In only a few verses, Samuel has provided us the setting for a dramatic and deadly problem that has consumed our family from Bethlehem. It is as if Elimelech marched into the jaws of death. While the family left in the middle of a famine, the story has taken a remarkable turn for the worse. In a few verses everyone but Naomi is dead! Elimelech is dead. Mahlon is dead and Chilion is dead. There are no men to provide for the future—in this sense there is no future. The story forces us to wonder what will happen now. What can this family possibly do next?
As a result, the three women begin to talk about their dreadful situation. Thus begins the first dialogue of the story. The unfaithfulness of Elimelech has brought the expected (at least for the sensitive reader) consequence of death and hopelessness. Samuel wants us to feel the utter despair in their plight. If we understand their despair, we will be ready to appreciate the amazing grace of God. The reader will be thrilled to watch God’s sovereign reversal—the faithfulness of God reverses the unfaithfulness of Elimelech.
Elimelech’s faithless actions have brought him to the expected end, which puts the family and the reader on the road to a series of sovereign reversals or “returns.” These reversals culminate in the ultimate reversal of our story up to this point, which is the conversion of Ruth.
Just as dramatically as things turned to death and to destruction, so now our story turns towards life and hope. Samuel emphasizes the radical reversal of the fortunes of the people in our story using the word return. In fact, he uses this word so much that you might think he has gone a bit overboard. He uses the word and the concept as part of the dramatic flair, which forces us to recognize it. Sinclair Ferguson notes that this word is the Old Testament’s main expression for turning back to God’s covenant grace and mercy—for repentance, for conversion.”1
What an amazing turn of events we are about to witness! The reverse setting and reverse fortunes go together with the reversal of the whole story. Ruth’s conversion is nothing less than the complete reversal of the whole story towards a new direction, a new beginning, and thus, a new hope.
Because it is vital for us to appreciate what God is doing in the story, we need to take note of the reversals Samuel emphasizes. We move dramatically from death towards life, from Moab to Bethlehem, and from famine to harvest.
The reversal in chapter one is obvious, but it bears emphasis. Naomi returns to the very place where our story began. Notice that by the end of this chapter the story comes full circle in many ways. It is very close to the title of Dean Ulrich’s book on Ruth entitled, From Famine to Fullness. Not only are we back in Bethlehem, but everything has been reversed in extremely ironic and rather odd ways. First, Naomi says, she went out full but has come back empty. Yet, at the beginning when they left for Moab, the city of Bethlehem was empty. As she returns to Bethlehem, the city that was empty is now full. At the beginning of the story, Elimelech’s family left when there was a famine; now they return at the beginning of a harvest. What a radical reversal we see! Samuel requires us to recognize the nature of the reversal; it is God’s doing! This is a radical reversal that occurs because God sovereignly engineers it in spite of Elimelech’s unfaithfulness.
God is sovereignly moving the family back to Bethlehem even though they had determined to go in the opposite direction. For instance, we can peek behind the scenes to see God’s sovereignty at work in the life of someone we have not even met—Boaz. We will find out later that Boaz’s faithfulness in Bethlehem has apparently provoked the blessing of the Lord, while Elimelech’s unfaithfulness provoked the curse of the covenant upon the family of Judah. So in spite of Elimelech’s deliberate sins, God has already been sovereignly working to reverse the consequences of those sins in an entirely different place, not at all related (humanly speaking), yet coupled together by sovereign design. Since God is the one who established David’s family in the land, this would be very important for the people of David’s kingdom to realize.
God’s sovereign grace fills us with a combination of humility and confidence. He accomplishes his divine design in spite of David’s faithless family members. It is as if God drags the family back to Bethlehem kicking and screaming. In particular, Naomi’s complaining reveals the exact bitterness that she says is reflected in the new name she gives herself. She wants to be called Mara, which means bitter. Even in the face of death and destruction, Naomi is apparently not humbled before the Lord.
Although we know that God has reversed the situation for the purpose of blessings, we see yet another bit of irony, because Naomi interprets things in reverse of God’s reversal. Naomi complains that God has reversed her pleasantness to bitterness, but in reality at the very center of her complaint, God is reversing the entire direction of her life towards true pleasantness and ultimate blessings. When we peel back some of the ironic layers, we uncover deep covenantal theology. What Naomi now thinks is death will ultimately bring her life. She may complain about God bringing bitterness, but this is merely because, like her husband, she is still unfaithful at heart.
Thus, our story is definitely at a turning point. We are in the midst of serious problems, and the reader may ask “What will happen to the covenant promises of God in the face of such unfaithfulness? Will they die? Will the line of David end and the promise end with it?” If you read biblical stories honestly, this is certainly not the first time you could ask this question.
