"A Fresh Start - Leaving Bitterness Behind"
January 6, 2008 Ruth 1
Bite a Lump, Find a Pearl
A news story reports that George & Leslie Brock had been spending a day at the beach Dec.28 in South Florida when they stopped at a diner for a bite. George was about halfway through a $10-plate of steamed clams when he chomped down on something hard; he spat out the lump and found a rare, iridescent purple pearl, about 6 mm across. Their find could be worth thousands. As if that weren't unusual enough - his wife Leslie noted, "The funny part of it is he hardly ever orders clams." (!) [source: http://www.palmbeachpost.com/localnews/content/local_news/epaper/2007/12/31/s1b_pearl_1231.html http://www.11alive.com/news/article_news.aspx?storyid=108857]
What was initially an alarming event - biting down on something unexpectedly hard - turned out to be a real blessing, a 'pearl of great price'. How clams form pearls can actually be an analogy for troubles that turn into treasures. When a clam gets a bit of sharp sand or stone inside, at first it's an irritant to the soft-bodied mollusks. But the clam sets to work secreting a special substance to coat the irritant. After a while what was just a bit of grit has been transformed into an object of true beauty and great value.
The story of Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi is a bit like that. The first bites of life were pretty hard for poor Naomi. But the Lord's help and the care of friends surrounded the trials with His grace and mercy, bringing treasure out of tragedy.
Why Ruth? A Gem of a Book
Why would we even consider spending a few weeks on the book of Ruth? Doesn't it seem pretty small, insignificant, and far removed? True, it does originate in a very distant time and culture, with social dynamics much different from our own. The very first verse says it happened "in the days when the judges ruled" - this would put it somewhere in the range from 1380-1050 BC, over 3000 years ago. It was a very dark time morally for Israel, they were politically fragile, hardly a country yet - more an association of a dozen tribes from the same family. Everyone was scrambling just to survive; it would be centuries yet until Israel's 'Golden Era' under King David and then Solomon. This book comes from a very long time ago.
Yet the book of Ruth has a widespread, almost universal, appeal. Compared to the surrounding historical books of the Old Testament, this one has the feel of a homey narrative or novel. It's a story told from an everyday perspective that the common person, the working man or woman, can relate to. It offers a delightful glimpse into social customs of the time on a community level - you sort of sense you're walking back in time through a pioneer village, WAY back in time, watching people harvest in the field, party when the work's done, and conduct legal transactions at an outdoor court. This short 'novella' (if we can call it that) features some stellar characters: Ruth, the younger woman so sacrificial and devoted; Boaz, the most marriageable middle-aged bachelor in the countryside, full of kindess and consideration; Naomi, the senior citizen with wizened face and heavy heart, yet who displays remarkable faith, realism, and shrewd elderly guidance.
The book is also a charmer because - face it - it involves a ROMANCE! While there's an element that's slightly risqué, yet the heroes come out upholding true integrity - we need good moral examples in today's world! People who don't cave when tempted.
Another reason the book of Ruth is good to review right now is the high level of immigration in many countries in the world, with the risk of resulting racism. I heard it reported that the population of the Netherlands is now officially 1/3 Muslim. ChristianWeek reports that the school board in Quebec with the most people, in Montreal, has 106,000 students of which 23% (nearly a quarter) are immigrants, from 193 different countries, belonging to a vast array of religious persuasions. That's a pile of diversity! It takes some adjusting to get along with our new neighbours and not become racist. Pluralism tempts us to become tribal and prejudiced in outlook; the story of Ruth reminds us God's Kingdom has believers from all kinds of backgrounds.
Also, we are entering a New Year. It's good to be able to look back and, where needed, acknowledge the hardship of existence; the strength found in community and relationship; and especially God's grace in turning around lives and circumstances for a 'fresh start'. For all these reasons, Ruth is a real gem of a book to study.
From Fullness to Emptiness: When Tragedy Won't Let Up
If 2007 was a particularly hard year for you, you've come to the right place! You're about to meet Naomi, a woman who knows all about hardship, to the Nth degree. The overall theme of the book deals with how her bad news got resolved, how God restored her fortunes. Naomi sums up her descent well in v21: "I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty."
People throughout the centuries, in the Judeao-Christian stream and otherwise, have struggled to explain why life can be so tragic at times. Pagan philosophers came up with the concept of "blind fate"; the Roman poet Boethius suggested the idea of a goddess turning a Wheel of Fortune.
"With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel,
Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro:
Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings
While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;
No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,
But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.
