Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Have you ever noticed that some cities don’t live up to their names? For instance, in California, in the city of Eureka you might expect to find treasure…EUREKA! This word comes from an ancient Greek word meaning, “I’ve found it!” Instead, of treasure in Eureka, one finds the chance of becoming a victim of any crime 1 in 14. Another city, West Hollywood, sounds like a romantic place to be discovered as an actress, but it, too, is on the list of most dangerous cities in California. In the book of Ruth, we will learn of an Israelite town, Bethlehem, meaning “house of bread” that will actually live up to its name.
In Ruth, we have the historical telling of an event, and we also have woven into the fabric of the story, a message about God and His great redemption through Christ. All of the Old Testament points forward to Christ. With that said let’s begin looking into the book of Ruth together.
Let’s read Ruth 1:1, “Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to reside in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons."
The author tells us that this is the era of judges ruling Israel. As we talked about last week, when you study the book of the history of this period, the book of Judges, you find that the nation of Israel was stuck in a cycle: serving God, going into idolatry, being oppressed by the enemy, repenting and crying out to God, and then restoration to fellowship with God. They repeated this cycle over and over, cycling downward. Scripture sums up this period with these words, in fact it is the final words of the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel: everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Walvoord notes, “During the period of the Judges, worship of the Canaanite god Baal was common among the Israelites (Jud. 2:11; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6, 10). Baal was believed to be owner of the land and to control its fertility.” The Israelites were looking to Baal to provide rain and grain—plentiful harvests.
Our story is set in this time when for the most part everyone did what was right in their own eyes. There was very little reverence of God and his commandments. Moral relativism was rampant—doing what seemed right to themselves. So, it is no surprise that where we begin in the story of Ruth, we find the nation is not enjoying the land of milk and honey, which God had promised to give them if they kept his covenant. Rather they were experiencing the land of thorns and thistles, as they endured famine.
Let’s read verses 1 & 2: “Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to reside in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons. 2 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, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah."
Notice also in the first two verses that the author mentions Bethlehem twice. Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” It’s the house of bread that has empty cupboards in the land of milk and honey, which is now only producing thorns and thistles. Notice also in verse 1 that the man is only identified as a “certain man” from Bethlehem. This highlights the irony that someone/anyone living in the house of bread was starving. I wonder why?
It’s the house of bread that has empty cupboards in the land of milk and honey, which is now only producing thorns and thistles.
Secondly, notice where Elimelech and his family are going to seek for food—Moab. This also is mentioned 5 times in the first 6 verses. The Moabites are Lot’s descendants by his daughter (Gen. 19:37). Back at the time of the Exodus, when Israel was traveling to the Promise Land, the Moabites refused to give them food and water as they tried to pass through Moab (Judges 11:17). God judged Moab and told Israel not to allow them in the nation of Israel’s assemblies (Deut. 23:3-6). So, this “certain man” in verse 1 is not likely seeking the God of Israel for he and his family’s sustenance, but instead he’s going into idolatrous Moab to try to find bread. The family went to sojourn in Moab, and they “remained” there (v. 2). It doesn’t appear that all of Bethlehem was bailing out to go to foreign nations. In fact, we see later that many are still in Bethlehem and had endured the famine.
Let’s read verses 3-5, ”Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. 4 And they took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other, Ruth. And they lived there about ten years. 5 Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”
Sometime after their arrival the husband, Elimelech, dies. Then the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite wives. However, God warned his people against intermarriage with godless tribes because this would likely lead them or their children into worshiping other gods. We are told in the time of judges that intermarriage with pagans was widespread (Judges 3:6). Later in history, King Solomon will intermarrry on a huge scale and reap a divided kingdom. (1 Kings 11:1-11, Ezra 9:1-3; 10:11-12). Also, later in history, when Ezra leads a group of Israelites back from exile in Babylon, he made them separate from their foreign wives according to the Law (Deut. 7:3-4).
Back to Ruth 1:3-5, these marriages appear to have happened over a 10-year period. And then the two sons died as well.
The writer now focuses on Naomi who is bereft of her husband and her two children. This meant something different in those days than it does in ours. Ensuring the succession of the family lineage was paramount in that culture. To be without a son meant the eradication of your family’s line. It was considered a failure for a woman in that society. Also, Naomi’s desires for a family were denied. Her dreams of seeing her children grow up were sniffed out. In addition to this, having children, especially sons, was one’s security in their old age. There was no social security other than the charity built into the Israelite culture when they obeyed the Lord’s laws.
So, in our introduction we learn that Naomi finds herself in a very difficult place. Many of us have also suffered heavy losses: a lost spouse, or another loved one lost. Perhaps we’ve experienced a different kind of loss such as the damage of a physical function, the defeat of a dream; the loss of something or someone who is now absent from our lives. All of us can relate to where Naomi found herself and the feelings that accompany loss: shock, denial, pain, guilt, anger, and depression.
The writer has begun his story by letting us see the irony of Israelites leaving Bethlehem, the house of bread, to find food among the ungodly. They settle in amongst the godless, and related or not, they suffer tragic loss.
This is the starting point of our story, but it is not where it will end. We’re going to walk with Naomi throughout her journey of restoration. And we are going to be encouraged by another widow, Ruth, whose faith in times of loss is an inspiration for us all. And from this experience, we can learn to respond to crisis and loss by trusting in the One who truly is the supplier of all good things. We find our daily bread in His house.
I’ll close this teaching with a word of wisdom from the Lord through Hosea 10:12. It is a beautiful, spiritual picture of sowing and reaping in the Lord.
“Sow for yourselves righteousness and reap the fruit of loving devotion; break up your unplowed ground. For it is time to seek the LORD until He comes and sends righteousness upon you like rain” (Hos. 10:12).
 John W. Reed, “Ruth,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 418.