Naomi the Negative. Ruth the Resilient.


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?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 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?”

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.

Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.” Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.’ So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.” – Ruth 1:19-2:7 ESV

These verses are filled with contrasts. The most obvious one is the difference between the two women: Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. They both arrive in Bethlehem, but with radically different outlooks. Naomi had left during a famine, but arrived back during the barley harvest. Conditions back home had obviously improved. But she is so busy dwelling on all that had happened to her in Moab, that she fails to notice or appreciate the improved conditions in Bethlehem. In fact, she is so despondent over the loss of her husband and two sons, that she informs everyone her name will no longer be Naomi, but Mara. Naomi means, “my pleasantness” and Mara means, “bitterness.” She is so upset with her lot in life that she goes so far as to change her name to reflect her outlook. She is bitter and hold God responsible, claiming,  “I left here full, but the Lord has caused me to return empty-handed” (Ruth 1:27 NLT). In her mind, it was God who had opposed her and the El Shaddai, God Almighty, who had caused her to suffer. Her reference to God using the Hebrew name, Shaddai, reveals her belief in God’s all-powerful, sovereign nature. She rightly understands God’s omnipotence, but fails to grasp His lovingkindness. She views God as an all-powerful and somewhat angry deity who wields His power unfairly and unjustly. She sees no purpose in her losses and can find no silver lining to the dark cloud of her despair. She believes her fate is in the hands of God, but she finds no comfort there.

But Ruth, the Moabitess, seems to have a different perspective. Of the two women, it would seem that she had even more justification to be negative about her new circumstances. She too had lost her husband. She had also left behind her family and friends and moved to a new country with nothing more than her widowed mother-in-law as a companion. She found herself an outsider, a non-Jew living in the land of Israel. And on top of that, she was a woman and a widow, two things that would not be in her favor in the male-dominated society of the ancient Middle East. And yet, Ruth proves to be a beacon of light in the midst of Naomi’s darkened outlook.

With no means of providing for themselves, Naomi and Ruth are left with no other option than to search for grain in the fields after barley harvesters were done. This was called gleaning and it was a God-ordained policy meant to assist the needy. God had commanded the Israelites:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19:9-10 ESV

Rather than wallow in self-pity, Ruth determined to do whatever was necessary to provide for she and her mother-in-law. She asked Naomi for permission to do something about their dire circumstances, saying, “Let me go to the fields so I can gather grain behind whoever permits me to do so” (Ruth 2:2 NLT). With Naomi’s permission, she headed into the fields. And this is where the story gets interesting. The author gives us a not-so-subtle clue that there is more going on here than good luck. “Now she just happened to end up in the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:3 NLT). Chapter two began with a brief parenthetical introduction to Boaz, telling us that “Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side of the family named Boaz. He was a wealthy, prominent man from the clan of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:1 NLT). When Ruth went into the fields, she knew nothing of Boaz or his fields. She simply went to glean. Her objective was to find food, not a husband. Her only motivation was survival. But again, the author lets us know that there is something providential going on here. He writes, “And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem” (Ruth 2:4 ESV). It just so happened that Ruth decided to glean in the field belonging to Boaz. It just so happened that Boaz showed up at the very same time Ruth was gleaning in his field. What a coincidence. What incredible timing.

It would be so easy to read the book of Ruth as a fanciful love story, a kind of screenplay  for a Hebrew Hallmark movie, where the down-and-out country girl meets the well-to-do city boy and their lives end happily ever after. But there is so much more going on here than a cheesy boy-meets-girl scenario with a sappy everything-turns-out-okay ending. This is about the sovereign will of God regarding His covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Ruth, this widowed, helpless non-Jewish woman is going to become a major player in the divine plan of redemption. In his genealogical record of the birth of Jesus, Matthew writes, “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king” (Matthew 1:5-6 ESV). Spoiler alert: Ruth and Boaz do end up together. They get married and have a son named Obed, who would become the grandfather of King David. And from King David’s lineage would come Jesus Christ. God would end up making a covenant with David, saying, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16 ESV). That promise would be fulfilled in Jesus, whose rule and reign on the throne of David will take place in the millennial kingdom.

Ruth went into the field to find grain. But God sent her into the field to find her purpose in life. She would become a major player in God’s divine plan for the redemption of the world and the eventual birth of the One who will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. Ruth, like Mary, was going to be a vessel in the hands of God to bring about His divine will and accomplish His sovereign plan of salvation. The message given to Mary by the angel, Gabriel, sums up the real story behind the story of Ruth. God had far more in mind than providing grain or even a husband for Ruth. He was out to provide salvation to a lost and dying the world.

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” – Luke 1:30-33 NLT

 

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