We’re returning to our series of the most important chapters of the Bible for you to learn today – and in our return, we freely admit that we’re going to cheat!
In the first three editions of this series, we’ve had these amazing “stand-alone” chapters that are essential to your understanding of God’s Word: Genesis 3, where good and evil were first delineated; Genesis 22, where Abraham demonstrated for all time what faith truly was; and Exodus 20, the introduction of God’s Ten most important Commandments.
Today, however, we really want you to do more than read the first chapter of Ruth: the entire story is just four short chapters, just 85 verses in all. (Psalm 119 runs 176 verses by itself!) But if we must pick a chapter to focus on, it is the introduction, with Ruth’s powerful testimony of agape love for her mother-in-law, that begs for our attention:
1 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. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “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.”18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
There’s so much to unpack just in chapter one! The first topic is obedience to God. What happened to Elimelech when he chose to leave Israel because of drought? (Remember, Moab is the last place God wanted Israelites to be!) In verse 2 he decides to leave Bethlehem for Moab – and in verse 3, he’s dead.
What happens to his sons when they choose to marry Moabite women? They choose foreign wives in verse 4, and they’re dead by verse 5, leaving Naomi and the two young women alone together.
Naomi finally does the right thing and leaves Moab to return home. Here we get to see the greatest expression of “agape love” of one person for a relative – in this case, Ruth to her mother-in-law:
16 But Ruth said, “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.”
As determined as Naomi had been to send her home, that simple four-sentence declaration of love silenced every objection. “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” And this from a pagan woman to a Hebrew.
Finally, we have Naomi’s own declaration of defeat, one which God will turn to victory within the next three chapters: Do not call me Naomi (which means “pleasant”), but rather call me Mara (which means “bitter”), because the Lord has testified against me. Notice that she acknowledged the source of her affliction, as well as her own responsibility for the “calamities” which befell her and her family. Repentence is always the key to salvation and forgiveness.
Verse 22 merely sets up the upcoming chapters, which to me are almost as critical as the first one: in chapter 2, we meet Boaz, the Christ-analogue in this story, who will eventually redeem both Naomi and Ruth. He himself violated several of God’s commands – not including a Moabite in the Hebrew culture until the fourth generation or later, for example. In chapter 3, Ruth “seduces” Boaz on the threshing floor (perhaps the most innocent seduction scene in all of literature), and the two hatch a plan to arrange their marriage; chapter 4 plays out the technicality of having a closer “kinsman redeemer” than Boaz, who declines the offer and thus allows Boaz to marry Ruth, take on Naomi’s inherited land, and “live happily ever after” together.
One key component of the Christ-analogue story is the idea of the “kinsman redeemer”, which is a strong element of Hebrew society. He is a relative who saves the family member by purchasing their debt and thereby freeing said family member to live with them in freedom. Jesus, of course, saves US, His family, adopted by God, by purchasing our sin debt through His sacrifice on the cross, thereby freeing US from that debt and allowing us to live in Heaven with Him.
One of the hidden elements of this story that you can only get from more extensive Bible research is the genealogy of Boaz, who himself was the descendant of Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who was saved for her faith in Joshua chapters 2 and 6. He himself is the product of a foreign woman who came to faith in the God of Israel. Why shouldn’t he accept this Moabite bride who similarly came to the Lord through nothing but faith? And their union will also symbolize the love Christ will have for the entire Gentile world as well as the Jewish people who cast Him aside.
There’s a great deal within the story of Ruth, and while if you can only learn one chapter, chapter one’s the one, you really should take in the entire short story of Ruth, her Jewish mother-in-law, her kinsman redeemer husband Boaz, and the line of descent which will come from them and lead to both King David and our Lord Jesus Christ.