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“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” — Ruth 1:17
You’re All I Have
Do you like happy endings? Most of us do. While movies or books that end tragically may receive critical acclaim, most of us prefer a tale in which the main characters overcome threats and trials to find happiness in the end.
That’s one of the reasons the book of Ruth is one of the most popular stories in the Bible: it shares the typical features of a traditional folktale in which good people fall into trial and experience a major need that is ultimately fulfilled in surprising ways.
Of family and famine(1:1-5)
The story begins with a happy family living in Judah. The father’s name is Elimelech, which means “my God is king.” His two sons have names that point ominously toward their fate.
“Mahlon” is from a root that means “to be sick” and “Chilion” could mean “frail.” Why give children such names?
Infant mortality was high in ancient times, and the boys may have appeared sickly at birth. It’s also possible that the narrator attributed nicknames to them as a harbinger of their early deaths.
The mother’s name is Naomi, which comes from an adjective that means “pleasant,” and could be translated as “pleasant one.” We soon learn that, though the book is named for her daughter-in-law, Naomi is the primary protagonist whose misfortunes drive the story.
We meet Naomi’s family during a time of famine in their home village of Bethlehem – an ironic touch, since “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread,” but there was no bread. Elimelech chooses to go in search of better prospects, taking his wife and sons to live “as sojourners” or “foreigners” in the land of Moab.
Soon after relocating, Elimelech died of unstated causes, leaving Naomi to care for two sons (v. 3). She managed to arrange marriages for both of them, though with little to offer as a bride price, it is likely that they came from poor Moabite families (v. 4). The brides’ names are also significant:
“Orpah” could be related to a word meaning “the back of the neck,” so we are not surprised when she later turns away from Naomi. The name “Ruth,” in contrast, is related to a word meaning “friendship” or “companion” – and she is the one who will faithfully stick with Naomi.
A decade later, both sons had died without siring children, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law as widows (v. 5). In short order, then, the plot is introduced. Naomi is stranded in a foreign land, saddled with two daughters-in-law but no sons to provide for her in old age. Naomi’s bereft situation quickly sets up the story so that we know what is necessary for a happy ending: she needs food, and she needs sons. Is there hope for Naomi? How will the crisis be resolved?
Of loyalty and lament(1:6-22)
When Naomi heard that “the LORD had considered his people and given them food,” she determined to return to Bethlehem, where Elimelech had owned property and she might appeal to extended family members for help (vv. 6-7). Knowing that she had nothing to offer them, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to return to their parents, take another husband, and find new happiness (vv. 8-9).
Both Orpah and Ruth demurred, but Naomi bitterly protested that she had no more sons for them to marry and felt cursed, for “the hand of the LORD has turned against me” (vv. 10-13). After some persuasion, Orpah agreed to stay behind and seek her future in Moab (v. 14). Ruth, however, elected to remain with Naomi, eloquently declaring her love and allegiance: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (v. 16).
Many couples choose to use these words in their wedding ceremonies, often unaware that the pledge was first spoken by a widowed woman to her mother-in-law! Ruth promised not only to remain with Naomi for life, but also to forsake her Moabite gods and follow the God of Israel. Leaving no doubt of her intentions, she concluded with an oath: “May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (v. 17).
Seeing Ruth’s determination, Naomi said no more, but led the way to Bethlehem, where the local women cried out in joyful recognition of a friend they had not seen in 10 years: “Is this Naomi?” (v. 19). Naomi shared none of their joy, rejecting her old name (“pleasant one”) and insisting that they call her “Mara” (“bitter”) instead, “for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (v. 20). Blaming her troubles on God, Naomi complained that she had gone away full, but Yahweh had “dealt harshly,” “caused calamity,” and “brought me back empty” (v. 21).
But Naomi was not empty: Ruth was with her, and they had arrived “at the beginning of the barley harvest” (v. 22).
Of food and flirtation(2:1-23)
Chapter 2 is brilliantly written and designed to show how Ruth, a Moabite foreigner, became accepted as a part of the community and the clan. It begins with a digression in which the narrator introduces the reader to Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi’s husband Elimelech – and someone who had the ability to reverse the women’s negative circumstances (v. 1).
