I recently heard a news report about a family fighting their home owners association because the family put up Christmas decorations on November 1st, and the home owners association said it was too early. I don’t know if there is a right or wrong time to put up holiday decorations. Our local Lowes was selling Christmas inflatables months ago. But what I do know is that when we see the lights going up, we know the holidays are just around the corner, and that means we think about family gatherings. Of course we can think about family all year long, but in the holiday season there is often a focus on family gatherings. For some of you that thought is joyful. For some it is ho-hum, no big deal. For some it is painful. When we look at our family trajectory, we might be very frustrated. In fact, some of you might think, “My family is so messed up, why do I put myself through family gatherings at the holidays? Why not just get together with people I actually enjoy?” Many do just that, actually, as Friendsgivings are becoming quite popular.
Today in our series on Characters, all about flawed people that God uses, we meet our first woman, Ruth, who was in a bad family predicament. Not only was she a women, which meant she started off life in the Ancient Near East at a disadvantage, but she was widowed, AND she was an immigrant. Yet her story is amazing.
To start, it is really important that we understand the historical context of this story. When is this taking place? Read verse 1 of the Book of Ruth, and you’ll notice that the author tells us the story occurs in the time of the Judges. The people of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for over 400 years. But God raised up Moses, and eventually he helped lead the people to freedom. After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, once a new leader, Joshua, had taken over, they entered into the Promised Land, called Canaan. After Joshua, there was a period of about 300 years, in which a succession of men and women called judges led Israel. Samson, the long-haired strong man, we studied a few weeks ago was perhaps the most famous. It was a time of great upheaval for the people of Israel as they were regularly disobedient to God and faced threats from surrounding enemy nations. The story of Ruth takes place near the end of the period of Judges.
We learn in verse 1 that there was a famine in the land of Israel, and a man from Bethlehem went to Moab. The word Bethlehem means, “House of Bread”. So the author is telling us that there was no bread in the House of Bread! This man, Elimelech, moves his family to find bread. In other words, we are reading a refugee story. A family is displaced by a natural disaster.
They go to Moab, across the Dead Sea from Israel. Not too far actually. If you’re walking fast and took a boat across the Dead Sea, you could get there in a long day’s travel.
Moab and Israel were cousins. Distant Cousins. They had a common great-grandfather in Abraham’s father, Terah. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is a rather notable Old Testament character as well, primarily because his wife turned into a pillar of salt. Moab was Lot’s son, but not from his wife. Instead Moab was from an incestuous relationship with his daughter (Genesis 19). Throughout their history, Israel and Moab did not always get along. In Deuteronomy 23, for example, God decreed that Moabites were not to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. There are also many times in the Old Testament when we read that Israel and Moab engaged in armed conflict with one another. At the timeo of the book of Ruth, it seems that the political situation between the two countries was calm, but Elimilech has to take into consideration the historical ethnic and political conflict between Moab and Israel as he emigrates his family into what was not always friendly territory. How will it go? Check back in tomorrow as we continue the story of Ruth.