Nurturing/ Teaching Courses
The Widow and the Jewish Mother-in-Law
(A Tale of Two Mothers)
Dr. Alex Tang
The story of Ruth was probably written after David became king of Israel, about 1000 BC And there are strong evidence that it is written by a woman, making it the only book in the Bible to be written by a woman.
The story began with a famine in Israel. Elimelech with his wife, Naomi and his two sons Mahlon and Kilion migrated to Moab from Bethlehem in search of food. They settled down in Moab. Elimelech died. The sons both married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Then the two sons died. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem because all the menfolks were dead. On the way, she told her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah not to follow her but to go back to their own mother’s house. And there is a lot of crying and weeping. It was a sad story. Naomi has came back to Bethlehem ‘empty’.
RU 1:19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, "Can this be Naomi?"20 "Don't call me Naomi, " she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me."
Naomi’s fate is indeed bitter. As a widow she lacks the provision and protection of a husband in a male-dominated ancient society. Further, her age and poverty effectively seals off the three options normally open to a widow: (1) she would not be able to return to her father’s house as with the passage of time, they are most likely dead, (2) remarriage, even a levirate one (Deu. 25:5-10) seems improbable because she is beyond child-bearing years and (3) she cannot support herself by a trade because she has none. What is worst is that she is an aged widow with out children. But she offered the choice to her daughters-in-law.
This reminds me of the many Chinese movies my mother took me to when I was young. Those are black and white movies staring the actress Lin Dai. I was very young and could not remember what the story was about but I do remember there is a lot of crying. The father died, they cried. There is misunderstanding with the mother-in-law, they cried. The husband died. They cried. I looked at my mother, she was watching the movie and crying. So I also cried.
But Ruth refused to return but commit herself to Naomi. Orpah returned home. They arrived in Bethlehem. They were so poor that Ruth has to go out to glean in the fields during the barley harvest season. She happened to glean in the field of Boaz. Boaz showed kindness to Ruth and allowed her to glean amongst the sheaves. Gleaning means picking up the grains that has fallen on the ground after the harvesters have cut the plants. Due to the kindness of Boaz, Ruth was able to glean an epah of barley (about half a month’s wages) in one day!
Ruth brought the barley back to Naomi and told her about Boaz. Naomi told her that Boaz is a relative, a gōēl, from the same clan. A gōēl is a term from the Israelite family laws. It is translated as a kinsman redeemer. His duties are
(1) repurchase property once owned by clans members but sold from economic necessity
(2) redeem relatives whose poverty had forced them to sell themselves into slavery.
(3) to avenge the killing of a relative by tracking and executing the killer.
(4) to assist a clan member to see that justice was done.
So Naomi developed a plan to seek Boaz’s help as a gōēl . What she has in mind is that Boaz will help them in their poverty. Maybe give Ruth a home. So she told Ruth to wait for Boaz at the threshing floor which they winnow the barley. When Boaz is asleep, Ruth is to uncover his feet and lie down there. When Boaz awaken, she listen to Boaz’s response. Instead, when Boaz awaken, Ruth proposed marriage to him!
Boaz knew who Ruth was. He said there is another gōēl who is closer and has more claims. But if the gōēl do not want her, then he will marry her. To cut a short story shorter, Boaz married Ruth and had a son named Obed. It is a happy ending because the narrator reckons the son as Naomi’s.
RU 4:16 Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, "Naomi has a son." And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
The theme of this story is hesed, a Hebrew word translated as ‘loyal devotion, kindness, commitment’. We can learn three lessons of commitment from Ruth.
1. Ruth commits herself to Naomi
RU 1:16 But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to 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. 17 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's answer to Naomi has become a classic expression of devotion and loyalty. Ruth's commitment to go and "stay" (lit. "spend the night") wherever Naomi went was not limited to the journey back to Bethlehem but was a commitment to share her home and circumstances, whatever they might be, after they returned to Judah. Ruth's renunciation of her people and gods was total.
