Faith In Strange Places (October 13, 2019)
Ruth 1: 1-18
Faith In Strange Places
So this is the story of Ruth, and the story of the judges. We’re told at the very beginning of this book that this is the time where the judges ruled over Israel. This is a period of roughly 300 to 500 years between the time where Joshua conquered the land of Canaan and the time that Saul is crowned king. And this is a time that is pretty lawless. Israel is mostly a loose confederation of 12 tribes, with the Levites being the religious organization that is dispersed within them. And what would happen in this time is that for the most part the tribes would get along; occasionally they would fight, but for the most part they got along. Toward the end of the period, which is when the book of Ruth takes place, they were fighting a lot amongst themselves. At the very end of the book of Judges there’s a massive Civil War with 11 of the tribes against Benjamin. And then there were outside threats, and other nations that would come in and would oppress the Israelites. And when it got bad enough, they would call out to God, and God would hear them and raise up for them a judge who would unite as many of the tribes as they could, and then send the oppressors away. And then there would be peace and there would be prosperity as long as that judge lived and ruled over Israel. But when that judge died there was no clear line of succession, and so they would return it to the pattern until a new judge emerged from the people.
Another thing to note is that Ruth is a Moabite. And were told that Elimelech and Naomi are traveling with their children to Moab. Moab is a nation said to be descended from the children of Lot, which is a very disturbing story right after the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis. This nation is said to have grown from Lot’s son. The nation sat south east of the Dead Sea, so just across the Jordan River from where the Israelites claimed their promised land. And Moab and Israel did not really ever get along going, all the way back to the Exodus story.
Moab is one of the nations that the Israelites attempted to cross on the way to Canaan. And what they would do is they didn’t really want to fight any of those nations off to the east of the river; they were not in the land that they were interested in after all. So they would come up to the edge of the land they would just ask to pass through on the King’s Highway. And occasionally a nation would say “yes, that’s OK,” but most times nation would say “no, you’re not going through us,” and the Israelites will be forced to go around. And the Scriptures tell us that those nations that did not allow the Israelites to travel through were cursed by God.
But Moab took it a step further. The king of Moab actually hired a prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites. And on the way, Balaam’s donkey stops him and talks to him. You probably know that story more than you know the prophet’s name. And ultimately he gave a blessing to the Israelites, which makes the king very angry. But that’s what Moab sought to do as the Israelites were coming into their land.
And the Scriptures are not kind to the Moabites. In the book of Deuteronomy, we are told that by law a descendent of a Moabite would be out of the assembly, in other words considered to be a gentile, for 10 generations. It would take that long to be able to have that family be re-incorporated into the people of Israel. For this family to be considering going to Moab, things had to of been pretty bad where they were.
Indeed they were pretty bad. We’re told there was a massive famine in Bethlehem. And so they head off to Moab seeking to not die; and ironically of course that’s exactly what they do when they get to Moab. But they must’ve been thinking that they were going to stay in Moab. This decision would not necessarily have been looked upon with favor by any of their closest friends and family back in Bethlehem. It looks that way because they go ahead and marry Moabite women named Orpah and named Ruth. And then the husband dies, and then the two sons die. Naomi goes from being blessed with her husband and children to care for her for the rest of her life to being a widow in a foreign land. Helpless.
Naomi decides to go back to Israel and at least be a widow at her homeland. So she packs up her stuff and heads out. Now Orpah and Ruth have taken an oath to be a part of this family now, and they decide to go with her. But Naomi says for them to turn back; to turn back on her but also to turn back on that commitment; because she cannot care for them. To follow through on that would be stupid; they need to to go back to their family so that they might be eligible to go join another family. Then they could be married again, and thereby have security. She’s going to be a beggar on the side of the road, and she cannot promise them a different fate. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that if they go with her they are signing up for that same fate. And they’ll be doing it as Moabites in a foreign land. So she said “go back to your homes, and go back with my blessing. I understand. You are free of your vow.” Orpah does. Ruth doesn’t.
What we see in this story is different displays of faith by different people in different times of their lives. Ruth’s faith is the kind of faith that we think of most often. This is a very optimistic faith: Ruth is sure that as long as she does what she supposed to do, as long as she is following what she believes that God is commanding her to do, that everything will be fine and that everything will work out for good. Because God is good all the time, and all the time God is good; and God will be good to her. This is a type of faith that we think of quite a lot when we think about faith.
But I would argue that Naomi shows a level of faith too. It is definitely not an optimistic level of faith. She is very convinced that things will not work out, and for good reason: because they haven’t. But she’s lost everything: she’s lost her husband, she’s lost her sons, she’s lost her security, she’s lost her livelihood. She is stuck in a foreign land, and forced to go back to an uncertain future. She’s not convinced that everything is going to work out. This is an older person who life has beaten down, not unlike many of us.
But she displays a kind of faith that I think we need to recognize as a valid form of faith, and also lift up as something that can be aspired to. This is a persevering kind of faith. Naiomi is the face of someone who is just keeping going, and who believes that even if things don’t work out for her, she can still help others. Naomi can still do what she can for whoever she can. For her daughters in law, she can bless them and empower them to do what’s right for them. She can provide for them in that way at the very least. She just keeps putting one foot in front of the other. She keeps going. And she keeps trying; even with all seems lost, even when it appears that God is against her, she keeps going.
And she does remember who could claim her husband’s inheritance, which would include the responsibility to care for her; and when Ruth comes to care for Ruth as well. She doesn’t necessarily believe that it’ll happen, but she does recognize that she can keep trying. She knows that as long as she’s on the earth, something good might happen for somebody. I think that is a level of faith that is very different from Ruth’s, but I don’t think that it is less valid. Also, I think is more common in the world.
Ultimately Ruth goes and tries to get grain from the harvest the way widows were prescribed by law. And there in the harvest she meets a man who is second in line if you will to claim Elimelech’s property. The man’s name is Boaz. He’s probably like a first cousin once removed of Naomi, something along those lines. And Ruth kind of demands that he redeem them, that he claim the property and thus claim the responsibility of caring for Naomi and for Ruth. And he winds up going to the person who has first call on it, and asking if if he’s willing to take on these 2 mouths to feed along with the property. Which is actually quite the sacrifice, quite the thing. Because there was just a famine not that many years ago in the same land, and you’re asking them to commit to feeding 2 more mouths forever; as well as the possibility of having a child with Ruth to carry Elimelech’s legacy forward (which was expected in this situation). And the person with first call says no; and Boaz claims the responsibility and begins to care for them. And he cares for Naomi throughout her older years, and cares for Ruth. He takes Ruth as a wife and has children with her.
The very last verses of the book of Ruth talk about what happens to them. It says that they had a son named Obed. And that Obed had a son named Jesse. And Jesse we know had seven sons, the last of which was a young boy that went by the name of David; who would become the king of Israel, and would become an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah.
Throughout the Old Testament we see the story of Jesus and the story of David progress. And will see time and time again people who are flawed showing up, and God working through them in order to redeem Israel (and in Christian views, all of humanity ultimately through Jesus). These people went through some really hard times, and had a level of faith through it all. And they displayed that faith. A level of faith that allowed God to work through them. And ultimately they become the ancestor of David.This Moabite woman becomes the great grandmother of the king of Israel. And it is her faith on display here, that allows her to instill the level of faith in her descendants, that allows her young shepherd boy great-grandson to slay a giant with a slingshot.
Wherever we are in our lives, whatever our faith looks like, let us be a church with a level of faith like Ruth and Naomi. Let us be a church that will do what we are called to do. And may God show to us the level of faithfulness that he ultimately showed to Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Amen.