To the contrary, redemptive history is replete with the record of man’s unfaithfulness. There are many stories of men who are unfaithful and who have provoked curses upon themselves and those around them. Over and over again in countless ways we find men who are unfaithful, which brings them and their families into truly terrible situations. Yet, their plight is consistently and lovingly reversed by God’s sovereign faithfulness. How many times have we seen this? How many times do God’s people bring themselves to the very precipice of death and destruction? We can recall that when it looked as if man’s unfaithfulness had brought complete ruin to the whole world, God gathered Noah and his family into the ark and provided them salvation.
Moses failed and was unfaithful. The Judges failed and were unfaithful. The Kings of Israel and Judah failed and were unfaithful. They turned left when they should have turned right, and they turned right when they should have turned left. Yet, over and over in the biblical stories we see the unfaithfulness of man not only matched but completely reversed by the faithfulness of God.
At this juncture in Ruth, our story points us to the same conclusion about unfaithful men. Almost everyone in our story is dead—the men are all dead, and the family has no hope for the future, because in terms of her child-bearing capacity, Naomi’s womb is dead and unable to produce more men. In this sense, death reigns!
How will God provide salvation through the family of Judah if that line is now dead? We are forced to see the sovereignty of God at work. How will God maintain his promises? From where will new life come to the tribe of Judah? It will not be from the most expected source, which is Naomi, but from a foreigner, Ruth the Moabitess. God will bring salvation from the most unlikely and humble of places; ironically he will bring it from Moab to Bethlehem.
This is yet another ironic reversal in our story. Using a Moabite woman in our story is like Jesus’ use of the Samaritan in Luke 10. You would expect Naomi, as an Israelite, as a child of the covenant, to come back to Bethlehem at harvest praising God, for he has returned her to the land of fruitfulness and fullness. Instead, she complains bitterly about how God, not her former husband or her own actions, not even her sons and their actions (who still had been given a chance to repent and return to the land), but how God has cursed her and how he has made her bitter.
Naomi is bitter about her life. She is bitter about the loss of her husband, which is no small problem. Who will care for her now? Who will provide for her now without a husband? Since her place is now among the widows, she complains bitterly as someone without a husband, and thus without security or hope.
Yet, this is precisely the place her own actions have brought her. Likewise, this is the exact place God wants her to be, so she (and we through her) may learn of God’s tender love for the helpless. She has clearly forgotten that at the heart of the covenant is a constant provision for the widow and orphan. As such, God draws our attention later to the tender heart of Boaz, who obeys the Lord by following the gleaning laws, which provide for the needy.
The place of the widow in the Bible is central to the themes of redemption. It is no coincidence that widowhood is consistently listed as characterizing the needy whom God loves. God is said to have his eyes on the widow and the orphan. It is also no coincidence that the first time the word widow occurs in the Bible is in Genesis 38. Yes, Genesis 38 is the story of Judah and Tamar, which is where our story has its roots. Instead of trusting the Lord for his future, Judah abused the widow Tamar. This is where the tribe of Judah crashed on the rocks of sin and lust and where David’s ancestors ruined their legitimacy for the future. In Genesis 38, the tribe itself had become like a widow. See Genesis 38:11,
Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah is grown.” For he said, “Lest he also die like his brothers.” And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.
Judah was fearful that his daughter-in-law was cursed and that she would curse his sons, two of whom had already died. Judah was abusive and unkind to the widow Tamar, and he thus acts contrary to the covenant. God, on the other hand, gives his people clear direction regarding kindness to the widow.
“You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:22–23).
The widow and the orphan were pictures of the helpless person. They lacked the security and the protection that they needed. Hence, God consistently warns his people to give due regard to the needs of the widow and orphan. The widow possessed a position of special affection in God’s economy.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17–19).
One could cite verse after verse in the Old Testament that reveals a particular divine concern for the widow. This is of course no less true of the New Testament. Indeed, religion in the Old Testament and the New Testament is summarized in James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
The widow becomes a veritable picture of the kind of person whom God loves. God becomes a father to the fatherless and a husband to the widow. Here the theme of husbandry is being plastered over every angle and aspect of our story in Ruth. The story begins with an unfaithful husband, and then the rest of the story moves us to the conclusion of how God, through Boaz, provides a faithful husband. God’s provision of a faithful husband will resurrect the line of Judah from death. Of course, we should see Christ in this story from the beginning to the end.
God is providing Naomi with hope through a future husband, and it is not because of her faithfulness and humility. The whole story turns towards a future hope because of God’s tender concern for the humble. Here the irony resumes. For instance, Naomi’s name means pleasant, which has an ironic twist at first, but now she cries out that her name is Mara, or bitterness. This also holds irony in it because God is in the process of providing her with true pleasantness through a faithful husband, through a coming savior, or what our story calls the kinsman redeemer. But at this time in our story, Naomi refuses to look forward to this redeemer with hope. She refuses to look forward to the hope of the Lord! Rather, Samuel uncovers her hard-heartedness in the dialogue that follows.
Beginning with verse seven we hear the first dialogue of our story. Up to this point we have heard only from our narrator. Now we begin to hear from the characters themselves. Ruth 1:8 initiates the first discussion, which seems to point to a new literary unit. Now we hear from them in their own words.