By first naming the people and then God, Ruth revealed that she could not relate to God apart from his people. Nothing but death would separate her from Naomi. She swore a solemn curse on herself if she did not keep her promise, invoking the covenant name of God (LORD).
Thus Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is total and comprehensive.
(1) geography – they cover all future locations
(2) chronology- they extend from the present into eternity
(3) theology- they exclusively embraced Yahweh
(4) genealogy- they merged the young Moabitess with Naomi’s family. Moabites descend from the family of Lot. Finally the family of Lot is reunited with the family of Abraham.
Ruth could have taken the easier way. She could have the sensible thing and turned back like Orpah. No one would have blamed her. She will be safe in her parents’ home. She will be able to remarry with her own people. All her emotions will have told her to turn back – security, comfort, and peace.
COMMITMENT IS BY WILL, NOT EMOTIONS
Ruth’s commitment foreshadows, Jesus’ teaching: to be his disciples requires one to renounce all family ties for the sake of the kingdom of God.
MT 10:37 "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
We want to be kingdom minded. We are kingdom minded but our feet are too solidly fixed to the kingdom of this world. We want to have the best of both worlds.
Commitment is of the will. We decide what we want to commit to and we hang on to it. Not with our emotions. Our emotions are undependable and unpredictable. If our commitment is emotional based, we cannot last. The moment adversity comes, we shall fail.
2. Ruth commits herself to Naomi’s family line (3:9)
RU 3:9 "Who are you?" he asked.
"I am your servant Ruth," she said. "Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer."
When Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz, she is hoping to find a home for Ruth. She is worried for Ruth because when she dies, Ruth will be alone- a foreigner and a woman living in Israel. So she is evoking gōēl from Boaz. She may be hoping that Boaz will take Ruth into his household. Maybe she was hoping Boaz would marry Ruth. But Ruth has something else on her mind. She is determined that the family line of Naomi and Elimelech will continue. For that she has to produce a male child. So she proposed marriage to Boaz, something unheard of during that time. I am sure Boaz must be shocked. It is something that is not done at those times. Women do not propose marriage to men. It is Ruth’s commitment to continue the family line of Naomi and Elimelech that leads to the birth of David and later to Jesus of Nazareth.
COMMITMENT TO NOT ONLY TO SOMEONE BUT TOWARD A SOMETHING
When we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, we also commit our lives towards something. Like Ruth who is committed to continuing Naomi’s family lineage, we are to commit to expanding the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the rule of God in men’s (or women’s) hearts. The marching order for the expansion of the kingdom is found in Matthew 28:19-20
19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Surely, that is something to commit our lives to.
3. God is present in this tale of two mothers
With no ‘seed’ to carry on the family line, Elimelech’s family hovers precariously on the brink of extinction. And in Israel, there is no greater tragedy than for a family to cease to exist. So the family line of Elimelech did not disappear. In the beginning of the story, Naomi was ‘empty’. The story ended when Naomi is ‘full’
God is present is our lives. At times there will be signs and wonders. But more commonly, God is present in the ordinariness of life. In our coming and going. God is always present. And in our relationships, we are called to develop character, obedience, to encourage, mentor and to commit ourselves.
Here we see that Ruth increases Naomi from being ‘empty’ to being ‘full’
14 The women said to Naomi: "Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth."
GOD HONORS OUR COMMITMENTS
The book of Ruth is a story of two mothers and their struggle in the hostile society of the early bronze age. It is also the story of commitment and sacrifice. More important, it shows the hand of God behind every scene and shows that God rewards those who shows hesed commitment to Him and His people.
Lessons for us
Commit to Lord Jesus
Commit to the Kingdom of God
God honors our commitments
Soli Deo Gloria
"treat, heal, and comfort always"
"spiritual forming disciples of Jesus Christ with informed minds, hearts on fire and contemplative in actions"
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