All good stories are generally divided into three basic parts: a problem, an unraveling, and a solution. Following this pattern, Ruth’s narrative has an opening scene that introduces us to a genuine predicament. As the story opens, we encounter a man who takes his family to Moab because there is a famine in Bethlehem of Judah. He and his sons die in Moab leaving his wife and eventually his daughter in law, Ruth, to return to Bethlehem. When they return, Ruth meets Boaz, and he fulfills the role of kinsman redeemer. What begins as a tragedy of death and sorrow ends in the birth of new life and the resurrection of hope for the family of David. What a great story. But wait, it gets even better! There is so much more to this story than merely the people in it—this story is the story of the gospel.
Many of the commentaries on Ruth argue that the initial setting provides a mere backdrop to the story and nothing more. However, there appears to be far more than meets the eye.
Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land (Ruth 1:1).
The stage is set, and the setting is loaded with redemptive meaning. That is to say, the setting has redemptive or covenantal significance. For example, the opening lines point us back to the book of Judges and one of the recurring themes in that book. Note Judges 21:25.
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
If we are correct about the date of the book, then it fits perfectly with how the book of Judges ends and how Ruth’s story begins. Ruth is the perfect story of transition. However, even if the date does not match exactly with the conclusion of Judges, the author is definitely pointing us back to Judges and to something that occurred in that time. The something that occurred is immediately coupled together with the problem of a famine. Hence, we can connect a theme in Judges with the events unfolding in our story here in Ruth.
The author has a covenantal perspective as he links us to Judges. Therefore, when we read of the times of the Judges and we also see that there is a famine in the land, we are confronted with a setting that is charged with theological/redemptive meaning. The famine in the land informs us about more than the climate; it awakens us theologically to the unfaithfulness in the land.
When we read the Bible, we should expect to be taught the way of the covenant. There is nothing random, therefore, about the construction of biblical narratives. As noted in the introduction, biblical narrative has redemptive or covenantal structure. This means that we can find redemptive theology or theological concepts not only taught explicitly, but also reinforced as the theology is embedded in the very structure of the text. Indeed, the structure of Judges begs us to ask about the future. We cry out in frustration and desperation, “Who will free the people of God from this vicious cycle of failure and death? Who will be the judge that does not fall like Samson fell? Who will come without the frailty and weakness of Gideon?” Ruth’s story springs up beautifully in the context of this agonizing cycle of failure, except with Ruth we are pointed to the need for more than a judge; there is a need for a faithful husband. We are connected theologically with the last verse of Judges as it unfolds in Ruth, but with curses that will be reversed by a faithful husband rather than a judge.
Samuel uses irony as his most powerful literary tool. This means that irony becomes the most important device for deepening our meditation on Ruth’s story. We already noted that irony occurs when something that usually means one thing is deliberately twisted or changed so that it transmutes into the opposite. Samuel does this, not just once or twice, but he layers the whole story with irony. The reader is required to peel back these layers of irony so as to deepen his appreciation of God’s grace and mercy to the needy. What a delight it becomes to experience the layers of irony unfolding into a beautiful story that breathes with love, life, and hope.
Ruth opens with a startling statement of famine. And it happened or came to pass when the judges judged “famine” was in the land. Indeed, Ruth begins with a stark opening sentence that is intended to alarm the reader. To an ancient Israelite, the idea of famine in the land should have confronted them with a theological challenge. Famine should have provoked the faithful person to inquire, “How could there be famine in the land that was supposed to be flowing with milk and honey?” Of course as we will see in a moment, this becomes even more ironic because the story is set in Bethlehem. God had given Israel the land as a place of rest and blessing. Thus, there was something covenantal about this famine. The only time the land was dry was during times of curse. This also reminds us of the way of God’s people in the book of Judges. When they turned away from God, He turned away from them. He turned his back on them and He dried up the land.
The Promised Land, which was supposed to be characterized as a fruitful land, is now described as dry. Elimelech is confronted with more than merely the problem of feeding his family; he has a covenantal choice set before him. To use a food metaphor, the table is set for a choice that will determine the course of the story. Will he respond with repentance and humility or will he seek blessings outside the land? He can respond out of a sense of fear and desire for food or out of a sense of faith. Elimelech responds with fear and flight.
We are not told how long Elimelech may have waited before he made his fateful decision. But, given his subsequent actions, we have no problem understanding that his final decision was more closely connected with food than with faith. He did not seek repentance, nor did he stay to witness the recovery of the land. Rather, he searched for other places of blessing; he left the land of promise.
One may rightly ask why we would criticize this poor fellow for trying to get his family some food. Why shouldn’t he leave the land to find food? We answer this question with a reminder that Israel was under God’s command to remain in the land as part of their call to be faithful. So God says in Deuteronomy 4:1,
Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you.
