The Bible has many different genres -- prophetic literature, wisdom literature, narratives, historical accounts, epistles etc. Ruth is a narrative, and narratives, as we know has elements such as setting (including time and geographical location), characters (with names and relationships), themes, problems, etc.This introductory study on the first seven verses of this book helps establish the context of this book, and we will uncover more of the characters, themes and problems in the subsequent weeks!
(A) Darkness and a nation (Ruth 1:1a)
The introductory verse tell us about the time setting (Ruth 1:1a). We are told that Ruth was set in the time "when the judges ruled". This is actually quite strange (though it may not be so to us), because judges are not supposed to rule. Those are supposed to be two separate offices, even in our day and age. So who are the Judges, and what does Bible tell us about the era of the Judges? Judges1:1-2:23, which is just the book before Ruth, sheds some light, and fits this period in the larger Bible storyline. We are told:
- About the nation of Israel after Moses' death. Joshua was their new leader and he led them into the Promised Land. The book of Joshua (before Judges!) records all the conquests of the nation of Israel in the Promised Land. Judges 1 begins with the death of Joshua, marking the end of his leadership.
- That the tribes of Judah and Joseph take control of the land, while the other tribes did not complete the conquest (Judge 1).
- Their spiritual state. The people of Israel "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord" (Judges 2:11) and "the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel" (Judges 2:14a). Hence, "the Lord raised up judges" (Judges 2:16a).
- "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 25:21). This was the common refrain in the book of Judges, and this is where the book of Ruth was set.
Ruth is a story set in a place and time of anarchy,and where the nation of Israel -- God's people -- was doing as they see fit. In fact, we also realise that the world we live in today is quite similar to the nation of Israel in the time of the Judges. What does the Bible say about this kind of living? The Bible clearly says that chaos ensues when each one does what's right in their own eyes. This is a rather different standard from our modern morality. The first verse of Ruth reminds us that we live godless lives when we live as we please. This is not how we were originally made to live and we as individuals, a community and a nation live in spiritual darkness when we live under our own standard of righteousness.
(B) Darkness and a family (Ruth 1: 1b-6)
The rest of verse 1 tells us that there was a famine in the land, and a man migrates with his family. Why is this shocking? This man leaves the Promised Land (Bethlehem in Judah). He is also described as a sojourner, calling to mind Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who sojourned while waiting for God to fulfill his promises. The books of Genesis to Joshua tell of the nation's long and sometimes difficult journey to get to the land that God has promised, and after they have finally reached it, this man leaves in the face of some difficulties. In some sense this verse really speaks beyond just a physical state. Rather, it speaks of his spiritual state. Isn't this true of us? How often do we not trust God's promises, and bail in difficult times, and seek self-preservation and make plans for ourselves?
We are also told that they settle in Moab for 10 years. In various parts of the Old Testament, we are told of strict prohibitions and rules regarding Moab (c.f. Deut 23:3-6). In their stay there, Elimelech dies, and Naomi gets her sons Moabite wives. Remember the social context and patriarchal culture of the day. She was thinking of her personal security and financial stability. What was the problem? The ESV Study Bible helps us understand it:
“There was no formal prohibition against marrying Moabites (cf. Canaanites in Deut. 7:1–4). However, marriage to Moabites was discouraged because of their commitment to other gods (such as Molech), the Balaam debacle, Israel’s debauchery with Moabite women in the wilderness, and the 10-generation Moabite male exclusion from the assembly of the Lord (Numbers 22–25; Deut. 23:3–7; Ezra 9:2, 12; 10:44; Neh. 13:25).”
This was not the first time in the Bible that God's people married when they were sojourning. Recall Abraham's approach to finding a wife for his son Isaac. This does say something about the family. Like the nation of Israel, this family was pretty godless and did what was right in their own eyes. Perhaps they did not look any different from the people they lived with. What about us? Let us take some time to reflect on our lives. How do we work? How do we use our money? How do we steward our relationships and what do we talk about?
We are also told that the sons Mahlon and Chillion dies, so "the woman" was left without her husband and two sons. In referring to her as "the woman" (Ruth 1:5), the writer draws attention to her poverty and fragility, almost as if she has no identity left. She was alone in a foreign land with no claim to land and inheritance, no recourse to justice. And it was not just one widow, but three.
(C) Darkness and a light (Ruth 1: 6)
Verse 6 tells us that Naomi worked in the harvest fields of Moab to provide for herself and her two daughters-in-law. Why did she move? "... for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food". She did not just hear about an economic reality, but she heard the theological claim.She heard a good news -- that the Lord has visited his people in practical ways. Notice how God was referred to as the covenantal and personal God, a God who has a relationship with His people. The Hebrew word for visit brings with it the idea that the Lord has come purposefully with meaning, to attend to, and in that, there is a hope.
The opening verses of Ruth sets up opposing metaphors -- famine vs harvest, departure and return, life and death. The beautiful literary depiction and themes point to something greater -- that there is hope in darkness when God comes. In the darkest times, in the period of the Judges when people seem to be so far away from God, He has not left His people and brought hope.
As we start this new year, and as the Christmas story is fresh in our mind, let us remember that years after the book of Ruth, God did not merely provide and economic and political solution for His people. More than that, God himself came down. The world we live in can seem overwhelmingly dark at times -- nations at war, injustice in society, broken relationships, personal disobedience -- but Ruth comforts and points us to the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises, when Emmanuel, God Himself came, and is now our living hope.