Ruth is most widely known as a whimsical love story- but to see it only as that is to miss an enormous theme that runs like a bright thread through the book. That theme is suffering. Specifically, how does the hesed love of God comport with the suffering of his people? How can God’s love be affirmed in the face of terrible pain and loss? And how can God’s people endure in faith, hope and love when everything is lost and there is no light in sight?
That question rises in the first line of the story. "In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land.” We are first reminded of the days of the judges, that terrible time in the history of Israel when "there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The book begins with a reminder of chaos, disorder, and violence. Not only that, but also “there was famine in the land.” Elimelek from Bethlehem must leave his home with this wife Naomi and two sons to find refuge in the enemy territory of Moab. Considering that Bethlehem means “house of bread” and Elimelek means “God is King,” the author is making an ironic commentary on the sad fact that the place where God is supposed to be king has no bread for his people and is falling into desolation. Reality is mocking God. Is God really king? Does God really provide for his people?
But that’s nothing. Then the suffering really deepens. By verse 5, the unthinkable has happened. Not only has Elimelek died, leaving his wife Naomi a widow, but then his two sons die as well. There was no person more vulnerable and unprotected in the ancient world than a woman with a dead husband and no sons. Naomi’s life has encountered catastrophe. She has nothing left, nothing left to live for. Naomi is left asking the question along with us as readers: where is the King of Israel? What happened to Hesed? Has God’s love and faithfulness dried up for his people? Naomi herself proclaims, “The Lord’s hand has turned against me!” (1:13).
But even in the terrible sorrow of chapter 1 there are tiny signs of hope. There is news of God visiting his people with provision (1:6). The barely harvest begins (1:22). And perhaps most significantly, there is another human being, Ruth, who will not leave the side of her mother in law, and who will be a sign of the love and faithfulness of God to Naomi even at great cost to herself.
This chapter gives us a compass for how to navigate our own suffering and the suffering of our world. How to ask honest questions, how to resist bitterness and cynicism, and how to cling to hope and faith even when there are no signs of God anywhere on the horizon.
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In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find restin the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.