In my Bible study plan I’m always doing a deep dive on a section of Scripture. For the first three months of this year, I’m studying Ruth. I return to the book every day, studying it from multiple perspectives and reading. A lot.
A few days ago I thought of something that I’d never noticed before, after all these years of hearing and reading the story dozens of times. It’s something about the first major incident in the book.
We all know the story. Naomi and her husband move from Bethlehem—the house of bread—to Moab because of a famine. Their two sons marry Moabite women, and then all three men die. In the culture of that day, a childless widow is in very serious danger of starving to death. Naomi hears that the famine is over back in Bethlehem and decides to return—likely because she has family there who will be legally obligated to help her.
So far the story is pretty simple. But it’s complicated by the fact that one of her Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth, wants to return with her.
Naomi argues against it, citing the obvious practical fact that Ruth is more likely to find a second husband in her own land. Naomi doesn’t mention the fact that the Moabites and the Israelites are enemies; the king of Moab had hired the prophet Balaam to curse Israel (Nu 22.4-5), and God had consequently cursed the king and his people (Nu 24.17). Surely Ruth’s marital prospects would be better in Moab.
But Ruth insists. She will go with Naomi; she will live with Naomi; she will adopt her people and culture; and she will worship her God (Ru 1.16)—for the rest of her life (Ru 1.17).
Look at this from Ruth’s perspective. The conventional wisdom in her day is that every ethnic group has its own god. Chemosh is the god of the Moabites—and their harvests are so plentiful that Yahweh’s people are coming over there to get a piece of the action. In all of Ruth’s experience to this point, she has seen nothing that would convince her that Yahweh cares for his people, or even that he is good. His people are starving, so Chemosh feeds them. Her father-in-law dies in Moab, as do his two sons, including Ruth’s husband, and all of them allegedly under the care of this tribal god Yahweh—who, to make matters worse, has placed her and her people under a specific curse.
Why seek shelter under the wings of such a god? What has he ever done for his own people, let alone an enemy?
Was it Naomi’s love for and trust in her own god? Well, she believes that her god, Yahweh, has taken someone who was full and has left her empty. A few days from now she will tell her own people no longer to call her by her name, Naomi, which means “pleasant.” Instead, she will say, call me Mara—“bitter.” My god has not been good to me.
So why does Ruth go with Naomi? And especially, why does she seek to worship Naomi’s god?
Well, for all her imperfections, Naomi does recognize that God is in charge. (And here I begin to capitalize the word again.) It is he who has brought food back to Bethlehem (Ru 1.6). It is he, not Chemosh, who she confidently believes will prosper the lives of her daughters-in-law (Ru 1.8-9). Even though his hand has gone out against her (Ru 1.13), she still believes that he is strong enough to bless, and she prays that he will. You don’t pray to someone you don’t believe in.
Apparently, Ruth sees in Naomi’s imperfect faith something greater than what she sees in the worshippers of her tribal god. For all of the trouble, for all of the pain, this is a God worth following—even at the cost of leaving home, family, culture, and language to go to a land where you’re under a curse, where you will likely face deep, overt, and lifelong discrimination.
So she goes.
And she finds that her faith is richly rewarded. This Yahweh, she finds, does indeed direct circumstances, even down to the portion of the community field where she happens to go looking for loose grain lying on the ground or standing beyond the reaches of the reapers’ sickles around the edges.
This is a God worth trusting. Worth following.
No matter what.