For the rest of the chapter we only hear from the women of our story. Other than our narrator, there are no male characters speaking in this chapter. It is worth noting that the heroine of our story is a woman. We see that the story of salvation is as much for women and girls as it is for men and boys. The primary figures in the story of redemption are male, but there is a fundamental focus on women as well. Like Mary the mother of Jesus, Ruth is a humble woman of faith. God uses the humility and faithfulness of such women to form the very foundation of our faith.
In the dialogue and discussion among the women, we also learn a good deal of theology. Even more pointedly, we are focused on Naomi and Ruth. Naomi’s words are first, and they set the stage for the radical reversal that God is about to engineer.
Naomi’s Complaint Continued
As she speaks to her daughters-in-law, she says, “May the Lord grant you pleasantness.” She is determined to detach herself and leave the land of Moab, but she will not face the reality of her situation. In fact, we actually see her physical attempting to detach herself from these young women. We find a deep-seated bitterness in Naomi. Naomi blames God almost entirely for her lot even though she has created it. Notice her words to her daughters-in-law contain a kind of implication against the Lord. She invokes the Lord’s name.
And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. The LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept (vss. 8–9).
She says, “The LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Naomi reverses reality when she says, “May the Lord deal kindly with you,” implying that the Lord has not dealt kindly with her. Naomi’s complaint reveals a heart full of bitterness and she harshly implies that the Lord has not dealt kindly with the dead or with her.2
The structure of Naomi’s words implies a deep-seated bitterness. For instance, she says, “May the Lord grant you rest,” leaving the impression that she thinks the Lord has not granted her rest. Naomi requests that the Lord would grant them peace with a husband, implying that she thinks the Lord will not provide Naomi such peace or such a husband.
When you listen to her complaint, you discover that she is bitter and that she believes her trouble is the Lord’s doing. Isn’t this just par for the course? We act contrary to faith and then cry bitterly to the Lord at the mess we have made. We howl at the Lord, implying that he has made our lot bitter, when in so many cases, as with Naomi, God has actually worked to bring salvation, while we have done our level best to provoke death. Here God is actually working to drive Naomi back to the city of bread, and yet she fights him. She goes back, as we say, “kicking and screaming.” Isn’t this so common for us? We rush towards a wall of destruction and we run straight into a fortress of harm; then we moan and cry as we wallow in the wounds we have created for ourselves. “Of course,” we say, “the Lord just doesn’t want me ever to get ahead financially,” as we pull out the credit cards to pay for our dinner out.
As Naomi finds desolation in Moab, and as she realizes that there is bread in her homeland, she decides to go where there is food. She now heads back to Judah. As she leaves to return to the homeland, her daughters-in-law attempt to follow her to Bethlehem in Judah. As we mentioned earlier, Judah is under a curse for failing to maintain the Levirate law. From Genesis 38 we recall the terrible story of incest and illegitimacy. Hence, Samuel is pointing to the coming restoration and redemption of the tribe of Judah through the Levirate law that Judah had violated.
The two daughters-in-law are also heading to Judah, and, ironically, Naomi attempts to dissuade them. Naomi has not been a woman of faith, and she continues in faithlessness. Rather than encouraging these two young women in the hope of the covenant and the possible redemption in the land, she attempts to discourage them from the only hope they really have for finding true food.
Ironically, Naomi tells them that they should not come. In a stunningly hard-hearted push, she is trying to turn them back to the ways of death. She has, as we noted, a serious reality problem. At this point she can’t seem to come to grips with her self-created hardships, and she improperly attempts to direct these two young women back to the path of death. We are not told exactly why she tries to keep them from coming with her, except that she seems so blurred with bitterness at God that she herself would not even be returning to the land of Judah except for temporary food. Jim Jordan aptly states, “This whole family has been characterized by food and not faith.”3 It was food and not faith that drove Elimelech to leave the house of bread. Now it is also for food and not faith that Naomi is driven back to the land.
She reminds us of the Israelites who chased Jesus around the lake for more food after he had performed a miracle to feed them. Like Naomi, they are characterized by food and not faith.
Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.” Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’“ Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:26–35).
Naomi’s bitterness drives her to a life of seeking food that perishes rather than seeking true bread from God through faith.
1. Sinclair B. Ferguson, Faithful God, 25.
2. See audio sermons “Ruth Chapter One: The Story Begins,” by James Dennison.
3. Jim Jordan, “Ruth,” audio tape #2.
Questions for Consideration
1. How does Samuel use the word “return” to teach us?
2. Describe some of the “returns.”
3. How does Naomi respond to God’s sovereign reversals?
4. Give some biblical examples of God’s faithfulness in reversing the unfaithfulness of men.
5. How does the idea of widowhood fit into our story?
6. How is Naomi still operating by the principle of “food, not faith”?
7. What role does bitterness play in Naomi’s bad decisions?
8. How does John 6 help us to understand this story?