Have you experienced tragedy and loss in your life? How have you responded to it? It’s not easy to respond well to the difficult situations in life. As we continue the story of Ruth, we will see an example of an amazing response to tragedy, a response we would do well to follow.
In our previous post, we met the family of Elimilech and Naomi as they fled famine-stricken Israel to find food in neighboring Moab. There Elimilech and Naomi’s two sons marry women from Moab. In the next ten years, we learn that Elimilech and his two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law in a widowed state.
The book of Ruth, then, begins as a story of three ladies in the midst of great tragedy. Think about it from Naomi’s point of view. She is left in Moab, a country foreign to her. She also lost her husband and her two sons. Imagine the pain.
Some of you know that pain, because you too know what it is like to be a widow or widower.
We have joked in my family about my wife Michelle being a “widow”… temporarily. When I was in seminary, she was a “widow” because I was so often gone to class, or off in another room in our house studying. When I was training for the marathon, she was a marathon widow, because every Saturday morning for 18 weeks I was out for hours on long runs.
Now I am a Cambodia widower, because her work with Imagine Goods takes her to Cambodia or meetings and events multiple times a year!
We joke about these kinds of “widows”, but it is nothing like the situation of being a true widow. You who are widows and widowers know this. You know how hard tragedy and loss can be. You know the feeling of loneliness.
Widows in Ruth and Naomi’s day were at much higher risk than those today. In the world of the Ancient Near East there was a very real threat that being a widow could mean that you were at risk of being out on the street, homeless, or worse, abused and taken advantage of. To deal with this, the Lord created laws for his people; caring, loving laws to helps widows.
In the Old Testament Law, for example, there was a practice called Levirate marriage. If a man died, leaving behind a widow, his brother was to marry the widow. Thus she would be cared for, and hopefully she would bear a son, symbolically sustaining the dead man’s line. It might sound really odd to us, but in that day, it kept them alive, cared for. This showed God’s heart of love!
In verse 11, we see there is a major problem though. Naomi has no other sons for her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah! Naomi remarks, humorously I think, that she herself would have to get married, bear and raise up a new son, and then have that son marry one of her daughter-in-laws. How long would that take? Naomi knows it is a ridiculous proposal.
In Naomi’s eyes, the best situation for Ruth and Orpah is to stay with their own people, the Moabites.
Orpah agrees and stays. But Ruth disagrees with her mother-in-law. Any of you ever disagreed with your mother-in-law? It can be a risky thing to do! But Ruth’s is a disagreement of support!
Look at Ruth chapter 1, verse 16. In this we see an amazing statement from Ruth. Though Ruth is in her homeland, once she realizes that Naomi will have to leave Moab and return to Israel, Ruth, with no more formal connection to Naomi, still says “I’m sticking with you.”
Here is what Ruth says, which is so wonderful:
“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. 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.”
With that, Ruth convinces Naomi. Now think about this from Ruth’s perspective: she is a Moabite, traveling into what was, for her, enemy territory in Israel. Thus she is making an astounding gesture to Naomi. What is at the heart of her kindness?
Naomi had tried to convince Ruth in verse 15 when she said to Ruth: “Look at Orpah, she is staying in Moab with her family and her gods.”
Ruth’s response gives us a glimpse into where she was at in her faith: “No, no…may your God be my God. May the Lord (and here she uses the name of God, Yahweh, capital LORD) deal with me if we separate.” Ruth is showing that her actions are rooted in her faith in God. She has come to meet the one true God, knows his name, and is committed to him. Now she wants to maintain this commitment by leaving her people, where she would have a much greater chance of remarriage, leaving her Moabite gods, and traveling to Israel to be a widow with her mother-in-law. Amazing, isn’t it? What a testimony of committed relationship.
It is refreshing to hear about Ruth’s reaction to tragedy.
What tragedy have you encountered in your life? How have you reacted? How can Ruth’s choice inform your future reactions to tragedy?