The period of Israel’s judges was a dark, frightful, bloody period in Israel’s early history. Idolatry, murder, child sacrifice, sexual immorality that would rival Sodom and Gomorrah – not too unlike modern America, if you have been paying attention to the news these last several decades. It was a period in which, as the writer of Judges repeats several times, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25)
For more than 300 years – and some think more than 400 years – the Israelites wallowed in cycles of sin followed by hopelessness, followed by hope, and followed again by sin. On and on, generation after generation.
The events in the book of Ruth take place during those dark years of the judges. And I turn our attention to two women in particular recorded in this book – Naomi and Ruth. As St Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, the things written for us in the Old Testament were “written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4) And it is hope and encouragement and perseverance that we can learn for ourselves by their examples.
Hope and encouragement.
If you have paid any attention to the news over the last decade, you know we are living in a frighteningly darkening time. Our 2022 culture in growing increasingly wicked. It evil has invaded many of our homes, our schools, businesses, places of government, and many of our churches. You might say – and you would not be wrong to say it – the book of Judges reads like the evening news. But if we let God move in our hearts and our spirits, then what He can teach us in this book of Ruth WILL encourage us to persevere through it all and be victorious over it all.
I will now read the entire first chapter of the book of Ruth. We need to hear the entire chapter so we can have sufficient context to make sense of what is happening to Naomi, to Ruth – and to what it means for salvation history:
Once back in the time of the judges there was a famine in the land; so a man from Bethlehem of Judah left home with his wife and two sons to reside on the plateau of Moab. The man was named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his sons Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem of Judah. Some time after their arrival on the plateau of Moab, Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah, the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion died also, and the woman was left with neither her two boys nor her husband.
She and her daughters-in-law then prepared to go back from the plateau of Moab because word had reached her there that the Lord had seen to his people’s needs and given them food. She and her two daughters-in-law left the place where they had been living. On the road back to the land of Judah, Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord show you the same kindness as you have shown to the deceased and to me. May the Lord guide each of you to find a husband and a home in which you will be at rest.” She kissed them good-bye, but they wept aloud, crying, “No! We will go back with you, to your people.” Naomi replied, “Go back, my daughters. Why come with me? Have I other sons in my womb who could become your husbands? Go, my daughters, for I am too old to marry again. Even if I had any such hope, or if tonight I had a husband and were to bear sons, would you wait for them and deprive yourselves of husbands until those sons grew up? No, my daughters, my lot is too bitter for you, because the Lord has extended his hand against me.” Again they wept aloud; then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her.
“See now,” she said, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her god. Go back after your sister-in-law!” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to go back and abandon you! Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.
Where you die I will die, and there be buried.
May the Lord do thus to me, and more, if even death separates me from you!” Naomi then ceased to urge her, for she saw she was determined to go with her.
So they went on together until they reached Bethlehem. On their arrival there, the whole town was excited about them, and the women asked: “Can this be Naomi?” But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi [‘Sweet’]. Call me Mara [‘Bitter’], for the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why should you call me ‘Sweet,’ since the Lord has brought me to trial, and the Almighty has pronounced evil sentence on me.” Thus it was that Naomi came back with her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, who accompanied her back from the plateau of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. (Ruth, chapter 1, NABRE)
Let’s look quickly at those first five verses. They give us only the briefest outline of what happened to this family. A famine in Israel. Elimelech and Naomi take their two sons to another country to survive the famine. In the ten years they live there, Elimelech dies. The two sons marry Moabite women, and then the two sons die.
We all know Naomi’s life was not as quickly passing as it seems from the way her last ten years are recorded in those five verses. Like the dates on a gravestone, one for the day of birth, the other for the day of death, but what does that dash represent? Some of you have heard the poem by Linda Ellis, “The Dash.” Here are the first few paragraphs:
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone, from the beginning...to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.
That dash represents all the time that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
Naomi’s ‘dash’ was now one of bitterness, sorrow, mourning, confusion, and perhaps even anger – yes, anger at God. Why else would she say to Ruth: My life is much too bitter for you to share, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me.” And why would she say to the women who greeted her on their return to Bethlehem: “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara . . . for the Almighty has made me very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has opposed me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?”