Moses reiterates to the people of God that they must not only remain in the land He gives them, but they must occupy this land in spite of dreadful obstacles. If they were not faithful to this task, they would be tested even more severely and called back to faithfulness. Thus, we know that in these kinds of redemptive narratives famines are not random. When famines strike the land, they are not the result of a bare meteorological phenomenon. This is the modern understanding of weather. But in Old Testament redemptive narrative, famines often come to the land as God curses his people or tests them regarding their faithfulness. For whatever the reason in God’s sovereign purposes, famines provide the context for the test of faithfulness. Thus, the reader of this narrative is forced to see the covenant connection between famine and the passages found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Famine in the land of promise can mean only one thing; God is testing with his people. Famine in the Old Testament is a call to repentance and to covenant renewal.
God had given the Israelite a way of understanding the world and life in the land. He promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. In Leviticus 26 we read,
If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall last till the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last till the time of sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely [which is exactly what we see later when Boaz the faithful husband responds to God with faithfulness— remember he lays down on a huge pile of harvest from the land]. But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, I will break the pride of your power; I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. . . . And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.
The same pattern in the land is taught in Deuteronomy 28.
Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. . . . Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. . . . But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the produce of your land, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks.
The people were to know that as they lived in the land of promise in faithfulness, God would bless them. However, as they lived in the land and were not faithful, then God would bring famine. Ruth places us in the middle of a scene of covenant testing.
This forces our first character, Elimelech into a very important choice. Where will he turn to find food for his family? What will he do? The scene requires Elimelech to make choices about his family’s future. These choices are also related to the covenant and to the unfolding theme of our story.
Abraham had been faced with similar choices. and God had used a famine to challenge him. In Genesis 12. God tested Abraham’s faith in his promises. Would Abraham believe that God would provide for him and protect his wife to whom God had given a promise of future blessings? You can almost feel the trembling in his voice as he pleads with his wife to pretend to be his sister. When Abraham responded in fear rather than in faith, his choices were so bad that even an Egyptian king rebuked him in Genesis 12:18 saying,
What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way.
Elimelech faces the same kind of choice that Abraham faced. Even the structure of the Hebrew in our story is similar to that of Abraham’s story. Would he trust in God’s promise to provide food for his family in the land or would he leave in fear? He was not a faithful husband. The word of God required him to hold fast to the promises and thus to seek the restoration of the land.
Elimelech chose to leave the land and to seek food from other fields. He deliberately sought blessings outside of the land and thus outside of the covenant. He took his family away from the covenant and proved to be an unfaithful husband. Samuel immediately requires the reader to wrestle with the dire need of a faithful husband. How will this family survive without a faithful husband?
Rabbi Ginsburg argues that Elimelech is really not the problem; his sons are the problem. He says this because the Hebrew that Samuel uses to describe Elimelech’s action is the word for “sojourning.” This means, says the rabbi, that Elimelech was only on a temporary journey. His sons, on the other hand, decide to stay or to dwell in Moab. On one level the rabbi is exactly correct. We can be sure from this word that Elimelech had every intention of staying in Moab temporarily. We can almost hear him telling himself and his family, “Look, I know that we shouldn’t be doing this, but we will only stay until the famine has ceased.”
The use of this word highlights for us the problem with trying to justify faithless living because it will only be for a short time. Likewise, the foolish person who decides to live like this soon discovers the deadly character of such a decision. The word does mean something, but not exactly what the rabbi thinks. Rather it points to the common problem of the progression of sins. That is to say, while Elimelech may have intended to stay only as long as the famine was in the land, his sons remained long enough to reap the consequences. Certain decisions have a way of progressing to their natural conclusion. The very first Psalm teaches us this in vivid images of walking, standing and sitting.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1–2).
The psalmist maps out a common progression in the life of sin. Sin has a way of making progress in our lives even if we start in rather small ways. We may only intend to walk somewhere for a brief time. Then we find that such ways become comfortable, and so we stand or linger in them. The next thing we know, we find ourselves sitting in the seat of the fool. Then the progression of sin is complete. James illustrates the progression in the following way:
Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death (James 1:15).
We should never have taken that one step in the direction of sin. Elimelech’s actions are an apt illustration of this principle. He intended to leave the Promised Land briefly in a time of famine, but his sons decided to live in the foreign land. One can even imagine Elimelech explaining his apparently unfaithful choice to leave the land of God and spend time in Moab, but only until the famine is over. “Then,” he might say, “we will return to the land of promise.” But sadly for his sons, then never comes, and they die in Moab. A baby viper, says the old puritan preacher, will soon grow into a large snake if you let it live—so don’t let it live for one second, but kill it quickly.
. . . and a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons (Ruth 1:1b).
