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. 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. – Ruth 1:1-5 ESV
Like many of the Old Testament books, this one bears the name of one of the primary characters whose life makes up a great portion of the narrative. But while Ruth plays a significant role in the story, she was not intended to be the main focus of the story. The special honor goes to God. He is the silent, unseen protagonist of this book, moving behind the scenes and orchestrating events in such a way so that His divine will is accomplished and His plan for the redemption of mankind, developed in eternity past, would come to pass just as He preordained it. This story must be read with a searching eye, looking for the invisible hand of God. And it should be read with an understanding of the larger, overarching story contained in the Bible. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a story about a widowed Moabite girl and her somewhat serendipitous and fortuitous marriage to a well-to-do Hebrew man. But there is so much more going on here.
We are told that the story takes place, “In the days when the judges ruled…” This refers to the period of the judges before Israel had a king. In the Hebrew Bible the book of Judges and the book of Ruth were companion books. Many believe they were written by the same author: Samuel. But there is no solid evidence for the authorship of Ruth. All we know is that it chronicles a period of time when God was using judges to rule over His people. This was a period of extreme turmoil and instability. The book of Judges records the up-and-down nature of the Israelites and their relationship with God. Their faithfulness to Him ebbed and flowed. Their obedience was spotty at best and when they turned their back on Him, God would send judgment in the form of foreign nations. When the people cried out to Him in desperation, God would raise up a judge to lead and deliver them. This would result in a period of relative peace and spiritual solidarity. But in time, the people would rebel again and the cycle would repeat itself. It was during this rather unstable and spiritually volatile period that the story of Ruth took place.
The opening verses introduce us to Elimelech and provide us with an extremely important detail about his life that can be easily overlooked, but that would have been like a red flashing light to the books original Hebrew audience. We are told that Elimelech was “a man of Bethlehem in Judah” and he and his sons were “Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.” This is an extremely important point and is vital to understanding the true import of this story.
On his deathbed, Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons, but gave the following blessing to his son, Judah:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. – Genesis 49:10 ESV
His words carried a prophetic pronouncement of a king who would come from the tribe of Judah. While this blessing would be realized in the life of David, a descendant of Jacob, the prophet Micah, long after David was dead and gone, provided details regarding another king who would be born in Bethlehem just as David was, and rule over the nation of Israel.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. – Micah 5:2-5 ESV
The prophet, Jeremiah, would give further details regarding this future king:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. – Jeremiah 23:5 ESV
So when we read that Elimelech was a member of the tribe of Judah and a native of the city of Bethlehem, it should gives us pause. It should act as a warning sign that there is something going on in this story that is far greater than might normally be expected. Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, are forced to leave their homeland because of a famine. The mention of this natural disaster should remind us of supernatural and sovereign oversight of God over His creation. This is not the only time in Scripture that a famine has played a significant role in God’s providential plan. A famine was the cause of Abraham’s flight into Egypt (Genesis 12:10). His son, Isaac, would also find himself facing a famine, but would be commanded by God not to go to Egypt (Genesis 26:1-5). Years later, Isaac’s son, Jacob, would be commanded by God to take his entire family to Egypt to escape the famine in the land (Genesis 46:3-4).
Now we find Elimelech and his family facing yet another famine and being forced to flee for their lives – this time to the land of Moab. The Moabites were close relatives of the Jews, since Moab was the son of Lot, the nephew of Abraham (Genesis 19:37). Moab was located to the east of Judah, on the other side of the Dead Sea. It was evidently a very fertile land. In fact, we read in the book of Genesis, that when Abraham gave his nephew, Lot, the father of the Moabites, the first choice of all the land, he chose well.
And Lot lifted up his ” eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. – Genesis 13:10-11 ESV
So Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leave Judah for Moab and settle there, intending to wait out the famine in Judah. But Elimelech dies, leaving his wife a widow, living in a foreign land. In time, her two adult sons take wives from among the Moabites – “one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth” (Ruth 1:4 ESV). And then, ten years later, the two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughter-in-laws alone and without any source of provision of protection.
These opening lines are a divine setup for what is to come. This is not a case of fate or bad karma. This is not about three unlucky women and their series of unfortunate events. It is the story of God and His divine, supernatural, all-powerful and providential plan for the coming of the Messiah. In the middle of the genealogy of Jesus provided in the first chapter of the book of Matthew, we read, “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David” (Matthew 1:5-6 ESV). Then it concludes: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (Matthew 1:17 ESV). Jesus was a descendant of David, but He was also a descendant of Ruth, a widow from Moab. And the book of Ruth provides us with a glimpse into God’s orchestration of His sovereign will and unstoppable plan for the future redemption of a list and dying world.