Monday, October 17, 2016

Ruth: Courage and Commitment in Adversity

     There are only two books in the entire Bible named after women.  One of these is the story of Ruth found in the Old Testament.  The book is a simple narrative set in the time of the Judges.  It tells the story of the young Moabite widow, Ruth, who left her home in Moab to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Bethlehem after the deaths of her father-in-law Elimelech, her husband, Mahlon, and her brother-in-law, Chilion, married to another Moabite woman named Orpah.

     The loss of a husband in ancient Israel and Moab was generally a severe social and economic tragedy.  Because Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth lose all the men in their family, their crisis was particularly harsh.  Not only did it mean that there were no able bodied men to work the land but in ancient Israel the general rule was that the land was connected to the family of the male to whom it had been apportioned.  When all the men of a family died, generally the women were left destitute.  Only a male, the “kinsman redeemer” could purchase land inherited by an Israelite widow.  That kinsman was also required to provide for the remaining widow.  Only then could the land remain the possession of a particular family.

    Like many widows Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth were forced to explore new options for survival after their spouses died.  Naomi learned that food was plentiful in her hometown of Bethlehem and knew about Emilech's land there.  Hoping that surival there would be easier, she and her daughters-in-law prepared for the arduous journey back to Bethlehem.  Soon after the three widows started out, Naomi realized she could not promise an easier life for her two daughters-in-law.   Perhaps it might be in their best interest to return to their own families in Moab. She told both Orpah and Ruth to return home to their families.  Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodby.  Ruth, however, clung to Naomi and uttered this passionate plea:
   “Don't urge me to leave you or 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.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if
      anything but death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16,17)

     What prompted Ruth to make such a powerful declaration of love and loyalty?  She had just lost her beloved Mahlon.  Following Naomi meant she would now lose a sister-in-law who had been like a sister to her.  Why did Ruth prefer to go with Naomi instead of remaining in her own country?  Why did she choose to move forward and not backwards?  

      It is true that Naomi and Ruth were both grief-stricken widows.  However, Naomi's trip back to Bethlehem signified a trip home to her people, family and friends who shared her faith in the loving and merciful God.  Ruth, on the other hand, was venturing into the unknown.  She was leaving her own kin, her homeland and all its customs including its gods behind her.  What was the source of the young widow's courage and commitment to travel with Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem?

     Someone once said that our real journey in life is interior.  It is what motivates us from within that determines our choices, colors our decisions, and reveals our character.  In Ruth's passionate plea above it is apparent that more than loyalty to her beloved mother-in-law prompted her to insist on accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem.   She said, “your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”  Not only did Ruth love Naomi. She had also come to accept Yahweh as the one true God she wanted to follow.  Her courage and strong resolve to move forward resulted because she had placed her faith in God and trusted Him with her life.

     So often suffering and grief test us at our core.  They test not only our faith, but also our commitment and purpose.  Sometimes they test our obedience and reveal the attitudes of our heart, our very character.  Does God notice if we “pass” those tests?  Did He notice Ruth and give her favor once she arrived in Bethlehem?  To answer that question we must turn to the remaining three chapters of the narrative.

       Once Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem they sought shelter and food.  Fortunately, (or “providentially”), they arrived in Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest.  Ruth immediately asked Naomi's permission to go out to the field and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes she might find favor.  Notice that Ruth's demeanor is both respectful and humble...first toward Naomi but also toward God. 

     In I Samuel 16:7 the Lord taught Samuel that man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.  Proverbs 31: 30 warns that “charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”  To understand Ruth we need to examine her heart.  But how do we recognize someone's heart or motives?  How does Ruth's own story reveal her heart?  Examining Ruth's words and behavior toward others reveal her motives and character.

      Let's consider what happens in the remaining chapters of the book which bears her name.  It just so happened (again “providence”) that Ruth began gleaning in a field owned by Naomi's kinsman, Boaz.  Very soon Boaz noticed Ruth and inquired about her.  Boaz had noticed that Ruth worked steadily without taking a break.  He learned what she had done for Naomi, her mother-in-law.  He was told she was a Moabitess, a foreigner.  Ruth's behavior and character qualities interested Boaz more than Ruth's nationality.

      Boaz promptly bestowed his favor on Ruth.  He protected her.  He directed her to glean only in his field. He warned his men not to touch her.  He verbally praised her for what she had done for Naomi.  He placed her next to him when they ate.  Lastly, he provided for both of them by giving her food to take home to Naomi.

     When Ruth acknowledged Boaz's favor her response revealed an attitude of humility.  First, she asked, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me, a foreigner?”  Later she said, “May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord.  You have given me comfort and have spoken kindly to your servant---though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls.” 

       Ruth's attitude is one of submission and gratitude toward Boaz and toward God.  Could Ruth's demeanor...her gentleness, her attitude of respect, her humility, and her soft words have a lesson for us?  Many years later in Psalms, David wrote “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, you God, will not despise.” 

     Eventually Boaz purchased the land owned by Emilech after a closer relative refused to buy it because it meant he would have to take care of Ruth as well.   Boaz admired Ruth's character and while he could own the land he also wanted to make this woman his wife.  Later their son, Obed, was born. 
   What is significant about that fact is that Obed is the grandfather of David from whose line Jesus Christ our Messiah was born.  Yes, from the lineage of the foreigner, Ruth and Boaz our own Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ was born! 

     Ruth had passed the test of adversity.  She received God's favor because she understood the importance of the interior life.  She couldn't change the events of her life but she could learn to walk in faith humbly with God and trust Him for her future.  She could protect the attitudes of her heart.

     Did Ruth also model for her son Obed the character qualities of courage, commitment, and humility evident in her behavior and words in the narrative which bears her name?  Did Obed eventually teach and model those same attitudes of the heart for his grandson David?   We may not have actual evidence of that from Scripture.  However, we do have the assurance that God will never leave us or forsake us (Deut. 31:6) just as He did not leave or forsake a young humble widow from Moab named Ruth.

Message by a new member of our Blog Team Cindy Thomas