Ruth opens with some dramatic flair, which heightens the irony. For instance, Samuel opens the story without naming Elimelech. You may not even notice this at first, but the very first man in the story remains unnamed. He says “a certain man” of Bethlehem went to sojourn away from the land. This man, who is yet unnamed, left the land of promise. This seems to be designed to provoke some questions in the mind of the reader. For example, one might wonder, “Who is this guy anyway? Surely this poor fellow doesn’t understand the covenant.” The unnamed man is certainly one who doesn’t acknowledge that God is King. Yet we are about to learn that the man who acts contrary to faithful service actually has a name that means God is King; he acts in complete opposition to his name. The man whose name means God is my King decided to reject the way of the King, leaving the land of life and blessing for a journey to a land of certain curses.
And they went to the country of Moab and remained there (1:2b).
The author uses the literary setting to highlight for us that matters for this man are about to go from bad to worse. This faithless man journeys to the worst possible place one can imagine as it relates to the hope for bread, to the land of Moab.
Samuel’s use of setting is powerful as he highlights the inevitable problems that Elimelech will have. It reminds me of a horror movie in which the setting lets everyone know that something terrible is inevitable. Movie directors use this kind of setting to heighten the tension of a story. Ruth’s story has exactly this kind of setting as it regards the covenant.
A sensitive reader would have learned in covenant history that there are certain places one should never go for bread. Of course, Moab is just such a place. As Elimelech searched for bread, he went to the worst place in the world for bread. Why was Moab the worst place to look for bread? This was the place that was characterized as the place of famine for Israel; Moab was known for withholding bread from Israel. The land of Moab had been a consistent place of curse for the people of God. We read in Deuteronomy 23:3–4,
An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.
We need to let that sink in just a bit. Moab was a place of cursing for the people of God. Why do we know this? Because Moab was a place known for its refusal to feed Israel bread. Moab was the nation that actually hired Balaam to curse the Israelites. If the reader knows redemptive history, then there isn’t a place on earth worse than Moab for an Israelite to turn for bread. Yet, you guessed it; Moab is the very place that Elimelech chose as his destination for bread. The place known for refusing Israel bread is the very place Elimelech chooses to move his family for bread. Elimelech exhibits an almost crazy decision when he left Bethlehem, the house of bread, and sought bread from Moab.
Moab and her daughters
There is yet another irony in Elimelech’s choice of Moab. The Moabites were known for their evil and for their false worship. They worshipped the god Chemosh, and apparently even offered this god human sacrifices (see II Kings 3:27). Not only were they renowned for their immorality in general, but they had an infamous place in redemptive history. The Moabites had resorted to more than one way to curse and to destroy the Israelites. At first they hired Balaam to curse Israel. However, when that did not work, they turned to a different method. Do you recall what that method was?
If you see what happens to Elimelech’s sons you will remember Moab’s method of destroying Israel. They attempted to destroy Israel by getting them to marry their daughters. It appears from redemptive history that the Moabites had deliberately schemed to intermarry with the Israelites in order to conquer them. In Numbers 25 we hear that the Israelites were beginning to fornicate with the Moabite women, and as a result God began to kill the men them with a plague. In Numbers 25:1–3 we read,
Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel.
In Ruth, this element of the curse of the Moabites is also mentioned. Thus, when Elimelech began to pursue daughters for his sons, ironically, he went to a place cursed for this very action. He sought wives for his sons from the worst place in the world that a faithful Israelite could imagine, from Moab. This was the land in which God had already killed the men of Israel for the very same action. Hence, should a sensitive reader become surprised to read now that the result of Elimelech’s decision is death to his sons? We see how heedless it was for Elimelech to seek refuge in this land for the reasons that he did. He was clearly a faithless husband who led his family directly into death.
Just as God had told the Israelites to remain in the land, He had also warned them about intermarriage with foreigners who may turn them to false gods. The faithful believer was never to be “unequally yoked together.” The law had made this clear to God’s people using the illustration of yoking of a donkey with an ox. Nobody would yoke a donkey with an ox because one is smaller and it wouldn’t work. The law was there to remind them that they couldn’t join together the clean with the unclean. Paul restates this law in II Cor. 6:14–18:
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.”
From start to his family’s finish, Elimelech acted contrary to his name and to the lessons of redemptive history. Elimelech was a faithless husband who led his family into the yawning jaws of death.
1. Sinclair Ferguson, Faithful God, p. 21.
2. Rabbi Eliezer Ginsburg, Mother of Kings: Commentary and Insights on the Book of Ruth, (Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2002), p. 10.
Questions for Consideration
1. What do we mean when we say, “The setting has redemptive meaning?”
2. How does the phrase “in the days when the judges ruled” fit this idea?
3. What does the setting of a famine teach us?
4. What are some Old Testament passages that teach this?
5. How does this setting force Elimelech to make a choice?
6. Do you agree that this is a test of his faith?
7. Why was Moab such a bad choice as a place of hope?