If things in your past went the way of Naomi – did you feel the way she felt? Even a little? Angry? Bitter? Maybe frightened by the way life turned against you? And if you have – did you wonder almost out loud, “When will the other shoe drop? When will God finish His assault against me?”
I know people who’ve had those thoughts. And as some of you know, I experienced that range of emotions myself at several times in my half-century walk with Christ.
But at the time, none of us – including Naomi – had been able to read the next page or two of life. In Naomi’s case, the next pages reveal the incomprehensible truth that her pain and loss would result in the eventual birth of the savior of mankind.
It can be argued that, in God's sovereign will, purpose, and plan, if Naomi and her family had lived normal lifespans in Moab, then Ruth would never have married Boaz in Bethlehem. Then Ruth and Boaz – in the genealogical line of Jesus – would not have had a child named Obed, who later would have a son named Jesse, who himself would later have a son named David, the future king of Israel and in the lineage of Jesus the Christ.
Naomi did not know what God knew. She only knew her bitterness, her loneliness, her deep sorrow – like so many others who cannot see the other side of – shall we say – the cross.
As I thought of Naomi’s story for this message, the story of another nearly unknown woman in the history of Israel came to mind. Her name is Leah. I’ve spoken about her before, and I think this is a good time to revisit that dear woman.
If you’ve read through Genesis, you may remember how Leah lived in the shadow of her younger sister's beauty. You’ll find her story in Genesis 29-30. When Isaac’s son Jacob visited the family, Rachel's beauty captured him. Her beauty consumed him – so much so, he agreed to work her family's farm for seven years as payment to marry her. But on the eve of the seventh anniversary, Rachel's family pulled a bait and switch. When the new groom awakened the next morning, he found himself lying next to Leah. Dull, unattractive Leah.
If Jacob still wanted Rachel, he'd have to work another seven years.
He agreed to do so, but it's not difficult to imagine how Leah felt – unloved, unwanted, knowing her family had to trick Jacob into her marriage bed.
Yet, the story grows more poignant. Scripture tells us: “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb . . . and (she) gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now’" (Genesis 29:31-32).
Can you not almost hear the wistful yearning in her voice, "Now my husband will love me."
Leah was not the first woman to hope, "If I have his child, he will love me." But that's not the way love works.
Yet ever the optimist, Leah conceived again. And then again. "Now at last my husband will become attached to me," she said, "because I have borne him three sons."
But even after six sons, Rachel remained the proverbial light in Jacob's eyes while Leah hungered for her husband's embrace. She longed for his touch, for a kind word and to know in the core of her being she was loved. And Jacob remained deaf to her heartache and blind to her sorrow.
God, however, knew it all – and that is the wonderful message of this story.
I'd read this story in Genesis dozens of times, but now my eyes froze at the list of Leah's six sons, and then refocused on two: Levi and Judah.
Not only was Leah unaware God was with her in Rachel's shadow, she also didn't know eternity would measure life and death through her offspring – and not Rachel's.
Levi and Judah: ancestors of Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Ezra, Ezekiel, Zechariah. All of Israel's religious and political leaders would spring from her womb.
Including Jesus the Messiah.
"For I know the plans that I have for you," God tells us through Jeremiah, another of Leah's descendants, "plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11).
As I said a little earlier in this message, St. Paul tells us the things written in Scripture are for our benefit, and through the encouragement of God's word we can have hope (Romans 15:4). That's what Leah's story is all about. It’s what Naomi’s story is all about.
And it is what YOUR story is all about: Hope. Great, ineffable hope. It’s about God in our shadows, about God who loves us, and who knows our deepest hurts. And it’s the story of how God can turn our loss, our rejection, our bitterness, our heartbreak into something of immeasurable and eternal value for those who trust God – even when things are dark.
Christian, listen! The sovereign God of all creation will even take the sins of others and turn them into something of eternal value. Remember, God used the sin of Joseph’s brothers to save the nation from extinction (Genesis 50:20). And God used the sin of the religious leaders and the mob on Mt Calvary to save the world.
Do you really think the sovereign God has forgotten you or me? Do you think He is not going to use the things that have hurt us, that have caused us deep pain and loss – even to this very day – do you think He’s not going to use those very things to bring good into our lives and into the kingdom?
Oh we of little faith.