Ruth Chapter 1
Welcome to week one of our Advent Course, a study of the book of Ruth. Ruth was the book that was set for Bible month this year, so I thought it would be good to look into it and see what gems we can find within its rich text. I’m grateful for the teaching of Dr Rachel Starr who was one of my tutors at the Queen’s Foundation. I will be using her teaching within this study.
I don’t know whether you are familiar with the story of Ruth. It is a well- loved story that on the surface is gentle and reassuring. A tale of friendship, love, and acceptance.
I say on the surface because as we with most things, if we delve a little deeper, we can find a wealth of information that maybe sheds fresh light on our understanding. Within this study we will look at the Book of Ruth and ask questions such as why was this story written? What message is it giving to the original readers of the text? And what can we learn from this story today?
Ruth was written in about 1010 BCE and it’s not clear who the author was, although traditionally Samuel is said to have written it. We do know that it was written between the period when the Judges ruled Israel and the time that King David took the throne. So, it was written during a time of transition and uncertainty. It was written after the Babylonian exile when the people would have been unsettled and anxious to maintain their identity within the Persian Empire.
How does such a simple story address these quite complex issues? Well Ruth leads the reader through a simple narrative which is packed with messages, messages that perhaps we aren’t aware of because we are reading it in a different way. That’s part of the excitement of scripture and why studying it can be so enlightening!
The Book of Ruth starts in quite a desperate way. We have a family, a Father, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. I love names and my youngest daughter is named Ruth. Names are usually chosen for a special reason. This was certainly true in Old Testament times. The names of these characters are perhaps significant. Elimelech means ‘My God is King.’ That may sound incredibly positive but remember the context within which the text was written. It was written in the period between the rule of the Judges and the Kings. Naomi means pleasant which is also good but as we find out later, she later changes her name ! The sons were called Mahlon and Chilion, which are translated as ‘a little illness’ and ‘a little destruction’. Maybe armed with this information and the fact that we are told that there is a famine in the land we could predict that this wasn’t going to be an easy story that is about to unfold.
We’re told that the family are from Bethlehem, this name is also significant as Bethlehem was the land of bread. Except there is none to be found! Elimelech takes his family to the neighbouring country of Moab. This may seem like an obvious solution and maybe it was, but we should bear in mind that the people of Judah were told that they shouldn’t go there! This text has disaster written all over it and by verse 3 Elimelech has died and by verse 5 so have both of the sons.
We are told in verse 4 that the sons had married whilst in Moab and both had taken Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. Again, perhaps these names are significant. We sometimes tell this story as though Ruth was the loving daughter in law as opposed to Orpah who stayed behind in her own land rather than staying with Naomi. The names Ruth and Orpah are both connected to water. Ruth means full or saturated and Orpah means cloud which of course holds water and pours water out. With this connection maybe the two weren’t so opposed as we are sometimes led to believe.
We should perhaps remember that at the time the Scripture was written women who were widowed or single were vulnerable. Naomi had heard that there was bread back in Bethlehem and made plans to return to her homeland. Both of her daughter in laws were wanting to go with her. She asks God to bless them and asks them to stay in Moab and to find new husbands. This would have ensured their survival. Orpah does stay in Moab whilst Ruth decides to stay with Naomi. As we’ve said we often see Orpah as deserting Naomi but when we read the text there is love and grief expressed at their parting. Perhaps Orpah knew that for all three women to survive she would have to stay behind.
We are told that Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest. The people of Bethlehem were stirred at their arrival and ask whether it is Naomi returned. It’s then that we’re told that Naomi has changed her name from Naomi meaning pleasant, to ‘Mara’, meaning bitter. Naomi says that she went away full but has returned empty.
So, as we can see this could be read as a story of love and friendship, but it is also a story of hardship and grief and perhaps ultimately of survival. The Book of Ruth speaks into a certain period of history. It points people towards the Law which is seen as good and something which brings people close to God. We’ll look at this more closely another week.
For now, a few questions to start our thinking…
Do you see any parallels between the Book of Ruth and other Books of the Bible? If so which?
When we think of the animosity between the lands of Judah and of Moab which of Naomi’s daughter in laws do you think made the sensible decision with regards to their future survival?
What was the vow that Ruth pledges to Naomi? What did it really mean for Naomi and for Ruth?
What do you think Naomi learnt from her time in Moab ? and what might the people of Moab learn from her?
Naomi is in grief and is traumatised upon her return to Bethlehem. She is aware of the situation that she finds herself in now and needs to survive. How does she present herself to the people in Judah?
Are there any questions or feelings that this Scripture has brought up for you?
Please feel free to join a short zoom meeting to discuss the Chapter further and share any insights that you may have.
Jennifer Parnell is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Time: Nov 27, 2020 02:00 PM London
Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/8400... ID: 840 0049 7043