Last time in Ruth, we learned of a family that decided to make a journey to leave the Promised Land and the covenant people of God. They assumed that they were making a good choice. (Don’t we all assume that our choices are good and wise when we make them? Even when our choices turn out to be poor, we thought they were good at the time.) What can we learn about these people? (1:1b-2)
The story begins with the family of Elimelech, whose name means “My God is King”. He was married to Naomi, whose name means “Pleasant”. This couple had two sons: Mahlon and Kilion, but the meaning of their names is very unclear. In ancient times, names were important. Their names should make us think. Did Naomi have a pleasant life? Did Elimelech live like God was his king? If I call myself a Christian, does Jesus Christ significantly influence my life?
Their family was from the clan of Ephrath in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread”. So we encounter our first ironic contrast. There is a famine in the “house of bread”. What will Elimelech do to provide for his family during this famine? He has a couple of options.
- He can stay put on the land God had given him and depend on the Lord to see them through the hunger and poverty that the famine would bring.
- He can trust his own judgment and seek a better situation, where they will not have to struggle and may in fact prosper. At this point we must ask, “Did anything clearly point to the result that Elimelech and his family would suffer lasting hardship if they remained in Bethlehem?” The answer is clearly no, since as the rest of the story shows, most stayed and prospered in the long run. We are too quick to run from difficulties that might be God’s pathway into greater blessing.
Elimelech heard that Moab was not suffering through a famine, as Israel was, and so he decided to leave the Promised Land, and go to another nation, to a people that were committed to idolatry and wickedness. We are not told what input Naomi had in this decision. She might have been willing or reluctant or had mixed feelings. But a few facts about Moab will indicate that this was not a wise decision.
- A former king, Balak, had hired Balaam to curse Israel, when Israel was nearing the Promised Land (Numbers 22-24). So then, there were deep roots of hostility between the two people groups.
- The women of Moab had been a stumbling stone to Israel, having seduced them to sexual immorality and the worship of false gods (Numbers 25).
- In the early days of the Judges, Eglon, the king of Moab cruelly oppressed Israel (Judges 3). This would have been recent history for Elimelech.
- From Israel’s earliest encounters with the Moabites, the people of Moab were called the “people of Chemosh”, the cruel, vile false god (Numbers 21:29).
Yet Elimelech decided to take his family on an uncertain journey, which might offer short-term relief, but which could also involve them in long-term tragedy. Instead of keeping them among the visible people of God, he took them to live among worshipers of false gods. People usually ignore what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it again. Before you move, be very certain you have a faithful gathering of God’s people with whom you can worship!
Elimelech and his family evidently planned to move to Moab “to live for a while” in that place. Here we encounter the principle that you can make your choices but you cannot choose the consequences of your choices.
- No human can really discern where even insignificant choices will end. Many people have chosen to get in a car to go to the grocery store or the movies, and that was their last journey! The point is not to live in fear, because you can die in your house in your favorite chair also. Instead, the point is to avoid pride, as if you are in control of your life.
- Though we make significant choices, God does, too (Proverbs 16:1, 4, 9). He has a plan that he is working out, and he has chosen to make our choices a part of his plan, usually in unexpected ways. For example, have you ever been in a situation where one choice seemed to require you to make another choice and then a whole series of choices that you had no intention of making when you made your first choice? More is involved than circumstances. God guides the smallest events (Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:29).
- What happens to Elimelech and his family? Do they stay in Moab for just a while? “Verse 2 literally says, ‘They went to the fields of Moab, and they were there.’” [Duguid] That is what happens in life. We reach a particular place, and we sort of get stuck there. For example, when our family moved to Rural Grove, I thought we might stay there four years. My reasoning was, “If a missionary can live in a foreign country for four years, then I can serve God in the country that long!” Before I knew it, the four years became ten, and then twelve and finally fifteen. Even if we have plans, God has a way of altering them drastically.
We all like to evaluate our decisions quickly. A short-term evaluation would say that Elimelech and Naomi were doing all right. That is a constant problem with our evaluations. Present circumstances can easily mislead us. “Everything is fine!” Or, “my life stinks!” This is why we need the word of God as our basis of evaluation. It is an objective standard far more accurate than how “good” our lives seem to be. What then is the good news? As noted, God’s gracious providence is not hindered by human foolishness, as we shall see from the rest of the story. God is able to act to bring good, even when we make wrong choices that produce many problems in our lives. God’s grace is greater than our situations.
Grace and peace, David