Such is a game she plays, and so she tests her strength;
Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour
Sees happiness from utter desolation grow." (A Consolation of Philosophy, Book II, translated by V.E. Watts) [http://shakespeare.about.com/od/studentresources/a/fate.htm]
Notice the adjectives describing this pagan embodiment of 'blind fate': treacherous, ruthless, trustless, steely-hearted...Such a contrast to the Biblical picture of God, abounding in covenant love, faithful, just, and righteous. Yet Boethius' writings influenced the medieval and Renaissance era; Chaucer, Dante, Machiavelli, and then Shakespeare. You may have studied in school the wheel of fate in connection with Shakespeare's works. He wrote of, "Giddy Fortune's furious fickle wheel, / That goddess blind, / That stands upon the rolling restless stone." (Henry V, 3.6.27)
The first 5 verses of the book of Ruth would classify as quite a sudden down-turn in literature's wheel of fate (so this would actually classify as a comedy when it turns out OK, right?). These 71 words in Hebrew are balanced at the end (4:13-17) by exactly 71 words describing Naomi's restored fortunes. That it's a real literary work of art can be detected by observing the middle verse, 2:20, marks a crucial turning point.
Anyway, enough of the English lecture - what exactly are the stages in the tragic portion of Naomi's story? First, in v1, "there was a famine in the land" of Israel. No food in Bethlehem, which is supposed to mean 'house of bread'. A second loss occurs when they leave their homeland and emigrate to Moab in hopes of finding food, end of v2. Moab at this period was quite a despised oppressive enemy: they drew the Israelites into idolatry before crossing the Jordan on the exodus from Egypt; during the time of the judges they conquered sections of Israel, wiping out entire villages, and imposing heavy tribute. Not to mention Lot's begetting of their ancestor by incest (Moab literally means 'of his father').
Third, in v3, Naomi's husband Elimelech dies. As if that weren't bad enough, after about 10 years, in v5 her two sons died. One's name Mahlon means 'sickly' so he may have had poor health all along. The name of the other, Kilion, means 'pining' - was there some other misfortune in their background that would prompt the parents to give him a name like that? "Pining" - you've got to wonder! What else had Naomi and Elimelech been 'pining' about that isn't mentioned?
So when we pick up the narrative, there's been a lot of stress and loss in Naomi's life, much more than most people encounter in their lifetime. She's left on her own, deprived of the life of her husband AND her two sons. Don't forget this isn't 21st century Canada: it's an ancient agrarian patriarchal society, bare minimum social structure in the loose confederacy, frequently prone to enemy raiders. No health care, no pension, no social assistance; she faced the prospect of being destitute without a breadwinner or an heir. Begging and homelessness loomed ahead for a bereft single widow. Naomi's life was largely spent, she may have felt she had nothing left to really attract anyone's interest.
Overcoming Bitterness with Blessing
Such devastation - what's Naomi do with all this? The shocks might send some people into a blue fog of depression, but Naomi copes remarkably well (her faith in God is no doubt a factor). For one thing, she's REALISTIC, accepting the facts, acknowledging the loss. Second half of v13, "It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!" And in vv20-21 she's very descriptive, telling the people who used to know her not to call her Naomi (which means 'pleasant') any more, instead to call her Mara (which means 'bitter'), "because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." NLT translates that last part, "Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?" She's realistic, she can call it for what it is, acknowledging her loss.
Although her situation is bitter not pleasant, Naomi doesn't let herself sink into lasting bitterness. Along with being REALISTIC, she is still RELYING on God, rather than blaming her misfortune on some fickle 'blind fate'. Throughout what she says you catch the implication that she still views the Lord Yahweh as sovereign, He is responsible, and still capable of blessing those who trust in Him. Most people who'd lost the male supporters in the family would be only too glad to have a couple of strong young women to help look after her. But in v8 Naomi surprisingly releases Orpah and Ruth rather than controlling or taking advantage of them. She urges them repeatedly, "Go back...to your mother's home." Because she's relying on God, she doesn't need or want to drag them down with her into poverty. And look at the wording she uses as a blessing: "May the Lord show kindness to you...May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband." (8f) If Naomi were really mad at God, really bitter for the deaths He'd allowed to happen, I don't think she'd use His name in a blessing. It's a bad time she's going through, a devastating time in fact, but she's still leaning on God to bless and redeem. That gives her grace to grant Orpah and Ruth their freedom, a choice.
Are you able to trust God and refer to Him even when you're going through tough times? Can you resist the temptation to turn your back on Him and not have anything more to do with One who has caused such suffering? Years hence, Naomi's great-great-grandson David would also go through a harrowing experience when Absalom usurped the throne and David, the great king, was forced to flee. But even then David kept trusting God to bring about what was good and right in the long run. He said in 2Sam 15(26), "But if [God] says, 'I am not pleased with you,' then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him." That's faith!
