing but death. He did this with our mother Sarah. He did this in answer to the tearful prayers of our mother Hannah. He is doing this through Ruth, who, like these others, becomes a paradigm for the coming of our mother Mary.
The mother of our Lord is named Mary, which means bitter. This is the pattern of the Old Testament and barren women whose faithfulness and humility provoke God to grant them new life. In one sense the whole old covenant is a bitter experience, because people keep dying, and there does not seem to be any hope. In Mary we have new life or resurrection life coming from the womb of a virgin. Ruth’s book provides a pledge for the coming Servant of the Lord who would be born in an unexpected way. Obed the slave or servant is the son of Ruth, the Moabitess.
Scholars don’t agree on the meaning of Ruth’s name. Some say the name Ruth means “a sight,” “a companion,” or “a female friend.” Ruth was literally “a female friend” and “a companion” to Naomi. The meaning of her name is less important than the virtual title that Samuel gives for her. One scholar argues that there is an unspoken communal conspiracy not to mention the Moabitess.5 Thus, she is Ruth “the Moabitess.” Her virtual title is the most important part of her name—she is a foreigner! She was from Moab, and this was the hallmark of who she was.
In fact, the text begins to make a transition. As it does so, Samuel calls her “Ruth the Moabitess” for the first time in the story. Yes, we already know that she is a Moabite, but she is given the title, “Ruth the Moabitess.” She is connected to Moab in an ironic manner. As our earlier discussions noted, Moab was a noted land of curse. In particular, Moab was a place where the men of Israel were plagued because of the women they married. Our minds might certainly wander back to the roots of the family of Moab. Ruth’s ancestors come from Lot’s incestuous relations with his daughters, as we read in Genesis 19:
Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites to this day (vss. 36, 37).
Our story is specifically connected to the childlessness of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, and the incest that ensued, and the apparent hopelessness that this brought (Genesis 38). Likewise, Ruth’s origin is doubly ironic, because her cursed forefathers had their origin in the same kind of problem with childlessness complicated by incest. Hence, Ruth’s role as the bride of the covenant is even more ironic given her origins.
There is layer upon layer of ironic hopelessness. Yet God, in his matchless mercy, peels back those layers with the power of the resurrection. Indeed, the layers of despair and hopelessness actually work to enhance the wonder of God’s grace. God undoes what it is impossible for man to undo. God stands where it is impossible for man to stand. So the cross and resurrection are powerfully projected as man’s only hope in the face of sin and death—only God can save.
There is such deep inspiration in this story. We may be covered with layer upon layer of sin and death, but the resurrection power of our Savior strips it of its power over us. “O death, where is thy sting?” says Paul. What seems impossible for man is easy for the God of the resurrection. The layers of irony should deepen our own appreciation of the compassion and power of God to bring life where there is nothing but death. Truly God brings hope to the hopeless and power to the powerless.
1. See Dean R. Ulrich, From Famine to Fullness: The Gospel According to Ruth, P & R Publishing, 2007, 27.
2. Ulrich, From Famine to Fullness, 32.
3. Jim Jordan, “The Book of Ruth, chapter 1b” audio tapes Biblical Horizons
4. See Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, (IVP, 1995), 44–45.
5. Ian M. Duguid, Esther and Ruth, Reformed Expository Commentary, (P&R, 2005), 144.
Rev. L. Charles Jackson is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Dayton, Ohio.
Questions for Consideration
1. Why does Naomi determine that there is no hope for the future?
2. What was the religious significance of Naomi’s attempt to send her two daughters-in-law back to Moab?
3. Why does Ruth refuse to leave?
4. How does Ruth join a pilgrimage? Does she join it alone?
5. Why would someone in the Old Testament want to be buried in the Promised Land?
6. How has this connection to the land changed in the New Testament?
7. How is Ruth like a second Rachel, and how does she point forward?
8. Explain the beauty of Ruth’s status as a foreigner.