While Naomi remained self-absorbed and apparently inactive, Ruth took the initiative. She offered to go and glean barley in the fields outside of Bethlehem, a practice that Israel’s law afforded to foreigners as well as the poor (Lev. 19:9-10, 23:22; Deut. 24:19-21). Notably, Ruth set out not only to glean, but also to seek “someone in whose sight I may find favor” (v. 2).
As the story is told, Ruth just happened to choose a field belonging to the aforementioned Boaz (meaning “in him is strength”), and Boaz just happened to arrive in time to see her there (vv. 3-4). While their meeting appears to be by chance, there is little doubt that the narrator sees providence at work.
Intrigued by Ruth’s appearance, Boaz asked the supervisor of his workers to whom the young woman “belonged” (v. 5) – in patriarchal culture, a married woman “belonged” to her husband and a single woman to her father. Boaz’s main concern was to know if Ruth had any family connections.
The foreman identified Ruth as the young Moabite woman who had returned with Naomi, noting her polite manners and her strong work ethic: “She has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment” (vv. 6-7).
The remainder of the chapter portrays a delightful and flirtatious interplay between Boaz and Ruth. Boaz spoke to Ruth as “my daughter” and urged her to stay in his fields with the young women of his household. He assured her safety, having instructed the young men not to molest her, and encouraged her to share in water breaks with the others (vv. 8-9).
Ruth’s response was dramatic and attention getting. She fell prostrate before Boaz and asked “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” (v. 10 – recall Ruth’s interest in finding someone who would show her favor, v. 2).
Boaz acknowledged that he had heard of how Ruth had shown such loyalty to Naomi by leaving her own family to care for her mother-in-law. Clearly impressed, he wished her God’s blessing (vv. 11-12).
Ruth maintained her submissive approach, referring to Boaz as “my lord,” hoping to continue “to find favor in your sight,” and speaking of herself as his maidservant (shifkah), “even though I am not one of your servants” (v. 13).
The term shifkah was used of household servants who were considered part of the extended family, so Ruth’s word choice was a subtle request to be recognized as a member of Boaz’s clan. Boaz’s insistence that she remain in his fields, along with his continued show of hospitality, suggest that he did so.
At mealtime, Boaz invited Ruth to come and sit with the household. He personally “heaped up” for her so much parched grain that she ate her fill and saved the rest for Naomi. Boaz then instructed the harvesters to allow Ruth to glean even among the stacked bundles of grain where the pickings were best, and to intentionally leave handfuls of grain in her path (vv. 14-16). Boaz appeared to be as interested in seeking Ruth’s favor as she was in his.
With Boaz’s intervention, Ruth worked all day, beat out the grain, and returned to Naomi with leftovers from lunch and “about an ephah of barley” – probably 30-50 pounds of grain (v. 18). Naomi’s delight in learning where Ruth had been gleaning led her to speak more kindly of God: she intoned a word of blessing on Boaz “by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead” (v. 20).
After explaining that Boaz was a kinsman, Naomi insisted that Ruth continue to glean in his fields rather than any other, and she did so, “gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests” – time enough to amass a considerable quantity of grain (vv. 21-13).
With the end of chapter 2, the first element of Naomi’s need has been met: she has food. But how will the second need be fulfilled? Naomi still has no sons to care for her in old age.
Fortunately, the book has two chapters yet to come. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for November 1, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Ruth 1:1-2:23
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Whom do the students you minister with follow? Whom do they want to be like? You probably don’t have to ask. You can tell by the way they dress or what they talk about. You can also see whom they follow on Instagram and Vine. But maybe these are just the people and things they think they are supposed to follow and be like. They see the “likes” and number of followers these accounts have, so they must be what they are supposed to be like. If you were to ask your students who they really want to be or what they really want to do, you will most likely get a different answer than whom they follow on Instagram and Vine. Create a space where your can explore who God has called them to be. As they discover their calling, they will begin to blossom.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone” from Star Trek via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Ruth 1:1-2:23