Rev. Doug Floyd
The End of One World and the Beginning of A New World
Rev. Doug Floyd
Today we pause over the much beloved story of Naomi and Ruth. It is the end of a world and the beginning of a world. This story is set “in the time of judges.” The book of Judges is one of the darkest books in Scripture. All through the book the Israelites are in conflict with neighboring tribes anreven have divisions amongst themselves. The book ends with a brutal story of sexual violence followed by a battle that almost destroys the tribe of Benjamin. As the book ends it feels as though Israel has descended into the corruption of Sodom and Gomorrah. Then we come to Ruth.
The book of Ruth opens with the following sentence: In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons (Ruth 1:1). This man’s name was Elimelech and his wife’s name was Naomi. Elimelech and Ruth are from Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” Here’s the irony, Elimelech and Naomi are experiencing famine in the house of bread, so they must leave.
They go to live in the land of their enemies: the Moabites. Elimelech’s name means “YHWH is King” and Naomi’s name means “Pleasant.” But then Elimelech dies. Naomi’s sons marry Moabite wives, which was strictly forbidden in the Israelite community. After ten years, both couples are childless and both sons die.
All these images (the famine in Bethlehem (the house of bread); the death of Elimelech, the barrenness and subsequent death of the two sons) point to the end, to a barrenness that has infected the very land of plenty. This opening makes me think of the opening to Abraham’s story: people are living shorter and shorter lives and finally we come to Abram and Sarai, and they are barren. This is another picture of a world about the collapse.
So our story of Naomi opens with an ending. It is set in the time of judges. That world appears to be tottering on collapse. Things are so bad that the people of God must leave the land of promise in search of food. But even that fails.
Naomi is grieved in the depths of her soul, so much so that she will refer to herself as Mara (bitterness) instead of Naomi (pleasant). She has heard that the Lord has remembered his people, so she decides to return home. She sends her daughter-in-laws home with a blessing. But Ruth refuses to go. She will not heed Naomi’s command. Ruth pledges her life to Naomi.
Her plea is so powerful that we continue to recite Ruth’s words in weddings as a pledge between a man and a woman. But this is not a man and a woman. This is not a romance. This is a daughter-in-law who gives her life to her mother-in-law. In this pledge, we see a new world beginning to emerge.
Let’s consider Ruth’s pledge:
Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ru 1:16–17.
She pledges to follow Naomi wherever she will go.
She pledges to dwell wherever Naomi dwells.
She leaves behind her land, her kindred, and her mother’s house. This is the pattern of Abram in Genesis. He is called to leave behind his country, his kindred, and his father’s house to the land that God will show him. Ruth is making this kind of pledge to Naomi. Ruth will go to the land that Naomi will show her.
Ruth faces a big risk because she is entering the land as a forbidden enemy of Israel. Nonetheless, she pledges herself to those very people.
Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God.
She is committing herself to a culture she has yet to discover. She is doing so clearly because of her deep love for Naomi. This suggests to us that Naomi has revealed the way of the Lord to Ruth all these years of struggle and hardship. Ruth sees in Naomi a love, a life, a way that compels her.
She pledges not only her life but her death. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Whether she lives or dies, she will follow Naomi.
She seals her pledge with the Name of Naomi’s God: YHWH. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.
Ruth exhibits a deep lovingkindness toward Naomi. She exhibits what the Old Testament refers to as Hesed. This word that speaks of mercy and lovingkindness and covenant faithfulness is often used in reference to the Lord. In fact, it it the most common description of the Lord in the Old Testament.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 136:1.
As we continue to read the tale of Ruth, we come to see that the three principle characters-Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz—all demonstrate a life of Hesed, of steadfast love.
The story of Ruth stands in great contrast to all the stories of the judges. There are no great victories over enemies in Ruth. There is no supernatural strength in Ruth. Instead, we observe a family that lives out the way of the Lord, the way of steadfast love. It is in these lives of exchanged kindnesses, we see a glimpse of the kingdom of God. We see a new world coming into view in the midst of a violent and dark world. This is the world that will bring forth King David, Israel’s greatest leader.
We live in a world that can sometimes feel so dark. We ourselves may experience suffering and loss such that we might be ready to embrace the name of Mara (bitterness) ourselves. We may long for some dramatic miracle that reminds God hasn’t forsaken us.
God has not and will not forsake us. His steadfast love endures for ever. He will often reveal His Hesed through the people of God around us. It may even come from someone who surprises us. Someone who has been outside the faith and is moving into the faith by the grace of God.
Let us also remember that we may play a Ruth in someone else’s story. It may be that our steadfast love toward another will turn the bitter water to sweet water, will turn death to life, will open a new world, the very kingdom of God, in the midst of the darkness all around us.