In 1963, Mary Kay Ash and her husband invested their life's savings in Mary Kay Cosmetics. A month later her husband died, and she was told by her attorney and other advisors to liquidate the company in hopes of salvaging some of her investment. Instead of quitting, she pressed on. Later, her accountant told her that she paid too much commission and that she couldn't succeed without reducing her pay scale. Again she ignored the advice and eventually built one of America's largest cosmetic companies.
Sacrificial Grace in Sticking with a "Lost Cause"
This story might have remained a tragedy except that God has already provided two remarkable people to enter Naomi's life - Ruth her daughter-in-law, and Boaz, whom we'll meet in chapter 2. Ruth's name, appropriately, means "friend". She comes alongside to help in time of need much as does the Holy Spirit, our Paraclete. Ruth is also one of just 4 women who are named in Jesus' genealogy in Matthew 1 - exceptional women, including Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba. Easton's dictionary notes Ruth is a woman characterized by "unselfishness, brave love, and unshaken trustfulness".
Ruth has a 'foil' or counter-character in Orpah, who highlights Ruth's strengths by her different actions. Both Ruth and Orpah are dealing with their own grief: their husbands died, just as Naomi's did. Yet both are young enough to make a go of it on their own - start over again with another man, unlike aging Naomi. Both Ruth and Orpah were raised under teaching about the pagan Moabite god Chemosh: this idol was depicted as a destroyer and subduer, demanding human sacrifice (at one point the Moabite king sacrifices his eldest son to stave off an Israelite attack, 2Kings 3). Both Ruth and Orpah responde initially to Naomi's dismissing of them by saying they would return with her to Israel (v10). But after Naomi really spells out the consequences of a decision to go to Israel - that she really had nothing to offer, Orpah turned back to remain in Moab. V14, "At this they wept again.Then Orpah kissed her mother_in_law good_by, but Ruth clung to her." New Living translates it, "but Ruth clung tightly" to her.
A third time Naomi dismisses her - as if Ruth still hasn't gotten the message. But this only draws out a beautiful declaration of commitment often used in weddings to this day - a totally unconditional, no-holds-barred dedication of enduring love that is poetic, strong, and immortal. Vv16-17, (Ruth replied) "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. [and then to underline her seriousness, she uses a standard binding-oath formula] May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." Wow! What a declaration of attachment! "You're not shaking me no matter how hard you try, how hard the going gets!" The repetition makes it especially eloquent, go/go, stay/stay, people, God; and then the promise that nothing less than death would separate them. How our marriages need that kind of stick-to-it-iveness today!
Ruth's powerful promise to Naomi echoes God's pledge of unconditional love for us and commitment to us as His people. On the inside of my wedding ring is inscribed Deuteronomy 31:8, "The LORD is the One who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." (NASV) Jesus promised something similar to His disciples on a couple of occasions. At the end of the Great Commission in Mt 28(20) He promises, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." And in John 14(18) He said, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." He's not going to run out on us, desert or abandon us. Like Ruth, even moreso, He is a Forever Friend: "I'm going to be there for you, all the way." That's what friends do. Not Chemosh-style, but Christ-style. Often in Scripture we find God's concern expressed for widows and orphans, foreigners and the poor. Ruth just happens to be the incarnated expression of God's tangible love for Naomi, making all the difference in the situation.
Ruth's name means 'friend' - and she expresses that beautifully. Someone has said, "A friend has been defined as the first person who comes in when the whole world has gone out." It must have seemed to Naomi that the world had dropped out from under her feet; but Ruth remained there at her side to bolster and support her.
Before my closing illustration, I would say the two neighbour boys across the road from us, Geoff and Daniel, were friends this past week. It was Wednesday morning when the temperature was so cold, the driveway needed clearing so Meredith and her friend from Alberta could go out, and I couldn't get the tractor with the snowblower to start. While I was working away fiddling with the fuel line trying to get it to go, Geoff and Daniel finished their own driveway and started on mine. I thanked them and told them that was OK, I could do it myself. They kept on clearing it while I kept on tinkering. I never did get it going that day. Eventually I grabbed a shovel and helped them finish the last few strips. Good for me that they were better at showing practical friendship than I was at fixing!
A new homeowner's riding lawn mower had broken down, and he had been working fruitlessly for two hours trying to get it back together. Suddenly, one of his neighbours appeared with a handful of tools. He asked, "Can I give some help?" In 20 minutes he had the mower functioning beautifully. "Thanks a million," the now-happy newcomer said. "And say, what do you make with such fine tools?" The neighbour smiled and answered, "Mostly friends.I'm available anytime." Let's pray.